Filmmaker Jennifer Lynch
JENNIFER LYNCH TURNS HER EYE ON SURVEILLANCE
Few filmmakers have survived the professional excoriation that writer/director Jennifer Lynch had to face with her film debut Boxing Helena, in 1993. In spite of being nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the film was universally massacred by critics and tanked at the box office (it has since garnered an impressive cult following, with more than a few of its naysayers penning re-evaluations of the film and its merits). Having penned the script of Boxing Helena at the age of 19, and seeming to be washed up in show business by 25, Lynch spent the next decade and a half surviving a near-fatal car accident which left her with severe spinal damage, adjusting to life as a single parent with a young daughter, and getting sober after years of alcohol and drug abuse. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there is no second act in American life, but Jennifer Lynch is living proof that if there is no second act, perhaps there are nine lives for certain humans blessed with that particular feline gift.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch was born April 8, 1968 in Philadelphia, the daughter of then-neophyte filmmaker David Lynch and painter Peggy Reavy, who divorced when Jennifer was six. After attending Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Jennifer moved to Los Angeles at 19 to be closer to her father, who by then was an Oscar-nominated director of such films as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet. At 22, Jennifer wrote the best-selling book "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer," a tie-in to her father’s hit TV show Twin Peaks, a landmark of the medium in the early ‘90s.
Now, after years spent putting the pieces of her life back together, Jennifer Lynch has returned to the cinematic fold with Surveillance, one of the boldest, most unsettling thrillers since Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Telling the Rashomon-like tale of two FBI agents (Bill Pullman, Julia Ormand) interrogating material witnesses (Pell James, Ryan Simpkins and French Stewart) to a brutal series of killings in a rural section of the Midwest, Surveillance gives the audience a mind-bending ride, combining thrills, dark humor and several twists that will shock even the most jaded of filmgoers. Co-starring vet actor Michael Ironside, Cheri Oteri, and Kent Harper (who co-wrote the script with Lynch). The Magnet release hits selected theaters June 26.
Jennifer Lynch’s third feature, a supernatural thriller entitled Hisss, won Lynch a Best Director prize at this year’s New York Horror Film Festival, marking the first time a woman has captured the honor. Jennifer Lynch spoke with us recently about her remarkable life as a filmmaker and show biz survivor. Warning: spoliers ahead! Read on…
This film unsettled me more than any film since Natural Born Killers. How was this story born?
Jennifer Lynch: Through a series of strange events. Admittedly, I had quite a bit of time off from the business, during which I was raising a daughter on my own, getting sober and having three different spinal surgeries. I was re-evaluating my life. A doctor said to me, unfortunately in front of my child, that I would probably never walk again. It occurred to me at that moment that not only would I walk again, but that I really wanted to make movies, because I couldn’t take what my daughter’s face looked like when she heard the doctor say that. So I’ve always loved a good serial killer story, but I’d never really seen the perfect one, the one that I’d always wanted to see, that raised and/or answered certain questions I had: What do good and bad really look like? How much dark fun would it be to be that serial killer? And why do we kill? Why do we hurt other people? What kind of hurt has been committed against people who go on to cause other people pain, because I honestly don’t think (serial killers) are born. I believe they’re made. As much as I want to believe Jeffery Dahmer’s parents were nice people, I just don’t buy it.
Jennifer Lynch and Bill Pullman on the set of Surveillance.
Yeah, or something really twisted happened to him outside the home.
Yeah, something out in those woods changed things. I don’t think anybody innately wants to harm other people. So I really wanted to play with the part of the human condition that made us think certain people were good, and certain people were bad. So I built some characters based on those things. So that’s where surveillance came from. That, and having raised a daughter, I was reminded of certain memories of being in the backseat of a car during a cross-country trip, where I saw things and wanted to be heard (by the adults), but wasn’t. We forget how smart kids are. They’re not concerned with “Am I thin enough?” “Will I get laid?” “Will I get the job?” They’re just in the moment and see all of us for what we are.
David Bowie summed it up with the great quote “And these children that you spit on…” in “Changes,” didn’t he?
Yes, exactly! I’m thrilled you used that quote because all the best things come through that child’s eye perspective. It’s universal. And that’s why I wanted the kid to be the one to figure it out in the film. It’s not a child’s nature to become hysterical. Children pitch fits if they know it gets them what they want. But in real crisis, children are the calm in the storm, because they’re looking for anything to hold onto that’s real. And that ability to take hold of what’s real helps Stephanie figure out what’s going on.
She winds up being the touchstone for every character in the movie, doesn’t she?
Exactly. You’ve got Bobbi the drug addict. You’ve got Julia’s character, who was that sad little girl once. Everyone has been that small child. Regardless the level of our catastrophe, we’ve all had them. It’s what has constructed us. I found this kid in Ryan that wasn’t just a child actor, but was a kid, a real kid. My daughter was so pissed off that I didn’t just use her. (laughs) I said ‘Look Syd, if you want to give me the finger when you’re 18 and say you want to be an actress, go ahead. But I’m not going to put you through that right now.’ Ryan is lucky: she’s the product of a beautiful environment. She’s not a showcasey sort of child actress. She comes from a very loving, supportive family. Ryan and Syd got along great together on the set and I made it very clear to Ryan that she was playing Syd. I was also very careful not to show Ryan any of the violence during the shoot. With children you don’t need to say “You see this horrible fucking thing!” You can just say “It tastes bad,” “You feel bad,” like that. Kids innately know what that hollow feeling is. It’s not necessary to suffer in order to relevant or potent, or even real. I think that’s horseshit. It’s an alcoholic’s excuse for being an alcoholic. But I do think there are genuine human emotions we can all feel, and I knew that I didn’t need to give Ryan Simpkins nightmares in order to do that. And at the end of the film, I’d love for people to discuss over coffee whether Ryan’s character chooses the side of light or the side of darkness after what she’s been through.
Bill Pullman in Surveillance.
Earlier you mentioned something about how suffering isn’t necessary to make one complete. You’ve been a true survivor, both personally and professionally. You survived the firestorm of Boxing Helena, of a near-fatal car accident, and you’ve been sober eight years. Haven’t all those elements given your work more depth?
Well, to clarify, there’s no reason to mask one’s self or dramatize or make more important any situation in order to become creative. Life provides us, as can be evidenced by my life, with enough drama naturally. We don’t need to create more of our own. I’m so tired of hearing people say “I sat up all night drinking and wrote four pages I loved.” I want to respond ‘Okay, but you probably would have written six pages you loved if you hadn’t stayed up all night drinking.’ And it’s not that I don’t see the value in everybody’s dysfunction because, trust me, my favorite characters are fucked up.
French Stewart and trouble lurking over his shoulder in Surveillance.
Train wrecks are compelling to watch.
Totally. House is one of my favorite shows. If that character ever stopped taking Vicodin, he wouldn’t be the same! (laughs) I love a human flaw. I love someone who’s clinging to something that makes them vulnerable.
Sure, that’s what makes a character compelling, are their flaws. That’s why I think the most boring character in American pop fiction is Superman, because he’s fucking flawless!
No shit! And I’m going to tell you, not that I wouldn’t sleep with the guy, but what is that guy gonna do for me that Bob Geldof isn’t gonna do for me? Seriously. Superman vs. Bob Geldof. Superman can take me flying around, but who needs that when I’m already floating listening to Bob Geldof play guitar, or anything recorded by Pink Floyd.
Dark Side changed my life.
The Wall changed mine. There isn’t a word in that album that I don’t know.
Are you a fan of Alan Parker’s film of The Wall?Oh God! Give me a fucking break! To have been a fly on the wall during that shoot. Please!
Anyway, we digress. Let’s get back to your film. I pray at temple of Kurosawa, and I’m sure you know that the Rashomon conceit has been used by storytellers ad nauseum since that film came out, but you had a very original take on it here, the way you incorporated technology and made it a metaphor. Can you talk a bit about that decision?
I’d like to think that certain things are conscious, but I have to admit that other things are completely unconscious. There’s no doubt in my mind that what’s in operation here is that the voyeur in me was enjoying watching others know they were being watched. I’m a child born of both non-technology and the birth of technology and a need to make use of the fact that there this technology to observe each other, and there is in men and women a very different response to being observed. Men want to be one thing, and women want to be another.
What are those two different ways, as you see them?
I think men want to come across as stoic and informed, and women want to come across as very delicately knowing the truth. In a very casual, sensitive way, we want to deliver the truth, and we want to make sure that everyone sees that any mistakes we’ve made, we’re aware of. Men want to know that any mistakes they’ve made are not really mistakes they’ve made. (laughs) They’re choices they’ve made. Women would also rather open their blouse and show you half their breast than men would rather open half their zipper. There’s a nudity about being on camera, even when you’re fully-dressed.
I’m a fan of Boxing Helena, and have never understood why both you and the film got slammed with the vitriol that you did.
I would love to know why people were so mad at me for telling a crazy fairy tale. I’m the first to say I didn’t know what I was doing. I did the best I could at 19, and all these crazy things happened. The idea that the film was faulted when everyone involved worked so fucking hard and believed in me, and there were these adults believing in me, who was essentially a child…when the National Organization of Women slammed me, that was sort of the final straw. It was no wonder I put my legs behind my ears and got pregnant. (laughs) Not that I didn’t love sex before then, but seriously. It was my child, essentially, who saved my life.
Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands in Boxing Helena.
So it really hit you hard when that happened.
It really fucking hit me hard. I mean, I was born with these terrible clubbed feet. They put me in casts the day I was born. I was operated on when I was four. I was sat at the base of the statue of the Venus de Milo and was fascinated by how people looked at her as if she was beautiful, even though she was broken. And that sort of helped give birth to the basic idea of Boxing Helena. Then I had my own sort of dysfunctional relationships in junior high and high school. I was the last of all my friends to lose their virginity and had had all sorts of experiences and influences, from my father’s movie sets to my mother’s paintings and sculptures…and all of the sudden people were saying I didn’t deserve to be loved because I’d made this film, and I thought ‘Oh my God, everyone is finally seeing something I was afraid they were always going to see (about me), and it’s the truth. I’m not worth it. They’re right. I’m done.’ Then I got angry. Either you like the film, or the painting, or you don’t, but what does that have to do with the artist? Kubrick made films I adore and films I hate, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad person or a good person.
But Kubrick was vilified in the UK after A Clockwork Orange came out, and he actually pulled it from theatrical release there. He was able to come back from it because he was “Stanley Kubrick.” In your case I think there were many factors at play: you were the daughter of a famous director and that you were a girl, not a woman, because you were so young.
I’ll tell you what happened. I was reading poetry at a fucking nightclub before I was old enough to drink. This person came up to me and said “I have this screenplay I’d like you to write about a woman who is cut up and put into a box.” I said ‘I won’t do it.’ They said “What would you like to do?” I said ‘I’ve always had a fascination with the Venus de Milo, who has no legs and no arms. I have a story I’d like to tell based on that.’ But I didn’t think in a million fucking years—I mean I was reading goddamn poetry, which is the most schmaltzy fucking thing you can do in LA—and I never fucking thought it would go anywhere. I was 18 when they approached me, 19 when I finished it. I was trying to pay the rent by fucking doing fucking phone sales for Vegas trips, cleaning houses, and thinking how am I going to pay my fucking rent, and everyone thinks my father is paying the fucking bills, which wasn’t the case, and then all of the sudden, Madonna was interested, and Ed Harris was interested. Madonna backed out, but paid us all the money back, and was so wonderful, I have nothing but nice things to say about her. Then Kim Basinger came in. I have nothing but nice things to say about her, but it was her agency, when she switched agencies, that said “We can’t have her do this movie.” Then I was forbidden to speak with her. I kept saying ‘I don’t care if she doesn’t want to do it now, just don’t tell me she didn’t have plans to.’ I had effects and prosthetics and an entire set built, so don’t tell me she didn’t have intent. It was this complete rollover and I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was this kid stuck in this world of men in suits who were berating me in a way I had never expected, and all I had tried to do was tell a story. If you will, if I can be very graphic, it was like masturbating for the first time, being discovered, and then being criticized for it. That will fuck your shit up! All I was doing was discovering and playing and the idea that you’re going to tell me that I’m bad for it, that’s going to fuck me up for the rest of my life. Why don’t you see that I’m just being me? I didn’t do this to hurt anybody. I’m grateful that out of all of this, my daughter has learned not to be bamboozled by the same sorts of people I was, and also knows who her grandfather is, and sees him as the guy who tucks her in sometimes or reads her a story. She’s much more grounded than I ever was as a teenager, or maybe than I ever will be. (laughs)
You’ve obviously inherited a lot of your father’s artistic sensibilities, which are evident in both your films, but you definitely possess your own voice, so much so that apparently your father was really horrified by the ending of Surveillance. Is this true?
Yeah, he was completely horrified. He said “You’re the sickest bitch I know. You can’t have the forces of darkness triumph over the forces of light.” He challenged me to write a different ending for the film, which I did because a daughter always wants to make her daddy happy—and I don’t mean to sound sexual when I say that. I shot both endings, and the alternate ending will be on the DVD. I kept saying ‘Why are you calling me sick, when I’m just following the idea of what my characters do? It’s not about dark and light. It’s about humanity. It’s not as simple as black and white. We’re in the gray area here.’ My father and I had very different childhoods. His was idyllic. He literally grew up in the Midwest behind the white picket fence with two amazing parents, two beautiful siblings, perfect education, total support. He was interested in the darker side of things, however. Contrary to popular opinion, I did not grow up around darkness. I grew up in a beautiful environment with a minimum of eight different people in the house at a time, all of them artists, who inspired, thrilled and challenged me as a child. I was made curious by the things I was made familiar with, the darkness being one of them. I am fascinated by what we don’t talk about and where I would go if I were given the opportunity to flee from my own life and the values I was given in my upbringing. Certainly the character of Stephanie is who I was. Julia’s character is who I was afraid I was going to become and Pell plays the girl that I was at one point, for sure. So somewhere in there, lies Jennifer.
Ryan Simpkins in Surveillance.
Was making this film a cathartic experience?
Totally. Again, talking about what do good and bad look like, I’ll be the first to say even when I look at You Tube and see all the horrible things that are said about me, I want people to know that I am as naked as I know how to be in my work. I don’t profess to know the right or wrong way to do things or the right or wrong way to see things, but you will never catch me lying to you—ever. Ever.
Trailer for Surveillance.