Film and TV

Q&A with Surveillance director Jennifer Lynch

It's been a long time between films for director Jennifer Lynch, whose latest offering, Surveillance, unspools today at the Chez Artiste. Her debut, 1993's Boxing Helena, about a surgeon (Julian Sands) who prevents the woman he loves (Sherilynn Fenn) from leaving him by amputating her limbs, received some of the most negative reviews of any film in the past twenty years -- a reaction that may or may not have been amplified by accusations of nepotism focusing on Lynch's father, Eraserhead and Blue Velvet director David Lynch.

Lynch speaks candidly about her years in creative limbo and plenty more in the revealing Q&A on view after the jump.

The conversation begins with Lynch talking about her early performances for her father, a number of which were left on the cutting-room floor, and the on-set moment when she realized she wanted to make movies, too. She subsequently takes on the Boxing Helena experience, which escalated into the realm of personal attack; the assorted issues -- involving her daughter, her physical and mental health, and substance abuse -- that kept her on the sidelines for so long; the genesis of Surveillance, a dark tale of murder, mayhem and mystery co-starring Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond, French Stewart and Cheri Oteri; the key role her father played in moving the project forward; her irritation at having her work constantly compared to dear old dad's; and her next feature, Hisss, a rendering of an Indian myth about a snake woman who becomes human that may actually hit theaters in fewer than sixteen years.

That's progress.

Westword (Michael Roberts): You've been around film your entire life, and I've read that you actually appeared in Eraserhead at age three. Is that correct?

Jennifer Lynch: I did. That is correct. But I should let you know that although I'm still in the credits, I ended up on the cutting-room floor.... You can also look for me in the credits of other films in which I've also been cut out. But in Eraserhead, I was actually digging in the dirt. It was a beautiful little scene. I think for time and story, my father thought it was unnecessary. But it's one of my favorite memories from childhood.

WW: You remember actually being on the set even though you were so young?

JL: I do. I have very, very vivid memories of everything that took place on set, and I think that's when I began to fall in love with it. I think it was my introduction to the fact that you actually can live a life where everyone around you is playing dress up and pretending and making things happen. And I just thought that was the greatest job anyone could have. My brain must have been highly active, because all of those memories are very vivid for me.

WW: You mentioned being cut out of other films. Were there other films of your father's that you almost appeared in?

JL: Yeah. I was in Blue Velvet as well (laughs).

WW: Actually in? Or not quite in?

JL: I'm not in. I was cut out. It was a section where the grandmother and mother were watching a soap opera, and I was in the soap opera. But again, it was unnecessary. Fun to shoot, but unnecessary to the story.

WW: How old were you when you got a chance to sit down and actually watch one of your dad's films? And what was the first film that you saw?

JL: I'd seen his short films as a child. I'd seen The Alphabet and The Grandmother and Six Figures Getting Sick (Six Times). And I saw Eraserhead at the Nuart [an art and revival theater in Santa Monica, California] when I was seven, when it first released.

WW: When you were seven?

JL: Yes.

WW: What was your reaction to it?

JL: I walked out of the theater and my father said, "So what'd you think? It's finally done. What'd you think?" And I said, "Dad, that is definitely not a movie for kids." (Laughs.)

WW: That's one of the great understatements of all time.

JL: Exactly. I had some understanding that, along with it being an imagining, I think it was, in my opinion, borne of his terror when he found out my mother was pregnant. Like all great cinematic ideas, I think it comes from its originators fears and hopes and dreams. And Eraserhead is certainly that when it comes to my father. I knew that somehow I was sort of represented there in the baby every once in a while.

WW: At what age were you able to connect those dots?

JL: I think I was connecting them while they were shooting. Not in a way of separating myself from any other child. But I think people forget how alert children are. They're not concerned with the sort of ego-driven crap that we become involved in as adolescents and then adults. They're just seeing. So there's an intense quality, and I think I knew very well that there was some fear going on in my household, and incredible creative joy at the same time. And what better way to work out whatever you're going through than to make a film about it?

WW: At what point did you go from being an appreciator of films to having the chance to make one yourself. Was that also at a very early age?

JL: I guess it was either on The Elephant Man or Blue Velvet that I realized while watching my father work out a scene, I thought, "Well, that's really cool. But I would have done it from over here."

WW: So you were already coming up with your own variations on what he was doing?

JL: Yeah. Suddenly I had my own moment with the characters, and I thought, "Wow, I'd like to do this." No one way is right, and that's what I love about directing. I'd love to see five different directors do the same thirty minute film. See how it would be differently cast and art directed and how they'd set up shots. I think directing is an incredible way to step inside someone's head in the same way as it is in writing. When an author is writing something, we see what they tell us to see. And I think there was just one moment on the set where I thought, "Oh, that's funny. I would have done it from over here. Isn't that interesting?" It really gave me permission to not think right or wrong, but to think perspective.

WW: Did you make short films on your own before stepping into the big leagues, as it were?

JL: I did not. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, and suddenly I was making Boxing Helena.

WW: Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool....

JL: (Laughs.) I didn't know Boxing Helena was going to become what it did. I thought maybe five people would see it, and I hoped three of them liked it. I had no intention of the world seeing this first attempt of mine at cinema.

WW: Was the fact that the screenplay became one of those scripts that people passed around and talked about that it suddenly leapt to the head of the class, so to speak?

JL: I think so. I think it was a bone of contention with a lot of people. It was what people decided to talk about maybe when there was nothing else to talk about, or as a way to define whether or not they wanted to spend time with people. And I also think the people who decided that they wanted to be involved, i.e. Ed Harris and Madonna and Kim Basinger and ultimately Julian Sands and Sherilyn Fenn, brought it to the forefront of people's minds. And both I and the film, in my opinion, never had a chance.

WW: I don't think I've ever read reviews of a film that were nastier than the ones about Boxing Helena. Were you able to look at them and think, "At least I've gotten a reaction out of people"? Or were they so overwhelming negative that it was hard to see them in that way?

JL: It was hideous. It was terribly difficult to put them in perspective. I think I was more confused by the fact that I didn't think I'd made a violent, hideous horror film. I think I made an awkward comedic fairytale about obsessive love. But I don't think anybody felt that. Whether that was my own inability as a filmmaker and storyteller, or if it was just the nature of the time and the beast and all of the press, I don't know. But I was shocked that the reviews were such personal attacks against me rather than even attacks on the film.

WW: And to be accused of misogyny, I imagine, only made those reviews burn all that much more....

JL: I remember thinking, "I don't go into a museum, and if I don't like a painting, I call the painter an asshole." But people tended to do that if they didn't like Boxing Helena. I was a misogynistic, hideous person. You don't have to like the film. It's just a movie (laughs). Part of me is grateful that I had no idea that many of people would see it. And another part of me was like, "How could you not have known? How could you have been so involved in the story that you weren't paying attention to what was going on in the world and how big it was getting?" But there was no dress rehearsal, and hindsight being 20/20, I think it was the best film I could have made writing it at nineteen and shooting it at 23. If I could go back and give myself advice, I'd just say, "Trust yourself a little bit more."

WW: Looking back, do you feel that your filmmaking abilities hadn't evolved to the point where you could strike the right balance on material that could be that dangerously misinterpreted?

JL: Sure. I felt very good about writing it, but I had no idea I was going to ultimately direct it. And I think the fact that I was my father's daughter meant people thought I could, and that would be dramatic and interesting. And I certainly wanted to tell the story. But that was my first step into the business, and be it right or wrong, I don't regret it, but I certainly wouldn't suggest that people try it that way. It was sort of a baptism by fire. And I had so much fun making it, and I worked with such great people. It was everything all of us could do at that time. But I do think, heck, look at it, it was a film written by a nineteen-year old and shot by a 23-year old. It is what it is, for sure.

WW: After the response it received, did you feel as if you had been blacklisted? Were you unable to get anyone to even meet with you about future projects?

JL: Surprisingly, no. I had quite a lot of offers. But all they wanted to talk about was how sort of tabloid my work had become. Trust me, there were many people, either in an interview situation or a social situation, who didn't want to be in the room with me. I was astounded by the level of reaction. It was as if I had told people I had the cure for cancer but had been lying the whole time. And I don't think I ever said that or that the film professed to be some kind of truth serum or healing serum. It was just a movie. But it really struck a chord. It wasn't that I wasn't getting the job offers. It was that I crumbled under the reviews and the pressure. Definitely. I folded.

WW: In the meantime, I understand that you went through some very difficult health situations with your back in the wake of a car accident you had when you were younger....

JL: When I was nineteen, when I was actually writing Boxing Helena, I was in a car accident, and that just started getting worse and worse and worse. And like all good codependent people who need more therapy, I ignored it. It wasn't until the birth of my daughter in 1995 that I had to pay attention to it, because I couldn't stand, basically.

WW: Is that when the surgeries began?

JL: No, the surgeries began in 2001. That was after a lot of self-medicating with marijuana. I decided to knock that off and pay attention to the real issue.

WW: Just by happenstance, I got the opportunity to interview the director Stephan Elliott a few months ago; he's got the movie Easy Virtue out right now. And he had experiences that were similar in some ways to what you went through. After some early success, he made a film called Eye of the Beholder in 1998 that critics tore apart, and suddenly, he was almost unhirable. Then, he got into a terrible skiing accident, and he badly damaged his back, and was hospitalized for months and months. And when I asked him about it, he said he actually got something out of the period when he was laid up. Just by having so much time to think, he was able to put his experiences with Hollywood in perspective, and found that he got his sense of humor back in the process. Did you have any revelations of that type while you were convalescing?

JL: Absolutely. What you have left are those people around you and your sense of humor. That's what you have left. I think it helped me not only gain some sort of perspective about what really meant something in my life, but also to reaffirm with tremendous clarity that no matter what happened to me health-wise, I still wanted to tell stories. And I would do that whether it was from a bed or a wheelchair or a desk. Whatever was going to be provided to me, I was going to make use of that time telling stories. And that was really kind of a great relief to me. I thought, "Well, it's what you want to do. And whatever happens in that, I guess that's what's going to happen. But at least you'll be doing what you want to do."

WW: I understand you also had some substance-abuse issues along the way as well, and that you've now been sober for eight years.

JL: Yes.

WW: Once you'd got that under control, and your health situation stabilized, did you immediately jump back into trying to do filmmaking on a large scale? Or did you start smaller?

JL: I started small at first. I was producing a friend of mine's short films and continuing to raise my daughter. There's a point at which, I think, that I saw in her the ability to recognize her mother working as a good thing instead of abandonment. For the first thirteen years, I basically raised her as a single parent. And not only could I afford to hand her off to a nanny, but that's not what I wanted to do. That's not how I wanted to raise my child. And so when I saw and heard the ability to see that I could be a better mother doing what I was doing, and that I wasn't taking away from her quality of life, I felt I could go back to work. And it was a few years after getting sober and a good three years before I was actually on set after trying to get back to it.

WW: Tell me about that three-year period. Where during that period did you come upon the script that evolved into Surveillance?

JL: It was at the beginning of that three-year period. Kent Harper and I had actually been co-producing the short films I mentioned together, and it was all borne of a friendly argument, where I was giving him notes on his script. What I really enjoyed were these two raucous cops who I thought should be really elaborated on. And I had my own ideas about two-lane highways and my own memories of things. From that conversation and argument was borne the story idea for Surveillance, and I just sat down and started writing.

WW: So the amount of that earlier script that can be traced to Surveillance is relatively small? Almost like a subplot?

JL: That's correct. But all things lead to other things. I am grateful to the things I don't like as much as to the things I like for inspiring me. What I try to do in any situation is to find, along with what I would change or don't like, the things I think are valuable or that I do like in a story. Those two cops and the idea of people watching other people, which in the script was witches watching people, I really related to. I wanted to take hold of that.

WW: When you went out and started pitching the project in a formal way, did people immediately bring up Boxing Helena again? And if so, were you surprised at how long their memories were?

JL: Yes. Here we are today, sixteen years later, and we're still talking about it. I think it will stay with me. It's going to be there, and that's okay. That's what people talk about first. That's what they knew me as.

WW: I wonder, given how quickly people turn over in Hollywood, and the constant youth movement, how many of those people you met with had actually seen it, and how many had only heard about it and thought, "This is how I'm supposed to react to it."

JL: A lot of people admitted that they hadn't seen it, and strangely enough, they said, "I feel badly about how many cocktail parties I said bad things about you in. Because I never saw it, and I really like this script." It was the thing to do, to hate Boxing Helena.

WW: And yet it took your father's name on Surveillance as executive producer to push the project toward the point where it might actually be made. Was that at all frustrating for you? Or knowing how Hollywood works, does it simply make sense?

JL: It was a rough thing to say "yes" to. It was about a year and a half after the script had been written when my father called and said, "So what's going on with your movie?" I said, "Nothing," and he said, "Why?" And I said, "I don't know. Either people aren't responding to it or Boxing Helena was too much of a pitfall in their minds. And there are a lot of people out there working with other stuff. I don't know if it's not being read, or what's happening?" And he said, "What if I put my name on it as executive producer?" And at first I said, "No way. No, no, no, no, no. It'll be the end of it. That's the last thing I need." But he said, "Think of it as an experiment," and I did. And within days, people were reading it and we had interest. When I spoke with him, I said, "I'm thrilled that you like the script enough to put your name on it," because I know he wouldn't have done it if he didn't like it. But it made me feel sick to my stomach to think of all the scripts out there that don't have some big name attached that aren't getting attention. So I feel fortunate but also sort of nauseated.

I went off and made the movie, and I knew that when I was done, there was a 99.9 percent chance that when I showed him the movie, he might take his name off of it. He's done it several times; he's helped films get made but then not liked the final product and removed his name. And when he saw it, he said, "I've just got one thing to say." And I said, "What?" And he said, "I want my name bigger." So that was really nice and supportive. But I also know he's not the kind of man, father or artist to lend himself to something he doesn't like. And I respect that. As terrifying as it can be when he doesn't like something I do, he's always been very honest, and I appreciate that.

WW: The pros to having him take the executive-producer credit is that you got to make the film you wanted to make. The cons seem to crop up afterward. I know you've bristled at suggestions that Surveillance resembles your father's work. Do you think his name on it causes people to see connections that may not actually be evident on the screen?

JL: Totally. I think that's part of it. But I think they would do it if his name wasn't on it. It wasn't anywhere on Boxing Helena. And I also think it's a little bit of absurdist comedy. That's like telling a husband and wife that their wedding photos look very similar. I grew up in the same place, and absolutely he's effected me. But in no ways am I trying to milk those experiences and images for the wrong reasons. People are going to find something to criticize even in delicious caviar. It seems to be a trendy sign of intelligence to say something is bad in one way or another, and to find the holes in something. And I deal with that the same way anybody else deals with it is, which is, it doesn't make me feel good, but I understand it.

WW: Another connection for people to make are your two leads, Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, who've both been in your father's films. Do you think they were so right for the parts that it more than counterbalanced the comments you were sure to get about casting them?

JL: Yeah. Bill was going to be in Boxing Helena. My father had no idea who he was until I suggested him for Lost Highway. And Julia Ormond got the script and came to me. I'd written the part for Bill and envisioned him as Sam Hollaway for years. And as far as Julia Ormond saying, "I really want to be a part of this film," a woman who's that beautiful and talented and smart, well, she was perfect. No part of how afraid I was to be criticized again was going to stop me for having the right actress in the part.

WW: Some of your other casting decisions were also very interesting, including your use of French Stewart and Cheri Oteri, who most people know from comedic roles. What made them as right for their parts as Julia Ormond was for hers?

JL: They're both incredibly brave, and it's been my experience that people who are very funny tend to be very dark and sad. And because both of them are so talented, I saw in them not only a willingness but an ability to play these roles and do something different, and be seen in a way they hadn't been seen before. And I knew for the story, that would help. That we wouldn't see it coming. That things we thought were one way were actually another, because that's so much what the story is about. What do good and bad look like? What do kind people look like? What does safety look like? What does evil look like? What do funny people look like? And what does it look like when they're bad?

WW: That definitely occurred to me while watching the film. Because we're accustomed to seeing them in more benign projects, there may be an unconscious reaction from people when they see them: "Oh, everything's going to work out just fine." Then, when it doesn't, it has an even greater impact.

JL: Yeah. When you cast, you're saying what something looks like, and you're either going to hold true to that, or you're going to break the shell and surprise people. And I think not only that I wanted to work with people who wanted it that badly, and each of them was really passionate about the project, which made me feel so good. But I also wanted to have everybody not be what they seemed to be. In the same way that the drug addict sort of becomes a heroine. She's not just bad. She's not. And the cops aren't just good. And the FBI isn't just good. Maybe serial killers are human, too. Who knows?

WW: With Surveillance just coming out, people are already talking about your next project, Hisss. Do you think that movie will continue the process of helping moviegoers to see you in a different light?

JL: I think it will. It's certainly helping me see me in a completely different light (laughs). I was given the opportunity to reimagine a 4,000-year-old Indian legend. It's sort of India's vampire/werewolf story. And I think between the special effects and the fantastic sort of quality in what happens in the movie, I'm hoping that I still get to be in love with the story and people see a different side. But I often am surprised by what people see, as opposed to what I think they'll see. So, to use the word again, we'll have to see (laughs).

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts