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Director Jennifer Lynch: Grilled

On her 16-year post-“Boxing Helena” absence, serial killers and getting help from dad David.

In 1993, Jennifer Lynch debuted her first feature film — "Boxing Helena," about a surgeon who amputates a woman’s healthy arms and legs. Despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the movie is most remembered for poor reviews (Lynch received the title of "Worst Director" from the Golden Raspberry Awards) and the legal battle that occurred after Madonna and Kim Basinger pulled out of the title role.


Now, 16 years later, the daughter of David Lynch is back with "Surveillance," which premiered on video-on-demand, before a run at L.A.’s Nuart theater. The film stars Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as FBI agents who arrive in a small town on the hunt for a team of serial killers. Lynch spoke to TheWrap about her hiatus, the public’s expectations of her and trying to escape her father’s long shadow.
 

So, where have you been all this time?
I was producing a lot of short films. Writing a lot. Raising my daughter. I had three spine surgeries — I’m not fully fused with cadaver bones and titanium bolts.

What prompted you to jump back in the directing saddle?
I felt like I couldn’t go back to work as a single parent until my daughter was of an age where she could understand, "OK, this is what mom does to be happy and to be a better mother" … that I wasn’t abandoning her. But she was there every day.

Why serial killers?
I’m a big fan of horror films and thrillers. I’d seen serial-killer films done to death, but I hadn’t seen the one I really wanted to see myself. And raising a daughter, I thought they’d never used a child the way I wanted to see a child used in one of these films.

Your dad was involved in the process.
He actually had read the script early on and called me and said, "You can’t end it like this. It’s too dark." He really feels that darkness cannot win over light. And I said, "Well, that’s the end of the movie." And he said, "I challenge you to write a different ending." So I wrote a different ending and shot both. I was like, "Don’t f—in’ dare me, Dad!" So I did it, but ultimately I stuck with the one I’d written orignally.

 

And what did he think?

He said, "You’re right, that’s the way the story ends. It’s just so sad." 

Did he help to get the film made?
About a year and half after that, he called me and said, "What’s going on with this movie?" And I told him zero, because it had been so long, and nobody was biting. And he said, "Don’t hate me for asking, but what if I put my name on it as executive producer?" And I said, "I don’t want to hear it. It’s bad enough that we’re related. I’m never gonna live it down." And he said, "Think of it as an experiment."

 

So you let him …

Instantly there were offers. I thought, what about all the other people who don’t have David Lynch to slap his name on this thing? So I went off and made it and came back and showed it to him and said, "If you hate it, we’ll take your name off it." He’s done that a lot — helped get something made and then taken his name off it if he doesn’t like the final product. But he said he wanted his name a little bigger. 

Do you think it’s more difficult for indie filmmakers to get films made nowadays?
Yes, and it’s because it’s so much more available now for people to be shooting films and writing scripts. It’s considered a lot more cool that if people want to tell stories, they can do it through cinema. I don’t think it’s because the business is changing as much as the competition is incredible. I was about 10 minutes away from putting a big pink, fuzzy cover on the script just so it would stand out on the desk.

Having to resort to gimmicks — does that sadden you?
I prefer to think of it as an exciting challenge. I’d love to see what people start coming up with, like, "Hey, pay attention to me!" It’s sort of like being a hooker when there’s 50 other hookers out there. How do you get the john to pick you? Until the script is read, it’s all about the song and dance and hopefully the material is what keeps them.

You faced a lot of criticism at a young age after "Boxing Helena." How did that affect you?
I’m a big fan of falling down a lot because it feels so much better to stand up after you’ve fallen down. It says, "I’ve tried, I’ve worked at it, I’m learning." Ultimately, I think I’ve grown up and I’ve certainly learned to not take too much to heart. It’s very hard when people are calling you names or when they’re saying great things about you when you’re that young. Because you don’t know what the truth is and the hypocrisy of it all. Now I’m 41. It all flew by.

Your film is premiering on video-on-demand — that’s a bit of an untraditional path for a movie.
I’m a little bit of a dinosaur. My daughter said, "Of course your movie’s on video-on-demand, that’s how you get the word out!" And I’m thinking, "But it’s not even in theaters yet! How can it be on TV?"

So, are you okay with it?
I wish it were in theaters first. I know that it stops anybody from being nominated for anything if it’s on TV first, even the smallest awards. But the response has been very good. I’m an old horse at a new water hole. Because I’m not in the business of promotion, I have to assume they know what they’re doing. And maybe people would be more comfortable seeing it at home instead of in a theater with a group of people where they’re afraid to laugh at certain points or be silent in other moments. So there may be some voyeuristic assistance to you turning the living room lights down and watch it privately.

It played at Cannes. Do you think film festivals are still relevant today?
Absolutely. I also see them as dangerous because they’re this great forum for things, but there’s a decision that’s being made about what’s being seen. It’s not easy to get into film festivals. You’ve gotta be different — the lesbian Eskimo film or some brand new idea so it stands out. But I think it’s all important to the business.