Although she is the daughter of legendary director David Lynch, Jennifer Lynch has certainly made her own way in the world of cinema. She wrote and directed her first film “Boxing Helena” at the age of 19. From there, she has gone on to direct both feature films and television(the USA network's Psych).
Lynch is no stranger to the Chicago International Film Festival. Her 2008 feature “Surveillance”(which starred Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) was a selection in the After Dark Competition at that year’s edition of the Festival. Five years later, Lynch is the somewhat reluctant star of the new documentary “Despite the Gods” which debuted at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival last week. "Despite The Gods" chronicles Lynch's trials and tribulations during the production of "Hisss" in India five years ago. Lynch and director Penny Vozniak were in Chicago to promote the film. Brandon Gaylor had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers. Below is the transcript of the conversation, edited for brevity.
How did you become involved with this documentary "Despite The Gods"?
Jennifer: It’s all [Penny’s] fault(laughs). The short version is I was fortunate enough to be offered the job to go work in India(directing "Hisss" - Ed.). Being in the early stages of that, Penny was flying through on her way to Afghanistan. And she was friends with the producer. And the producer had certain feelings about children being around on set and during prep and such that I didn’t share. Because I respected him and he loved Penny…Penny agreed to stay and be with [Sydney(Jennifer's daughter - Ed. note)] while I went out and worked. I wasn’t going to leave her alone, and they didn’t want her with me. So rather than a rift - which ultimately happened anyway - Penny showed up as a gift and we sort of bonded. When I admitted to myself and to the producer that I was going to miss her, he said that she was a filmmaker. ‘Maybe we could have her do some of the behind the scenes, and keep her around.' And Penny was like, ‘that’s a little money for me and my other project, so yeah.’ And then it all goes fuzzy for me, because I was busy in it. And what I realized now [is all] Penny was doing was seeing what was really happening while I was just doing it all. So I became involved in it…
Penny: Not realizing it….
Jennifer: Yeah, I don’t know if I was aware.
Penny: You weren’t aware that you were the subject of a documentary for weeks. I was doing…a ten-minute kind of thing for the DVD. But then I stayed…because there [was] something else happening and I want to keep filming it. It was only after weeks that Jennifer was aware that she was the subject of a documentary, but she never said, ‘yeah, make the film about me.’
Jennifer: That would have been the ‘anti-’ of what I wanted.
Penny: You were supportive. You were like, ‘alright, I’ll let you do that.’
Jennifer: I needed someone to be a witness to what was happening. It helped keep me sane-relatively speaking. But also I think I felt too that here was this filmmaker, and she saw something. And wanted to shoot this, and be excited, and at the end of my s**t days she was jubilant. She was like, ‘I got some great footage today’ and it was always on the days where I just wanted to f**king hang myself. Like, ‘are you kidding me? You were filming that?’ It was the joy that I was looking for in all the craziness, and I was trying to be so zen that any happiness, any productivity…any checking in with reality. Any perspective I could get…a few months ago, I said you can’t tell it’s a hand when it’s over your face, but Penny can see it from way over there. You can’t see everything.
Penny: I just talked to you…
Jennifer: It was very sly, trust me…so clever. Slightly evil.
It was almost like she was really concerned about how you felt.
Penny: I was.
Jennifer(laughing): Whatever…pretty sneaky, Pen…
Early on in the film it shows you ran into severe production issues(the script was missing, a shooting schedule was quite lacking). Did you every worry that the documentary was an extra level of stress, or something that was getting in the way?
Jennifer(pausing): A really interesting question. I think I’m filling in blanks, because time has gone by. I now recognize certain moments I had of self-consciousness going, ‘on top of it, I’m being looked at.’ That maybe felt like another stress, but it wasn’t intellectualized like that. That’s only with hindsight that I can see that. I don’t think that if I had felt like it was another stress, and was aware that I felt that, I would have let her keep shooting me. I was so in another panicked place. I was in a foreign country with my daughter, trying to make a movie in another language, with people I really couldn’t communicate with, and I had way too much riding on it. And I didn’t know when I was coming home, or how it was going to get done. I was terrified. And I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t having fun. Why people weren’t talking to each other. I kept trying to make sense of it, and there wasn’t anything to make sense of. So I don’t think I was able to see it as another distraction. I think it was, ‘oh, there’s Penny, and Penny has this weird black eye.’
Penny: I shoot actually quite low. I like to look at people while I’m filming them and really connect.
Jennifer: That’s the sneaky thing too. I forget she’s holding anything, because I’m looking right at her face.
Penny: Sometimes you’d see me in the distance, because you had that mic on…
Jennifer: I would forget that I was mic’d…I was always mic’d. And I would turn around and suddenly she’d be there and I was like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa - you probably just saw all that, didn’t you.’ And there it is in the documentary. And me crying…if I had thought, she’s going to have this footage…I would have batted the camera out of [her] hand.
You were a little mouse in the room…a fly on the wall…you really were stealth. The more I see it, the more I’m in awe of your manipulative powers.
Penny: I want to capture that authenticity no one sees. No one sees this stuff. They think filmmaking is something else…and this is so much more interesting.
Jennifer: And you can’t have everything. But it’s my ego that wishes everything was in there. So the moments where I did the wrong thing, or when someone else did the wrong thing or the right thing or whatever. So hopefully what you still get out of it is that there were heroes and villains, and all of us were all of them. But a lot happens in nine months when you’re being recorded, basically 24/7. But what I should say without all the jocularity is that [Penny] was very gracious.
What brought you to India to do your next film? Why India?
Jennifer: India was offered to me. After “Surveillance”, I was introduced to Govind(Menon, producer of “Hisss” - Ed. note), who was looking for a director for a sort-of Hollywood-meets-Bollywood production. I thought I would be a f**king idiot not to go have an adventure in India. I needed a job, and Govind was a lovely man, and it sounded scary and exciting in all the ways that it should. I had no idea what it was going to be, but I couldn’t fathom saying no to India, and no to the job. So India was a gift; it was a surprise. And I’m glad I went.
Over the course of the film you butted heads with the film’s producer, Govind Menon. That had to take it’s toll emotionally.
Jennifer: Yeah, on both of us. I wish we were talking. I would like to talk to him, and that’s not something he’s willing to do right now. I hope someday he is. It doesn’t make me feel good to not talk to him. I think after what we went through together, I think it’s very sad that we’re not at least cordial to one another. He’s not a bad guy; I didn’t purposefully hurt him, and he didn’t purposefully hurt me, I don’t believe. I think we both got hurt. I also think that were a lot of really fun moments and a lot of triumphs we shared that I would rather be celebrating. Right now I’m doing that alone. I wish I didn’t feel sick when I thought of him. But it’s because right now I feel like there’s a hole in something.
It did take its toll emotionally. The whole thing made me incredibly and violently depressed for a couple of years. I’m just coming out of it.
During production on “Hisss”, you learned that “Surveillance” won Best Film at Sitges(the Catalonian International Film Festival in Spain). You were quite humble on screen, but what was going through your head when that announcement was made?
Jennifer: I was stunned, and amazed. I thought, ‘I did something right before, and maybe this will be okay.’ It was validation, and it was also terrifying, because that is what alerted me to the fact that [so] many months had gone by. Because I was supposed to be [at Sitges], and I wasn’t back from India yet. I was supposed to have been back from India like three or four months at that point.
So you were there longer than what you had expected to be there?
Jennifer: Oh, yeah. I was not supposed to be in India for nine months-I was supposed to be there for like, two. And everything just went pear-shaped. It was a joyful moment, so it gave me a boost…and then it was like ‘ wow, has it really been that many months? How did that happen? How is it that we’re still here making this?’ So it was a weird point of perspective…it was [like] a hug, but a hug from a monster.
“Hisss” didn’t turn out the way you expected. After such a commitment of time and emotional effort, is it hard not to reflect back on it?
Jennifer: It’s impossible not to look back on it. Again, that’s why I think it’s painful to not speak with Govind, and why I’m grateful I made “Chained” in between. I learned a lot, and I’m still learning from that experience. I’m learning right now, sitting here talking to you, about what that was all about.
Sherilyn Fenn said to me, ‘You didn’t go to India to make "Hisss." You went to India to make “Despite The Gods”, you just didn’t know it.’ So I’m still figuring out what happened there. I didn't know I was going to be the subject of something. I thought I was going to make a snake movie. It’s impossible not to reflect back on it. It is now in the tiles of everything I do, a little bit of it. Every once in awhile, I think ‘I don’t want to do that again, or I should handle that.’ And it’s hard to watch yourself. You would do it differently and now people are watching you do it wrong over and over again. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not always comfortable.
“Despite The Gods” shows parts of Jennifer Lynch the person and Jennifer Lynch the filmmaker. Do you think the film strikes an appropriate balance in that sense?
Jennifer: You know what’s funny is that I think they are the same thing. Because I'm think I'm Filmmaker, Mom, Friend, Goofball, Person. What’s interesting is that you see two different things…and I thought they were all one. I didn’t know there was a balance.
Penny: [I think you mean] was there a balance of her directing as a director and her personal moments.
I believe so. The one thing I noticed about the film is that it very much starts out as being a behind-the-scenes of the production she’s doing. Then almost by the end, "Hisss" has kind of disappeared, and it’s more about Jennifer at the end. So from that standpoint, I think there is very much a mixture of her as a person and her as a filmmaker.
Penny: It was totally after I looked at all the footage in order that I realized that’s actually the story. At the beginning, [Jennifer] and Govin were making a film. It was happening; it was real, it was exciting. Let’s go on set, let’s look at the story. Let’s make set plans. As time went on, what became the daily interaction between people became about something else. It became about different opinions, and different needs, and there was conflict, contrast and synergy sometimes. And then it became...I’m filming more of the personal journey than the practical journey. That was born out of the footage.
What do you hope people’s reactions will be when they see “Despite The Gods”?
Jennifer: What an attractive, smart, nice person(laughs…Penny laughs too). I have to be very careful with that…I don’t have expectations because they will never be met. I am equal parts humbled and devastated. What I hope is - if I can separate myself from it - I hope that people see how much things can mean and should mean. Just because I was making a movie about a snake woman doesn’t mean it didn’t matter to me. If you love your job, you’ll go through anything to do your job. And Penny’s a great documentary filmmaker. Those are things that I think should be taken away. And just because I failed, doesn’t mean everything’s wrong forever.
Penny: The main thing to me what that she was nothing like I expected. I had heard of the film “Boxing Helena” when I was in high school, and I had ideas about her and knew she was David Lynch’s daughter. But then I met her, and I was like, ‘she’s just not what I was expecting.’ And after spending a limited amount of time with her, I realized she was [this] incredible, interesting, open-wound kind of a woman. So self-effacing, and funny! Swearing like a truck driver all the time. I was like, ‘this is awesome’! This is a misunderstood woman. And I love stories personally. You shoot what you love. There’s no doubt about that. You can’t be on a film unless you love it and want to look at it every day. And the films that I like the best are about subjects and people who are so misunderstood…and I thought this was the most misunderstood, incredible, visionary director, and everyone thinks she’s something else. They think she’s this bad, schloppy filmmaker.
But I'm like, she’s something else. She’s a great mother, and she’s funny and she’s talented and she’s a hard-working director. [And I thought], this is cool. I’m going to tell the unexpected story. What I wanted, I guess - towards the end I started to think, ‘wow, I’m actually going to finish this’ - so, what do people want? How do I want people to process what I’m making? What I would love for people to take away from it is to see that it’s a portrait - I’m hoping it’s an honest portrait.
I feel it’s a lovely portrait of Jennifer, even though yes, you may look funny when you’re crying. I feel that rawness, that authenticity should be celebrated. Why should that be hidden away, that uncomfortable stuff? We all feel it. This stuff should be shared. It’s hard to make a film; it’s hard to do anything you care about. So let’s all watch it and share in it and [say] ‘I’ve felt that way too. She’s brave; look what she did.' And she lost it in the end, but she’s still gone on and she’s making films and she loves them. And that should be inspirational. So I guess I want people to take away an impression of what it’s really like to make a film when you really care about it, or what it’s like to do anything when you really care about it. And how to handle difficult situations with grace. And that’s what [Jennifer] rode out on…
The conversation actually lasted just over an hour, and moved on to more profound topics such as existentialism and the effects of fairy tales on the youth. Lynch stated that she is "really excited" about her next project, titled "A Fall From Grace." Vozniak is working with "Despite The Gods" producer Karina Astrup(of documentary production company house of Gary) on her next project, "Ordinary Wonderlands" The documentary chronicles real-life superheroes. Lynch is serving as executive producer on the project.