Finding oneself in a situation like Jennifer Lynch did while working in India on the set of Hisss, whereas the whole downward spiral was being captured on film by a virtual stranger, could prompt one to break binds faster than tying them. This is not the case, though, with Lynch and filmmaker Penny Vozniak, who have been touring together to promote Vozniak’s documentary on the production fiasco, Despite the Gods. In Chicago for the US premiere at the International Film Festival, both Lynch and Vozniak recall those months on set with a mutual fondness, and as friends rather than two filmmakers.
“To be brutally honest, I forgot a lot of the time that she was filming, and I was grateful to have her companionship. She was a reality check for me.” Jennifer Lynch tells about Vozniak, reminded of only one instance when asking her to stop filming; which Penny Vozniak illustrates more clearly. “It was like 5 am, and you (Jennifer Lynch) were exhausted. We had just wrapped for the day, and I put the camera in her face and she said “just not right now.” And I turned it off and went “No, no, no, you’re right.” I was just, instinctually, ‘film everything-film everything.’” Ultimately, Lynch wanted to keep her word with Vozniak, permitting her to film whatever and whenever.
It is one thing to be comfortable with someone capturing your life in progress, but it can be another tune when some time later that person announces the footage is going to be released as a documentary for the public to witness. “It’s terrifying.” Lynch confesses, gravely. But again, she was fully supportive of her now close friend Penny and her work. “I think I was more concerned with ‘why didn’t she put in this?’ And that’s all Ego Bullshit. The truth is I did what I did and acted the way I acted, and made the decisions I did. Nobody was right, nobody was wrong. It was just this very particular situation in a very particular place, and I just wish we had all communicated more. I am very proud to have been a part, most importantly, of something that teaches me and my daughter something about ourselves. And also, to have been a part of Penny’s career. I mean, I can talk about the experience, but as far as the film(Despite the Gods) that’s been made, that’s hers, and I think that what she did really well that I could never have done was just let the story be.”
Watching friends go through the tribulations that the production of Hisss had become, Penny Vozniak tried to balance an Objective and Personal standpoint. “I think when I’ve got the camera [on] I can be very objective. It’s a very Zen instrument when you’re filming observationally,” Vozniak insists, but admits it’s impossible to stay out completely. “There would be times when I would be triggered by things, because I would see what was happening to Jennifer, and I became very close to Jennifer. I would get involved, just not with the story I was filming. And, I wasn’t doing that to push my narrative forward, I would do it out an instinctual…I want to balance a situation when I see people suffering. But, when I am filming, no.”
Jennifer and Penny joke still about how what would be a distressing moment for one would be fortuitous for the other. “We’d drive home from the set, and Penny would be like, ‘Yeah! I’m going to upload footage!’ and it was like a shit-day for me, but a great day for Penny.” The joyful exchange Jennifer has with Penny now is what she was consistently looking for while filming Hisss. “I was looking for the joy. Where is the fucking joy?” Lynch declares, “This is a fun job. I love my job…when I can do my job. I would say in all fairness, it [the joy] was there every day, it was just surrounded by a lot of other stuff too, which made a bigger sound and wasn’t as precious.”
Most of these un-precious moments could be due to Producer Govind Menon undermining Jennifer Lynch’s position on set. Lynch had met Menon through mutual friends, and accepted his offer to make a movie in Indian with him. “To be brutally honest, the idea of going to India sounded really exciting, and I needed a job. And, I would be an idiot to not go make a movie in India. It scared me in all the right ways.” Lynch details the uphill battle she was facing, “There was no script; I had to write the script. I knew nothing of Indian legends. I wasn’t a Bollywood fan. I hadn’t studied Indian philosophy or literature,” but recalls these factors as challenges she was excited about, “ I don’t think it was about ‘talking me into it,’ because I don’t think I was that hard to convince. In fact, I think it was hard to get rid of me. I really liked Govind.” Penny Vozniak had become good friends with Menon years prior. “I think I was 21, and I was in Goa. It was my first trip to India, wandering around with no plan…which is very much how I work…kind of a common theme.” Penny retells the initial meeting with fancy. “I was in a restaurant and I ordered a meal, and I asked for no cheese. And instead they got confused and put extra cheese on it. And I’m a vegan so I didn’t want cheese. This Indian man looked very interested next to me, and he sprung up and yelled “ARE YOU VEGAN??” And then he just came over and sat, and just became an instant best friend. I would go to India every couple of years and just hang out with him. He and his wife became really good friends [of mine].”
A reoccurring concern for Govind Menon was the presence of Jennifer’s daughter Sydney on set. Menon asked Penny Vozniak to play nanny for a bit. However, when Vozniak began filming on her own, almost instantly, they resolved to keep Sydney on set as before. “We couldn’t find the right nanny for her. Then we decided ‘Wait a minute…we’re all on set, together. She can just hang; if she’s not with her mom, she can just hang with me.” Lynch makes the comparison that “The village raises the child.”
Conflicting point-of-views led to Jennifer losing final cut, only on cowardly terms. “They said go home for the weekend, and that was it.” After Jennifer left, the film was edited without her, and her name was attached to the story she did not intend to tell. “It was bad, and at that point so much had been unsaid. We were never making the same film, I just didn’t know that. And we were not allies as this point. The whole thing was very sad.” It is hinted several times in Despite the Gods that Jennifer was not moving fast enough for Govind Menon liking, that he was interested in getting the shoot done quickly over getting the right shots to being with. “You can do Right fast, you just need a plan and communication. If the reason why you hired me is because I have a famous last name and you want to make a splash, then tell me you want to do that. Don’t pretend that you’re going to let me make the movie I want to make, and then he’d get mad at me when I try.” Lynch reveals the aftermath in full. “I went into a violent depression. It’s Jim and Syd that saved my life. It (Hisss) was easily the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s also one of the best things. If something I cared that much about can fall apart, fail and I can survive it, then…alright then. I think the biggest hole in my heart, aside from losing the fill, is the fact that he kept my name on it. Why would you do that? Just take it off. That seemed like a low blow and promotional thing, and a way to blame shift. But, that’s the bitterness in my talking too. The real thing now is that he and I don’t speak after going through all of that. I don’t mean that we have to be best buddies. I respect and care about Govind, and I’m sorry that it was a painful thing for both of us, but I don’t think it needs to stay painful. I don’t think it does either of us any good to feel sick when we think about the other person.”
Vozniak reflects her final summation. “What I got out of all this is, when people are making something like this, you’re making a world and life. And we can’t help but make it so personal, about our own narrations and our own fears. And if things go wrong, you get deeply scarred in a way that’s different than any other art form. If things go wrong, the fallout is so devastating.”
What might have been a permanently debilitating story for some, Lynch has turned into a stepping stone for a better and wiser tomorrow. She, like Penny Vozniak, maintains a constructive outlook and long view, converting negative to positive despite the gods’ attempts to overrun them.