Filmmaker Jennifer Lynch was in Chicago this past Friday, October 18, as part of the USA premiere of the documentary about her called DESPITE THE GODS. It had appeared at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival Thursday night, and despite being a behind-the-scenes look at the troubles faced while trying to film NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS, a horror movie set in India, it was a positive portrayal of both Lynch’s work and her approach to movie making. It’s the same upbeat artist that I sat down with for an exclusive interview I did as a film critic for the Chicago Examiner. We met at the CIFF offices at 30 E. Adams for a 45 minute interview that was candid, funny and as entertaining as the gregarious filmmaker.
|Filmmaker Jennifer Lynch photographed by me on my iPhone in Chicago.|
“I thought I was going to be learning about India but instead I learned about me,” Lynch chuckled when she talked about what she really came away with during her 9-month ordeal in India. While there, she had to deal with uncooperative weather, locations and even some sexist crew members who weren’t used to such a strong and ebullient woman helming a complicated film. Yet through it all, Lynch remained as sunny and bright as the weather was not.
Indeed, you name it – monsoons, location problems, fainting extras - it was all tossed the director’s way. She was told they could film at certain sights, only to be ushered away after setting up, due to them being on hallowed ground. Crowds got in the way wherever they went as they clamored to see Bollywood superstar Malika Sherawat, the star of Lynch’s film. And a first assistant director often thought he knew best and demeaned her for being a woman. It’s all there in the film that is a fantastic look at the realities of how hard it is to make a movie (http://exm.nr/1aXjGrT). But Lynch is incredible in the documentary, laughing through it all, working harder than any crewmember, and even managing to be a doting mother to her tagalong teen Sydney.
|Jennifer Lynch, remaining strong and committed, while on location.|
The documentary could have been a total downer, as it took 9 months to get the film in the cam, but instead the film, directed by the wonderful documentarian Penny Vozniak, works as a ringing endorsement of the work and joy it takes to create. And that’s saying something, considering this true ‘Bollywood’ story ends with Lynch’s film being taken away from her by producers who didn’t see eye-to-eye with her on the final cut.
“We all failed and we all triumphed,” Lynch admits. “And I wish I could celebrate that with everyone involved. I’m still very good friends with a lot of the crew and that helped me heal.” Her choosing to dwell on the positive is impressive considering the producers criticized her edit of the film as being too “European, languid and sensual.” Lynch took that as a compliment because that was what she was aiming for, but the powers-that-be wanted something more overtly horrific, garish and commercial.
|The camera is about to roll on star Malika Sherawat in "Nagin the Snake Goddess"|
“With Nagin, there I was dealing with a legend that I couldn’t necessarily alter, but I could put a spin on. And the comic elements, you know I love to play with the whole sexuality of it…and the cobra being a fertility goddess and a phallus at the same time, a woman swallowing a man whole, and all of that fun stuff…was supposed to be joyful.”
But the memory of that movie is now bittersweet. The producers wanted a more garish and violent horror movie and that’s what they released without Lynch, under their re-edited and re-titled HISSS. If that sounds like a B horror movie to you, well, you’re not alone. It’s a problem that plagues too many entries in the genre these days, and Lynch would rather go the other way.
|Producer Karina Astrup, Jennifer Lynch and Documentarian director Penny Vozniak in Chicago.|
“I’m drawn to things that are…more authentic,” Jennifer says. She finds horror that is more relatable to be the more disturbing and effective. In CHAINED, her 2012 thriller about Bob, a cab-driving serial killer (http://bit.ly/13cDqHs), she strove to help the audience understand just what went on inside the man who became a monster.
“You don’t behave like a jerk unless you’re terrified or feeling threatened,” Lynch reasons. “In CHAINED I really wanted to talk about how the human monster was made. It’s the guy sitting across from me at the table. It’s the guy standing behind me in the grocery store line. It’s the guy driving the taxi. And you don’t know what they’ve suffered. You don’t know what decisions he’s made based on what happened to him. And we all weather the storm that our lives have been. The way we do, and that’s what builds character. And that doesn’t excuse the behavior of a monster, but it explains it.”
|The poster for the documentary DESPITE THE GODS|
Lynch has done a superb job of explaining the monsters she’s put on the screen for over 20 years, starting at when she wrote and directed BOXING HELENA at the precious age of 19. That film became one of the most controversial movies of all time. And its focus on character, like all of Lynch’s horror films, was too much for most critics and audiences used to ‘B-movie’ claptrap to handle (http://bit.ly/bQZALk). The character of the obsessive surgeon (Julian Sands) who saves a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) after a car accident, struck people as misogynistic because he amputates her legs to save her, and then removes her arms to keep her from escaping. But the fact is, the end the story reveals it’s all in the doctor’s mind, making him the true prisoner of his own insecurities. Today, the film is more often understood as a searing dissertation on sexual power, but it took audiences two decades to come to that realization.
“Now people come up to me and say, ‘I was afraid to admit it then but I really liked it. Because it wasn’t cool to like your movie.” She’s always been ahead of her time, provoking and challenging the norms and subjects that films or female filmmakers could explore. But she doesn’t know how to be any other way. “I want to be challenged. I’m grateful to filmmakers who make films I hate! It helps me define what I don’t want to do and what upsets me.”
She’s drawn to dark material and it contrasts with her buoyant and vivacious attitude towards life. She’s been struggling to get her artistic visions seen and heard all her life. And yet Lynch has always remained undeterred by her critics, doing stunning work despite those wanting to hold her back.
|The poster for Lynch's controversial 1993 film BOXING HELENA|
Lynch challenged our perceptions of teenage angst with her candid and shocking portrayal of addiction in her book “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” that outdid her controversial father’s take on the character in TWIN PEAKS and FIRE WALK WITH ME. She won the Grand Prize at the Festival de Cine de Sitges for her examination of the lies people tell the cops in the 2008 thriller SURVEILLANCE. And with NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS, she filmed a startling revenge tale, yet her version of it may never see the light of day, due to her close-minded producers. At least we have Vozniak’s documentary that shows a lot of what Lynch did in filming her vision.
It’s all part of the up’s and down’s of working in the movies to Lynch as she explains, “Excited and terrified are just a decision away from each other.” It’s how she approaches the crazy world of filmmaking, and what drives her as an artist. “When I a frightened, I tend to giggle.”
That kind of pluck is evident throughout DESPITE THE GODS, which should be seen by anyone who’s interested in seeing movies or making them. It’s an honest and compelling piece, and the fact that its subject is a strong woman, and its produced and directed by two equally courageous women (director Vozniak and producer Karina Astrup) makes it even more extraordinary in an industry too dominated by male sensibilities. Now, if only Lynch’s NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS would get the same opportunity to reach an audience.
|A shot of Sherawat from NAGIN THE SNAKE GODDESS|
To a woman who excels at horror, the scariest thing to Lynch is how celebrity culture has made movies seem “more special than other things.” The red carpets, the ‘what are you wearing’ queries – these are the things that disturb her. “There are no doctors today being interviewed about how they get through a surgery. There are no teachers being interviewed about how they impart knowledge. But for some reason the industry is given importance that nothing else is given. And that’s nuts.”
In the meantime, she is onto new projects that excite her, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She held the audience in the palm of her hand during the Q & A Thursday night after the screening. And she’s just as captivating one-on-one. She wants to keep working and with her talent and zeal, should if people are daring enough to try new things and not settle on the same-old, same-old.
Horror could use more filmmakers like her. And it would be fascinating to see Lynch take a crack at a romantic comedy or a straight drama too. Her honesty and bravery would behoove any genre. And despite the gods of India or Hollywood, Lynch not only remains an artist, and a survivor, but a person who still finds the joy in it all. In fact, even when the biz scares her to death, she is strong enough to laugh at it. In fact, she giggles.