Jennifer Lynch on set at Filmistan Studios
by Justin Tucker
Director Jennifer Lynch took 15 years off from filmmaking following the release of her controversial debut, Boxing Helena. The film was ravaged by critics and became the center of one of the most highly publicized trials in Hollywood history. Instead of immediately following up, she had a child, filling the role of mother over director. After returning with 2008’s Surveillance, Lynch was given the opportunity to travel to India to direct a horror film that would eventually be called Hisss, based on the legend of the snake goddess Nagin.
The entertaining and enlightening documentary Despite the Gods, the first film from director Penny Vozniak, follows Lynch and her daughter Sydney to India and shows the challenges that her and the production faced. Interrupted by turbulent weather, culture clashes, crew strikes and other acts of God, filming spanned half of a year and tested the limits of Lynch’s patience.
Despite the Gods had its U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, competing for the Gold Hugo prize. I communicated with Lynch about making a feature in Bollywood, the legacy of Boxing Helena and her latest filmmaking endeavor.
Jennifer Lynch directs the 'Holi' scene in Hisss
UR Chicago: Despite the Gods chronicles your involvement with making a film in India. How did you get to be involved with Penny Vozniak and the making of this documentary?
Jennifer Lynch: Penny and I met through the producer, Govind [Menon]. At first, Penny came to India on her way to the Middle East for another project. She stayed a week and helped by spending time with Syd while I was on location scouts, etcetera. The three of us bonded and I really wanted to continue to share time with her. Knowing she was a talented filmmaker, the concept of her shooting some EPK/behind-the-scenes footage is really where it all started. I believe Penny had the objectivity and brilliance to see more of what was going on there than the rest of us could see.
UR: You've already had a filmmaking excursion into India, where there was a clash of cultures, customs and class. What are some other cinematic cultures you'd like to explore?
JL: I would love to shoot in India again. To be clear, the country and I fell in love. I would go back again if the opportunity arose. I would adore shooting in Japan, as it has always fascinated me and I have yet to be there. I'd love to shoot: Russia, Madrid, Korea, Australia.... in truth, I think I am curious about and would shoot anywhere a story took me. Once I have the story in my heart, I will follow it anywhere.
UR: Despite the Gods focuses a great deal on you directing Mallika Sherawat, who plays Nagin, and the dynamic relationship you two shared. It also leaves other interactions out entirely. Tell us about your working relationship with leading man Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire).
JL: My relationships with the actors were very good. All passionate and talented, each handled the mayhem with a different elegance and spirit. There was truly never a dull moment. Irrfan Kahn is an incredible actor and an equally incredible collaborator. We created some scenes together that I wish I had been able to see to fruition. His absence in the doc is due purely to the dramas that unfolded following the film's "traumas.” Irrfan, Mallika, Akka, Divya, Jeff, Raman... all of them were amazing gifts to the production and myself.
Mallika Sherawat on the set of Hisss
UR: It's been 20 years now since Boxing Helena.The film is still provocative, yet by today's standards, the macabre elements now seem a little tame. In retrospect, all the controversy seems exaggerated. How have your thoughts on the film changed since you finished writing the script at age 19?
JL: So interesting, this question: I never thought it macabre to begin with. Certainly it dealt with entrapment and power plays, and yes, the removal of a woman's arms and legs... and yet, they were metaphor. There was no blood or gore. It was very clearly, to me, about the ways thievery finds its way into relationships that are unhealthy. I think it was promoted as macabre and certainly pushed a "fear" button in audiences as far as the suggestions within it, but I am as surprised now as I was then, that many considered it horror. For me it was, and remains, a fairy tale about obsessive love. A search for how not to hurt one another when we are so desperate to feel powerful in love. I think the film is different from what I would make now, at 45 years old, but for where and who I was, the film remains the best of what I could say then, at that age, in that voice. Love is about realizing the power is in not having any power.
UR: Your next film, A Fall from Grace, is set in the St. Louis area, and as someone raised there, this holds a particular interest to me. Tell us more about the film and its amazing cast.
JL: I could not be more excited about A Fall from Grace. ST. LOUIS IS AN INCREDIBLE PLACE. It is as much newborn as it is ghost: so many different places and so many amazing stories. As if art directed by time and kept strangely secret, the city hugs the Mississippi River and begs to be photographed. Between the cast we have and the story of the 'human wound'... I feel it is going to be a real gift to bring to life.
UR: Have you and your producers overcome the snags early on in production with Governor Jay Nixon over tax breaks? Are there any new updates on the film?
JL: We have not overcome them (the snags) so much as learned to accept them. I am hoping that ultimately we will be able to shoot at least five to ten days in St. Louis, but without tax breaks and the support of the Governor, it becomes sadly cost prohibitive to bring the full feature there. I believe having a film back in St. Louis would provide incredible economic and creative boosts to residents, and would begin to highlight to the world how beautiful that city really is.
UR: Your daughter Sydney Lynch is a major focus of Despite the Gods and will also be involved in A Fall From Grace. Can audiences expect a feature film from her in the future? How does your daughter influence your work?
JL: Syd influences me in many ways. Mainly as an inspiration and as a reminder of how children see... such pure clarity. Now that she is 18 and has begun to pursue acting, I think you can count on seeing her in film... in front of and behind the lens. She has a lot to say and share, and she is a potent echo of the world around her. I see that as the makings of a great storyteller.
UR: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
JL: I am so proud to be coming to the Chicago Film Fest, and Penny really does deserve for her work to be seen. She is an incredible filmmaker.