Q&A: Jennifer Lynch

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It's been 15 years between films for director Jennifer Lynch. Making her directorial debut at age 25 with "Boxing Helena" in 1993, she ran headlong into a buzzsaw of controversy: Critics judged the drama about a dismembered woman harshly, and Kim Basinger's decision to pull out of the project prior to filming led to a high-profile court case. Lynch turned to commercial work, focused on raising her daughter, and also spent time recovering from a serious back injury. THR's Gregg Kilday talked with Lynch about her new film "Surveillance," starring Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as FBI agents investigating a "Rashamon"-like incident on the side of the road.

The Hollywood Reporter: Kent Harper wrote the original screenplay, which you then co-wrote with him. What about his premise appealed to you?
Lynch: It started with an idea Kent had about witches. I didn't respond to the witch idea, but I responded to some of his other ideas, so I began to work on the script, which is now called "Surveillance." Its about two FBI agents trying to seek the truth in a situation where everyone is lying. It has humor and darkness where you wouldn't expect it, and when the ultimate truth comes, you don't see it coming. I wanted to see if I could do a thriller that's a little more than just a thriller.
It is really about what is exciting about lying, why people don't tell the truth about things. The only person who is telling truth is the child (played by Ryan Simpkins), because she is not caught up in her ego about what people are thinking about her. She's the least self-conscious of all the characters and also a real powerhouse.

THR: Why did you decide to call it "Surveillance," given that there have been several recent films that have used that title?
Lynch: It seemed the appropriate title. It is about people using surveillance cameras to watch each other. It's not a one-sided thing. Even the watched know that they are being watched. It's about how people change their stories based on what we see and what it is we assume about each other.

THR: How did you go about casting?
Lynch: I had always wanted Bill Pullman, but he wasn't available at first and didn't respond to the script the first time I sent it to him. But a few weeks before shooting, we had a scheduling mishap with another actor who was going to play the role, and I thought I'd kick myself if I didn't ask him again. So he said, "Well, send it to me," and this time he said, "Great, I'll do it." Julia Ormond called me after reading the script. She really wanted to go someplace with her character that she'd never gone before. I told her that if I pushed her in a direction that was uncomfortable, I would also catch her.
For the little girl, I wanted someone who really wasn't a child actor. I wanted a real kid. It was my own daughter who inspired that character, and so I didn't want a programd, blonde voice box. Ryan Simpkins came in, and she was really a joy to work with, so everything just fell into place.

THR: As cinematographer, Peter Wunstorf uses different looks for each set of characters. What is your aim there?
Lynch: I was very specific. I wanted to use different film stocks and different way of handling film stock. The two cops, played by French Stewart and Kent Harper, are very bored, but they are legends in their own mind. They have too much power in the middle of nowhere, so the look for that is one of grandiosity, sepia-toned John Wayne if you will. For the drug addicts, played by Mac Miller and Pell James, it looks like they have been up all night on coke and are now in the sunlight, which is saturated. Everything the child sees is super sharp and super clear. And when all these people converge, that is when we start. I wanted the audience to know that they are lying right away. Hopefully, I've done it in a way that won't be too distracting, because you never want to be reminded that something is being directed.

THR: What impact did the reaction to "Boxing Helena" have on you. Is that one reason why you've waited so long before directing again?
Lynch: I took a breather. It was very sad. It was not my cut of the film. And then there was the trial and all that insanity around it. It became an incredibly blown up thing. I spent some time working on a novel, because my other love is writing and telling stories, and I was busy producing and shooting commercials and stuff. Then I became pregnant, and raising a child on my own became my priority for a while. Because of a car accident, I also had to have three consecutive spinal surgeries. Throughout that I was always writing, because it helped to deal with the pain. I am sober and refused to take pain medications. The art of distraction is the art of parenting and pain management. Finally, I got back to the point where I could walk comfortably and my daughter was old enough, so I could go back to work.

THR: In retrospect, do you feel being David Lynch's daughter contributed to some of the criticism directed at "Helena"?
Lynch: It was judging a book by it's cover, which I'm intensely against. I used to be judged negatively because my parents were artists, and then I was judged because my father is a wealthy, successful director. Obviously, having a strong filmmaker's last name gets you in the room, but then you have to deliver. "Helena" was so prejudged, it just became ridiculous. It didn't have a chance.

THR: Are ready to go through the whole process of submitting a film to others' judgments again?
Lynch: I think I feel a lot more empowered this time. I was really, really ready to go back. I learned from father that as long as you're happy with the work, you can't worry about the judgments.

THR: So have you experienced Cannes before?
Lynch: No, this will be my first Cannes. My brothers have both gone before with my father. But either I've been in surgery or taking care of my daughter. She'll be coming with me, though. She's 12 and she's going to be my date. Even though the film is for audiences 18 and over, I hope they will allow her to walk the red carpet with me. She's seen me in bed for so long, it would be nice for her to see me hold my head high.

THR: Have you seen this year's poster for the festival, based on one of your father's images?
Lynch: Yes, I just saw it. It's pretty cool. I had seen that image before. He's such an amazing creator. I'm so proud to be his daughter.

VITAL STATS
Nationality: American
Born: April 7, 1968
Festival Entry: "Surveillance," Out of Competition
Selected Filmography: "Boxing Helena" (1993); producer, "Handicap City" (2002); associate producer, "Insult to Injury" (2006); associate producer, "Some of an Equation" (2007).
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