Director and screenwriter Jennifer Lynch looks back at two decades of searching for artistic truth…and getting a lot of shit for it.
At 17, I owed my life to one woman—Jennifer Lynch.
First, the eldest progeny of David Lynch published the Twin Peaks tie-in novel The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a steamy, fucked up romp through the life of television’s most famous dead girl that occupied a place of honor under my mattress. Then a year or two later, right when I was going through the agony of my first breakup, I saw Lynch’s debut film Boxing Helena, which left an indelible impression upon a young man who had been forbidden from watching MTV his whole life.
A deadly combination of zero self esteem and chronic social awkwardness made me identify a bit too much with the movie's antagonist—a wussy, emasculated surgeon who yearns to possess a woman he loves so much that he cuts off her arms and legs and keeps her on a box-like pedestal. I never thought I would come to see my own self-hatred reflected back at me via the dude from Warlock (Julian Sands), but Boxing Helena became something of an obsession to me, and I rented it on an almost weekly basis. I even reviewed it in my hometown newspaper, which resulted in a concerned phone call from a confused editor who asked me “Let me get this straight—you think this film is ROMANTIC?”
But while I was exorcising my own inner torment, Jennifer Lynch was just being tormented. A hostile media was taking glee in covering the famous court case (Kim Basinger supposedly backed out of an agreement to star in the film and was sued by the producers for almost $10 million) that overshadowed the film itself, and accusing Lynch of being a misogynist who only got the film made because she had a famous daddy. Following Boxing Helena’s box office failure, Lynch all but disappeared from the Hollywood radar, never to be heard from again until she came back in 2007 with a gripping little thriller called Surveillance, which earned her some long overdue critical praise and even won a few awards on the festival circuit.
Now working steadily in television and enjoying a hot streak of greenlit features, Lynch is finding her work appreciated without only being remembered as “that woman-hating traitor who made THAT MOVIE.” Her book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was recently reprinted after being out of print for years and she is in pre-production for her film A Fall From Grace, which will star Tim Roth and Vincent D’Onofrio.
After a few false starts, VICE got Jen (as her friends call her) on the phone in Toronto where she was directing an episode of Warehouse 13 to discuss her often tumultuous career and what it was like to spend her childhood on the set of Eraserhead…and having David Lynch scold you.
VICE: What’s your earliest memory?
Jennifer Lynch: It’s being in a very large room, in a crib of sorts; I don’t know if it was a real crib. But I was crying and there was a woman there that seemed a mile away who was painting. My parents think that was me being babysat when they went out one night. It was a huge room filled with canvasses.
When you were a toddler your father was busy making Eraserhead. What are some of your memories of being on the set?
Well, those memories are among some of the most formative of my life. It’s why I feel so at home on a film set. It really is my happiest place. I remember Jack (Nance) and Catherine (Coulson) and dad and my mom and I remember cables and cameras and shadows and voices. I still cannot sleep in silence. People talking, people repeating the same things over and over again. People speaking is a lullaby to me. I vaguely remember shooting the scene I was in—digging the dimes out of the dirt—which was cut from the final film, but I still made it into the credits. I was also cut out of Blue Velvet but I wasn’t in the credits in that.
Actually, in IMDB you’re listed in Blue Velvet under ‘miscellaneous crew.’
Oh that’s funny. Yeah, I guess I didn’t get the ‘production assistant’ title. So much for nepotism, right?
In the late ‘90s, you did a television interview where you described playing with Spike, which was the nickname for the baby in Eraserhead. How did you actually play with Spike? I imagine it was a rather fragile film prop.
There’s a story that Catherine Coulson recounts where I asked my dad if I could play with Spike and he said “Yeah, but just don’t touch him.” I would talk to Spike and look at Spike. He fascinated me. I felt a closeness with Spike. We were never physically affectionate though. I didn’t know him biblically.
I’m not going to ask you to reveal the secret, but do you know how Spike was created?
Yes. Yes I do. I will never tell. My daughter is furious because I will never tell.
You were only six when your parents divorced. Was that really traumatic for you?
I don’t think divorce is ever pleasant for a child, even when the house is a disaster when the parents are present. My house was not a disaster when they were together, it was just very clear that there were different plans going on for each of them. I think my biggest fear throughout my life was that I wouldn’t see enough of my father and he’s been very good at making sure that never happens. But that was the little girl fear in me: “What if I never see him?” So that’s the first feeling that sweeps over me when I recall that time.
What kind of disciplinarian was David? When you would misbehave, how were you punished?
I was only spanked once and he says he regretted it. Apparently I didn’t deserve it. The only time I distinctly remember being yelled at was when I was about seven or eight. He found me reading Helter Skelter and he squatted down in front of me and I remember the sunlight surrounding his head and he said, “There is darkness and then there is light. And then there is evil.” And he grabbed the book out of my hands and pitched it across the yard and said “This is evil!” I was obsessed with Vincent Bugliosi. I thought he was a great attorney. I was fascinated with the book. But that’s what I remember about him being upset. It wasn’t like I had a strict bedtime. I wasn’t the kind of kid who had a curfew. It just didn’t happen in my youth. When we done doing whatever we were doing, if you were tired, it was time for bed.
When you were a teenager, how did you rebel? Or was there anything really to rebel against?
I didn’t really rebel until I was in my twenties. I was a pretty good kid. All kids mean to be good. I just didn’t have anything to push up against. I was a really sober, good kid with good grades. I busied myself by trying to find my own voice. My mother is an amazing writer and painter, my father is an amazing filmmaker and painter and what was I going to do with all that? So I didn’t really push that way. I made some fucking mistakes, that’s for sure. I think the one time I got in trouble in high school, my father was strangely fascinated by it. I was caught in a cabin I wasn’t supposed to be in with two other girls and a guy, and I was naked. We were caught by the school pastor. That’s how you don’t want to be found by the school pastor—naked. And David was like “What were you doing in there, Jen-O?” My mom was left with the brunt of raising me, but even if you were to ask her, I wasn’t the kind of kid who was causing them much grief.
You have a few half siblings and also a new baby sister. How is your relationship with them?
Awesome. I haven’t met Lula yet (David Lynch’s newborn daughter with wife Emily Stofle) because she was born while I was in Europe, but I’ve been talking to the belly the whole time so she knows my voice. But my relationship with Austin and Riley is phenomenal. Even though we were all single kids, we’re all brothers and sisters. I always wanted a big family and I’m just getting it spread out. I think it’s fascinating that my daughter is getting ready to turn 17 this month and she has an aunt she can hold in her arms.
When you were in your late teens you started writing the screenplay for Boxing Helena. Tell me how that came about.
I was reading poetry at a place called Helena’s out in Los Angeles and after reading one night a man named Philippe Caland, who was one of the producers, approached me and said “I’m interested in having a woman write a story I have into a screenplay. It’s called Boxing Helena and it’s about a man who cuts a woman’s arms and legs off and puts her in a box because he loves her.” And I said “Well, that sounds kind of terrible.” And he said, “No, no, you don’t understand.” So we talked about it and Philippe is a lovely man, but I said that idea didn’t really appeal to me, so I asked him if I could take the idea and bring in some of the associations that I have with what this is really representing. I had been born with a really bad case of club feet and was put in a cast the day I was born. I had never crawled, I had scooted because of the bars on my legs and my grandmother had a replica of the Venus De Milo in her living room and I would be sat near that. It always struck me the way people looked at the Venus. They didn’t see her as broken, they saw her as beautiful. And it really made a huge impact on me. I thought I was broken and that maybe someday someone would find me beautiful. So this idea of a damaged boy who was in an obsessive situation who would try to recreate from his own view the one thing that didn’t hit him or abandon him was this armless, beautiful woman. And therefore in a dream recreate this obsessive thing where we take from one another until we are the size and shape that we think the other person should be for us. That’s where that came from and with Philippe’s permission I was able to transform it.
It was never going to be a horror film and I don’t think it was. For fucks sake, I made a fairy tale and it was only during the trial and the lawyers who started calling it “amputations” and “horror.” I mean, the poor fucking movie never had a chance. I only thought five people would see it and I hoped that three would like it. When I wrote it, I never intended to direct it. I had never picked up a film camera so the idea they had that I would direct it was a big fucking deal, but everyone said “No, you’ve written it and you’ve got to see it through.” But I feel badly. It’s really hard to get a good review or a bad review, you can’t meet either of those expectations. But I would like to say publicly—I won a Raspberry Award (for Worst Director) for that movie and I never got my award. And I’m pissed off. I want my fucking Raspberry.
Boxing Helena was so drowned out by the court case that accompanied it. Twenty years later, how do you feel about Kim Basinger?
Well, I have no ill feelings towards Kim at all and I didn’t even back then. I feel sad that she took the advice of a brand new agent who came on after we made our deal. This was the man who refused to shake my hand and instead patted me on the head and said to my face, “She’s not gonna do your movie, little camper.” We were forbidden to speak. He felt she shouldn’t do this and we were a small film and she could get out of it. I think she is an incredibly smart, very talented actress, who like many people can be talked into making choices that aren’t the most humane or reasonable because of the business. I didn’t dislike her then and I don’t dislike her now. It was an unfortunate situation that got way too big and because of the kind of man (producer) Carl Mazzocone was he just wasn’t going to be told “shut up and take it.” So I salute him and I salute the lawyers who helped us. We won the case, like $9.2 million but we never saw a dime of it because they hid the money. Talk about a learning experience.
One thing that perplexes me about Boxing Helena even today is how you were accused of being a misogynist.
Yeah, I remember one of the headlines said that I didn’t deserve to ever be loved again. Let me tell you—that was a really good reason to put my ankles behind my ears and leave the business for a while. It was devastating to me. My secret fear was always that I didn’t deserve to be loved because I’m too broken, too ugly or I don’t matter. To me, if you look at the film, the woman is always in control, it’s a fucking dream. It’s a fairy tale. He’s an obvious wallflower Prince Charming and she’s a nightmare Snow White. But they’re both wounded. I just couldn’t figure out why people couldn’t see it as a study on characters. Why the fuck would a 19 year old write a misogynistic torture porn? It made no sense to me and there were people picketing the movie, saying shit like “What do we want? Arms and legs! When do we want them? Now!” I was like “You’ve got to be kidding!” If a man had made it and it hadn’t been David Lynch’s child, I guarantee you no one would have batted an eye.
And I feel very badly because Sherilyn (Fenn), and Julian (Sands), and Bill (Paxton), and Art (Garfunkel), and Kurtwood (Smith) were so generous in the making of that film. The bravery was astonishing. Every time Julian got too masculine, I had to tell him to bring it down, bless his heart. Sherilyn had to dial in just a certain amount of humanity and dial out the rest in so many scenes. I cannot thank them enough for being that generous with themselves and with me and I feel really good every time someone tells me now “It wasn’t a very popular opinion back then but I really liked that film and I own it now.” I just wanted the film to be seen for what it was and not hated for what it wasn’t. I don’t mind failing at something if it’s something I set out to do.
You also wrote a bestseller, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. When you were writing it, how hard was it to get inside Laura Palmer’s head?
It was not that difficult. It’s different from my head but also very similar. I think what appealed to people about Laura was that she could be any of us. Men wanted to be with her, girls wanted to be her and were also afraid of her or afraid they would never be her. When I was about 12, I was driving with my father and he asked me “What are you thinking about?” And I said “I want to find another girl’s diary and I want to take it home and read it and see if she’s afraid of the same things I’m afraid of, excited by the same things I’m excited by or if I’m weird or different.” I just wanted to know what those secret feelings were and if I was way off in my thinking. When (David) was working on Twin Peaks, he wrote me and said “Remember about finding that girl’s diary?” I said “Yeah.” “You wanna write Laura’s diary?” And I said, “Fuck yeah!” Adolescence is just a terrifying time and I figured if there was anything I could to heal that part of myself that was convinced I was the weirdest person on Earth and that nobody else thought the way I did, I had to do it. So I wanted to fill that in and Laura was a great opportunity because she was so Americana and yet all of these awful things were happening to her. So I could go to all those dark places. It was very helpful to me. I had a great time.
When you were writing the book, did you draw upon any of your own teenage sexual experiences?
There are two moments in the diary that are from my life. One, I’ll never tell anyone, but the one that isn’t sexual is the dream she has about eating her own foot off so that the rat doesn’t. That was a dream I had. I drew from my own sexual experiences, aspirations and fears because she couldn’t be me but she had to be all of us girls. One of the things Simon & Schuster told me was that I had received more fan mail from 13 year old girls and male prison inmates than they had ever seen.
I read once that some bookstores banned it because it was so raunchy.
Yeah, a few of them banned it and then I was watching a documentary a few years ago about these kids who were accusing these teachers and therapists of satanic cult abuse. One of the teachers who had created this as a bullshit story gave a kid a copy of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and convinced the kid that these things were happening to her. I was like “Oh my God!” Talk about using something in the wrong way. I had a friend who told me “I loved your book. I read it with one hand.” That’s a compliment and it doesn’t belittle the material. We all have sexual feelings—dark and light—and the sooner we recognize that and start to protect ourselves and each other over it, the better off we’ll be.
After the book and Boxing Helena came out, you pretty much disappeared until 2007. Where were you during those years? I know you had a child during those years and you were in a near-fatal car crash.
Well, I got in the car crash when I was 19 at the same time I was writing Boxing Helena. But the pregnancy was the last straw for my back. It had always hurt me ever since the car accident but that was the last straw. Plus, I was way overmedicating myself with marijuana. But I got sober and then had three consecutive spinal surgeries and was in bed for several months. I knew I was going to be a single parent and what I knew too was that I had invited (Sydney, her daughter) here and it was my job to make her feel welcome. We always want to do all the things we think our parents didn’t do for us and so I was highly attentive. When she was old enough and I was ready and I was OK if someone told me I didn’t deserve to be loved again because I made a film, I went back to (filmmaking). I knew when I was bedridden that even if I never walked again, I had to tell stories. That was what I intended to do and that was what I did.
How did you support yourself during those years between Boxing Helena and Surveillance?
There were a lot of little odd jobs. When I needed it, I had family help. But I lived very under the radar. A lot of Top Ramen. Cleaning houses. I could waitress. I had odd writing jobs here and there. I was careful to live as quietly as I could. It was not without its powerful repercussions, that whole Boxing Helena trial and for some reason they kept calling me a misogynist after the Laura Palmer diary, too. So instead of seeing it as the diary of a girl who was being abused by her father, they accused me of just making her into a sex toy. I just didn’t get it. I thought Laura was incredibly human, lovable, and heroic. You never know what people are going to think. I can never say I don’t care—because I still fucking care—but I’m finally at the point where I no longer Google my own name or watch anything that has to do with me. The only thing I watched that concerned me was the documentary on me Despite The Gods (a film documenting Lynch’s struggle making the film Hisss.). As long as I’m being true to myself and learning as I go along, I think I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I don’t do it to fucking hurt anybody or piss anybody off. I do want to create a dialogue. I love movies that make me want to go talk to people afterwards. I fucking love that. I also love movies that are just pure entertainment. I’m not out there trying to piss people off, which I think is the consensus about me.
On a side note, sometimes your name is listed as Jennifer Chambers Lynch. Where does the Chambers come from?
Chambers was my great-grandmother’s maiden name and I’ve always loved it. I don’t like it how long it sounds. If I had my way, I would just be Jen Lynch. Jennifer Chambers Lynch came in because of the trial. They were desperate to have me seen legitimate somehow, so that’s where it came from. But all my recent films have the name Jennifer Lynch.
After so many years of being away from filmmaking, how did you get the opportunity to make Surveillance?
Such a long story. The quick version is that I had been producing short films and doing a lot of writing and had a great writer’s group with a bunch of friends and I was looking to get back to doing stuff. One of the guys in my group asked me to read this script he’d written, so I asked him, “Do you want me to read this as a friend or as a writer?” He said “Both.” It was a script about witches and it had some interesting ideas in it, but I had some notes, which pissed him off a little bit. I got the response, “So what would you fucking do with it?” So I said, “Well, I’d do this” and so I wrote Surveillance. People really liked the script but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. Then one night my father called me and said “You’re the sickest bitch I know! You can’t end it this way.” And I said “Sure I can.” But it was at his beseeching that I wrote an alternate ending, which I shot but knew I would never keep in the film. He called a few months later and asked me “So what the hell is going on with your movie?” I said, “Zilch. I don’t know if it’s because it’s been 15 years or the subject matter or what, but people are scared.” And he said, “Alright, well, you’ll probably say ‘No’ to this, but what do you think would happen if I put my name on as executive producer?” And I said, “No fucking way. You don’t think I get enough shit for being your daughter in the first place?” But he said, “I really like this movie and I want to see it get made. We’ll do an experiment. We’ll put my name on the cover as an executive producer and we’ll just see what happens.” Within 24 hours, I had offers. It was the most disgusting but amazing thing ever. It’s ridiculous how suddenly legitimizing a name like that can be. So I went and made the film, went back and showed it to him, asked if I could use a song, he said “Yes,” and thus was born Surveillance.
Let’s talk about Hisss a bit. I haven’t seen the documentary on its making (Despite the Gods) but it sounds like that film was a nightmare.
It was a joy to make but when I got back and was working on the cut, the producers said, “Why don’t you take the rest of the week off?” Then they took the film back to India and I never saw them again. They cut the film, scored the film and left my name on it. And it’s not my movie. After working nine months to bring it to life, I was devastated. I proceeded to curl into a ball, put on 70 pounds. That was the greatest loss I ever experienced in my life. Sherilyn Fenn saw the documentary and said, “Oh my God, Jen, you didn’t go to India to make Hisss, you went there to make Despite the Gods." That made me feel a little better. I loved India. I would go back there in a heartbeat and shoot there. It was a mesmerizing, transformative, insane experience and the things that aren’t in the documentary, oh my God, you would not believe what transpired. (Director) Penny (Vozniak) showed me the documentary at HotDocs (Film Festival) in Toronto. It’s an important piece because she got to do what every filmmaker should be able to do, which is make the film she wanted to make. And I wish I had been able to do that with Hisss. I would have rather failed at making it than have them take it away from me. I felt like I carried it for nine months and on the due date they cut it out of me and now it’s a Kardashian. I have nothing to do with it. It’s not my fucking baby, yet people keep saying, “Hey, I saw your kid.” It’s freakishly devastating but what are you going to do? I can’t afford to sue to get my name taken off it and recall all those DVDs. So all I can do is say, “I’m really sorry they became so crazy and panicked and decided to do what they did.” It can’t have felt good to be that panicked or to have tricked me into going home for those three days when they packed everything up. But you know what? If you’re going to have a problem, I’d rather have that as a problem. Oh my God! I had to go to India for nine months and they took the film away from me! So ultimately I’m really lucky. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t almost fucking kill me but I am a very lucky and grateful girl.
Surveillance seems to have opened a lot of doors for you, since it won some awards and got pretty good reviews. You made Hisss, you made Chained, and now you’re in pre-production for a film with Tim Roth, right?
Yeah, we’re casting now. I hope to be shooting that in the next few months. It’s just a matter of actor availability to decide if we’re going to shoot in the fall or the spring. I’d love to do fall or winter because of the seasonal look but nobody’s working in the fucking winter in Hollywood, so it’s like pulling teeth to get actors working then. But yes, I’ve been very blessed over the past few years. I’ve directed three episodes of Psych, this is my first Warehouse 13 episode and I hope to be doing a lot more television. I love to work fast and TV provides me that. I love the challenges of a new situation and I love the brevity of TV. It requires a lot of hard work very fast. I need the paycheck desperately. I’ve never made the kind of money that allows me to sit back and quietly choose a project. I’m always peddling. So TV is a real gift as far as providing me with enough money to say “OK, I’ve got three months rent paid. What can I prep?” That’s a huge gift.
So even though you’re David Lynch’s daughter, you’re still a starving artist?
Oh God, yes. I still have this incredible fantasy that one day I won’t wake up at 3 a.m. terrified that I won’t be able to take care of my family. People always say, “Winning the lottery ruins your life.” Well, I say “Challenge fucking accepted!” Bring it! If you’re right, I’ll let you know. I’m 44 and I would like different problems than worrying about money. I’m tired of it. It’s never been my lot in life to not be concerned about how to pay for this or that. I think people think it’s different for me and they’re always surprised to see how I live. I mean, if I’m in trouble or have to go to the hospital, of course my family would be there for me so that I’m not living in a box on a street, but that’s not how my life goes. Put it this way—about four years ago before the whole Hisss catastrophe happened, I thought “Maybe I’ll never have a partner. Maybe my lot in life is just to be alone with a job I love and a family I love that love me.” Then I got slammed in the face with the most wonderful man in the world and I’m working regularly, my daughter is flourishing, and I just couldn’t be a biggest propionate of “Just keep going.” The older you get, the better you feel about life. Keep doing what you love and shit will work out. That’s the biggest kept secret—aging is the best fucking gift. I’m having the best time. The best of everything. If you’re in your right place, shit works out. Trust me.
- Vice Blog