The Chained writer/director discusses paternal influences and why she keeps returning to the theme of child abuse.
As a baby, Jennifer Lynch's crying was recorded for David Lynch's disturbing short The Alphabet, and as a child, she appeared in her father's disturbing vision of paternity gone awry, Eraserhead, in scenes that would eventually be cut from the film.
In 1990, she penned 'The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer', the best-selling spin-off novel to David Lynch's cult TV series Twin Peaks, becoming the voice of abused adolescence at a time when she had only recently emerged from her own teens – and then in 1993, aged just 25, she was to become the youngest female writer/director ever to make a feature in Hollywood with Boxing Helena, only to be driven from filmmaking for decades by the extreme negative reception that this debut would incur.
Lynch made an arresting comeback with her award-winning Surveillance, but would then become mired in Nagin, a feminist monster movie shot in India but wrested from her hands before it was completed, and eventually released – in a version that Lynch publicly disowns – as Hisss.
The film's troubled production story is told in Penny Vozniak's (Lynch-approved) documentary Despite The Gods – and now Lynch herself is back with Chained, a traumatising psychodrama in which serial-killing taxi driver Bob (Vincent D'Onofrio) abducts and raises the very young Tim (renamed 'Rabbit' by Bob) in his own murderous shadow.
LWLies: Your debut Boxing Helena received a critical drubbing, and you disappeared from the big screen for some time thereafter. Two decades later, what are your thoughts on your debut and its reception?
Lynch: I'm very grateful now that people are coming up and saying, 'I really enjoy the film now', or, 'I only saw it recently but totally see that you were making a fairytale about obsessive love, and it wasn't what people were saying that it was.' I felt then, and I still feel now, that because I was a famous director's daughter and because there was a trial from Basinger [Kim Basinger had to be sued after walking away from the lead part], that it was really misrepresented as this horrific, misogynistic, violent piece.
So it was as if I had this kid that was just going to start school, and the principal comes in the day before my kid starts and says, 'There's a very bad kid coming.' So forever, no matter how great this kid is, it will only be seen as bad. The film didn't have a fair shot when it was seen. You know, it's no masterpiece, but it was not supposed to be. I thought five people would see it and I hoped three would like it. It was a dark fairy tale about obsessive love, and it's a lot more than a man removing a woman's arms and legs and putting her in a box.
You had a difficult time making Nagin/Hisss – and you eventually disowned the film that emerged from post-production. Could you briefly reveal what want wrong, and what you have learnt from the experience?
Don't see Hisss. I didn't make it. If you want to see the trailer I cut, that's the only part of the film I had anything to do with. See [Penny Vozniak's] Despite The Gods, the documentary about the making of Hisss – don't see the film, unless you want to see what somebody else made. I didn't cut that film, I didn't score that film, I didn't colour code that film – none of that is me. I think ultimately the producer [Govind Menon] should have directed it, and didn't realise until the end, or come to terms with the fact that hiring me meant that I was going to make the film that I wanted to make. I think he'd been hoping all along that I was going to make the film that he would have made. I wish he'd talked to me about it, I wish he hadn't told me to take the rest of the week off and then disappeared with it. I think that sucks, and I wish he'd taken my name off of it, because it's not how I shot it, but I cared very much about Nagin, and wish it hadn't gone down like that, because it was incredibly upsetting and sad for me, and I'm only just now coming out of the real sadness about it.
The documentary was very important, I saw that for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it was very helpful to me. Sherilyn Fenn actually said to me recently, after having seen it, 'Jen, I think the reason you went to India was to make this documentary, not to make Hisss.' That's a great thing to hear, because all I could think about was how I had failed at making a movie people think I made when I hadn't made that. So, that's worse. I would much rather have failed, but loved the movie I made.
Does the movie you did make exist anywhere?
No it does not. Not at all. There was one rough director's assembly, and that DVD was destroyed and is no longer in existence, so I don't even have that to work with, and based on the fact that Govind won't communicate with me, I don't think there's any hope that I'll ever get to cut or make my film.
When you introduced Chained to the audience at Film4 FrightFest 2012, you said, "It's very close to my heart." Indeed, the theme of child exposure to adult horror runs through your résumé – arguably right from your own childhood appearances in your father's short The Alphabet and feature debut Eraserhead, and certainly in your book 'The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer', and your films Surveillance and now Chained. What keeps drawing you back to this theme of child abuse?
Um, you know – we were all kids once, and we were all treated in ways we did appreciate and in ways we didn't – and we are who we are now because of those moments. So in my mind, the one way universally to reach an audience is to remind them of what it was like to be a kid – and there is innate drama in people in peril. So when I'm presented with, 'Hey, will you make a movie about a cab-driving serial killer who picks up a fare, kills the mother and keeps the boy?', what I want to look at is: what is that like for the child?; why would this man do these things?; what damage has been done? It's not that I'm obsessed with kids being hurt, or witnessing something, but I do think it's a very pure way to remind us all that children are seeing everything very clearly and that they are genuinely honest and are not stupid – but they are sponges, and stuff sticks.
The credits to Chained describe your own screenplay as 'based on the screenplay by Damian O'Donnell'. Was Chained the original title or your own?
Chained is the original title. When I shot the film, after doing a rewrite, I changed the title to Rabbit. That's what I wanted to call the film, while I was shooting it that was its working title. It is the distributors who said, "We don't know how to sell a film called Rabbit." As much as I told them, "Well, let's talk about it, because I think it's really important that it not be called Chained which sounds too much like Saw or Hostel to me and is not representative of the film," they wouldn't have it. So I lost that battle, and I think it's a totally inappropriate title for the movie.
How did it come to be your project, and what changes did you make to the original screenplay?
The producers Lee Nelson and David Buelow sent it to me – they had optioned the script by Damian O'Donnell. It was a great idea, it was a serial killer who I had never seen before, who drove a taxi and kept this boy after killing his mother, and there was a twist in the end, but it was originally a very different type of killer. He was called 'the dicer', and it wasn't really about the relationship with the boy as much as teaching the boy to kill, and the way he killed the women I thought was really awful. Not that there's any good way to kill women, but it just didn't appeal to me, and I couldn't figure out why they'd come to me. After meeting with them, they just openly admitted, 'Well look, we just thought you did dark stuff, so we've come to you, we've been meeting with a lot of people.'
I said, "Obviously you've brought this idea. How willing would you be to allow me to do a rewrite on it, where there aren't detectives pursuing a killer, and he isn't cutting off parts of their body and keeping them alive? It's a psychological drama version of this story where, without soapboxing, we are examining how the human monster is made and what damage was done to Bob to make him the way he is, and how he tried to be good, and how does this affect a boy who had a good childhood until this happens and he sees all this stuff. So it's a nod to the cycle of abuse in our society, and for me a more interesting version of that kind of tale, because a human monster is a lot more frightening to me if I realise he was born an innocent child just like myself.
Bob embodies a very familiar yet perverted sort of paternalism, in much the same way that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, say, offers a perverse representation of the family unit. Given the deadly seriousness of Chained overall, were its moments of dark humour intended, and how did you approach them?
It's very intentional – call that the absurdity of it. And I'm so grateful to sit in an audience and hear people chuckle where I want them to, because it is just ludicrous, some of the things that are said and done, but it's another way of identifying how fucked up these people are. It's putting the fun back in dysfunction. There's something hysterically funny about Bob asking Rabbit if he's trying to make him fucking insane; or Bob sitting down and saying, 'You're scared – that's okay, everybody's scared the first time'. It is the thing that parents say, but it's about something totally messed up. I think that if there hadn't been moments of that kind of humorous humanity, it would have been too dark, and wouldn't have given us a moment to breathe, and also would have stopped Bob being as human as he is.
Obviously Chained involves extreme forms of dysfunctional abuse, but do you also regard it as an allegory of more 'normal' family dynamics?
In a way, certainly, but it wasn't at the forefront of my mind. Any time I'm dealing with parents and kids, or those relationships, or a kitchen table, I'm either nodding at how it's supposed to be or nodding at how it isn't. I was very careful to always have the dining room table crooked, and to have only one chair, and little things like that. I don't know if anybody notices that all the cupboards except one are nailed shut, that Rabbit uses these kids' scholastic scissors so that he doesn't have anything sharp, and that Bob shaves Rabbit so that Rabbit doesn't have a razor of his own. It is a nod to that 1950s supposed happy family – to which Bob's house is the opposite.
The conflict of nature and nurture in Chained becomes even more twisted in the film's unexpected and rather abrupt final act. That sequence has generated a lot of discussion – what are your thoughts on it?
I am sympathetic and receptive to hear that some people really like the final act, and some people find it way too jarring and feel as though it was tacked on. I would like to do a director's cut ultimately where that whole final scene and interaction between Tim Fittler [aka 'Rabbit', played by Eamon Farren] and his father is there, because Jake Weber [as Brad Fittler] did a brilliant job, and it's a lot more of a reveal than is shown now, but I had a running time requirement and there was so much else to show in the movie. But I do think I did the best I could within the parameters to bring the original idea to life. I don't want to make excuses for it, I mean I hope some day to show the whole thing, but I do think it's important to see the ending, I don't think it can just be over when Bob dies, and I think it's helpful to understand that, again, we're talking about the abuse that both boys suffered, and the damage to Rabbit's father was just as intense as the damage to Rabbit's uncle.
The whole time that Bob was asking Rabbit about his father, he was actually asking about the younger brother that he protected. That was important to me, I wanted to honour that, so I've done the rewrite based on knowing that the ending in place was the ending that the producers wanted, and I admit I fell in love with it – I think it's a nice way of saying that it's not just Bob in this, and just because he was protective doesn't mean that he didn't also suffer the damage. I think the younger son – the father of Rabbit – is the more manipulative of the two. Bob is very simple in his monstrosities, and Brad is deeply manipulative.
And your next film?
It's called A Fall From Grace. It involves a serial killer, a detective, and trying to stop young people from being hurt. It's primarily about how a detective starts to eat himself alive because he cannot solve a case. He is played by Tim Roth.
Chained has a limited theatrical release from 1 February and is out on DVD and Blu-ray 4 February.