Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance marks a long awaited return to the big screen for this definitive, and often surprising, filmmaker. Borrowing a page from the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Lynch has crafted a film that’s both a taut thriller and a stunningly detailed story told from the perspectives of three witnesses. In pure Lynch fashion, however, nothing is as it seems – even at the final moment.
Surveillance is the first feature film Lynch has directed in over a decade, coming after her lauded and oft criticized feature film directorial debut, Boxing Helena. It’s a dark movie with a perverse sense of humor and all the characters are just a few bad decisions away from hurting themselves and others, but eventually it all comes down to one question: will telling the truth save your life?
Like an onion, Lynch peels the layers and lets the story find its voice through a talented, unorthodox cast that includes Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Pell James, Ryan Simpkins, Cheri Oteri, French Stewart, Kent Harper, and Michael Ironside. The low-budget feature was lensed by DP Peter Wunstorf on location on the plains of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Jennifer Lynch is a compelling filmmaker of strong convictions who was only 19 when she wrote the screenplay for Boxing Helena. She became a published novelist at age 22 when she wrote The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a best-selling Twin Peaks tie-in book which appeared on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 15 weeks. In 1993, at the age of 24, she added the distinction of being the youngest woman in American film history to direct a feature film from her screenplay, Boxing Helena, which was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at Sundance the same year.
After the jump is what she had to tell us about her new film, Surveillance:
Q: How long were you developing this film?
JENNIFER LYNCH: From beginning to end, about 3-1/2 years. It was ruminating in the brain for a while in different pieces and fragments and then really came into being when Kent Harper and I were having an argument. He’d given me a screenplay of his to read and I said, “Do you want me to read this as a friend or as another writer?” and he said, “Well, what’s the difference?” I said, “It’ll probably change the way we talk about it afterwards.” You don’t want to have an awful conversation with a friend and we ended up having a fairly awful conversation. It was called Three Witches, Tres Brujas, and it was a really great story, but I didn’t want to do something about witches and I wasn’t quite sure what had happened and this conversation was born about things that happen in the middle of nowhere and what terrifies you. We just started throwing things out on the table and he did have two very corrupt cops in the story. I said, “That interests me, and the clarity with which children see interests me, and I haven’t seen a serial killer film the way I want to see a serial killer film and I want to confuse people about what good and bad look like. I want to break that ‘book by its cover’ mode and play with that.” Right then and there we started having that argument and I started writing and it was born.
How did you want to see a serial killer film in ways we hadn’t seen a serial killer film before?
JENNIFER LYNCH: I hadn’t really seen one that had what I considered to be a real examination of how messed up violence and sex and stuff get because the people who hurt have been hurt themselves. Although I don’t pinpoint those moments for our characters, I felt like I got an opportunity in the end to examine just how awful and confused that moment became for both of them and that these two killers were never thought of, in my opinion, as anything other than wounds or failures or victims or criminals until they saw each other and then they met each other and decided this was how they were going to live their lives until they couldn’t anymore and what a nightmarish thing that is and yet how in love they are and just that dark mess.
What kind of back story did you envision for these characters? How long do you think they’ve been at it? How do you think they met?
JENNIFER LYNCH: I think they’ve been at it for about 8 months in my head. They’ve been in love for a while but it’s a new love. I wanted each of them to write a love note to each other in case something went terribly wrong. If not literally keep it in their back pockets, then imagine that note in their back pockets. I don’t know where they met, maybe at a diner. [Laughs]
Given the ending of this movie, are these characters you’d like to return to? Do you see the potential for another story with the same characters?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Julia (Ormond) was like, “We’ve got to do this again! C’mon, sequel! Have Ryan pull a gun out at the end when we’re along the highway.” I don’t want to give anything away but I don’t think there’s any more to this story. There is hopefully in the minds of the audience where they wonder what decisions will this child make now having been wounded herself. What does she become? What happens to these two people? How dangerous is it that we are under the impression we can save people who have been hurt and are hurting. What are the ramifications of a situation like this? I do think that more often than not people get away with doing really bad things to other people and that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other or deserve to be loved. It just means they’ve done some really awful things and what do we do about that? That’s the human condition.
What were your influences or inspirations as far as what you wanted to do differently with this film?
JENNIFER LYNCH: I’d say everything I’ve ever seen and liked or disliked inspired me in this, especially in the interim when I was raising my daughter and then had all of these spinal surgeries. It was sort or stories and imagining things that took the pain away because I was sober and wouldn’t medicate so it was how I would escape from the physical pain. So, I’d say that the things I didn’t like I never wanted to do and the things I did like I wanted to elaborate on or feel the same way about. I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, a big Hitchcock fan. To me, there were really little moments of them. I was the kid in the backseat of that station wagon not being listened to when she saw something with her mother and stepfather out in the middle of nowhere. I know what that’s like to say, “Please listen to me” and that stirred up an idea. I know that if you put me out on a road with a partner and a gun and nothing to do, I’d probably abuse that power ultimately. And then, who doesn’t want to play dress up and be an FBI agent?
When did you come up with the idea of the two cops?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Actually two cops who were out in the middle of nowhere abusing their power was in Tres Brujas, the script that Kent had, and I wanted to really punch that up. How bad does that go? That all goes along with what you might find or encounter out on that desolate highway on that cross country trip.
Do you think they would have killed someone if they had continued doing what they were doing?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Absolutely. They’re on their way to no good. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to become killers, but I think something was accidentally going to go wrong for sure, and more than likely, I think one of them would have accidentally killed the other.
What made you approach Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond for these roles? Was it the past work that they’ve done or a personal relationship?
JENNIFER LYNCH: What’s funny is I’ve known Bill for a really long time. I actually wanted him to be in Boxing Helena and scheduling didn’t permit that because we just started and stopped so many times. When my father was doing Lost Highway, he was looking for somebody and I said, “You know who you should look at is Bill Pullman. He’s amazing.” They hit it off like Ike and Mike, and Bill I sort of wrote this for and he turned me down flat in the beginning. Then, as it progressed, I lost another actor and called him again and said, “I know you said no, but I just wanted to ask you one more time.” He said, “Why did I say no?” I said, “I don’t know. You never told me. Can I send it to you?” He said, “Do it right now.” And two hours later he called me and said, “I’m in.” And Julia actually found me. She read the script and called and I said, “The Julia Ormond? You’re so classy and beautiful and awesome.” And then I thought, that’s a genius idea. That’s the perfect FBI agent.
Why did Bill turn you down originally?
JENNIFER LYNCH: It was a different incarnation of the script and there was I’d say an excessive amount of violence differently. It was in a much more rough form. It’s always really dangerous to hand anything to someone you want to be in business with when it’s still malleable a little bit. Bill’s no fool and he really knows what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do and he’s not going to take too many risks unless he feels safe taking them. I think it wasn’t good enough for him yet. It helped that some time went by and I got to have some objectivity. When things don’t go right, there’s an opportunity to make them better.
How difficult was it striking the right balance between the dark tone and the perverse humor of the movie?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Whether it’s me or all of us, it’s very similar to me that feeling I get in my stomach when I’m afraid there’s a prowler outside or when I’m waiting for a punch line to a joke. Laughter is really close to crying sometimes. There’s a whole weird awkward shift that happens in me and I think being scared in broad daylight and then being scared after laughing is a really interesting phenomenon for me personally. It was very intentional that things be butted up against each other, and in the edit, I really realized when that worked for me at least and when it didn’t. And the times that it works for me and doesn’t work for other people, some of them I just kept because I really believed they needed to be there. I’d rather the awkward “Huh? That’s not funny,” than not getting that moment.
Your father is the executive producer on the movie?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Yes, executive producer. He was real freaked out and called me one day about a year after reading the script and said, “Why aren’t you making your movie?” and I said, “I don’t know. Nobody is biting. The fish are not biting.” He said, “Okay, well don’t get mad.” I said, “What?” He said, “What if I put my name on it as executive producer?” I said, “Oh God, don’t do that! No. Then we’ll never be separated and everyone’s gonna…” He said, “Just try it as an experiment.” And sure enough, the pond was alive with fish. And I thought, what about everybody else who doesn’t have either a pink fuzzy cover or a hot babe delivering the script or David Lynch’s name on it as executive producer. How do you get your stuff noticed? But, I took it as the gift it was and I went off and made the film. When I was finished, I came back and said, “I know you’ve done this before where you’ll help something get made but then take your name off of it if you don’t like it in the end. So, I’m going to show it to you and, if you hate it, we’ll fly the name.” And he just said, “I’ve got one thing to say. I want my name bigger.” I said, “Oh good, because I want to ask you for a song” and so that’s his song on the end credits. That’s him singing.
Did he have any creative input in terms of the storyline?
JENNIFER LYNCH: No. The one thing he said to me when he called me about a year previous to that was, “You can’t end your film like this. It’s too sick. It’s too dark.” He challenged me to change the ending and I said, “I’ll write a different ending and I’ll shoot both if given the opportunity,” which I did. I shot both, but the original ending is still on there. The other ending will be available on the DVD. It’s an alternate ending. [Laughs]
Is it a happier ending?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Yeah. I’ve seen it and it was just like [makes funny splat sound] and when he saw it, he said, “Okay, you’re right. I see why you ended it this way. It still breaks my heart but I see why you ended it this way.” He’s a big fan of light winning over darkness and I didn’t think it was necessarily about light and dark as much as it was just about this bad thing that happened in the middle of nowhere.
What do people who’ve seen the movie think about the twist?
JENNIFER LYNCH: You know, it goes either way. Some people are happy about it and some people really aren’t. I feel fortunate in some ways to evoke any kind of response, but I also just followed the characters where I thought they needed to go and what I thought they really would do if they were real. I’m trying not to worry too much for the people who busted their butts so hard to be in it. It’s either going to go well or… Endings are tricky, I guess. You don’t want to disappoint people but there it is.
How about the setting? How long did it take you to find that place and what was it about Regina? I’m not sure exactly where it is.
JENNIFER LYNCH: It’s Regina, Saskatchewan. They call it the town that rhymes with fun. [Laughs] It’s just outside Big Beaver too so it’s just crude joke after crude joke. There we were in Regina where they give amazing tax breaks because it’s Canada, incredible crews, incredible production facilities, and their prairies look like middle America and really afforded me the opportunity to aim the camera in any direction and just see that vast nothingness and feel how everything is seen and yet there’s nowhere to go. It’s like there’s all this space but you can’t go anywhere. There’s nowhere to hide and that’s really what I wanted, the ‘in your face bright sunshine’ and ‘boy, if you get in trouble here, you’re screwed.’
Is it as desolate as it looks on screen?
JENNIFER LYNCH: That location of road is for sure.
What’s the closest big city?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Regina is the closest big city. What’s the population of Regina? Probably under 300,000. It’s not really a big city but it’s big for there. It’s just north of Montana. The middle of wherever it could be.
Was there a specific sense of where it needed to be in the script? Or was it hunting around and Saskatchewan having the right mixture of things that you needed?
JENNIFER LYNCH: First, I was pretty sure we were going to do it in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That was really what I’d pictured when writing it, but Santa Fe, New Mexico will not make a film if they don’t like the script and they didn’t like the script so we didn’t make it there. [Laughs]
JENNIFER LYNCH: I think so, especially for the tax breaks they offer. I mean, it’s not like you can’t go make any film you want to make, but if they’re going to be a part of helping you with their film commission, they want to approve the script and I don’t blame them. That’s certainly an opinion. And, when you get into something like this, you have to be ready for people to either like it or not like it. But Regina I’d heard about and I thought, you know, I’ve learned a lot by going to places that I don’t think would be right and I’ll be doggone if it wasn’t perfect. Again, the finest production facilities I’ve seen maybe ever, incredible, and crackerjack crews. Just whew! They really know what they’re doing.
Was it really creepy shooting a movie like this in such a desolate location?
JENNIFER LYNCH: We were laughing so hard the whole time and having such a good time, it wasn’t. There were creepy moments certainly but never as creepy as I hope the film feels at certain times. We were all laughing pretty hard in 80 mph winds and trying to look cool and holding silks. You’d go to sip your coffee and it’d just fly all over you and there are more shots of everybody with coffee all over themselves. Maybe it’s because it was dark subject matter that we all sort of banded together and had such a good time and sort of kept each other up.
I didn’t want Ryan to be exposed to any of the hideousness. I was very careful to separate the shots of her and the things that happened so it appears she sees things but she never does. I don’t see any reason why a child should be tortured to evoke a response. To me, it’s always seemed that in studying my own daughter, whether it be a bad smell or a bad color or even a poor outfit choice on my behalf, that her face doesn’t look as if she’s terrified. So there were many other things that I could say to Ryan to make her look frightened or upset so that she didn’t have to go home at night despondent. There’s no reason to…I don’t think that suffering is part of the creative process. I think that life provides that enough and we can just have a good time.
Ryan mentioned she stayed away from Bill Pullman for a large part of the shoot and then later they became good friends.
JENNIFER LYNCH: Yeah. That was both scheduling and I think also he really didn’t want to become too familiar with her because he wanted her to have a distance. Bill, being a father himself, is very skilled as an adult around children and knew that she’d be more able to innately respond to him as a great big force if they weren’t that familiar. And then, by the end of it, he was giving her piggyback rides everywhere and she was throwing super balls at him. [Laughs]
After making this film and given all the time that’s passed, if you could tell Jennifer Lynch walking onto the set of Boxing Helena any words of wisdom or any young female director any words of wisdom or advice or something you have learned in that interim, what would it be?
JENNIFER LYNCH: That’s such a good question. Trust yourself so that the mistakes you make are the ones you’ve made and not something you’ve made because you were afraid to do what you wanted to do. Own your mistakes, then you can own your successes. Try to be as good a listener as you are a speaker. Don’t just put the emphasis on saying things. Listen. You can learn a lot even by saying no to things. You help define what you do want and what you can do. I would mainly say trust yourself and don’t curl up in the fetal position and cry as much as you did. [Laughs]
What are some of your upcoming projects?
JENNIFER LYNCH: I just finished shooting Hisss in India. I’m in post production on that right now. There’s a little promo of that on YouTube. It’s about India’s oldest legend which is the Cobra goddess, so that’s a creature feature thriller love story [laughs] and Irrfan Kahn and Mallika Sherawat are in that and it was a blast.
When will that be coming out?
JENNIFER LYNCH: Hopefully it will be premiering at either Sundance or Berlinali. That’s what they’re saying. Lots of effects so I have a big post schedule on that.
Which was more challenging for you, to do a movie like Surveillance where there’s obviously no effects or something like Hisss with lots of creature feature effects?
JENNIFER LYNCH: They both present many different challenges. There were some effects [in Surveillance] because I didn’t really blow people’s heads off. There’s a car crash. Wouldn’t it be awful? “It’s a snuff film.” Or “How were the effects?” “What effects?” “One take only.” The car crash was great because we only had one van to crash. We had one shell and we had one shell for the Duster and one station wagon. So it was like, “Look, you can crash it this way and then you can’t ever look at it again. Then, you gotta crash it this way and you can’t look at that again either.” There’s only so many places to hide things out on the road in the middle of nowhere so that was challenging. I’d never made either film before so each of them presented challenges. I hope I feel that way about everything I always do. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know how. I guess I’m going to learn. That’s what kept it interesting. Again, if I’ve failed at it, it’s my failure. I really feel like that that’s one thing I can say. At least I go to bed at night and say I did the best I could.
Does your father have anything coming up?
JENNIFER LYNCH: He’s working on a film about transcendental meditation and Maharishi so he’s at home working that out and he just had a big show for Danger Mouse and Sparkle Horse and did a bunch of photos for their album. He’s made another album too. He’s on Twitter all the time. He’s like, “I got 90,000 friends on Twitter.” [Laughs] I said, “You bragger! I’m not even on Twitter. I’m on Facebook.”