Jennifer Lynch doesn't make "easy" films. The 45-year-old provocateur—the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive)—has a thing for the sordid. She made that perfectly clear back in 1993, when her directorial debut, Boxing Helena (about an obsessive surgeon who amputates the arms and legs of a car crash victim and holds her captive), riled up critics and signaled the arrival of a bold, no-fucks-given new voice.
Now four films into her career, Lynch released what's inarguably her best film to date last year in Chained, an incredibly dark, disturbing, but impressively character-driven look at a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who uses his cab driver profession to lure young girls into his clutches, brings them to his secluded home, and makes his young protege (Eamon Farren), whom he's kept shackled in his house for nearly a decade, clean up his "messes."
Unsurprisingly, though also unfairly, Lynch's films have been attacked for being "misogynistic," and "sadistic." As she sees it, though, those labels wouldn't be in the conversation if a man had directed Boxing Helena and Chained. And, as she explains here, that's a double standard that needs to go away.
Is this lack of female directors in horror something you've thought about over the years?
I was just at the Stranger With My Face festival, in Tasmania, and that was a kick-and-a-half. The funny thing was, I didn't know it was all women until we got there and someone said it to me. In my consciousness, it's not like there's a shortage—I'd just assumed that women were more interested in making films about other things. But when people say that they're surprised to see me as a female making horror films, my first response is, "God, weren't you in high school? Women can be terrible." It's not so shocking that women do this or that they're proficient at it. Put it this way, fear and terror are not solely in the consciousness of men.
For me, it was a surprise that all of my films were seen as horror; I thought of them as psychological thrillers with horror elements. It's never been something that I thought about until recently. In general, people think of filmmaking as a boys club, and I've never seen it that way. I'm always surprised when people call out my gender as a surprise or an extra added benefit to what I do. I don't walk up to Steven Spielberg and say, "Boy, you're a great male director." So to be called a "female director" seems unnecessary.
The reason I loved the Tasmania fest was that it wasn't a bunch of women saying, "Oh, look at this thing I, a female, made!" It was more like, "Wow, there are a lot of us doing this—let's watch each other's films." It wasn't self-pitying in any way. The mistake that people often make when they're doing a female thing is that it gets too feminist, and that's totally unnecessary. It makes it really tough for anyone else to go see it. It becomes more combative. I hate the whole boys-against-girls thing. It should be celebration of the different eyes that we all have, not about our differing genitals.
Have you ever encountered any close-mindedness or added pressure because you're a woman?
If I've encountered anything, it's that I get so much crap for being David Lynch's daughter. That and the female thing have both died down since I've been making films more regularly. When Boxing Helena came out, though, they were very quick to call me a misogynist and all sorts of terrible things. What's crazy about that is, had a man made Boxing Helena, those things never would have been said. That movie didn't have any blood or gore—it was a fairy tale I made, but people chose instead to see it as this touchy-feely horror film. It somehow made people think that I hated women, which is absurd.
Currently, the only place I encounter any kind of attention drawn to me being female is in screenings. I get a lot of people saying, "How could you do that? How did you, as a woman and mother, find yourself able to tell this brutal story?" To me, hearing that kind of question squeezes the human being out of my body. I've lived for 45 years—that's how I did it. I'm surprised most people aren't making films about these kinds of things. It is fantasy, and I'm telling a story, so I go full-bore into telling a story, even if it's as tough and disturbingly real as something like Chained. I'm not building, or, more aptly for this discussion, giving birth to, a human who I'm going to set loose into the world—I'm making a movie. But people think it must be hard for me as a woman and mother to do something as dark as that.
My life is a very happy one—I laugh everyday, and I'm all kinds of fucking grateful for the friends and family I have. As a result, then, my curiosities are in the darker side of things. I've had my share of darkness, but I'm much more curious about darker places that I'm not in all the time. And that's human, not male or female. Nobody asked Eli Roth how he could make Hostel—they just applauded him for it, and Hostel is far more grotesque and exploitative than Chained. I don't cut people into little pieces and watch them die slowly, so why are people asking me questions that they don't ask someone like Eli?
I wonder where there isn't a moment when, after the person asks me that question, where they say, "Wait a minute, I'm sorry, I don't know why I asked that question." They're socially conditioned to think that way. Maybe it's more frivolous when a man does it, but when a woman does it, it can be more real. I'm not sure what that is, but there's something very strange to me about the questions I get that I know men do not get.
This is why I can't think about anything other than telling the story when I'm making a film. I try to tell stories the ways that I would like to be told them, so I try to tell them intelligently, I want to be scared differently, and, to me, the biggest gift any kind of frightening film can give me is the sense that I should be paying attention to different things in the world once I walk out of the theater. Maybe that guy in the grocery store line behind me isn't as normal as I think he is based on his appearance—who knows what his damage is. That's, to me, the gift of what cinema does.
You've been known for not taking any crap from anyone, but often times women are labeled as "bitches" when they're aggressive like that.
That's true, but it's interesting, I usually encounter people being strangely appreciative of how I ask for things. I consider what I'm doing a collaborative medium. Ultimately, I'm the kill switch, I decide what is going to happen and what won't happen, but I am working with a bunch of artists, not puppets. And when I ask for something, I ask for it for the project, not to take away from anybody else. I come at this from a collaborative point-of-view, so I've never encountered that "bitchy" thing, though I do hear women say it a lot.
It's the mother issue. If mom asks you to take the garbage out, suddenly she's not the woman you want to snuggle with. It's the human condition. Most people wouldn't say to a male director, or about a male director, "What a dick, he asked me to move that chair." If a woman asks, she's suddenly picky.
Like my father always says, "My little daughter—the mouth of a sailor and a heart of gold." [Laughs.] I've never really had a hard time interacting with men. The funny thing is, the more weight I put on, the less my gender becomes an issue. There's no sex in the room anymore. For the less foul-mouthed female, perhaps that's something they feel alienated by. There's a sort of "bros before hoes" in every business, and I think that will the change as we evolve more. Sometimes, the best person for the job is the one with the uterus.
You've been working in the industry for 20 years now. A big issue that comes up when people discuss women filmmakers is the disparity between what they get paid as opposed to men's salaries. Do you see that as a reality?
Definitely. I've never gotten paid what men get paid, except for TV episodes. I think I'm just about to reach the point where that's no longer an issue, because I now have a body of work that suggests something. People are more willing to give money to men, and I don't think it's a conscious thing people do.
By Hollywood's standards, I've made a bunch of small films, and Surveillance and Chained are examples that you don't need a lot of money to make a picture well; Chained, for example, was $750,000 and shot in 15 days. We all made what we could make, right? But people are more inclined to say, "Hey, I really like your script, fella, so here's $10 million," but to a female they'll say, "I really like your script, I'm so surprised—here's $4 million." I don't know what that is, but that's an unconscious statement. I don't think anybody's doing that maliciously.
And that's why you don't see any women making Hollywood blockbusters.
When people are dealing with money, they're very careful. They look at their investment and think, Will this make me any money? Money-people aren't necessarily creative people, so they're not looking at the project and thinking about all of the great things they can do with it—they're thinking more about how a woman director will effectively create the project and how many risks are involved on their end.
It's a funny time in the business, too. What women have to pay attention to, too, is that, whether you're male or female, at this point you're either making a $100 million film or you're making a $1 million film. You're either making what's considered a low-budget film or you're making blockbusters, and I hope that changes. Because of the recession and the great killer, fear, people either want to throw everything into comic book movie or they want to be very careful about investing in a bunch of smaller films and hope they pay off. That's with men or women. Women should be careful not to look at that as evidence that they're being persecuted.
I don't walk around everyday thinking, If only I had a dick. I'm thinking, How can I pay my rent more easily? I only think about this issue when people ask me about it, but it's definitely there. There is an undeniable glass ceiling here, but it's breaking. Had Kathryn Bigelow not made The Hurt Locker and made something that wasn't deserving of an Oscar, I would have been scared. I would have thought they were just tossing us women a bone. But she made a great film. Hopefully in the next 10, 20, we'll look back on and think it was funny that we ever looked at things as male and female directors, instead of just plain-old directors.
There seems to be hope on the horizon, at least in Hollywood. Aside from Kathryn Bigelow's successes, you've got Kimberly Peirce directing the upcoming Carrie remake.
I think that's a smart thing. Some smart studio exec said, "Oh, let's get a woman to do it." That's another selling tool for them. Right now it's still cool, it's still a big deal. If a movie does well, it's cool to say that a girl made it. Look at Diablo Cody co-writing the new Evil Dead—ooh, it's so cool! [Laughs.] I don't bash my head about it, because we're all watching things evolve. It's slowing us down and making us neglect the beauty of the filmmaking process.
If you asked five different people to make the same movie, you'd get five different movies, and that's the beauty of directing. Let's get three men and two women, or two men and three women, or one hermaphrodite with two men and two women and see what they can all do.