A bracing honesty, cheerfully foul-mouthed vocabulary and playful wit are what filmmaker Jennifer Lynch brings to the table during any given interaction. While chatting with her, it’s hard not to be reminded of her father, David, and his hilariously succinct response to an interviewer’s long-winded question about the legendary auteur’s thoughts regarding product placement (“Bulls—t. Total f—king bulls—t.”). The insurmountable challenges Lynch faced while shooting her audacious third feature, “Nagin: The Snake Goddess,” in India is the subject of “Despite the Gods,” an immensely entertaining documentary from director Penny Vozniak. Though the problematic “Nagin” was ultimately recut and retitled “Hisss” without Lynch’s supervision, the experience proved to be a rewarding one for the director and her scene-stealing daughter, Sydney.
During their visit to the Chicago International Film Festival, Indie Outlook spoke with Lynch and Vozniak about their unlikely collaboration, the vitality of intuition and their enticing new projects (which includes a new acting role for David Lynch).
Q: This film shows the rewards that can be reaped from the artistic process, regardless of where the final product ends up.
Jennifer Lynch (JL): Penny did a beautiful job with the footage. All I did was let her make the film that she was seeing. There’s plenty of stuff in there that I wouldn’t have let people see if it were up to me. I’m honored to have learned about myself through this film. Sometimes gifts show up wrapped differently than you expected, and it’s taken five years for me to feel that it’s a gift. I think Penny has a lovely ability to let a story tell itself and to cradle it rather than design it.
Q: Intuition has always played a key role in your father’s work. Would you say that’s also true in regards to your own films?
JL: Absolutely, and that’s why planning is important. Life is going to happen. You want to have a plan so that you can f—k the plan away. If you don’t have a plan, then no one has an idea about where to show up or at what time. The beauty of planning is that it gets everyone in the same place and enables us to be open to our intuition. Suddenly it might be raining, so then the scene will take place in the rain. You have to be spontaneous and trust that it’s happening in the way that it’s supposed to happen, which is terrifying. Believing that something is supposed to hurt really badly is hard to believe. It’s human nature to say, “That hurts, it must be bad.”
There were some incredibly painful moments that were kept in Penny’s cut and other things that didn’t end up in it because producers wouldn’t allow them to be shown. Sometimes I see myself upset onscreen and think, “I was sad because this happened, but nobody will ever get a chance to see it.” And yet, this is Penny’s film, not mine. She made the film that she wanted to make to the best of her ability, and I’m honored to have been seen through her eyes.
Q: I know a few filmmakers who have made films in India, and they’ve told me just how different an experience it is from shooting in the states.
JL: It’s a totally different world, but not in a bad way. Had I known that going in, I would’ve prepared differently, and yet, it wouldn’t have been as exciting. I have to credit Penny for having the objectivity to see the absurdity and insanity of what was going on. She saw that there was something evolving that was going to be fascinating to watch. With hindsight being 20/20, that film set was not exactly the best place for me to be on camera. [laughs] I’ve been a lot more calm and have made films I’m really proud of.
Q: How did you gain such trust with one another?
Penny Vozniak (PV): I was a friend of Govind [Menon], the film’s producer, so I went to visit him on my way to Afghanistan. I had gotten a grant for something else and Govind had asked me to babysit Jennifer’s daughter. I wasn’t even going there thinking, “I want to make a film about Jennifer.” He just told me that she’s a great director, so I babysat Syd for a week. We went shopping and to spas and had a great time.
JL: I had an instant respect for her. I got to know her through what Syd relayed to me each time I reconnected with her in the evening and thought, “It’s really nice to have Penny here. I’m gonna miss her.” I expressed that to Govind and he said, “Well, Penny’s a great filmmaker. You should have her do the press kit and shoot some behind-the-scenes footage.”
PV: Then I started shooting and quickly realized that the footage wasn’t something you should put on DVD extras. It was too raw. It wasn’t what the producers would use to sell the film. I made the sugar-coated version which wasn’t even used, considering all that happened. It was one of those EPKs [Electronic Press Kits] where everyone goes, “It was great working with this person.”
JL: Bulls—t. [laughs]
PV: Only about 0.2 percent of what I shot was for EPKs. From the first day I got the camera, I was just following you guys around. About seven months in, Govind said, “Why are you still filming?” They let me stay. I just lived with you guys and avoided becoming a burden on the production by staying invisible.
JL: Penny was there but her camera was invisible to me. I was so focused on everything else—motherhood, the film, the mayhem—and there were cameras everywhere. Penny’s camera became invisible, as you could tell. [laughs] I should’ve wore rubber bands and had someone snap them every time there was a camera around.
Q: The film is less about the production process and more about the filmmakers’ experience. How did you go about finding the story within the footage with your editor, Melanie Annan?
PV: I didn’t want to make a film about making a film. I wanted to make a film about how it feels to make a film. I had an epiphany when you asked that question that made me realize that this film is ultimately about feeling. I should write that word on the walls of my editing room so that whenever I get lost, I can get back on track. [laughs] With the editor, I chose what I thought were the strongest scenes. When you’re filming observationally, you shoot a lot of stuff, but then the wind changes or the temperature drops. Something weird happens when action is about to happen or when dynamics between people change. If you’re there long enough and you get to know the people, you can feel when something’s about to happen, so you position yourself and wait. All those great moments get clustered together in the edit.
[Melanie] is a wonderful editor. She totally respected my vision and was happy to have me sitting there watching the footage like a hawk and going, “Like that, don’t like that.” I would leave her to cut a scene and then come back and go, “That was better than when I shot it. How did you do that?” I initially had a fear that my editor would take everything that I shot and turn it into something else, but I had worked on and off with this girl for years as her assistant. I trusted her and knew that she was a great person. She managed to edit the film in a way that I saw it in my mind. We were on the same vibe, which was important.
Q: There’s a powerful moment toward the end where Jennifer observes a woman picking garbage out of laundry water and says, “I don’t know what a bad day is.” What sort of impact did this experience have on your own worldview?
JL: It’s profound. There’s an assumption because of my family name that I grew up in some sort of great fortune or wealth. I did grow up in great fortune, it just wasn’t monetary. It was emotional and creative. I grew up in America and India is its own place. People live and survive differently. It’s humbling and it’s magical. It affirmed for me just how lucky I was to be having this catastrophic thing happening. Everywhere I looked, there was a reminder that there was someone who had something more to bear. My daughter was safe, I was safe and I had my health. My bad day is not what that woman’s bad day is.
PV: She didn’t even look like she was having a bad day.
JL: That’s what she does, and yet it didn’t define her.
PV: It’s all about perspective.
Q: You’ve cast your father and daughter in your upcoming film, “A Fall From Grace.” How did they become involved?
JL: It wasn’t always the plan. At first my father was like, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” Then I started talking him through these little moments with his character [William]. I had part of him in my mind when I wrote this role, not because [the character] has dementia or because he’s old—it’s because he’s really sexy, dad! [laughs]—no, it’s because he has this gentleness and innocence and a pure golly gee willikers attitude that my father also possesses, as well as a secrecy and humanity. As I talked, he got tears in his eyes. When he answered a question that I asked [his character], I said, “That’s William. Will you play him?” He said, “Yeah, can I have a sore?” I said, “Where do you want it?” and he said, “On my face.” I said, “Not an open sore, you can have a place that you’ve rubbed too much because you have dementia.” And he said, “Okay.” [laughs]
Here’s the funny thing about Sydney. She’s an incredible writer, she’s a very talented makeup artist and painter, she’s a really great actress. What I keep seeing is not only that she has this ability to perform, but that she has an awareness more in line with filmmaking. I think that she’s a director who is not directing yet. Jim, her stepfather, is tickled pink every time she comes back from an audition and says, “I was doing this and the director said to me, ‘But she’s feeling this,’ and I go, ‘I don’t think she is.’” Jim goes, “She’s such a f—king director.” Actors will argue about their character, not about the entirety of the story, but Syd will.
Who knows? I’m letting her evolve. She absolutely has it in her to perform and to evoke emotion, but she also has it in her to tell stories, and she has a little bit of a Yoda wisdom in her. She wants to make a documentary about growing up in a society that is all about how you look. She’s been judged a lot on her appearance, especially as a performer and as a high school girl. It’s all about, “Are you sexy, are you thin, what are you wearing?” It has nothing to f—king do with what kind of human being you are. I was like, “Syd, do it. Anyway I can help, I will.” It’s for Syd to decide what she ultimately wants to do, and she could do it all. That’s the beauty of it. Life is a menu. Some days you eat the sandwich and some days you eat the steak.
Q: What’s your next documentary about, Penny?
PV: My next film, “Ordinary Wonderland,” is about the world’s first four real-life superheroes. It’s a dark comedy that’s observational like “Despite the Gods,” but it’s kind of not what you’d expect. It’s not about how to be a superhero, it’s about “how it feels.” [laughs] It’s more about what it would be like if superheroes were real, and what life would be like for them ten, twenty years down the track. They would have real problems, real debts and people would be judging them going, “Be normal like the rest of us.”
JL: Or “do something amazing!”
PV: They don’t have superpowers. They’re doing small things, because that’s all they can do. Plus they’re getting older and they’re questioning their choices. They’re also so normalized that in their hometowns, people will be causally waving hello to them as they buy their groceries. So it’s a strange kind of magical realism film without it being magical realism. It’s naturally magical and strange. Jennifer has signed on as executive producer and story editor.
JL: I want to be a part of her career in any way that I can. Just keep that camera off me. [laughs]
“Despite the Gods” screens at 7pm Thursday, December 5th at the Saffron Cinema Indian Film Club in London, England. For more info, visit the film’s official site.