Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jennifer Lynch tells it like it is

Jennifer Lynch (r) with director Penny Vozniak (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Jennifer Lynch, daughter of famed film director David Lynch, was in Chicago recently to promote the film Despite the Gods, a documentary directed by Penny Wozniak. The film traces Lynch's time in India in 2008 directing a Bollywood production called Hisss. The shooting was plagued with all sorts of problems and afterwards, the producers recut the film without Lynch's approval; she has since publicly disavowed any connection with it. 

I sat down with Lynch and Vozniak at the offices of the Chicago International Film Festival to talk to them about this film as well as Lynch's experience making it.

Tom Hyland: I never did understand. Why did Govind (Govind Menon, the producer) ask you to direct this film? Did he ever explain why he chose you?

Jennifer Lynch: He never did, but I have my impressions. He saw Surveillance (a 2008 film directed by Jennifer) and I was a female who was a filmmaker and I had a famous last name, so there was a lot to be said for going to India with a Lynch for a Hollywood/Bollywood production. I think within that he had anticipations of how he could promote it and even after reading my script, I think he still thought this was the kind of movie he would be making, not the kind of movie I would make. To me, if you've seen Surveillance, you know what kind of filmmaker I am.

To me that was the most heartbreaking, strangely illuminating part of this; the fact that Penny was able to show me things I couldn't see, but now with time, you know I can look back and realize that he hired me for a different reason than to be myself and never told me. Maybe he didn't even know himself - I'm not suggesting there was any malice in it. I think that he saw an opportunity as a producer to make a big sound.

TH: Clearly he was very impatient with you. Do you think that was the system of getting this movie done or was it just him or was it any number of things?

JL: It was a lot of things. It was a very trying situation for everybody. You know, nine months - you can imagine the footage that isn't in there!

Something was going unexpectedly every day. I can't guess, I can tell you that my biggest sadness is that after an experience such as that is Govind and I don't speak. I'm sorry that he felt the only way to gain control of the movie was to take me out of it, instead of communicating with me like "actually, here's the kind of movie we need to make. Let's sit down and make this movie together."

Whatever my part in that is, I'm sorry. I'm a work in progress like the rest of us. I can't guess what his motivations were. My heart tells me that none of it was malicious. I think that he hired someone who had a stronger and more individual voice than he anticipated and I don't think that he was willing to communicate to me at any point - whether he realized it or not too late or earlier on - exactly what the deal was. "Actually what we need to do is to make this kind of movie and I'm using your name and this is what has to happen."

You know, I'm not retarded. I get that this is a money making business. But I was told the opposite - make your movie. Again, it wasn't every day that he and I were butting heads, but those were the most exciting days for Penny.

I can't guess. I can say respectfully I shared many good times with him and I shared a lot of drama with him. I wish we could have come out on the other side with some sort of communication, because it was brutal.

TH: (To Penny Vozniak): How did you get involved in this project?

Penny Vozniak: Actually, I wan't meant to be in India. I was on my way to Afghanistan as I got a grant to make a little project there. I stopped in Mumbai because Govind was an old friend of mine. I had been in India several times before just visiting and I stopped in Mumbai and he asked me if I could do a big favor and stay an extra week and babysit Sydney Lynch, Jennifer's daughter (she was 12 at the time, TH).

I didn't really want to, I didn't want to babysit, I wanted to make a film. But I wanted to help my friend, so I babysat Syd and she was adorable, which was fun and we hung out and then I got to know Jennifer over that week and by the end of it, I was very curious. I fell in love with them, as everyone does when they first meet them. Jennifer wanted me to stay as well and she talked to Govind and they came up with this idea that I'd shoot a behind-the-scenes.

I don't like behind-the-scenes, I don't even think I've watched one, as they doesn't interest me. I'm not interested in the movie making process at all. I'm interested in stories and people's dynamics.

TH: Had you made documentaries before?

PV: I had been working on a documentary at that point for four years and I'm about to finish it now. It's about the world's real-life super heroes. I just wanted to make my own stories with real people. That's all I've ever wanted to do. So I didn't want to make this film in India, but I was offered a bit of money for it and I thought that this would help my other project, so I'll do this as a paid job.

But then about two weeks in, I was getting stuff that they would not want to use in the DVD extras, this is scathing, like Jennifer talking about getting her period and sex and I'm thinking, maybe this isn't appropriate. So I remember at one point, I said to myself I'm going to make an observational documentary about Jennifer. She's a misunderstood filmmaker. She's not everything you think she's going to be. It's very easy to look at Jen and think, "Oh, she grew up very priviliged. Hollywood royalty, the daughter of David Lynch..."

TH: I wouldn't think that, Hollywood royalty with David Lynch...

JL: Bless your heart!

TH: If you were Cary Grant's daughter, I might think differently.

PV: But to me as an indie filmmaker lover, this is the pinnacle of it. She's got this wonderful kind of legacy.

I wanted to show the quiet moments, not just how do you make a film.  I wanted to show the dynamics between the mother and the daughter and Jennifer and the actors and Jennifer and the producer. That's what interested me, so that's the story I wanted to focus on. I don't think anyone really knew, including myself, for up until about six months what I was really doing. I just kept turning up on the set thinking I'm filming something.

Then about halfway through the story, I went, "I'm filming this story about Jennifer." It's about this, it's about something I won't realize until I get to the end, but I loved that, it's a treasure hunt.

TH: Two things I noticed as I watched the film again. One was a member of the production team saying about two-thirds of the way through the film, "This is mayhem. This is India. Isn't it beautiful?" I thought it was a great line.

Then there was a scene where a medicine man or priest throwing oil on the script or blessing the production and then there is a cut of you winking, like, "OK, see what I have to go through." I thought that was a perfect moment.

JL: Yea, this is what you do. It's also that the crew had become superstitious and it was Christmas, so they put the slate down on a plastic chair in the jungle and we all sat and closed our eyes and listened as he prayed. And if you thought about it too much, you'd kind of lose your mind and yet it was this beautiful thing we're celebrating. And we're all a little afraid as every day something goes what you would call wrong. And I kept trying to be Zen-enough about it, to make some sort of day out of it.

There it was, of course, it's a plastic chair in the jungle and we're throwing flowers on it and burning incense. What else could it be? Oh, and it was beautiful, so when I saw she had the camera on me, I winked. I remember the moment. I was thinking, maybe this will help.

PV (speaking to Jennifer): Yes, you were on the ride!

That's what I loved about those subtle moments - they didn't need any words.

TH: Two final questions. Ok, let's pretend that Penny's not here. Objectively speaking, if someone saw this, they would think this is not a very flattering portrait of Jennifer. What do you say to that?

JL: You know, part of me agrees and part of me says, that's who I was there and that's a lot of who I still am. I hope that there are some flattering moments... put it this way - that's who I am. So the terror and the joy in letting her film me and forgetting quite often that she was filming me is...

TH: You're a creative person...

JL: That's what happened and she didn't change that. I can't say, "I didn't do that. That actress didn't portray me correctly." It's authentic.

TH: Last question. I see that you're working on a film and your father appears in it. (A Fall From Grace.)

JL: I'm about to shoot this film and yes, he is playing a very beautiful sort of dementia-ridden older man in it. It's a very small role.

TH: Knowing the type of filmmaker he is, I would imagine he would let you do your thing.

JL: Oh, yeah. All we ever say to each other is, "it's common fucking sense. Go have fun."

And as absurdly simple as that sounds, that's what it is. And in any situation... so suddenly this blew up. OK, it's common sense. I've got to get from here to there.

He said no at first, "I can't do it. I won't be good enough." But then we talked about a few things and he got a look on his face and a tear welled up as I was saying some things to him and I said, "That's it. That's William right there. Can you do that?" And he said, "yeah."

You remember, he was in that movie with Isabella Rossellini (Zelly and Me, 1988), so he's acted several times.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The Verdict" and "I Will Be Murdered" - Chicago International Film Festival

Koen De Bouw in "The Verdict" (Belgium)

Two films about justice - or lack of - are among the highlights of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. The Verdict from Belgium asks some tough questions about the legal system in that country, while I Will Be Murdered, a Spanish production, details a famous recent murder in Guatemala, bringing up numerous questions about the violence there; both films are highly recommended.

The Verdict, directed by Jan Verheyen, gets right to the point, as its opening titles are a quote from Albert Camus; "There is no justice, only limits." Our faith in the justice system will be sorely tested during this riveting film, a story of a successful businessman, Luc Segers (Koen de Bouw), who sees his wife brutally beaten and is in turn assaulted by the same criminal. He wakens from a coma a few weeks later to learn that his wife died in this attack. 

He identifies the suspect soon afterwards and the police arrest him. But a procedural error in the paperwork before the court means that the alleged criminal must be released. This is an outrage to Segers and the public in Belgium as well, as this story is reported on the evening news.

Segers has a difficult time dealing with the loss of his wife, as he focuses on seeing that justice is served. If the legal system has let him down, he will do whatever it takes to realize the criminal's guilt. The way he goes about this is the crux of this fascinating story and I won't give away any more plot details. 

On this level alone, The Verdict is an excellent film. But this movie tells two stories; the second being a look at the justice system in Belgium (and in reality, the justice system in many countries). How is it that a murderer can go free simply because of a procedural error? Yes, the film argues, there are regulations in place to protect suspects, but should someone who commits a brutal murder be allowed back into society because a lawyer forgot to sign a piece of paper?

Verheyen, who also wrote the excellent script, turns in a wonderful job of direction. He was undoubtedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock; this will be apparent from the overhead camera shots that isolate Segers and make him seem insignificant. Yet, this is not an instance of a director borrowing heavily on Hitchcock's visuals, as Verheyen has his own style. This is a beautifully directed film, especially in the courtroom scene that concludes the film. Each side's argument is carefully presented with great zeal as well as common sense; if you were on this jury, you really wonder what you would do. Incidentally, I love the way Verheyen presents the reading of the verdict, as the words of the chief judge are slowly drowned out as the sound is muted; we only hear cheers and boos in the courtroom after the decision is announced. We don't know for a few moments what that decision is - it's a marvelous scene.

Credit also to Johan Leysen as one of the lawyers in this film - his performance is mesmerizing. High marks also to the subdued score of Steve Willaert, the marvelous job of cinematography by Frank Van Den Eeden and the exqusite production design of Johan Van Essche; this is an outstanding technical production. 

While The Verdict is based on a fictional story, I Will Be Murdered is a documentary about a famous murder, in this case, about the death of Rodrigo Marzano in Guatemala in May, 2009. Marzano, a respcted attorney, recorded a video a few days before he was assassinated; that video, transferred to a CD, was passed out to mourners at his funeral. 

Marzano's message is political dynamite, as he claims that he was killed by the president of Guatemala, as he was researching a double murder that was carried out by hitmen; Marzano believe that the government may have had something to do with these deaths, so he recorded his video in which he states that anyone watching it would know that he blamed the government for his death.

This is a riveting film, directed by Justin Webster, that takes the form of a police investigation, but in this instance the whos and whys of the crime are looked into by an official of an organization set up by the United Nations to look into mysterious political situations such as this. Slowly this prosecutor, Carlos Castresana, pieces together the elaborate details of this bizarre case, talking to Marazno's son, chauffeur, best friend and several other individuals. As he discovers more and more details, the case becomes more mysterious and his final opinion on the events of this case are controversial, to say the least.

As with The Verdict, the system of justice and government come into question in I Will Be Murdered. The filmmaker supports Marzano's belief that violence is intertwined into the culture of Guatemala, so perhaps the government did kill Marzano, if only to shut him up. Then again, there really is no proof, so the final decision will probably catch the viewer off guard. There is a point made early on in the film that half of the Guatemalan people immediately believe the government was behind Marzano's murder, while the other half think it is a coup to try and overthrow the government. The answers are not so easy.

Both films deal with justice - one with a fictional story, the other with a true one. Both leave us wondering about the people that are sworn to protect us on an everyday basis. As one lawyer remarks in The Verdict, the main character was "let down by the legal system." Tough words to think about.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chicago International Film Festival - "The Harvest"

There are certain movies you just have to see. Maybe the cinematography is breathtaking or there's a bravura performance by a performer that will move you. Perhaps the music is unforgettable or the overall film is a great technical achievement.

Then there's a film such as The Harvest, the latest work from John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory). You have to see this film if only because you may not believe what you're seeing on the screen - and I mean that with great praise. This is one of the most bizarre stories I've ever seen and it's handled with great assuredness by McNaughton, who takes us on one wild ride. How else to describe a modern day horror/love story?

I can't even begin to describe what happens in this film and I certainly wouldn't want to give much away, so the little I can tell you about the plot deals with a young boy of about 12 years old named Andy (Charlie Tahan), who has a physical condition that has left him very weak (basically, he can't walk more than a few feet) and is limited to his bedroom, except when he joins his parents for dinner, as he maneuvers his wheelchair to the kitchen.

He lives in an isolated countryside setting along with his parents, Katherine, a medical doctor (Samantha Morton) and Richard, a registered nurse (Michael Shannon). They are his life support team and do what is necessary to improve the boy's condition.

One day, a young girl named Maryann (Natasha Calis), who is about the same age as Andy, moves into a house not far away. She is cared for by her grandparents, as her father recently passed away. As she is in a new place, she is understandably forlorn, as she misses her old friends.

One day, she sets out for a walk and finds the house where Andy is living. She sees him in his bed and Andy lets her in through the window, as he is both curious and in need of a friend his age. However, once Katherine discovers this, she clearly doesn't approve of Maryann being around and tells her so in no uncertain terms.

Why she doesn't approve is the basis of the story and as I said, I won't spoil anything in this review. The plot takes several turns, all the while pitting Katherine's strong will against the wishes of Maryann and her son to become friends.

There's a bit of dark humor here and there, but this is definitely not a comedy. McNaughton takes the material and finds all sort of oblique angles here and there, all the while keeping the action flowing. This may be a slightly offbeat story (OK, more than slightly), but it's a pleasure to watch the director at work here, teasing us with a shot of an open doorway or window that may or may not lead to safety.

What most people will be talking about after they see this film (apart from the plot) is the performance of Samantha Morton. There will be some that will say she is over the top, but I think she is wonderful in the role of a woman who slowly has been losing her sense of reality for some time. You can't take your eyes off of her in this film, that's for sure!

I'd love to write more about this film, but I don't want to reveal its secrets. Go see it - you won't forget The Harvest anytime soon! I loved the film, and while I am certain there will be some that think this is a bit absurd, I'm betting a lot of people will be discussing this work for quite some time - and in a positive way. John McNaughton, welcome back!