Blood and Crashes? Sounds Like Lynch
By JOHN ANDERSON; New York Times
AS one might expect, the exploding head is going to be the highlight of the afternoon.
Since dawn, an oppressive prairie wind has been flogging the set of “Surveillance,” a shocker-thriller whose trucks, tents and cameras occupy the kind of rural road that seems to come out of nowhere, en route to nowhere else. If Cary Grant ran by, chased by a malevolent cropduster, you might not be surprised. But the energy and mood are high as the director Jennifer Lynch buzzes around the set, an Energizer Bunny doing ribald stand-up comedy.
“She’s a sailor,” said the actor French Stewart, with some admiration.
Ms. Lynch is smiling, despite the obvious pressures, which include re-establishing herself after more than a decade away from filmmaking and a disappearing act that featured years of alcohol and drug abuse. They also include getting this shot done right. Because it’s going to be done only once.
Those not taking part in the scene, including the movie’s star, Bill Pullman, stand beyond camera range, while the stunt coordinator, Kirk Jarrett, perches on the hood of a van, which itself rests atop a station wagon it’s supposed to have run over. The explosion is loud enough to send Saskatchewan’s ubiquitous striped gophers back to their burrows as the driver — a dummy, actually — loses his face amid a shower of movie blood and auto glass. In the same instant, Mr. Jarrett pitches himself through the smashed windshield. Ms. Lynch yells “Cut!” Which, at that point, seems redundant.
“Yes!” a crew member exclaims. “It blew the glasses off!” There was a wager, apparently, involving the dummy’s sunglasses. Everyone looks happy. The filming moves on. Quickly. As if the director is making up for lost time.
“Surveillance” is Ms. Lynch’s first feature project since the amputee romance “Boxing Helena” rocked the Sundance Film Festival of 1993, but despite the themes of this movie — serial murder and bad luck — she is determined to lead a production that’s blessed. A week into filming, the actor Mac Miller had an emergency appendectomy. Remarkably, he was back to work in three days, though his brief departure forced Ms. Lynch to improvise while he was gone.
“It was a big gamble,” said one of the film’s producers, Marco Mehlitz, whose Berlin-based Lago Film is behind “Surveillance.” “Jen found a brilliant way of shooting around him, adding a scene, and making sure all the angles were right. And we just got lucky.”
Mr. Miller’s absence showed that the director was not going to be stopped by mere vestigial organs, or ill Canadian winds. What she exudes, between the group hugs and raunchy jokes (usually provoked by someone pronouncing “Regina” in the local fashion, to rhyme with a woman’s body part) is supreme confidence.
“When you say confidence, my heart sort of stops,” she said later. “I think my attitude is really joy, which translates into confidence. It’s all about being surrounded by the people who are here. I know no one’s going to quit because I mess up. I think that breeds confidence. I feel safe. And I feel fortunate.”
As the daughter of the director David Lynch, she has an inherited ease around film shoots; as the director of “Boxing Helena,” she has something to prove.
An elaborate metaphor about male oppression and female sexual power, “Boxing Helena” concerns an obsessive surgeon (Julian Sand) who cuts off the arms and legs of the woman he loves (Sherilynn Fenn). Not exactly a date movie.
Even the making-of-“Helena” story, as tabloid readers might recall, bordered on the gothic: Ms. Lynch’s producers sued Kim Basinger for breach of contract after she dropped out of the project (Ms. Fenn replaced her), and the producers won. But it didn’t help the image of the film that an actress would go to such lengths to avoid it, or that some critics got in such a lather over a movie that was supposed to be a twisted fairy tale.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times called “Boxing Helena” a film “that threatens to give the concept of metaphor a bad name.” In The Washington Post, Rita Kempley called it “a luridly stylish expression of female self-loathing.” Others were more personally damning.
“I was so completely dumbfounded,” Ms. Lynch said of the response to the film. “Not that any creative medium isn’t important, but how was it possible for people to write that I didn’t deserve to be loved, or that I was a misogynist? It’s a movie, folks. It’s not like you walk into a museum and see a painter you don’t like and say: ‘You know what? That guy doesn’t deserve to be loved anymore. He’s a bad person.’ ”
Ms. Lynch fought off the memory, resting her cheek on her fist. There were Chinese characters inked on her forearm. “It says ‘live for today.’ It was the closest thing to ‘one day at a time’ they had at the tattoo shop,” she said.
Now a 39-year-old single mother of an 11-year-old girl, Sydney, Ms. Lynch had radical back surgery a few years ago and has a titanium rod implanted in her spine. “I was rear-ended at a crosswalk in L.A. when I was 19,” she said, “but after I gave birth to my daughter, the pain became impossible.
“I can tell you the reason I’m not in chronic pain anymore, and the reason I’m here making a movie, is because I got sober.”
It’s been six and a half years of sobriety for Ms. Lynch. “It’s not necessarily what anyone wants to do, but they’re not kidding when they say it’s all going to work out if you just take care of yourself,” she said. “I think being loaded puts you in a crummy mood. It just does.”
Mr. Pullman, who during an early stage of production was originally to star in “Helena” opposite Madonna, said that Ms. Lynch “never looked contrite or beaten down after any of that stuff; she just kept looking for stories.”
The one she was filming now demands as little explanation as possible to avoid plot spoilers, but it’s about a number of doomed and dangerous people — including a pair of homicidal maniacs — who cross paths as they travel what’s meant to be the flatlands of Nebraska. As any student of American mass murder will tell you, Nebraska was home to Charles Starkweather. Coincidentally, the movie Mr. Starkweather inspired, Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” involves a flight to Saskatchewan.
In a way, Ms. Lynch is here fleeing the past, but she’s also in pursuit of something about which she has a very definite idea. “I don’t know if it’s an intuitive feeling, or the way she talks about the characters, but I feel very certain about what she’s talking about,” Mr. Pullman said. “I don’t have to ask a lot of questions, which is a good way to begin. There’s a kind of kabuki quality about this script, which is both grotesque and insane. Actors behave and say insane things, in giddy mode, or the sheerest terror. That’s what I like about it. She’s not just underlining the obvious. She’s looking for places in which human behavior short-circuits.”
Keeping the production from shorting out is something Ms. Lynch has obviously decided to achieve through general good feeling and humor. She’s prone to hugging and at the outset of the filming met with the entire crew, assuring the members of their importance and requesting whatever input they could offer.
“The attitude on a set starts at the top,” said the unit photographer Allan Feildel, who with the rest of the local crew has been given welcome employment and the chance to collaborate with Mr. Pullman, Mr. Stewart, Julia Ormond and Cheri Oteri. The mood is buoyant, despite a sky that constantly shifts and makes continuity of image impossible.
“If there’s no solution,” said the sanguine cinematographer Peter Wunstorf, “then there’s no problem.”
“I know I’ll be scrutinized,” Ms. Lynch said of the film. “There was a moment when I found that ‘Surveillance’ could actually happen that I broke out in a form of hives. From my navel to my neck. Brutal hives. It wasn’t till I said, ‘O.K., you know what? This is complete anxiety and fear’ that they vanished. As soon as I admitted I was scared, they were gone.”