Though it has its cult of admirers, Jennifer Lynch’s debut feature Boxing Helena was somewhat less than well received. Couple that with the fact that the director’s father is David Lynch, one of the premiere surrealists of the modern filmmaking, and it’s a wonder that she would ever return to filmmaking, let along tackle a genre famously explored by her illustrious father. Nevertheless, Jennifer Lynch’s long-in-coming sophomore outing Surveillance opens in theatres this Friday, 6/26, and is also now available on VOD. It features gonzo performances from a who’s who of celebrated character actors; among them Bill Pullman, Michael Ironside and French Stewart, as well as the still-luminous stalwart of 90s melodrama Julia Ormond. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Pullman, Ormond and Lynch, about a film in which the latter two star as FBI agents investigating a bizarre rash of killings in a small American town. A town not unlike that made famous by Lynch’s dad – in which absolutely nothing is at first seems.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!
What were your thoughts when you first heard about this guy?
Jennifer showed it to me a year before we shot it. I thought, “God, I can’t do this.” I couldn’t really get my head on what the center of it was about. Because it just seemed too violent. I didn’t quite get it all. So as much as I’ve known her for so long, and really believed she was one of the great people of the world… I felt awfully small to say, “No.” But some days you fill the uniform and some days you’re shirking the uniform. I’m sure we’ve all had those days. [Laughs.] I think I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then later, when she gave it to me [again], the movie was definitely going to Saskatchewan; Julia had been attached. I think she did some adjustments in the script a little bit too. I felt like I had a better read on it. She says it wasn’t that much different but I had a better read on it. And I was bursting out of my uniform! [Laughs.] I love the situation where everyone perceives you to be one thing but you’re something else underneath it. We were brought in as professional FBI agents and partners in a professional situation. But we have this other little thing bubbling underneath, between her and I. You kind of get a sense that there’s more going on than just the fact that they share the same front seat of a sedan. I like that.
Then there is this other dimension of who they are that is quite intoxicating, that they have this passionate connection to each other. It’s nice to have a partner that… In a way I’ve been waiting my whole life to tie up with her. And I don’t want to go to sleep, because it’s too burning hot! [Laughs.]
Can you talk about the similarities and differences of working with David and Jennifer Lynch?
I had met Jennifer during the Boxing Helena days, so I’ve known her longer than David. She was like nineteen, I think. She was really young, and I was young. It was kind of cool to do the Hollywood thing and go to Madonna’s house to rehearse. I remember seeing Picassos in the bathroom and thinking, “I’ve made it now....” It was all looking good, and then the financing didn’t happen. Then, by the time they’d reassembled, I was doing something else. So in a way I was so lucky that that didn’t replay again with this one. I don’t know if everybody who works with David and Jennifer feel the same way. But I feel almost a familial sense of joy at hearing their cadences of speech. I don’t know whether it’s some kind of sense of joy that they carry with them. Their sense of humor in the face of really extreme, bleak behavior on the part of human beings. There’s a sense of “Let’s encounter this horrible thing by going, ‘Yeah, look at how it is!’” I like that part of it.
Then there’s very different things. I was just telling Jen [that] when we were doing Lost Highway, David called Patricia and I to the house, and I thought it was to do this pre-shoot, y’know, “These are your characters, your backstory,” something like that. And he says, “I’ve just been going over the budget – we can’t be spending any time in the trailers.” I thought, “I didn’t think we’d been tested as, like, trailer loungers, but I’m nervous now. I don’t want to be in there too long.” Then we were just about to go and he goes, “Oh, the other thing, if anybody asks what this movie is about, I’m never gonna tell. But here…” It was a definition that he’d gotten from the American Psychiatric Association’s manual on “psychogenic fugue”. He didn’t read it, didn’t even explain it, just said, “Here it is,” like “This is the press kit.” I thought, “Boy, that’s all about results – ‘Be nervous and vigilant, and when spoken to say this.’”
Jennifer’s the exact opposite. I talked to her on the phone. I mean I’d read the script, but really talking to her is what got me to say, “Oh man. I can’t wait. I feel like she’s giving me a chance to go to a place I’ve never gone to before. She’s gonna lead me into a zone of acceptance, and encouragement to be there every day with that sense.” I realized it’s not just me. It was everybody. When I saw the movie I saw all these scenes with other actors and I feel like there is a consistent ensemble thing that you don’t often see in movies, where all the actors are bravura in a way. That was Jen. She just encouraged everybody to do it.
We did shoot a lot of scenes that were kind of preparatory in a weird way. They’re gonna be on the DVD apparently. [Laughs.] She had come across some kind of liquid latex stuff that she said they were using on the internet, on these sites for some kind of sexual enhancement thing. Kink City. [Laughs.] She wanted to use it, and that’s what those masks are. But she was saying, “No, you guys are into this as an aphrodisiac. You get the latex going, man, and you guys are hot!” So we shot a scene – there was only a quick flash of it in that final scene in the office once everything erupts. But we shot a whole scene where Julia and I were loving this stuff. [Jen] must have a good percentage of the DVD. [Laughs.]
Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts upon reading this script?
The way that I would describe it is it’s been a tricky hurdle to be cast in a modern American role. But then also to be put in a movie like this, because I’m just not traditionally thought of [in] that [way]. So I both really loved the script and thought in Jen’s hands in particular this script was something that was really interesting. I kind of begged her for the role. And she said – I think largely because it is the kind of film that provokes discussion and intention – “Can you afford to do this movie?” I said, “I actually feel that as an actor I can’t afford not to.” As an actor I’m deeply grateful for the breaks that I’ve had and the opportunities I’ve been given. But I kind of went through a phase of feeling like I got stuck in a rut. Shaking that up took a while to do. But for me if you get stuck in a rut, it’s kind of up to you to get yourself out of it. I’d been looking for roles that would show a range of ability, and having feared the kind of “God, what’s going to happen to me in my forties? Am I still gonna be working?” I’ve actually feared that smaller roles, supporting roles, have given me more range, and more flexibility as an actor, and I’ve really been enjoying this phase, because…it’s just like any other profession – you don’t get spat out of drama school with all of it at your fingertips. It’s something you learn from experience. The irony, and sadness I think – especially for women – is that as you grow professionally and have more to give that’s when you get less work. So I’ve really been enjoying the range of stuff that I’ve been getting recently.
Was it difficult to prepare for the love scene?
Well Pullman’s so lovable. [Laughs.] What’s interesting to me is that when you play a character you can be playing one thing but you have the other thing going on inside of you all the time. And it’s really a decision of what you let out. It made sense to me because all of us go through life and sometimes we get angry and lose our temper. It’s equivalent to that… As they have this relationship that’s an inappropriate relationship, bearing in mind their positions, their two characters in an ensemble cast in which every person is flawed. Some of the flaws people wear on their sleeve. Some of them they celebrate – it’s what informs their identity and makes them hip and cool, or it’s venting of a frustration, or they are hiding what’s going on in their lives. What I like about the film is, yes, it’s hidden, but it’s also right there.
We have to ask you about this latex…
The latex was hilarious, and maybe they’re saving it for a DVD release. I think it’s going on the DVD. We had this scene involving a love scene with latex, and it was shot in a particular way. But it was just one of those things where it was like “Okay, go for it with the latex guys.” [Laughs.] But sadly, at the end, it does look like a giant ejaculation, which was not our intention, but that’s what it somehow, ridiculously, ended up looking like. I guess [with] stuff like that you need someone like Bill. You need actors who are ready to go there, and you need a director who is ready to help you find that space. If you’re gonna feel silly or you’re gonna feel foolish – which you are gonna feel; with all actors you’re gonna press this boundary – it takes a certain director to say, “This is what I want.” But I guess you’ll see it on the DVD. There’s all sort of interesting, intriguing stuff on the DVD. [Laughs.]
Bill Pullman has said international audiences [have taken] the film to be America looking at itself.
Wouldn’t it be great if I was smart enough to recognize a wide-sweeping statement about America looking at itself? I don’t think I’m that self-aware. I was really excited by the idea that I could make a serial killer film that I hadn’t seen before, that really examined how fucked up it is when people are wounded and then become people who wound. And what that is and how the lines between sex and violence get blurred. Maybe these two people had never been looked at as anything other than criminals and losers and victims, until they looked at each other. And there’s love in there. It’s this sick love, and who better to see that than a child? Having been raising my daughter, I realized the clarity with which children see is so sharp. We just forget it, because we’re all wrapped up in our heads – “Will I get the job? Will they like me?” The kid’s not thinking that. The kid’s thinking, “Well, that guy’s full of crap. I see you two got a thing going…”
How did growing up in the environment of David Lynch influence you as a filmmaker?
It must inform [me] dramatically, and on equal par with the way my mother’s paintings and my mother’s raising of me informed it. Not having lived without it, I can’t say what I would be without it, but I can say I’m thrilled by similar things. Both of my parents have been so good about saying, “Follow the idea until the idea is done. Feel free to think it or manifest it as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.” I think that that’s how I’ve been most inspired by or informed by what they did.
Something was always being created or made, even if it was out of a little wet napkin, we’d build a little creature. At all times. It didn’t matter where we were – whether we were dripping fudge into the water of Bob’s Big Boy – “Look at that!” Everything could be something else – “Whoa, got a pen?” That freedom I think is the thing. Plus, I love a weird cookie-cutter FBI agent, who’s got something kind of crazy thing going on. And a cookie cutter cop who isn’t at all what he seems to be. [Laughs.]