Jennifer Lynch’s laugh sounds just like you’d expect it to: full of mischievous fun, raspy and more than a little dirty. It’s refreshing to hear that even after her savaged 1993 film debut “Boxing Helena” and a string of spinal surgeries that kept her from making another movie for 15 years, she’s still eager to unleash that laugh, even at her own expense.
Her next two films, “Surveillance” (2008) and “Hisss” (2010), failed to find audiences, and “Chained” has run afoul of an NC-17 rating from the MPAA before it can be released. Nothing has quite gone her way, despite being the only daughter of “Blue Velvet” writer-director David Lynch.
Even so, the 44-year-old writer-director is moving forward with her next project, a thriller called “A Fall From Grace” that stars Un Certain Regard jury president Tim Roth as a St. Louis detective tortured by his inability to stop a killer of young girls. A few days before she heads to Cannes to sell “Grace,” Lynch spoke with Indiewire about the movies she watched as a kid with her famous father, what it means to know people think you’re strange, why she’s compelled to explore her fears and what caused her to spend two hours recently searching the bins at Blockbuster for a copy of “Punisher: War Zone.”
Is the “Fall From Grace” story based on real-life cases?
[Co-writer] Eric Wilkinson had written an original draft, and that was inspired by some real events that took place in St. Louis and involved a certain bridge in particular. But his script wasn’t about that event. I responded to the idea of the city and the bridges, but not to his original draft. I created a new draft, and this one is based on my own knowledge and fears of some of the crimes that happen in the world on a regular basis and a detective who is plagued with not being able to solve them.
Did you have some connection to St. Louis? We don’t see many films set there.
My connection to that city is very strange in that I had none prior to this. But I really felt a kinship with it. It’s as affluent as it is impoverished and seedy — and that’s sort of like me! [laughs] I can look pretty clean, but I’m fairly impoverished and seedy. Much like I felt about India, St. Louis is like the universe’s art department already showed up: that place is ready to shoot. Maybe I’m just jaded and I’ve seen so much of what’s been shot out already in other cities. But St. Louis just has a real sense of visual ghosts and of genuine hard work and years of the rise and the fall of the economy — it’s just really fascinating, so I’m tickled pink to get to capture it.
Is “Fall From Grace” your biggest budget so far?
I think it will be, yes, for sure. With the tax breaks and all of that, I’d like to see it be about $7 million, $7.5 million. What I want is to have as much as possible show up on screen, because that’s really where my heart is. It’s in that visual story. And it would be really great to be able to bring the tax breaks back to St. Louis. They have incredible facilities there and I think the economy would be really helped by bringing it back.
When do you hope to start filming, and how long is the shoot?
Best-case scenario, I’d like to be shooting for 30 days in the fall. The city, when the leaves change and the sun is present but not blazing, I love the mood of that. You can’t CG that kind of color against that kind of cobblestone and gray sky and bridges. With the Mississippi River running through most of the story and most of the areas in town, it’s just so haunting, it’s got a real mood and fall just feels perfect.
Who else is committed to the cast now beyond Tim?
I can’t answer that right now because the only person who’s actually committed is Tim. It’s out to a bunch of people. Tim’s on board and I have a double yearning. One is to fill the film with incredibly talented people, and now I also want to honor Tim’s talent by surrounding him with people of equal talent and value. What I love about Tim is he really is a chameleon. So maybe for a split second you’re thinking, ‘Oh, there’s Tim Roth.’ But then that fucker’s got you just believing he is who he says he is in the part. I want to make sure we do that with everybody. Because there’s some pretty intense characters in here and it would be a shame to lose some of their story and weight if we were too obsessed with who they were.
Does if feel significant to you being the rare female director making films in the horror and thriller genres?
It’s weird. It seems to have a lot of meaning to other people. [laughs] I honestly didn’t know I was a horror director until my father pointed it out to me the other day. I still don’t know if I agree. He said, “Yeah, you’re doing this horror thing.” And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I make thrillers…” I feel like it’s surprising and strange to the rest of the world, and to me it’s sort of where I’ve landed for now. This may be why nobody sends me comedy scripts. But I’d love to direct some fucking comedies. I’ve got one on my roster right now that’s just wonderful and funny. That’s what I hope to be doing immediately following “A Fall From Grace.” So it is strange. But not to me. I wake up being a girl every day, so it’s not exceptional to me. But for some reason it seems exceptional to those around me that I’ve got this uterus and I’m doing things of this nature. [laughs]
Uterus aside, with “A Fall From Grace” you said you’re delving into your fears about crime and violence, and that’s something that, objectively, it seems that women filmmakers and storytellers stay away from. That’s maybe why it’s notable to people.
I guess it’s always been my plight in every aspect of my life to, when I’m afraid say I’m afraid, but keep going. I want to investigate what scares me and worries me. It’s funny, with my last picture [“Chained”] I just got this NC-17 rating for violence. My feeling is, of course it’s a violent scene, but it’s not violent the way people are expecting it to be. It’s emotionally upsetting. And I think violence should be emotionally upsetting. And that’s what I’m looking at in that last film. And it’s more of the same thing in “A Fall From Grace.” This stuff is happening, and I don’t want to glorify it, but I do think it shouldn’t just be put to us in little sound bites on the evening news. It should be something we stand up and say ‘no’ to. And the best way to say ‘no’ to something is to have yourself familiar enough with it to define what you’re rejecting. And again, I hope that in each of the situations I’m telling there is as much redemption and hope as there is terror. Because I’m not interested in just the dark stuff. What I think is great is how the human spirit tends to champion those things. I don’t think violence comes from nowhere. I think it comes from the fact that we’re crummy to ourselves and each other as children. And that stuff sticks. We’re creating and perpetuating this cycle, and there’s a lot of that in “A Fall From Grace,” where it’s abuse that has gone on for ages and ages and ages and gets swept under the rug or it’s just too uncomfortable for people to look at and so we let the hurting continue. And that’s not only gross, but really curious to me. So I want to stick my finger in it and wiggle it around. [laughs]
That should improve everyone’s mood.
But you know, there’s also kittens and puppies and wonderful things. Put it this way, and I always go back to this: It’s not about evil, it’s not about sadness, it’s not supposed to depress us. That’s not my intention. But in the same way that the planet is half dark and half light at all times, so is any given situation. And every great story has that same balance. That’s what I want to play with. I don’t set out to upset. I set out to investigate for myself, and not at the expense of an audience but with an audience in the hopes that we can sit around and talk about it. I love how a story can help someone discuss something they otherwise would not.
Do you consider your creative sensibility strange or outside the normal? And either way, is that an advantage or a liability?
I don’t consider it strange or abnormal. I think that, again, in the same way that the whole uterus thing affects me, I think other people do. But I’ve always been in my head, so I don’t really know the difference. [laughs] I do think others see it as a liability. I hope to someday make it seem more accessible and less abnormal to people. Because I’m really just asking questions and playing around. I can only say, in looking at what certain people will say after I have said something, that yes, it must be abnormal. [laughs] But I really do approach everything with a sense of kindness and curiosity. It’s not about wanting to upset or be crazy or strange. That’s something people have decided I’m doing, which is not the case. It’s obviously the path I’m on. Without intention, I am where I am. I’m just following my heart.
You’ve certainly plowed your own course outside the mainstream film industry. What would you say to a young filmmaker today staring at the obstacles in the way of getting an independent film financed and produced these days?
This sounds cornball, but don’t give up. I’m flattered and puzzled to be asked advice even hypothetically for young filmmakers. I say, really at this stage, for me the most important thing is try not to get caught up in needing a budget, needing a lot of other people and a lot of approval. There are ways to make a film now for so little money. The more you just start making your film, the more you are enthusiastic about it, the more you’re willing to hear a good idea when it’s simply a good idea, the sooner that film will get brought to fruition.
Have you been to Cannes before?
I have. We were in Cannes for “Surveillance” in 2008.
What was that experience like?
It was magical. The film was very well received. I had recovered from my third spinal surgery, and my daughter and I, at that point, had been hoping we could walk hand-in-hand even to the end of the driveway. And to be able to walk the red carpet with her was a twofold triumph in that, Wow, after 15 years of not making a film, I made a film and suddenly people were going to see it. Which is all really I can ever hope for. I don’t even hope they like it, I just hope they see it. [laughs] Them liking it is just frosting! But to be able to walk with her and not drop nearly dead from pain was a phenomenal experience. And Cannes is a magical place, let’s face it. They’re not bullshitting you when they say the Cannes experience is one of a kind. It really is.
What are you hoping to do at Cannes this year?
I’m hoping to sell the shit out of “A Fall From Grace.” I’m hoping to do a lot of walking. I want to meet people, I want to see other people’s films as much as I possibly can. I’m dying to see “Paperboy,” Lee Daniels’ new film. I’m also hoping I get a chance to speak to some people about my last picture with Myriad over there. I’m hoping to do a lot of work, and because I love work so much I guess that at the same time means I’m hoping to have a lot of fun.
Have you made cuts or changes to “Chained” based on the MPAA’s NC-17 decision?
Yeah, we just went into the flame room, and we’re removing a lot of stuff in a particular scene. And we’ll see what the MPAA says. The flame room is where you go in to paint out blood or change things, it’s a CG room. I’m hoping that this satisfies them. I’m sad to see the scene go from its original intention. I hope I get to do a director’s cut and have all the things in there that I want in there. What’s weird is, I think horror fans are going to be shocked that I got an NC-17 for this film. I hope that they’re not disappointed in me, because I never ever thought we’d get an NC-17. I thought for sure we’d get an R based on what else is getting R’s. People shouldn’t see that film at 9:15 in the morning, and that’s when [the MPAA members] were watching it. So already I felt like, Geez, this isn’t a breakfast movie! Even I know that! [laughs]
Did you watch a lot of movies with your dad as a kid? Did you have favorites?
I did. The two that we watched repeatedly were “Rear Window”  and “It’s a Gift” . It’s one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see. W.C. Fields. I highly recommend it. “Rear Window” is so simple and pure for me. Jimmy Stewart could cross a room and I’d stand up and cheer. I just think it’s such pure storytelling and beautifully shot, and it just stays simple the whole time but creates an amazing amount of tension and fear without being grotesque at any time.
What’s a film that you’ve seen recently and really liked that you think would surprise people?
Gosh. I really liked “Punisher: War Zone.” I just had so much fun in that. I just had a blast. [laughs] We recently rented that. When the Blockbuster near us went out of business, I think we spent two hours looking for “Punisher: War Zone” because I really wanted to own it.