Jennifer Lynch: Life with David and the turkey of the decade

The amputee romance ‘Boxing Helena’ was never going to win an Oscar – but the director Jennifer Lynch could not have foreseen the torrent of abuse that would follow its release. And that’s when her problems really began

When Jennifer Lynch walked up the famous red carpet in Cannes last year, with 12-year-old daughter Sydney in tow, it was more than just a comeback. The director was there to present her new work Surveillance, her first film in 15 years, since her despised debut, Boxing Helena, an amputee romance as bizarre as anything made by her director father, David Lynch. There was a time when it looked as though this might be the only film she’d ever make. It was not just that Hollywood had shunned her, following a highly public court case involving the film’s original star, Kim Basinger. Or that the film received some of the most vitriolic reviews on record. It was simply that she could not walk.

Bedridden for more than a year, due to an increasingly debilitating spinal problem, Lynch was incapacitated. The result of being knocked down by a car when she was 19, her pain had worsened since giving birth to Sydney. It hardly helped that, having split from Sydney’s father, the set-dresser Andrew J Peterson (who worked on her father’s 1997 film Lost Highway), she was a single parent. Little wonder that the notion of bringing her daughter to a film festival was the stuff of dreams. “The day I could walk her down the driveway was a big deal, let alone the red carpet at Cannes,” she smiles. “To be celebrated in any fashion other than ‘We got to the end of the driveway!’... it was really moving.”

As she sips on her espresso, Lynch, now 40, does not come across as a slave to her troubles. Living with a fused spine, she’s “got some impressive scars” to show, as well as a series of tattoos (everything from a baby angel drinking coffee to a curl of 35mm film), each of which tell their own story. With bright-red hair, a booming laugh and a garrulous personality, she is the polar opposite of her introvert father. Yet his influence is evident – from her penchant for the lurid in her films to her devotion to transcendental meditation. “It’s how I managed to get out of my body when I was in excruciating pain and aspire to things and get through fear,” she says.

For years, Lynch had managed her worsening pain “by smoking pot”, while ignoring her desperate condition. “I eventually went to the doctor and he said, ‘I do not believe you walked in here. You should be in an ambulance. Your spine is being held together by prayer.’ I had denied it and denied it. When I realised how much I’d been self-medicating and ignoring my own situation, I thought ‘What is that about?’” She gave up drugs and alcohol, and began a torturous rehabilitation that involved three rounds of spinal surgery. She recommends such abstinence unreservedly. “It makes everything easier,” she says. “It’s incredible what it changed in my life. I remember everything; my dreams are better; sex is better; conversations are better. I laugh more.” ‘

If Lynch is clean and sober, she’s also put behind her a Hollywood horror story that was almost as crippling. It came about when she began work on Boxing Helena. The story of a doctor who removes the limbs of his shapely neighbour and places her in a box on a dining-room table, it was never going to be easy to cast. Nevertheless, Madonna wanted in. “The whole thing blew up when Andrew Lloyd Webber said, ‘You can’t have Evita, Madonna, if you do Boxing Helena.’ She wrote me the most beautiful letter, and called me crying, and paid back every dime we’d spent… it was the most admirable action. She knew we were a small production that had spent time. She knew there was a deal. It was incredible.”

With Boxing Helena now a recognisable star vehicle, Basinger came on board, only to pull out four weeks before shooting, citing the nude scenes and inadequacy of the script. The matter went to (a televised) trial on an alleged breach of contract, and, ironically, cost the actress an arm and a leg – almost $9m, to be precise (a ruling that was later to be overturned on appeal as being a breach of her constitutional rights). “The whole thing was totally unfortunate,” says Lynch. “If the creative folks had been left to themselves, it would have been settled over a dinner. But because suits got involved, they decided they were going to wipe the slate clean. You don’t bring an army sergeant into a sandbox with kids. She was ordered not to speak to me. I wasn’t allowed to speak to her. The whole thing was stupid. It became a nightmare for all of us. None of us look back on it well.”

She says she has no more contact with Basinger. “We don’t speak. It’s not like I call her up and go, ‘Yo Kim!’ But I’m not afraid of her.” The film eventually got made, with Sherilyn Fenn (star of her father’s Twin Peaks TV series) and Julian Sands in the leads. Then the reviews came. “Confidential to Kim Basinger: That $8.5 million you paid to get out of Boxing Helena was worth every penny,” said the Washington Post, which called it “a two-hour stink bomb” in one of the kinder critiques. “Some things were said that I don’t think people have ever said about Hitler,” recalls Lynch. “It was absurd. It created a mob mentality. I didn’t stand a chance and the film didn’t stand a chance. If I could’ve squashed the whole thing and let it sit for a few years, I would have.”

It was a shock for Lynch, who was just 24 when the film came out. “I didn’t know how to take it,” she says. While her father, who has been nominated three times at the Oscars for Best Director, was regarded with admiring curiosity by the industry, she was left to lick her wounds. Understandably, she took it personally. “It wasn’t really about the film. It was ‘Jennifer Lynch is a horrible person.’ Or I was a woman hater. I was like, what are you talking about? It’s a fairy tale! Are you kidding me? It’s a movie. Who decided I’m bad? You don’t have to love it – but what’s that got to do with me? No one’s going around saying Quentin Tarantino has a bad soul! Or the makers of Saw are evil. These people have families and friends. They go to barbecues. They have fears. They were children once. Lighten up. They’re making a movie.”

Stung by the criticism, as well as accusations of nepotism, Lynch took a break “from all the craziness”, as she puts it. “I needed to decompress, separate myself and not try to make sense of why they were being mean.” Once again, the transcendental meditation, which she has practised since the age of six, helped her through. “That and Prozac, therapy and friends,” she grins. She returned to directing, making commercials, before putting her career on hold when she had Sydney. “I really believe that if you’re going to bring a child into the world, it’s your job to parent that world. Especially if it’s just you; you don’t pawn her off on somebody.”

Lynch admits that raising her daughter was a huge influence on her new film Surveillance, which she also co-wrote. A grimy thriller set in the Santa Fe desert, it stars Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman as FBI detectives investigating a series of grisly highway murders that have left an eight-year-old girl orphaned. Faced with varying eyewitness accounts of events, they turn to the child to unlock the mystery. “That’s what the inspiration for Surveillance is – the child’s eyes,” says Lynch. “I started to realise that we hear everything as kids. And we forget as adults. We ignore them. Adults are so clouded by their own ego and their own fear: ‘What do you think? What’s going on? Do they like me? Will I get the job?’ We just have all this other stuff going on. Kids, they’re just sponges. They’re soothsayers.”

According to Lynch, Sydney – who would have to be six years older to see the 18-rated film in a cinema – has already seen it “100 times”, and was on set with her. “She was there the whole time, testing brain tissue and blood…there are all these pictures of her squishing it,” she says. “It’s make-believe. She doesn’t know emotionally what certain things mean, but it’s not time for her to know that. What’s important is that she knows it’s [about] imagination and make-believe.”

In many ways, this rather recalls her own upbringing in Philadelphia, when she was on the set of her father’s masterly feature debut, Eraserhead, the harrowing seven-year production of which prefigured her own trials with Boxing Helena. She first watched her father’s film when she was just seven. “It didn’t give me nightmares,” she says. “But I said, ‘Dad – this is definitely not a movie for kids!’”

While that’s putting it mildly, you have to wonder what she made of the story of a man who fathers a mutant baby. After all, Lynch – an unplanned child – was born with club feet. As an infant, she was placed in a cast from the waist down; unable to crawl, she would pull herself along, encumbered by a metal bar between her ankles. She eventually underwent surgery at four and wore orthopaedic shoes until she was 12. As this hints, life in the Lynch household was, well, Lynchian. She recalls making her mother, Peggy, a birthday present by piling mud on to the dining-room table. “We packed it tight and dug little holes, and made little clay figures with long arms and stuck them in the openings… and that thing stayed there for years. We ate somewhere else. My mom came home and she was like, ‘I love it!’ And that was normal to me; it never occurred to me that people weren’t doing this for each other.”

Though maintaining that her childhood was happy, Lynch saw her parents separate three years before Eraserhead was released in 1977. It evidently left its mark. When she was 19, the same year she had her car accident and wrote Boxing Helena, she joined CoDa (Co-Dependents Anonymous), an organisation for people overly dependent on others for emotional support. Her mother had been “in recovery” for five years. “She didn’t drink often, but when she did, she got drunk.” Still, by this point, Lynch was learning to stand on her own two feet. When she was 22, she penned The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the spin-off novel from her father’s runaway hit Twin Peaks that remained on the New York Times bestseller list for three months.

As it happens, Lynch was asked to write the book without the knowledge of her father. Nevertheless, accusations of nepotism swiftly arose, just as they would for Boxing Helena. I wonder whether she considers it a blessing or a curse to be the daughter of David Lynch. “As a film-maker, I think that it’s treated as if I think it’s a blessing and therefore deserve more. But it’s not [a blessing]. If anything, I think it makes it a little bit more difficult. But in life in general, my dad is one of the great men on the planet. He’s super-cool, super-funny and kind. There’s no curse in that.”

She admits she was in two minds about whether to use her father’s name on Surveillance and told him that if he didn’t like it, he could remove his executive-producer credit. “At the end, the lights came up and he turned to me and said, ‘One thing – I want my name bigger!’” While it’s hardly on a par with anything her father has done, Surveillance won’t cop the flak Boxing Helena did. What’s more, with her health problems behind her, she’s even managed to shoot her third feature, Hisss, a supernatural thriller featuring Slumdog Millionaire’s police inspector, Irrfan Khan. Perhaps, after all this time in the wilderness, her Hollywood exile is finally over.

‘Surveillance’ (18) opens on 6 March