It should have been a small art film that became either the darling of film festival junkies and heralded the arrival of a fresh young talent or just another failed first film that flops alongside hundreds of others.
But then, like an experiment with prehistoric DNA, things got a little out of control.
First, the one-line high concept--a man is so obsessed with a beautiful woman that he hacks off her arms and legs and keeps her forever in a box--was just too deliciously demented to keep Hollywood and the press from talking about the merits and insanity of pursuing such an idea. And better still, it came from the daughter of one of Hollywood's weirdest star directors.
Then, one of the world's bona fide mega-celebrities was cast as the woman with no arms or legs. But Madonna got cold limbs. So the filmmakers quickly turned to another international star, Kim Basinger, and the production was ready to shoot. But Basinger too changed her mind, prompting an unprecedented Hollywood trial that ended in a jury ordering Basinger to pay the film's producer nearly $9 million for fraudulently and maliciously breaking her commitment to appear in the film.
Through all of that and the six years since she first sat down to write her twisted love story, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, now 25, persevered, and "Boxing Helena," opening here Friday, is about to be unleashed on the public. The only problem, the bright and articulate daughter of David Lynch laments, is that with all the hyper-publicized baggage that accompanies the film, practically no one will be able to see without prejudice the movie she made.
"I'm not going to say this is a film without flaws," Lynch said in a recent interview at her rented home in the Hollywood hills. "But this was just supposed to be a little low-budget movie. Right now I have to let go of it and send the child off to school, where it will either be bullied by the bullies or make friends. But all the kids in this case have been told that a new kid is coming to school in the middle of the year and he's retarded. And even if my kid only had a bent finger, he will forever be seen as the retarded kid.
"That's the perception, and I think it's almost impossible for most people to go to see the film without that. It'll be them thinking, what would the film look like with Madonna or with Kim? Jennifer Lynch is David Lynch's daughter--is it weird like him? I wish no one knew."
Whether it's prejudice or simply a matter of mediocre movie making, many critics already have reviled "Boxing Helena," which stars Sherilyn Fenn in the role Madonna and Basinger shunned and Julian Sands--Ed Harris had previously been attached to the role--as the obsessed lover. The film was poorly received when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and in England, many male critics have savaged Lynch and her film for accusing Englishmen--Sands is British--of being sexually inept. Other critics have lambasted the ending, saying it smacks of a typical, tacked-on Hollywood cop-out, but which Lynch insists she conceived from Day 1.
The film has also been the target of women's groups, who have protested what they perceive as a blatant and dangerous portrayal of violence against women. In London, where the film has already opened, women who had not seen the movie, Lynch said, picketed outside the theater. In this country, some women have already voiced their displeasure with the movie's premise.
"It doesn't surprise me that there is this reaction to it, but what surprises me is that only about 20% of the women who see the film still feel that way," Lynch said. "The rest go, right on, and understand it as a metaphor. Her self esteem is her body, her beauty, and he's taking that away. This is what women go through. If you go to the movie with the intention of seeing something misogynistic and pornographic, you can find images of that, but that's not what it's about. I mean I can find sexism and misogyny in wedding vows if I look hard enough."
Lynch explains that when she was presented the one-line idea by one of the film's producers, Philippe Caland, she resisted his inclination to focus on the violently erotic elements of the concept. Instead she wanted to tell the story as a fairy tale.
Lynch said that her grandmother had a replica of the Venus de Milo in her house, and while growing up, she always noticed that people would stop and look at the statue, not as something flawed and broken, but as something beautiful. Using that as her guide, she persuaded Caland to let her write a script exploring the kind of violence couples inflict when they attempt to change one another in an effort to feel safer, in an effort to ensure that the beloved will never ever leave.
"Horror fans will be terribly disappointed because there isn't much blood or violence," Lynch observed.
She wrote the script in less than two months when she was just 19, but even with the marketing capital that "daughter of David Lynch" represented, "no one wanted a young, blonde girl to direct a movie," said Lynch, who sports a tattooed art deco coffee cup on her arm.
But all interested directors wanted to do it as a horror film, and Lynch remembered that she began to feel very protective of the script. "I was in love with this story and it wasn't about a guy hacking up some beautiful woman that he wanted to screw. And though I never really wanted to go into film--that was Dad's thing and I had so much respect for what he did that I just considered it all his--I started to have these fantasies that I should direct it so it wouldn't turn into some horrible misinterpreted gore-fest."
Lynch, whose parents split up when she was 5, had never made another movie, never been to film school, never been to college. She attended an arts school in Michigan her last two years of high school, and as a child, she said, her parents--her mother is a fiction writer and painter who met David Lynch in art school--instilled in her a sense of independent thought. "They helped me be open to things that other people might deem absurd because I was never told this is good or bad, but only asked what I thought about it. That kind of upbringing can't help but make you interested in more than the fashion magazine side of life."
Her only film education, however, was hanging around on her father's movie sets, watching and learning about as many aspects of the process as she could simply because it was fun. But up until she was handed the idea for "Boxing Helena," she had intended to direct her creative urges toward writing books, painting and acting and to leave the filmmaking to her old man.
"I had worked in production on a number of films with first time directors directing their own screenplays and doing very well," said Carl Mazzocone, the film's producer. "Ron Shelton on 'Bull Durham' and Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis with 'Stealing Home.' And her screenplay was so original and it was written in such a cinematic way that it gave the impression that whoever wrote it knew what they were doing. Then I met her and she was bright and articulate and charming and passionate and cooperative and she just seemed like she would make a great partner."
Mazzocone, who was the plaintiff in the suit against Basinger, conceded that the fact that she is David Lynch's daughter will provoke some to see the movie out of curiosity. He added that the Lynch name "was also a welcome mat for the bizarre that allowed for some liberties with the subject matter." But he claimed that he hired Jennifer Lynch to direct primarily because she is a woman.
"It would have been politically incorrect to have a man direct this film," he said. "It is perceived as a horror film even though it isn't, and if people saw a man's name as the director, a lot of women probably wouldn't even give it a chance."
Mazzocone will only predict modest numbers of people taking a chance on "Boxing Helena," even though the persistent notoriety has given it "a name recognition that Madison Avenue would be jealous of." From the outset, he said, he knew it was not a movie for the masses.
"It's a provocative film and people are going to walk out either loving it or loathing it," said Mazzocone.
Just the fact that moviegoers finally will have the chance to decide for themselves is enough triumph, both Lynch and Mazzocone said. When Basinger pulled out, according to testimony in the trial, the film lost millions of dollars in foreign pre-sales and its domestic distribution. This forced Mazzocone to reduce the film's budget to just over $4 million, and while Lynch insists she got the film on the screen that she wanted--and that she would have made the film for $100,000 if she had to--Mazzocone said the reduced budget did hurt the eventual result.
Lynch was forced to shoot on location in less expensive Atlanta rather than on a more adaptable sound stage here, and she had to do without a costume designer or art director. When the set decorator quit over the cost of bed sheets, Mazzocone took that job on himself, he said.
The director made no apologies for the film or for the ending, which turns the whole thing into an ugly fantasy that Lynch believes permits Sands' character to work out his obsession without ruining anyone's life. And she lavished praise on Fenn for having the courage to show up and do the part in the wake of the other's rejection. Still, she is curious too about how it would have turned out with one of the bigger stars and her built-in sexual cache.
"I would have loved to see what they would have done because I think both of them have been Helenas of sorts and based their lives on their physical beauty," Lynch said. "I was excited for the chance to see someone like that, who loses her physical beauty but is still strong in spirit and beautiful and mentally alive. They were excited too and that's what made me so sad when they decided not to do it."
Lynch said she would have shot some scenes more artistically and without the explicit nudity that is in the film had either Madonna or Basinger stayed in. (For release here, she was forced to cut about 30 seconds of sex from the version that is being screened in Europe in order to get an R rating from the MPAA.) Since Fenn does not have the kind of sexual image that goes along with Basinger's "9 1/2 Weeks" or Madonna's entire career, Lynch decided she had to give the teen-age innocent from "Twin Peaks" a level of sexual maturity that would have been automatic with either of the other two.
"With Kim or Madonna, it would have been beating the audience over the head with sexuality to show them nude," Lynch said. "The audience is already obsessed with them in a sense and that was the gift of having someone who had already seduced a nation. So we understand the guy's love. But I wanted to give it a more romantic element. I wanted to photograph both of them as if they were the Venus de Milo, as if they were a statue: the curve of the breast and not the nipple, the slope of the chin, the shoulders, the lips, the eyes. All the things that when you're in love you are thinking about as opposed to just the purely sexual."
In making the film, Lynch said she did feel a kind of pressure to live up to the family name, but what softened those expectations was David Lynch ("Blue Velvet," "Eraserhead," TV's "Twin Peaks") acting not as filmmaking tutor or adviser, but simply as a supportive Dad. When he saw the film, he cried and hugged his daughter for 10 minutes, Jennifer Lynch said.
The real pressure, she explained, came simply from the constant ordeal of actress pull-outs and the stops and starts and disappointments that they precipitated. And then there was the monthlong trial, which began shortly after the film premiered at Sundance last January. Lynch was the first witness in what turned out to be an extremely bitter and nasty exercise.
"Believe me, there have been points, even a month ago, where I was so disillusioned with this whole scene that I thought I would never do anything like this again," Lynch said. "If I could, I would go far away from this town and get a little cottage and have babies and write books. Through all of this, a five-year relationship that I'd loved had come to an end and I felt this whole mess had taken it away from me. And I remember how sad I was thinking that I had lost what was genuine in my life and I was stuck in this place with liars and cheaters and I had no idea how I was ever going to deal with it or how was I ever going to get out of it."
Various producers and movie companies have sent Lynch a number of scripts for her to consider for her next project, but she hasn't paid much attention to any of them. "I need some time off from all of this," she said. "And besides if I did something right now it would be something I didn't love and I wouldn't do it very well. This whole idea of hurry up while you're hot is so weird and arrogant. What does it mean? I didn't do this to become hot and jump on a train that just cranks out films."
Instead she plans to take the next year to sit quietly and write a novel--a strange love story, of course, she said. When she finally returns to filmmaking, she said she might shock everyone by making a sweet little movie, rather than hiking further into the Lynchian realm of the bizarre.
"Right now people are sending me scripts that are ultimately quite strange, but I can't say that the absurd or the weird is the only thing that interests me. I love stories. Any kind. Raymond Carver can write a story about a trip to the store for eggs that's just a little simple story, but it's the way that it's offered and how much excitement he had in telling it that makes it great. I might make an even weirder film next time, but I'm also a big sucker for sweet romantic stuff. I just don't know if I'm any good at it."