Chained is the latest feature from American writer-directorJennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch. It’s a psychological horror, about a man called Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio) who – having suffered years of abuse as a child – has become a predatory killer of women under the guise of a taxi-cab driver. Bob crosses paths with a young boy called Tim (Evan Bird) who gets in the taxi-cab with his mother (Julia Ormond) after a trip to the cinema. Bob takes them to his isolated home in the middle of nowhere, before overpowering and killing the mother with Tim listening to her final screams.
Rather than killing the witness, the perverse Bob sees an opportunity and keeps the boy alive – he renames Tim ‘Rabbit’ and chains him to the wall. He is now Bob’s domestic slave to clean-up after him when night after night he kidnaps and then slaughters women. Bob tells him ‘This is your world now. It’s only you, me and them’ and for Rabbit that’s true for ten long years. Now a young man, Rabbit (Eamon Farren) is being groomed to become Bob’s protégé. So he may have to become what he hates to finally get released from his chains.
I was lucky enough to chat to Jennifer about her new film, as well as her future projects, her approach to writing and directing, and of course her famous father. She was an engaging interviewee, with an infectious laugh and a clear passion for film that oozes from every pore. The following interview provides an excellent insight into film-making from an accomplished writer-director who is carving a name for herself in her own right.
Filmoria: Your latest film Chained is being released in the UK on 4 February 2013, so what can you tell our readers about the film?
Jennifer: What can I tell your readers… that they should buy it (laughs) No, for me Chainedwas an exercise in looking at how the human monster is made – real monsters. And hopefully, I think humanises monsters, because I want to bring to the surface that child abuse is what builds those horrible people. In no way do I mean to justify or excuse the horrible behaviour because there is no excuse for it, but there is an explanation.
And so, in looking at the cycle of nurture versus nature, maybe there’s a kind of a fascination of why one man grew up one way and the boy grows up another. And what happens to you when you receive that kind of damage.
…for me Chained was an exercise in looking at how the human monster is made – real monsters.
Filmoria: Although you wrote the screenplay, the actual story is based on a screenplay by Damian O’Donnell. So how much of the script did you change and what elements did you keep?
Jennifer: The producers came to me with a script that was incredibly well written, but that I felt was a bit too gratuitous or – for lack of a better word – more torture-porn than psychological horror. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that it wasn’t a film for me.
But when they asked: “What would you do with it?” – I said I wanted to focus on the relationship between our taxi-cab driver and the boy, and that ten year relationship that they go through. I removed the detectives searching for the killer and I removed the killings that didn’t tell me anything about my killer.
Filmoria: It’s quite a subtle film I thought when I was watching it, even though it’s got this big, brazen ‘Chained’ title. Like you said, the torture-porn elements have been removed and you’ve very much gone for the less is more approach like Jaws.
Jennifer: And you should know too that the original script was called ‘Chained’, and when I re-wrote it I called it ‘Rabbit’ and when I shot it, it was called ‘Rabbit’. But apparently the powers that be said they didn’t know how to sell a film called ‘Rabbit’. I think that ‘Chained’ is misleading as a title because it suggests more of Saw or a Hostel and that’s not what this movie is. So I’m grateful to hear that hopefully people are seeing it, even though the title suggests something it isn’t.
Filmoria: Exactly, and the scene at the start of the movie where young Tim/Rabbit is locked in the taxi-cab and can hear his mother being killed signifies that approach. And personally, that’s one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in cinema and you don’t see a drop of blood.
Jennifer: I’m so glad you think so. To me, there is so much more terror in not seeing something and seeing just the reaction of what Tim is feeling when he hears his mother screaming. Because what the audience can create as far as what’s going on behind that door is far more devastating than anything I could show them. And hopefully that bonds the audience to the boy and stays with them through the movie.
Filmoria: Have you got any flak from the taxi-driver unions in America for the film?
Jennifer: I have not (laughs) not yet. Don’t give ‘em any ideas (laughs)
Filmoria: I haven’t got in a cab since to be honest.
Jennifer: Yeah, suddenly more people are walking and asking friends for rides (laughs). But what really thrilled me about the idea of him being a taxi driver was that he is what we think as a “normal guy”. He can go anywhere and you get into his car without thinking twice. Just the idea of something you’re not thinking as a dangerous situation, could be incredibly dangerous. And because Bob doesn’t kill everybody he drives around it’s all the more frightening.
Filmoria: And when you were writing the script was Vincent in your mind from the word go?
Jennifer: I knew by the end of it that’s who I wanted, but I wasn’t writing with him in mind necessarily. Without sounding too creepy, the way I tend to write is that every character comes from me because I’m thinking of what I would do if I were them. And then I separate myself from them and think who could do this? The second it was done he was on my mind.
Filmoria: It’s a great fit as well, and I think he’s fantastic in it.
Jennifer: Thank you. I think he’s incredibly wonderful, and he was so brave and generous. And not many people would have trusted me like Vincent did – so I’m deeply honoured and tickled that he did.
…the way I tend to write is that every character comes from me because I’m thinking of what I would do if I were them
Filmoria: In terms of developing the character of Bob, with his emotions and mannerisms – was that collaborative or did Vincent bring all that to the table?
Jennifer: I’d say it’s collaborative. The first thing Vincent said was “Do you need me to lose weight?” and I said don’t you dare! I said what’s really important is that Bob is not stupid, Bob has been hit in the head a lot so he’s like a seasoned boxer. So his words are heavy in his mouth, he has to really concentrate or everything gets slurred. His body is really heavy on his bones. And he’s as much the angry man as he is the frightened confused child – the boy he was when all that abuse was going on.
So, I said stay that weight but know that everything is heavy on you. And Vincent developed the speech impediment. Our budget was very low, and Vincent had his own dentist make him up a mouthpiece so he really had to work hard at annunciating words. Then I just let Vincent go – once I had told him what I felt was going on there to remind him that the boy is still in there, and the body is heavy on him. And I didn’t want him to think that Bob is stupid, because Bob is not stupid he’s scared. And that’s often confused with ignorance and stupidity.
Filmoria: The role of Bob was quite demanding, but so was the role of Rabbit – played by two actors Eamon Farren (as the older Rabbit) and Evan Bird (as the younger Rabbit). How did you cast them? And did they shadow each other to develop the character of Rabbit?
Jennifer: Believe it or not, I hired them both over the phone and Skype. And I knew after speaking to them both that they were the right people, and that was after quite an extensive search. Eamon has probably one of the strongest Australian accents I’ve ever heard, and you would never know it in his performance. And Evan – you still protect him because he’s a child – but he is just a wise little man.
What I had was Eamon arrive for the entirety of the shoot and watch Evan’s performance, so he could adopt some of mannerisms that I was giving Evan or that Evan innately had in himself. And I think that was really beneficial, I think it made Evan feel good to have Eamon there and I think it was incredibly helpful to Eamon to see what he was supposed to look like as a boy – and to figure how to change that and how maintain some of it. I think both of them did a phenomenal job, and both of them expressed to me that it was a great comfort and help to have each other there – so I think it was the right choice.
Filmoria: So you didn’t opt for rehearsals, you shot chronologically instead?
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s not a very popular opinion but my opinion is that rehearsals are B.S. I think the first time something’s done should be on camera, but there should be a dialogue about it first. Conversation is incredibly helpful to me, it’s more helpful to me than rehearsal. Blocking is important – absolutely – the actor’s familiarity and sense of safety with who they are, what’s expected and what they want to bring to things. But to run through it over and over, and over again with full emotion is totally useless to me and I think damaging. To have say to an actor ever “Can you do what you did in rehearsal?” is devastating, and I never want to do that to someone. So running lines – yes, but you don’t run lines with full emotion. You block, you run lines and you discuss – then you turn that camera on and do the scene.
Filmoria: You pinpointed a key part of the film – it’s wrought with tension and emotion. And I’ve heard you say you shot it in 15 days, so how challenging was it get the right levels of tension and emotion when you’ve got such a short timescale?
Jennifer: You’d be surprised (laughs). It was not difficult to reach those levels, the pressure almost helped the tension. And also – not to make us all sound like horrible people but to remind ourselves that we were human beings – there was a tremendous amount of laughter in between takes and joy on the set. Not laughter at the subject matter, but almost as a way to preserve our sanity and not to become overly exhausted with the schedule and the weight of the material. That in fact helped them go back into it each time with an equal amount of tension.
And you know, I gotta say that I adore digital for many reasons but the one that’s really most precious to me is that I don’t have to worry about running out of my mag. I can just say “Okay still rolling, stay in the moment, let’s go again” with this in mind, and the actors don’t have to leave their space, they don’t need to get up and shuffle around – we can stay in the moment and nobody’s worried about running out of film. And that’s an incredibly potent gift that film does not allow.
Film is film, this is digital. And I adore them both for very different reasons. I’ve found digital to be very helpful in terms of honouring what the actors are doing. And being able to keep them in a space that I see is working and make just subtle adjustments. And respecting what they’re doing – it looks like actors have clothes on, but they’re really quite emotionally naked. It’s nice to keep them in a safe space and not snap them in and out of stuff.
To have say to an actor ever “Can you do what you did in rehearsal?” is devastating, and I never want to do that to someone.
Filmoria: And I guess you’ve taken that approach into your next film, which is called A Fall from Grace and it’s another serial killer film. So what can you tell us about that it?
Jennifer: I guess the best way to describe it is that it is about the human wound and wreckage, and the reality of that. Tim Roth plays the lead, and he is a homicide detective who has been wounded and has become addicted to drugs and alcohol due the pain he has – physically and emotionally – for not solving a particular case. We go with him through the city of St Louis, trying to unfold both his own demons and the demon that is killing young girls.
Filmoria: And Vincent D’Onofrio makes an appearance in this film as well. So who does he play?
Jennifer: Vincent plays a next door neighbour to Tim Roth called George, who is a working class man whose son has been killed. He is completely devastated by it.
Filmoria: Just going back to Chained briefly, it had its UK premiere at last summer’s Frightfest in London and you attended the festival. How do you think it went down with UK audiences?
Jennifer: It seemed to be great you know, but the only people who came up to me were the people who loved it thankfully. So if anyone hated it, they didn’t tell me (laughs). I think it went great, I sleep a lot better at night thinking it went that way. It was an incredibly powerful experience. It was in one of the most beautiful theatres (the Empire Leicester Square) that I’ve ever seen – it was quite a thrill to be sitting in a theatre that large, and hearing people react and experience it. I think it went well, do you know something I don’t? (laughs)
Filmoria: I was actually at one of the screenings and it was my favourite film of the festival, and I think one of the Frightfest organisers said it was his too. So I think it went down pretty well.
And sorry to throw a quote back at you, but in the Q&A session at Frightfest you said “I’ve a fondness for serial killers, I’ve a fondness for Mother Teresa – I like to figure out why people do what they do, good and bad” So is the film after A Fall from Grace going to be the Mother Teresa biopic?
Jennifer: (Laughs) Yeah, after that it’s the Mother Teresa biopic ‘Why would you do such good things?’ (laughs). I am fascinated by human behaviour. I have not figured out myself or other people, and that is a great source of material for cinema (laughs).
Filmoria: In terms of future projects, are you looking to do something a little bit lighter?
Jennifer: After A Fall From Grace, I’m scheduled to do a really great film which is a horror-comedy called The Monster Next Door written by Jim Robbins. It’s hysterical, it’s sexy, it’s fun and it’s got vampires, werewolves, zombies and nerds in it. I’m super, super excited about it.
Filmoria: I’m sure you’re probably sick of getting questions asked about your dad in interviews, so apologies for that, but have you guys ever talked about collaborating again? With you writing and him directing, or co-writing/co-directing – is that in the Lynch family plan?
Jennifer: You know I don’t know. For a while we were talking about making a Diane Arbus (a famous twentieth century American photographer) film together, because we both love that Diane Arbus. But when we talk it’s about other stuff, more than just the work. But you never know what’s gonna happen in the future, and he’s about to make a film that’s gonna blow the world’s mind. So for now we’re both doing our own things and patting each other on the back.