Interview: Jennifer Lynch On Chained And Her Star Vincent D’Onofrio

The writer-director of Boxing Helena and Surveillance returns with disturbing drama.

One of the more interesting interviews we took part in during last year’s FrightFest was with Jennifer Lynch, and ahead of the release of Chained on 1st February (on DVD and Blu-ray 4th February), we can now share it with you.

The daughter of David Lynch made her film debut in 1993 with the controversial Boxing Helena, and after the hysterical, scathing attacks on the twisted drama about obession, Lynch left the public eye. She returned in 2008 with Surveillance, which earned Lynch awards at Festival de Cine de Sitges and the New York City Horror Film Festival. 2010’s Hisss appears to be a blip on Lynch’s career, as she is back with her most accomplished work yet with Chained.

Chained stars Vincent D’Onofrio as a taxi driver and serial killer who keeps the young son of one of his victims imprisoned in his remote home for a decade. Nicknamed Rabbit, the child grows into a young man (Eamon Farren), and Lynch’s fascinating, intelligent and disturbing drama examines the effects of this warped upbringing on a boy, while featuring a terrifying performance from D’Onofrio.

The remarkably candid and friendly Lynch joined us for an intimate round table chat last summer, where she spoke honestly about her struggles as a filmmaker (‘I live paycheck to paycheck and there are many dry spells - I apply for a lot of waitressing jobs and I clean a lot of houses’) and the gap between her debut and follow-up (I had three spinal surgeries, I had my daughter and I was a single mother, so I devoted my time to my child and getting better physically). Thankfully, Lynch appears to be on a roll after the critical success of Chained, and you can learn about her new projects below.

How did Chained come about?
The film came about as I was really in need of a job, and two producers Lee Nelson and David Buelow who had a script called Chained, which they sent to me as they were looking for a director. I read the script and really loved the idea of this kind of killer, a taxi cab driver - he’s not your masked guy in the woods, he’s out there in the world. It could happen to any of us. The storyline is essentially what you see, he picks up a mother and son, kills the mother and keeps the boy for a decade, and there was the twist ending. But it was incredibly graphic and there were detectives following him, and Bob’s name was the Dicer, and he would removed pieces of these women and torture them slowly. That didn’t grab me by the short and curlies and turn me on. I first asked the producers why they thought of me for something like this, and I guess the general consensus is that I’m a very dark, violent person! [laughs] I don’t think of myself in that way; I’m curious and I’d love to end up studying that. I’m not afraid to go dark, I like it. But it came to me that way, and I asked them if I could keep their premise, as that’s what they’d paid for, but make it more about how this monster was created and the interaction between him and the boy. They were all for it.

A snapshot of horror from FrightFest shows a borderline misogynistic trend. Was the lack of exploitation in your otherwise disturbing film a conscious one?
I would say definitely misogynistic! It was how I wanted the vision to come across. There was consciousness to it but not in the sense of I’m not going to be exploitative, it’s just that that’s not what scares me. What gets me is knowing the people, and for an hour and a half living someone else’s experience. That’s what cinema is to me, that invitation to be in someone’s world. I don’t get excited when I don’t know the girl screaming and getting stabbed. These women, I wanted to see them so briefly, so it was more about what he did, than about torture. It’s not necessary to me, and it doesn’t tell a story. There are people who want to do it, and are very good at it, and there’s a large audience for it. I just don’t think killing people is interesting.

How hard was it to balance the sympathy with Bob [D’Onofrio]?
I don’t know if hard was the word, but I made a conscious choice to try and offer up an explanation of what had happened to be him. But just enough so we didn’t say, oh poor Bob. Just so we understood that this guy was not born a bad man, and that there was a humanity to him. Because that to me is, for want of a better word, touching and interesting as well as more terrifying. Because if the guy who is going to kill me is very much like me, I’m just shocked. How can I negotiate with him? You can’t negotiate with him. Bob just wants to kill you, as that’s what he does, that’s how he feels better. I don’t want to justify what he does at all, but explaining it brings a whole other element to it that is more terrifying and touching.

What is it like working with Vincent D’Onofrio?
Vincent is a fucking genius. This is such a cornball answer, but he’s so great. He’s generous and trusting of me. He’s brave - I’ve always said the bravest thing I can do, or anyone else can do, is say ‘I’m afraid’ but keep going. It’s the chickenshit that says ‘I’m not afraid’ and doesn’t want to do anything. The bravery he exhibited in taking these chances and not being big - there’s only that one moment when he’s like [rages] gets big, and that’s a childlike thing, as he’s always that kid. He’s so good to the other actors, and willing to risk his own embarrassment to tell this man’s story, and I have so much respect for him, and a deep gratitude to him and everyone who was in the film for playing it as quiet as he did. He really is one of the most underrated actors in TV and cinema. There’s nothing that guy can’t do, and I hope people see this. That’s my only sadness with the performance is that as we’re not getting theatrical in the US, the Academy won’t recognise his performance. The more people who see it, I hope he is honoured somehow, even if it is just by word of mouth. There aren’t a lot of people who would’ve trusted me in this situation, and there were a couple of times I asked him to do something that occurred to me while shooting, and he’d nod and say he’d do it once. Fortunately there was a camera there, so I got to capture it.

Did you have him in mind while writing?
Not when I was writing it, but the moment it was finished. I really had him in mind. He can be so small in this big body, and so big in a way that isn’t the traditional big. There was a little bit of a flavour of Lenny in Of Mice and Men, where he doesn’t know his own strength maybe, and I love that. Bob is always this kid who tries to relate by talking about puzzles. It’s really about how we are forever these children in adult bodies.

Can you talk about casting relative newcomer Eamon Farren as the older Rabbit?
I was looking for an innocence, yet a strength we could all relate to. Again, there’s nothing more powerful than something whispered, because it can be so loud. And Rabbit is a whisper, but he’s stronger than we expect. I had heard about him from the casting agent, and I was having a really hard time finding somebody. There were your good-looking young guys, and your awkward young guys, but nobody really had that. Rabbit’s not a normal kid. She said there’s this Australian guy I really think you’ll like; he’s done very few things but he’s got a great face. He sent an audition from Australia and I got about a minute and a half into the audition and said I gotta get on the phone with him. Basically hired him after talking to him, as I knew he got it. I love his face. He looks very similar to Evan [Bird, the young Rabbit], who was cast after Eamon, also over Skype. Eamonn is such a big personality, and he’s jovial and happy and hella Australian! That man’s got an accent you can’t believe and he can drop it in a heartbeat. I hope people interview him a lot, as people will be astonished how different he is from Rabbit. It’s testament to what a great actor he is.

You’ve spoken about wanting a director’s cut - what did you have to lose?
There are three small scenes that are really important to me that I want to put in the centre of the film, in the main bulk of the experience in the house. Then there’s a two minute section where it’s not revealed in voiceover so much, but in visuals, of the end. Those are important to me, but I needed to make it work without doing that. I can’t stand voiceover. It’s a visual medium, show don’t tell me. Again, I lost that battle. I lost the battle for the title, certain scenes. A scene I really want in the director’s cut, is after we reveal from behind the TV that Rabbit is older now, that shot doesn’t end there. It continues over and there’s a bound woman sitting next to Vincent on the chair, just like his mother was in the flashback, and she’s whimpering. Both Rabbit and Bob go ‘shush!’ and go back to watching TV. That to me, is the example of how long he’s been there, and now this is normal. He’s a kid trying to watch his TV show. Everybody felt this was Rabbit being too complicit. But to me it’s a perfect example of how normal his life is. Little things that tell us what damage is done stays.

Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
I’d love to show the whole card game, which goes on for a round each. I love Bob’s nightmare and his flashback, and I love Vincent saying ‘Are you trying to make me fucking insane?’ because it’s just so ridiculous he’s asking the kid this! I like Rabbit doing the silent scream at him, like it’s the only thing he can do to this guy. I’ve seen kids to that to dogs, too, to see what they can get away with when the dog wasn’t looking.

Can you tell us about the design of Bob’s house, as it’s the main location throughout the film?
There was a production designer also on Surveillance called Sarah McCudden who I just think is incredible. For five bucks, Sarah can give you the Taj Mahal. We only shot over 15 days and we had very little money, and I walked on to the sound stage when another film was finishing, and I could save lumber costs if they didn’t tear it down and I just bought the wood from them. I tried to make it look like some old couple’s home, as I didn’t want to know how Bob got this house, I just wanted it to look like it had been there a while and it was a home. Choosing practical lights and trying to keep it disgustingly warm and cosy in there. It was the genius idea of the cinematographer to put a coat of varnish on the wallpaper in the living room, which really gives the light a strange kick when Bob’s sitting there.

Can you tell us about the closing credits of the film? SPOILERS
That was weird. I had 11 minutes left in the final mix and they wanted to put a song over it, but there was no right song. You just don’t want a Journey song over it, a bit of Etta James. SPOILERS I just wanted the idea of what it sounds like when Rabbit gets back to that house, as it’s the only place he has to live, and it’s what he knows as home. So I took all of the sounds of Bob and he moving around the house and played them over the credits, so there’s the acknowledgment of him doing what he’s done, but there’s enough for the audience to think what next? There is the sound of Angie breathing, as I think she’s just fine. The only thing that bothers me is that the sound of him bathing sounds like him pissing, but I figured he’s got to piss. END OF SPOILERS

What’s your next project?
It is called A Fall From Grace, again I’m examining damaged children. It stars Tim Roth as a detective. He is for several different reasons fairly damaged himself, and is an alcoholic and drug addict and is trying to solve a series of cases while also dealing with an underground ring of paedophiles. So it’s a romantic comedy. It’s a lot like The Bourne Identity and Bridget Jones’ Diary [laughs].

Would you want to tackle another genre?
I’ve been directing a lot of comedy TV, I love comedy and in fact there’s a film I want to do after A Fall From Grace called The Monster Next Door. It’s a vampire, zombie, werewolf nerd comedy. It’s a great script from Jim Robbins, and it’s an opportunity to still play around with effects and gore, but also laugh really loud. Hopefully it’s Superbad meets American Werewolf in London [laughs]. I love love stories, I’m a human being. I just haven’t been presented with that opportunity. I’m more drawn towards things I don’t experience every day, and that’s why the darkness appeals to me. I have a very bright and shiny life for the most part!