Jennifer Lynch, daughter of cult film auteur David Lynch, made her auspicious directorial debut in 1993 with Boxing Helena at the Sundance Film Festival. Fifteen years later, a recovering addict and hard-working single mother, Lynch returns to the director’s chair with an ambitious project that will test her skills and the entire crew’s sanity.
Despite the Gods brings us behind the scenes on the set of Lynch’s Bollywood/Hollywood action film about a man-eating snake goddess. As the story in front of the camera derails, the story behind the camera explodes.
Welcome to India, home of the world’s largest movie industry, where mere mortal film stars are worshiped with the same fervour as timeless Indian Gods; and the new buzzword ‘co-production’ looms on the lips of Indian financiers keen to form a Bollywood -Hollywood alliance. Yet, co-production of this sort is relatively uncharted territory. It would take immense courage or naivety for a US filmmaker to dive into the chaos that epitomizes filmmaking in India.
In 2008, Jennifer Lynch (daughter of cult director David Lynch), dove headfirst into this very scenario. She had just returned to the Hollywood fold after spending nearly 15 years in exile since being vilified by press and feminist groups for her debut film, Boxing Helena. Wounded by the harsh response of her critics, Lynch retreated from the public eye. Her second film, Surveillance, had just premiered at Cannes. Bolstered by this success she felt ready to take on more challenging projects. As fate would have it Jennifer meets maverick Indian producer Govind Menon, who invites her to write and direct Hisss.
Hisss is a tale set in present day India about the vengeful snake Goddess Nagin, a snake-woman who embarks on a murderous path to find her lover. Lynch’s cinematic take on the Indian legend is best described as a comedy / horror / action / adventure / musical / creature-feature / love story. Hisss is genre defying in every way, but this is familiar territory for Lynch. After all, her film credits include an amputee fairy tale and a romantic serial killer thriller.
Full of excitement, and convinced she is making her career defining film, Jennifer Lynch travels to India with her twelve year old daughter Sydney to begin production. Spirits are high in the land of the Gods, and so are the stakes.
Things go wrong very quickly. Lynch’s Western need for order, systems and schedules is completely at odds with the Indian crew’s decidedly non-linear way of working – and lack of experience with films of this scale. But that’s the least of their worries.
Unable to control the chaos surrounding her, Lynch slowly and steadily spirals into a depression as her worst fears are realised: this could be the biggest disaster of her career…another Boxing Helena.
It’s nothing short of a filmmaker’s nightmare. Just a day into the shoot the whole production is held to ransom by a gaffer’s strike, forcing the team to re-group and move from Chennai to Kerala, a 24-hour bus journey away. Everything is turned upside down. Then three weeks into filming the script has to be all but abandoned, dangerously over budget and over schedule, the director, cast and crew find themselves having to ‘wing it’ for the next six months with nay a schedule, call sheet or any stunt insurance in sight.
Lynch can only cheerlead and watch in despair as the film strays further and further away from her original script.
Surrounded by a truly wonderful team of un-trained but willing Indian crew, her daughter, an increasingly stressed-out Menon, and a cast of Bollywood stars, Lynch does her hands-on best to stay sane and guide the production through a minefield of disasters.
The more they plan, the more the Gods laugh. The more they try to lock things down, the more they seem to shift; locations, cast, scripts are constantly rotated, re-invented and improvised depending on what the Indian day brings. A cyclone, strikes and superstitious crew don’t do much to help. All differences, apparent and invisible, personal and professional are brought to the surface. A tug of war emerges between Lynch and Menon as they both fight to save the film.
With uncensored candour, Lynch shares the heartbreaking and at times hilarious experience of being a director at the helm of a sinking ship. The camera becomes her confessional; a record of the madness within and without.
But all is not lost. After months of trials and tantrums, Lynch begins to see that Indian chaos at a second glance is actually very organized. To regain control of the film and her sanity she simply needs to let go of control and begin trusting in India, and in herself. Then the real adventure begins.