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“Despite the Gods”: A behind-the-scenes documentary looks at Jennifer Lynch’s trouble-filled Indian snake goddess film “Hisss”
Australian filmmaker Penny Vozniak’s 2012 documentary, Despite the Gods, is a fascinating and sometimes horrifying look at the difficulties behind directing a trouble-filled feature film, and you can see it streaming right now over on our Night Flight Plus channel. (This trailer is slightly NSFW for language).
Vozniak — a friend of Govind Menon, one of the producers of Hisss, a Hollywood/Bollywood action film about a man-eating snake goddess — was paid $10,000 to film what happened behind-the-scenes for a “Making Of…” featurette, but her cameras ended up capturing the film’s director, Jennifer Lynch, daughter of the legendary auteur David Lynch, having a major meltdown as tensions escalated on the set for the next eight months.
Lynch, as you might expect, has been around movies and filmmaking her entire life, although her parents — Lynch and painter Peggy Reavy — divorced when she was just six years old. Despite growing up in Philadelphia, she’s even acted in in a few of her father’s movies; sadly, her performances in both Eraserhead and Blue Velvet ended up on the cutting room floor.
At age nineteen, Lynch moved to Los Angeles, to be closer to her father, who was by then an Oscar-nominated director, and Lynch soon became interested in directing her own films but faced a major setback when she nearly died in a car accident which left her with severe spinal damage.
She began writing the script for her debut project, Boxing Helena, while convalescing, and we’ve read that she was the youngest American woman ever to direct a feature film when it was finally lensed in 1993, when she was just 22 years old (that same year she also finished writing her first book, the best-seller The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a tie-in to her father’s hit TV show “Twin Peaks“).
Despite being nominated for a Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, critics and audiences savaged the Razzie-winning Boxing Helena, and it failed so spectacularly at the box office that Lynch decided to take a break from filmmaking. She later admitted in 2009 that she underwent three spinal surgeries after Boxing Helena to correct problems caused by the car accident years earlier.
She became a mother in 1995 when her daughter Sydney was born, and she struggled as a single parent and also struggled with both drugs and alcohol (she dealt with both in recovery programs).
After her extended 15-year hiatus, Lynch finally returned with her next film, Surveillance, a dark detectives-hunting-for-a-serial-killer-in-the-Midwest thriller that some critics compared to her father’s work (he signed on as an executive producer in order to help get the film made). Lynch co-wrote the taut script with Kent Harper, with whom she’d made a few short films before her return to features.
For Lynch’s third directing job she was given the opportunity to script and then direct a film that re-imagined India’s 4,000-year old story about Nagin, the enigmatic and powerful snake goddess. For one of the co-producers on the film, Govind Menon, it was a passion project about a story that had fascinated him since childhood, and he and Lynch discussed how they were going to approach telling it.
The plot, essentially, begins in a small town in the jungle near Kerala, India, called Natchi, where a man named George States — who is suffering from terminal brain cancer with just six months to live — hires workers from a jungle tribe, the Tamil Nadu, to capture a shape-shifting hooded cobra-like snake, a Nag, in order to obtain “Nagmani” from the female snake, a Nagin, who they believe will slither forth in order to help rescue her male counterpart. States believes that the Nagmani — a stone that allows Nagin to grant immortality — will not only cure his cancer but also make him immortal.
The tribesmen capture the male cobra but the female escapes. States keeps the Nag in a glass cage, hoping that Nagin will attempt a rescue, and he will then release it in exchange for the Nagamani.
The enraged Nagin, with the image of its oppressor in its eyes, sheds its snake-skin and turns into a beautiful woman (played by stunning actress Mallika Sherawat), whose role seems to be as a kind of fertility goddess who destroys her mate’s enemies. Something like that.
Lynch saw it as a sensual feminist love story, and was intrigued by the idea of the mythic snake-woman Nagin, a fiercely devoted fertility goddess hailing from the ancient times but existing in the present. She also believed that since she would be working in India, that she would be able to mix in melodramatic/comic storylines and lavish Bollywood-style musical production numbers while infusing the film with comedic elements.
She thought the film — shot simultaneously in English and Hindi — would work best as a kind of traditional fantasy fable with occasionally horrific flashes of violence rather than being a full-on SFX-heavy horror film.
In one interview, she said this:
” I wanted a Mary Poppins element. I wanted a Grease element; I wanted a 1970s love story element. I wanted there to be moments of magic that were so beautiful that you just looked at it and it was something to behold. There would be moments of stillness and moments of great action. I had a very specific idea for the special effects and a very specific idea for the music…. I wanted it to be beautiful and absurd and honest and authentic and yet totally fantastic in its elements of worship and faith. I wanted at the end to think that Nagin was as much a superhero as she was a goddess, and it might be kinda cool to have a snake statue in my house that I pour milk on…. There is immortality in our children and I get that.“
She was also excited that she’d be able to bring her twelve-year old daughter Sydney to India with her, exposing her to a different culture, now that she was old enough to be on the set and watching mommy work.
Menon — who had seen Lynch’s dark film Surveillance and certainly knew of her father’s cinematic influence — thought that Lynch might be the right person to adapt this traditional Indian story and turn it into a dark, surreal horror film which he felt had great commercial potential. Despite the fact that he saw the film more as a modern horror story linked to India’s past, he okayed her screenplay and her multiple storylines, and the production on the $3 million budget film began.
First-time director Vozniak — an Australian filmmaker who had stopped off to visit Menon on the film’s set in Chennai, India, where work on Hisss began (under the working title Nagin: The Snake Goddess) — was actually on her was to Kabul to work on a different documentary when Menon asked if she’d stay awhile and babysit Lynch’s daugher, Sydney, who Menon believed was a distraction to Jennifer Lynch.
It was Lynch’s discussions with Vozniak during this period of pre-production, about her making a “behind-the-scenes” featurette, that led to Menon giving her the ten grand in order to film what happened for the DVD release.
As Despite the Gods reveals, neither Lynch of Menon really were clear with each other about the type of film they were making, which ended up being something of a catastrophe, as you can imagine, with Menon abusing his director and treating her as an employee who was hired to complete his vision, while Lynch felt that, as the film’s director, she had the freedom (especially since she’d written the screenplay, which had been signed off on by the producers) to make the kind of film she wanted to make.
There were other unavoidable complications, such as horribly bad weather with flash rainstorms and a difficult landscape — the complex terrain of the Thekkady Jungle, and in the crowded mayhem of Chennai and Kerrola, another shooting location — to navigate, not to mention the oppressive heat that created additional issues for the cast and crew (who were also quite superstitious, creating even more problems) each day.
Add to this the fact that Lynch’s Indian crew who weren’t up to the standards of American film crews that she had worked with previously; there was also a technician’s strike which forced the production to move to Kerala; there was an 11-day wait for dailies to become available; and cops being called in following complaints about filming at prayer time in a Muslim neighborhood, all of this happening while Lynch tries to hold everything together as her pre-teen daughter looks on at her mom, the director.
Vozniak ended up having her own issues to deal with when Menon and then her script editor wanted to turn her behind-the-scenes footage into a more commercially viable short film that didn’t focus so much on the squabbles between producer and director and director and crew.
She fought for Despite the Gods to be the film she wanted to make, and Lynch — despite looking out-of-control, weepy and frustrated — encouraged her to film what was really happening with her Panasonic HVX 200, which only stores about 40 minutes of images on expensive computer cards that cost $2000 each, making for a very labor intensive project; she would download what she’d filmed into a laptop, then clear the card and start over.
Menon eventually stopped allowing footage to be shot of either him or Lynch, and because he withdrew his permission for her to shoot any part of the post-production, Vozniak was forced to use title cards to tell the story of the final part of the process.
Menon later refused to give her permission to use some of the early footage she’d shot of him, which is why he appears later on in the film instead of at the very beginning, as you might expect.
It’s fascinating to see just how brutal he becomes over the months of shooting, taking an abusive tone that eventually begins to undermine her authority on the set. Lynch’s inevitable major meltdown happens onscreen and it’s just as emotional as you might expect.
Lynch had the film taken out of her hands in the editing room, and Menon — who had directed a couple of failed projects previously with the film’s star, Mallika Sherawat — took over Hisss in the editing room and finished it himself, taking out the songs and production numbers she’d shot and making it more of a horror film, which is what he’d intended all along.
When the film made its debut in 2010 at the Cannes Film Festival, Mallika Sherawat promoted it by posing with a 22-foot-long python on the red carpet.
Lynch subsequently was awarded a Best Director prize at the New York Horror Film Festival, marking the first time a woman has captured the honor. Since Hisss, she has had a successful return to directing episodes of American TV shows, including “Psych”, “Finding Carter”, “Quantico, “The Last Ship,” “Teen Wolf”, “Wayward Pines” and “The Walking Dead.”