Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha is the gold standard for car-crash behind-the-scenes film documentaries, but it may have a rival in the form of Australian director Penny Vozniak's Despite the Gods, a new documentary about Jennifer Lynch's ill-starred journey to India to make a film called Hisss (a curious horror/fantasy tale about a vengeful demigoddess with the ability to transform herself into a giant snake).
Where Lost in La Mancha is tragicomedy at its most tragic and comic, Despite the Gods is less spectacular but somehow more excruciating, a document of the slow disintegration of a film that seems cursed despite its creator's best intentions and resolute optimism. It does not, however, answer one key question: how on Earth did Jennifer Lynch end up in India making a film about a snake woman in the first place?
“It was a total happy accident, and I don't regret a moment of it,” says Lynch down the phone from Cannes, where Despite the Gods is premiering this month. “I screen my films and my friends' films at barbecues once in a while. We just like to get together and show each other what we're up to. One of the producers happened to be invited by a friend of mine to the barbecue, and ended up seeing my film Surveillance. And he just thought of me for Hisss.”
At first, she says, the idea of heading to India seemed like a grand, romantic adventure — “I just dove in,” she recalls. But Westerners tend to underestimate the culture shock that working in India will bring. To her credit, Lynch doesn't rant and rave or throw tantrums, or demand things be done the way she's used to in the USA — instead, she appears to do her best to embrace both the local working methods and the air of chaos that envelops her film from the very first day of shooting. (In one key sequence, as the camera crew struggle to shoot in a river that looks perilously close to flooding, she turns and reflects wearily to the camera, “I don't know anyone else who'd have adapted the way I've adapted … made use of what I've had and MacGyvered the rest of it.”)
“I adore India,” she says now of her time on the subcontinent. “I love the people there and I love the country. I even got into the freeform insanity and spontaneity of how they work. That didn't leave any bad taste in my mouth. Ultimately I'm just sad the whole thing didn't work out, because it could have been so much fucking fun.”
Unfortunately, Hisss did not work out, and was not much fucking fun. At all. And for all the logistical challenges that plague the film, it's ultimately a more prosaic problem that undermines its conception: it becomes clear over the course of Despite the Gods that the film's Indian financiers have a dramatically different vision of how the film should turn out than its director does. As the shoot progresses, Lynch disagrees more and more with producer Govind Menon about the direction of the film and, once the producers reject her final cut, recuses herself from the project entirely.
“I haven't seen [Hisss],” she sighs. “It's not my film. It's just too heartbreaking a thought to see the footage colour-timed improperly, and the wrong music, and the wrong cut. I hope the producers are happy with what they made, but I don't intend seeing it.” In fact, she says, had contractual obligations not precluded her from doing so, she would have removed her name from the project entirely: “I wasn't allowed to [do so]. I guess they thought they could sell it better with my name on it, but they should have taken it off.”
It's the nature of documentaries to pick and choose the footage that best suits the filmmaker's narrative, but Lynch says that despite the rather sensational nature of Despite the Gods' tale, it's ultimately an accurate representation of what happened. Or, more accurately: “It's an accurate representation of some of the things that happened,” she laughs. “I really like the film, and I think all the feelings I have about what could have been in, or shouldn't have been in, are all my own personal bullshit about how I sound, how I come across, how I look. But it's Penny's film, entirely, and I know she's very proud of it. And I think it's the very best thing, aside from all the learning and adventures, to come out of that entire production.”
Despite the Gods is Screening Saturday 25 August, Cinema 1 Revolt, 7pm part of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival.