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A Serial Killer Film the Way I Want To See a Serial Killer Film

September 27th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Surveillance, 2008, U.S. poster Surveillance, 2008, French poster

Surveillance (2008)
Written by Jennifer Lynch & Kent Harper
Directed by Jennifer Lynch
Produced by Lago Film/ Arclight Films/ Blue Rider Pictures
Running time: 97 minutes

So, What’s This About?

Following a gruesome murder, FBI Special Agents Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman) and Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) arrive at a rural police station to interview three witnesses. A drug whore (Pell James) recounts driving out to the middle of nowhere with her boyfriend (Mac Miller) to score; the couple stops to assist a family station wagon stranded by a flat tire. The family’s only surviving member — an observant 8-year-old (Ryan Simpkins) — recounts noticing a strange van earlier in the day, but her mother (Cheri Oteri) and stepfather (Hugh Dillon) ignored her when The Violent Femmes tune “Day After Day” came on the radio.

Officer Bennett (Kent Harper) is a wreck following the murder of his partner out on the road. Under questioning, Bennett admits that his partner (French Stewart) and he liked to pass their time shooting out the tires of passing motorists and victimizing the drivers. Each surviving witness recounts the arrival of two masked killers along the roadside differently. Also participating in the investigation is Captain Billings (Michael Ironside), a receptionist (Caroline Aaron) with intimate access to coroner’s reports, an eager to please rookie cop (Charlie Newmark) and another local policeman (Gill Gayle) hostile towards the FBI.

Surveillance, 2008, Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman

Who Made It?

Jennifer Lynch is the daughter of painter Peggy Reavey and filmmaker David Lynch. Growing up in Michigan, she would serve as a PA on the set of Blue Velvet and adapt The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the bestselling book tie-in to her father’s heralded TV mini-series Twin Peaks. Lynch made her screenwriting and directorial debut at the age of 23 with the critically reviled Boxing Helena (1993). The gothic drama about a surgeon (Julian Sands) who kidnaps the object of his desire (Sherilyn Fenn) and amputates her arms and injured legs incurred a frenzy of bad press when producers took the picture’s original star — Kim Basinger — to court for backing out of the film at the behest of her agents.

Taking time to recuperate from several spinal surgeries, kick drug and alcohol addiction and raise a daughter by herself, Lynch paired with a friend — Kent Harper — to rework a script he’d written about witches into a Rashomon-like take on the serial killer genre. After numerous rejections, David Lynch agreed to lend his name to his daughter’s project as an executive producer. Germany’s Lago Film agreed to finance Jennifer Lynch’s second feature film at a budget of $10 million. American audiences got a look at Surveillance in May 2009 on video-on-demand, followed by a limited theatrical release the following month.

Surveillance, 2008, Caroline Aaron, Julia Ormond

How’d They Do It?

Jennifer Lynch recalled the genesis of the Boxing Helena fiasco. “I was reading poetry at a fucking nightclub before I was old enough to drink. This person came up to me and said ‘I have this screenplay I’d like you to write about a woman who is cut up and put into a box.’ I said ‘I won’t do it.’ They said, ‘What would you like to do?’ I said ‘I’ve always had a fascination with the Venus de Milo, who has no legs and no arms. I have a story I’d like to tell based on that.’ But I didn’t think in a million fucking years — I mean I was reading goddamn poetry, which is the most schmaltzy fucking thing you can do in L.A. — and I never fucking thought it would go anywhere.”

18 years old when given the idea, 19 when she wrote the script, Lynch’s directing experience was limited to watching her dad work. To her amazement, Madonna expressed interest in starring in Boxing Helena. The pop icon would graciously back out to do Evita for Alan Parker and Andrew Lloyd Webber instead, but Kim Basinger came on board to replace her. Four weeks before shooting was to begin, Basinger’s reps at CAA coaxed her into dropping out as well. Main Line Pictures would retaliate with a breach of contract suit carried out in a televised trial. The jury awarded the producers $8.1 million in damages, but the ruling was later overturned.

Surveillance, 2008, Bill Pullman, Pell James

Lynch recalled the tumult with Kim Basinger by stating, “If the creative folks had been left to themselves, it would have been settled over a dinner. But because suits got involved, they decided they were going to wipe the slate clean. You don’t bring an army sergeant into a sandbox with kids. She was ordered not to speak to me. I wasn’t allowed to speak to her. The whole thing was stupid. It became a nightmare for all of us. None of us look back on it well.” Scathing reviews, three surgeries to repair critical spinal injuries (suffered in an auto accident at age 19), getting clean from drugs and alcohol and raising a daughter as a single parent all kept Lynch from jumping behind a camera again.

Surveillance
began when a friend of Lynch’s — actor/ producer/ screenwriter Kent Harper — approached her with a script he’d written. “It was called Three Witches, Tres Brujas, and it was a really great story, but I didn’t want to do something about witches and I wasn’t quite sure what had happened and this conversation was born about things that happen in the middle of nowhere and what terrifies you. We just started throwing things out on the table and he did have two very corrupt cops in the story. I said, ‘That interests me, and the clarity with which children see interests me, and I haven’t seen a serial killer film the way I want to see a serial killer film and I want to confuse people about what good and bad look like.”

Surveillance, 2008, French Stewart, Josh Strait

Jennifer Lynch sent a rough draft of Surveillance to actor Bill Pullman. He turned it down, but Lynch remained a big enough fan to recommend her father cast the actor in Lost Highway (1997). Lynch would finally share her script with her dad, prompting an urgent late night phone call. Lynch was aghast at the way his daughter wrapped up the story and challenged her to write a more optimistic ending. Even after Jennifer heeded the fatherly advice, no one expressed much interest in bankrolling the movie. She recalled, “This was very hard to get off the ground. My father called me after he read the script a couple of years ago and he said, ‘You’re the sickest bitch I know!’”

She added, “But he called ages later and said, ‘What’s happening with your movie?’ and I said ‘Zilch.’ I told him I don’t know if it’s the material, if it’s the 15 years raising a kid, if it’s Boxing Helena, but nobody’s interested. And he said, ‘What if I put my name on it?’ I’m like, ‘C’mon Dad, you know how I feel about it.’ Because, believe me, it’s a big issue for me. But that day I typed: ‘Executive producer: David Lynch’, and within 48 hours I had more offers than I knew what to do with. I swear, any screenwriter wanting a little attention should just write ‘Steven Spielberg’ on their script. Who’s checking?” Kent Harper traveled to Germany and in November 2005, it was announced that he’d hooked producer Marco Mehlitz and Lago Film to provide $10 million in financing.

Surveillance, 2008, Bill Pullman

Nine months later, actor Billy Burke (Twilight) agreed to take the lead role and Surveillance was slated to begin shooting in October 2006. But Burke became the latest actor to get cold feet with Lynch and dropped out. Lynch phoned Bill Pullman and begged him to give her script another read. Lynch recalled, “He said, ‘Why did I say no?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. You never told me. Can I send it to you?’ He said, ‘Do it right now.’ And two hours later he called me and said, ‘I’m in.’ And Julia actually found me. She read the script and called and I said, ‘The Julia Ormond? You’re so classy and beautiful and awesome.’ And then I thought, that’s a genius idea. That’s the perfect FBI agent.”

Surveillance commenced a 22-day shooting schedule April 2007 in Saskatchewan, Canada near the town of Regina. “They call it the town that rhymes with fun. It’s just outside Big Beaver too so it’s just crude joke after crude joke.” Lynch had envisioned shooting the film in Santa Fe, but the New Mexico Film Office did not embrace the script. Lynch added, “There we were in Regina where they give amazing tax breaks because it’s Canada, incredible crews, incredible production facilities, and their prairies look like middle America and really afforded me the opportunity to aim the camera in any direction and just see that vast nothingness and feel how everything is seen and yet there’s nowhere to go. It’s like there’s all this space but you can’t go anywhere.”

Surveillance, 2008, Ryan Simpkins

Critics were not favorable to what they saw. Manohla Dargis, The New York Times: “It seems doubtful that Surveillance, a would-be transgression that tries to squeeze dark laughs from the spectacle of human suffering, would be taking up space in theaters if its director were not the daughter of a name filmmaker.” Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times: “At the end, all is horrifically explained, the body count inflates, yet hardly anything makes sense. In Papa Lynch’s films, little is explained, yet because he’s so gifted at mining our deepest fears and scariest desires, logic is excused.” Scott Mendelson, Film Threat: “In the end, Surveillance is a puzzle box film that has nothing to offer except the various puzzle pieces. The characters do not stand out, the drama is not compelling, and the screenplay is light on even remotely interesting dialogue.”

After playing in Europe summer 2008, Americans got a look at Surveillance on HDNet Ultra VOD in May 2009 and in a limited theatrical release in June. Playing only three theaters, it took in $27,349 at the U.S. box office and grossed $974,522 overseas. Jennifer Lynch appeared content to have finished a film after her 15-year hiatus. “The good news is: everybody can make a film. The bad news is: everybody can make a film. And everyone should. It’s just really tricky so it makes those available spots and moments of financing really hard to get and you really earn it. Making a film is hard enough. Starting it’s hard, doing it’s hard, finishing it’s hard, and so I champion everyone who gets it done whether they’re doing it themselves or through a studio or independent financing.”

Surveillance, 2008, Mac Miller, Pell James

Should I Care?
Loaded with enough gore to win Best Director for Jennifer Lynch at the 2008 New York City Horror Film Festival — and to get her the job directing Nagin: The Snake Woman, a straight-up horror flick — Surveillance is more coherent than I remember Natural Born Killers being, so as Joe Bob Briggs might opine, if you liked that, you’re gonna love this. Lynch keeps the blood flowing, but her film is dry as a bone everywhere that counts. If you expect suspense, interesting characters, atmosphere or passable dialogue, don’t waste your time on this. Lynch is a fine person, I’m sure, but after two films in 15 years, she’s yet to demonstrate why she should be making movies.

Like The Boondock Saints — which was also ridiculous past the point of being watchable — Lynch is either unable or unwilling to involve the audience in anything emotionally and in an effort to compensate, goes for farce. Instead of Dennis Hopper or Robert Blake, Lynch’s boogeyman is played by … French Stewart, TV’s French Stewart, the guy most likely to be confused for Fred Schneider of The B-52s and least likely to terrorize anyone. Like the ultraviolence, Stewart’s mere appearance seems to be the joke. I didn’t laugh. What’s least amusing about Surveillance is seeing Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond — two actors still rolling strikes and not working near enough in film — wading through garbage like this.

Surveillance, 2008, Cheri Oteri, Ryan Simpkins

Where’d You Get All of This?

“Jennifer Lynch: Life with David and the Turkey of the Decade” By James Mottram. The Independent, 22 February 2009

“Even Hitler Deserved To Be Loved” By John Patterson. The Guardian, 27 February 2009

“Director Jennifer Lynch Interview Surveillance By Sheila Roberts. The Collider, 22 June 2009

“Jennifer Lynch” By Alex Simon. The Hollywood Interview, 25 June 2009

“LiC Interview: Jennifer Lynch — Surveillance By Craig Kennedy. Living in Cinema, 25 June 2009

Tags: Black comedy · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Psycho killer · Road trip · Small town

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 fred // Sep 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

    There is a lot of wrong information in this blog. The film was no where even close to a 10 million dollar budget. The final budget was under $5 million. There are a few other little errors in here, however the budget error is really way way off.

  • 2 Patrick // Oct 1, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    The comment about reading poetry seems somewhat strange. I’m guessing she means she was a little detached from the real world, or that she had poorly developed critical skills, and from a present day vantage point is looking down on herself at that point in her life, but it’s not clear quite why she should imply that reading poetry in itself is a bad thing.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    “Fred”: I’ll share your grievances with The New York Times and The Guardian. That’s where the information you found wrong in this article is coming from. In terms of the budget, I don’t have any idea what it really was. Screen Daily announced that Lago had agreed to bankroll a budget of $10 million, while Dark Horizons later revised it down to $3.5 million. I’ll bet the truth is closer to your projection, but it’s not like budgets in Hollywood are anything other than a shell game. I try to remain less than definitive on the matter. Read the article again and let me know if you disagree.

    Patrick: You probably haven’t seen her movies, but Jennifer Lynch’s comment about poetry slams is far from the strangest aspect of her story. Actually, a movie about poetry slams would have been a much, much better idea than Surveillance. Thanks for commenting!

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