HERE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE ADMONITIONS people in Hollywood gave 25-year-old screenwriter-director Jennifer Lynch during her six-year struggle to make her first movie, Boxing Helena: Forget it, Jennifer, you're too young. Lose it, Jen, the script is too controversial. C'mon, babe, you're just as weird as your father.

Even David, the elder Lynch whose name is virtually synonymous with strangeness, thought Boxing Helena too hellish to handle. "Scares me," said the director of the skewed cult classics Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and co-creator of Twin Peaks, after reading his daughter's screenplay. It is the chronicle of a surgeon (Julian Sands) so obsessed with a beautiful woman (Sherilyn Fenn) that, to keep her, he amputates her limbs and billets her in a box.

Lynch ignored the oy-vay-sayers and made her movie. Boxing Helena just opened, but for a film intended as a small-scale art-house project, it has long been the focus of big-time attention. Madonna signed on for the title role in 1990, then signed off, Lynch speculates, because of "fears." Kim Basinger agreed to replace her, then abruptly backed out in June of 1991—causing producer Carl Mazzocone to sue her, successfully, for breach of contract. He won a $7.4 million court judgment. Says Lynch (who was not involved in the suit): "It was a mess."

Through it all, Jennifer has counted on the unswerving support of her mother, Peggy Reavy, 46, and her father, 47, who divorced when she was 7 but remain close friends. David, she says, loved the finished project. "After he watched it, he got tears in his eyes and wouldn't let go of me," says Lynch. "He just hugged me and said, 'You made a beautiful film. Where'd you learn to do that, man?' "

Well, man, probably from him. Her father's movie sets, says Lynch, were her second home as a child. "I still fall asleep with the TV on, because I'm used to falling asleep with people yelling 'Action!' and 'Cut!' " she says. Lynch Sr. passed along his taste for the peculiar as well. Jennifer sees Boxing Helena not as a horror story but as a gothic fairy tale. "The doctor is not dismembering her. He's trying to change her, just like I tried to change my boyfriends, and they tried to change me," she says. "Helena's body is her self-esteem, and that's what he takes."

Lynch came by her views on body image painfully. Born with club feel, she had to deal with surgery at age 4, then struggle with casts and orthopedic shoes—as well as a deep sense of shame. "I was afraid boys wouldn't like me because of the scars on the back of my ankles," she says. "I fell imperfect and kind of broken."

Unhappy with her Los Angeles high school, Jennifer boarded at Michigan's prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, graduating in 1986. She skipped college ("I wanted to learn differently," she explains) and made her way to Hollywood. There she look a cheap apartment, got a tattoo of a steaming cup of coffee on her biceps ("Caffeine was my alternative to most drugs," she says) and set out to write a book. To pay the rent, she assisted her father on some projects. Through a friend, she hooked up with Philippe Caland, an aspiring producer who was looking for a woman to turn an idea of his into the script for Boxing Helena. "He offered me $2,000," says Lynch, "more money than I'd ever heard of."

Though Caland had intended to direct the film himself, Lynch so impressed Carl Mazzacone and his colleagues that they gave her the job instead. "Jennifer is very articulate, down-to-earth—and magnetic," says Mazzocone. "And that was very seductive to Madonna and Kim and Sherilyn."

Immersing herself in Helena exacted a toll on Lynch's personal life, though, leading to the breakup of her five-year relationship with Donald Telles, now a drum technician for Duran Duran. "I was working all the time," says Lynch. "I was emotionally unavailable. I'm a partner person," she adds sadly. "I never thought that by doing something I loved, somebody I loved so much would have to leave."

For the moment. Lynch is staving off loneliness by working on a novel—a thriller about a philandering husband ("Nobody loses their arms or legs," she promises). The future, she hopes, will feature a home, a husband, kids, dogs—and a joint venture with her dad, who is preparing to be outstripped. "The next movie he makes," she says he kiddingly assures her, "is going to open with the credit, 'A Film by the Father of Jennifer Lynch.' "

JOANNE KAUFMAN
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Feldon-Mitchell.