Entertainment Today, March 8, 2002

A Beautiful Mind

Filmmaker David Lynch talks about the wonderful mystery of ideas

by Brent Simon

First things first: this story will not be titled “Naked Lynch.” And it will attempt to avoid all manner of artistic or personal interpretation as brilliantly uncovered fact. There have, after all, been quite enough pieces that have meticulously cataloged and cross-referenced filmmaker David Lynch’s personal quirks and rituals and cinematic imagery. So: the oft-remarked upon outfit (khaki pants, buttoned-up shirt, blazer optional), the cascading shock of hair, the unique vocal timbre and warm, golly-gee demeanor — all there. Coffee too. In fact, so reported on are Lynch’s loves and touchstones that meeting the modern day Renaissance man at his Hollywood Hills home/office complex feels a bit like meeting an old friend.

That is, if your old friend were a lyricist, musician, painter, furniture-maker, photographer and thrice Oscar-nominated film director, the visionary behind Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and The Straight Story, among other movies. In making your way to the large, aerie-like work studio (wait, wasn’t this in the last Jurassic Park?) that sits almost like a gun turret in the midst of Lynch’s three-house spread, one passes objects that seem to cling to your consciousness with an extra measure of import: a foyer cluttered with large incoming parcels, a room with two tech-heads whispering conspiratorially, a concrete stairwell painted entirely in faux-metallic gray, a bright, open room containing the furniture from Fred and Renee Madison’s bedroom in Lost Highway. Everything takes on an air of mystery, of heightened possibility, just like the settings in Lynch’s films.

Then comes conversation. The word “idea” comes up often when talking with David Lynch. Very often. It’s often deployed with the reverence one might reserve for an exotic favorite food they only taste several times a year. Yet you get the feeling that it’s not really coy equivocation so much as exultant ritual, a mini-celebration of and sacrifice to the mystery of firing synapses that fuel our imaginations and creativity. Asking David Lynch “where he gets his ideas” is pointless because, just like everyone else, sometimes he knows… and sometimes he doesn’t.

The overriding vibe one gets these days when talking to Lynch is one of happiness, contentment. It’s noteworthy because for all his forays into the dark side of human nature, Lynch has always struck me as a bit of a romantic, someone inexorably and unabashedly married to the notion that ideas are humanity’s true orgasm, and that their unfettered expression should be welcomed on all levels. And so happiness—a sense of security, well-being and acceptance—seems to further nurture that instinct.

A big part of that happiness probably has to do with Mulholland Drive. While not the break-out box office smash distributor Universal Focus may have been hoping for (it’s grossed roughly $7 million in domestic receipts to date), the film has been probably the most critically praised of 2001, garnering accolades for Lynch, his cast and the picture as a whole.

What Mulholland Drive was meant to be—a continuing story in the form of an ABC television series—and what it became are perhaps irreconcilable notions. After ABC passed on the project, things remained up in the air until French financier CanalPlus stepped in with enough funds to secure additional filming and finish paving Mulholland Drive. Of course, massaging closure—even typically Lynchian, open-ended closure—required a huge shift in his film’s thesis. “There it was, a body without a head. And then you have a chance to make a complete body, but you have no idea what the head is,” says Lynch of his unique, midstream cinematic horse change. “It was both a restructuring and an adding [of elements.] The best possible thing happened, and it only happened because it started as an open-ended thing. I don’t think the shape of Mulholland Drive would have been this way if it had been initially started as a feature. So to me it’s a beautiful thing, because sometimes the mind has to be tricked in order for it to arrive [at a certain point]. But it was weird how so much of it fit the ideas that came in later.”

Ahh yes, those ideas. A lush, woozy fever dream whose gnawing visions of despair stick to you like an inescapable night sweat, Mulholland Drive is, whatever your tolerance for abstraction, probably the most flat-out alive motion picture of last year, alternately gripping, terrifying and moving because you never know quite what the hell it wants from you. “A love story in the city of dreams” was the full working plot synopsis in the film’s press materials, and while that’s true in at least part of the traditional sense, it’s also worth noting that Mulholland Drive is very much a love story—and an unrequited one at that—about the city of dreams.

Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a self-named amnesiac, and Betty (Naomi Watts), a golly-gee Hollywood newbie, set out to uncover the former’s true self. The more they learn about her elusive identity proper, the more ominous things become. Their investigations dovetail with various analogous story threads—including Betty’s tentative career baby steps as an actress and a subplot involving Adam (Justin Theroux), a petulant young filmmaker forced to compromise his casting of an upcoming production by shadowy outside sources—that shine a light on the brutal, deceitful and exploitative business hierarchy that can quickly (or even worse, slowly) turn show biz dreams into flat-out nightmares. At its core the film is a fascinating and searing indictment of Hollywood’s corrupt creative culture, a breathtaking and ultimately heartbreaking tale of coldly extinguished idealism. In short, it seems a manifesto of where Lynch’s head may have been from around 1992 to 1998, after the unfortunate box office flame-out of Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me and the chilly reception of Lost Highway.

The film landed Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, his third. “David is a risk-taking filmmaker,” says singer-actor Billy Ray Cyrus, “and I learned so much from him on the set of Mulholland Drive. To see David and the film getting all these accolades… well, as Errol Flynn said, ‘Success is the best revenge.’”

“Well, it’s the same thing that happened on Blue Velvet,” says Lynch, who will serve as president of the Cannes Film Festival Jury this May, of his Oscar nod. “It just squeaked in there. It would have been nice to get a whole bunch more [nominations], but it wasn’t meant to be. …Still, it’s a great, beautiful thing.”

For Lynch, Oscar day doesn’t involve much travel, but there’s still “not a whole lot of projects you can get involved with on that day. It’s just down the hill from me, but I’m excited because it’s the first time it’s been in that new building, and I want to see what that building looks like on the inside and how beautifully it’s organized for this Oscar show, because it’s supposedly built just for that, with a place for the press, a place for the nominees, a place for everyone else.”

Although he was born in the Midwest and lived throughout the United States, Lynch—as the simultaneous conflict, indictment and fetishization present in Mulholland Drive would seem to confirm—is by now definitely a naturalized Los Angeleno. He left the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and moved to L.A. in 1970 when he was accepted to the AFI Center for Advanced Film Studies. It was love at first sight. “Peggy (Lynch’s first wife) gets upset when I talk about it because her relatives are in Philadelphia, but it’s a sick and twisted place. And what gets me is that it’s called the ‘City of Brotherly Love!’” exclaims Lynch. “I don’t know that it’s any better, because I haven’t been [back] there, but it was the opposite of that when I was there. So I saw these things, and it was definitely a love/hate relationship, because I got my first original idea in Philadelphia, and I got tons and tons of inspiration from the sickness and the mood. It was a fear-ridden place, there was fear so thick in the air that it was unbelievable. And when I came out to California it caused the fear to start evaporating, but it took about a year. There’s plenty of fear everywhere these days, but it was much, much less here.”

What was it about the city of Los Angeles that so fed, and continues to feed, his creativity? “It feeds it because of the light, and a feeling in the air that we can do anything here,” he says. “I don’t know why it has this feeling for me, it may not have that feeling for others. I think people end up being where they feel comfortable — ideally, anyway. A lot of people live in a place where they can’t wait to get out and they sort of feel trapped there, and that’s a sadness. But I like the feeling here that you can do anything and I like the light because it makes me happy.”

If fear and darkness seemed to fuel his early work, that’s certainly not the case now, and Lynch has advice for anyone who still believes an artist has to suffer to create. “When you think about it, you can’t really create when you’re suffering. You can sort of see it’s free will, and you can get yourself in trouble or you can get yourself out. Sometimes [negative] experiences can feed into work, but when you’re doing the work, there’s just too much happiness,” says Lynch, a longtime meditator. “And it makes you feel good to do the work, and just before you start the work you can’t be in a miserable place or it just doesn’t happen. I think the idea of suffering comes in because artists have [traditionally] been poor and cold and hungry and they still do their work, but I think so much happiness comes out of the work that I think the word ‘suffering’ isn’t part of the equation. That’s the one time that you’re really happy.”

Still, though, public reception—whether critical or commercial—fuels to some degree the next creative cycle, doesn’t it? Lynch cops to this, but only barely. “I always say the same expression that was told to me by a man named Charlie Lutz: ‘Keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole,’” relates Lynch. “The work is the doughnut, and the work is so beautiful. And you stay true to the ideas, translate them, now new ideas may come in and some of them [may] work, some of them won’t, but you keep staying true to the ideas and pay attention and at the same time love the process. When it’s finished it’s out of your control… and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Obviously, there’s many good things to a good reception, and there’s some heartache to a bad reception, but if you feel you’ve done your work well and you feel it’s correct, then no one can take that away from you and you’re doing OK no matter what happens.”

We delve further into the creative process, a nebulous, esoteric realm to be certain, but one that Lynch seems to enjoy discussing and for my money is of equal—if not greater—value than questions of the, “Hey, you remember that time you _____?” variety. I ask Lynch about his creative energy — does he find himself a slow and steady-type or a bit of a binger? “Obviously everything’s relative,” he says. “Some days maybe you’re dealing with one or two ideas, and suddenly that next day you’ve got maybe 15 things that come in. So you never know. There is some ebb and flow, but there’s always something to work on, always. Sometimes there’s a frustration if you have too many ideas, too many things that you wanna do, and you just don’t have more than 24 hours in a day and you’ve got to sleep some.” We both take a sip of coffee. “And if you don’t sleep, then it’s not fun to work, because you’ve got a bad feeling, you’re too tired, you’re screwed up. So you’ve gotta sleep whether you want to or not — it’s money in the bank.”

It’s what Lynch experiences when he sleeps that a lot of people assume fuel his offbeat characterizations and inclinations, from Agent Cooper’s Red Room visions in Twin Peaks to Adam’s bizarre encounters with a mystical cowboy in Mulholland Drive. But according to Lynch, his dreams are no more or less unusual and important than anyone else’s. “The way dreams feel—like they say ‘dream logic’—is really beautiful, and in a way it makes you try to find the meaning or understanding in it,” he says. “I always say it’s impossible to write a sentence that you can’t find some meaning in. Because the brain will struggle to find meaning in almost anything. But the way dreams go, those things cinema can do — some stories, with abstractions, get into that kind of feel.”

Lynch doesn’t typically work with big, top-of-the-list movie stars (he casts off photos, tapes and personal meetings, not readings), but he has worked with an eclectic mix of actors, and their collective praise is effusive — not all that unusual for a respected filmmaker. What is interesting is the genuine love and respect that shines through and the broad smiles that accompany your questions about Lynch — even from people who didn’t technically get to work with him. “Oh, I was so excited when I knew I was going to work with David Lynch, and then kind of disappointed when I didn’t get to,” says David Duchovny, cast as transvestite FBI agent Denise Bryson for several episodes during Twin Peaks second season. “But I have really, really fond feelings for that character and whenever anybody asks me, ‘Do you think there’s going to be another Twin Peaks movie?’ I say I really hope and wish and pray that that character would be in it.”

“I was an innocent young thing, protected to some degree by my naïveté,” says Sheryl Lee—who most assuredly did work with Lynch—recalling her first work as Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks the TV show. “And at first I just thought that was how things always worked. I had no reference points, no family in the business, so the only things I knew were what people told me. But very quickly some [other cast members] got that sense that Twin Peaks was really something special and told me.” The more films she did with other directors, the more she came to cherish her experiences with Lynch. “It’s like jumping off into an unknown ocean,” she says. “David works off intuition and the subconscious, and yet can be very specific. He’s into creating a color, a mood and comfortable space in which you can thrive.”

“Until Bandits, [Twin Peaks] and working with David was the best experience I had as a writer,” says Harley Peyton, co-producer on the series’ second season and the driving force behind many of Agent Albert Rosenfeld’s greatest insults. “It was funny, because with David, since he’s an artist and not a TV careerist like [Steven] Bochco or someone, ABC had no idea what to make of anything — they just basically gave up from the start.”

“I loved working with David, I think he’s amazing and so far ahead of his time,” says Lost Highway’s Patricia Arquette. “During the period where Bill (Pullman) and I are married in the movie, there’s this strange tension between us, and David kept directing us to take more and more and more time, where often as an actor you feel you have to move fast, say your lines, rush through a scene. So it felt awkward at first, but when you see it, it added a great tension to those scenes… wondering what they’re going to say and when they’re going to say it. I also think David is the most musical director I’ve ever worked with. He works with time within a scene, and in a musical sense. Many times he would direct a scene while listening to music in one ear.” Part of that musical leaning is reflected in Lynch’s casting as well. “I’m a huge fan of David, as a person and as an artist — he’s a really nice guy,” says rocker Henry Rollins, also part of Lost Highway. “He was at the end of his shoot, and he called me and said, ‘I’ve got these little parts left. I’d love you to be in the movie, and I’m not trying to insult you with a small part and no money, but I’m a fan and I have a part for you if you want it.’ I said, ‘I would be a garbageman to be in your movie. I love you and I wanna be in your movie.’”

The simplicity and economy of Lynch’s direction is another oft-mentioned attribute; he often instructs his charges in only similes or spare, instinctual directives. “He’s a great conductor,” says Mulholland Drive’s Justin Theroux. “I would say that’s his greatest success — he’s very good at fine-tuning everyone into his idea.”

Some of the best insight, though, may come from Nicolas Cage, who starred opposite Laura Dern in Wild at Heart. “David was probably the first experience I had where I discovered the necessity of having fun when you act,” Cage admits. “Up to that point I had been really heavy and tough on myself, and I became aware through David that if you’re not enjoying yourself then the audience isn’t going to enjoy what you’re doing either, so on some level you have to feel like you’re having fun.”

Told of this, Lynch demurs. “You don’t try to do anything [to shape that]. It is light and fun to be working. …If there’s any trying, it’s to let actors know in some way that they’re in a safe zone, that it is safe to say goodbye to themselves and take on this new character and make it real from their depths. And it’s safe to make a fool of themselves if they have to go through that to get to where it’s gotta be. And if that feeling is there, in my mind, you can get some incredible things.”

I’ve read with increasing amusement over the years interviews in which writers have attempted to extract a definitive meaning from Lynch on either a particular project or some bit of minutiae — like, say, whether the fluttering apparition on the curtains of the Red Room in Twin Peaks is actually an egret or a mallard. As I convey this to Lynch, and ask him if these queries drive him batty or are more a source of bemusement, a slight smile passes across his lips as he nods along. He says he doesn’t mind, and feels the same kind of wonderment as everyone else — many ideas, by their very nature, cannot be explained.

They can, however, reveal the form they should take. “Every medium talks to you and once you get this kind of action and reaction thing going, the ideas start flowing,” he says. Lynch’s other major “action and reaction thing” over the past several years, other than Mulholland Drive, has been the launch of his meticulously constructed eponymous Web site. An interactive, treasure-filled playground of the id, Davidlynch.com is a flash-laden site that features a chat room, photos, clips of Lynch’s short films, a store, several animated shorts, experiments, music (including Blue Bob, Lynch’s collaboration with John Neff that includes Mulholland Drive’s sex-dipped “Go Get Some”) and all sorts of other oddities like, well, puzzles of Frank Booth’s Blue Velvet mask.

It is a pay site ($9.97 per month) for most areas, but given the fun inside, it seems a small price. Need further evidence? Consider this direct-quote synopsis from the live video feed section: “This is a birdfeeder. You will see many different types of birds visit this feeder. You will notice from time to time squirrels gluttonously eating and taking away the birds’ food. At a certain point, the ‘disc of sorrow” will be installed. You will be notified in advance as to the date and time of installation. Once the ‘disc of sorrow’ is in place keeping the squirrels from the birds’ food, you may see grown squirrels crying in sadness.”

“The weird thing is that the Internet is changing almost every day,” says Lynch. “So when do you jump in, and how much do you put in for this kind of quality and this kind of speed and these kind of restrictions?”

“During Twin Peaks I never went on the Internet, but that was the beginning and people were talking, because that’s all you could do, just talk and type. But there was so much talk on the Internet about Twin Peaks, people would bring in reams and reams of paper and say, ‘You’ve gotta see what’s happening.’ Back then the Internet was kind of a sorry place for visuals, but I started thinking about it. And so anyway, somewhere in there, I met the correct people,” he says, free of irony or affect. “That was about two and a half years ago, and I started paying more attention to it and started building this site. Along the way I learned so much and got so excited, and I realized too how complicated it is to set up a site like this. This is an extremely complicated site. It may look relatively simple because I think it’s pretty user-friendly, but it’s misleading in terms of its simplicity, because there’s a lot of stuff that has to work. The technical side to it is huge. And now it’s running better and better, but a lot of times you don’t know really if it’s going to run until you just pop the thing up. I think the first day we got three million hits and it just fried the servers.”

Things are up and running now, with the crude, animated and absurdist Dumbland series in its fourth episode. Meanwhile, Rabbits (billed with the noir tagline of: “In a nameless city deluged by a continuous rain… three rabbits live with a fearful mystery”) and Axxon N. await, the former hopefully sometime this spring. “It’s really getting to be the place for a continuing story,” says Lynch. “When we first started working on the site, it wasn’t a place for five minute moving things, there were too many obstacles. And then it just keeps getting better and better.”

With the Web site and the movie, Lynch’s return to prominence is evident everywhere you turn—I half expect to hear about a David Lynch Easter special—but perhaps nowhere more than the home video market, where seven of his feature projects have come or are on their way to DVD in less than a year. The Elephant Man (Paramount) and Artisan’s four-disc release of the first season of Twin Peaks kicked things off late last fall, with the latter selling well enough that a second season now seems a lock. Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me (see sidebar, page 9) was released last week, and Mulholland Drive hit streets through Universal on April 9. On June 4, MGM is releasing Blue Velvet: Special Edition, featuring a new digital 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the movie as well as Mysteries of Love, a new documentary with interviews with Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini and Lynch, a deleted scene, a still photo gallery and Siskel & Ebert’s legendarily contentious on-screen review of the film. Then there’s a special edition of Lost Highway, from USA, sometime in the fall.

The crown jewel, though, is a fully, meticulously restored Eraserhead, which will soon be available exclusively through Lynch’s site. “The sound will be beautiful,” says Lynch. “And part of the beauty is that you don’t fiddle with it. Eraserhead was mixed in mono in 1976. In 1992 we did a stereo mix — not a remix, it was the exact same mix but it was stereo-ized. And so you don’t want to fiddle with the feel. Now 5.1 is a little bit of a joke; it doesn’t mean anything except that some stuff is in the surrounds and some stuff is in the woofers. And I hate [that.] In 5.1 if you hear a heart effect or something jangling coming out of the surrounds, it can bring you right off the screen and screw the experience. So basically when something becomes 5.1, you just leak a little bit into the surrounds and in a way it really doesn’t do anything. I think the sound should come from the screen. And so it’s a little bit of a bogus thing when people talk about wanting a 5.1 [mix], they want it just because it’s there, it’s the latest thing.”

The film’s picture will also be cleaned, or, as Lynch says, “clean, unbelievably clean! Not only the big negative dirt, but also the tiny microscopic things. It’s pristine and it’s going to be a beautiful timed print, clean with good sound, the way it’s supposed to be but has never been before.”

Still, don’t expect to hear any Lynch offering up commentaries anytime soon. He’s all for additional material, just as long as it doesn’t interfere with the moviewatching experience. In fact, just talking about it, Lynch works himself into a state of equal parts agitation and incredulity. “Commentaries are baloney. It’s the doughnut and the hole thing again,” he says. “I don’t know how the commentaries started. I believe in telling some stories, but separate from the film, not while the film is going on. It’s the sickest, the most absurd, stupid thing I’ve ever heard of. From then on, that experience is putrefied, you can’t separate the two anymore. It’s unbelievable! It’s a joke. If you love a film, I don’t see how you could do that. It’s a delicate line. There are some stories connected to a film, that if they’re separate from the film, I think they’re kind of OK, and there’s lots of interviews associated with films, but they’re over here (indicating), they’re not in the theater running along while you’re watching the film.”

After his Cannes tour of duty in May, Lynch figures to be back and doing what he loves most — moving from one project to another. “I don’t go out much [but] it’s not about gardens and trees or views, it’s about a place to work. Always I’ve wanted to get a set-up — and I’ve never really got it set-up, but you get closer and closer and you get to the point where if you get an idea for one thing or another, you have the place and the tools to realize that idea. And once you have a set-up, why would you want to go out somewhere? Now there are reasons to go out — to shoot a film or to take pictures or to maybe sometimes have some experiences that might feed ideas. It’s important to go out sometimes. But a lot of ideas you can catch without going out, and then you need to work to realize those ideas. One thing feeds another sometimes, and it’s so beautiful to move from one thing to another.”

A few of the things he’ll be moving between will definitely pop up on the Internet. Musically, he hopes to put the finishing touches on both Industrial Soundscapes and Thought Gang, the latter another collaboration with longtime musical companion Angelo Badalamenti that Lynch says awaits only some final mixing.

As for his next film, there’s nothing specific and no time tables. “I’m waiting to catch the ideas, but I don’t know where they’re going to go,” says Lynch with a big smile. “It’s fragment time right now. They’re like little seeds, and so I don’t know what’s going to grow and what’s not.” Plenty of fans are hoping he waters his fertile imagination — even if the source of his ideas sometimes remains a mystery.

© 2002 Entertainment Today

Back to the David Lynch articles page.