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 Lynchs 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 Lynchs 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, wasnt this in the last Jurassic Park?) that sits almost like a gun turret in the midst of Lynchs 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 Madisons bedroom in Lost Highway. Everything takes on an air of mystery, of heightened possibility, just like the settings in Lynchs films.
Then comes conversation. The word idea comes up often when talking with David Lynch. Very often. Its 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 its 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 doesnt.
The overriding vibe one gets these days when talking to Lynch is one of happiness, contentment. Its 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 humanitys true orgasm, and that their unfettered expression should be welcomed on all levels. And so happinessa sense of security, well-being and acceptanceseems 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 (its 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 bea continuing story in the form of an ABC television seriesand 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 closureeven typically Lynchian, open-ended closurerequired a huge shift in his films 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 dont think the shape of Mulholland Drive would have been this way if it had been initially started as a feature. So to me its 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 films press materials, and while thats true in at least part of the traditional sense, its also worth noting that Mulholland Drive is very much a love storyand an unrequited one at thatabout 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 formers true self. The more they learn about her elusive identity proper, the more ominous things become. Their investigations dovetail with various analogous story threadsincluding Bettys 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 sourcesthat 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 Hollywoods corrupt creative culture, a breathtaking and ultimately heartbreaking tale of coldly extinguished idealism. In short, it seems a manifesto of where Lynchs 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, its 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 wasnt meant to be. Still, its a great, beautiful thing.
For Lynch, Oscar day doesnt involve much travel, but theres still not a whole lot of projects you can get involved with on that day. Its just down the hill from me, but Im excited because its the first time its been in that new building, and I want to see what that building looks like on the inside and how beautifully its organized for this Oscar show, because its 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, Lynchas the simultaneous conflict, indictment and fetishization present in Mulholland Drive would seem to confirmis 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 (Lynchs first wife) gets upset when I talk about it because her relatives are in Philadelphia, but its a sick and twisted place. And what gets me is that its called the City of Brotherly Love! exclaims Lynch. I dont know that its any better, because I havent 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. Theres 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 dont 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 cant wait to get out and they sort of feel trapped there, and thats 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, thats 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 cant really create when youre suffering. You can sort of see its free will, and you can get yourself in trouble or you can get yourself out. Sometimes [negative] experiences can feed into work, but when youre doing the work, theres 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 cant be in a miserable place or it just doesnt 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 isnt part of the equation. Thats the one time that youre really happy.
Still, though, public receptionwhether critical or commercialfuels to some degree the next creative cycle, doesnt 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 wont, but you keep staying true to the ideas and pay attention and at the same time love the process. When its finished its out of your control and you dont know whats going to happen. Obviously, theres many good things to a good reception, and theres some heartache to a bad reception, but if you feel youve done your work well and you feel its correct, then no one can take that away from you and youre 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 equalif not greatervalue 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 everythings relative, he says. Some days maybe youre dealing with one or two ideas, and suddenly that next day youve got maybe 15 things that come in. So you never know. There is some ebb and flow, but theres always something to work on, always. Sometimes theres a frustration if you have too many ideas, too many things that you wanna do, and you just dont have more than 24 hours in a day and youve got to sleep some. We both take a sip of coffee. And if you dont sleep, then its not fun to work, because youve got a bad feeling, youre too tired, youre screwed up. So youve gotta sleep whether you want to or not its money in the bank.
Its what Lynch experiences when he sleeps that a lot of people assume fuel his offbeat characterizations and inclinations, from Agent Coopers Red Room visions in Twin Peaks to Adams 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 elses. The way dreams feellike they say dream logicis really beautiful, and in a way it makes you try to find the meaning or understanding in it, he says. I always say its impossible to write a sentence that you cant 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 theres 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 Leewho most assuredly did work with Lynchrecalling 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. Its like jumping off into an unknown ocean, she says. David works off intuition and the subconscious, and yet can be very specific. Hes 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 Rosenfelds greatest insults. It was funny, because with David, since hes 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 hes amazing and so far ahead of his time, says Lost Highways Patricia Arquette. During the period where Bill (Pullman) and I are married in the movie, theres 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 theyre going to say and when theyre going to say it. I also think David is the most musical director Ive 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 Lynchs casting as well. Im a huge fan of David, as a person and as an artist hes 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, Ive got these little parts left. Id love you to be in the movie, and Im not trying to insult you with a small part and no money, but Im 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 Lynchs direction is another oft-mentioned attribute; he often instructs his charges in only similes or spare, instinctual directives. Hes a great conductor, says Mulholland Drives Justin Theroux. I would say thats his greatest success hes 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 youre not enjoying yourself then the audience isnt going to enjoy what youre doing either, so on some level you have to feel like youre having fun.
Told of this, Lynch demurs. You dont try to do anything [to shape that]. It is light and fun to be working. If theres any trying, its to let actors know in some way that theyre 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 its safe to make a fool of themselves if they have to go through that to get to where its gotta be. And if that feeling is there, in my mind, you can get some incredible things.
Ive 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 doesnt 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. Lynchs 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 Lynchs short films, a store, several animated shorts, experiments, music (including Blue Bob, Lynchs collaboration with John Neff that includes Mulholland Drives sex-dipped Go Get Some) and all sorts of other oddities like, well, puzzles of Frank Booths 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 thats 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, Youve gotta see whats 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 its pretty user-friendly, but its misleading in terms of its simplicity, because theres a lot of stuff that has to work. The technical side to it is huge. And now its running better and better, but a lot of times you dont know really if its 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. Its really getting to be the place for a continuing story, says Lynch. When we first started working on the site, it wasnt 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, Lynchs return to prominence is evident everywhere you turnI half expect to hear about a David Lynch Easter specialbut 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 Artisans 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 & Eberts legendarily contentious on-screen review of the film. Then theres 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 Lynchs site. The sound will be beautiful, says Lynch. And part of the beauty is that you dont 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 dont want to fiddle with the feel. Now 5.1 is a little bit of a joke; it doesnt 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 doesnt do anything. I think the sound should come from the screen. And so its a little bit of a bogus thing when people talk about wanting a 5.1 [mix], they want it just because its there, its the latest thing.
The films picture will also be cleaned, or, as Lynch says, clean, unbelievably clean! Not only the big negative dirt, but also the tiny microscopic things. Its pristine and its going to be a beautiful timed print, clean with good sound, the way its supposed to be but has never been before.
Still, dont expect to hear any Lynch offering up commentaries anytime soon. Hes all for additional material, just as long as it doesnt 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. Its the doughnut and the hole thing again, he says. I dont know how the commentaries started. I believe in telling some stories, but separate from the film, not while the film is going on. Its the sickest, the most absurd, stupid thing Ive ever heard of. From then on, that experience is putrefied, you cant separate the two anymore. Its unbelievable! Its a joke. If you love a film, I dont see how you could do that. Its a delicate line. There are some stories connected to a film, that if theyre separate from the film, I think theyre kind of OK, and theres lots of interviews associated with films, but theyre over here (indicating), theyre not in the theater running along while youre 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 dont go out much [but] its not about gardens and trees or views, its about a place to work. Always Ive wanted to get a set-up and Ive 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. Its 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 its so beautiful to move from one thing to another.
A few of the things hell 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, theres nothing specific and no time tables. Im waiting to catch the ideas, but I dont know where theyre going to go, says Lynch with a big smile. Its fragment time right now. Theyre like little seeds, and so I dont know whats going to grow and whats 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
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