Empire November 2001
david lynch, weird on top...
From Eraserhead to Blue Velvet to Mulholland [Drive],
what he really wants to do is to dissect...
Words: David Hughes // Portrait: Alaister Thain
|The way David Lynch`s mind works is God`s own private
mystery. Interviewing the man Mel Brooks once (accurately) described as
"Jimmy Stewart from Mars" is like driving on a lost highway at
night, somewhere in the American West, when suddenly you pull up into a
gas station where instead of pumps you find a jukebox, a dwarf and a
column of fire. You are just about to remark upon this to the pump
attendant, who is unwisely smoking as he siphons petrol out of your car,
when he suddenly anounces, in a voice too loud for this earth, "You
know, I`ve really been getting into snooker!" David Lynch has
always been a mass of contradictions.
A polite, well-spoken and mild-mannered 'Gee, whizz' Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, Lynch somehow transmuted an idyllic childhood of blue skies, green lawns and white picket fences into the kind of art which doesn`t just turn heads, but stomaches as well. From early works like The Amputee, The Grandmother and Eraserhead, through Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and smallscreen phenomenon Twin Peaks, Lynch`s oeuvre is filled with indelible images, unforgettable characters and disturbing elements, best exemplified by the line the late Pauline Kael overheard from someone who had just seen Blue Velvet: "Maybe I`m sick, but I want to see that again."
Meeting David Lynch, in the suitably Lynchian city of Prague - Franz Kafka`s hometown - certainly fulfills expectations. His improbably quiffed grey hair looks like it has been slept in by three different people, his tie-less shirt is customarily buttoned to the neck.("I don`t like wind on my collarbone, " he explains of the fashion trend he set in the `70s), and his voice is pure Gordon Cole, the shouty FBI chief Lynch played in Twin Peaks. Unlike most Empire Hall of Fame candidates, Lynch arrives five hours early for our interview, informing most of Prague that. "WE COULD DO THE INTERVIEW NOW IF YOU WANT, BUT WE HAVE TO DO IT IN THE BAR. `CAUSE I`M A SMOKER, SEE?" Indeed, during the next two-and-a-half hours of short sentences and long silences, Lynch will smoke his way through most of a pack of American Spirits, pausing only to nibble a cheese sandwich - cherry pie not being indigenous to the Czech capital - and slug back - what else? - a cup of damn fine coffee.
It has been difficult for David Lynch to make films. The making of his first feature, Eraserhead, stretched over four years, plagued by a variety of problems, most of which had to do with money. The making of his latest feature, Mulholland Drive, took almost as long, but or entirely different reasons - it began as a pilot for a TV series, was hated and shelved by the same network that found success with Twin Peaks, then bough and revived by Canal Plus, and finally finished off as a feature which won Lynch the Best Director prize at this year`s Cannes Film Festival. The problem tends to be that, despite being acclaimed as one of America`s most stylish and avant-garde directors, Lynch has never enjoyed commercial success anywhere but the small screen. Eraserhead was an underground success with a strong (though often retrospective) critical response; The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet received multiple Academy Award nominations, but were only modestly successful; the critically-reviled Wild at Heart found an audience in some territories and won Lynch the coveted Plame d`Or in Cannes; Lynch`s other films - including Dune, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Lost Highway and the lovable The Straight Story - were flops.
His films have also courted controversy. Both Eraserhead and Blue Velvet were dismissed as 'sick' by some critics, the latter earning a knee-jerk reaction from feminists who object to the characterisation of Dorothy (unflinchingly played by Lynch`s then girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini) as a masochist; the quart-into-a-pint-pot adaptation of Dune outraged the book`s legion of fans, a fate which also befell the Twin Peaks movie; Wild at Heart was rendered more mild by censors; Lost Highway was described as exploitative in many quarters - and if the lesbian scenes in Mulholland Drive don`t attract the same criticism, the film`s dreamlogic and abstract denouement may well prove to be its undoing, notwithstanding its growing critical reputation. Although Dune was a disappointment, Lynch was most hurt by the accusations of misogyny. "People have an idea that Dorothy was Everywoman, instead of just being Dorothy," he has said. "If it`s just Dorothy, and it`s her story - which it is to me - then everything is fine. If Dorothy is Everywoman, it doesn`t make any sense... It`s completely false, and they`d be right to be upset. When you start talking about 'women' versus 'a woman', then you`re getting into this area of generalisation, and you can`t win. There is no generalisation. There`s a billion different stories and possibilities."
You once said that Eraserhead was perfect. Do you still feel that way?
No, it was just that day. I might`ve been very relaxed, and it was a long time ago, and it just struck me as, y`know, perfect. Nothing is perfect. You can shoot for it - you`ve gotta shoot for it - but there`s no such thing as a perfect film.
Stanley Kubrick screened Eraserhead for the cast and crew of The Shining, because that was the mood he wanted to achieve. Are you a Kubrick fan?
I love The Shining. If I see it on TV, no matter what else is on, I have to watch it. It just gets better and better. And yet, when it cameout, it didn`t make that much of a noise. But that`s the way it always was with Kubrick`s stuff. It`s pretty amazing how they grow. But I like everything he`s done. I love Barry Lyndon - it`s a great, great film.
There`s a rumour you once considered remaking Lolita, with John Hurt or Anthony Hopkins as Humbert Humbert.
Total baloney. Why remake a perfect film? One of my all-time favourites? a classic? Nobody can touch it. When [Adrian Lyne] did it, it was a joke. I refused to see it.
Anthony Hopkins has admitted he gave you a hard time on The Elephant Man, because he thought you were unsure of yourself.
(Ninety-second pause) I would never say anything about those kinds of things.
With The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, was it more important for you to capture the essence of the true story than the literal truth of the story?
Oh, yeah. It`s true of any true story. The essence is the stuff, and the essence holds the little micro-particles that dictate the action and the thing that drives it. You`ve got to be true to the essence of it.
Was that true of your stalled Marilyn Monroe project, Goddess, based on Anthony Summer`s book?
I don`t know what would have happened if had directed that. But when we said to the people in the studio who we thought killed her, they didn`t want any part of it. It was an interesting thing to think about, but nobody knows. Well, a couple of people know.
In effect, though, you and Mark Frost 'stole from the corpse' with Twin Peaks - the beautiful girl with a dark side...
Well, it`s a phenomenon that`s not just Marilyn Monroe - there`s a lot of girls like that, it`s human nature. But I think that whatever it was about Twin Peaks and Marilyn Monroe, that was a thing, you know, that - speaking for me - I was real interested in.
You acted in Dune and Twin Peaks, but you haven`t done much lately. Why is that?
Twin Peaks is my best work [as an actor]. It wasn`t gonna be a character at all, but there`s a scene where Kyle - Agent Cooper - talks to his boss, and the character was born because I needed to have him to talk to somebody, so I did the voice that he talked to, and I talked loud `cause sometimes I talk loud on the phone, so it just happened like that. And then it became a character. It was really fun. And also the mood on the set of Twin Peaks - at least from my point of view; I wasn`t there when others were working - was so fantastic, so there was a lot of experimenting and a lot of goodwill, a great working atmosphere.
You fell out with Kyle MacLachlan over his and the Twin Peaks` cast sense of abandonment during the second series, which is why Chris Isaak took the principle role in Fire Walk With Me.
(pauses to smoke entire cigarette) Kyle is a good guy, and I wouldn`t like to say anything about that. Kyle`s my neighbour, he`s a really great person, but, you know, when you`re in a TV show, the first year is golden, and the second year, things get strange, and Twin Peaks was no exception.
Were you disappointed you couldn`t have more of Dale Cooper in Fire Walk With Me?
I love restrictions, and I believe in fate. So, what he did worked out just fine.
Are you pleased that Fire Walk With Me, almost universally panned on its release - except, notably, by Empire - is enjoying a critical reappraisal?
Yes, because I love that film, and I say now that The Straight Story is my most experimental movie, but up `til then, Fire Walk With Me was my most experimental fim, and some of the things, you know, sequences... There`s such a magic to just the word 'sequence', I`m not kidding ya. There`s something about the word 'sequence', it`s what I`m fixated on now. And it`s just the whole power of everything.
Could you explain that a little better?
Critics are notoriously fickle, but were you surprised Peaks fans didn`t like the movie?
Not really. There was a shift going on, and who knows all the reasons, but it was just in the air. It was unfortunate, but... And also, it was a dark film, and it was too much in people`s faces and didn`t have the humour of Twin Peaks. It was what it was supposed to be, but it wasn`t what people wanted. It was supposed to be stand-alone, but also the last week of Laura Palmer`s life. All those things had been established, but they could be pleasant on one level to experience, but on another level, not.
Would you ever go back to Twin Peaks?
No. Uh-uh. It`s as dead as a doornail.
Did you get the sense - after the triple-threat of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks - that whatever you made next, the critics would slate?
When you go up, you gotta go down, and I think it happens to everybody.
How do you feel when your films are 'gutted' by the censors? Wild at Heart was cut, as was Blue Velvet...
Those were cuts I didn`t wanna make. They told me if I didn`t want an X I had to take out one hitfrom Frank onto Dorothy. And now you see the beginning of it, Jeffrey in the closet looking out and you hear it, and it`s way worse than it was because your mind kicks in.
But didn`t you cut Wild at Heart yourself after people left the test screenings?
We had three test screenings of Wild at Heart, and only when I cut one tiny part did people stay in the theatre. Well, a lot of people stayed, but about half left, usually. I`ve been very lucky on every film except Dune, that what you see is the director´s cut - except for censorship, I`ve never had to make any changes that I didn`t wanna make.
Do the external forces acting on your work - release dates, studios - frustrate you?
(pauses to order and drink third cup of coffee) See, there`s the doughnut and there`s the hole. The doughnut is the film. The hole is all the things you`re talking about, so they say, "Keep your eye on the doughnut, not the hole." And the doughnut is so much better than the hole, so it`s not that hard to do. There`s never any outside force that keeps you from making the film the way it wants to be. If there is, you should stop. You always think you`re gonna get it into Cannes, but if [it`s] at the expense o fthe film, then you`ll hurt the film and kill yourself.
You found it hard to get backing for another film after Blue Velvet, unable to get either One Saliva Bubble or Ronnie Rocket off the ground.
Yeah. Blue Velvet made money, but it wasn`t the kind of film that had studios calling [me] to do somethin for them. And I was with Dino [De Laurentiis], he bankrolled One Saliva Bubble, and we were gonna shoot it (with Steve Martin and Martin Short). We scouted locations, then Dino`s company went bankrupt.
One Saliva Bubble was one of many comedy projects you never made. Can you tell me about the others?
With The Lemurians, it was the idea that Lemuria sunk, like Atlantis, and the essence of Lemuria began to leak because Jacques Cousteau bumped something on his explorations and caused a leakage of "essence of Lemuria". And this essence worked its way and did certain things. It was a comedy and pretty absurd, but it never got anywhere. But it made us laugh. The Dream Of The Bovine was for the comedy channel. [Robert Engels] and I wrote three episodes, and then sort of realised that it was a feature, but in re-writes it got off-track. And then I re-read some parts of the original, and there`s defiitely something there, but it needs a lot of work. It should be very bad quality, whatever it is. Extremely bad quality. Which is not hard to do.
Are you frustrated at not being able to make comedies, at least so far?
I really have a respect for comedy. People have said comedy is like mathematics: two and two is four; this and this; you gotta get a laugh. And it`s really difficult, and yet comedies are throwaway things.
You`re a big fan of Jacques Tati, but what contemporary comedy have you enjoyed?
Something About Mary - all the dog bits. I like that. And I like the guy with the crutches who tried to get his keys - that physical gag, I thought that was really, really good, the timing of what he did, and the little sound effect they put in there. I thought he did a really good job.
Is that his name? He`s really good. And I liked the dog stuff a lot.
What other films have you liked recently?
I haven`t seen that much. I`m not really a film buff, I like to work on my own stuff. Not that something doesn`t exist that I would really like - I just haven`t seen it.
Well, let`s talk about Mulholland Drive. When they shelved the pilot, did ABC simply not 'get' what you were trying to do?
They hated it. They hated the story, the acting. They thought it was too slow, that`s for sure. Basically they hated verything about it.
You started writing it with Joyce Eliason, who scripted The Last Don...
Right. I started, though, way before that, when it was gonna be kind of a spin-off of Twin Peaks, but it didn`t go anywhere. And just the words 'Mulholland Drive' always got something going, but I never knew what, so all the times it started to go, it never really went, until this last thing. And then it wasnothing but trouble with ABC, and it was just more fuel for the [theory] that a thing is not finished until it`s finished.. It wants to be a certain way, and you don`t know all the twists and turns in a road that are coming up - you just drive dow the road and, you know, pay attention.
Like Mulholland Drive itself - the road and the film. Did you predict that the outcome of the whole ABC/shelved pilot fiasco would be a happy one, an award in Cannes and a strong critical response?
When you`re in the middle of something, it`s not impossible to let go of [it], but it`s an injury if you don`t finish something, and part of your mind is always going back to it if it`s not finished. So I don`t know whether it was being hopeful, or I had a feeling, but many people involved in the project had feelings that it wasn`t gonna die. Then it got revived and almost died, and revived and died many, many times. Because of the nature of it, I don`t know how to say it, but it would be like there`s a key to something - your brain kind of kicks in to finish something, and you don`t know how it`s going to end. It`s pretty interesting how the mind can go to work, and ideas come in. It`s a real interesting experience.
The only explanation you ever gave for Lost Highway was that it is a "psychogenic fugue". Would you care to elaborate on that a little?
No. I think it`s [a] beautiful [phrase], even if it didn`t mean anything. It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality. I think they call it a "psychogenic fugue" because it goes from one thing, segues to another, and then I think it comes back again. And so it is [in] Lost Highway.
Is it necessary that you understand seomething if you`re going to film it?
No, not one bit. The reverse is true. My understanding of Wild at Heart, the book... Again, it was a lot like The Elephant Man - the essence was Sailor and Lula, and many things were one line, or one paragraph, or one thing that shot a bunch of studio stuff into me that got expanded. Some things were dropped, but it`s like they triggered [other] things. But then at a certain point you have to go and make it your own.
Your first two features were in black and white, and rumour has it you initially considered shooting Lost Highway in monochrome, to heighten the film noir sensibility.
No.Some films are black and white films and some films are colour films. They tell you pretty much straightaway. I love black and white, but Lost Highway wouldn`t work in black and white, just like The Elephant Man wouldn`t work in colour.
You know your ad for PlayStation 2 is black and white...
No it`s not.
Yes it is. You filmed it in colour, but it was only shown in black and white.
Really. How do you feel about that?
I do not feel good. It`s supposed to be in colour. You see, there`s a total disregard... Once they have it, they do what they want. And if that happened in film, then I`d have to quit making films.
There are university courses taught, and academic texts published, about the deeper meanings of Twin Peaks and Lost Highway. Why do you think that is?
Human beings are detectives, and mysteries are magnets, and once you discover something, the mystery`s over. And I think that some knowing is completely fulfilling, but most knowing you`re just onto the next thing, and it`s done. It`s like me; I wanna know where things go, but we can all maybe get to maybe a different place, but a very satisfying place. And you`re not very sure of the place, but it`s still very lively.
// Mulholland Drive will be released in January 2002, and reviewed in the February 2002 issue. The Complete Lynch by David Hughes is currently available to buy, priced 15.99 pounds.