Search & Destroy No.9, 1978
DAVID LYNCH, who wrote/produced//directed ERASERHEAD, is really a natural, unaware of a lot of happenings in the "arts." "Life is a symbol, the body is a symbol... the mystery in life is to break through and find out what these symbols mean." He seems to be interested in religion, at his place he had a bible on the table next to him. His furniture looks like the ERASERHEAD set (Henry´s room) .... In Los Angeles, KENT BEYDA talked to DAVID LYNCH at his home recently....
S&D: Who´s distributing ERASERHEAD?
DL: Libra Films in New York. And the guy who owns Libra Films is Ben Berenholz (sic), he used to own the Elgin Theater in New York. He really started midnight films. He started with EL TOPO midnights and it sort of did its thing and he just kept it on and went thru weird ups and downs... but lo and behold, Cadillacs and limousines were driving up pretty soon at midnight and all these people were coming to see it and it went for a real long time. And then Allen Klein got ahold of it & hyped it too much & killed it.
There was some debate whether ERASERHEAD was really gonna be a midnight film or was it going to be released regularly, it would´ve been killed a long time ago. But the word of mouth in it is real good, & so it would build -- if someone would take a chance & hold with it, it´ll always build. Except in the South....
The Rocky Horror Show is keeping ERASERHEAD out in a lot of places, people are making so much money on it, you know, they don´t want to drop it. Money´s what it´s all about...
S&D: When did you come to L.A.?
DL: I came out here in 1970 because I got accepted at the "Center" (American Film Institute in L.A.). I started on a feature film, just worked on the script and then a lot of people got involved with it and it got away from me and it just died. So, I started on ERASERHEAD in 1971 and no one fooled with me, so I had a great, kind of a private thing going. I was down at the stables at the AFI for about 3 years and had the run of tge whole place.
S&D: So the whole film was shot there?
DL: Most everything, yeah. We shot some of the exteriors in dowtown L.A. The front of the X´s house, we built outside of AFI.
S&D: You had the lights behind that & a smoke machine?
DL: Yeah, well the "smoke machine" -- we had a 50-gallon drum with burning newspapers & a fan & a piece of cardboard!
S&D: Did you shoot in 16 or 35?
DL: Oh, 35, for sure... We were shooting everything MOS (shot without sound, term derives from Fritz Lang´s "mit out sound") , pretty nearly. Well, we DID shoot sound, we used a CM-3 and we used a HUGE blimp -- I mean it was Huge, ridiculous! But we had these sound-deadening blankets that we made, Alan sort of invented them.
S&D: What were they made of?
S&D: Fiberglass & burlap. They were like, real portable, and they had grommets all around so we could hang them up real fast - except that it got dusty & the fiberglass got in the little dust particles in the air -- a lot of times you´d have to wait for all this stuff to settle. It was bad news for breathing sometimes!
S&D: So why were you shooting MOS, because of budgets?
DL: No, no, no, because I want an ATMOSPHERE.
S&D: I wanted to ask you were you got a lot of that. like the constant machine noise during the exteriors, for instance.
DL: All our sound effects are -- well, Alan and I made, I´d say, 50% of those effects, and the rest were like effects we´d get from the library, but we´d alter everything.
S&D: Like the baby crying?
DL: No, those were made from scratch. We had a pretty elaborate console that we could put stuff through and change in a lot of different ways: we could just keep fooling with things til we got exactly the right sound & then just catalogue it and put it away. Then we´d transfer huge amounts of stuff & then Alan did almost all the sound-cutting. It was a huge job, but all the sound was organic -- there weren´t any moog synthesizers or anything. We might get into that next time, but the moog sounds so "moogy" to me that -- but Alan thinks now they´ve come along enough so that we can get sounds that you can´t tell where they came from.
S&D: What other films have you done?
DL: Well, the GRANDMOTHER was a short film, 35 minutes, 16mm, color. But it was really a Black-and-White film in a way, because all the sets were black & there were just little bits of color in sort of a black world. And I made a 4-minute film before that, that I call THE ALPHABET, kind of a nightmare film, that I submitted to the AFI Independent Filmmakers Grant Program and got a grant for the GRANDMOTHER. And then on the GRANDMOTHER, I got into the Center.... So that´s how it all happened, one thing leading to another, real nicely, except that ERASERHEAD took an awful long time to make -- five years! kept running out of money)
S&D: What was Jack Nance ("Henry" in film) doing all this time?
DL: Well, he wasn´t doing other acting, he was doing anything he could to survive. But, he was always ready to be Henry again and WAS Henry for like, over 3 years....
S&D: Was that a wig he was wearing?
DL: No, no, that´s his real hair.
S&D: I was wondering, did you want to go for sort of a Midwestern feel?
DL: Midwestern? I never thought about the Midwestern at all! The film was inspired by Philadelphia. There was no Philadelphia accents, that´s true, but just the same, it is sort of The Philadelphia Story --
S&D: It´s a very old city.
DL: It´s so old, it´s decaying. You see, Philadelphia has a mood that is unbelievable if you go to the right areas. New York, there´s so many people, there´s so much happening that the fear is mixed in with a lot of other things. In Philadelphia, there´s not that many people downtown, but there´s plenty of fear.... For a while, I lived right near where EDGAR ALLAN POE lived and you know what kind of atmosphere he was picking up on. And I lived kitty-corner from the morgue in a real industrial area and it really made an impression. Then I lived on the border of an area that was black and white and there was conflict and there was such hatred, it was unbelievable. This kid was killed right in front of our house and our house was broken into twice and some windows were shot out one night -- it was really bad news and I was plenty glad to get out of Philadelphia!.. Any big city, they´ve got areas where you can pick up on this stuff, but you have to really LIVe in it before it gets to you, and once you live in it and you go someplace else, you realize, GOOD NIGHT! It took me a year for that fear to lift off, after coming to California...
I´ve changed a lot since I started ERASERHEAD and finished ERASERHEAD, for sure. I´m not anti-life, but, it used to be that I´d get into some really weird stuff -- like in Philadelphia, I collected dead mice. Like I went to Vermont one time to visit my friend.
S&D: With your collection?
DL: No, I built onto my collection in Vermont. You see, I found this little dead field mouse and I got this dish, this deep dish that had been out there for awhile, and I poured epoxy over it and I´m not kidding -- it was unbelievably beautiful! Because this dish had roses on it, it was like a deep tea saucer with roses on it, and there´s this little grey field mouse at the bottom. They polyester resin heated up as it cured and it heated up the mouse enough so that the blood boiled abd the blood came out the mouse´s nose and floated, like a cloud, up to the surface of the resin, and with it a whole cluster of little baby maggots and all of the sudden, everything Froze like that and it was locked. It was so beautiful, it was incredible. Clear, clear pink, like a rose colored plastic.... It was a beautiful thing. I like organic things, and I don´t like them necessarily because they were dead, but I like the way nature goes to work on something after a certain point....
S&D: Have you heard much of punk rock?
DL: I was reading those magazines, for instance. And I haven´t heard much punk music -- you know Pete Ivers (sic)? He was playing me the RAMONES and some other bands. I really believe they´re On to something, like going back to the roots of real rock´n´roll and I love that. Rock´n´roll has gotten so watered down in so many different mixtures that it´s nothing, it doesn´t do Anything for you, and when you hear the REAL stuff, it just drives you crazy. The politics, I don´t go for, I´m not into that one bit. I´m into doing something and doing the best job you can at it, trying to get as deep into it as possible, down at the roots, and surface music and surface movies are just so much fluff. Like you say about details -- if you handle the sound and go as deep into it as you can, and be as detailed as you can, and the picture as detailed as you can and every aspect, the acting, everything, get it just exactly as you want it as much as you can, -- you´re gonna get a film that stands out. Because not too many people have the time or the inclination to do that. But then, you´ve gotta compete in a commercial world too, and that´s a whole other.... that´s sort of a bummer...
S&D: Can you tell me what the budget was?
S&D: Cause it seems that, working with what you had, you did such an incredible job.
DL: Well, like.... the exterior to the X´s, I really loved that set and it is so totally a film set because only the things you see are there, there´s nothing else. The set itself cost about $35 or $50 bucks, the whole thing. It took about 3 or 4 days to build it & dress it, and light it & shoot it maybe a week. We used the cheapest tarpaper, cut it up and made shingles out of it. There was no porch at all, the steps are styrofoam blocks and we had to weight them down and drive stakes into the ground to hold them from moving when Henry would step on them.
I collect junk and stuff, and I had a paper route when I was making most of ERASERHEAD, I tossed the Wall Street Journal and I had gotten my route down to an hour, but on trash night it would take me a lot longer, because I´d go out and scout for stuff in the trash. I collect junk wood and stuff, so a lot of the sets were made out of found stuff... For the warehouse scene -- there´s this pace in Rubidoux (sic) out by Riverside called COWBOY Furniture, except there´s no furniture there. There´s like -- a room full of dolls, and a shed filled with buttons, and old mattresses & old washing machines & bolts & nuts, and then there´s this pile of panelling-like stuff, only it is the cheapest panelling, a dollar a sheet or maybe even less. A lot of them are kinda broken, but all I wanted was something to hold up wallpaper -- if I could´ve gotten like HARD AIR I´d have used that! ... It was the cheapest construction, we´d use a lot of papier mache over holes and then wallpaper it, so we were able to get sets that looked solid and Were solid enough so that when you closed the door, you couldn´t see anything.
S&D: Did you build the mailboxes & the box on the wall?
DL: We built that whole lobby, in fact the lobby, the X´s living room & the warehouse are all in the same place.
S&D: I was overwhelmed by the control you have --
DL: Well, what overwhelms ME is that people DON´T take control, they let everybody get a finger in the pie, they find locations that they´re really not happy with, but because of time they accept them.... We went looking for exteriors of X´s house, for instance, and we found a couple that were close, but by the time you go down there & you have to block off certain things that you don´t want to see, and you have to light & move in & dress it, and fight off little kids all coming around & other people, and you have to go into real weird areas to find something like that -- it´s easier to build it! ... I mean, there´s always somebody that you can blame, or you can say you didn´t have the money or you didn´t have this, or you didn´t have the time....
S&D: Well.... the sets combined with the lighting is so effective --
DL: Yeah, the lighting is SO important to make a mood. We had Henry´s room feeling about 10 different ways, just because of the lighting -- same set, but the lighting can make you feel like it´s midmorning or... a strange, weird time of night.
S&D: Some of the special effects were -- like the water, where there´s white & then you see the blackness, was that backwards?
DL: Yeah, it was SHOT backwards so when it was printed, it was printed forwards, and there it was.
S&D: I love all the water images, like one that sticks in my mind is the steamer, the close-ups of the water-bubbling with that embryo dropping into the water -- it goes into the water and then we´re sort of inside looking out...
DL: Yeah... I like going into the mirage....
S&D: What´s ERASERHEAD being compared to?
DL: All sorts of different things. To Larry Cohen, to German Expressionism.... Well, you gotta say something. They´ll do the same thing to punk pretty soon(!) a whole bunch of people will be thrown into a punk "group" whether they identify themselves with that or not. People PUT them there cause they´re close or something. They come along with something new and that´s what´s happening, so they pop them in there. And all the people, they don´t know each other, they´re just ON to something and they get labelled as one big group, and if society´s down on punk and that person gets involved with that, then they´re down.
S&D: There´s a group from Ohio called DEVO and their film is being shown with ERASERHEAD in San Francisco (Roxie Theater)
DL: No kidding. What does DEVO do?
S&D: Well, their music is based on very urban industrial kind of rhythms. They´re very hard to pin down, they´re one of the most original groups around. They have a whole theory of de-evolution as opposed to evolution, I guess the whole idea of things tending toward disorder.
DL: Well, I have the opposite theory.
S&D: What´s your theory?
DL: I know what they´re talking about -- it sure looks like it´s tending toward de-evolution, but I think that everything´s going in evolution. But it´s a slow process and there´s lots of places to get hung up and we´re in one of those places right now. Things are really crazy, but basically, everything´s evolving....
S&D: The woman in the radiator, was she supposed to look like a lion?
DL: (laughs) No, she´s not.
S&D: Sort of like a goddess?
DL: Well, in a way.... the lady in the radiator wasn´t event there in the original script of ERASERHEAD. One day, I was sitting in a room where we weren´t shooting and I got this idea and I RAN in there to the radiator, and it was the kind that had this weird little box in there. We´d already shot a lot of the film, some with Henry even looking there, and we didn´t have to change anything. It was the weirdest thing, like she was already there but we didn´t know it! She, to me, represents the GOODNESS in Henrys life and all that, but she´s a very strange looking woman for sure. She´s got skin problems that she´s trying to cover up with pancake makeup. A bad problem....
S&D: Would you want to talk about your next film?
DL: I would, but it´s not quite ready; I´ve almost finished the script. I couldn´t have written it 6 months ago even if I´d had the time -- it just wasn´t there. Now, it sort of all came together. I´ve almost got it done and then I´ll raise the money and get going. It may be color.... but I just love Black & White so much. Right away, you´re one step removed from reality....
DAVID LYNCH written/produced/directed/picture
editing/some sound effects