i D, March 2007, p.218-221

Beat your own drum

David Lynch text Justin Theroux. Laura Dern text Chris Wallace photography Matt Jones

David Lynch David Lynch

David Lynch is a genius, a one-off, inspirational, avant-garde, a cinematic visionary. We love him. Literally. So we hooked up a conversation between David and longtime friend and collaborator - the handsome and talented actor Justin Theroux - star of Mulholland Drive. But we didn´t leave it there, HELL NO! In an exclusive interview, Laura Dern chats about David´s latest film INLAND EMPIRE, a role which sees her complete a triptych (alongside Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart), as his muse.

"Shit... I feel partly responsible since this is mine". Dean Hurley, David Lynch´s sound engineer is lamenting the fact that I have been interviewing David for over two hours, and the MP3 recorder he lent me has just crashed. Dean is devastated. "I´m really sorry guys." "I tell you what," says David," "It´ll be interesting. You can see how well you understood what I said. It´s kind of like a lesson!" Maybe, but I came to interview David planning in part to wing it, without a pen, paper, and just a handful of questions, and now I am feeling the pressure of remembering hours of dialogue. "Damn!" David says. "We had some good stuff in there!" He´s right. We did. A conversation about his new film INLAND EMPIRE (yes, all capitals), directing, which of his contemporaries he admire (after a very long silence... he finally turned to me and said simply, "I don´t know"), any movies he´s seen that he likes? (longer silence. None came to mind), and Poland, where INLAND EMPIRE was shot over the course over three years. But it´s when we touch on Vedic poetry, Transcendental Meditation, and the Unified Field that he becomes more animated, and how with extremely simple techniques one can dive within and find true bliss "It´s the real deal" confirms David.

I couldn´t tell you in what way, but I have known since my first viewing of it, that INLAND EMPIRE and the spiritual things we are discussing are somehow, somewhere, inextricably linked. We also talked about his website, coffee, human nature, and the spiritual, peaceful future of mankind. David´s prognosis? "Good times are coming ol´ buddy. Really good times. But it may take a minute." I firmly believe him, not because the day we spoke the Democrats swept the House and the Senate, or that Rumsfeld had just resigned. No, David talks in grander and more optimistic terms. The recorder crashing is actually typical, and serves as a great point of departure for our interview. Not typical in the actual misfortune of losing our discussion, but typical in the optimism David embraces in the accident itself. He loves happy accidents and I have seen him embrace them on his sets many times. He often views obstacles as disguised gifts. And I have been lucky enough to see a few of them proven on film.

In our last fifteen minutes together, we get the machine working again, and we pick up somewhere near where we left off. He talks slowly, and deliberately.

"Yes... There´s specific things. A young boy. Shot to death. Almost directly in front of the house.


"There´s a man... walking across a street... into traffic... almost wading into traffic. A big man, wading through these cars. He reaches into one, and rips a man out. While the car is moving..."

(anoter pause.)

"A woman walking down the street, a wild look in her eye... holding her breast. She´s saying her nipple hurts."

These three images sound like stage directions, or at the very least a primer to a wonderful new David Lynch film. In fact, David Lynch is speaking, in real terms, of actual events, in response to my question about the importance of Philadelphia in his life. He credits the city, creatively at least, with leaving the biggest mark on him.

Philadelphia in 1965, like many post-industrial cities in the American northeast, was in a state of decay. Factories, warehouses, and other red brick industrial-era sites dotting the eastern seaboard had largely stopped churning out textiles, stamping tin, and boiling gargantuan pots of iron. However, even in their then dormant state, they seemed to make an enormous impression on David. Currently, most of them have been converted into condominiums, or simply no longer exist, but throughout many of his films they are not only on display, but given pride of place. For David, these machines; big heavy iron ones that belch steam, have heaving pistons, groaning gears, and spinning belts, seem to underscore the strengths, weaknesses, turmoil and revelations through many of his characters and storylines. "When I was living there, there was lots of brick. Red-brick buildings. Factories. Actually, the bricks weren´t so much red as they were black from dirt and weathered disrepair. Now they´re closed. But they were real great places. Nature was taking them back. Where I was living, the bricks in my house felt paper thin. It felt like there was very little separating me from the bad things happening outside. People would say, y´know, 'bricks are bricks!' but in my mind they couldn´t keep out this sense of insecurity. Philadelphia was a very unsafe place. The bricks oozed with a kind of fear."

I asked him if he was scared.

"Yeah. There was a lot of fear in the air. But at the same time it was thrilling."

Anyone who has seen even one of David´s films can tell you that there is always a powerful use of a kind of generalised fear in his work. Truly terrifying things happen and sometimes you would be hard pressed to explain what makes them so. Normal horror movie conventions don´t apply. There are no gory reveals, no knives being dragged across people´s throats, or zombies leaping from darkened places. INLAND EMPIRE contains one truly terrifying moment, when in broad daylight a man tiptoes from behind a tree with a small red Christmas light bulb clenched delicately in his jaws. Relish the image because by no accident, it will likely be the only one given in this interview.

David´s films are rare in that it is often several minutes into a scene before you get the feeling that something is horrifyingly. He deploys fear not necessarily to shock, but to unsettle and paradoxically, he does it in stunningly beautiful ways. The same way a Francis Bacon painting can enchant you from a distance by a single, lush primary colour. On drawing closer, you realise a figure is not what you assumed it might be. Closer still, and finally under its spell, you realise the painting has mugged you and is leading you somewhere much darker than you may have originally intended or wished to go. I remember being introduced to David, at age 16, when on a whim I decided to go see Blue Velvet at a second run movie house in Williamstown Massachussetts. I knew nothing about it. I had only seen a picture in a leaflet from the theater where it was playing. Isabella Rossellini was draped in the arms of Kyle MacLachlan in some sort of balletic embrace. Isabella´s neck was exposed for Kyle to romantically devour. I remember at the time thinking it might be something like Dirty Dancing. In the opening minutes I felt downright gypped. The film so far had nothing on Dirty Dancing. It was kind of strange, but more than that, it was just kind of corny. A friendly ´50s style fire-truck passed through the frame in slo-mo, with a waving fireman standing on the runner, a doo-wop radio jingle announced the town´s setting (Lumberton) and "at the sound of the falling tree", announced the current time. Then someone found an ear. For anyone who hasn´t seen the film, stop reading here and go give it a rent. David would likely be disappointed in me that I give you even that much of the plot. For those who have seen Blue Velvet, you no doubt have guessed correctly that I stumbled back onto the street a few hours later, clutching my head, a good portion of which had just been blown clean off.

As I walked back to the school where I boarded, I now shuddered as I passed the picket fenced houses on my route. Their angular New England facades now forever skewed sideways. I was not afraid of monsters or boogeymen, but something intangible, something at once more human, but less. I was afraid of a kind of an intangible energy. Even today, I would be hard pressed to explain what it made me feel, and it´s exactly what I am having difficulty describing that made it exceptional and in the end much more profound than Jennifer Grey getting a dancing lesson from Patrick Swayze. My world-view had just been bumped into a different orbit. Ir was a deep but welcome wound to my innocence. My world had just gotten bigger. It is now 2006, and I have flown to Los Angeles for the premiere of INLAND EMPIRE. I am now sitting in front of the man responsible for that seminal event. We are in his sun drenched hillside studio above his house in Los Angeles. We both clutch enormous cups of cappuccino, and David is at his worktable. His eyes, so clear and blue that they always look wet, twinkle just beneath his trademark shock of hair, that cuts back and away from his forehead like a cresting and crashing white wave. Contrary to many in Hollywood, when he speaks, his facial expressions never contradict his sentiment. They are always in sync, and blow easily across his face. However trite sounding, he genuinely does have some sort of inner light that pours out of him. His persona, although defined by his work, shoes no trace of it. He is happy, he is light, and at times very funny. He can also of course be dead serious., but even that sometimes has a particular brand of joy behind it.

Having now worked with him on two films, I am no less curious, not only about his process, but the themes he trades in. I notice there is a prop used for a special effect on his worktable that was used in INLAND EMPIRE, an effect that in the film is terrifying. I know better than to ask him about it while the tape is rolling, so before we hit record, I ask how he did it. We agree that this part of the conversation will remain off the record. He tells me. I am stunned at the simplicity of the rig, but astounded by its results on screen. Had I seen him actually filming it, I may have thought that it might wind up as a sub-par effect. As it stands though, it would make George Lucas jealous. I am stunned at how terrifically effective it is.

So why have I not told you what the prop/effect is? Are David and I conspiring, or worse, purposefully trying your patience? No. I mention it of course anecdotally, because it points to a conundrum embedded in his work, and the way he prefers to comment on it.

David is often seen by fans and critics alike as being maddeningly oblique when it comes to describing his own work. I can assure you though, at least from my perspective of having been both behind and in front of the curtain, that he is hiding nothing at all. He doesn´t even play the shell game critics and journalists so often accuse him of. I understand their frustration. They have obligations of their own, and he does not make their job any easier. He is quite simply in another league. Not above them, below them, or even on par. Just elsewhere. What I think he is doing, or is trying to give his audience, is a gift. Your very own, personal, unanalyzed, 'time alone' with his films, even if you happen to be in a room full of people.

At times, when being directed by him, I have tried to pin him down on plot particulars, and often, he´ll say, quite sincerely, "I don´t know yet, let´s find out..." This sense of exploration is what, as a director, makes him so utterly courageous, and for an actor at least, so much damn fun.

The difference between acting in one of his movies, and viewing them is stark. His sets are lively, funny, and exciting places to work, but experiencing the product itself is totally antithetical to the experience of making it.

At this point in our interview, I have been trying for over two hours to pin him down on how he would like his works to be viewed.

He smiles.

"I am in love with stories. All kinds. There is nothing more beautiful in the world than being in a theatre... the lights dim, and the curtain opens..." He pauses, his eyes clap shut, as if he is viewing the picture on the backs of his eyelids. Then a thrilled expression scampers onto his face "Even just the words! A grin breaks across his face and he looks at me.

"See... I go nuts in a film where I have room to dream."

"Go nuts in a good way?" I ask. "In a good way... I love that. Like when a person stands in front of an abstract painting. Something starts happening." Dave close his eyes yet again and he gently lifts a hand, spreads his fingers, and starts to mimic a kind of turbulence, as if playing an imaginary theramin. "And this circle starts going from the viewer to the painting, from the painting to the viewer, and it goes like that, and a whole bunch of stuff starts to happen inside the person. Based on... triggered by what they are seeing. And that triggers all kinds of things going on... so the view-er (pronounced Vyooo-wwerrrr) has an experience unlike the next view-er!"

He strikes the table lightly with a finger. "See, all the frames in a movie are EXACTLY the same. I mean, there are subtle differences in the projector, and the sound system, stuff like that... But it´s the view-er... It´s the view-er that makes the difference!"

He pauses.

"And there´s something to that."

Nodding, he gives me a broad open smile. David has a way of speaking, a directness, that sometimes makes what he says seem too simple. So simple in fact, that if you didn´t know him, you might think he is trying to get one over on you. I have done now several press tours with him, and seen him say similar things, and five that same genuine smile to scores of very clever journalists, and I have seen the cynical ones smirk back at him, as if they are in on some joke that he´s telling.

They´re not. Why? Because he´s not joking. He´s merely imparting a simple truth, often times what sound to me anyway, like instructions, for the most open way to watch a film. Not just films. Anything. And allowing ourselves 'room to dream.' And he´s telling this to us like some sort of serene cinema Buddha. The analogy, although absurd, is not far off. The old cliché of the Zen master saying something overly simple, and leaving the student to ponder it for a decade is in part, true here. Almost all of what he says can be taken at face value, but it´s the listener, or in this case, the viewer who can overcomplicate it for themselves. David himself is very consistent, and very succinct. Coming back to INLAND EMPIRE, he explains: "I want people to feel, to intuit their way through the movie."

This points to another compelling characteristic of David. He has more faith in us, than most directors do. He has enormous faith in audiences, and their ability to intuit and glean a more personal meaning from his films. That being said, there will no doubt always be those people who will cross their arms and harrumph when David won´t explain for them the blue-box in Mulholland Drive, the red curtains in most of his movies, or whether or not his films are set in reality or some fractured dream, but he knows better than to quench their own curiosity. David knows that explanations or hand-holding only serve to shackle our own intuition, and that answers to those questions sling a dead weight across our own imagination.

I have heard him say, something to the effect that he believes firmly that intuition is born intact in every one of us. Sometimes we just don´t trust it enough, or perhaps more accurately, don´t get the chance to trust it enough, before it is trod on by articles, reviews, commerce, and commentary. David spreads his fingers and wiggles his hand above his head momentarily.

"See, some stories are surface stories, they happen up here... and that´s great. That´s fine. Those are good movies too."

Then he closes his fingertips together like a dart and slowly plunges his hand downward in the direction of his stomach. He becomes more serious.

"But other stories... they dive within."

Some might think David is being judgmental of other movies here. I don´t think so. In fact I don´t think he thinks of his films in relationship to other films. He just sees them as different. Others still might think he´s being evasive. I would disagree. David, a bit like a good teacher, is simply telling us to watch, to listen, and encouraging us to have our own experience. To look for the answers to be written on our interior, rather than outside of ourselves, by someone else. To dive within. His hand swims back above his head. "Some films you watch way up here! And you follow them along, and they´re great! But other films you have to feel your way through. I think INLAND EMPIRE is like that. People know what´s going on. They just have to trust it."

As I am leaving to go to the airport, David finishes up with another favorite maxim of his. "You see, it´s about the doughnut, not the hole." I´ve heard him use the saying before, but in this case, am left wondering, again, what exactly he means by it. Its only once I am on the plane back to New York that it dawns on me that he has once again done me a favour... of not clarifying.