Montage September 1989
The Wild Heart of David Lynch
by Mark Rosin
David Lynch is unarguably one of today`s most distinctive American
filmmakers. As a director (Eraserhead, Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet), he has an artist`s
eye; he is, in fact, a painter as well as a filmmaker. In both his writing (he wrote the screenplays for
Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet and shared the screenplay credit for Elephant Man) and
directing, his eye is often focussed on the grotesque or at least the
At the moment, Lynch`s plate is very full. In august, he started directing his new film, Wild at Heart,
(which he says is about "finding love in hell") for Propaganda Films. After
that, he is slated to direct You play the black and the red comes up, (a film about
"absurdity, insanity and nobody ever being in control of things-
ideas," Lynch says, he`s "been playing with for a long time.")
In addition to his film work, Lynch is executive producing his first television
project, Twin Peaks, a one-hour series he created for ABC´s new
season, in collaboration with writer/producer Mark Frost with whom Lynch has just formed Lynch/Frost Productions to develop other TV projects as well.
west. In the pilot, there's been a brutal murder of one of the most popular girls in the high school. and that's the starting point. It's about certain people in the town and an ongoing investigation, and it's about secrets. MONTAGE: Like in contemporary PEYTON PLACE?
Lynch: That's what they are calling it. I love the idea of a soap opera, of having the luxury of time for characters to unfold and reveal more and more about themselves. That study of httman nature is fantastic to me. As an exectitive producer, I'm kind of like an overseer and that s how l'm going to stay with the series.
MONTAGE: You said at the IFP/West Di rectors' Series that as a painter you were intrigued with the idea of pictures moving, and you realized that making films was the way to do it. Whot is it about film os a medium that continues to intrigue you?
Lynch: It's the most magical medium yet devised, because you can create another reality and enter into it. It's possible to conjure up with sound and pictures profound emotions and fantastic ideas— that's something only this medium can do. It has to do with story. and it has to do with human nature, and it has to do with pacing. In other words, it takes time, which film gives us. It` s organized sequences in time. It's like music—when it builds from starting slowly, like melodies intertwined and you feel things building and changing, and you are sucked in. Then the mucic can take you because of what you have been through, and it can hit you with a theme coming back in a more powerful way. Film can do this in a really powerful way, even more so than music. But with just a regular story film, it really never happens. It has to be abstract. There's something about a good story which has structure and timing and some abstractions, as well, which allow you to reach something really, really fantastic.
MONTAGE: To me, ERASERHEAD, was very abstract. While it presented a series of related images, it unfolded in an almost non-linear way, and it got to you emotionally in that way. In BLUE VELVET, there really was more of a story, even though there were elements that were almost purely imagistic. But they had an emotional value because they were part of a story where the characters were people you were emotionally involved with
Lynch: Exactly. But ERASERHEAD, number one, has a story. It is more abstract than BLUE VELVET, but it still has a story and you still have to be able to identify with the characters for the magic to happen. And for the people that don't like ERASERHEAD, the fault with the film was they couldn't identify with it—that they could not, would not, or didn't want to enter that world. It takes a certain kind of experience or set of chemicals in the mind to be able to enter certain spaces. Once you get in there (into that certain space), it has rules that you have to obey. That is true for BLUE VELVET, ERASERHEAD, and every film. The (fictional) world is set up a certain way and once it's set that way, in order to take someone through it you can't break the rules or they're back in the theatre out there, back in the real world.
MONTAGE: And how do "abstractions" enter into it?
Lynch: It can be very, very subtle. There's a scene in BLUE VELVET where Jeffrey is walking across the hallway to go to Dorothy's apartment at night. Sandy's out in the car, and Jeffrey's going to see if his key works. So he's crossing over to her door, and he looks down the other side of the hall to see if anyone's coming. And then he comes back to the door. It's very simple. But Angelo Badalamenti wrote a piece of music—I'm not sure if it was written for someplace else in the film, but it ended up right there—which conjures up a mood, so that it's way more than just that hallway now. For me, that hall is like—it's sort of "forties", though not necessarily a B film. It's kind of a feeling of an older hallway, something from the past. Cinema history comes through. And also it has a mood that is just thrilling to me.
MONTAGE: Is that what you mean by the abstract element?
Lynch: Yes. That's the magic of film.
MONTAGE: What is your favorite part of directing?
Lynch: I'm lucky, because I like all the different parts. And they are all extremely important, because if one or two fall short, the whole thing falls apart. So you have to be involved in every part of the process, making choices that reinforce the whole idea which started the thing in the beginning. And you have to be very watchful— and open to fantastic new ideas. Once you see something right in front of you, like an actress with a certain dress walk into a certain light and say a certain word, you can almost pass out. You've got all the parts together, but now it's really something different, and it goes to another place.
MONTAGE: If you had to make a hierarchy of how you look at things, when you're directing, would the pictorial come before the interaction of the actors?
Lynch: You can't give priority to one over the other. You have to know the sound, the lighting, the placement of people, everything—and you keep on going until it is right or as right as you can get it. It talks to you, you know. You are always comparing what you see in front of you with the original idea, and you know when it's right and when it's not working. And sometimes you also have the happy feeling that it's better than the original idea, because of other people's input and having it all in front of you.
MONTAGE What would you say the differences are between a small budget ond a big budget in terms of the different challenges they pose for you?
Lynch: It's much better to make a small budget film, I guess, because the pressure is less. I like the idea that film is an illusion and to make the illusion really an illusion, sometimes it doesn't take all that much money. You don't need to build a set out of real bricks to have it look like a real brick set. In ERASERHEAD, a lot of the sets were made out of paper and they looked thick. I had a paper route then, and I delivered THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and I would make a lot of things out of paper mache. But if you have to have the money to do certain things, then you have to have it. I didn't run into trouble on DUNE because of the money, and in any case I wouldn't be against doing another expensive picture.
MONTAGE: Could you talk a bit about your experience on DUNE?
Lynch: There were many things I really enjoyed on DUNE. I met some great people on it, but somehow, somewhere that film got away from me, and it was a real, real drag. After three-and-a-half years of work, I ended up with something I wasn't proud of.
MONTAGE: That's a terrible feeling.
Lynch: I'm never really, really happy with anything. But I was much less happy with DUNE, and that's a horror. It's a horror. It's not even the amount of time I spent on it, though that's part of it. Hearing people call this film I put so much time into a failure, and knowing that it is, it was a heavy, heavy time.
MONTAGE: Do you have any insight into what happened during the process of creating DUNE that affected how it turned out?
Lynch: I think the nearest I can come is this: One time somebody said that when he was writing, he would always think of one person that he respected, and that was his audience—he was writing to that person or checking his work against that person's imaginaryreactions. I thinkthat the people you are working with have a lot to do, in a subtle way, with the process—that the people you are bouncing ideas off, the people who are in charge of the film, exert a force on you, and no matter how much you say, 'This is my picture, I'm doing exactly what I want,'everything is subtly altered a little bit by the people you are working with. Then carry it a little bit further when you know that this picture is set up to be commercial. And so I had to almost edit myself before I opened my mouth, and once I opened my mouth, I realized that I was still far away from what their idea of the film was. I was in a strange sort of trap: I wasn't running on my instincts or intuitions. I was second-guessing everything. And I was making a different kind of picture. I was making a picture that I thought was safer. I didn't know I was doing that until a lot later, and, at the time, I would take the attitude that if they didn't like a certain thing, I had the option of changing it and making them like it. But they always had to like it. And so that aced out a million other options. And those other options might have been much better. I think you have to have final cut. That's the most important thing. Final cut doesn't mean they can't tell you what to do, but it means you have the freedom to make the final decision. You should be open to the ideas of other people, but always be able to say, 'That doesn't fit in this picture, or 'Yes, this is a damn good idea and thanks very much.'
MONTAGE: So that`s why with BLUE VELVET you halved your salary for the final cut?
Lynch: Right. Dino (DeLaurentiis) is one of the greatest bargainers in the busin ess and he knew that I wanted that. At that time, coming off DUNE, I wasn' t in the stronest position, so I gladly halved my salary to get what I wante d.
MONTAGE : What did you learn from the prior films that you brought into BLUE VELVET to make _d a different experience for you?
Lync h: Every film is a differ ent experience. You want to go into this new world and make it real. The story and the settin g are differ ent. They tell you so much . And so do the ideas of the chara cters. So itdoes n't matte r what you'v e done befor e, becau se now you'v e got this new set of ideas and mood s and they are talkin g to you and you are listen ing, and you are actin g and reacti ng, and this world is starti ng to come to be more real in your mind. And then you have to make it again in front of you to film it. It's a long, long proce ss. But it's all kind of com mon sense . The key to the whol e succe ss of a film is just being true to the rules of that partic ular world and those partic ular chara cters.
MONTAGE : It seam s like in BLUE VELVET you went right back to your own intui tion being the gove rning force of treot ing that world .
Lynch: Yes, you'r e absol utely right. That' s why I say you have to have final cut. That' s the freedo m to be able to work with your own intuit ions.
MONTAGE :And I guess getting final cut also gave you comp lete perm issio n to be able to do ever ythin g exac tly the way you want ed?
Lynch: You know , you end up feeling guilty when you demand to do every single thing the way your little heart desire s. But it's not because you don't want anybody else to be able to do that. It's just that this film has to hold together for it to work and the only way it's going to hold together is if one person makes the decisions or if a bunch of people are really tuned into the same thing and they make the decisions. But it's not like an ego thing , final cut. It's just really sort of the way it has to be.
MONTAGE: As on artis t, do you use story boards extensively in pre-production of a film?
Lynch: No, I hate storyboards. They are never satisfactory, partly because they're always made before you pick your locations. They don't really mean anything except in special effects sequences. The script is the blueprint to me. You don't have to storyboard it or make photographs. That's all kind of a waste of time to me. I would rather get out there and see the people right in front of me, provided I have the time I need to work. That's the other thing about a low-budget picture. The pressure is off, but you have to work with a good producer who's figured out a way to cut back on things you don't need, so you have some time to make the picture. And when you have enough time so there's no pressure on you, you can work with this intuition I've been talkingabout. Otherwise you're just knocking down shots and they're patting you on the back at the end of the day. But when the film is released, they're not talking to you anymore.
MONTAGE: How do you work with a cinematographer? You've worked with a couple of cinematographers more than once.
Lynch: I worked with Freddy Francis on ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE and Fred Elmes on ERASERHEAD and BLUE VELVET. I find the more you work with people, the more you have a dialogue or the more you just trust them. Both the people I worked with have the approach that they are trying to help the director get what he wants on the screen. So there's lots and lots of talk up front about what that elusive thing is. But through this talking, you get other people to tune in to the main ideas, so when they put their two cents worth in, their two cents is right along the same avenue. It happens faster the more you work with somebody, because you can talk in shorthand.
MONTAGE: Do you look through the camera ohen yourself?
Lynch: Yes. Not while we are shooting, but I look through the camera when it's set up. But I don't know anybody who doesn't. I think you can change an entire feeling by just moving the camera a little bit. And you have to look through it and say, 'Is this the right feeling?' and move things around a little bit just to make sure that it is. Again, it's common sense. It's so simple, yet it can get away from you if you are not on top of everything.
MONTAGE: What movies made the greatest influence on you when you were a kid? Which ones do you remember the most vividly?
Lynch: When I was a kid, they would come and go sort of. I started getting excited about movies, it was foreign films. LA STRADA for instance, and EIGHT AND A HALF. PERSONA, HOUR OF THE WOLF, all of Jacques Tati's films. I also liked SUNSET BOULEVARD and Hitchcock, particularly VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW.
MONTAGE: Well, they are about secrets.
Lynch: That's right. I'm obsessed with that. I also like Stanley Kubrick. I think right now he's about the coolest, I guess. THE SHINING really grew on me. I never miss it when it's on cable. His best film for me, though, is LOLITA. I'm absolutely captivated by it. Also, I like him because he likes ERASERHEAD. He said at one time that it was his favorite film.
MONTAGE: Whot is the greatest challenge facing independent filmmakers today?
Lynch: Awhile ago I read in The Los Angeles Times "Calendar" section about how they're talking about the consolidation of power into five or six major studios. I think when an independent filmmaker reads that, he gets a tremendous bolt of fear running up and down his spine. He has to wonder, 'Where do we fit in and how are we going to get a film distributed when the majors control everything?' So it would be great if we could get an independent network of theatre owners. I heard a thing which was fantastic. A lot of theatre owners would put some obscure but very great films in their cineplexes along with the commercial pictures. There would be six major films and two art films. They found out that the art films were just as packed -because there are only 25 seats in the theatres anyway. If someonecouldn't get into one of the major films, they would go see the art films instead of going home. It's very important to make sure that those places don't dry up where we can show different types of films - including independent films.
Mark Bruce Rosin is a writer-producer for features and television. He is currently writing a feature for Great
River Productions and is working on television pilots for Castle Rock, Republic and Warner Brothers.