New Musical Express, 21st August, 1982


Kristine McKenna interviews cult director DAVID LYNCH, the maker of Elephant Man and Eraserhead

David Lynch
Photo: Frank Connors

David Lynch has completed just two films in his 35 years but theyīve both been acclaimed as masterpieces. The first, Eraserhead, was made on a shoe string budget while he was a student at the American Film Institute. Described by Lynch as "a dream of dark and troubling things", Eraserhead is one of the most startingly original films ever made. A surreal comedy of terrible beauty, it has enjoyed a rabid cult following since its release in 1977.

However, Lynchīs official arrival came when Mel Brooks plucked him out of the chorus line and appointed him director of an extremely hot property, The Elephant Man. That Lynch could leave his stylistic mark on a story so wholly different from Eraserhead, without awkwardly imposing it, was conclusive proof of his talent.

One of the glorious things about Lynchīs style, and something common to both these films, is the magical depth of visual field he achieves. His movies are painstakingly composed and richly detailed, and one can look far back into every frame and discover a wealth of treasures, odd little objects, and ephemeral gestures that are utterly strange and perfect.

Lynch is presently engrossed in pre-production work for his third film, Frank Herbertīs sci-fi classic Dune, which is scheduled to begin shooting next February on location in Rome, with a release date set for 1984.

Born in Missoula, Montana, Lynch lived in various US cities throughout his adolescence, and presently resides in Los Angeles. Schooled as a painter, Lynch is a well-scrubbed, modest gentleman who favours preppy clothing and exudes a gee-whiz enthusiasm and innocence that is initially hard to believe but is in fact quite genuine.

I interviewed Lynch on a smoggy July afternoon in his office at MCA/Universal City, which is the largest movie studio in the world. Penetrating the net of security that surrounds this sterile walled city was tougher than sneaking into Russia, and it was pleasing to think of Lynch hatching his brillantly perverse movies within this huge, rigid, well-oiled money machine. Itīs almost as if there were a spy on  the premises! Lynchīs mind darts in and out of places the film industry brass have never dreamed of.

Kristine McKenna: How did the success of The Elephant Man change your life?

David Lynch: "Even if the film hadnīt been successful I got a lot more confidence by going through that experience. You just canīt realise what it is to do something like that until you do it, and it really was a baptism by fire. It was hell, and I felt an unbelievable pressure knowing that peopleīs careers were in my hands. Those pressures didnīt exist at all with Eraserhead because it was never thought of as a film that was going to go out into the world. It was basically something that I wanted to do - sort of had to do really. There werenīt five million dollars and peopleīs careers on the line and it wasnīt going to hurt anybody if it failed. It ended up helping a lot of people actually."

Why are you presently working on Dune as opposed to one of your own scripts?

"I do have one script of my own, a thing called Ronnie Rocket, that Iīd really love to do, and Francis Coppola wanted me to do it for Zoetrope. I was there for a while but all their plans went out the window. Dino DeLaurentis is now interested in it so maybe Iīll be able to do it next. I was barraged with scripts after Elephant Man came out and Dune was the only one that interested me at all - so, here I am making Dune."

Black and white is an important part of your style, yet youīve chosen to shoot Dune in colour. Why?

"I donīt like colour movies and I can hardly think about colour. It really cheapens things for me and thereīs never been a colour movie Iīve freaked out over except one, this thing called Deep End, which had really great art direction. That to me is the whole thing - itīs what youīre pointing the camera at. You can fiddle in the lab all that you want, but if what youīre shooting is badly designed, youīll wind up with nothing. I wouldnīt have minded shooting Dune in black and white, but it really is a colour movie. I donīt know what the colour will be, but it will have to have a certain feeling. Freddy Francis, the man who shot Elephant Man, will be shooting Dune and we have a lot of ideas weīre exploring. There are certain things that work well in black and white whereas in colour it might just look like a badly received television image. You need time to discover things but movies cost so much to make that itīs like riding a fast moving train while youīre making them. Things just zoom by."

You spend an average of four years on a film. Does it bother you that you donīt turn them out at a more rapid clip?

"It bothers me in a way because you always have this illusion that the world is going by, which of course isnīt true at all. It would be great if you could knock movies out and have them be great but I think they really do take a lot of time and you canīt get depressed and weirded out about it."

Whatīs the first film you recall having had an impact on you?

"Wait īTil The Sun Shines Nellie. I saw it at a drive-in with my parents and I remember this scene where a guy is  machine-gunned in a barber chair, and a scene where a little girl is playing with a button and suddenly her parents realise sheīs gotten it caught in her throat. I remember feeling a real sense of horror. I saw the movie again many years later and I could hardly stand to watch it. It wasnīt a good movie at all and I didnīt want to watch it because it was ruining the images in my mind that I had from it."

Are the figures and episodes in your films intentionally symbolic?

"No. I used to be a painter and maybe because of that, I think a lot about that other level that you donīt - in fact, canīt - talk about. And thatīs one of the things that makes working in movies weird and hard for me. How in the world are you supposed to tell somebody about your idea for a film if you canīt explain it in concrete terms? In a way thatīs the whole trouble with Hollywood. Only certains kinds of films can make it through all the committees and get made. Itīs like the emperorīs new clothes. Youīve got millions of dollars riding on it so everybodyīs  got to understand it and itīs got to be safe, but there are many things in life that are not that way and they donīt have a prayer. One good thing about Dune is that it has the potential for satisfying everyone in the studio system and for being a commercial film, but it also the potential for doing some wonderful cinematic things."

Do you have a hard time conveying the pictures in your mind to the people you work with?

"Unbelievably difficult! One of the good thing about the work Iīm doing now is that it forces me to learn to articulate the things that are in my mind. See ... before, I couldnīt even talk. The first interview I ever did they had this 16 millimetre camera on me and I couldnīt speak. I just didnīt understand how to talk! I felt like everything I had to say couldnīt be said."

Which characters in your films have you most identified with?

"The Elephant Man and Henry I suppose. But in a way, you have to identify with all the characters when youīre making a film. Itīs like a dream - you know, they say you play all the parts in your dreams. Actually, I donīt know that I identify with any of them. Itīs more like I know them. Henry is a thing that is knowable by several different people and I felt that if I was absolutely true in my depiction of that quality then everyone would know him and say well yeah, that seems right, he would do that."

Whatīs the most important function a director fulfills on a set?

"Youīre like a filter and if the filter is trying to be honest then itīs going to be a certain kind of film. Everything passes through you and is regulated by your filter. Actors, for instance, are capable of many things, some of which are immediately thrilling and those things pass through your filter without you fiddling with them. Other things need to be tinted, edited, regulated."

Can a directorial eye be learned?

"You can learn a lot in art school but if you donīt have something inside you to begin with youīll still wind up with a nifty bunch of nothing."

Are there specific issues that are best addressed in a film?

"There are all these things called movies but theyīre not the same thing. They donīt care about the same things and they have different goals. Personally, I think movies should do something that books or music canīt do by themselves. The story can be about any number of things, but there should be a ringing of truth thatīs completely powerful or thrilling. Movies like Sunset Boulevard or Lolita are much bigger than the stories they tell."

Is the movie industry interested in creating the kind of deeply profound films you just described?

"I could be wrong, but it seems to me that people are willing to settle for less these days. Itīs like a piece of popcorn. Just put some butter and salt on it and itīs a piece of popcorn - it doesnīt have to be any better. But who knows? Maybe you could have Italian food in the theatre and people will get used to that and really demand it."

Film critic Andrew Sarris recently commented: "Cinema is retreating into the deep sleep decreed by dream merchants long ago. The current trend in American film making is away from realism in all categories - dramatic, psychological, even optical." There does seem to be a preponderance of films designed to appeal to the child in people. Why do you think this is happening and do you think this is a good direction for movies to be taking?

"My basic response to that is that tomorrow it could be something totally different. Itīs similar to the way that left and right wing politics alternate. Frances Farmer is coming out this fall so then theyīll probably say that itīs  film noir time again. These currents shift so quickly that if somebody began a film today based on the success of E.T., by the time they finished the picture theyīd have missed the boat completely. Spielberg is doing what he really wants to do and it happens that the timing is really working out for him, and thatīs great."

What steps do you take to edit your input from the world?

"I donīt watch a lot of television. I like to watch old movies and science shows, but really, TV isnīt a very engrossing medium. One shift of the eye and thereīs the cat scratching post and youīre out of the story. Sometimes I watch the news but I always feel unsatisfied after I do. Thereīs so much going on in the world and it can be very upsetting the way they slant the things they pick to show. In pre-media times there could be a race riot and most people wouldnīt know about it. Now if thereīs a race riot a million miles away everyone knows about it and is involved. Those problems poison every neighbourhood. Of course this could work in a positive way but it never seems to."

Whatīs your idea of an immoral film?

"A movie that glorifies negativity - and there are a lot of movies that do that. One that did, in my opinion, was Saturday Night Fever. The family scence that took place at the dinner table was one of the most horrible things Iīve ever seen. There was something really wrong with that whole set up."

Whatīs the most significant change youīve observed in America over the course of your life?

"Oh brother! In Eraserhead this character Bill says 'Iīve seen this neighbourhood change from pastures to the hell hole it is now,' and Iīm not kidding, thatīs what Iīve seen. Decay and confusion. People used to stand up and oppose the things they thought were wrong but now they just let them  happen We say what can I do about it?"

Who are your favourite figures from history?

"I really did Van Gogh. Iīd love to have been in Paris when all those guys were around. I wouldīve loved to have gone up and had breakfast with Picasso and kindīve gone out and stood in the sun with him and kicked stuff around. Those two arenīt actually my favourite painters though.. I like Edward Hopper. Thereīs a mood to his stuff that just thrills me. His stuff is like music - so much comes through. I could make an entire movie from one of his paintings. And I donīt know how he did it because the painting itself is not wildly great. But itīs great!"

Whatīs the earliest memory fixed in your mind?

"Sitting in a mud puddle in Idaho with my friend, and weīre just kind of working this mud."

As an adult have you managed to fulfill your childhood fantasies?

"Not all of them, and I donīt know if I want to fulfill all of them. In a way films are a way of playing out fantasies because itīs a way of getting other people to perform something that originates in your mind."

What sort of architecture do you like?

"I like the architectures of the ī30s, factories, old gas stations. New gas stations are too real but a good old gas station is just a beautiful thing, partly because it represents a time thatīs lost.  I see an old gas station and my mind goes out behind it and sees little scenes happening. Then I go into the woods beyond the station and my mind sees things that couldnīt happen now. Itīs mysterious and itīs another world and there are romances back in there that wouldnīt be like now."

Is your imagination always working that intensely?

"Well, yeah ... I guess it is."