Rolling Stone No.436 December 6th 1984, p.26-28
Director David Lynch brings to the screen he most popular sci-fi epic of all time
By Chris Hodenfield
Director David Lynch with 1958 Packard
They put $ 40 million into the hands of a movie director who one took a bottle of Nair and removed all the hair from a mouse. David Lynch, painter, sculptor, builder of sheds and amateur pathologist, is not your usual Mr Show Business. He says that his two favourite things in the world are ideas and textures, and one of his favourite textures seems to be that of a Bobīs Big Boy milkshake. If he ever gets going describing the consistency of a milkshake, youīll be begging him to stop.
He tends to dress in standard-issue nerd wear: battered khaki pants, black athletic shoes and a wrinkled white shirt buttoned at the collar and cuffs. Were it not for the snazzy, triangular wristwatch, you might take him for just another guy working on his science project. A shock of pale-brown hair falls over his brow, and his face seems never to have been tanned. Itīs a serious but friendly face, and while the gray-blue eyes also seem hilarious, they quickly open up to be windows of a merry heart.
That voice helps. Some people donīt know whether to believe him at first, such is the antic charm of the flat, drawling Midwestern accent. "Peachy keen," heīll say. Or, "Hold the phone, boss." And when he speaks of his easy youth in Idaho and Montana, he slips into a Kodachrome reverie of white-picket-fence Americana so sweet and bucolic that youīre convinced of his being a decent, cheerful and true-blue citizen.
Then you might happen to catch his first feature, Eraserhead, released in 1977. Itīs a weird world of night, that picture, and itīs from a place where youīve never been. Itīs about shadows, uneasiness and a monster baby. You see what Lynch wants you to see. Stagger out of the theater after Eraserhead, and you might have the idea that somewhere in his life David Lynch must have been malhandled by a deranged manicurist who pushed him into an auto-lube pit and filled his mind with the sounds of tearing cuticles.
There are some movie-industry people who worry whether this movie Dune, Lynchīs forthcoming sci-fi opus, will be a $ 40 million Eraserhead. And there are those who think this would in fact be the greatest thing to happen to modern movies. For David Lynch is an original. And, as a rival director said of Lynch: "Do you know how hard it is to make an original-looking movie today?"
'Dune' is a good place to exercise oneīs originality. With its four sequels, Frank Herbertīs series has been a perennial best seller since 1965, a cornucopia of interplanetary treachery, futurethink and mythologic hoodoo. It concerns the dwellers of a forbidden desert planet called Arrakis, who are under the thumb of a corrupt galactic empire, and in the midst of this planetīs rebellion appears a somewhat witchy woman and her son, who might be the promised messiah. The chief export of Arrakis is a spice that makes your eyes go blue and gives you powers of omniscience. Chief scenic attraction is the desert sandworm, which grows to be the size of the Chrysler Building.
The motion picture will arrive this Christmas with the expected merchandising avalanche, including Dune calendars, T-shirts, sleeping bags and, so help me, Dune vitamins.
The novelīs veritable sandstorm of ideas came from the mind of West Coast newspaperman (and war correspondant, wine maker, computer whiz and oyster diver) Frank Herbert while he was researching a story on the sand dunes of the Oregon coast. Already a writer of short stories, he blended his fascination with religions and messianic impulse with a concurrent interest in Jungian analysis and came up with a tale that created vast hotbeds of fanaticism. The Dune series has sold more than 10 million copies, and the publication of the sixth book, Chapterhouse: Dune, will follow the release of the film. The stories, loaded with cosmic good and evil and plenty of hardware opportunities, should have been ripe terrain for a movie. But the problem facing screenwriters recently has been that a guy named George Lucas already wandered through the book. Star Wars borrowed from Dune a lot, Frank Herbert allows. The he takes the seriousness off it with a hearty chuckle: "And I think that they owe me at least a dinner."
While Dune was first optioned by Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, the first filmmaker really to crack at it was the Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, who directed the occult, 1971 river-of-blood western El Topo. "Alejandro and I got along fine," Herbert recalls, "but I could see that he just wasnīt going to do it. He did a screenplay that they could have shot as a twelve-hour movie." After mighty exertions, Jodorowsky lost his financing in 1975. Three years later, following Herbertīs unsuccessful attempt at a screenplay, producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and eventually put the project into the hands of director Ridley Scott (Alien) and writer Rudolph Wurlitzer (Pat Barrett and Billy the Kid), who spiced up the story with incest between the protagonist, Paul, and his mother. This pleased Herbert like a kick in the head., and Scottīs planned $ 50 million budget pleased the studio even less. So their exertion failed too.
The name David Lynch came into their lives when Raffaella De Laurentiis, Dinoīs daughter and the movieīs eventual coproducer, cried at a screening of Lynchīs second feature, The Elephant Man (1980), a Vidtoria-era tale of natureīs all-time freak, John Merrick. Herbert recalls: "I went out and got a tape of The Elephant Man, and I got this funny gut feeling that we had finally found the guy who could do it. There are all kinds of subtle and beautiful touches all the way through it. The ambiance of that terrible time in English history is all there on the periphery, en passant. David selects his visual metaphors with care, and his treatment of suspense is magnificent. "David was a painter, you know, so he comes into movie-making from a strange direction: he wants to see the picture. This is what I saw working with David, and it made me into a screenwriter. Now I go hunting for the visual metaphor I put into the original Dune book - the society is a recapitulation of the feudatories. And David went to Florence, Italy, and you see that rococo stuff all the way through the picture. Itīs a metaphor for what I did with words and structure. He has picked up on metaphors from history that are just going to sink into peopleé consciousness and go varoomph."
"David is a visual director - which is the worst kind for a special-effects movie."
Raffaella De Laurentiis was slumped down so low behind her desk it seemed she was trying to hide from the world. In the second day of a starvation diet and struggling with the somnolent effects of a rainy day in Los Angeles, she was responding to the world with a soft crankiness.
"We storyboarded the movie twice," she said, referring to the necessary practice of drawing up complex movie images before attempting to film them," and then he never shot any of the storyboards." She allowed a tart smile.
"Itīs meant as a compliment. It just makes my life tougher. If youīre ready to shoot something, and suddenly he decides he wants twenty-eight dogs running up and down the hall, youīve got to find twenty-eight dogs."
Raffaella seemed a person used to tough assignments. Her father being an intimidating producer, she learned how to talk back at the age of three. Her mother being the regal actress Silvana Mangano, so influential in Bitter Rice, she learned the style and bearing to carry off being something more than a producer-daughter who at age thirty has Dune and two Conans under her belt. None of them has been an easy shot.
Although Dinoīs organisation and name provided the muscle, it was Raffaella who, barking alternately in Italian, French, Spanish and English all in a paragraph, shepherded the thirty-nine movie stars - including Max von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Sting and Kenneth McMillan - and 150 international film technicians and 800 extras around Churubusco Studios in Mexico. It was Raffaella who signed the checks and fell prey to salmonella three times and started her own restaurant in lieu of seeing fifteen percent of the crew with the Revenge on any given day. It was Raffaella who dealt with Lynch when, for a scene requiring a character to crack a false tooth in his mouth and shoot a stream of poison gas into someoneīs face, he got the idea that it had to be yellow gas.
"Yellow smoke is very toxic," Raffaella said, frowning. "You cannot have it in an actorīs mouth. David said it has to be yellow or itīs not going to work. And David said, 'Can I ask the actor to drill a hole in his cheek with just a little tube coming out of it?'"
Her eyes caught fire. "Thatīs typical David Lynch stuff! He said, 'Please, I would have it done to myself.'"
She massaged her temples with slender hands. The lady did have an easy style, even in sweater and jeans. Her blonde hair was pushed up with a pink bandana, and her nails were painted purple. So were the toenails of the bare feet up on the desk. One doesnīt usually get the opportunity to describe a movie producerīs toenails, but there they were.
Her office, located in Burbankīs industrial sector, was across the hall from Lynchīs. On the wall hung dozens of framed snapshots and a photo of Lynchīs "The Fish Kit." It was a carefully composed arrangement of a dissected fish, with the appropriate labels telling, in the manner of a model airplane, how to put it back together again.
"You know, I cannot think of a life without David anymore," she said, smiling. "Weīve become close friends. Itīs like, you donīt choose your brother or sister, you just grow up with them and they become part of your life. Even if you donīt like them, they are your brother and sister. Same thing with David." She offered a shrug of imaginary world-weariness. "But if Dune works, then Iīve got another four years with David."
She was asked how Lynch had changed over the last four years. "Well, he lost weight. I made him get rid of his punk haircut." Suddenly David Lynch barged through the door, clutching a sheaf of papers. "What punk haircut is this?" he demanded. De Laurentiis raised her head like Cleopatra appraising a galley slave. "He is skinny, he is tired, he has circles under his eyes that he didnīt have when I first met him."
Lynch stood there. "I didnīt ever eat or drink until I met you." "Donīt blame on me things you should blame on yourself." It was said with fondness. Lynch looked over. "I almost turned into a geek because of her." "Whatīs a geel?" she asked. "They eat live chickens. Bit their heads off." "I gave you incredible things to eat," she responded, straightening up in her seat. "I never told you to go to Bobīs Big Boy and have a double-decker hamburger." "I know that," Lynch answered, parking himself on the couch and putting his feed up on the coffee table. In a moment his daughter by his first marriage, Jennifer, blond and sixteen, peeked in and sat down tentatively next to her dad. (Lynchīs present wife, Mary, and a baby, Austin, live at their new place in Charlottesville, Virginia.) Lynch looked at the ceiling and addressed himself to the uncertain project at hand. He had about a month to go at this point, and there were still 250 optical effects to be filmed. He tried to put a lift on it. "Even if it doesnīt work out, itīs been worth it."
Raffaellaīs sultry doloroso dragged over the desk. "Convince me that it is true." "For me itīs true," Lynch said. "The toughest thing if this doesnīt work," she said, sighing, "is that it would be very tough to pick yourself up and go on. It would take a year. At least." The David and Raffaella Show continued like this for a while. He would mourn the sorry state of his 1958 Packard with the gold tail fins ("It looks like itīs going 5000 miles an hour, but itīs not worth a nickel.") and she would roll her eyes as if sheīd heard everything now and then yell at him because he was to cheap to buy his daughter a stereo for college. Wait a minute, he said, he might get very generous soon: "I have to reach a certain place to feel secure in my life." He finally turned to their visitor. "How I got together with Raffaella, " he said, shaking his head, "when she is rational, so logical, the common sense is so strong, and I love mysteries and dreams and ambiguities and absurdities... Itīs not a good compliment."
Raffaella giggled. They were acting kind of silly, and they felt no need to conceal it.
Insecure? If David Lynch, who bagged eight Oscar nominations for his last movie, The Elephant Man, still nurses professional insecurities, it only points up to the rockiness of his early career. Well, you canīt call it a "career", his early days. He almost backed into profession.
We should probably thank a Philadelphia art patron named Burton Wasserman for the Lynch movie career. Having drifted away from the family heart and having been fired from every job he attempted, Lynch tried to construct a life for himself in the late Sixties at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For a contest, he built a sculptured screen with three-dimensional heads - the body parts were animated and projected onto it. Wasserman saw the exhibit and commissioned Lynch to do a moving painting for his living room, one with a film loop inside that he could turn on any time he wanted. Lynch eventually made a four-minute clip called The Alphabet, a combination of animation and live action, and presented it to the American Film Institute in hopes of getting a grant. But hs hopes were not high. He calls that period the "bleakest" of his life. Married and with a child to support, he was dead broke and living in hateful inner-city conditions.
The AFI grant came through, however, and with the $5000, he made a thirty-four-minute short called the Grandmother, about a disturbed little boy who plants a seed that grows into a loving grandmother. When the AFI accepted him into the Center for Advanced Film Studies, he was finally freed from Philadelphia bondage. Together with his family and best friend from high-school days, Jack Fisk, he loaded up the truck for Hollywood. (After working with Lynch, Fisk went on to become a respected art director and the director. When Lynch made The Elephant Man, Fisk made Raggedy Man. While Lynch now plans a suburban horror film, Blue Velvet, Fisk is shooting a movie called Violets Are Blue. When Lynch remarried, it was to Fiskīs sister. And now Fisk and his wife, Sissy Spacek, live just down the road from the Lynches in Charlottesville.)
In Hollywood began the five-year saga that became Eraserhead. From 1971 to 1976 Lynch did little else. he centered himself by practising transcendental meditation and building a few sheds, and he delivered the Wall Street Journal for forty-eight dollars a week. The AFI was the located in a converted mansion, and when Lynch broke up with his wife, he bunked on his soundstage. It was illegal, but filming all night and sleeping by day, it seemed to work out.
One crew member who stuck by Lynch through the whole gothic adventure was Catherine Coulson. If she were to conjure up an image of the Lynch she knew then, it would be of a man doing things with his hands, a man cutting up and rebuilding his own kind of chicken for a movie scene. And, funnily enough, when she went to Mexico and visited the Dune set, she went into a back room one day and discovered several men stirring up a huge vat filled with boiled chickens. It was for some prop or another. "Really," Coulson maintains, "the only difference between this and Eraserhead is that other people are making the chicken."
Lynch indeed has other people to make the chicken. The chief reason to have high hopes for Dune is that so rarely does a movie fall into the hands of bona fide imagists. The painter in Lynch was captain over a mighty armada of movie artists, including production designer Anthony Masters, whose work on 2001: A Space Odyssey was so widely copied. Carlo Rambaldi (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Alien) was the Creator of Creatures, including the sandworms. Kit West (Raiders of the Lost Ark) arranged the mechanical hocus-pocus. The dense, mysterioso soundtrack so characteristic of Lynchīs movie was once again being designed by Alan Splet.
Lynch also had his eyes opened by the matte-painting genius of Alber Whitlock, the wizard behind The Birds and Earthquake, and his protégé, Syd Dutton. Whitlockīs realistic paintings are superimposed over regular footage so that you are fooled into believing a waterfall or a fortress exists where there never really was one.
"You can go so huge with Al Whitlock," said Lynch later in his office, "and itīs all painting. That shows you the magic of it. I learned so many things, the power and mood and scale, and Iīll be able to use it later on. If youīre writing a script and know what can be done, if you feed on that, you can build and build."
David Lynch sat in his bright, white office. Along one side was a wall of opaque white glass, and propped up on the windowsill were five bright-blue Woody Woodpecker dolls, poised there like a panel of judges in the Land of Lynch. Quirky objects dīart cluttered all the available space. His desk was flat and white, no drawers, with piles of paper everywhere. On the desk behind him was a good sound system and stacks of cassette tapes that revealed a taste for postpunk and electronic music.
"It was hell trying to find the look for 500 different things," he continued. In making a special-effects movie, there was not only the standard of technical excellence established by the Star Wars series to consider, but there was the fact that certain Dune themes had been co-opted.
The possibility makes Lynch fidget. After all, George Lucas did ask him to do the Return of the Jedi. "First of all, George did a fantastic thing, and he may have been influenced by these different things, but he took them in a supercreative way, he made it go very far from the feeling in Dune. But it was strange to go through [the book] and find this was done in Star Wars or something else. I wanted to do new things, so I had to do them differently."
What did Lucas have to say about the making of Dune? "Well, he did say that you couldnīt make the book into a movie." Lynch folded his hands and nodded. "Itīs pretty true." The homespun voice does take the edge off Lynchīs seriousness. He might have spoken hesitantly once, but there was no shilly-shallying around now. Of course, giving orders for two years straight would effect this. Still, I wondered if he was naturally constituted to this kind of decision making.
"Iīve stepped up, " he conceded. "I studied to be a painter, and, ah, I had ideas, but I never had to articulate them. They could remain in this fantastic area where they are just an abstraction and I could just plop them out and never have to speak a word. The hardest two things for me were to speak and to write down things on paper. Thatīs why each film Iīve done is a big step forward or me in forcing me to be more with words and people - you know, the opposite of a painterīs life."
His brow knitted with concern. "Itīs a very dangerous thing, this movie business. Because no one will ever know what film could be when a filmmaker has to talk about it and convince people with words. Maybe somebodyīs got them in his mind and can put them on film with the right sounds, but he canīt put them into words, you know, and sell the idea. And so those guys are fresh out of luck. Itīs like Bergman in Hollywood - I donīt think it would have happened."
"I really just like sitting in a chair - itīs kind of like going fishing, sitting in a chair and trying to catch ideas. And you kinda have to be very quiet or youīll lose them."
Is it tough for him to find quiet?
"Yeah, now more than ever. When I first came to California... for a long time I sat in a chair and smoked cigarettes. I had notebooks that went and grew. Some of them became Eraserhead and some will go into Ronnie Rocket [a hoped-for future project]. It was a good time, although I had nothing to show for it. People could say, 'Heīs just sitting around,' and itīs true. But I think thatīs important, even if you feel guilty when nothing ever happens. When youīre really busy, you can never really dive down to get the big fish."
Since Lynch has such a muted theatricality, it was not easy to imagine him down in the arena with the actors. Dune star Kyle MacLachlan, a young Shakespearean actor from Yakima, Washington, had to deal not only with making his first movie ever, but also with acting the lead role of a warrior-messiah. He confessed that heīd had to keep bugging Lynch to be more specific: "His direction was primarily of visuals and moods. One mood said a lot - we laugh about it now - was "I want this more mysterious.' Or, 'More power.'"
Lynch seemed properly abashed by it all: "How would I learn to work with actors when I was studying to be a painter?" He spreads his hands - they were fine hands. "It has to do with... all the time when I was growing up and I really loved people. I hated people fighting. I would try to smooth things over. I really liked people. It was important to me to be liked."
What kind of people were his folks?
"Just regular people. My dad was raised on a wheat ranch in Montana and my mother is from Brooklyn, New York, so theyīre fairly different. They met on a nature hike in Duke University. And that started everything. When I was little, there were picket fences, beautiful trees, little yawns, beautiful houses, you know, Fifties cars, happiness, real quiet, dreamy afternoons, real good friends, lakes, camping trips and fires and stuff like this. And I enjoyed all those things, but there was also something else under the surface. Every once in a while I would go to New York City to visit my grandparents and it would really freak me out. But it could cause ideas to start. Feelings, mostly. I would see things in the subway. And the feelings in the air. I think I started feeling fear... there was real fear of the unknown. And I would see things like..." He paused to envision it. "Not what I used to," he said finally. "Which was really jarring."
That would explain the uneasy urban portraits in The Elephant Man and Eraserhead. Does Lynch consider himself by nature a squeamish person?
"Relatively speaking, no," he answered. "Sores on skin, for instance, I think are really, incredibly beautiful. If I start seeing people suffering with sores on their skin, then it gets to me. But if you took a photograph of it and looked at it as a texture, itīs fantastic."
Does he have a Top Ten of textures?
"Well, skin is near the top," he said. "I love the textures of a factory. I love smoke in the sky, and I love oil in the dirt. And I like wire, and I like broken glass, and I like sweat and pistols. I like a little bit of blood and saliva on concrete. I like cars and exhaust and, I donīt know, a million different things. Teeth."
We finally had to stop to laugh a minute. One couldnīt guess the reaction of the Lynch family to his portrait of the underworld in Eraserhead. "You know, we get along very well, but when it comes to my painting or film, they donīt really understand things the way I do, " he said.
What were conversations like at home? "Projects. Like building projects. I always say Iīm a shed builder: You start off with an idea for something, you get your materials together. And you get to cut wood and smell this wood and nail this wood together. You finesse this and design this and you have these procedures you have to go through. And they all have to be thought out, and get this great satisfaction from completing each step. Then when itīs done you have this environment that never existed before - itīs like capturing space.
"Itīs like I was saying about Hollywood. The best thing you can do is create, and to create youīve got to be able to catch ideas. And creating is..." He paused and stared forward with those very clear eyes. "Youīve got to be optimistic. You canīt have the attitude of 'It canīt be done.' Everything can be done, you just have to be able to figure out a way to do it."
The telephone at his side pierced the air suddenly and two people jumped. He picked up the receiver, and just like that, the old shed builder was plunged back into the world of deadlines.