Lynch’s parents Edwina Lynch, née Sundholm, and Donald Walton Lynch met and fell in love with each other while studying at Duke University in North Carolina. The father, who grew up on a farm in the northwestern United States, worked as an agricultural scientist for the US Department of Agriculture. Being a native of Brooklyn, the mother at first gave language lessons and later on devoted herself entirely to family life.
Itinerant life and carefree childhood
David Keith Lynch was born on January 20, 1946 in Missoula, Montana. Two months later, the family moved to Sandpoint, a city situated in the state of Idaho. Due to his work, Lynch’s father was forced to move often, which is why David got acquainted with a wandering life at a fairy early age. After David’s brother John was born at Sandpoint, the family relocated again, this time to Spokane, Washington. There, his sister Martha was born. Once again the Lynches moved to Durham in North Carolina. Eventually, they settled in Boise for a longer period of time, where David was able to attend the same school from third to eighth grade. He was raised Presbyterian. At that time, Wait till the sun shines, Nellie (1952) by Henry King was in the cinemas – this is the first movie David can recall.
In a retrospective, Lynch says, he has had a carefree childhood and has grown up well protected in a peaceful environment: ‘[My youth] was a dream world, those droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it was supposed to be. But then on the cherry tree would be this pitch oozing out, some of it black, some of it yellow, and there were millions and millions of red ants racing all over the sticky pitch, all over the tree. So you see, there’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer and it’s all red ants.’
Close relationship with nature
As a boy, David built a special relationship with nature because of his father’s profession. His father often performed experiments on insects and tree diseases. Huge forests were available to him as a trial area. As a result, David came into contact with growth, disease and insects in an organic world. It was not uncommon for Lynch to occasionally dissect frogs or mice. These experiences are clearly reflected in David’s later work.
Love for painting, The Art of Spirit and wanderlust
In 1960, the family finally settled in Alexandria, Virginia. Here the 14-year-old David first discovered his love for painting. Even though his Bavarian uncle from Munich made his living as a painter, Lynch didn’t see a promising future in it. This changed, however, when Lynch met the father of his schoolmate Toby Bushnell Keeler, who was a professional painter. He offered Lynch to rent a room at his studio in Georgetown, where he could let off steam creatively. In addition, Lynch commuted to Washington D.C. on weekends, where he took courses at the Corcoran School of Art. There, a book titled The Art of Spirit by Robert Henri crossed his path and was crucial to Lynch finally giving in to the dream of being an artist. The book, which contained the rules for an artist’s life, became his bible.
After graduating from high school in 1964, Lynch decided to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, a private art college in Boston. Yet this eagerness lasted only briefly. Already after one year, he broke off the training due to lack of inspiration and the company of the “wrong” classmates. Together with his friend Jack Fisk, who had shared Lynch’s passion for painting for a long time, David moved to Salzburg, where the two enrolled in the Summer Academy of Oskar Kokoschka. However, both of them found the city too “clean”, which is why Paris soon became their new home. With wanderlust in the blood, they travelled on to Athens by the Orient Express. Still this city was not quite what Lynch had expected either: ‘I remember lying in a basement in Athens and lizards were crawling up and down the walls. I began contemplating how I was 7,000 miles from McDonald’s. And I really missed it. I missed America. I knew I was an American, and I wanted to be there.’
Return to the USA and first art films
Back in the United States, Lynch had to keep afloat with a variety of part-time jobs, as he couldn’t count on monetary support from his parents. He worked, among others, at the architectural office of his friend’s uncle, then at a frame shop, where he later became janitor. Still, he could not let go of painting. He decided to take up study again and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied for two years. He stayed in Philadelphia until 1970.
In 1967, Lynch married Margeret Reavey – Peggy for short – who gave birth to their daughter Jennifer Lynch on April 7, 1968. The little family moved into a small house that Lynch had purchased for 3,500 dollars. Their new home was situated in a run-down, poor and unsafe area.
Over time, David became aware that painting did not offer him two essential elements: sound and movement. Inspired by this insight, he created his first film trials titled Six Men Getting Sick, a film sculpture, and The Alphabet in 1967 and 1968. Subsequently, he received a scholarship endowed with 5,000 US dollars from the American Film Institute, which enabled him to realize his half-hour film The Grandmother. The movie became a big success after being shown at various film festivals and was Lynch’s admission ticket to the new Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles. Thereupon, Lynch moved to Los Angeles in 1970, where he still lives today, which initiated the beginning of his real artistic career.
In July 2005, the foundation David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace was launched, which is dedicated to the education of consciousness, for example through Transcendental Meditation etc. Prior to this, Lynch had founded the production company Asymmetrical Productions in 1992.
In 1974 he divorced from his first wife Peggy. Three years later, Lynch married the sister of his friend Jack Fisk, Mary. The marriage, which ended in 1987, produced a son named Austin. After that, Lynch lived in a relationship with actress Isabella Rossellini until 1990. In 2006, he took his longtime producer and film editor Mary Sweeney to be his wife, from whom he divorced a month later. This relationship produced his son Riley. In 2009 he entered into a marriage with the actress Emily Stofle, with whom he has his second daughter Lula Boginia.
During his student days at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, David created his first gloomy paintings and drawings. Broad, large and dark works of art like The Bride, which thematizes self-abortion in the abstract style, came to replace his colorful and vibrant images he used to create. More action paintings followed. They merely consisted of black paint, which was splashed onto the canvas and to which Lynch only added angular shapes.
One day, when he contemplated one of his works featuring a figure in the middle, he heard breath and a small movement. This was the decisive moment, when he decided to start his film experiments. Since Lynch didn’t know much about movies at that time, he got himself a 16 mm camera and followed various instructions. Thus, in 1967, Six Men Getting Sick, a quasi-animated painting with the sound of police sirens, earned him the Academy’s first prize. The work also got him his first sponsor named H. Barton Wasserman. With his financial help and partial support from his parents, the 4-minute short film The Alphabet (1968) was made, in which his former wife Peggy plays the lead role.
The Alphabet earned Lynch a 5,000 dollars scholarship to the American Film Institute, which he used to realize his thirty-four-minute film The Grandmother (1970). For this he painted the entire third floor in his house in black color. Until Blue Velvet (1986) he co-worked with sound designer Alan Splet. The project met with excellent feedback, was presented at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival and at festivals in San Francisco and Atlanta. Furthermore, Lynch received the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for it.
Film studies and first feature film
Tony Vellani was over the moon with The Grandmother and encouraged Lynch to submit an application to the new Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles. The young Lynch did that in 1970 and was accepted.
Lynch loved studying. He was especially enthusiastic about the practical part. Of the theoretical subjects, he liked the film analysis of Frantisek Daniel the most. His classmates included Tim Hunter, Jeremy Kagan, and Terrence Malick. Co-student Caleb Deschanel drew Lynch’s attention to a producer of 20th Century-Fox, who was interested in the Gardenback film project, which Lynch had already completed. The producer was prepared to pay 50,000 US dollars for the project, on the condition that it would be extended to a regular feature film. Lynch could not make friends with this idea at all and rejected the proposal after several futile editing attempts. After losing his initial enthusiasm for his adultery horror story, Lynch decided to realize his project Eraserhead (1977) in black and white and 35mm. The project got the green light and Lynch was provided 10,000 dollar budget.
Preparations for filming began in 1972. Lynch wanted to do the decor, production, editing and music himself. The duration of the shooting was estimated to last about six weeks, but even after a year, the film crew was not yet finished. Since the original deadline was long overdue, it was decided to stop any further grants to Lynch. After a one-year break, the production was resumed in May 1974. The funds came from Lynch’s friends and family. After four years of work, the film was finally completed in the summer of 1976.
After the original 108-minute version of Eraserhead, which was premiered on March 19, 1977 at the Los Angeles Film Festival Filmx, was met with boredom on the part of the audience, Lynch shortened it to 89 minutes. Ben Bahrenholz, a New York-based independent film distributor known for his midnight performances at off-cinemas, became aware of the film and included it in the program. Eraserhead became an underground insider tip and was played until 1982 in 17 US cities. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive and saw him settled in the tradition of Surrealism and Expressionism. Today, Eraserhead is considered a cult movie and meant the artistic breakthrough for Lynch.
Breakthrough and success
Following this great success, Lynch took on his project under the title Ronnie Rocket, but the film studios showed no interest for it. At the same time, however, Stuart Cornfeld was looking for suitable projects for the newly-founded production company Brooksfilms. He was thrilled with Eraserhead and suggested to Lynch to script The Elephant Man by Eric Bergren and Christopher De Vore. Lynch agreed and saw in it the perfect entry into the mainstream. The filming took place from 1979 to 1980 with a budget of 5 million US dollars. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and brought in profits five times as high as the production costs.
The huge success of The Elephant Man paved the career for Lynch in many ways.
Francis Ford Coppola offered to produce Ronnie Rocket, George Lucas wanted to hire Lynch for The Return of the Jedi Knights and Dino De Laurentiis for the adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune. Finally, Lynch accepted De Laurentiis proposal to direct Dune. In addition, both signed a contract for four other films: Ronnie Rocket, Blue Velvet, Dune II and Dune III.
The filming of Dune lasted from March 1983 to early January 1984. This was Lynch’s first movie in color. Not having secured the rights to the Final Cut, the producers intervened too much, which resulted in the critics’ sarcastic to vicious reactions to the desert epic. Now, not only Lynch’s previous image as an exceptional director was at stake, but also the planned pre-production of Blue Velvet. The latter was nonetheless eventually realized: Lynch paid for the artistic control, that was left to him in this film, with a reduction of his salary and his budget. The filming took place between February 1986 and April 1986. Basically, Blue Velvet received positive reviews, but also sparked controversy and discussion regarding the portrayal of the woman. Despite the lack of audience, Blue Velvet became a cult movie and restored Lynch’s reputation as a director.
During the filming of Blue Velvet Lynch also met Isabella Rossellini, with whom he remained together until 1990. He returned to painting as well as drawing and exhibited his art between 1987 and 1989 at the Roger La Pelle Galleries in Philadelphia, the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York and the James Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles. Moreover, he designed the statuette for the Rossellini Award in 1987, and from 1983 onwards, he was publishing the weekly comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World in the Los Angeles Reader as well as other newspapers. In 1987, Lynch was asked by a French producer, if he would like to shoot a short film on “France from the perspective of …”. From this commission resulted the 23-minute film The Cowboy and the Frenchmen, which was released in 1988.
In 1986 David Lynch became acquainted with scriptwriter Mark Frost, with whom he instantly got along perfectly and co-wrote scripts such as One Saliva Bubble (1987) or The Goddess (1987). They also co-worked on the television series The Lemurians. After that, both set to work writing a new script – Northwest Passage, which was later renamed Twin Peaks. The script for the pilot film was written within 10 days and was produced by the television station ABC. They landed a hit with it. After this high, David Lynch and Mark Frost were entrusted with the production of yet another season by the ABC in 1990, which was stopped in 1991 due to lack of viewership.
After the temporary end of Twin Peaks, Lynch developed two more series: On the Air (1992) and Hotel Room (1993). While the former was discontinued after the third episode due to bad ratings and reviews, the latter was broadcast by cable channel HBO in January 1993.
Parallel to Twin Peaks, Lynch had collaborated with Barry Gifford and filmed his novel Wild at Heart featuring Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage in the lead roles. The road movie was honored with the Golden Palm at the International Film Festival in May 1990.
Setback and crisis
In September 1991, the filming of Twin Peaks began and ended in November 1991. Yet at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, the film was booed by the audience and also met with rejection by the critics. At the press conference in Cannes, Lynch admitted that he killed Twin Peaks. Since then, he has been considered a “risk factor” in the film industry. He was no longer trusted to manage larger projects. This drove Lynch into a creative crisis.
For financial reasons, he shot numerous commercials for Armani, Adidas, Jil Sander, Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein or Yves Saint Laurent in 1992 and 1994, and also worked as a painter. In the meantime, he produced an album titled The Voice of Love by Julee Cruise together with Angelo Badalamenti, and, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the invention of the cinématograph by the Lumière brothers, a 52-second short film Premonitions Following An Evil Dead.
In 1994 and 1995, Lynch was looking for sponsors for the comedy Dream of the Bovine, to which he had written the script with Robert Engels, but to no avail.
Return to the cinema
While reading the novel Night People by Barry Gifford, “lost highway”, a phrase used in the book, got stuck with Lynch. He suggested to Barry to write a screenplay together. It was completed in March 1995 and was immediately accepted by Ciby2000, so that the shooting began in the fall of the same year with a production budget of $ 15 million. The film premiered in January 1997 in Paris and received mostly positive reviews. Later on, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Elfriede Jelinek and Olga Neuwirth edited Lost Highway into an opera, whose premiere took place in Graz in October 2003.
Two years later, Lynch released The Straight Story (1999), to which his then-life partner Mary Sweeney wrote the screenplay. The project was produced by The Picture Factory, a production company founded by Lynch, Neal Edelstein and Sweeney in 1997. Overall, the film was received positively, but surprised both audiences and critics with the absence of violent scenes as well as scenes that confront the audience with unsolvable puzzles. Some reviews consider this film to be the first “adult” work by Lynch.
In early 1999, Lynch began to work on the television series Mulholland Drive for the channel ABC. After the project had initially been set aside, Lynch later extended it into the movie Mulholland Drive. For this achievement, he received the director’s award at the Film Festival of Cannes in 2001.
In 1998, he turned to music again and produced the album Lux Viviens (Living Light) with the singer Jocelyn Montgomery, which is based on the songs of St. Hildegard of Bingen. In 2011, he brought out the experimental rock album Blue Bob together with John Neff.
Experimental film, online work and music
At the end of 2001, Lynch’s own website davidlynch.com went online. From that time on, he published some of his works on the internet, including the animated short series Dumb Land as well as a surrealistic sitcom consisting of eight short films titled Rabbits. In 2002 Lynch was named president of the 55th International Cannes Film Festival.
Lynch, who has been practicing Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation technique Transcendental Meditation since 1973, launched the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness Based Education and World Peace in 2005. While on a world tour with folk singer Donovan in 2007, he campaigned for the establishment of the so-called “invincibility universities”.
In April 2009, the internet-based television channel David Lynch Foundation Television went online with the goal to celebrate “Awareness, Creativity and Happiness”.
Lynch’s most recent feature film, Inland Empire, was released in early September 2006. He was honored with the Golden Lion for his life’s work at the Venice Film Festival. The special feature of Inland Empire is that it was shot entirely with a digital handheld camera, and parts of it were freely improvised.
From March to May 2007, the Parisian Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain presented the most comprehensive exhibition of Lynch’s works to date. A total of 800 works in the form of drawings, paintings, graphics, photographs, collages, short films and installations were on display. In the same year Lynch was hired by the magazine Elle for a series of photos of French actresses and appointed Officer of the Legion of Honor by the former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
From September to November 2008, an exhibition of Lynch’s photographs took place at the Epson Kunstbetrieb for the first time in Düsseldorf, and thus for the first time in Germany. From November 2009 to March 2010, another factory exhibition was on display at the Max Ernst Museum Brühl. Furthermore, from October 2010 to January 2011, the Goslar Monk House Museum of Modern Art showed Lynch’s paintings, photographs and lithographs.
In April 2009, American musician Moby brought out the single Shot in the Back of the Head, to which David Lynch shot the music video. In addition, Lynch was responsible for the visual design of the booklet for the album Night of the Soul by DJ Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse. Lynch also wrote the lyrics for two songs on this album and sang them himself.
In the same year, Lynch produced the documentary series Interview Project with his son Austin, which includes 121 interviews, the film Caring Son and 2010, the 16-minute commercial for Dior Lady Blue Shanghai.
In 2011, Lynch designed the private nightclub Silencio in Paris, of which he is also the owner. In January of the same year, his first solo single Good Day Today / I Know was released. In Germany the accompanying album was published on November 4, 2011 and is titled Crazy Clown Time. In July 2013, Lynch released his second solo album The Big Dream.
Lynch is a talented artist in many ways. His work includes film, painting, photography, lithography, music as well as the designing of rooms, furniture or even champagne bottles. At the same time, he manages to realize his personal vision, which is characterized by a mysterious and suggestive atmosphere. According to the art historian Thomas W. Gaehtgens, continuity and commonality are also typical of Lynch’s work.
Above all, Lynch’s style has had a significant impact on the film world, which is why the cinematographic world he created has its own name: “Lynchville”. In pop culture his film language is described as “lynchesk” or “lynchean”.
Lynch’s work was most influenced by the art of painting. He himself calls Francis Bacon, Henri Rousseau and Edward Hopper his most significant role models. The former influenced him through his pictures showing the deformation of flesh; Rousseau through his theme of mystery and Hopper through his theme of solitude. Moreover, the artists Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Ed Kienholz were great inspirations for Lynch.
In terms of film history, he was most influenced by Federico Fellini and Jacques Tati, but also by Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Lynch’s favorite films include Lolita (1962), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Last but not least, also literature had an enormous influence on Lynch’s style. Especially Franz Kafka attracted him, which is why he planned on filming Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis for a long time.
The Lynchean film art
Lynch’s surrealist films are characterized by the fact that the motivic and thematic stylistic devices merge together to form a grand whole. Here, the Film noir serves as a role model. Thematically, Lynch touches upon the events of his childhood in the fifties, but also upon the mass experiences in the US society. Among his favorite topics are the security of the small town, the middle class, music, family, love and romance, whereby he does not shy away from their downside: oppressed libido and violence, the hidden, irrational and unconscious.
In this way, the banal turns to horror, violence into comedy, mysticism becomes the ordinary, pathos is decorated with overlong remarks, and the improvised is mixed with the random. The absolute metaphor and the paradox are typical of Lynch’s work.
In 1997, critic Andreas Kilb described his work as the “eternal drama of the unfinished man”, to whom the belief in the soulfulness of objects is inherent as an antipole to the “mask-like” nature of human faces. Nonetheless, Lynch has remained relatively marketable as a filmmaker. In his later films, women gain importance, especially in the Hollywoodian context.
Whereas on the motive level, home, cabin, corridors, the fire, the colors red and black, the street as a symbol of fate, the hidden chamber, disfigured characters, strange mediators from another world, starry skies, doppelgangers, organic decay, electricity etc. dominate.
A popular way of interpreting Lynch’s films, therefore, is to juxtapose the motifs with those of other films in order to see the superordinate structure, as it were. If you are looking for rational resolutions and logical explanations of narration, you will fail. Meanwhile it is accepted that Lynch dislikes rational or common forms of cinematic storytelling. The focus is rather placed on the intense atmosphere in the films. Likewise, he has a preference for less frequently used narrative structures, especially the “open form”. Here he mainly uses the so-called Möbius strip or the “strange loop” as well as deconstruction and the tools of postmodernism. Lynch likes to compare his process of filmmaking with that of painting, using the dreamlike and intuition. The soundtrack is a deliberate recourse to pop culture, in which the sound of the post-war years alternates with that of the present. He has a fine sense for the rhythm of movement and language, color, space, musical effects and the interplay of image and sound. This makes him an exception to the movie scene, Chris Rodley raves in Lynch about Lynch.
Public resonance and criticism
In most cases, the reception of Lynch’s work is limited to those films that are responsible for building his image as a cult figure. However, the “universal artist” David Lynch tends to move into the background, although he also produces music, drawings, paintings and furniture. Lynch’s other works have been receiving increased attention since the turn of the millennium, thanks to the numerous exhibitions. The audience’s attitude towards Lynch’s art is divided: on the one hand, he is described as provocative, outlandish, incomprehensible and strange, on the other side, he is celebrated as an innovative and skillful artist. In particular, his films are criticized for the excessive representation of sex and violence.
Often, he is also under attack because of his commitment to Transcendental Meditation. Lynch plays a key role in David Sieveking’s documentary David wants to fly from the year 2010. After an interview with Lynch about his favorite subject Transcendental Meditation, Sieveking, once a big fan of Lynch’s films, distances himself from the director and the organization. This attitude is further compounded by the fact that during another interview Sieveking is prohibited from asking critical questions. Above all, the costs of learning Transcendental Meditation are criticized. As is common with many other sects, the education becomes more expensive with every new stage of enlightenment. The introductory course costs about 2,000 euros. With each further training level the price rises. In order to get the education for one of the highest ranks, you have to pay more than 100,000 US dollars. This is often compared to the situation in Scientology. The supporters of Transcendental Meditation include David Lynch, Ringo Starr or Paul McCartney. By means of his David Lynch Foundation, Lynch wants to introduce pupils and students to Transcendental Meditation and enable them to do the Yogic Flying.
Financial achievements include The Elephant Man ($ 26 million), Wild at Heart ($ 14.6 million), Mulholland Drive ($ 20.1 million) and Blue Velvet ($ 8.5 million).
David Lynch has received 42 film awards and has been nominated for another 38, including four Oscars. In 1989, he was honored with the Golden Palm at the International Film Festival of Cannes, where he also got the Director’s Award in 2001. He was awarded a Golden Lion for his life’s work at the Venice Film Festival in 2006. In 2002, he was knighted by the Minister of Culture Jean-Jacques Aillagon, and Nicolas Sarkozy appointed him Officer of the French Legion of Honor in 2007. In 2010, Lynch was presented with the Kaiserring of the city of Goslar. In the same year, he got the Cologne Film Award at the Cologne Conference. In The Guardian’s list of the 40 best directors, Lynch is ranked number one.