The mind behind MULHOLLAND DRIVE leads a tour through his twisted body of work.
by Jeff Jensen
There's a dismembered bird's wing on David Lynch's desk. It's large and dirty and molted and just lying there, soaking up the sunshine that's pouring in through the windows of his hilltop painting studio in Los Angeles. The 55 year-old filmmaker, clad in khakis and a buttoned to-the-neck dress shirt and burning through cigarette after cigarette, says nothing of the grim object resting between him and his interviewer, as if its presence requires no explanation. But since dirty dismembered bird wings lying inexplicably on desks are, as a general rule, rather strange, you feel compelled to ask, and when you do, he smirks. "My assistant found this the other day and brought it to me," says the Montana native in his Western twang. "Sometimes I put stuff in my paintings, and he thought I could do something with it." Of course he could: After all, this is the oddball auteur who made a severed human ear the haunting central image of his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. In fact, his ninth and latest feature, the trippy-sexy neo-noir Mulholland Drive, which opened to strong reviews and promising grosses on Oct. 12, is a cinematic salvage act, combining parts of a failed 1999 ABC pilot with footage shot last year. The result, which earned Lynch a shared best director honor at last spring's Cannes film festival, is Frankenstein created by a mad scientist under the influence of Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard (two of Lynch's favorite films).
Drive is the twisted tale of a wide-eyed aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) whose life gets intertwined with a ravenhaired amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) searching for her true identity. In between auditions, Betty plays Nancy Drew with her dusky new friend, and their investigation ultimately leads to a bloated corpse, a mysterious blue box, and a role-swapping denouement that defies rational analysis. Even his stars were befuddled when Lynch reconvened them last year, long after the shooting of the pilot. "I remember the day when David told Naomi and me,'Ladies, Mulholland DIrive is going to be an international feature film!"' recalls Harring, perfectly nailing Lynch's accent. "We were so happy, but it wasn't until we left that we looked at each other and went, What exactly did we just agree to in there?" Adds Watts: "I would really try to siphon whatever I could out of him, but when he wouldn't give, I'd be like, 'Why are you doing this to me?' He was almost delighting in my torture!"
Maybe--or maybe he just didn't know what to say. Likening his creative process to that of the Surrealists, Lynch says all his movies "are made of ideas, strung together and forming a story and the world that comes with it. And I've always believed that if you remain true to the ideas, more often than not, that whole will hold together just correct."
Trusting in his gut has produced one of cinema's oddest oeuvres. Lynch became intrigued with filmmaking in the late 1960s while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After getting a grant from the American Film Institute for a 16mrn short called The Grandmother (1970), he enrolled at AFI in Los Angeles and soon began working on his first feature-length effort, Eraserhead.
A shock-haired hero loses his head (literally), kills his fish-eyed child, and escapes into a radiator where an angelic, lumpy-faced lady lives. Maybe. All that was to become "Lynchian"--dreamlike narrative, freak-show characters, ominous soundscapes, deadpan detachment-was present in his first feature. Lynch shot overfour years, living and working in unused horse stables owned by the AFI.
"It was like I died and went to heaven. It looked like stables from the outside, but inside it was another world. I know ideas came from living in there that wouldn't have come if we had the money and could go faster. I always think about doing a film jike that again; there's something about a small, intimate crew, living in a world for a long period of time. There's just something about it-the moving slowly."
THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)
Lynch wanted to follow Eraserhead with the equally weird Ronnie Rocket, but couldn't find financing. Enter Mel Brooks, whose production company was searching for a director for a Victorian-era drama based on the true story of the grossly deformed John Merrick. The inspired pairing of sensibility and material yielded a box office hit and eight Oscar nods (including Best Picture and Best Director).
"The whole thing would never have happened without Mel Brooks. I didn't have final cut, but he in effect gave me final cut. When [studio execs] wanted to alter things, he became the most powerful lion and just devoured these enemies. Pressure? On the first day, [actress] Wendy Hiller grabbed me by the neck and walked me around, saying, 'I don't know you. I will be watching you.' It was that way throughout - heaven and hell, thrown together."
Many offers came Lynch's way after The Elephant Man, including Return of the Jedi. Instead, Lynch fatefully chose to adapt Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic for Uber producer Dino De Laurentiis Lambasted for its incoherence, miscasting (a then-un- known Kyle MacLachlan made his debut as a desert messiah), and dingy veneer, Dune nearly killed Lynch's career.
"You don't really know until it's too late. But you know the expression, 'Well begun, half done'? It wasn't well begun. From the beginning, it was a slippery slope that kept go ing downwards. I was two people: One that put one foot in front of the other and does the work, while the other one is right above it, going insane. It wasn't pleasant. Still, I had no one to blame but myself. I learned a lot from that experience. Most importantly? Get final cut."
BLUE VELVET (1986)
What a comeback. Lynch made a deal with De Laurentiis, giving up half his fee in return for total control of his next project. Starring MacLachlan as a college kid whose voyeurism gets him into big trouble with Dennis Hopper's sadistic criminal, Blue Velvet earned Lynch a second Best Director nomination. Legend has it that he giggled while watching Hopper performing in the film's deeply disturbing rape sequence.
"If you believe in your work, nothing can hurt you. But if you don't believe in it, and it comes out bad? Double whammy. That was me after Dune. So with Blue Velvet, there was nowhere to go but up. I had euphoria in freedom and it was beautiful. As for the laughing story, it was like a dog in a chocolate shop. It just starts eating that chocolate and there's no stopping it, it's just so obsessed. So to see Dennis just so obsessed, so focused like that-it just made me laugh."
WILD AT HEART (1990)
Starring Nicolas Cage as an Elvis-idolizing rogue and Laura Dern as a trashy Southern belle, Lynch's hyper-pop romance won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. But the film was criticized in the U.S. for its self-indulgence and extreme violence. It could have been worse: To get an R rating, Lynch had to cut a torture scene and obscure a shot in which Willem Dafoe's head gets blown off.
"At that time, [Barry Gifford's] book married with a feeling I had - a feeling that the world was going insane. But I did cross the line in my first cuts; I was kind of pushing it to this place I felt was real, but it was very sick and insane. When 300 people out of 400 leave the theater [during a test screen- ing], for the sake of the whole, you adjust! I've found the ratings board wants to work with you. They just say, 'We don't want to tell you what to do, but if you can help us, we would like that.' Here, they were right."
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE
WALK WITH ME (1992)
In October 1990, propelled by the success of his TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch found himself on the cover of TIME magazine. "Someone told me a TIME cover curses you with two years' bad luck," says Lynch. "That's what happened." It kicked in the following spring, when Twin Peaks was canceled, and continued into Lynch's movie prequel, which fans rejected for not resolving the series' many riddles.
"I never even thought about tying up the loose ends. I wanted to go into the last seven days of Laura Palmer, and all the ideas came out around that thinking. There were other scenes shot that didn't end up in the film, but they didn't fit into this particular story. But those were the days of the curse, so I sort of knew it wouldn't go over. Yet I loved the film, so it didn't hurt me. So there it is."
LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
With a looping narrative similar to Mulholland Drive's, Lynch's noir/horror hybrid tells the twisted tale of a jealous husband (Bill Pullman) who's convinced his wife (Patricia Arquette) is cheating on him. After being convicted of her murder and jailed, Pullman escapes - into the head of Balthazar Getty. Then things really get weird. If you view it again, keep this in mind: "Looking back now, I see that Lost Highway was hugely influenced by O.J. Simpson. Ask yourself: How can O.J. golf? How can he even hit the ball? How can he even go out of bed in the morning? How does the mind seal itself off from horror and be able to live and think and hit a golf ball? So when you think about that, and you think about Lost Highway ... it sort of makes sense!"
THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
Perhaps Lynch's most surprising film: a sweet, decidedly linear fable based on the true story of an old man (Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth) who traveled across Iowa on a tractor to reconcile with his ailing brother. Free of sex, violence, and ironic detachment, the sublime Story shocked even the director's most hardcore fans - by winning a G rating. Some were moved to ask, Just what is a David Lynch film?
"Who knows? [Laughs] It's ideas that have passed through my machine. It's not just music. It's not just pace. It's not just 'a look.' It's a combo of things that have to be correct. It reminds me of a symphony, when they have different movements, and what goes before is critical to a big moment coming up. So many things have to be correct. Too little, it doesn't happen; too much, it breaks it. So it's a tricky business, making movies. Just a tricky business."
© 2001 Entertainment Weekly Inc.
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