David Lynch wanted to make a TV series unlike any other. The network said it was eager to get beyond the formulas of prime-time programming. What could go wrong?
BY TAD FRIEND
IT was a mild March night in Hollywood, near the end of the shoot for "Mulholland Drive," a two-hour pilot that David Lynch was filming for ABC. Lynch, the writer and director, ran a hand through his shock of gray hair and made fluttery gestures to his special-effects man, Jason Collins. The prosthetic body was too...something. Bulbous, maybe. Michael J. Anderson, who is a dwarf, was playing a mysterious studio magnate named Mr. Roque, and Lynch had him stand on the seat of a wooden wheelchair while he was being buttressed by foam legs and silicone arm extensions, so that he'd resemble a normal man. Normal, but with a worrisomely tiny head. "It's a man's head!" Lynch advised Collins, who stared back blankly. "It's a man's head!"
"You have to surrender to the obscurity of David's vision," Collins told me two nights later, as he returned to the lot at Paramount Studios carrying prosthetic limbs whose joints had been shaved down and made more angular. "Beautiful!" Lynch said, inspecting the apparatus under the thousand-watt "baby" lights of the cavernous soundstage. "He'll look perfect, natural--but paralyzed. Good deal, buster!"
At 1:30 A.M., on a small office set, Anderson stood up in the wheelchair, his head popping out above the lapels of a nailhead business suit twice his size. A light shaped like a stove hood brooded above him, a cobalt-blue lamp glowed on a desk, and brown draperies shrouded the walls. The set's spareness is a Lynch trademark, and the draperies are a familiar exhibit in his gallery of obsessional motifs, which also includes random blue objects, antlers, yellow highway markings, guttering candles, closeups of women's lipsticked lips, long screams into telephone receivers, and the sounds of buzzers and steam.
"I feel like I'm preparing for a space shot," the immobilized Anderson murmured as a production assistant hand-fed him bites of chicken satay. Then, looking up at Lynch, he asked, "Where do your ideas come from?" The director laughed companionably, but wouldn't answer. "'Never you mind where my ideas come from,'" Anderson continued, mimicking Lynch, for this was a well-worn joke between them. Nine years ago, Anderson played the inscrutable dancing dwarf who appeared in dreams to Agent Dale Cooper on Lynch's "Twin Peaks," the hit show on ABC that shot up like a rocket in the ratings and down just as fast. But Anderson maintains that even he could never get Lynch to explain what that dwarf character meant. "David's work isn't consciously coherent," he says, "but its coherence on an unconscious level is inescapable--almost against your will."
American viewers relished the bewilderment. Their passion for the show's swaying stoplights and barking teen-agers, for its one-armed demon and innuendos about cherry pie, made way for the creation of such offbeat television shows as "Northern Exposure" and "The X-Files." Yet nothing on the air since "Twin Peaks" has approached its originality, Steve Tao, ABC's vice-president of drama programming, told me, "'Twin Peaks' was like a young rocker who dies in an airplane crash--the early departure creates an even greater hunger. We're hoping to feed that hunger with 'Mulholland Drive.'"
On the set, Anderson's tiny head above the big suit looked eerily like the squalling baby's head that pops out from the neck of its father's suit in "Eraserhead," which was Lynch's first and strangest film: both images trigger a primal anxiety, "People are capable of taking jumps into another way of thinking," Lynch says. "The jump mechanism has got rusty and sleepy, particularly if you watch only television, but it's there in everybody. ABC just has to trust me that people will respond."
At 3 A.M., Lynch was finally ready to shoot the dwarf scene, in which a studio executive, played by Robert Katima, pushes an intercom outside Mr. Roque's office and asks for instructions. Anderson has just two lines: "Then?" and "Yes?" The only direction that Lynch offered Anderson was "O.K., you're a rock. Remember, a rock." But Lynch was shooting the dialogue from outside Roque's glass-walled office, so the scene's visual focus was the intercom, shaped like an old-fashioned transistor radio. Then Lynch asked, "Can we put a little spot on Robert?" Suddenly, Katima's spotlit face, reflected in the glass, floated like a ghost in the frame. And when Lynch suggested that the lamp above Mr. Roque should grow gradually brighter, then fade to black at the end, he had conjured a haunting image of the remoteness of power.
"That was a humdinger!" Lynch said, grinning.
Mark Cotone, the assistant director, agreed. "This is now my favorite shot in the movie, sir!"
Michael Polaire, Lynch's line producer, stood ten feet behind the gleeful crew. "It's great," he said carefully, "but it's way out there for ABC--they'll probably think, What the fuck is this? TV is now about speed and snappy dialogue, for people hitting the remote. It'll be interesting to see, nine years after 'Twin Peaks,' whether people will stick with something so painterly and..." Failing to find a euphemism, he shrugged: "...and slow."
ONE day last August, David Lynch drove his 1971 Mercedes to Century City to pitch "Mulholland Drive" to Jamie Tarses, the president--until her resignation last week--of ABC Entertainment, and one of her senior deputies, Steve Tao. The executives were in a receptive mood: "Just the title alone had us really excited," Tao told me. "David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive'! "Tao and his colleagues were enthusiastic about the prospect of developing a show that would be both a critical and a popular success--that wouldn't be just another knockoff of "Friends." As Tao saw it, "Quite frankly, there is a plethora of sameness on TV. David Lynch's television stands out. A show by him could be one of those large events--like Monica Lewinsky's interview with Barbara Walters--that people gather together to watch. We're trying to create appointment television."
The meeting began with Lynch sitting on a wing of Tarses's beige couch ensemble, drinking one of his dozen daily cups of black coffee and staring at the four television monitors in the room. Tony Krantz, Lynch's friend and production partner, then read aloud the first two pages of Lynch's treatment:
EXTERIOR NIGHT-HOLLYWOOD HILLS, LOS ANGELES. Darkness. Distant sounds of freeway traffic. Then the closer sound of a car--its headlights illumine an oleander bush and the limbs of a eucalyptus tree. Then the headlights turn--a street sign is suddenly brightly lit. The words on the sign read "Mulholland Drive." The car moves under the sign as it turns and the words fall once again into darkness.
Krantz went on reading, describing how the black Cadillac limousine pulls over and the driver points a gun at the beautiful brunette in the back seat. Just then, two cars hill of drag-racing teenagers scream around the corner, and one car slams into the limo. The woman staggers out of the wreck and, severely dazed makes her way down the hill toward Hollywood.
Having rehearsed earlier with Lynch, Krantz tried to sell the images with what he calls "subtle dramatic emphases." Krantz, who is the forty-year-old son of the novelist Judith Krantz, wears jaunty half-boots and jackets with asymmetrical buttons, and greets favored writers with a snappy "Hey, superstar!" or "What rhymes with [your name here]? Fabulous!" He employs these people skills as the co-chairman and C.E.O. of Imagine Television, which produces such shows as "Sports Night" and "The PJs" in a joint venture with the Walt Disney Company (which also owns ABC).
When Lynch was making "Twin Peaks," in 1990, he had mentioned the idea for "Mulholland Drive" over dinner with Krantz at a Hollywood restaurant called Muse; they commemorated the moment by signing a paper placemat. Krantz, who was then a television agent known for having "packaged" "Twin Peaks"--that is, having assembled its creative team-taped the placemat to his refrigerator and kept nagging Lynch about the show.
In the intervening period, however, Lynch developed serious doubts about television. "With all the commercials and its terrible sound and picture," he said recently, "TV is a hair of a joke, really." In the early nineties, after ABC abruptly cancelled a sitcom Lynch co-created, "On the Air," he angrily painted a plywood board with the words "I WILL NEVER WORK IN TELEVISION AGAIN." In recent years, he had made only one film, the poorly received "Lost Highway," and seemed perfectly happy painting, composing music, and puttering in his home woodshop.
But Krantz's passion for high-quality television is infectious: Imagine's producers regularly repeat such "Tonyisms" as "We can go up in flames, or down in flames, but we want to be in flames." He finally persuaded Lynch to proceed with "Mulholland Drive" by emphasizing that television is a Scheherazade-like medium, which requires endless improvisation. "Tony knew that I've never liked having to bend my movie scripts to an end halfway through," Lynch says. "On a series you can keep having beginnings and middles, and develop story forever."
At the meeting in Tarses's office, Krantz set the scene for ten minutes before Lynch took over the pitch. With an American Spirit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, his bluff, weather-beaten face, his unvarying outfit of a white shirt buttoned to the neck, an old black sweater, and chinos, Lynch needs only a windblown scarf to be the picture of a barnstorming aviator. Now fifty-three, he peppers his speech with slang out of the Saturday Evening Post: "Holy jumping George!" and "Wow-wee, Bob!" and "I'll be ding-danged!" "David is straight from the forties," says Lynch's film editor and longtime companion, Mary Sweeney. "He has the big hands, the dreaminess, and he is caught in a cycle of remembering driving back then in Montana with his granddad Austin Lynch--the giant steering wheel gripped by leather driving gloves, the slow sound of the wheels. He feels the same way about Los Angeles, which is a character in this film--the bygone smells, and the wisteria, and the dreaminess." But sun-dappled nostalgia accounts for only a portion of Lynch's dreams. The rest involve such dark scenarios as Dennis Hopper sucking from a gas inhaler in "Blue Velvet" and mewing "Baby wants to fuck!"
Lynch explained to the executives that the brunette from the limo, Rita, makes her way to an apartment complex carrying only a purse containing a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in cash and a blue key. Stricken with amnesia, she is befriended there by a perky blonde, Betty, who has just arrived from Canada and is determined to become a movie star. Betty tries to help Rita figure out who she is--even as the police, and Rita's less kindly pursuers, begin looking for her.
Then Lynch stopped, and finally lit his cigarette. "It was the best kind of pitch, where you're on the edge of your seat," Steve Tao said later. A short, partly bald thirty-five-year-old, Tao wears black knit shirts and small black glasses and has an orderly mind. "I remember the creepiness of this woman in this horrible, horrible crash, and David teasing us with the notion that people are chasing her. She's not just 'in' trouble-she is trouble. Obviously, we asked, 'What happens next?' And David said, 'You have to buy the pitch for me to tell you."' So the network did.
A successful pitch usually commands a few hundred thousand dollars in development money, but ABC was so eager to sign Lynch that it promptly put up four and a half million dollars for an unusual two-hour pilot. Disney's Touchstone television later contributed two and a half million more, for a total budget of seven million, with the proviso--which Lynch grudgingly accepted--that he shoot extra footage to be used as a "closed ending." Disney's Buena Vista International intended to recoup the company's money by releasing the longer version as a film in Europe.
The "Mulholland Drive" pitch was unusual not just because it was tantalizingly brief but because Lynch was candid about his intention to do something sui generis. Most television shows are sold as the offspring of previous hits, and targeted to their advertising demographics. Joss Whedon, the creator of the WB network hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," recalls, "We sold 'Buffy' as 'The X-Files' meets 'My So-Called Life.' They liked it because 'The X-Files' was a big hit, and because the kid audience buys a lot of shit."
Television is a bastion of tradition. Susanne Daniels, the president of entertainment at the WB, told me, "One reason we bought 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was that we had been talking about 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' and how it was scary and funny at the same time, and we wanted to recapture that." Peter Roth, the president of Warner Bros. Television, says he often pages through television nostalgia books and circles shows that could be profitably updated Proudly recalling one of his achievements when he was at Fox, Roth said, "I circled 'Kolchak,' and then had lunch with Chris Carter, and out of that conversation came 'The X-Files.' Every top-ten show has been seen before. The trick is to repackage and contemporize to make a modern hit. 'E.R.' is derived from the likes of 'Medical Center.' 'Ally McBeal' is 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show."'
The urge to recycle can blind executives to the commercial potential of material that is truly new: NBC, CBS, and Fox all turned down "The Sopranos," which became a huge hit on HBO this spring. "The networks' main problem," says Dean Valentine, the president and C.E.O. of the United Paramount Network, "is that under perceived pressure from advertisers they're all chasing the eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic. Way too many shows are 'Friends' clones-urban, affluent, twenty-seven-year-old yuppies who wear black knit shirts and just want to get laid. Most of America doesn't fit that bill, and so they've defaulted to watching cable."
In a rapidly changing marketplace, the old formula of relying on the old formula is increasingly unreliable. The big three networks, which now attract less than fifty per cent of television viewers in prime time, may well be headed toward obsolescence. Steven Bochco, the respected producer who created "Hill Street Blues" and "N.Y.P.D. Blue," says, "I liken the networks to a guy who, as he loses more and more hair, invents a more and more elaborate comb-over in denial: 'We're stemming the tide.' 'No one else can do what we can do.' 'We still reach more people than anyone else.' Yap, yap, yap. In fact, we're getting our brains beaten out."
And the networks are seeking the rare megahit--a show like "E.R.," which has earned NBC more than five hundred million dollars. Yet NBC turned down "E.R." three times before it ordered a pilot. After thirty-two years in the industry, Don Ohlmeyer, the recently re-tired president of NBC, West Coast, admits, "For a show to be a breakout hit, there has to be some magic that happens with the audience. But nobody knows what that is. Nobody fucking knows. If you bat a hundred in television, you're in the Hall of Fame." The shows that fail cost the networks tens of millions of dollars, and spectacular risks often backfire even more spectacularly. So every time network executives open their wallets to bet on a beguiling dark horse, as ABC did with "Mulholland Drive," their tension is palpable. As Jamie Tarses told me, "This is a terrifying time in television."
ON January 4th, Lynch turned in a ninety-two-page pilot script to ABC. Like much of his work, "Mulholland Drive" was conceived as an oddball film noir, opening with some gruesome deaths and then introducing an ensemble of desirable women and baffled or misshapen men. Lynch had kept many of these strange men to himself at the pitch meeting, because, he says, Krantz worried that "getting into them would blow the deal." The most important, in the completed script, was an edgy young director named Adam, who is forced by a pair of mobsters to cast a particular ac-tress in his new movie. (Adam appears to be a stand-in for Lynch, who is known to fear creative interference of any form. When Lynch was living with Isabella Rossellini, he refused to allow cooked food in the house, lest the smell contaminate his work.) Adam smashes up the mobsters' limo with a 7-iron, then hops into his silver Porsche and drives home to find his wife in bed with the pool man. He pours hot-pink paint in her jewelry box, gets cuffed around by the pool man, and must eventually take counsel from an oracular cowboy.
Meanwhile, Betty auditions for another film and gets so deeply into character that she gropes the sleazy actor reading with her. As Betty and Rita seek Rita's true identity, they stumble across a decomposing corpse. Also, a hit man named Joe accidentally shoots a fat woman through a wall. And two pals, Dan and Herb, meet for breakfast at Denny's to discuss Dan's recurrent nightmare of being frightened by a man who lives behind that same Denny's. They poke around in back, and a black-faced bum jumps out, literally frightening Dan to death. The day after receiving the script, Jamie Tarses and Stu Bloomberg, who is co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, called Tony Krantz to green-light production. "They were giddy with excitement," Krantz recalls. Steve Tao said, "It's one of the fastest scripts I've ever read--we could see it." ABC would eventually order pilots for seven dramatic series for the fall season, and the network expected to find room on its schedule for three or four.
"Mullholland Drive" looked to be a shoo-in.
But the executives did wonder how the seemingly unconnected scenes and characters would be tied together. Lynch's scripts, dense with dream images, don't gather up loose ends and sweep to a close; instead, they jump around and then break off, as if jarred by an alarm clock. Although this strangeness was a selling point, it was also a cause for concern. "There's a very fine balance between intriguing people and confusing people," Steve Tao said. And so, two weeks after ordering the pilot episode, Bloomberg and Tarses summoned about twenty people from the network, Imagine, and Lynch's production company to meet in ABC's conference room.
At "notes meetings" like this one, networks begin to put their stamp on a show, analyzing everything from the characters' morals to their hairstyles. Executives try to clarify motivations and future plot points: "What are the stakes? What is the character's arc?" They also ask, "Will there be a love story, a combative mating dance?" Most executives believe that television shows-unlike movies, which people actively seek out-are watched passively by a tired and fickle audience; and so stories should move quickly and clearly, and characters' problems should engender immediate sympathy. "The secret is to have a character who is very relatable, whom you root for," Jamie Tarses says. "And the rest is how you dress it up."
Tony Krantz considered the discussion normal and amicable: "At those meetings, you want to take signals from the buyer, and make compromises that satisfy them and that don't involve selling your soul to the devil." Steve Tao told me, "David was very collaborative. I had a list of twenty questions. He said, 'I'm not going to answer that, but it's a good question.' Next? 'I'm not going to answer that, but it's a good question.' Next? 'I know that answer, and you're not going to learn it now.' At least I knew he was thinking about our concerns. Lynch didn't relish the scrutiny however. "David is willing to attend something like that meeting as a gesture of cooperation," Mary Sweeney says, "but he believes that questions about motivation are not pertinent." Lynch himself says, 'A lot of times, I just didn't know what the answer was going to be, and I was covering up so that I wouldn't worry them."
What most worried the network was the last scene: the camera snakes around the Dumpster behind Denny's and finds the bum. "We move closer and the bum's face fills the screen," Lynch had written. "Its face is black with fungus. Its eyes turn and they seem to be red. THE END." ABC was afraid this scene signaled that Lynch was about to depart for his nutty private world of dwarfs and ladies in radiators and extraterrestrial freaks. They wanted to work with the controlled and grounded Lynch of "Blue Velvet" and the early "Twin Peaks," not the Lynch of his more recent "Lost Highway," a man bewitched by sex, violence, and alternate universes. Tao asked nervously, 'Are his eyes glowing? Is he an alien?" "No, no, no, no, no, no," Lynch said soothingly. "The bum's eyes are just catching a reflection from the neon. And with the black fungus around the eyes they just look... naturally pink."
Afterward, Lynch's producer, Neal Edelstein, said, 'ABC thinks viewers are too stupid to want to figure things out, to have a bit of a surreal experience." When I pressed Lynch whether the bum's eyes really glowed only from reflected neon, he chuckled, and said, "Well, and maybe a few other things."
Lynch did hint to the executives that Adam and Betty would have a romance, which reassured them, and said that in the course of the first year Betty and Rita would "cross": Betty would be sucked into the city's underbelly, and Rita would be redeemed. And, in response to politely insistent queries, Lynch promised that when Rita's identity was finally revealed it would only open up other mysteries. That was a further relief to ABC, which was eager not to repeat the mistakes of "Twin Peaks." When it first aired, in April 1990, "Twin Peaks" had a 21.7 rating, or nearly twenty million viewers, and a whopping 33 share (meaning that a third of all televisions on at that hour were tuned to the show). But by the time the show was cancelled, a year later, it had fallen to a 5.7 rating and a 9 share. After the core mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" had been solved, in the fifteenth episode (the murderer turned out to be Bob, a fiend inhabiting Laura's father), the plot petered out. "David was quite cognizant that on 'Twin Peaks' he'd written himself into a corner with Laura Palmer," Tao says. "We kept saying we can't have that happen again, because we want a long-running series." Tony Krantz was also watching out that Lynch didn't get too esoteric. "When 'Twin Peaks' got fourteen Emmy nominations its first year, Krantz said, 'ABC mistakenly felt that David and Mark"-the show's co-creator, Mark Frost--"were unassailable gods riding this unstoppable pop-culture wave. So they didn't say boo when the show stopped adhering to conventional storytelling and got all weird."
ABC and Imagine were both unabashedly following Hollywood's conventional wisdom: if you want to achieve popular success with an artist, take whatever it is that makes that artist distinctive, dilute it, and add a spoonful of sugar. Brian Grazer, Imagine Television's other co-chairman, told me, "Television should bring out the best in David, because people want originality within a conventional format--if you change both format and content, become too original, as he has sometimes done, you go south."
As the pilot began filming, in late February, excitement about "Mulholland Drive" swept through Hollywood. "People are grovelling to be on the writing staff," Lynch's producer, Neal Edelstein, said. "It is the pilot." In March, Steve Tao told me, "We gave a presentation to the advertising community last week, and just the mere mention that David Lynch is coming back to television literally made them gasp!"
Yet privately the executives at ABC were increasingly nervous. That same week, Tony Krantz said, "Steve Tao is seeing the dailies"--each day's raw footage--"and saying, 'Oh, my God, we love it, we love it.' But then he said, 'What is it? What is it?' And when he saw some of the closed ending he said, 'What the fuck is it?' "(The closed ending features a Blue Lady and a magician who explodes in blue flames.)
ABC was also worried about pace: that speedy script seemed a bit plodding after it had been realized through Lynch's viewfinder. Justin Theroux, who plays Adam, brooded about the network's unease. "I realized that the show is incidental to the ads," Theroux said. "You could have someone fucking a chicken up there, and it doesn't matter to ABC--they just want people to watch the commercials. In 'Ally McBeal,' you start off with someone talking about a pet frog and some legal case about masturbation--lots of hooks to keep your interest. In 'Mulholland Drive,' you start off with seven minutes of a car accident, someone stumbling around dazed. I'm sure ABC is thinking, O.K., we've just lost x million viewers."
Nor was ABC happy about Lynch's lead actresses, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Usually, a show's producers audition at least fifty actors for each major role, and then bring their three top contenders in to read for the network, at which point the producers and the executives cast the show together. But Lynch casts by scrutinizing head-shot photographs and conducting interviews. Viewing actors as design elements, he often chooses unknowns with broad, blank faces.
"Sometimes the network can give too much respect to an artist," Tony Krantz said, "and ABC did that here, deferring to David without having any chance to see the actors read--to kick the tires. The actresses are fantastic-looking, fine talents, hut they're a little old"--both are in their late twenties--"and ABC thinks Betty is too aw-shucks and Okie-from-Muskogee, and that at the beginning, after the accident, Rita looks kind of goofy."
The network communicated its anxieties, as is customary, through its standards-and-practices department, which vets shows for objectionable material. A ream of memos came Lynch's way: change "tits and ass" to "butts and boobs"; we shouldn't see the hit man's gun "blowing brains out across the desk, carpet and wall," or the next bullet piercing the wall and hitting the fat woman's buttocks. Then came the memo saying, Lose the closeup of dog turds on a sidewalk. Lynch prized that image (he'd told his cameraman, "Get real tight on this-every kid in America is going to love it!"), and he especially objected to this edict. "Show me someone who hasn't seen dog shit," he said. A compromise was finally negotiated: the poop would take up an eighth of the screen.
The standards-and-practices department was particularly disturbed by Lynch's reverence for cigarettes--for smoke and fire as a magical texture. "We don't like to condone smoking here at the network," Steve Tao explained. "He's found ways around it. Now it's mostly the bad people who smoke." Tao giggled self-consciously: "You smoke, you die." Indeed, the network decreed that characters who smoke should manifest "a hacking cough." Lynch did change the script so that it is Adam, and not a kindly landlady, who lights up, but in a scene shot after the network voiced its concern, Lynch told Justin Theroux, "Take a really fucking big drag--fucking love that cigarette."
Though Lynch remained fairly complaisant, he was concerned about ABC's small incursions on his reality. "If you purify out smoking and dog...problems on TV," he told me, "and you make a politically correct world, the artificiality eats into our perceptions of life. And no one will watch your show."
Lynch and ABC had fallen into the time-honored pattern of antagonism between the "talent" and the "suits." Executives view writers as unruly teen-agers; writers see executives as hysterical parents who, regrettably, still control allowances and bedtimes. To be sure, television's boundaries have broadened enormously since the early nineteen-seventies, when a CBS researcher told Allan Burns, the co-creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," that there were four leprous castes that viewers would never accept as lead characters: divorced people, Jews, New Yorkers, and men with mustaches. But with network television--which, unlike cable, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission--any plot point that might offend viewers remains touchy. A small child named Kenny dies a different awful death in each episode of the animated show "South Park," but that mordancy is possible only because the show airs on Comedy Central. "On a network," says Trey Parker, the show's co-creator, "Kenny would just keep getting an ear infection."
"N.Y.P.D. Blue" had its debut on ABC a year later than had been planned, because Steven Bochco, the executive producer, had to fight endless battles over content. "It was exhausting," Bochco told me. "But we finally settled on a glossary of naughty words we could use--douche bag, scumbag, asshole, prick." He shook his head and laughed. "Eventually, we're going to win all these battles, with the pathetic argument that 'Shit, there's no one left watching us anyway--what do you care?"'
On a Monday in late April, David Lynch was in the studio of his three-building compound in the Hollywood Hills, mixing the soundtrack for the "Mulholland Drive" pilot. Cigarette smoke spiralled above his head as he sat at his Euphonix mixing console, cradling a bottomless cup of coffee. Brown draperies cloaked the walls of the soundproof hall, which doubles as a fourteen-seat screening room. Three sound technicians were perched around him, and everyone stared at a thirty-two-inch monitor as the opening frames of the pilot flickered by.
Lynch had just spent two hours deleting cricket chirps and rolling-hubcap clatter from the John Cage-like symphony that plays under the car-crash scene, choosing to emphasize instead steam hiss and the screams of the drag-racing kids. As the monitor showed Rita staggering downhill from the crash and turning toward Sunset Boulevard, Lynch said, "Give me a hint of the steam and a taste of the screaming kids. Real low, on infinite reverb." When these sounds were laid in, they made Rita seem not goofy but terrified.
Over the weekend, Lynch had sent his cut of the show, a work print with patchy temporary sound, both to Krantz and to ABC. The cut was two hours and five minutes, and had longueurs, hut on the whole it was spooky, funny, and absorbing. Justin Theroux gave Adam a gaunt, raspy wit that made his scenes bounce. Robert Forster was memorable as a deadpan cop. And there was a handful of indelible images: a boy with metal crutches and piercing blue eyes; a bloated corpse lying in a sea of blood; and, particularly, the sepulchral appearance of the pinheaded Mr. Roque.
That morning, sitting in a battered-looking director's chair in his woodshop after a meditation session, Lynch had told me, "It works. I really love it, and Tony's over the moon. I'd like ABC to run it at two and a half hours, but apparently Jamie and Stu are freaking out, saying it has to be eighty-eight minutes."
Now Lynch was laying sound for the scene in which the bum gives Dan a heart attack. He tracked in a "stinger"-a pulse of hard-hitting sound-timed to the instant when the bum jumps out, and then watched the result. "That's total horseshit!" he shouted. "Put it in the trash!" But moments later he was murmuring to his sound engineer, "That's a peach, Walter." "Lose that arbitrary drum hit?"
"No, no! Arbitrary is our friend!"
The intercom buzzed: Tony Krantz was on line one. Lynch picked up and said, "Hey, Tone," then just listened. "Frankly," Krantz told me later, explaining the reason for his call, "I've never heard of a two-and-a-half-hour opener. It's kind of crazy. These people at ABC are used to forty-four minutes"--the length of an hour pilot without commercials--"so they keep looking at their watches, waiting for the fucking thing to end." But Krantz stayed calm while talking to Lynch, trying to finesse the situation.
"The question is, how much do they love it?" Lynch said into the receiver at last. Krantz told him that Steve Tao wasn't sanguine. "What do you mean, 'He's not loving it'?" Lynch asked. "I don't want Steve Tao's subjective judgment to hurt something that I know will thrill people. It's not four hours long, it's not meandering and shapeless, it's feature length. If Michael Eisner"--Disney's chairman--"saw this, I can't believe he wouldn't dig it." Krantz told Lynch it would only alienate ABC if they tried to do an end run and show the tape to Eisner.
The intercom buzzed again: Stu Bloomberg and Jamie Tarses were on line seven. Lynch explained to Krantz and switched over. "Hey," he said, and listened for several minutes. "Right, right," he said, finally. "I thought you would love this so much you'd put it in a two-and-a-half-hour time slot. That would be a beautiful thing. See, I love it. And Tony genuinely loves it. I think it's not slow, it's not boring. It's my pace. 'Twin Peaks' moved slowly, too. And there aren't any sound effects in what you saw, and that slows it down."
The three technicians slipped out of the room. "I know television has a different pace," he said, his voice rising slightly, "and I hear that you're saying it's got to go into the format. But I have a pace, too. And the only way I can think of to get it down to eighty-eight minutes is to start removing scenes in their entirety and end it earlier." Then Lynch asked, "So, Jamie, are you leaning toward this being a series, or are you disappointed and just want to can it?" He tilted his head and said, "Obviously, I got some thinking to do. O.K., swingin'."
Lynch stood up and walked back to sit in the central black-cushioned theatre seat. He drummed his fingers on the cherry-colored armrest, then gave me a slow sweet smile. "Well, on a scale of ten they were about a three. A three, maybe. I'm one depressed cowboy. They'll call back tomorrow and have more sharpened"--he paused, grimacing--"scissors. But they were slippery. They don't really know what to think until other people see it--the audience testing." He stared forlornly at the blank movie screen. Snippets of the audio mix looped on through the wall speakers: gunshots, the metallic crunch of the car crash, screams in infinite reverb. "Damn," Lynch said. "They hated it."
THE following evening, Tony Krantz drove his silver Porsche to Lynch's house and walked up the steps carrying two bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages. It was an old joke between them that if Krantz arrived without wine it meant bad news. Krantz and Lynch and Sweeney settled down in the living room, with its polished gray stucco walls and Danish modern furniture, and they drank the wine and looked out over the Hollywood Hills to the lights of Santa Monica. At last, Lynch said he had decided to lose the surplus thirty-seven minutes by simply cutting from the end. What he edited out would be saved for the first episode of the series. Krantz, who carried a memo from Steve Tao with thirty-odd instructions on what the network wanted cut or "paced up," expressed strong disagreement. 'ABC and Disney had put seven million dollars into the show," Krantz told me later, "and simply cutting the last thirty-seven minutes contradicted the spirit of ABC's notes entirely and would have been a slap in their faces. If you're a professional, you don't flagrantly tell the buyer to fuck off."
Krantz began to read Tao's memo aloud. Lynch objected to each note, and after ninety minutes of heated discussion they had covered only the first three points. Lynch believed that the "creative control" clause in his contract was equivalent to his having "final cut" authority in a film; in fact, that contract was with Imagine, not with the network. That night, Krantz told Lynch, "Ultimately, ABC has creative control. And their ultimate creative control is to say, 'We pass."'
"The way we were going at it was ridiculous," Krantz says. "So I said, 'David, who cares, ultimately, whether we speed up Rita's pace in getting to Hollywood? Let's not have this terrible tsuris about whether your artistic vision is being compromised a little--we're still going to do something fantastic.'"
Lynch began to laugh: "So, nothing matters, and it's all shit at the end of the day? You're really convincing me, Tone." Lynch finally promised to think over what he called "Tony's stern talking-to." But Krantz had self-doubts of his own. "Around David, I sometimes get frustrated by my own linearity," he says. "I think, have I become too conservative? Have I become like Aaron Spelling"--the producer of such shows as "The Love Boat" and "Melrose Place"--"where my instinct has become the TV instinct, prizing what works instead of what I believe?"
So Krantz was surprised when Lynch called him the next day and said that he and Sweeney had stayed up all night and trimmed the whole story down to eighty-eight minutes. "I don't agree with the cuts," he said, "but I've made them."
"You're kidding!" Krantz told him. "That brings tears to my eyes."
Lynch had refused to read the rest of ABC's instructions--"I have a problem with notes," he told me--but afterward Sweeney looked the memo over and said they had addressed almost all of Tao's concerns: gone was the Denny's scene, and almost every scene featuring a character who appears only once, including the boy with the metal crutches. ABC had wanted the pilot to end on a shot of Rita's blue key, but Lynch kept his final image of the red-eyed bum, even though, without the Denny's scene, it was now utterly enigmatic. "I whacked away to make this fat man fit in a real little phone booth, trying to answer their concerns about pace," Lynch said the day after he'd done the editing, his chin stubbled and his eyes weary. They want things to move fast, but it's like water-skiing: when you go fast, you stay on top-you never get below the surface."
Rolling a cigarette butt to shreds between his fingers, Lynch offered another analogy, "See, a pilot plants seeds, and you get excited by the little seeds that are starting to sprout. A lot of our seeds got crushed and butchered out, and what you end up with is a sick little garden. But obviously I'd rather lose seeds than lose the whole series." He sighed. "It's a heartache, but we're playing ball over here."
Krantz preferred the short version, believing that it was more accessible. "I hope ABC will pick it up now," he told me. "They'd be fools not to recognize the commercial potential." The cuts did make the pilot faster and more focused. But in truth the version edited to be more like television had become, paradoxically, less necessary as television. What had distinguished it was gone: scenes that weren't immediately fathomable, pauses and puzzles and lingerings, a pervading sense of a powerful and idiosyncratic mind at work. Without the virtues of its apparent faults, "Mulholland Drive" was no longer what ABC had gambled on nine months earlier.
During the third week in May, all the networks make expensive, theatrical presentations of their prime-time schedules to the advertising community in New York City. ABC's presentation was held on May 18th, before a packed house at the New Amsterdam Theatre, in Times Square--the home of Disney's long-running musical "The Lion King." It began with a peppy dance tribute to ABC's lineup, which featured a giant Rockettes-style kick line. Before long, Jamie Tarses walked out in a pin-striped suit and read confidently from a teleprompter, promising the advertisers that ABC's lineup was already surpassingly strong and stable, and therefore the network would premiere only six new programs. She started to announce the new schedule, and each night's lineup was concluded with a fifteen-second perp walk across the stage by the stars and future stars and soon-to-be-cancelled would-be stars of that night's shows. Then the downtown magician David Blaine rose from beneath the stage in a coffin and did some of his glum card tricks.
At last, Tarses got to the schedule for Thursday, which was where Krantz thought "Mulholland Drive" should go, as counter-programming to the NBC juggernaut of "Friends" and "E.R." Tarses began by making some of the same points that Krantz had made to the network. "NBC is down eighteen per cent on Thursday night," she said, adding that "we're going to go young, we're going to go bold, and we're going to go up." ABC's plan was to please advertisers by lowering the median age of the network's viewers, which currently stands at forty-one--well above the coveted demographic of eighteen to thirty-four. (Fox's median age is thirty-three; the WB's is twenty-six.)
ABC went with Krantz's argument, but not with his show. Instead, its strategy for "going young" on Thursdays was to air a new drama called "Wasteland" at 9 P.M. "Wasteland" was created by Kevin Williamson, the writer responsible for the "Scream" movies and the WB's popular show "Dawson's Creek." At the New Amsterdam Theatre, Tarses rolled a few minutes of tape that showed six twenty-somethings living in New York City, wearing black knit shirts, gliding around to the Smash Mouth song "All Star," and contriving to have sex with one another. In a weak year for new shows, "Wasteland" is distinguished chiefly by its similarity to such other new "Friends" clones as Fox's "Time of Your Life" (five twenty-somethings in New York), the WB's "D.C." (five twenty-somethings in Washington), the WB's "Jack & Jill" (six twenty-somethings in New York), and NBC's "Cold Feet" (three twenty-something couples somewhere or other).
Stu Bloomberg ended the prime-time presentation by rising from David Blaine's coffin--not, perhaps, the best metaphor for this crowd--to make a final, halfhearted "Star Wars" pun: "May the sales force be with you!" Afterward, the buyers and analysts walked through a steady rain to a cocktail reception held under a large white tent in Bryant Park. The more exuberant among them got in line to have their pictures taken with Drew Carey or Michael J. Fox.
I found Steve Tao and asked him what had happened to "Mulholland Drive." He looked sheepish. "Well," he said, "it needs a little work." So it might be a midseason replacement? "Sure, yep, possibly." He turned away.
Five days earlier, Tony Krantz had received a phone call from Tao. Krantz had heard rumors that ABC would not pick up the pilot, but he still hoped that the network would select the show for midseason, the way it had done with "Twin Peaks." "It's going to be a pass," Tao told him. "I'm sorry."
Krantz immediately phoned Lynch. "They don't want it," Krantz said. "They don't want it for fall, and they don't want it for spring."
"I see," Lynch said.
Later, Krantz told me, "I think David was surprised. He's an artist. And when someone tells you, 'The thing you love, we don't love; we don't value your inner life'--that's very personal."
When the show's cast and crew learned of its demise, they were outraged. Justin Theroux had turned down a chance to be in "Wasteland" in order to work with Lynch on "Mullholland Drive." Yet he believes that he chose well, because he learned a salutary contempt for how television shows are chosen. "I want to say that the people at ABC are terrible, awful, heinous people who kiss up to you when they think you might be a star and then drop you like a hot turd when they decide you won't be," he said. "But really they're just terribly frightened people who want to keep their jobs by giving audiences what they want. The audience testing that the networks do is in Middle America, and I picture these men and women who spend their time in McDonald's and bent over slot machines being brought into a room in a mall to watch David Lynch and turn up their knobs if they like it. Those knobs are going to be arrowheaded to the ground. On that basis, ABC assumes that America wants 'Wasteland' and not 'Mullholland Drive,' which means that they assume America is stupid. The sad thing is they're probably right." A few weeks later, I visited Lynch at home, in his woodshop. I asked him how he felt about ABC's rejection. He pushed his index fingers against his lower lip and remained in a brown study for a full two minutes. He rose and hit the intercom to request a cup of coffee, sat and thought for thirty seconds more, and finally said, "At a certain point, you realize you're in with the wrong people. Their thinking process is very foreign to me. They like a fast pace and a linear story, but you want your creations to come out of you, and be distinctive. I feel it's possibly true that there are aliens on earth, and they work in television."
ABC plans to air "Mulholland Drive" later this season as a two-hour TV movie that sets its plot lines in action and then abruptly stops. Lynch dreads the broadcast. "Having that butchered version go out...it's like an accident," he said. "Some people love to see a sad, bad traffic accident, and that's what they'll see on ABC. I hope no one watches."
I asked him if he thought that the "Twin Peaks" pilot would get picked up today. "I kind of doubt it," he replied.
What if Tony Krantz came back in a few years, carrying a case of Lynch-Bages, and suggested that they take an-other crack at a TV show?
Lynch smiled faintly: "He'd have to be wearing some protective gear." He took a drag on his cigarette. "We don't talk about television anymore."
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