Interview with Filmmaker David Lynch

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the past thirty years, the director, artist, musician, writer and filmmaker David Lynch has been mining the depths of his own murky subconscious for new images and stories, surfacing occasionally to transform his discoveries into sculpture, paintings and most often, utterly seductive cinematic dream states.

Lynch is one of those rare filmmakers who are happiest immersed neck deep in the subtle complexities of human experience. An avid student of Eastern thought, his stories tend to evolve instinctually. Lynch constructs his narratives from symbiology, meditation and his own life experiences and observations, allowing his ideas to gestate slowly and gain a life and connection of their own.

“Be lead by the ideas and act and react and feel it, feel the thing start evolving, “ says Lynch of his technique, “ but remember that it doesn’t evolve all at once, you’re just in it and you’re just in the dark as anybody else and suddenly the ideas start coming and you know what the next step is.”.

The director smiles broadly at his own words, “and knowing what the next step is, is a beautiful thing.”

Born in Missoula Montana, Lynch’s early life was extraordinary only in its utter normality. His parents, a housewife and government employee, surrounded David in a protective bubble of domestic ritual. Lynch’s typical 1950s childhood was built on the foundations of small town life and the hardworking, open hearted ethos which marked the residents of America’s still relatively untamed West.

After graduating, Lynch attended art school in Boston and Philadelphia, eventually  discovering that the most expressive medium at his disposal was film. As a young director Lynch made two impressive shorts (The Alphabet in 1968 and The Grandmother in 1970) before embarking on the seven-year journey to complete his first feature, Eraserhead.

“Looking back, you can see that a lot of the ideas were caught because you had a lot of time to spend in that world and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Lynch of his extended stay in Eraserhead’s bleakly somber world, “ but it’s important to learn how to focus and get down in there and stay in there and stay true to the ideas no matter how fast things are going”.

Eraserhead was a brooding, black and white meditation on fatherhood which cost Lynch his marriage and most of his money, but the result was an authenticity of atmosphere which was difficult for viewers to shake. The film gained immediate attention and became an unlikely launch pad for his career, landing him the director’s chair for the elegant, subtlety shot Elephant Man. If Eraserhead provided Lynch with an entrance into directorial success, “Elephant Man” would keep him there. Garnering 8 Oscar nominations, the film proved the young Lynch could work within the realm of traditional narrative without sacrificing his own unique aesthetic.

The miracle here is; not only was Lynch allowed his eccentricities (in a medium usually defined by the middle ground), but that so many filmgoers recognized something resonant in his work. By the time his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet was released, Lynch had established himself as one of America’s most distinctive and admired cinematic voices.

After the release of Wild At Heart (his frenetic hyper violent take on “Wizard of Oz”) Lynch made the leap to television with the series Twin Peaks, an fascinating exploration of small town vice and teenage immorality. Moody, darkly humorous and possessing what by now could be recognized as a distinctly “Lynchian” touches, “Twin Peaks” played a successful two year run and won thousand of die hard fans.

Simultaneously working on art and music projects, as well as sculpture and painting, Lynch could not keep himself away from film for long, eventually releasing the Twin Peaks prelude, Fire Walk with Me. the aptly titled Straight Story and the labyrinthine noir Lost Highway. 1999 Lynch decided it was time to make a return to television and began production on a new series for ABC. The result, a two-hour pilot entitled Mulholland Drive, was eventually rejected by the network’s executives, but the resulting feature brought Lynch back into the fray and launched the career of the phenomenal Naomi Watts.

“I don’t bear them any ill will. Not a bit. Not one little, tiny bit of ill will,” says Lynch of the network’s rejection,” they did their part, they got it started and part of their role was to say, ‘we hate this’.”

With his newest film, however, Lynch has elected to abandon studio and network interference. Buoyed by the success of his online site,, a members-only entrée into Lynch’s inner workings, short films and digital experiments, Lynch and his producers have decided to explore self-distribution with the release of Inland Empire.

Shot entirely on digital (Lynch claims to have abandoned traditional filmmaking altogether), Inland Empire is exactly what his fans have come to expect – endlessly imaginative, a feverish montage of grotesque/comedic imagery and noir overtones. Ostensibly a mystery, the film meanders along with its star and longtime Lynch collaborator, Laura Dern in a powerhouse performance.  Duel identities, Hollywood schmaltz, sexual innuendo and murder are only a few of the themes explored.

“We honestly didn’t have a clue what would happen at the beginning” he admits, “You go in the whole thing open ended and now, you’ve got to make it a whole feature with a closed end and it’s like a nightmare, if you didn’t luck out and get those ideas and make it happen. But one night they came in, from 6:30 to  7:00 wham! They came in! They knocked in the door”.

Lynch is planning to tour with the film, along with Dern, distributing the movie through his own company Absurda and 518 Media throughout December and January. This unconventional approach is perfectly suited to Lynch, who has been at the forefront of online and digital filmmaking techniques from the get go. Inland Empire is his first fully realized foray into what he hopes will be the future of moviemaking for any independent director unable to fit into the Hollywood box. The film itself is in part a love letter to the industry, to the vast and unpredictable and all consuming art form.

“It takes place in Hollywood and Los Angeles, but its not necessarily about the city” claims Lynch, “It does touch on parts of the business and parts of the city. But you pass by a lot of houses and buildings in this story you don’t go into, you pass by them. The ideas tell you where to go and when to go and how to get there. If you stay true to the ideas then you find your way.  The characters come from the world of ideas”.

Here Lynch pauses, takes a slow drag on his cigarette. His eyes get a dreamy, far away look.

“ Ideas are kind of reality waiting to happen.” He says smiling, “I love thinking about ideas, because everything in this room came from an idea. They are little sparks that show the way and off you go. You’re either building a house or a chair or making music or making a film with those ideas”.

For Lynch fans, Inland Empire is a familiar world, a soap-operatic reality tinged with a near tangible doom.  For some the journey may prove perplexing. The film rarely makes concessions to traditional narrative or simplistic story structure. Instead we get Lynch at simultaneously his most elusive and  most revealing.  Loose threads (which were perhaps meant to unravel as the failed series evolved), leave the film with a tangle of dead ends, yet this incompleteness only serves to create an atmosphere of suspense which does little to detract from the film’s whole.

“Here’s the thing,” says Lynch firmly, “ there are no rules in filmmaking or painting or any art really. There are your own internal rules, maybe, but it’s got to be created in freedom”.

For Lynch this freedom has been the foundation on which his entire career has been built. As a director he has had the remarkable good fortune of having rarely been coerced to sacrifice his own ideas for the sake of commerciality or mainstream success. He works on instinct and instinct alone and rarely makes apologies for his methods. Inland Empire at first glance, may seem a somewhat haphazard attempt, but on closer inspection the film is continuing proof of  Lynch’s adaptability.

Despite it’s unsolved riddles, the film’s mood lingers on, leaving a haunting residue which works it’s way under the skin. This is Lynch’s magic. His gift has always been to create reality through sound, image and music rather than through merely words, to form an atmosphere that is as strange as it is familiar. There is certainly no other director more adept at projecting the language of dreams onto the screen.

“Film can tell and can show abstractions” says Lynch, lighting his last cigarette and running his hands through his hair.

“It is a beautiful language and it is a language that doesn’t rely on words. So with sound and picture and timing you can make some beautiful abstractions that other human beings can feel, intuitively, just like they would feel  a dream or their subconscious or some abstraction, like going into a room and getting a feeling. That machine kicks in and makes sense of it. Film is so powerful that way.”

He pauses again and smiling, breathes out a long plume of blue smoke,

“The beauty of film is that it is a way in which  we can communicate the indescribable”.

Originally published in Dazed magazine


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