"Some guy killing his wife in and of itself doesn't have much of a Lynchian tang to it, though if it turns out the guy killed his wife over something like ... an obdurate refusal to buy the particular brand of peanut butter the guy was devoted to, the homicide could be described as having Lynchian elements."
BRIAN: Mulholland Drive is opening nationwide tomorrow. Are you nervous?
LYNCH: For a couple of reasons you have detachment. One is for safety reasons. And one is because you finished the film quite a long time before it’s released. At the same time, I’ve done everything I can. I’ve traveled and talked and done whatever they asked me to do.
Do you feel an extra sense of closure because of this film’s unusually long journey from TV pilot to feature?
It’s like having a child who had to have a serious operation that made it OK, and maybe even a little bit better because of the operation. It looked like this project was dead for awhile. Then I got really lucky as these ideas came to me. The process really was interesting, and now it feels like this was the way it was always meant to be.
With Mulholland Drive combining the pilot with new footage shot later, do you have a personal attachment to one part over another?
No, because when it switched into a feature and I got the ideas of how to make that happen, it changed the viewpoint. Suddenly it was seen from different angle, and it was new again. It was like if you had a rug and you wanted to make it bigger: a lot of the thread went into the original rug, and the ideas for the new part of the rug were indicated by the original. But it’s one rug.
So maybe this unusual path for the movie helped push you, at least for this project, into a different kind of creative process.
You said it, Brian. If Mulholland Drive started out as a feature, it would be a completely different film. It’s like the surrealists, who would throw up these scraps of paper and see how they come down. These things trick the mind, and so new things come out of it. All you have to do is look back and see the changes in cinema to see that it’s always got room to grow and change in surprising ways. And how do you arrive at those new ways? Sometimes it’s because you’re forced into a corner. That’s a beautiful thing.
Have there been many aspects of your films that resulted from these sort of happy accidents?
There are some parts in all my films that have been the result of this. I have heard filmmakers say that they know exactly what they’re going to do every day of the shoot, but I don’t know if I believe that. You may think a script is finished, but when you go out and start filming you always have to stay on guard for something new that comes in to join with the ideas that have already gone down on paper.
Feeling out what’s right and what’s not seems to be a very important part of how you work.
Exactly. It’s always an experiment until you get to the point where it feels correct. It’s funny, you can prepare for happy accidents, but you can’t set them up. That’s the nature of them: they surprise you. The strangest, smallest things can lead to big, beautiful things.
Thinking of this notion of discovery in light of your first feature, Eraserhead, taking five years to make, did the extra time help foster this process?
Discoveries don’t necessarily need a lot of time to occur. But when you have time, you sink deeper into the world. It’s about staying true to the original ideas, whichever way they came to you. If you do that, then you have a chance to translate them properly.
Due to the dark nature of your films, people often assume you had a disturbed childhood. But you’ve countered that it was actually quite idyllic. Where did you get your first glimse of the darker world that has inspired you?
I grew up in the Northwest, but my mother was from Brooklyn. So I would go to New York every now and again, and I would have that shock at a young age and then go away. In the beginning I think it was very pleasant, but then New York, like most cities, suffered a real decline. Contrasts are what make people feel things, and I felt a huge contrast.
And then later you lived in Philadelphia, which, as you’ve often said, played a big role in the development of your artistic sensibility.
My greatest influence was Philadelphia. When I went there, I found myself living under this blanket of fear. It took a year after I got to California for the fear to lift off. It’s called ‘The City of Brotherly Love’, and I always say if a city is going to call itself that, then they kind of owe it to the people there to make sure that that’s true. It was so far from true that it wasn’t even funny. It was such a corrupt, sick place that it was a pitiful joke of a town.
And yet as work of yours like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks shows, evil and darkness can just as easily exist in small-town America.
For sure. When you live in a remote place in the country, you could say that’s very peaceful and beautiful—until man appears in the distance, walking slowly toward your home. If anybody approaches your house in the country, from the distance you can’t tell if they’re friendly or not. So there’s a different kind of fear.
You also claim to be not much of a film buff. It is it safe to assume your own past is your greatest influence?
Even though I have films that I truly love, they are more of an inspiration than an influence. It’s an enthusiasm that you get from seeing something that you truly love. The influence is always the ideas. And the way you translate the ideas is key: staying true to them.
And if you get an idea from a movie it’s not your idea.
Right. It’d be like eating somebody else’s food.
It also seems noteworthy that you grew up in the 1950s, and that era—one of darkness percolating beneath a romanticized family façade—seems to have rubbed off on you. It was an innocent time, a naïve time, and in a way false time. But that’s how you see it looking back. When I was in it, it was fantastic. It didn’t seem false. I saw plenty of strange things, but there was an enthusiasm, a very positive feeling that you could do anything. And that’s a good feeling.
As we see in Film Noir, an inspiration for much of your work, the ’50s represent a desire for normalcy after a horribly difficult war. But you can’t just flip a switch and make the memories go away.
War kind of balances things out for awhile. It’s like fresh air after a storm. It lasts for a certain number of years and then it begins to putrefy again. But during those few years, there’s this great feeling. It was a very positive, creative time. Everything sort of reflected that. At the same time, there were probably things brewing under the surface that couldn’t hold indefinitely.
And ‘things brewing under the surface’ are a huge component of your work.
That’s always the way it is. There’s a good side to hiding things, but there’s a sick side to it as well. And now in the last ten years, or maybe even awhile back before that, everything has been more exposed. The sickness is getting light put on it. I think maybe that’s kind of a good thing. You’re shocked at first, but people understand human nature. It can lead to something really good.
Your films contain a great deal more abstraction and enigma than most everything else coming out of Hollywood. Should more filmmakers and audiences be willing to embrace this style?
It’s about likes and dislikes, and that’s a subjective thing. Some people love getting lost and feeling their way out. Other people have more literal minds, and get angry when things are not very specific. A Hollywood studio is a big business, and therefore has to think about attracting a majority, because it’s about getting people into the theaters. But if you’re making films for a different reason, then you don’t have to worry about that, or at least not as much.
But of course the risk is always there that, if a picture bombs, you won’t get to make another.
I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve made enough to break even. No persons who have financed my films have been hurt, although some distributors have. New Line, for example, lost money on Fire Walk With Me, although it wasn’t the only film they’ve ever lost money on.
So how do you acknowledge that pressure while staying true to your vision? You just hope that people get the same thrill that you got getting those original ideas. And that’s what it’s all about. When you’re painting, you’re not thinking about an audience. You’re in a thrilling world, and then you have a show and hope that thrilling world will thrill other human beings. It’s a real eye opener. Sometimes it’s shocking how few people are thrilled.
How do you handle it when this happens?
The only safety is in being true to the ideas, so that at the end you can say, ‘It feels correct.’ If you’ve done that, then it doesn’t really hurt as bad if people don’t go for it.
Do you ever second-guess decisions you’ve made in past movies?
Considering the proliferation of more affordable video and post-production equipment, do you think if you had grown up now you’d have had a camera in your hands at an earlier age?
I could get my hands on a camera anytime. For a long time I just never thought about it. As soon as I thought about it I had a camera within a week. You can always do what you want to do. It’s true that it’s getting easier and easier, but also a camera is still just a tool. It’s the ideas and how you express those ideas. If people have that drive and catch the ideas, there is better and better opportunity to express themselves.
You talk a lot about spending time just sitting and thinking in search of creative ideas. Do people spend enough time doing this?
We don’t. Life is going real fast. And you can catch some ideas going fast, for sure. But I always say ideas are like fish, and there are all different kinds of fish: some fast, some slow.
So how do you catch these ideas?
It’s a mystery, and you can’t force an idea to come to you. But you can make preparations. It’s like you can’t force yourself to go to sleep, but you can lay comfortably in the bed and close your eyes, get nice and cozy, and eventually you’ll go to sleep. If you sit in a chair, and if you have a desire for ideas, you begin to daydream, and you’ll see that daydreams will take you to different places. There’s a lot of mundane places it takes you. But if you have a desire for ideas, as you’re daydreaming you’re sinking deeper in. And all of a sudden you can catch one.
How do you know which idea is right among the infinite possibilities?
When you catch ideas there’s not an infinite amount of possibilities. As soon as you catch your first idea a road is indicated. As these ideas come along, some will go along that road and some will take you on a different road.
With respect to some of your more abstract films—Lost Highway, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive—do you write and direct these intending at certain points for there to be multiple meanings, or do you know exactly what everything means?
I know exactly what everything means. I really believe consciousness is like a ladder, and there are different rungs of consciousness. If you’re on one rung, you have a certain understanding of things. Then you go up a couple a couple of rungs and it’s like a new world. Whatever level you’re at, that’s your level. You shouldn’t judge another person, because you don’t know where they are at or what their right or wrong is. You should just be taking care of yourself and following what’s inside you. It doesn’t matter what level you’re on. If you stay true to the ideas, in the translation they could have a different meaning for someone on a different level of consciousness.
What if someone were to come to you with a theory about one of your movies that was entirely different from what you had in mind when you made it?
I would say, ‘Very good.’ In a way ideas are like music on the page. Depending the ability of the musicians to play and the conductor interpreting the notes, you can get huge variations. But it’s the same notes on the page.
And if you tell someone what one of your films or TV episodes means, they don’t get to interpret it in their own way.
It robs people of their right to figure things out for themselves. It’s like somebody saying, ‘This is what life is all about.’ People have said it in different ways, but it falls on deaf ears because you have to experience life yourself and find your own way out. That’s part of the beautiful trick.
In Fire Walk With Me, the Log Lady says to Laura, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender bows of innocence burn first. And the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.” In the wake of September 11, what can we learn from your films’ constant exploration of innocence vs. naïveté?
What strikes me is that it seemed like it happened on September 11, but in a sense it didn’t. It’s like a doctor telling you that you have cancer, but the cancer has been growing in your body, sometimes even for years before. I think the key to a lot of it is for us to look back and see how come it happened, and face that, and rectify that and move forward.
It’s like a moment from your films: While we went innocently about our business, something evil was lurking under the surface.
I think it’s safe to say the world’s getting crazier all the time. Facing the music and learning from it is all you can do. Like with cancer, you’ve got to remove it without killing the whole body. People are analyzing what might have gone wrong, and that’s a good sign. That can be a beautiful thing. Granted it’s a little bit late, but better late than never.
And this comes back to giving yourself the opportunity to generate ideas. It’s not just true for creating art, but for living your life in general.