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  David Lynch on the set

David Lynch reveals his battle tactics

by Brendan Strasser
Prevue, 1984


David Lynch is watching shadows. The sandy-haired director of Dune is dubbing the film's final scenes in a dark North Hollywood editing studio. On the screen, a compelling scene unfolds as three characters enter a control room to form a plan for winning a holy war against their evil emperor. Dressed in perspiration-absorbing stillsuits, the rebels file down a flight of stairs, while Fremen toting eerie balls of light illuminate their passage. Somber silhouettes perform a macabre dance as they flicker on the walls. A powerful musical score heightens the action as Lynch gazes intently at his creation, searching for flaws.

Dressed in the shiny black jacket he wore during production, baggy pants and tennis shoes, Lynch sits back as the scene ends and the screen goes blank. After devoting more than three years to Dune, the director is almost as devoid of animation as the screen before him from the countess hours he has spent perfecting his cinematic vision.

The extraordinary result has condensed 39 speaking parts and a storyline spanning several decades on four planets to an electrifying two-hour, twenty-minute drama. He smiles. Brushing back a strand of collar-length hair from his face, he resembles a youthful James Stewart, almost looking surprised that his work is nearly finished and that he has surveyed the ordeal. Lynch has succeeded where a host of seasoned veterans have failed.The 38-year-old filmmaker became involved with Dune after helming 1980's The Elephant Man, for which he received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. A call from Dino De Laurentis started his efforts. "No bells went off," Lynch recalls, "because I'd never heard of Dune. I thought Dino said 'June!'" Nonetheless, Lynch bought a copy of Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction classic, took two weeks to read it then met with the famed producer. "Dino was much different than I expected – charming, warm and very persuasive. We discussed the concept and I was convinced the novel could be adapted to film, but Dino made me an offer I couldn't refuse anyway!"

De Laurentiis chose Lynch because of his humane approach to Elephant Man, an aspect demanded on Dune. "Dino knew the project needed heart, not just another cold sci-fi pitch," he says. "Besides, I was never a science fiction fan. But, Herbert's book incorporates dream sequences, complex textures, different levels of meaning and symbolism; it concerns people, their emotions, their fears and goals – and also provides an opportunity to create whole new worlds by combining elements in ways that have never been done before."

"That works out fine because my movies are film-paintings - moving portraits captured on celluloid. I'll layer that with sound to create a unique mood – like if the Mona Lisa opened her mouth, and there would be a wind, and she'd turn back and smile. It would be strange and beautiful."

Lynch began work on a screenplay to satisfy his vision without reading earlier drafts by such notable talents as Alexandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky, Rudy (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) Wurlitzer and even Herbert. (PREVUE 54, 57)

Collaboration with Eric Bergman and Christian Devore (with whom Lynch scripted Elephant Man) lacked the elements he wanted, so he labored on his own. "We were in sync," he relates, "but, they wanted to go in different directions – other aspects of the novel were more important to them. Of course, had they done the picture, my ideas would have clouded their vision. A writer is a filter – his ideas pass through his personal artistic screen before they hit the paper. Dune's notions came from Frank's book, but I interpreted them. In turn, Dino was my editor – he helped shape the script"

Seven drafts – each followed by a meeting somewhere around the world – were generated, but a common problem plagued all versions: excessive length. Condensing the epic occupied Lynch while De Laurentiis labored on other projects, including Firestarter, The Bounty and Conan the Destroyer. "The script was difficult to cut," Lynch admits, "because artists fall in love with their work for aesthetic reasons, and must pare it down for practical reasons. But, Dino always made me prove a scene wouldn't work before just pitching it out. Of course, battles were won and lost; the 'folding space' sequence was one I fought for – and the opticals for it still aren't finished. I was so close to the work, that I relied on Dino as a sounding board to find its weak points – and he did! Eventually, we boiled the script down to 135 pages.

"The most difficult aspect of course, was being true to the whole. I couldn't reduce it to the point where the story's essence is lost – millions of fans would feel raped. Dune is very dense with action and levels of interpretation – with much more power than I've ever filmed.

"The rule I used to shape the script was common sense; I just let the work talk to me! Certain elements in the book added up to Dune. I put those in the script; they continued to add up to Dune. I'm making it sound too simple, because it took me a year-and-a-half. But, I used the same approach for every problem, from casting to directing. There was never any real pain, just a frenzy of excitement to create everything on time. That's the most fun!"

As Lynch polished the final draft, casting the film was begun by De Laurentiis and his daughter, Raffaelia, Dune's producer. First choice for parts included Freddie (Elephant Man) Jones as Thufir Hawat, Jose (Cyrano de Bergerac) Ferrer as the Padishah Emperor and Max (The Exorcist) Von Sydow as Dr. Kynes, the planetary ecologist. Other roles, however, were not so easily filled. "Brad Dourif plays Piter," Lynch chuckles, "sort of a crazy-man. But, he's played so many loonies in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Ragtime that he didn't want to do it again! He took some convincing."

Robert (Tender Mercies) Duvall had been considered as Duke Leto Atreides, father of the story's hero, but Jurgen (Das Boot) Prochnow won the role. Casting Paul's mother, the Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica, created more difficulties (PREVUE 55). "She was a hard woman to find," Lynch says. "We all finally agreed on Francesca Annis for the part, but we still couldn't agree on Jessica's motivations and mannerism" Feyd-Rautha, the foppish heir to the Harkonnen lands, is played by Sting, who also fronts the rock band, The Police.

"The casting directors suggested him, but I thought he was too familiar to the public. Who wants a rock star as heir-apparent?" Lynch grimaces. "Then, I saw Brimstone and Treacle – holy smoke! He had real presence, like Brando in his early films."

Sting met the director in London, and was immediately interested. Casting the lead of Paul Atreides, the messianic saviour of the Dune homeworld, predestined to birth after 90 generations of gene manipulation, involved the most complex quest. More than 100 videotapes of both unknown and established actors were viewed, but only ten were seriously considered. Paul's innocent regal, intelligent demeanor was an elusive quality until Kyle MacLachan (a Dune enthusiast who has read the novel annually since age 14) was discovered. According to Lynch, he fit the role perfectly.

"Paul had to be spiritual, and his character grows throughout the film," the director explains. "He matures to leadership and Kyle pulled it off very well. He also increases his physical power, his intensity, in every scene. He may not come off like Brando, but he registers continuously to the film's climax."

The remaining cast includes Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck and Richard (Captains and the Kings) Jordan as Duncan Idaho, both Duke Atreides' loyal aides. The Fremen are portrayed by Everett (Quest for Fire) McGill as Stilgar, the leader; Linda (The Year of Living Dangerously) Hunt as the Shadout Mapes, Jessica's servant; and Sean (Blade Runner) Young as Chani, Paul's lover. Dean (Compulsion) Stockwell plays the tormented Dr. Yueh and Kenneth (Ragtime) McMillan is the evil archenemy of the Atreides, the Baron Harkonnen. Dune begins on Caladan, the generations-old domain of the Atreides clan, as Duke Leto prepares his family for their new home, Arrakis. The mysterious, arid, alien wasteland called Dune populated by strange, secretive people known as Fremen and mammoth sandworms: awesome creatures which devour men like Insects. It is the only place where the rare spice drug, Melange, is common, and water, the scarcest resource, is a commodity for which men will kill and die. The crux of a galaxy-wide conspiracy, the Melange is the focus of a conflict between the Great Houses of the Landsraad and the people of Dune. From the desert emerges an unexpected leader: Paul Atreides. He is the Messiah the Fremen have awaited for centuries – the Kwisatz Haderach, who will lead them in a holy war against the oppression of the Harkonnen dynasty.

After commandeering a production crew which includes director of photography Freddie (Elephant Man, French Lieutenant's Woman) Francis, film editor Tony (Rollerball) Gibbs. production designer Tony (2001: A Space Odyssey) Masters, costume designer Bob (Excalibur) Ringwood and award-winning special fx technicians John (Star Wars) Dykstra, Carlo (Alien, ET) Rambaldi, Albert (The Thing) Whitlock and Kit (Return of the Jedi) West, principal photography began in Mexico City on March 30, 1983, following two weeks of rehearsal.

Churubusco Studios, one of the world's largest film facilities with eight gigantic soundstages, was fully utilized as 75 sets, ranging from breathtaking palace halls to intricate miniatures, were constructed. Some crew members, including Lynch and Raffaella De Laurentiis, had been on location more than six months, scouting shooting sites and arranging the schedule of one of the densest production units in movie history –1,000 cast and crew members during peak filming.

Although North Africa, England, Tunisia, India, Australia, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia were considered as possible filming sites, they were rejected due to the excessive cost of transporting people and supplies thousands of miles. Estimates of Dune's budget approach $50 million, which would place it among the most expensive movies ever made, even though filming in Mexico costs halt as much as in Hollywood.

Masters, who began designing many of the ornate Interiors half a year before the script was completed, worked with Lynch for nine months as Dune's appearance evolved. "Although I didn't design the props," the director says, "I was actively involved in creating a certain look. For instance, once a component for the Spacing Guild Navigator sequence was built it had a logic that dictated how the other structures should look.

"Caladan, the water planet supports large forests, so the entire Atreides castle was built from hard wood carved into strange patterns. Its society, based on traditional military organization, utilizes many weapons made of wood and metal-especially gold.

"Arrakis, by contrast, is a dry planet, so we designed all sorts of paraphernalia for desert survival. My personal favorite, Giedi Prime, is an oil planet with one city; we used steel, bolts and porcelain for construction. The Emperor's homeworld is sophisticated-and layered with gold. Herbert described many of the settings in the book, but we still had lots of leeway. We developed a concept for each planet, and every structure conformed to them. Unfortunately, many objects actually built didn't end up in the film, so they'll have to wait for the sequel!"

Storyboards were sketched for scenes involving special fx, against the director's preference. "I hate storyboards," he admits, 'because they lock one into specific shots. Of course, some sequences must be boarded to track with the opticals, but, their look can be altered. For example, after I arrange the actors and sets according to the boards, I'll add smoke and various lights to enhance the atmosphere. Lynch improvised heavily throughout the shoot." I drove Raffaella crazy," he laughs, "because I wanted new things all the time.

"You see, in a way, every film is experimental. It's said that Spielberg knows exactly what he's going to do before he's on the set. I believe it and I don't. I use a script and storyboards like blueprints; they give me a solid structure on which to build. But what's in the script and what's out there – the real actors on the set with their props for the first time are two very different things. When those elements are finally in front of me, I begin altering the script to make the most effective use of them. Say a light blows out. Suddenly, there's more darkness and something that freaks you out, generating an idea that was never in the script"

Lynch's facile, visionary directing did not, however, ignore the performers. "I let the actors work out their ideas before shooting," he relates, "then tell them what attitudes I want. If a scene isn't honest, it stands out like a sore thumb. Often, we'd compromise. I need honesty on screen. I don't like shooting excessive footage, so we worked out the problems in rehearsal, and got most scenes in two or three takes. Still, there's over a million feet of film shot." The most difficult sequences were those as with the Star Wars series – involving robots. Paul's combat training robot, with its built-in weaponry and flame-thrower, was perhaps the most problematical. Actor Kenneth McMillan, who plays the floating Baron Harkonnen in a rigged flying harness, came in a close second.

To achieve his vision, Lynch often combined technology with imagination. For example, light-flex, an invention which allows a camera to shoot through the reflection of a color filter rather than the actual filter, was used in every scene. The device is able to capture details within deep shadow that could not be filmed otherwise, while adding a subtle overlay of color wash – from pale crimson to deepest violet – in dark areas impossible to achieve through ordinary lighting. "It's a very strange, magical illusion," Lynch reveals, "but, it allows one to see into shadows. The color enhancement, which can be manipulated with a dial, is often so subtle, you never really notice it – a touch of mauve that's absolutely beautiful; instead of shadows being black, they're blue-black, and skin tones have just a whisper of violet in the dark edges. It creates an illusion of richness." Additionally, Mitchell cameras equipped with Todd-o lenses were used to increase the depth of focus.

Generally, a single camera was used – except for battles and panoramic scenes. Veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis lit the sets to enhance the film's foreboding atmosphere.

"Dune is a dark film," Lynch says. "I want to create a mood using light and shadow – not depressing, but mysterious like the '40s noir films.

"Using two cameras compromises lighting, and Freddie created a really beautiful mood with only one. He makes each frame a painting. Even though there are many bright scenes in the film, Freddie liked to say, 'Make it darker! Lynch likes it so black, you can't see anything!'

"He also kept morale high on the set Freddie's an incurable practical joker! For instance, he once made up a phony telegram from Raffaella that put him in charge of production and he almost took over the set!"

Francis' behavior contrasted with several near-disasters during the shoot, including second unit director James Davis' brush with death. While explaining a shot to a stuntman after a long day of filming, Davis jumped to a ledge, lost his footing and fell 20 feet to a concrete floor. Numerous broken bones put him in a hospital for several weeks, but his dedication brought him back in time to complete the film.

Fight scenes were choreographed by Kiyoshi (Conan the Barbarian) Yamazaki a martial arts specialist with 24 years of experience, with suggestions by Lynch to stylize the movement. MacLachan endured rigorous training for his role, the results of which will be witnessed in various conflict such as Paul's death duel with Feyd-Rautha. The climactic battle in the Arrakeen Palace's Great Hall, involving every major actor in the movie, was difficult to orchestrate, particularly since few of the filmmakers had much experience with spectacle in the Cecil B. De Mille tradition. "It was exasperating,' Lynch recalls. "I'd explain what I wanted just like any other time, but, instead of two doing it, there were 800!"

Many elaborate scenes used hanging and foreground miniatures to produce visual fx not otherwise possible. With the camera focused on the foreground model (sometimes 40 or 50 feet wide), actors executed their maneuvers 200 to 300 feet in the background, the result combines both images, creating an illusion of epic perspective and depth that places the cast on the miniature construct. Other techniques included extensive matte work and process shots.

Although principal photography wrapped on September 9, 1983, another five months of post-production work on models and special fx was still to come. The three and even four film units in continuous operation up to that point were decreased to two, and the last of the production crew finally returned home the first week of February , 1984. Lynch, among the last to leave spent a total of one-and-a-half years in Mexico on Dune. Dubbing continued through the summer, targeting the movie for a Christmas '84 release.

The picture's score utilizes themes by Beethoven, Mahler, Schostakovich and Cherubini, which are performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the rock band Toto. "It's a picture made for music," Lynch states, "and I'm an old-fashioned director, so I love it. There's a full under-score – a 90-piece orchestra, a choir, Toto and sound fx combine to add a layer of real power. Symphonic sound and synthesizers, like all of Dune, is a mixture of the old and the new."

While Lynch's easy-going manner seemed to keep the lid on production panic, things were not always so easy. Born in Missoula, Montana, in 1946, Lynch spent his childhood in Idaho and Washington before moving to Alexandria, Virginia for high school. "My boyhood was 'See Spot Run,'" he recalls. "Elegant old homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass. cherry trees. It was a dream world – Middle America as it's supposed to be.

"But on the cherry tree, there's this pitch oozing out-some black some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there's always red ants underneath."

His tranquil youth forged an artistic temperament that manifested itself in later years, but also bred in him a naivety shattered by reality. He explains, "Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast. When I visited Brooklyn as a little kid, it scared the hell out of me. In the subway, I remember a wind from the approaching train, then a smell and sound. I had a taste of horror every time I went to New York.

"I visited my grandfather there, who owned an apartment building with no kitchens. A woman was cooking an egg on an iron – that really worried me. Every night my granddad unscrewed his car aerial so gangs wouldn't break it off – I could feel fear in the air.

"I learned that just beneath the surface, there's another world, and still different worlds as one digs deeper. Nothing is as it seems – I knew it as a kid, but couldn't find proof. It was just a feeling. There is goodness like those blue skies and flowers, but another force – a wild pain and decay also accompanies everything."

At age 15, Lynch began toying with the possibility of becoming an artist "I'd been drawing since I was very small," he recalls. "My mother refused to give me coloring books, but gave me blank paper and things to draw with. I was never limited by pre-conception, my imagination was never ruined – I was free."

After graduating from high school in 1964, Lynch attended Boston's Museum School for one year, then left for Europe to to sit study painting. "I intended to stay three years," he says. "Instead, I stayed 15 days! I remember lying in an Athens basement with lizards crawling along the walls and contemplating that I was 7,000 miles from McDonalds!"

Returning to Alexandria and meeting with parental disapproval over his casual, un-conventional lifestyle, Lynch landed – and lost – a succession of jobs at a drugstore cigar counter, an art store, an engineering office and a frame shop ("The owner's name was Michelangelo – honest!'). "Whenever I was fired, it led somewhere else with new experiences," he shrugs. "Each time I got axed, I was ecstatic!

"But, after I'd cleaned a clogged toilet – a job no one else would touch – for five dollars, I'd have gone anywhere to get out of there."

Anywhere was Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where Lynch began classes in January, 1966. "The house I moved into was across the street from the morgue, next door to Pop's Diner," he recalls. "The area had a great mood – factories. smoke, railroads, diners, the strangest characters, the darkest nights. The people had stories etched in their faces, and I saw vivid images-plastic curtains held together with Band-Aids, rags stuffed in broken windows, walking through the morgue en-route to a hamburger joint."

In 1967, he married a fellow art student, and had a daughter the following year. "We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street, and the chalk marks around where he'd lain stayed on the sidewalk for five days. We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen."

Lynch quit the Academy to pursue a painting career at home. Instead, he produced a four-minute film combining live action and animation entitled "The Alphabet." After submitting it to the American Film Institute and receiving a grant, he began another profession

"I painted the entire third floor of my house black to make a 34-minute abstract film called "The Grandmother," about a disturbed boy who plants a seed which grows into a loving grandma," he relates. The short got him accepted into the AFI Center for Advanced Film Studio where he produced Gardenback, a 45 minute surreal tale of adultery. AFI pressured him to transform the script into feature-length material, but the theme had already lost interest to Lynch. Discontented and on the verge of quitting, he was offered any project he chose to direct. He selected his own original screenplay – Eraserhead.

For five years, the production was Lynch's life, and, for a time, he actually resided at AFI headquarters while his intense lensing schedule unwound. His immersion in the film led to the separation and eventual divorce from his wife in 1974. Nevertheless, he persevered, completing his labor in 1976. Submissions to both the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, however, were unsuccessful. Lynch gave up hope, but his new wife-to-be suggested LA's Filmex as an alternative.

In late 1977, Eraserhead showcased at New York's Cinema Village to a lukewarm reception. The opening-night crowd numbered only 25, but word-of-mouth quickly spread. The bizarre psychodrama has since become a cult classic enjoying multi-year runs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, turning up frequently in art houses and college theaters.

Lynch's next project, scripting Ronnie Rocket, took two years and countless junk food forays. "Every day in writing it," he chuckled, "I went to Bob's Big Boy Restaurant for a chocolate shake and coffee. I discovered that sugar makes me happy and inspires me. I'd get so wound up that I had to rush home and write. Sugar is granulated happiness."

Ronnie Rocket received no takers upon completion, and two years of inactivity convinced Lynch that working on other people's films was preferable to not working at all. A friend's association led to an introduction with actor/producer Mel Brooks, who suggested Elephant Man as screenplay material. Lynch accepted the task, and turned in a well-drafted version, but Brooks hesitated at offering the inexperienced writer the opportunity to direct. He saw Eraserhead before deciding.

"I thought, 'That's it. He'll see it and hate it,"' Lynch recalls. "But, he came running out of the theater, threw his arms around me and said, 'You're a madman! I love you! You're in!"'

Lynch's second feature, Elephant Man, garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including two for Lynch. His unusual success led to numerous film offers, but the freshman director spent the next two years writing another original screenplay, Blue Velvet, rather than succumbing to high-salaried lures. He also labored to re-launch Ronnie Rocket, then the call for Dune arrived.

"There's something of Eraserhead in Elephant Man, and something of Elephant Man in Dune," the director explains, "some sort of connecting thread Machinery is pre-dominant in all of them – I like factory people, steel, rivets. bolts, wrenches, oil and smoke. Industrialization is never a central theme, but it always lurks in the background. Actually, I'm very depressed that America's smokestack industry is dying and sad that there is so little machinery in Dune.

"Industry really impressed me as a kid. Living in the Northwest, I never really saw a big city. When I visited New York, the contrast was so great that I felt a surge of power every time I went near a city. Life is a matter of contrasts. If everything is noisy and a bomb goes off, one is only mildly affected. But, if it's quiet when the explosion hits, one is really affected. That's my love-hate relationship with the city. Also, all three movies feature strange worlds that must be built and filmed to be entered. I like going into strange worlds."

Lynch's list of influences reflects his fascination with alien territory, as he cites men who have created their unique perspectives of reality on celluloid, canvas and paper. "Directors who have inspired me include Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, lngmar Bergman, John Ford, Orson Welles, Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola and Ernst Lubitsch. In art school, I studied painters like Edward Hopper, who used urban motifs, Franz Kafka is my favorite novelist. My approach to film stems from my art background, as I go beyond the story to the sub-conscious mood created by sound and images.

"If three people see a film, one will say it's a political statement, one will say it's a religious statement and one will say it's junk. I don't have an ax to grind; I think about symbols, mood, repetition of shapes, connecting threads – all intuitive stuff. That's what makes it magic for me."

Lynch has written two sequel screenplays to Dune – Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, based on Herbert's succeeding novels – which currently await the author's approval. Back-to-back lensing is expected if the first film is a success. Although Kyle MacLachan will portray Paul Atreides in the three Dune spectacles, Lynch promises a different cast each time. He has begun pre-production on his murder mystery/thriller, Blue Velvet, which will film at De Laurentiis' North Carolina studios this fall. Ronnie Rocket is scheduled afterward. In the meantime, the director continues drawing a weekly cartoon, The Angriest Dog In The World, for the Los Angeles Reader.

"My dream project is set in the '40s or '50s, and involves factories and the power of the cosmos, "he explains while signalling for another spool of Dune to run for viewing. "For a long time, I didn't seem to be cutting it – now I am. I just got lucky I want to make movies that occur in America, but that take people into worlds where they may never go – into the very depths of their beings. That's really what I'm aiming for." As the projector flares to life again, the director is reabsorbed into the dark-hued drama. After more than three years of effort, energy and expense, the images of his dream world have materialized to perfection.

Lynch smiles and turns back to the shadows.

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