The City of Absurdity David Lynch
Interviews & Articles
Icon Article 1997, pt. II

"It all started for me in Philadelphia because it's old enough, and it's got enough things in the air to really work on itself. It's decaying but it's fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth." That's how Lynch describes the backdrop for his breakthrough from painting to film. It came one day while working in an Academy. "I'm looking at this figure in a painting, and I hear like a little wind, and I see a little movement," he says. "I had a wish that it would really be able to move, you know, some little bit. And that was it."

The eventual outcome of his transcendental moment was Lynch's final year project, Six men Getting Sick. It's one-minute animation loop projected onto a molded screen made from six casts of his own head. Lynch knew nothing about film photography, but it didn't stop him. "He had such audacity." Reavey recalls. On one occasion Lynch thought he could build a perpetual motion machine and went to the Franklin Institute to tell them so. "He'd just go straight to the top, and tell people, "I think I know how to build a perpetual motion machine. I'm an art student,'" she says. "Einstein couldn't do it, of course, but people do what he says, so they let him in! He was utterly earnest. 'And this guy, very nicely, explained why his plan wouldn't work, and we trooped out to have a cup of coffee."

While Lynch's physics didn't win any prizes, his moving paintings did. He shared the Academy's prize that year, and was given $1000 by a wealthy fellow student H. Barton Wasserman to make a similar piece for him. That project turned out to be a technical disaster, but Wasserman generously told him to use the remaining money to make something else.

Lynch shot his first film The Alphabet. It was an unsettling four-minute animation and live action piece about the horrors of learning and being a non-verbal person. "He hates words," says Isabella Rossellini. "David isn't very verbal. His films aren't that literal, they're more of a sensory experience." Remembering Lynch's preferred, highly codified form of communication makes Reavey laugh. "I was with David in his preverbal stage," she says. "He didn't talk the way a lot of people do about their work. He would make noises, open his arms wide and make a sound like a wind."

Lynch's subsequent success has forced him to communicate, but he still sees words as potential destroyers of magic and an enemy to real understanding. Toby Keeler knows the drill: "I asked him once. 'What's Wild at Heart about David?" He said, 'Well it's about one hour and forty five minutes.'"

For the young Lynch in Philadelphia, the most significant break of his career was about to come. he was married to Reavey and had the responsibility of an unplanned daughter (Jennifer). Money was tight, and the future looked bleak. He had become obsessed with film, and his future hung on a small grant application to the American Film Institute to make his second short The Grandmother. "I got a thing through the mail about the first wave of winners: Stan Brakhage, Bruce Connor, names that I was starting to hear about," he says. "They were like solid independent, avant-garde, cutting edge film makers. I said "There's no fucking way!" So I gave up thinking about it. But I always said to Peggy when I left the house, "Call me if anything exciting happens, and I'll call you if anything exciting happens.'"

It did, The AFI offered Lynch a grant of $5000." I took this phone call that changed my life, "he says. "And now I'm floating, you know, and like so pressed to the ceiling with happiness! Everyone should have that feeling. The only way you appreciate it is to be so desperately down."

According to Lynch, nothing since has ever made that much difference or been so important not even that call that offered him the $45 million Dune. To say the rest is history (or in Lynch's world, fate) is to ignore the fact that talent is not usually enough. He moved to s Angeles to become a full-time student at the new AFI film center. He began a five year period of work on Eraserhead - a film inspired by the city from which he had just escaped. "It's my Philadelphia Story," he says "It just doesn't have Jimmy Stewart in it"

Listening to Lynch describe the movie's disorientated hero Henry (played by Jack Nance, who died on December 30 1996) is an uncanny experience: his description is tantalizingly evocative self portrait. "Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn't understand it at all," he says." He watches things very, very carefully, because he's trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of a pie container, just because it's in his line of sight. He might wonder why he sat where he did. Everything is new. It might no be frightening, but it could be a key to something."

Lynch obviously felt (and still feels) close to Henry. But it is the character's sudden discovery that he has fathered a premature baby and his attempts to deal with the harsh and fearful realities of parenthood that critics and friends alike have seen as particularly autobiographical." I guess one of the main misconceptions of late," says Lynch's daughter, Jennifer, "is the prime idea for Eraserhead came out of my birth, because David - in no uncertain terms - did not want a family."

Lynch had dedicated himself to the "art life" and , as he puts it, wanted to have " as little baggage as possible, because in the beginning, you're climbing." It seems likely that the originality of Eraserhead caused people to assume that it must be based on personal experience "I was born with club feet," explains Jennifer." and people have made insinuations about it because the baby in Eraserhead was deformed. But I don't think David credits that directly as where Eraserhead comes from."

During the films' five year production period, Lynch went back to menial work, including a paper route and a part-time plumbing job for which he apparently developed an affection. "It's satisfying thing to direct water successfully, " he says. Reavey remembers those times well: He was so dedicated . It could be pretty exhausting, He always had the sense that things were possible - a strong sense of entitlement." But their marriage failed to survive Lynch's intense commitment to his new passion. "It's a lot of work being with David Lynch." she says "Our friendship continued, I just quit the job!"

Despite his parting with Reavey, happy memories remain uppermost in Lynch's mind. "I like mounds of dirt," he says. " I really like mounds of dirt. When we were doing Eraserhead, Peggy and I lived in a single house in L.A. with Jennifer, and it had a circular wooden dining table. On her birthday Peggy went out and Jennifer and I started carrying buckets of dirt. And we made a pile about four feet high on the dining room table, covered a whole thing in just a mountain of dirt. Then we dug little tunnels in it, put little clay abstract figures in front of the tunnels. And Peggy bless her heart, was over the moon about it when she came home. So we left it there for months. It ate the surface of the wood on the table because it began to go to work organically. So the veneer was pretty much toasted."

When Eraserhead was finally screened publicly, Lynch recalls how John Waters helped to spread awareness. "One of his films was opening, and John had already established himself as the underground rebel.," Lynch says "So he did this Q&A and he didn't talk about his film. He just told people to go and see Eraserhead," Lynch's debut feature played 17 cities on regular basis. At the Nuart cinema in L.A. it screened one night a week for four years. That meant four years on the marquee. The word Eraserhead got around.

If one determining, external factor remained in Lynch's rise to recognition and success, it was the attention of Stuart Cornfeld, a young producer working for Mel Brooks. Cornfeld was at the Nuart the first night on a tip off from a tutor at the AFI. Nearly 20 years later he still enthuses wildly about the experience. "I was just 100 percent blown away. " he says. " I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. It was such a cleansing experience. I just wanted to see his next movie"

After Eraserhead, lynch married Mary Fisk, with whom he would have a son, Austin. At the time he wasn't exactly bombarded with offers. But he was writing a script called Ronnie Rocket("It's about electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair.") building sheds ("Whenever you can build a shed, you've got it made") and going every day at 2.30 pm to Bob's Big Boy Diner to consume chocolate shakes and coffee. "I discovered that sugar makes me happy and inspires me," he says. "I'd get so wound up that I had to rush home and write. Sugar is granulated happiness. It's a friend." Then came an all-important Cornfeld phone call, offering what was to be Lynch's follow up- the multi-Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man." I literally went around the house repeating his name: 'Stuart Cornfeld, Stuart Cornfeld. Stuart Corn-Feld.' And it made me happy, " he says" looking back now, I can see why."

Cornfeld got Mel Brooks' company Brooksfilms, behind the project, although Brooks initially suggested Alan Parker. Once Brooks saw Eraserhead, he was sold. Brooks calls it " the best film I've ever seen about what it's like to have kids!" But since it was the first independent production for his company, he had to sell the idea of the story, and Lynch, to others.

"Mel was totally aggressive," Cornfeld says, recalling a meeting with Freddie Silverman at NBC. "Freddie says "So who is this David Lynch?" Mel says, "That just shows you what a fucking idiot you are!" Even when Silverman asked if he could read the script, Brooks wouldn't budge. Cornfeld was amazed: "Mel says: "What the fuck do you mean let you read it? Are you telling me that you know more about what makes a successful motion picture than I do?' He wouldn't give the guy anything." Still NBC wound up giving $4 million in pre-sale money

Lynch was protected by Brooks' confidence in him, even when it came to screening the movie for Paramount Pictures, the eventual distributor, " Michael Eisner and Barry Diller were at Paramount then," recalls Cornfeld. "They were 'Gee, it's a great film, but we think you should get rid of the elephant at the beginning and the woman at the end.' And Mel said 'We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of the business venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives,' and he slammed the phone down!"

Patricia Arquette, star of Lost Highway, believes that Lynch's movies "are not understood in their time. Most people make movies for the immediate audience - what the country's in the mood for. With David's movies, you have to go back and watch them five years later to see that you're catching up with them." When asked where he gets his ideas, Lynch laughs, "I'm like a radio! But I'm a bad radio, so sometimes the parts don't hook together." Then more seriously, he says, "Ideas are the best things going. They're almost like gifts. Something is seen and known and felt all at once, and along comes a burst of enthusiasm and you fall in love with it. It's unbelievable that you could get ideas, and someone could give you money to make a film."

"He sits in a chair and he stares at a blank wall, " says Rossellini. "That's how he gets ideas. I know they come from deep within him. A lot of people do therapy. He does a lot of meditation." According to Mary Sweeney." He's not finding stories, except in his own head. He likes to come up with something new. He likes to be modern. That's the main motivation. Luckily he's got a mind that just percolates. He's wisely shy of big budgets - because of Dune - but also because he's a modest person."

The spectre of Dune has stalked Lynch's career ever since he agreed to do it. At the age of 35 and with only two films to his credit, he embarked on what was destined to be a dangerously unwieldy project. The sheer scale or production (75 sets, 4000 costumes and three years in the making) was far beyond anything Lynch has experienced before or since.

"That picture cut me off at the knees, maybe even a little higher," says Lynch of his experience with the sci-fi megaflop for Dino De Laurentiis' company, DEG. "I went pretty insane on that picture. Little by little I was making compromises. It was like, 'We have to watch David. If he goes in the direction of Eraserhead, we're dead in the water,' so I had to be restrained. I just fell into this middle world. It was a sad place to be." Lynch was intrigued by the project and the main character of Paul as " the sleeper who must awaken and become something he was supposed to become." With no final cut clause in his contract, Dune was a lesson well learned.

Personal and professional redemption rarely manifest themselves as clearly as Lynch's Blue Velvet." To hear what people were saying about me after Dune could have completely destroyed my confidence and happiness, " he says." You need to be happy to make stuff." Lynch returned to earth and, more importantly , to his own dreams for what was most critics claim was his masterwork. On seeing Blue Velvet for the first time, David Thompson, author of the encyclopedic and incisive Biographical Dictionary of Film says " The occasion stood as the last moment of transcendence I had felt at the movies - until The Piano."

Whatever it's artistic merits, the film is crucial to understanding Lynch's view of the human condition and of himself. Good and evil were never more polarized, and equilibrium never more painful or difficult to attain. The Oedipal battle between Jeffrey (MacLachlan again, this time in buttoned up Lynchian attire) and Dennis Hopper's preverbal Frank Booth ( he can only express himself with one word:"Fuck!") is clearly a struggle between two sides of the same person. The conflict points to an important aspect of Lynch's character. "He's quite a religious person "says Rossellini, "quite spiritual. His visions are more to do with the way meditation makes him perceive the world. He has the conflict of the great priests."

Sweeney recalls the time when four psychoanalysts went to work on Lynch on the basis of Blue Velvet; " Some of them said he was definitely abused as a child which, knowing his parents, I found pretty offensive." Lynch is apparently able to borrow or sense the experiences of others and infuse them with meaning. "Like everyone, he suffered his share of pain and fear in childhood, " concludes Peggy Reavey." But these particular stories help to express those feelings, even though they aren't exactly what happened."

Understanding Lynch also means recognizing a fierce independence in his life and his work. Blue Velvet was financed by De Laurentiis' company. In some respects it was a payoff for Dune, but Lynch had to agree to cut the budget, and his fee, in half before the project could go ahead. "I don't think there's any reason to make a film if you can't make it the way you want to make it." Lynch says seriously. " It would be like a death and what would be the point?" In this respect, Lynch has been inspirational to a generation of younger filmmakers. " He's the maverick. That's his niche, "says Bob Engels, a key writer on Twin Peaks ( both the series and the movie). "He'll never go overground again. If Hollywood thought they could get him to do Guns of Navarone, they would. You'd get a different take on the same old story. But David doesn't want to do the same old story."

Twin Peaks ("a TV show about free-floating guilt that people just responded to," according to Engels) confirmed Lynch's maverick status. It also cemented an important professional relationship with composer Angelo Badalamenti. On the writing of the Laura Palmer Theme, Badalementi explains their technique "David would say that the music should begin very dark and slow. He said imagine you are in the alone in the woods at night and you hear only the sound of wind and possibly the soft cry of an animal. I'd start playing and David would say, "That's it, that's it! Now keep playing for a minute, but get ready for a change because now you see a beautiful girl. She's coming out from behind a tree, she's all alone and troubled, so now go into a beautiful melody that climbs ever so slowly until it reaches a climax. Let it tear your heart out.' Not a single note was ever changed."

"A burst of fate," is how Lynch explains the surge of creative energy and success that by 1990 had propelled him into the forefront of the media. "But sometimes fate doesn't open the door. The light is red. And so on, if you're given the opportunity to do something else, something else, something else, you do it. but you're heading for a big fall."

His big fall came in 1992 with the release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After a vicious roasting at Canned (the same festival that only two years earlier blessed Wild At Heart), Lynch's movie prequel to the now canceled TV series was a critical and financial disaster. "I couldn't even get arrested that year!" Lynch says with a laugh." I just had a bad smell. Some planets must have been out or something."

Lynch embraces fate in his professional and personal life, '" he says. " It was a beautiful experience in a way. When you're down, when you've been kicked down in the street and then kicked a few more times until you're bleeding and your teeth are out, then you only have up to go. You get reborn again, and expectations aren't so great because they've taken you away. It's beautiful to be down there. It's so beautiful!"

In four years that Lynch has been absent from the big screen, he'd been busy, but until recently he was unable to get a feature project green-lighted. One stalled script from this time was Dream of the Bovine, which co-writer Bob Engels describes as: "three guys, who used to be cows, living in Van Nuys and trying to assimilate their lives." Finally the European based company CIBY 2000, with whom Lynch has a three picture deal (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was the first), agreed to go ahead with Lost Highway.

It helps to remember that Lynch started with painting, a medium that has never relaxed its grip on him. The black agitated surfaces of his canvases recall images of childhood (Band-Aids and cotton wool) and more recently, darker themes (sandwich meat and the skeletons of dead animals) have always indicated a troubled mind. "I'm lost in darkness and confusion. " he says. Like Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana" it's easily said , but just as accurate. "I think he will always feel lost and confused in the darkness, "says Rossellini. "He likes it and he hates it." "What he's talking about when he says that, "clarifies Sweeney, "is how crazy the world is. How far away from good people have moved, and how far from enlightenment we are. He's a sunny, optimistic peron, but sensitive to all the darkness in an intuitive and uncanny way,"Reavey laughs affectionately. "God bless him, " she says. "I love it when he says stuff like that!"

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