The City of Absurdity David Lynch
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Interview from 1982 when Lynch was working on the Dune script, published in the adult comic book magazine Heavy Metal (Nothing to do with the music). The first part is an article by Lou Stathis, then follows the interview.
Many thanks to Dominic Kulcsar for providing the interview.

No, I'm sorry. There must be some mistake. The smiling, mild mannered guy sitting behind the desk across from me cannot be the same David Lynch who wrote/directed Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. No way. That David lynch undoubtedly resembles Eraserhead's Henry- short, dark, stoop shouldered, tense, scared, and furtive. This alleged David Lynch is any thing but those things. He's fairly tall, around six feet, with pale doughy skin, blond/brown/red hair and an innocently transparent air of guileless sincerity. No chance this well adjusted relaxed, and articulate individual could've conceived two such dark brooding bits of nightmare. But he insists. Would this guy lie?

David was born in 1946 in Missoula, Montana and spent the first eighteen years of hi life in succession of five different small-to-medium-sized American cities. He attended art school in Washington D.C. , Boston , and Philadelphia, studying painting, and began making short films while at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His third, a thirty-four-minute animated live/action featurette called "The Grandmother," won him a trio of film festival prizes. And paved the way for the American Film Institute- supported Eraserhead, inspired by his unpleasant stay in decaying Philadelphia, but filmed entirely in Los Angeles. Taking six years from conception to release, Eraserhead was Lynch's movie form beginning to end ( seven people did everything short of developing the emulsion) and is probably the premier underground/ independent American film of the seventies. It still plays the college and midnight circuits incessantly (Lynch notes proudly that all investors have been repaid, and he still receives regular royalty checks). Not bad for a strange, scarcely narrative, profoundly disturbing little film.

Within two years, Lynch found himself directing a major, studio-financed feature film. The Elephant Man, a marvelously realized study in compassion and human cruelty, garnered Lynch two Academy Award nominations, for best director and best screenplay adaptation. Currently he is at work on his fourth screenplay draft for Dino De Laurentis production of Dune at Universal Studios, which he is also slated to direct ( Alexandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott have both been there before him). He is excited and optimistic about the project.

I meet him in his office on the Universal lot. To my left , arranged on a brown leathered couch, are five stuffed Woody Woodpecker dolls ("My boys" he calls them, and reels off their names by way of introduction). Shapes cut from red construction paper are pinned in various locations on the walls. Opposite his desk in a waist-high row of colored pushpins, to which are attached strings trailing down to the floor, their ends tied around fist sized rocks. There is something of a self-conscious idiosyncrasy about the decor., but also a dead-pan humor of enforced contradiction, something I find echoed in Lynch's wry speech. I have absolutely no idea what to make of all of this.

Lou Stathis.

Judging from Eraserhead, you must have had a particularly anxiety-ridden childhood

No I had a very happy childhood. These things in Eraserhead come from somewhere unseen; it's not a surface kind of thing.

Meaning it's not drawn from your own life?

If its from my own life, I don't see it. It's from so far inside, hidden, that it can only come out in an idea, which kind of balloons out. I don't know where it comes from. My childhood was picket fences, blue skies, red flowers, and cherry trees - but then I would see millions of little ants swarming on the cherry tree, which had pitch oozing out of it. I noticed these little things but mostly what I saw was very happy. It was good times on our street- that's my life. When I first saw New York and Philadelphia, they made a huge impression on me because the contrast was so great. It hit me harder. I really saw it, and I really felt it - the fear was so great it was unbelievable. The things I saw were so foreign, it was like being in another world.

There's a great deal of sexual fear and anxiety in Eraserhead: spermlike things falling from the sky and getting stepped on, Mary's mother grilling Henry about whether he had "sexual intercourse" with her daughter and then pawing him....

Yes, it's more of a reproductive fear, I think. A responsibility fear - Mel Brooks told me he saw in Eraserhead a tremendous fear of responsibility.

A fear of adulthood

Yes, I would agree with that. I never really analyze too many things: I just go with feelings and moods. It's like an unspoken kind of logic.

So do you think that being in a place like Philadelphia when you were in the process of becoming an adult-going to college, getting married, etc.- made Eraserhead into what it is, your "Philadelphia" movie?

I'm sure. Everything around you goes in and swims around, and how it comes out is determined by your filter. Your filter is shaped through so many things in your being, in your head; that's why so much of the same material can go through different people and come out so differently in the end.

What sort of process do you go through to pull this sort of stuff up?

There's an original idea somewhere that's sort of a magnet, and it attracts ideas that will join up with it - sort of like a little solar system. They all swim about around this sun, which is the original idea, and pretty soon you've got a system going. And maybe something will swim through, but it won't really be part of it, so it'll keep on going and go away, because it didn't fit. And that's why Eraserhead is an honest picture- even though it isn't "normal" or explained, it goes by rules, and those rules were adhered to. You can feel an honesty and a logic to it. This takes a lot of concentration - you have to spend lots of time thinking about these ideas, capturing them, because they'll swim so deep you won't see them. They'll go away - you've got to dive down there and catch them, and once you catch them , you've got to look at them very carefully, because the way you see them the first time you'll forget about later on. You've got to make sure that you preserve the way you originally saw them - that's where the power of the idea is. Now I know that it's good to have rules of thought, but I don't think it's too good to analyze too much while you're flowing, because sometimes you can think too much. Later on when you look back at what you've done, it seems almost magical - there's so much power there and so many things that were right on, but there was no thinking.

Did you write an actual script for Eraserhead?

yes, it was twenty-one pages long. It wasn't a regular script at all, though; it was more of a diagram kind of thing to remind myself to do certain things. Even if I had scripted it out, it never would have been made in that way. So many things in a film like Eraserhead can't really be written down, and when you're forced to write things down, you end up making a different kind of film.

How did you go about assembling the film?

I went around finding people to work on the movie, to be in it. We started building sets and finding props, getting Henry dressed up, the whole thing.

Was any of it improvised?

No, I don't hate improvisation, but it sort of implies that you don't know what you want and you're going to fiddle around until you like something.

Too uncontrolled?

Yes, way too uncontrolled - because then that scene would influence everything that came after it. You'd never know where a movie was going if you did that. The only thing that changed was the Lady in the Radiator - she wasn't in at all in the original

Where'd she come from?

I don't know, but she's the light in Henry's life. We'd already shot the radiator, and when I got this idea, I ran back in.... and there it was, a little hole, perfect for her to live in. the idea came about in its entirety, and it fit perfectly with what we had done.

Do you think visually or verbally?

Yes, way more visual than verbal. It's hard for me to write a script - I've written several, but I'm not a writer. It's kind of a shame that we have to write things down - film is so much more than just words. It's sound and picture and sequences. I wish there was some other way to represent film, some better form of visual shorthand.

Do you think now that your working within the studio structure you can still make films that satisfy you?

Oh yeah. In the future I'd like to do abstract, absurd films, because I still get ideas like that. But I have to kind of , like, hold them now, and wait for the time to do them. Even on The Elephant Man, there were things in it that were abstract that had feelings, and a mood that I could really get into, and now on Dune, there are some incredible things, cinema things that I'm getting used to.

You not finding these impulses conflicting?

No I couldn't do it. There's a way to do commercial picture that is really powerful and has got all the ingredients that I really like. It's hard and you've got to look high and low, but Dune has got all those things. There are restrictions because things cost a lot of money- this is a super-expensive picture to do. No one is really restricting me in my thinking, except for money, and that would happen on any picture

What's with the fascination for machinery?

I love factories, Industry, railroads, diners, anything industrial, I go for. This world unfortunately, really only exists in our minds - if we could go into this world, it would be unbelievable. I love going in there.

Both Eraserhead and Elephant Man have a frightened view of machinery - it's malevolent and threatening. Yet when you talk of it, you say you like it.

You see I like Bob's Big Boy- you don't know Bob's Big Boy, do you?

We don't have it in New York, I'm afraid

Bob's is a coffee shop and it's very clean. It's very normal, good food. And they've got a chocolate shake that's, like, the most. This is what I like, where I'd like to go -I'd like to go to Bob's, but in my mind I'd rather go into a factory world. It's too frightening to go there really, so we can only go there in the movies. I like clean well-lit places in my life, but when I sit down and start thinking, I can go to Philadelphia. It's like looking in, but if things get heavy, then you can leave. It makes you feel comfortable and happy, so you can think of other things and concentrate on ideas. If you're miserable you can't create.

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© Mike Hartmann