The City of Absurdity   Mulholland Drive



David Lynch wanted to make a TV series unlike any other. The network said it was eager to get beyond the formulas of prime-time programming. What could go wrong?


Photographs by Martin Schoeller
New Yorker, August 30, 1999

David Lynch IT was a mild March night in Hollywood, near the end of the shoot for "Mulholland Drive," a two-hour pilot that David Lynch was filming for ABC. Lynch, the writer and director, ran a hand through his shock of gray hair and made fluttery gestures to his special-effects man, Jason Collins. The prosthetic body was too... something. Bulbous, maybe. Michael J. Anderson, who is a dwarf, was playing a mysterious studio magnate named Mr. Roque, and Lynch had him stand on the seat of a wooden wheelchair while he was being buttressed by foam legs and silicone arm extensions, so that he'd resemble a normal man. Normal, but with a worrisomely tiny head. "It's a man's head!" Lynch advised Collins, who stared back blankly. "It's a man's head!"

"You have to surrender to the obscurity of David's vision," Collins told me two nights later, as he returned to the lot at Paramount Studios carrying prosthetic limbs whose joints had been shaved down and made more angular. "Beautiful!" Lynch said, inspecting the apparatus under the thousand-watt "baby" lights of the cavernous soundstage. "He'll look perfect, natural – but paralyzed. Good deal, buster!"

At 1:30 A.M., on a small office set, Anderson stood up in the wheelchair, his head popping out above the lapels of a nailhead business suit twice his size. A light shaped like a stove hood brooded above him, a cobalt-blue lamp glowed on a desk, and brown draperies shrouded the walls. The set's spareness is a Lynch trademark, and the draperies are a familiar exhibit in his gallery of obsessional motifs, which also includes random blue objects, antlers, yellow highway markings, guttering candles, closeups of women's lipsticked lips, long screams into telephone receivers, and the sounds of buzzers and steam.

"I feel like I'm preparing for a space shot," the immobilized Anderson murmured as a production assistant hand-fed him bites of chicken satay. Then, looking up at Lynch, he asked, "Where do your ideas come from?" The director laughed companionably, but wouldn't answer. "'Never you mind where my ideas come from,"' Anderson continued, mimicking Lynch, for this was a well-worn joke between them. Nine years ago, Anderson played the inscrutable dancing dwarf who appeared in dreams to Agent Dale Cooper on Lynch's "Twin Peaks," the hit show on ABC that shot up like a rocket in the ratings – and down just as fast. But Anderson maintains that even he could never get Lynch to explain what that dwarf character meant. "David's work isn't consciously coherent," he says, "but its coherence on an unconscious level is inescapable – almost against your will."

American viewers relished the bewilderment. Their passion for the show's swaying stoplights and barking teenagers, for its one-armed demon and innuendos about cherry pie, made way for the creation of such offbeat television shows as "Northern Exposure" and "The X-Files." Yet nothing on the air since "Twin Peaks" has approached its originality. Steve Tao, ABC's vice-president of drama programming, told me, "'Twin Peaks' was like a young rocker who dies in an airplane crash – the early departure creates an even greater hunger. We're hoping to feed that hunger with 'Mulholland Drive."'

On the set, Anderson's tiny head above the big suit looked eerily like the squalling baby's head that pops out from the neck of its father's suit in "Eraserhead," which was Lynch's first and strangest film: both images trigger a primal anxiety. "People are capable of taking jumps into another way of thinking," Lynch says. "The jump mechanism has got rusty and sleepy, particularly if you watch only television, but it's there in everybody. ABC just has to trust me that people will respond."

At 3 A.M., Lynch was finally ready to shoot the dwarf scene, in which a studio executive, played by Robert Katima, pushes an intercom outside Mr. Roque's office and asks for instructions. Anderson has just two lines: "Then?" and "Yes?" The only direction that Lynch offered Anderson was "O.K., you're a rock. Remember, a rock." But Lynch was shooting the dialogue from outside Roque's glass-walled office, so the scene's visual focus was the intercom, shaped like an old-fashioned transistor radio. Then Lynch asked, "Can we put a little spot on Robert?" Suddenly, Katima's spotlit face, reflected in the glass, floated like a ghost in the frame. And when Lynch suggested that the lamp above Mr. Roque should grow gradually brighter, then fade to black at the end, he had conjured a haunting image of the remoteness of power.

"That was a humdinger!" Lynch said, grinning.
Mark Cotone, the assistant director, agreed. "This is now my favorite shot in the movie, sir!"

Michael Polaire, Lynch's line producer, stood ten feet behind the gleeful crew. "It's great," he said carefully, "but it's way out there for ABC – they'll probably think, What the fuck is this? TV is now about speed and snappy dialogue, for people hitting the remote. It'll be interesting to see, nine years after 'Twin Peaks,' whether people will stick with something so painterly and ... Failing to find a euphemism, he shrugged: "... and slow."

ONE day last August, David Lynch drove his 1971 Mercedes to Century City to pitch "Mulholland Drive" to Jamie Tarses, the president – until her resignation last week – of ABC Entertainment, and one of her senior deputies, Steve Tao. The executives were in a receptive mood: 'just the title alone had us really excited," Tao told me. "David Lynchs 'Mulholland Drive'! " Tao and his colleagues were enthusiastic about the prospect of developing a show that would be both a critical and a popular success – that wouldn't be just another knockoff of "Friends." As Tao saw it, "Quite frankly, there is a plethora of sameness on TV. David Lynch's television stands out. A show by him could be one of those large events – like Monica Lewinsky's interview with Barbara Walters – that people gather together to watch. We're trying to create appointment television."

The meeting began with Lynch sitting on a wing of Tarses's beige couch ensemble, drinking one of his dozen daily cups of black coffee and staring at the four television monitors in the room. Tony Krantz, Lynch's friend and production partner, then read aloud the first two pages of Lynch's treatment:

EXTERIOR. NIGHT – HOLLYWOOD HLLLS, LOS ANGELES. Darkness. Distant sounds of freeway traffic. Then the closer sound of a car – its headlights illumine an oleander bush and the limbs of a eucalyptus tree. Then the headlights turn – a street sign is suddenly brightly lit. The words on the sign read "Mulholland Drive." The car moves under the sign as it turns and the words fall once again into darkness.

Krantz went on reading, describing how the black Cadillac limousine pulls over and the driver points a gun at the beautiful brunette in the back seat. just then, two cars full of drag-racing teenagers scream around the corner, and one car slams into the limo. The woman staggers out of the wreck and, severely dazed, makes her way down the hill toward Hollywood.

Having rehearsed earlier with Lynch, Krantz tried to sell the images with what he calls "subtle dramatic emphases." Krantz, who is the forty-year-old son of the novelist Judith Krantz, wears jaunty half-boots and jackets with asymmetrical buttons, and greets favored writers with a snappy "Hey, superstar!" or "What rhymes with [your name here]? Fabulous!" He employs these people skills as the co-chairman and C.E.O. of Imagine Television, which produces such shows as "Sports Night" and "The PJs" in a joint venture with the Walt Disney Company (which also owns ABC).

When Lynch was making "Twin Peaks," in 1990, he had mentioned the idea for "Mulholland Drive" over dinner with Krantz at a Hollywood restaurant called Muse; they commemorated the moment by signing a paper placemat. Krantz, who was then a television agent known for having "packaged" "Twin Peaks" – that is, having assembled its creative team – taped the placemat to his refrigerator and kept nagging Lynch about the show.

In the intervening period, however, Lynch developed serious doubts about television. "With all the commercials and its terrible sound and picture," he said recently, "TV is a hair of a joke, really." In the early nineties, after ABC abruptly cancelled a sitcom Lynch co-created, "On the Air," he angrily painted a plywood board with the words "I WILL NEVER WORK IN TELEVISION AGAIN." In recent years, he had made only one film, the poorly received "Lost Highway," and seemed perfectly happy painting, composing music, and puttering in his home woodshop.

But Krantz's passion for high-quality television is infectious: Imagine's producers regularly repeat such "Tonyisms" as "We can go up in flames, or down in flames, but we want to be in flames." He finally persuaded Lynch to proceed with "Mulholland Drive" by emphasizing that television is a Scheherazade-like medium, which requires endless improvisation. "Tony knew that I've never liked having to bend my movie scripts to an end halfway through," Lynch says. "On a series you can keep having beginnings and middles, and develop story forever."

At the meeting in Tarses's office, Krantz set the scene for ten minutes before Lynch took over the pitch. With an American Spirit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, his bluff, weather-beaten face, his unvarying outfit of a white shirt buttoned to the neck, an old black sweater, and chinos, Lynch needs only a windblown scarf to be the picture of a barnstorming aviator. Now fifty-three, he peppers his speech with slang out of the Saturday Evening Post. "Holy jumping George!" and "Wow-wee, Bob!" and "I'll be ding-danged!" "David is straight from the forties," says Lynch's film editor and longtime companion, Mary Sweeney. "He has the big hands, the dreaminess, and he is caught in a cycle of remembering driving back then in Montana with his granddad Austin Lynch – the giant steering wheel 9r,pped by leather driving gloves, the slow sound of the wheels. He feels the same way about Los Angeles, which is a character in this film – the bygone smells, and the wisteria, and the dreaminess." But sun-dappled nostalgia accounts for only a portion of Lynch's dreams. The rest involve such dark scenarios as Dennis Hopper sucking from a gas inhaler in "Blue Velvet" and mewing "Baby wants to fuck!

Lynch explained to the executives that the brunette from the limo, Rita, makes her way to an apartment complex carrying only a purse containing a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in cash and a blue key Stricken with amnesia, she is befriended there by a perky blonde, Betty, who has just arrived from Canada and is determined to become a movie star. Betty tries to help Rita figure out who she is – even as the police, and Rita's less kindly pursuers, begin looking for her.

Then Lynch stopped, and finally lit his cigarette. "It was the best kind of pitch, where you're on the edge of your seat," Steve Tao said later. A short, partly bald thirty-five-year-old, Tao wears black knit shirts and small black glasses and has an orderly mind. "I remember the creepiness of this woman in this horrible, horrible crash, and David teasing us with the notion that people are chasing her. She's not just in trouble – she is trouble. Obviously, we asked, 'What happens next?' And David said, 'You have to buy the pitch for me to tell you.' " So the network did.

A successful pitch usually commands a few hundred thousand dollars in development money, but ABC was so eager to sign Lynch that it promptly put up four and a half million dollars for an unusual two-hour pilot. Disney's Touchstone television later contributed two and a half million more, for a total budget of seven million, with the proviso – which Lynch grudgingly accepted – that he shoot extra footage to be used as a "Closed ending." Disney's Buena Vista International intended to recoup the company's money by releasing the longer version as a film in Europe.

The "Mulholland Drive" pitch was unusual not just because it was tantalizingly brief but because Lynch was candid about his intention to do something sui generis. Most television shows are sold as the offspring of previous hits, and targeted to their advertising demographics. Joss Whedon, the creator of the WB network hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," recalls, "We sold 'Buffy' as 'The X-Files' meets 'My So-Called Life.' They liked it because 'The X-Files' was a big hit, and because the kid audience buys a lot of shit."

Television is a bastion of tradition. Susanne Daniels, the president of entertainment at the WB, told me, "One reason we bought 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was that we had been talking about 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' and how it was scary and funny at the same time, and we wanted to recapture that." Peter Roth, the president of Warner Bros. Television, says he often pages through television nostalgia books and circles shows that could be profitably updated. Proudly recalling one of his achievements when he was at Fox, Roth said, "I circled 'Kolchak,' and then had lunch with Chris Carter, and out of that conversation came 'The X-Files.' Every top-ten show has been seen before. The trick is to repackage and contemporize to make a modern hit. 'E.R.' is derived from the likes of 'Medical Center.' Ally McBeal' is 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' "

The urge to recycle can blind executives to the commercial potential of material that is truly new: NBC, CBS, and Fox all turned down "The Sopranos, which became a huge hit on HBO this spring. "The networks' main problem," says Dean Valentine, the president and C.E.O. of the United Paramount Network, "is that under perceived pressure from advertisers they're all chasing the eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic. Way too many shows are 'Friends' clones – urban, affluent, twenty-seven-year-old yuppies who wear black knit shirts and just want to get laid. Most of America doesn't fit that bill, and so they've defaulted to watching cable."

In a rapidly changing marketplace, the old formula of relying on the old formula is increasingly unreliable. The big three networks, which now attract less than fifty per cent of television viewers in prime time, may well, be headed toward obsolescence. Steven Bochco, the respected producer who created "Hill Street Blues" and "N.Y.RD. Blue," says, "I liken the networks to a guy who, as he loses more and more hair, invents a more and more elaborate comb-over in denial: 'We're stemming the tide. ''No one else can do what we can do. ''We still. reach more people than anyone else. 'Yap, yap, yap. In fact, we're getting our brains beaten out."

All. the networks are seeking the rare megahit – a show like "E.R.," which has earned NBC more than five hundred million dollars. Yet NBC turned down "E.R." three times before it ordered a pilot. After thirty-two years in the industry, Don Ohlmeyer, the recently retired president of NBC, West Coast, admits, "For a show to be a breakout hit, there has to be some magic that happens with the audience. But nobody knows what that is. Nobody fucking knows. If you bat a hundred in television, you're in the Hall of Fame." The shows that fail cost the networks tens of millions of dollars, and spectacular risks often backfire even more spectacularly. So every time network executives open their wallets to bet on a beguiling dark horse, as ABC did with "Mulholland Drive," their tension is palpable. As Jamie Tarses told me, "This is a terrifying time in television."


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© Mike Hartmann