Sight and Sound, July 1996
By Chris Rodley
LA, 15 February 1996. A day like any other with a score of film and television crews
shooting on location all over the city: Los Angeleans driving home from work tire of
traffic diversions, while the city's Permit Office rings its cash registers. Around the
All Star Bowl in Eagle Rock, thick black cables snake the sidewalks, spreading out
from throbbing generators to engulf this 50s-style Ten-Pin bowling alley. Catering
trucks clatter. Enough equipment to lay siege to a small fortress is unloaded and
assembled. Everyone moves purposefully and efficiently to some complex plan.
In this particular ant colony, in the absence of more highly developed forms of
communication, it's necessary to use walkie-talkies. The First Assistant Director,
pushy but pleasant, understanding but firm, elects to use his lungs.
But this is no ordinary Hollywood shoot All Star Bowl is fast becoming another dark
and dusty corner of that neighbourhood best described as 'Lynchland'. Which could
be your neighbourhood. Look under any rock, peek behind any curtain, hide in any
closet: should you glimpse the possible key to a disturbing, dangerous yet delicious
mystery, lurking just beneath the shiny normality, you'll feel at home. In an unheimlich
sort of way.
At the quiet centre of all this activity is David Lynch, once affectionately described by
Mel Brooks as "Jimmy Stewart from Mars". The movie being shot is Lost Highway, his
first in four years. Despite the fact that the crew is working a night shift (wrapping at
around 3.00am) and that these are the last days of a 54-day shoot, spirits are more than
high. Lynch seems happiest of all: he constantly and enthusiastically praises the work
of technicians, joshes with actors or finds the time to listen to a piece of music brought
in by a member of the cast, as well as paying strict attention to the smallest detail of
what's about to happen. As the first take of the night is prepared for, he offers $10 to
anyone who gets a strike during filming. Take one costs him $20, with several more to
go. His euphoria at being back in the movies seems highly contagious: euphoria is an
important sensation to Lynch.
This is just a neighbourhood bowling alley, but it won't look or sound it on screen once
Lynch and his crew are done. Cinematographer Peter Deming isn't shooting at 24
frames-per-second. And 'Gave Up', a corrosive song by Nine Inch Nails, is blasting
through speakers: 'Smashed up my everything. Smashed up what was true. Gonna
smash myself to pieces. I don't know what else to do." Prior to a take, Lynch reminds
Balthazar Getty (as mechanic Pete Dayton) that he's "still a bit in never-never land".
By now Getty, sporting a prosthetic haematoma on his forehead, must be accustomed
to Lynch's mastery of the understatement.
At this point in Lost Highway, Dayton is recovering from a major trauma. Dazed and
confused, he turned up inexplicably on Death Row in the cell of jazz musician Fred
Madison (Bill Pullman) with a head wound and swollen, bloodshot eyes. Pete has no
memory of how he came to be there, and Fred has gone missing.
Pete is released - after all, you can't send the wrong guy to the chair - but the garage
where he works offers no refuge from his unease. Regular customer Mr Eddy, a
mysterious and powerful local 'businessman', now has a woman called Alice
(Patricia Arquette) in tow, who strikingly resembles Madison's murdered wife Renee.
Pete, trying to make sense of why his own life has become so strangely unfamiliar,
only feels that he seems to know her. However, he's severely disoriented, stumbling
through what seems to be a nightmare of someone else's making. It's just possible
(in Lynchland) that he is actually part of a highly organised hallucination: Madison's
mental creation. But more of this weirdness later.
If the atmosphere and setting of tonight's shoot seem as playfully ordinary as American
Graffiti, Lost Highway is nonetheless a very disturbing affair. The script, an original
creation of Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford, is compulsive yet baffling. The reader is
quickly drawn into a dark mystery which may involve a wife-killing, though it refuses to
yield its many secrets readily. It dares to be the script of a film, but at best only indicates
what we will eventually see, hear and even feel when all is complete. What is actually
going on is far from 'legible' on the page - normally an absolute requirement in this age
of committee-system movie-making.
It's the kind of script that worries 'the money'. However, as each scene unfolds before
the camera, it's clear that Lynch knows exactly what's happening; he just doesn't like to
talk about it too much. He puts his trust in images and sounds as opposed to words,
knowing that all will be clearer when Lost Highway is experienced, not read. For us and
But while shooting on location, actors stereotypically anxious about 'motivation' and
meaning - have to put a lot of trust in Lynch. Lost Highway obviously presents its
stars with serious conundrums. But Natasha Gregson Wagner, an actor relatively
new to movies, seems to welcome this. The daughter of Richard Gregson and Natalie
Wood (and a ringer for her mum), she plays Pete's girlfriend Sheila. Tonight she must
tell him that he's recently been behaving like 'a different person" (understatement again),
particularly since a certain very significant night. One which the audience will never see,
and which the characters only allude to, ominously.
Between takes, Wagner confesses: "I wouldn't say that I understand the script completely,
but I like that. I know that when I see the movie I'm going to be surprised by how it all
fits together. We all have our own fantasies about what the secret of Lost Highway is.
At times, in David's direction, he'll give you an idea and you'll think you're on to something.
Then the next day it will be completely the opposite.' So what does Wagner think happened
that night? "I think it's up to everyone's own imagination: the audience's, and that of the
actors playing the roles. If you want to be incredibly literal you could be, but I don't think
this is the place to be incredibly literal. I filed my literal side away. For another movie."
And of her director, a man responsible for perpetrating some truly disturbed and disturbing
cinematic experiences? "He's such a dignified, handsome, nice man. Such a great
During each take, Mr Contradiction watches and listens intently. Between takes he often
goes onto the floor, scrumming down briefly with Getty and Wagner, talking in hushed
tones, and strictly on a 'need to know' basis. The dialogue in Lost Highway is sparse and
enigmatic, and Lynch has a very precise delivery in mind. He doesn't give line readings -
but gives indications of mental states. Then it's up to the performers. Occasionally he
might simply bellow through a megaphone from behind the video assist. 'Then he sounds
like Jimmy Stewart from Mars. Such moments seem to contain their own sense of
performance. That voice; that hair. They serve to remind that on a Lynch film, the real
star is perhaps Lynch.
But this star is interview-shy. He seems to view them much as he does test screenings
of his movies: 'They're like facing the firing squad. Except you don't die.' But it's 11.00pm;
'lunch' break. Time to light a cigarette, put on the blindfold and wish he was back in
Pete's (or should that be Fred's) head.
Lynch is wearing exactly what he wore in November 1995, when we last met: shirt
(black, buttoned up), jacket (black), shoes (black) and trousers (khaki). Theory: like
Seth Brundle in Cronenberg's The Fly, he has several such outfits; one less decision
to make on this film. Then there's how to describe it. 'The opening page of the script
of Lost Highway announces: "A 21st Century Noir Horror Film. A graphic investigation
into parallel identity crises. A world where time is dangerously out of control. A terrifying
ride down the lost highway.'
Lynch laughs. "Yeah, that's sort of baloney. You know what I mean?" just checking.
"It's a dangerous thing to say what a picture is. If things get too specific, the dream stops.
There are things that happen sometimes that open a door that lets you soar out and feel
a bigger thing. Like when the mind gets involved in a mystery. It's a thrilling feeling.
When you talk about things, unless you're a poet, a big thing becomes smaller." So what
kind of thing is Lost Highway? 'I don't like pictures that are one genre only, so this is
a combination of things. Horror. Thriller. But basically it's a mystery.
"Actors ask a lot of questions. But they're strange, because they seem to understand
things - abstract things - pretty easily. They can buy into an abstraction without too much
trouble. In the beginning we rehearsed certain scenes because somehow those scenes -
in our minds - defined the characters in some way. Once they got those scenes, the rest
fell into place. But then there's always some scene that needs more explaining than others."
Lunch is over; back to work, out of the bowling alley and into the small adjoining bar
and dancefloor. What is so striking about watching Lynch at work is that every shot is
considered not only in terms of how it can be made visually and conceptually arresting,
but also how to encode it with some sense of the whole. This involves attention to colour,
texture, sound, mood and meaning (not talked about), as well as performance. At one
point he insists that some inconsequential dialogue be recorded later so that a track by
The Pixies can be played through a scene. "I must have this music. Please!" This is
as tyrannical as it gets with Lynch. The First AD concedes.
Lynch is constantly seeking the right feel, and he wants that mood to be felt on set or on
location as far as possible. It helps the performers, and also helps him sense if the
scene is working as it unfolds before the camera. This affords the opportunity to play
with what is actually happening on a moment-to-moment basis. And few directors are
as prepared as he is to go with an unforeseen opportunity. A delicate balancing act of
intuition and absolute control, and difficult to talk about. Hence Lynch's reputation for
being an interviewer s nightmare when it comes to 'explaining'. But the results speak for
themselves. When Frank Silva - a member of the props department on the pilot episode
of Twin Peaks - was 'accidentally' reflected in a mirror during a take, he instantly
became Killer Bob, an idea not till then considered for the series by either Lynch or
his (then) collaborator Mark Frost. The rest is history.
Wednesday 21 February. Tonight in a large furniture warehouse in downtown LA, a
Lost Highway crew shoots insert work. The cold, cavernous space boasts a very
convincing five-foot-square facsimile of the Mojave desert. Actor Michael Massee,
drenched in blood, awaits an appointment with a glass-topped coffee table. Star Patricia
Arquette is back for the day. She stands, restrained by various contraptions, her body
draped in black velvet. On the video assist, her head appears to float in a dark void,
resembling the figures often glimpsed stranded in Lynch's own near-black paintings.
Peter Deming runs the camera at 40 frames-per-second. A (warm desert?) breeze plays
across Arquette's hair and face, just before the electricity hits: that special Lynch
electricity that flashes like lightning, those surges of energy that so often signified
trouble or revelation in Twin Peaks. It also accompanied not only Laura Palmer's
horrendous murder in the movie prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but also,
in its closing scene, her finally meeting her Angel.
Lynch is ecstatic, and everyone knows it. That voice again, ricocheting around
the showroom: "That's beautiful, Gary." Special Effects Coordinator Gary D'Amico
might well be pleased. It does look beautiful. And it's achieved in-camera. None of
that "we'll sort it out in post production" nonsense. It's happening right now. It's a
painting. A moving painting.
For Arquette, Lost Highway is a real challenge. She is not one woman but two. Or does
she? We'll first see her as Renee, wife of Fred Madison. She's then horribly murdered,
probably by her husband, probably for infidelity. But when Fred is imprisoned, he
inexplicably mutates on Death Row into the younger, virile Pete. When Pete is released,
Arquette appears in his life as Alice, girlfriend of the sinister Mr Eddy. Her carnivorous
sexuality leads the bemused auto mechanic into a world of shady characters,
pornography and (inevitably) murder again.
Arquette has thought carefully about her role(s): "This movie is just about an obsessive
love affair. It doesn't have to make sense to anybody else. It's like stepping into the
mind of someone who's obsessed. Usually I'm cast as a character of hope, or love,
But this is about the darkness of woman. The destructive element of woman. It's a man's
concept, but I've never played that before. And I've never done a lot of nudity, so that was
a whole other confusing problem. Not just in film, but in my own life. So I thought that
maybe I should go through the gates of hell and face up to all my fears."
So what about Renee and Alice? 'My first concept was that they were two different people.
But then David said, 'No, no, no., They're the same person.' So then you have to cross
over a reality border, because they can't be the same person and one of them die. I was
adrift there for a while. So maybe one of them is an hallucination." At the risk of making
a bigger thing smaller, Arquette has arrived at her own solution to the mysteries of
Lost Highway, by buying into an abstraction. "I play two different interpretations of the
same woman. I think it's about a man trying to recreate a relationship with the woman
he loves so that it ends up better. Fred recreates himself as Pete, but the element of
distrust in him is so strong that even his fantasy turns into a nightmare."
Whatever the answer, there's no doubt Lynch is back, creating serious mischief. The last
four years have seen him working largely in television. But why has it been so long
since the critical and box-office failure of (the underrated and misunderstood) Twin
Peaks: Fire Walk With Me? "I tried to get some things going, but for one reason or
another, nothing ever happened. It's a matter of finding something that you're in love
with. You fall in love with the material and you're excited about it. Otherwise you'd
never be able to sustain the trip. To make a movie for money, or for any other reason
Back at Asymmetrical Productions, Mary Sweeney - Producer, Editor, Lynch's partner
sits in a semi-circle of four Steenbecks, looking at a previous day's rushes. What
appears on the screen is as unexpected to her as it is to anyone else. An ordinary
scene of four characters in a car, driving to the All Star Bowling Alley, has been
transformed into a mini-nightmare. With the use of a simple but ingenious device on the
camera, it looks and feels like being inside someone else's migraine. One suspects
that few editors get to be so constantly surprised and delighted on a day-to-day basis:
"Lost Highway is a very interesting synthesis of different films he's made. David's
developing his art and his language. With each film I've worked on with him, his demands
on the camera have become more sophisticated and dynamic. He really thinks hard
about how he can make the simplest scene interesting, both visually and emotionally."
Sweeney puts up another sequence, a single shot lasting three-and-a-half minutes. It's
night. A cabin in the desert is burning ferociously. But something isn't quite right. The
spare, painfully melancholic strains of This Mortal Coil's version of Tim Buckley's 'Song
to a Siren' accompanies the conflagration. It could have been composed for the sequence.
But now it's clear that the flames are retreating. The sequence has been shot in reverse,
and the song is ending. The delicate voice of Elisabeth Fraser almost whispers its closing
promise: "Here I am. Here I am. Waiting to hold you." The cabin now stands, completely
intact, alone in the dark desert. A small light above the door glimmers like a distant beacon.
There's a sudden chill in the editing room. Goose pimples and hairs rise to give their
This is your Neighbourhood Watch calling. You are entering Lynchland. Doesn't it feel
good to be back home? In an unheimlich sort of way? 'Lost Highway' will be released in
the US later in 1996.