The ABC of going from the big screen to the small
Movieline, August 1999
The problem is that Lynch has been getting word that his noirish TV pilot, "Mulholland Drive," is not being warmly embraced by executives at ABC, the network that asked for it.
By the time we sit down and talk, the verdict is in.
"I was about to leave for the Cannes Film Festival with [my new film] The Straight Story, when my producer Tony Krantz called and said, 'ABC doesn't want "Mulholland Drive" for fall and they don't want it for midseason. They don't want it.' So if you're writing about film directors going back into television, this might be a worthless interview, because, at this point, I donít think I'm back in television." Lynch's tone is dismissive. This is dearly a man who's hurting.
"Well, let me put it this way," I say. "You were ready to commit to a television series knowing full well the limitations of a sponsor-driven medium run by risk-averse executives. What was it that had lured you back?"
I'm well aware that what lures many directors at the moment is the astounding cash-cow potential television represents; a successful film can't begin to pay off the way years of syndication from a successful TV series do. But I doubt that's all Lynch has on his mind.
"I was lured back because of a really strong desire to tell a continuing story in which you go deeper and deeper into a world and you get lost in that world. A pilot is open-ended, and, when it's over, you feel all these threads going out into the infinite which, to me, is a beautiful thing. It's like a body with no head."
The decapitation simile aside, one can understand why a TV series that permits a certain amount of narrative meandering would appeal to Lynch. Conventional, beginning-middle-end stories are not his forte. He's always been niggardly with exposition. His dialogue is not memorable. We go to Lynch movies for the inexplicable, mesmerizing dream fragments that turn us into voyeurs. And we went to Lynch television a decade ago-to the memorable "Twin Peaks"-for the same thing. But is there still a TV audience out there ready to embrace such idiosyncratic fare? Lynch thinks so: "There's a bunch of people who want something different on TV. I was hopeful that I could make something the network would want."
We're commiserating in Lynch's Bat Cave of an office high in the Hollywood Hills. There are no obvious windows. Three of the whimsical wood-and-metal end tables were designed by Lynch and built in a factory in Switzerland. A book of Monet's Water Lilies lies on the couch. Lynch, who, in his 20s, supported himself delivering newspapers, owns three adjacent, fortresslike houses on a wriggly street that's barely wide enough for the garbage truck. In these pink-and-gray concrete castles, he dictates his scripts, edits, paints, records music, designs furniture and meditates.
He made his first film in 1966. Its running time was one minute. Called Six Men Getting Sick, it was shown on three, skull-shaped screens to the accompaniment of a siren. Since then he's been Oscar nominated for The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986). In 1990, Wild at Heart won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and "Twin Peaks" became an international hit. He's 53 now, but says most days he feels between 11 and 23. He lives with his editor, Mary Sweeney, who is also the mother of his third child and writer/producer of The Straight Story. Mary warns me I can't exceed my allotted hour with David because she has to "feed him" before an afternoon meeting. This is clearly a man who needs tending, and, indeed, on one floor of one of the houses there's a clutch of secretaries and assistants, one of whom pops in to refill Lynch's coffee mug-an act that is, I gather, repeated many times each day. Lynch is dressed in his trademark khakis and white shirt, one flap of which hangs outside of his pants. His hair is thick, tousled and gray. He smokes incessantly.
"So let me get this straight," I say. "You wrote the script for 'Mulholland Drive' and submitted it to ABC."
"Yes. And they seemed happy with it."
"Was there any interference during the production?"
"No. It was a beautiful shoot. There was no indication that it wasn't going to go great. Then two network executives watched a cut; I heard they didn't like the pace and they didn't like the show."
"Did they call you?"
"No one called me. I never heard from anyone after I turned in my cut. Not word one. All I got was a whole truckload of notes."
"I don't know. I didn't recognize any of the names. And I have a problem with notes." He takes a swig of java. "In the feature film world, I've had creative control since Blue Velvet. And in my mind it's not worth doing anything if you don't have that freedom. You have to do what you believe in. I'm not opposed to listening to somebody and defending decisions and taking a good note, but in the TV world, there's a real need for people to give notes. You could talk to 100 people and get 100 different reactions to something. And I don't want to do anything with people who aren't enthusiastic."
Later, one of Lynch's assistants tells me, "The network thought the show was 'too weird.'" Someone else close to the project confided that, "Somebody at ABC objected to a shot of dog poop on the sidewalk." Well, what did they expect from the man who's given us severed ears, exploding heads and oxygen-masked psychopaths?! Didn't they realize they'd hired an artist who revels in the erotic, the ghoulish, the kinky and the grotesque? A man whom Mel Brooks (of all people) has called "Jimmy Stewart from Mars" and whom The New York Times dubbed "A psychopathic Norman Rockwell"? Who did the suits at ABC think they were getting? Ron Howard?
Actually, they were getting Ron Howard. It's Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's company, that produced "Mulholland Drive." However new to TV, they're no slouches at putting out winners, either - they're the company behind "Felicity," "The PJs" and "Sports Night."
Midway through our interview, Lynch gets a call from his agents at the Endeavor Agency. I turn off the tape recorder. During the few minutes he's on the phone, the volume of his voice rises. I hear the words "no" and "never" several times. When he hangs up, I say, "Would you like to tell me what that was about?"
"Are you angry?"
"No, it's just that ... when something is over, it's over.
"Are your agents trying to find another buyer for the show?"
"Yeah ... you know... maybe."
"I understand Fox and HBO are looking at it."
"I have a problem talking about that, because in my mind, it's over."
"If you're not angry, what are you feeling?"
"I'm confused. I'm very confused. I don't know where it went funny. Had there been a different bunch of executives [at ABC], it might have gone great. I feel really bad for the actors. I wanted it to work for them. They're good people."
"They feel the same way about you. In fact, the two leading actresses [Laura Harring and Naomi Watts] spoke of you in the sort of reverential terms usually reserved for royalty and religious leaders.
"Yeah, well, that's a problem. The chicks really go for me, and there's nothing I can do about it." He laughs and drags on a cigarette. For a few seconds, his face is shrouded in smoke.
"Will you ever do TV again?"
"This will be the end of it for sure. I've got to get realistic. I love feature films, and that's what I should be doing."
"You're still directing commercials, aren't you?"
"The money's good, and the added bonus is that I get to use and learn about the latest technology, tools that normally wouldn't be available to me, and then I can use those tools in my feature work. I like doing them in Europe."
"Have you thought of moving to Europe where, one supposes, your TV pilots would be better received?"
"Yeah. I've thought about it quite a bit. But I love Los Angeles."
"What do you love about it?"
"The light ... and the feeling in the air... the feeling of optimism."
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© Mike Hartmann