The Director's Chair Interviews
David Lynch interview
Transcribed by Melissa Musser
KCRW, February 19, 1997
I’m Chris Doridas, the morning becomes eclectic on KCRW. Happy to have in the studio, David Lynch.
Gracias. Good to be here, man.
You know, Wild At Heart was drawn from a pre-existing novel by Barry Gifford, and now, Lost Highway is drawn from a novel by Barry Gifford but really just a couple of words from the book, right?
Two words, um…
Barry Gifford, wrote a book, called Night People. Two characters mention going down the lost highway, and when I read those words; lost, and highway, um, it made me dream, and it suggested possibilities and I told that to Barry and he said, "Well, let's write something." And, uh, that started the ball rolling.
So the two of you just sat around and sort of let your minds fly free?
Right, we sat down, both sharing ideas that we'd been collecting and neither one of us liked the other's ideas. And we sat there, um, for quite a long time in silence, and then I told Barry an idea that had come to the me the last night of shooting Fire Walk With Me. And it was the videotapes and a couple. And Barry loved this idea, and when you focus on an idea, even though its a fragment, it opens the door to other fragments that want to hook themselves to that idea and away we went.
So when you say focus on an idea…focus on an idea, do you literally carry this with you through your day, around you as you live and work and move across the earth?
Exactly. Ideas, some of them, are very powerful and some of them you fall in love with. And when you fall in love, you know, when you're in love, the focus is not a problem and the being in love and the idea create a magnet, and it pulls from this avenue, it pulls the rest.
Well, I was wondering if there was any kind of random quality to the writing of this film. And indeed there were - you brought two unrelated stories together to help propel you into this.
Uh, yeah, there's always fragments that are strange because you don't know how they're going to arrange themselves. And so Barry and I were further down the road before we realized what it was that was happening; and so its a surprise. It's like being inside an experience and it tells you how to go.
Makes me think of Bowie's idea of cutting up words and phrases and putting them together to make a song, a lyric.
Right. There's a lot of serendipity. You can set things up for accidents and many times it will trigger a brand new thing and its…uh…accidents have helped me a lot.
So you've actually described this as a Moebius strip, which is a phrase I wasn't familiar with until this morning.
This is a scientific term, a term in mathematics from what I understand; to describe an object when the inside surface, becomes the outside surface. Sort of like Escher, an Escher drawing.
It twists in on itself and comes back to the beginning. And this idea of a Moebius strip is not something we were thinking about in the beginning but it presented itself.
I see. So it conjured that up toward the end.
Now was there more written than what we saw up on the screen?
Always, a script is a blueprint. And you think very seriously that this is what you are going to be making, but the process continues. Always, new things come in, small fragments or large changes..you know, happen along the way. Always, it's talking. Always, you're checking back to the original idea but the film wants to be a certain way and its not finished till its finished. So, you just follow your intuition.
Well, that's the key word there, intuition. I mean you, as you double check what you're doing as you're building the film, as as you go back and look at what you're up to it's always about the intuitive, isn’t it?
Exactly right. It's a feeling of knowing what is correct. And it sounds abstract but its really fairly simple.
So has it ever happened where you shoot too much, and there's just too much information there, and you have to pull things away…
..from the audience, and say, "Well, this is too much, we have to give room for their own intuition."
When the film is finally cut together and you see it as a whole, more often that not, it doesn't work. And always before even working with fragments, pieces of this, a whole scene but it's not the whole. Then, when you see the whole and its not working, its another series of experiments to get the whole thing to work together and then there's the mixing, sounds and music, and that alters things and…
…And can save you!
It can do, uh..magic. But its not foolproof. Its always feeling your way.
Now, when you see the film on the screen in its final form, how close is it to the film you felt in your head, that you saw in your own head before the whole thing sorted and it took shape?
In a lot of ways its very, very close. But usually, its more beautiful. It's better than what you first imagined. Some scenes may be almost exactly and other things; because of finding locations that weren't exactly the locations in your mind, you know, there's differences. But the mood, and feeling, and this since you have those original ideas to check back on, is usually fairly close, but you know, because it wants to be the way it is, there's always a feeling, a difference than what you first imagined it as well.
What about the viscosity of it? Do you govern yourself? Do you put a govern on yourself, "This is too intense, I can't go where I want to go.."
That's part of the intuition, it is an experiment in many ways, and you can see that this not enough, that this is too much, and that this just perfect. Its finding your way and taking advantage of accidents and setting up a situation where they can occur, and so when you translate an idea into a medium, the medium plays a part, and that's really beautiful, to see what cinema can do with the ideas, and you feel your way through.
The lens of the medium. Now, do you double check your intuition with anybody, or is it simply yourself that you rely on for that?
There's many people that can give you ideas, and suggestions, and you'd be a fool to turn down a good idea. And you have to throw out the bad. But all these things should filter through one filtering system so that the whole thing has a chance to hold together. Films by committees just…uh, you know, I’m sure there's exceptions to this, but generally speaking they just don't hold together.
And its sort of that narrative form, that layering down of too much information for the audience that you've been backing away from. I mean, when we look at Twin Peaks, the show built itself on this large and great mystery, once it was unfolded the show sort of lost its momentum. Was that in some way a lesson for you, that we can't give the audience too much information? We can't…
You can give them information but not the wrong information. In the case of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and I never intended to solve the murder of Laura Palmer, it may recede into the background but it needed to be there because that was the mystery that enabled everything to happen. And once it was gone, it was over, and the show just drifted. So human beings love mysteries..I love a mystery, that at the end of the mystery, allows you room to dream. Continue the dream.
For a long time people expected that you were a guy that had a troubled childhood. That you grew up in some sort of mad environment, when in fact the opposite is true, and sort of the opposite has come out since then that you had a pretty perfect childhood growing up.
Uhhhh………Trent could've named his song, "The Perfect Childhood". You know when you’re….No matter what type of childhood you have, there's a feeling that you're sensing more than what you're seeing in front of you. That's one of the things I remember from being young. A lot of information comes to us, not in the form of words or pictures, its a feeling in the air.
Do you remember when you first had that feeling?
I think very early on, but I think I was living in Spokane, Washington.
And, I don't know, I think at one point you had said it was the study of science. That a kid goes through that they start to discover there's an inevitability to life.
Science…um, you know in a way scientists are detectives and we are all detectives. And you start someplace and the mystery leads you deeper either into the material world or an emotional world and we're searching and adding up information and its just the way it is.
I guess at some point you do learn growing up that there is a probability of something not to be what it appears, and that is a recurring theme in your work. It's heightened, because of course of the medium, but it does sort of reflect that quality of life, that essence of life.
Now there's another thing, you've described your youth as you were the guy that didn't really have the lights on upstairs or something like that, and there was this turning point where you started to make these realizations. That sort of ducktails with your descent, or, uh..I shouldn't say descent, but, exploration of painting and artistic creative pursuits.
Right, I might have been storing up information, but in terms of painting I was pretty naïve. Hadn't been getting a lot of information..uh..to speed up the evolution of ideas. And it was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that kicked in, you know, a kind of original thinking. It felt original, it felt like I was finding something on my own. And Philadelphia at that time was a very strange city, and sometimes a person needs an environment, the environment can be so powerful to kick in ideas and even fear can be a motivation.
Well, yeah, there's a wonderful quote from you, "Once you're exposed to fearful things you begin to worry that the peaceful, happy life could vanish or be threatened."
This is something I think we all understand.
Well, its a fascinating juxtaposition of that innocence and naiveté with the man who knew too much, for example.
There's a song that is in the film, on the screen, but not on the soundtrack, from This Mortal Coil that I understand you have a long history with.
Right, I heard the song in the 80’s and I’m not sure whether it was 85, but I really pretty desperately wanted to use it in Blue Velvet and it was tied up in some sort of legal thing, or it was either that or something involving a lot of money and we couldn't get it. And it broke my heart, but on the other hand not having This Mortal Coil "Song To The Siren" led me to Angelo Badalamenti and Angelo, you know, I've worked with ever since. Angelo really brought me into the world of music, right into the middle of it.
So this not being able to use Song To The Siren, led you to go…
It led me to go…
..To an alternative.
Exactly, the alternative was Mysteries Of Love, and that Angelo wrote and I fell in love with. I didn't think I would, I thought, there's a million songs, how can Angelo write something that is going to take the place of this, and it was strange. It took the place of it, and continued this great, great, relationship I have with Angelo.
And when Lost Highway came around there was another opportunity to use the track.
Right. I'd been waiting and waiting and there it was and its definitely high on my list as one of all time most beautiful songs.
How come is didn't end up on the soundtrack?
Ivo, the producer, was happy for it to be in the film, but its something very emotional to Ivo and he didn't want to exploit it any further.
Well, that much you have in common, the power of song has a place with you as well.
(Intermission, Song To The Siren and Marilyn Manson's cover of "I Put A Spell On You" is played.)
Marilyn Manson - I Put A Spell On You- what a great cover that is.
A great cover.
Marilyn Manson, another gift to the world from Trent Reznor.
Exactly right. Marilyn is a guy who I think is sitting on a very modern thing and getting bigger every day.
Yeah, he turns up in the film as a little cameo.
So, Marilyn Manson is one contribution of Trent Reznor but also he's been on tour with David Bowie, there's that connection. He's transformed I think an aspect of film culture, soundtrack medium, to a new level. And he can connect to thirteen year olds.
A lot going on there, yeah. The film I understand was actually shot, from what I understand, at, in part, at one of your houses, right?
Is this true that you own three houses all next to each other?
That's true, I've been very fortunate. Just before we…just during pre-production I got a hold of this third house, and we were able to destroy portions of it and build it back to work with the story. So its almost like being on a sound stage but you can go outside as well.
Now…and you lived at this location.
For some time now.
This is not unusual for you, for you to actually live at the sets, where you're making your films.
Well you would live there mentally but its very nice to live there physically.
I mean, physically you've lived at Eraserhead.
Yeah, I lived in Henry's apartment for a good number of years and you feel the mood, and you live it, eat it, and breathe it, and you can imagine each day more of the outer world doesn't in reality exist but it just reinforces the mood and helps seep into the film.
You get to know the environment intimately.
You can explore and exploit it.
Now in a perfect world if you didn't have the bothers of everyday life and had a film before you that you wanted to accomplish, what would be the process, I mean, what is the typical process in a perfect world for you?
Well, in a perfect world, because there's so much pleasure involved with entering another world, and experiencing it, that aspect of Eraserhead would be great, that living in the sets, or living in the location, to experience it, and to slow down the filmmaking process a little bit. Sometimes it goes so fast that you get what you need, but you haven't really enjoyed sitting in Fred Madison's living room for a moment and thinking. I mean, I got that opportunity, but you know what I mean.
Fred Madison being the lead character.
Fred Madison being the lead character in Lost Highway. So I think its pretty important that you have a very deep experience of the environment.
So would you say that most films that we actually see are glimpses of what the original idea was?
I wouldn't say that, I think there's a lot of people out there realizing their ideas and…
..taking them to their furthest…
..um, yes, I think people, you know, like they say, no one sets out to made a bad film..
..and its a lot of work. Those who have been through the process know that. It's just that I’m sure people would agree the deeper you can go into the world the better it is for the film.
Well, you said the joy of filmmaking is in part relating to the fact you are creating an environment and a world you have total control over. That you leave reality for awhile and you create this other environment that you have dominion over.
Right. And then married to that is what film and sound and music can do in translating the ideas happening in this environment, and the medium of film is so powerful it is an experiment, and it is so much farther to go, this beautiful medium. And so its just beautiful to see how it can work on ideas that are concrete or abstract.
And at this point you're sort of exploring those fringe…well, you're just sort of pushing the envelope at this time in your life.
Well, its all in the world of human behavior, which is a wide range as we all know. There's so many possibilities in this beautiful thing of humans behaving in this world. And that has a long way to go being explored.
Like how much of our brains we're not using, right?
You are credited on the film as sound design, sound designer as well. What does that mean? What did you actually do?
Well, its…always, you work with other people. And we had some great people, you know, working on sounds. But it…every single thing you as a director are involved in, and it has to be a certain way in your mind to work with the whole. Its critical, and its based on a feel. And so its working with people to get all these different sounds to be correct, and also taking advantage of serendipity, and accidents. So its a group effort but passing through one filter.
And its not typically an aspect of a directors job, what you were doing was more involved under…
Well, I’m sitting at the board. I’m actually on the board mixing music, but I think, as in the case of everyone on the crew, after awhile everyone tuned into that one original doorway that Barry and I experienced and pretty soon things start going right in tune with those original ideas and so you move as one.
We got a call from somebody who brought up the name Alan Splet, who was a sound designer. And we mentioned his name to you, you smiled.
Alan was one of my very best friends. He's passed away, and Alan and I, you know, met in Philadelphia, and he and I worked on the sound for The Grandmother and became great friends, and I worked with Alan through Blue Velvet, and never would do anything without Al. One of the most sensitive human beings and had a tremendous love of sound and music.
I would imagine he would've had a great deal of impact on how you sat at the board on Lost Highway.
Now, we already know the work of Angelo Badalamenti, and you've been long time collaborators, and he, as you said earlier this morning, brought you into the world of music. What do you mean by that exactly?
Well, always before I’m interested in sound effects that approach, and maybe you'll obey some of the same rules, they are music. But I never got deep into working with a composer and having that experience of being able to fall into the world of music, and Angelo invited me into that world, and encouraged it, and many great experiences have come out of that.
Well, there's actually a new bit of experience you've brought with you this morning that is essentially a demo of sorts?
Its a demo, yeah.
This is a woman…
Her name is Jocelyn West, she's from England, plays the fiddle and sings.
So you guys, together, you and Angelo…
She came in for a five minute meeting, it lasted seven hours, and we ended up with this. I wrote the lyrics with Artie Polemisis’ wife, Artie runs the studio in New York, his wife Estelle and I wrote the lyrics.
(Intermission. "..And Still" is played.)
It's called "..And Still", Jocelyn West.
This is from a demo produced by, David Lynch, I guess, this morning, and Angelo Badalamenti, music by Angelo?
And no sign of when this will be surfacing I guess.
It must be similar working in the studio with a musician or a singer, to that of working with an actor in front of a camera.
It's very similar, and through strange dialogue or things passing through the air, a hand gesture, you find your way. A dialogue between me and Angelo sends us going and when a minute follows and another, maybe even time disappears, and suddenly there is something.
And its that way with your actors? I mean you sort of guide them in a broad sense?
Well, at first with an actor you start one place and you talk, you rehearse, you talk, you rehearse and little by little you're coming closer to that place where you're united with the original ideas, that same doorway, and then you're rolling.
How much rehearsal goes into these scenes?
In the case of Lost Highway, I rehearsed with Balthazar, Bill and Patricia…It would be nice longer, but it was two weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting.
How about Robert Blake?
Robert Blake required no rehearsal.
It's one of the most…I don't have words to describe the fear he conjures up in this film.
People are going nuts over Robert Blake.
Where did you dig him up? Where's he been?
He's been here, and you know, he's got the stuff, there's no two ways about it.
Since he was two!
Since he was three, I think he's been acting. He's a great guy and has a thousand stories.
Well, what else is going on with you? You've been doing a comic strip for some time, "The Angriest Dog In The World," are you still…
No, they pulled the plug on The Angriest Dog In The World.
How long ago was that?
That was in 92! It went for nine years, and it had a good run.
..I just thought it wasn't in Los Angeles anymore, and it was elsewhere, or something…
Right…No, it died the death.
Well, any other mediums that you have…
I’m painting, you know, still. I've always been painting. I had a show in Paris recently, and a show in Japan.
When is it going to come to Los Angeles?
I've got a gallery here, the Cone Turner Gallery, I had a show there a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, and I don't know when I'll have another show, but you know, I’m deeply, deeply in love with the world of painting.
Now what about this idea of Kits?
Kits started in London, I bought a fish and cut it up to…what the idea of…like an airplane kit that you buy, you assemble the parts.
Now you got a fish where, at the fish market?
At the fish market.
And I took it home, and then I…
..assembled it, took it home to dis-assemble it, photograph it, to make it look like something one could put together and enjoy.
So that, you call a Fish Kit?
A Fish Kit. And then I did a Chicken Kit in Mexico.
So there are two of these kits in existence.
Yeah, there's a Duck Kit but it didn't turn out too well.
Hmm…How does it not turn out well?
Uh, the photograph…there were so many parts and it didn't quite catch the details of the small parts.
That's a complicated animal!
Yeah, a duck, its a…well, one of the most beautiful animals.
Now you've actually compared the art of filmmaking to…
A duck. Nature is a great teacher, and many of the things that happen in nature can guide you in your other avenues.
Now I understand there was a coffee table book you were putting together of collected visual works reflecting your interest in - dental hygiene?
Well, I was very interested in dental hygiene because as a kid, you know…soft, bad teeth and always visiting the dentist. I have a dentist now, Dr. Chin in Santa Monica, who I think is the world's greatest dentist.
There goes an ad!
Ah..O.K., I’m sorry, but he's fantastic. I enjoy the dental, uh..the different machines and textures of dentistry and so I did some photos to reflect that enjoyment.
So where to from here in terms of the film work?
I’m now in the sad spot of having to try to find the next thing, you know, to catch an idea and its frustrating because I don't know when that will happen. So, I wish that I could start a film right away.
You've described this catching of an idea in a similar fashion to the way songwriters come through here describe the way they'll catch a song, sometimes, as I've quoted Tom Waits before, I'll do it again, songs are like cartoon characters, sometimes you don't really get the songs at all, you get their underwear, you know, you get the songs underwear, you're trying to grab it…
Right…Um, well, there's many ways to say the same thing. Everybody relies on ideas. Ideas are the most important things. Every single thing in the world that was made by anyone started with an idea, so to catch one, that is powerful enough to fall in love with, it is one of the most beautiful experiences. Its like being jolted with electricity and knowledge at the same time.
Is there anything you've learned that helps you to be more receptive to these chance occurrences?
Well, you know, I’m a meditator, and the idea of that is to expand consciousness by clearing the machines of consciousness, which is the nervous system, and the greater the consciousness, you know… I think in the analogy of fishing, the deeper your hook can go to catch the bigger ideas. And its very important to get down in there. Sitting comfortably, in a chair, drifting off, not trying to manipulate what's in front of you, sometimes you can drop in to a beautiful area or bounce up to higher whichever way you want to see it into a beautiful area and catch ideas.
Is there any medium you haven't explored that you have an interest in? Radio, for example?
Um..I’ve never explored radio, but seeing you here in this environment is pretty inspiring.
Well, if you come up with any ideas you want to try out on KCRW let us know.
You got a deal.
Thanks so much for joining us.
Chris, it was really a pleasure.
David Lynch, the morning becomes eclectic on KCRW. This is one that's sort of another work in progress.
It's a demo done with Don Valzone, Andy Armor, Dave Jurike and Steve Hodges.
We'll hear as much of it as we can.
O.K. , thanks a lot Chris.
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