David Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1946. His father worked in the woods for the government; his mother worked at home, raising David and his brother and sister. The family made stops in Spokane, Washington, and Sandpoint and Boise, Idaho, before settling in Alexandria, Virginia, where Lynch unhappily went to high school. (He ran for class treasurer; his slogan, “Save with Dave.” He lost.)
After attending both the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and after an aborted trip to Europe to study with a painter whose work he greatly disliked, Lynch wandered through a series of sad jobs, marked only by his talent for being fired. Mired in extended adolescence, he retreated to art school, this time to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There he began by studying painting, but ended four years later by making his first live-action movie, The Grandmother, in which a distraught, bed-wetting boy, abused by his parents, secretly grows a benevolent grandma from a seed.
In 1970, Lynch enrolled at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as a fellow in the Center for Advanced Film Studies. His first advanced film, Eraserhead, wasn’t released until 1977, because he’d spent a lot of time painting, delivering the Wall Street Journal, collecting garbage, building sheds, dissecting animals, getting divorced, smoking cigarettes, slurping shakes, and sitting in a chair, silently, thinking. Eraserhead, a blackly comic, pleasurably disgusting meditation on bringing up baby — a virtual feast of anxiety! — became a midnight movie hit. His next film, The Elephant Man, was refined and subtle, if not sentimental, by comparison. A tone poem on Victorian England, a place, to Lynch, where the beast was the beauty, it won eight Oscar nominations and commercial legitimacy for its director. This he quickly bastardized on Dune, his only commercial and critical bomb. Lynch tried to thread its gigantic narrative through the eye of his trancelike moods and methods, and failed, quite spectacularly.
Blue Velvet was a return to form, scale, and intuition. A wickedly funny, overripe orchestration of all of Lynch’s obsessions, set in small-town USA, Blue Velvet was arguably the most original and powerful American movie of the 1980s. Remembered and discussed mostly for having put the vile back in violence, it moved Lynch to the forefront of American directors.
His next film, Wild at Heart, went even further with the kind of surreal psychosexual slapstick that’s become his “name brand.” Despite the Palme d’Or prize it won at Cannes, it wasn’t the masterpiece Blue Velvet was — its weirdness felt applied and artificial, and it came perilously close to self-parody. Still, Wild at Heart was still a curious and engaging film — a hokey, jokey joy ride through the bottomlands of Lynch’s own imagination.
Between those two films, Lynch and a partner, Mark Frost, unleashed “Twin Peaks.” A whimsical subversion — but not destruction — of all TV’s codes, it served up that strange slice of American pie where distortion meets recognition, producing a kitschy sugar high, Lynch à la mode. Accompanied by a feeding frenzy of media attention, the first season of “Twin Peaks” in the spring of 1990 was brilliant: nine hours of dancing dwarves and echoing owls and an aura unlike anything in the history of American television. But the second season proved flaccid and banal, and the show was soon canceled. Lynch, frustrated, sought the last word, which in this case would be the first word. A cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me would be his continued attempt to explore the improbabilities of this mythic town, free from the restrictions of commercial television.
In addition to screenwriting and directing, David Lynch has also written naive song lyrics, produced pop albums and the non-symphonic “Industrial Symphony No. 1,” and for years drawn the cartoon “The Angriest Dog in the World” for the L.A. Reader. He takes pictures, paints, makes perfume commercials, and is preparing a coffee-table book of his collected visual work, which will reflect, in part, his interest in dental hygiene.
Our two conversations occurred in late June and early July of 1990, between the first and second seasons of “Twin Peaks.” The initial session took place at the midtown Manhattan apartment/studio of his music maven, Angelo Badalamenti, who was at work in the adjoining room; the subsequent, in a booth at the Studio Coffee Shop in Hollywood, an anti-trendy diner much favored by Lynch.
Lynch was prompt, courteous, and completely uncomfortable with the process of analysis and verbalization demanded by an in-depth interview. His aw-shucks Americanisms and anti-intellectual bias — the Jimmy-Stewart-from-Mars persona — is delectably odd: funny, comfy, yet coolly distanced and distancing. I felt he’d thought about everything I asked him: he just didn’t want to lug all his bags up out of the basement.
When you’ve talked about your childhood, you’ve said it’s filled with beatific memories but also with traumatic horror. Could you elaborate on this a bit?
Well, it’s hard to elaborate, but I kept coming to Brooklyn to visit my grandparents, and that was part of the horror. Part of the horror. In a large city I realized there was a large amount of fear, because so many people were living close together. You could feel it in the air. I think people in the city obviously get used to it, but to come into it from the Northwest it kind of hits you like a train. Like a subway.
In fact, going into the subway, I felt I was really going down into hell. As I went down the steps, going deeper into it, I realized it was almost as difficult to back up and get out of it as to go forward and go through with this ride. It was the total fear of the unknown — the wind from the those trains, the sounds, the smells, and the different light and mood — that was really special in a traumatic way.
Then there were traumas in Boise, Idaho, too, but they were much more natural, I would say. There was more light around the place, and not so much fear in the air.
You oppose the blue skies, picket fences, and cherry trees of your youth with the red ants crawling out of the cherry tree —
That was in Spokane, Washington, where we had a cherry tree in the backyard, and it was a real old one. There was this pitch oozing out of it — but really, really oozing out of it — and then ants just, like, alive on the tree. That was something I would stare at for hours. Like watching TV.
It was a pretty normal scene at home. You say your parents didn’t smoke or drink and never argued, but that you were ashamed of them for that. You wanted them to carry on. You wanted a strangeness that wasn’t there.
Yeah, it was like in the fifties: there were a lot of advertisements in magazines where you see a well-dressed woman bringing a pie out of an oven, and a certain smile on her face, or a couple smiling, walking together up to their house, with a picket fence. Those smiles were pretty much all I saw.
But you didn’t believe them.
Well, they’re strange smiles. They’re the smiles of the way the world should be or could be. They really made me dream like crazy. And I like that whole side of it a lot. But I longed for some sort of . . . not a catastrophe, but something out of the ordinary to happen. Something so that everyone will feel sorry for you, and you’ll be like a victim. You know, if there was a tremendous accident and you were left alone. It’s kind of like a nice dream. But things kept on going, normally, forward.
Did you secretly wish to be orphaned?
Well, I wished to be, not orphaned, but I wanted to be special and set aside. Maybe it’s an excuse for not having to do anything else. You’re instantly important. You’ve kind of got it made in a certain way. I was thinking about things like that. I was sort of embarrassed that my parents were so normal.
More abnormal things were going on in your friends’ households?
Oh yeah! Yeah.
So you pursued a kind of danger on your own to bring this into your own life?
I didn’t get into too many dangerous things. And I don’t talk about a lot of dangerous things. People are going to do what they do anyway, but it’s not so good to sell the idea — because you don’t need to do a lot of dangerous things to be creating. Just to introduce a thought of certain things is not so good.
You wanted your parents to argue, but you’ve said elsewhere that you didn’t like tension or conflict, that you were always trying to smooth things over.
Yeah, I did that. It goes back to feeling this bad thing in the air. I’d see my friends who just moments earlier were getting along, and then it would all fall apart. And I’d try to make it go back and be smooth. Just so we could all have fun.
The “smile” that you talked about, in the ads, were you feeling something akin to this smile inside, or were you feeling very different?
No, I had a tremendous smile. I have pictures of me underneath the Christmas tree with a smile that is like total and pure happiness. I sort of had a happiness.
But at the same time there was something about it you didn’t trust.
You know, that’s another thing: there are too many possibilities for something to go wrong — so you could always worry about that. And there are many things that are hidden and seeming like many, many secrets; and you don’t know for sure whether you are just being paranoid or if there really are some secrets. You know little by little, by studying science, that certain things are hidden — there are things you can’t see. They’ve run experiments; they know there are things like atoms, and a lot of things that you can’t see. And your mind can begin to create many things to worry about. And then, once you’re exposed to fearful things, and you see that really and truly many, many, many things are wrong, and so many people are participating in strange and horrible things, you begin to worry that the peaceful, happy life could vanish or be threatened.
What were the things you thought were hurtful or worrisome?
Just every sort of negative thing you feel in the air was bringing the situation down.
Let’s try to be concrete. You’re the master of the specific, come on —
[Laughs.] Yeah, right! Like in Philadelphia a family is going to this christening. I happened to be upstairs at home painting the third floor black. And my wife at the time, Peggy, was taking my daughter, Jennifer, who was one, out in this perambulator. It was like the Cadillac of perambulators, that we got at Goodwill for about a buck, but it was unbelievable. It had springs — it had a ride like a giant Cadillac. Anyway, Peggy was taking this down the steps. And a large family was going to a christening of this small baby. And a gang came swooping down on the other side of the street, and attacked the family. And in the family there was a teenage son who tried to defend the whole bunch, and they beat him down, and they shot him in the back of the head. Those kind of things will spoil the atmosphere — permanently — and bring it way down.
Is art your only defense against things like that?
There is no defense. Your horror of horrors is that all of us are so much out of control, and if you start thinking about it you can worry about that for a long time.
But you’ve managed to survive things like that.
Well, you go along. But you realize that basically you’re pretty lucky to be able to just go along.
You’ve said that as a kid you felt “a force, a sort of wild pain and decay, accompanying everything.” What did that pain feel like?
I don’t know what I was talking about there, but whenever you finish something, it starts decaying. Instantly. Just like New York City. The idea of New York City is a great one: you can have business and residential things all together, and people all together, and really fine restaurants and theatre, movies, and great architecture! Buildings that look so great and were built so well. They’re functional, but also sculpture. But then time goes by and the bridges — they’re rotting so bad! The roads, the buildings are falling apart.
New ones are going up but they’re not built the same way. This thing about decay and nothing remaining constant is another thing to worry about.
Our bodies are like that, too.
They sure are. They grow, and then they start reversing themselves. And strange things happen. You say, “That won’t ever happen to me. No way!” But then one day you look in the mirror and it’s happening.
What have you seen happening in the mirror that was traumatic for you?
Well, right above my ears there’s these kind of silver, fish-scale silver hairs.
And when you first saw them?
I couldn’t really believe it.
That wasn’t the first time you had a sense of your mortality?
That “wild pain” you talked about — what makes it wild?
Because it’s not able to be controlled. See, a small world like a painting or a film gives you the illusion that you’re more or less under control. Or that you’re in control, rather. So I guess the smaller the world, the more safe you feel, and in control.
So you build a world.
You build it, yeah. I love going into another world, and film provides that opportunity — Eraserhead way more than any other film, because I really did live in that world.
You lived on the set.
I lived on the set, and in my mind I lived in that world. And the set helped a lot; the lighting, the mood of it helped. And since it took so much time I really sank into it. But now films go so fast: you move into a set, you check and make sure the mood is correct, and the next moment you’re shooting it. And moments later it’s being bulldozed. So it’s captured on film, but it’s real fun to live in it for a while, too.
You don’t feel you’re getting to inhabit your own films the same way you used to?
No. It’s not as long and as satisfying.
This kind of worry you talk about — what’s the nature of it? Why not accept the decay?
Well, you have to sort of learn to accept things. But I don’t like it. Nobody likes to accept things. You fight decay by painting those bridges. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, they don’t ever stop painting it. You’ve got to do something to maintain things. And the more you let it slip, the harder it is to bring it back to the original condition. And a lot of things, when they get older, if they have been maintained, get another degree of quality. Nature goes to work on them a little bit, but they have been maintained, and so they are called antiques and you can get a lot of money for them.
A patina of rust can be beautiful.
A patina. Exactly. Absolutely.
Would anyone who looked at you on your fifteenth birthday, this little worried Eagle Scout, in uniform, down by the White House seating VIPs for JFK’s inauguration parade — would anyone have thought you were unusual or had some different ideas?
No. I was like a regular person. There wasn’t much happening upstairs. I didn’t really think, at all, not that I can remember, until I was about nineteen.
What triggered that?
I don’t know. I think Philadelphia.
When things started happening upstairs, was it always in terms of images?
And sounds, but I didn’t really know about that part, until later on. Always, since I was little, I was drawing. And then I got into painting. But there wasn’t any thought behind the drawings.
Your parents were supportive of your early work?
Oh, very supportive. My mother probably saved me: she refused to give me coloring books. Which is pretty interesting, because there was lots of pressure to color — and once you have that coloring book the whole idea is to stay between the lines. Not having that restriction . . . and paper! My father worked for the government, and he’d bring home lots and lots of graph paper, and one side was old news and the other was blank. So I had lots of paper, and I was able to draw whatever I wanted all the time. My father also helped pay rent on a painting studio when I was in high school, and helped pay for my first film.
Yet you were rebelling like crazy at the time.
Yes, I was.
From about age fourteen to about age thirty?
Yes, and my theory is that most people rebel that long these days, because not counting accidents or strange diseases, we’re built to live longer. And so all the stages consequently last longer. And so you’re going to find people living at home, going through these strange rebellions. And maybe they’ll be sixty before they realize they’re an adult, and get serious about things.
What were you rebelling against?
I never really thought about it. They call it rebellion. I just didn’t want anything to do with anything except painting, and living the Art Life. Nothing else was fun.
You didn’t want them to know about what you were doing, did you?
I was doing many things that I figured they would not enjoy knowing about. So I was forced to live a secret life.
Now, there’s a kind of power in having a secret.
There’s a horror in secrets, too.
What’s the horror?
You know, trying to keep it secret.
What’s a secret? A secret is something you absolutely have to tell someone!
Well, yeah. There’s that problem too.
Did the fact that they didn’t know what you were up to — living this very nocturnal Art Life — help you start to feel like your own person?
Yeah. I felt like my own person before that, but I didn’t think about things in the same way. I mean, I was smoking cigarettes; that was before any kind of drug things. I don’t know if I would have gotten into drugs, but I was absolutely born to smoke. I loved to watch my Grandfather Lynch smoke cigarettes. I could hardly wait. I loved the taste of tobacco. Being addicted to it was one thing, but I really and truly loved every part of smoking: the texture of the smoke, all the business, the lighters and matches. The taste of it, particularly.
What was sex like as a teenager? Scary?
Umm, what kind of an interview are we doing, David? [Laughs.] I tell you what: sex was like a dream. It was like a world that was so mysterious to me that I really couldn’t believe that there was this fantastic texture to life that I was getting to do. It was so fantastic, and I could see a world opening — this sexual dream. It was another great indication that life was really great and worth living. And it kept on going, because I see that the vast realm of sex has all these different levels, from lust and fearful, violent sex to the real spiritual thing at the other end. It’s the key to some fantastic mystery of life.
But there’s a sense in your films that the flesh is not to be trusted.
Well, I think until a person has reached a certain degree of evolution there’s no such thing as trust.
What stage of evolution would that be?
[Pause.] If you were to believe in evolution, you would see that there are different levels of human growth. Degrees of awareness or consciousness. You could see a person being totally aware and totally conscious at the end of this evolutionary trail. And dealing with a full deck. And if you are able to deal with a full deck, I think then you’d be pretty trustworthy.
How many cards are in yours?
I don’t have any idea, but it’s not fifty-two.
The Europe experience, very briefly —
And it was a brief experience —
Austria was too clean —
Austria was way too clean. I didn’t know why I was waking up there so early, but looking back I know why. It was early enough in the trip for me to be getting jet-lagged. But I was so young it didn’t slow me down, I just woke up early, which is completely unusual for me. I attributed it to the clean air in Austria. At that time, part of the Art Life for me — since I grew up in a place so clean, with forests and all — was about American city life, so I didn’t really take to Salzburg. I was glad I went, but once that fell apart the whole trip unraveled. But the Orient Express was an incredible journey.
The Art Life means: stay up late, smoke cigarettes, don’t get married, don’t have children, stay dedicated to seeing beneath the surface, drink coffee. And yet you got married, not once but twice, and had two children.
[Pause.] These things happen.
Happen to you, or you make them happen?
Well, it’s a two-way street. Nothing happens to you. It takes two to tango, and this is what happened to me.
How was it, living inside those contradictions?
It was kind of tough. But again, absolutely good and meant to be. Sometimes a jolt of electricity at a certain point of your life is helpful. It forces you a little bit more awake. It makes something happen inside you. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but because I had these new responsibilities, I think it really helped — it overlapped into the work. I was just starting to make films, and it made me focus in and take things more seriously. I might have been drifting around for a lot longer had these things not happened.
Eraserhead seems to be, on one level, the work of a man completely unprepared for, and terrified by, fatherhood.
Eraserhead is an abstract film. It’s hopefully not just about one thing. But that’s definitely in there. [Smiles slyly.]
Going to the morgue in Philadelphia was another turning point.
Well, Philadelphia itself was the turning point. Seeing a lot of different things. The morgue was kind of a clinical thing. It was very powerful, but it wasn’t a twisted thing to me. It was more like seeing my neighbor’s dog. That was another image I’ll never forget. Their dog, they fed so much, it looked literally like a water balloon with little legs. The legs kind of stuck out. Almost couldn’t walk, this dog. Had a little bitty head. It was like a Mexican Chihuahua with a watermelon in the middle. And there were lots of little bowls of candies in the room, and these things stuck with me a lot.
Was the dog your first link to surrealism or were Dali and Buñuel?
I never saw, I still haven’t seen a lot of Buñuel and I saw An Andalusian Dog a lot later. I don’t even know that much about surrealism — I guess it’s just my take on what’s floating by. I wasn’t exposed to too many sophisticated things.
What was the spiritual crisis you underwent during the filming of Eraserhead?
The spiritual crisis was that I thought I had every reason to be completely happy. I was making a film I wanted to make. I had the greatest crew and friends working. The list of things that I thought were going to do it for me were all checked off. I was sitting right where I thought I should be completely happy. And I wasn’t happy. So I really wondered about that. It made me think about the idea of happiness, and what it might be.
Did you want it, badly?
Oh yeah, you betcha!
Is it still paramount?
Well, it’s another word for lots of things. It’s another word for: fifty-two cards.
That unhappiness led to Transcendental Meditation?
That’s right. That’s what it did.
And did that at least start shuffling the deck?
Yeah, it did. I don’t really talk about meditation. A lot of people are against it. It’s just something I like and I’ve been doing it since 1973.
It seems like your background as a painter led to a film style focused on texture and the single image — it demands real examination of the frame. Was that something conscious for you when you moved from the canvas to film?
No. I forget the word . . . oh, composition. This thing of composition is so abstract. It’s so powerful, where you place things and the relationships. But you don’t work with any kind of intellectual thing. You just act and react. It’s all intuition. It must obey rules, but these rules are not in any book. The basic rules of composition are a joke.
Really sophisticated composition works like really sophisticated pieces of music: you can’t believe what you’re seeing. You could spend years looking at one great work and still find new things in it that are so perfect. Like great symphonies. You can’t believe that that chord flows into that, and then that swoops in. It’s too great. Too thrilling. And how they come to be is a mystery.
So you don’t find particularly compelling parallels between your painting and filmmaking?
No. They obey some of the same rules, that’s all. And these rules are found in nature. Like the duck. You could pick any animal, but let’s take the duck. The duck is real good for many things — like textures, proportions, shapes. How a duck is made and where the different things are on a duck can give you a clue to a more or less perfect composition for a painting. If you could interpret a duck, if you could work with the rules of a duck, you could get something close to a well-composed painting that had neat things happening.
Your famous first Botched Commission, where in art school you worked for two months shooting and came out with one long blur because the camera was broken — you point to this as something that led you on into film, but isn’t that twenty-twenty hindsight?
It felt funny. It was a very weird thing. It took two months to shoot two minutes and twenty-five seconds. I remember holding the film up to the light to see frames, and I saw no frames. I was not depressed, I was curious to know what was happening. There was no depression. I remember someone asking, “Aren’t you upset?” I said, “No.” The hindsight part came in later. If that had come out and I had sent that to the American Film Institute, it wouldn’t have been good enough to get me the grant I got later. And of course that grant I had to have, if I was going to get into film. So fate was smiling on me.
The feeling you had after a subsequent film didn’t turn out right wasn’t quite as uplifting. Dune.
But I learned a lot of stuff on Dune. I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little by little — and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings — little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So it was destined to be a failure, to me.
Well, the failure of Dune saved you from having to do Dune II and Dune III.
Yes, that’s a plus. Though I was really getting into Dune II. I wrote about half the script, maybe more, and I was really getting excited about it. It was much tighter, a better story.
Did you feel like a failure?
Yeah. I was made to feel like one, and I felt like one too. There were times before, like on The Elephant Man, I went through some things that I thought would be the end of me, but Dune was pretty bad. Even in post-production, I started feeling the writing on the wall.
What did you think would be the end of you on The Elephant Man?
I was supposed to build the Elephant Man’s makeup. And again, I worked for two months, maybe more, two months in England, and what I built was a complete and total disaster. It was a disaster because I wasn’t prepared to build things for a human. And I didn’t know how certain things worked. Though parts of what I did were interesting, it was a disaster. For four days I had nightmares at night, but when I woke up, being awake was worse than the nightmares. Mel Brooks [the film’s producer] came over to England and found a guy to do it in the time we had. Mel’s good attitude pulled me out of the torment of being a complete failure.
Had you ever felt like that before, during those years doing all those lame jobs, before and after school?
No. There I felt like, not like a failure, but very frustrated. There are an awful lot of people who feel this way, and I felt this way for a long time. In order to do a painting, you’ve got to have canvas, stretchers, paint, brushes, turpentine. You have to have a place to paint. You have to have time to paint. And you have to have a certain mental freedom, to think about the painting. And if you have a job or any kind of other responsibilities or an apartment where you’re going to be sued for getting paint here or there? There are so many obstacles to getting set up to paint. That initial outlay of cash to just get set up. It’s almost too much to overcome. It’s staggering to get set up to do anything. If you are going to do photography, just to get a darkroom — there are so many things that can stop you. It’s pretty frustrating. I felt frustrated during all those times, because I never could get set up to work.
Let’s shift gears. I’d like to talk about some elements that seem to be present in all your films, despite the differences between them. First, you have an obsession with obsession.
Yeah, I got that.
Now, during Blue Velvet, when you were filming the scenes of Frank [Dennis Hopper] abusing and raping Dorothy [Isabella Rossellini], apparently you were beside yourself with laughter. You thought this was sort of funny on some level?
I’m sure pretty near every psychiatrist could tell me right now why I was laughing, but I don’t know. It was hysterically funny to me. Frank was completely obsessed. He was like a dog in a chocolate store. He could not help himself. He was completely into it. But I was laughing and I am a human being; there must be some logical reason why. It has something to do with the fact that it was so horrible and so frightening and so intense and violent that there was also this layer of humor.
I don’t know what it is, but it’s there, and it has to do with this degree of obsession, where people cannot help themselves. In New York, especially, you see it on the street all the time. And because you see it on the street, you know it’s happening in their apartments too. But the poor people on the street don’t have any place to go do it privately. These kind of things strike me as humorous sometimes.
Are you obsessive?
Yeah, I’m sure I am. Habits are obsessive things. Having things a certain way. This is sometimes humorous.
That can come from feeling out of control, using habits as centering devices —
Oh, absolutely. I must be completely out of control.
Because you are such a creature of habit?
Yeah. I like to try to control my local environment as much as I can. And it’s impossible to do it.
Do you really feel out of control?
Yeah. There are certain times when it’s an illusion that you have some sort of control. It’s a gift just to get just a little bit of that feeling. There are so many things that can come in and pull the rug out from under you so fast.
Is there a freedom in understanding you don’t have any control? Then you don’t worry about it so much.
Well, yeah. But you still strive for it as much as possible. It’s not control for control’s sake; it’s to get something a certain way. Making something a certain way is really, really hard because there are so many forces at work to undermine what you’re doing. And to stay one jump ahead of it, or even two or three jumps behind it instead of ten or twenty jumps behind it, is sort of fun. It’s sort of what it’s about.
Is it scary to feel out of control?
Yes. Very scary. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
What’s the worst that can happen?
I’m sure that’s the kind of thing a psychiatrist might ask you: “What’s the worst thing that could happen, David?” [Laughs.] And then if you could face that, you could face anything. The worst thing that could happen is that . . . [Long pause.] I don’t know. There’s also the fear of the unknown — who knows what could happen? In the case of a film, the worse thing that could happen is something like Dune. Where the film is halfway there and halfway not.
Let’s look at something else that seems central to your work: the presence of cruelty and physical and mental abuse.
[Angelo Badalamenti comes in, asking if anyone wants coffee.] Angelo, you’ve said the magic word! Light! With sugar! . . . Cruelty, uh-huh.
Where does it come from?
I’m not denying it’s out there on Thirty-fourth Street, but it’s very much there, specifically, in your vision of the world.
It could be a lot of different things. It could be partly what I feel is out there. Partly the stories that attract me. That tension. See, I see films more and more as separate from whatever kind of reality there is anywhere else. And that they are more like fairy tales or dreams. They are not, to me, political or, like, any kind of commentary or any kind of teaching device. They’re just things. It’s another world to go into, if you choose to. But they should obey certain rules. The same as a painting. And these rules are abstract and found in nature.
And one of them is Contrast. It can’t just be a flat, straight line of pure happiness. People fall asleep. So there are conflicts and life-and-death struggles. I like murder mysteries. They get me completely, because they are mysteries and deal with life and death. So I’m hooked right away. The letdown is if the story is too simplistic or it’s not structured properly so it doesn’t have a lot of satisfaction. But initially, if you say “mystery” and “murder,” that always gets me, and if you throw in the word “hotel” or “factory” I get even more involved.
So you don’t know where this predilection for cruelty comes from?
No. I was not tortured as a child. And I didn’t ever see anybody get tortured. So either it’s a coincidence that this is all through there or the reason lies beyond, somewhere else.
Okay, let’s look at one aspect of “Contrast.” In your work, there’s a constant dichotomy between Good and Evil, between Light and Darkness, and Innocence and Knowledge, where Knowledge is aligned with guilt, danger, horror — Knowledge as a kind of sickness.
Uh-huh. Knowing the wrong thing, like the man who knew too much, is sometimes a real drag.
I guess what I’m wondering is whether, outside the constructed world of the films, you see the world as having these very strong dichotomies between Good and Evil, as opposed to a kind of complex, integrated —
No, I know it’s complex. Everybody’s got many threads of both running through them. But I think in a film white gets a little whiter, and black gets a little bit blacker, for the sake of the story. That’s part of the beauty of it, that contrast, the power of it. Maybe it would be very beautiful to have a character that had an equal mixture of both, where the forces were fighting equally. But maybe they would just stand still.
You mentioned life and death. It’s compelling that all your movies have a birth scene — or some kind of abstracted birth scene — and also death scenes, scenes of murder or murderous intent. Finally, in Wild at Heart the birth scene is a death scene — an abortion. How we start and how we finish seems the biggest subject on the table for you?
Is it on your hard disk?
I guess so. [Laughs.] It must be. You know, it’s in interviews that you can sometimes see some sense to it. Most of the time the thinking exists on a more abstract area. You don’t even worry about what things you’ve done before, or if these things are out there or are they just in here, is it out of proportion, or whatever. You’re just going along and catching this fantastic train that leads to a new world and another story.
What I’m saying is that the trains run to all kinds of destinations and through all sorts of scenery —
But might be going all to one place. [Laughs.]
No, not at all: but wherever they’re going, they’re still in Lynchville! Even in The Alphabet, your first four-minute animated film, the capital letter A gives bloody birth to little a’s. The Grandmother has an excruciating birth, Eraserhead has any number of disturbing births, The Elephant Man and so on — what gets you about it?
For a long time, and I suppose, still, the idea of birth was a mysterious and fantastic thing, involving, again, like sex, just pure meat and blood and hair. And then at the same time, this feeling of life and the spiritual thing. There are too many things going on there not to be fascinated by it. [The coffee arrives.] Angelo, bless your heart, I sure am gonna dig this!
Did you attend the birth of either of your children?
Both. For Jennifer, in those days, at the hospital in Philadelphia, they wouldn’t let fathers in there. And so I was real proud of myself, because I could convince the doctor that I could handle it. I did, because he kept taking blood from my wife Peggy, and I figured more of it than he needed to take, just to see if I would pass out or something. And when he saw that I was able to handle that, he said okay, I could come in. So I scrubbed up and put on the green shoes and the outfit. I went in and, like twenty-five billion people, witnessed this thing. And it’s not so much what you see as an abstraction you feel. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s real weird.
All of a sudden there’s someone else in the room.
There’s a lot in the room, it feels like! Things you can’t see. It’s pretty powerful.
Could you make a film without birthing or dying?
Sure, you could do it. But it’s putting the cart before the horse. Some people get on a kick. They say, let’s make a film about this. And then they create a whole story to support this idea. It’s backwards. Later on, you maybe find out what the film is about. I’m not saying it’s good, it’s just more natural for me. And they don’t all happen at once: they happen in fragments. Even a book, you’re reading in fragments, one chapter after another. You’re carried forward by these things and a world is starting to go in your mind. But for me, the world of the mind, it’s fuzzy. It’s not complete. It has holes in it. It can’t be shared so well. When you make it specific and concrete and have so many elements swimming together, it becomes so powerful and shareable.
Now, let me bring up a touchy subject. The position of women in your films. For Blue Velvet you took some abuse about —
Because people have an idea that Dorothy was Everywoman, instead of just being Dorothy. That’s where the problem starts. If it’s just Dorothy, and it’s her story — which it is to me — then everything is fine. If Dorothy is Everywoman, it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t add up. It’s completely false, and they’d be right to be upset.
Ideas are the weirdest things. They’re out floating, and you catch them, and you can build them into something. Like a table. It’s right there floating. And then it appears in your mind: suddenly you’ve caught it, it bubbles up, shows itself to you, and you can go in your shop and put it together. And that’s how these things go.
Let’s try to talk more concretely about women in your films — the “disease” that Dorothy has. There’s a kind of physical threat that hangs over women in “Twin Peaks” and Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. And there’s a certain amount of female complicity in it. Even in “Twin Peaks,” Ronette Pulaski, who’s beaten to within an inch of her life, rates four red hearts in the department store manager’s secret book of call girls, and we know Laura Palmer, who’s brutally murdered, is not Snow White. Are you ever afraid that you sidle up close to a sort of “blaming the victim”?
I know what you’re talking about. Again, it goes to Ronette Pulaski not being Ronette Pulaski as Everywoman, but just Ronette Pulaski. Everyone can picture in their mind a situation where the girl — for one reason or another — went along with the situation. And everyone can picture in their mind where the girl said, “I’m not into this one little bit!” and got out. And then there’s a borderline, where it’s right on the edge for a person: where it’s interesting, but it’s sickening, or it’s frightening or it’s too much, or almost, or not quite. There’s every different combo in this world. When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalizations, and you can’t win. There is no generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities . . .
In the naked city —
Now let’s talk about these women. Both Dorothy in Blue Velvet and Laura in “Twin Peaks” have the “disease.” Laura gets off on a man almost killing her, because it makes sex great. What’s the “disease” to you? Can you be more up front about it?
Come on, David.
No, because just the word “disease” used in that way . . . it’s so beautiful just to leave it abstract. Once it becomes specific, it’s no longer true to a lot of people, where if it’s abstract there could be some truth to it for everybody.
But come on, we know there’s a kind of masochism at work here —
But even that can be so complicated that even to start talking about it wouldn’t do it justice. It would always make it be less than it really is, because it’s so unbelievably complicated. And if it wasn’t complicated, people could be fixed and made perfect so easily. It just is so complicated.
One critic pointed out that in Blue Velvet women were either abused or useful to men, and that the only choices women had were those put before them by men.
That’s this person’s take on it. How would what he said have anything to do with Sandy [Laura Dern]? She wasn’t totally manipulated by anybody, you know, any man. She did tons of stuff on her own. She liked certain things. She didn’t like certain things. She made; decisions on her own. She acted and reacted with her own apparatus. She gets Jeffrey into the situation on her own. On her own. But instead of her going over to that woman’s house, she is able to catch the interest in Jeffrey and fire it up, so that he does the dirty work. Meanwhile, Aunt Barbara and they are at home, all they can do is watch it on TV, they don’t even want to go out of their house. They’ll see it in the safety of their living room. But they’re interested in it. It’s all about an interest in things that are hidden and mysterious. Sandy is very smart and very together. What he said was kind of a general thing, and when you put it against what’s really there it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. [Lynch assumes, wrongly, that the critic is a man.]
How about Lula, though, in Wild at Heart? Lula [again, Laura Dern] in the movie is certainly a step back as compared to Lula in the book in terms of her assertiveness, her aggressiveness, her control over the world around her. In the book, Lula tells Sailor where to get off, orders him when to drive. She finds him dancing with another woman at a club and throws a bottle at him, which hits him, and lets him know how pissed she is at him; whereas in the movie there’s a club scene where Sailor [Nicolas Cage] sort of “rescues” her, and defends his territory when another man tries to dance with her. Couldn’t one say that Lula is made a less modern woman through the way you’ve channeled the book?
[Long pause. Irritated] Well, I don’t know about modern women. Except that Lula is . . . it just so happens that both those other scenes were shot, and because of time and one thing after another, they didn’t get in. It may not be that she throws a bottle at him, but there are still lots of indications that she would be very pissed off at Sailor if he ever did something like that. You can tell that from the way she just is. The thing that got me about Sailor and Lula is their relationship: they’re so really good to each other and in love and they treat each other with respect, in my opinion. I don’t know about a modern man or a modern woman, but that’s a modern romance. Because Sailor can be cool and masculine, but still have tenderness toward Lula and treat her as an equal. Never talk down to her. He just talks to her. And the same with Lula to him. One of the reasons I love this relationship and this book is them being equals.
But in the book she’s sensitive to the fact that he might be talking down to her. She doesn’t like being called “Peanut” all the time. She says, “I don’t know that I completely enjoy you callin’ me Peanut so much . . . puts me so far down on the food chain.”
Oh, I don’t even remember that. No, she loves to be called Peanut.
It’s in the book. Now, there’s an Oedipal thing happening in your films. You either have a kind of mystical reunion with the lost mother or you have —
Well, that’s The Elephant Man. That’s specific to that story. For the Elephant Man, his fondest memory was of his mother. His whole life was built trying to live up to something he imagined her wanting for him. So that when he died it needed to be that way: with the mother. It felt right. What other films?
— You have, in Blue Velvet, and elsewhere, a kind of “sex with mom” thing going on.
Frank is like an infant, calls Dorothy “Mommy” and says at one point, “Baby wants to fuck!”
He’s either daddy or he’s baby.
And in Wild at Heart, Lula’s mom [Diane Ladd] comes on to her boyfriend, Sailor —
And that happens in Eraserhead, too!
Right, Mary’s mom comes on to Henry [Jack Nance]. And now, on “Twin Peaks,” we get to see Benjamin Horne confronting his daughter Audrey in a whorehouse bedroom. There is a pattern here.
Well, yeah, the trouble is if you do more than one of anything, then people start comparing. A lot of times it leads you into strange conclusions that have no bearing on reality or the way it came about. It could just be a coincidence that each story . . . some of them I didn’t write, I didn’t think up, even though I was involved in the script. Ideas come along. How much is something inside me? I think the inside-you part dictates a lot, but then the idea part coming in from outside is a big part of it, too. I don’t know. There’s a lot of things that human beings do that are completely fascinating, and at the same time you think they are somewhat strange.
That seems to be the way we’re built.
That’s exactly right. And those are the things that are so interesting to work with in films. If things are real normal, you might as well just stay home — they’re strange enough there. In film, things get heightened. You see things a little bit more and feel things a little bit more.
You seem kind of defensive about this.
Because I don’t know if it’s true that there are these similarities.
Well, let me bring up one more for observation. There’s a sense, at the ends of your films, in the redemptive power of fantasy, of the imagination itself. There’s a, not childish, but maybe childlike sense that you pant to see or imagine something brand new, that the possibilities of your imagination are what save you.
Yeah. It’s tough, again, to talk about some general thing, but I guess — for myself — I believe in this force of evolution. Being in darkness and confusion is really interesting to me, but behind it you can rise out of that and see things the way they really are. That there is some sort of truth to the whole thing, if you could just get to that point where you could see it, and live it, and feel it and all that. I think it’s a long, long way off. In the meantime, there’s suffering and darkness and confusion and absurdities, and it’s people kind of going in circles. It’s fantastic. It’s like a strange carnival: it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of pain.
Is it all darkness and confusion?
Everything is relative. I’d say this world is maybe not the brightest place one could hope to be.
One of the confusions seems to be over whether art has to mean anything. Let me quote you: “Why do people want art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense?” First off, I don’t think people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. Religion and myth were invented against that, to try to make some sense out of life. Don’t you think that’s where art comes from too?
Maybe some of it does. But for me, I’m of the Western Union school. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s even a problem with responsibility. You have to be free to think up things. They come along, these ideas, and they hook themselves together, and the unifying thing is the euphoria they give you, or the repulsion they give you (and you throw those ideas away). If they’re all stringing themselves happily together and they’re forming a story that’s carrying you forward, the first way you can kill that is to start worrying about what other people are going to think. Then you start worrying about what your immediate friends or family are going to think — that can kill it right there. The next thing to worry about is the general public. It’s so abstract, you kill it instantly. Then you have to worry about the future people, and you can’t even imagine what they’re going to be like, so you’d have to figure they’re not going to like it. You have to just trust yourself. If you have any sort of moral thing or boundaries you won’t cross over, that’s going to shape your story. Then, if you’re given permission and the money to make this into a film, you say, this is just the way it is. Please walk out of the theatre if it’s upsetting you. If you don’t like it, fine. I’m real sorry you had to see even a frame of it. People have to be able to create these things.
But that’s not to say they don’t mean anything?
No, but if you start worrying right away about the meaning of everything, chances are your poor intellect is only going to glean a little portion of it. If it stays abstract, if it’s in an area where it feels truthful, and it hooks in the right way, and it thrills you as it moves to the next idea, and it seems to move and make some sort of intuitive sense, that is a real good guideline.
There’s a certain kind of logic and truth and right workings that you have to trust. That’s the only thing you have to go by. Fifteen trillion decisions go through this same process: it’s either kicked out or taken, or turned this way or that way. That’s how it goes along.
So you don’t resist the idea that your films mean something?
Not a bit. But they mean different things to different people.
Let’s hope so.
Yeah. But even so, some mean more or less the same things to a large number of people. It’s okay. Just as long as there’s not one message, spoon-fed. That’s what films by committee end up being and it’s a real bummer to me. No message is hard to do, because people will read into anything. You can’t do a no-message film, it’s impossible.
So to say that art doesn’t need to make sense because life doesn’t make sense —
Life is very, very complicated and so films should be allowed to be too. That’s more like the way it is.
Is there an element in this filtering process — the fifteen trillion decisions — where there’s a line, or boundary, that you’d like to cross, your intuition tells you to cross, but which you pull back from because it would be too much for people to take?
Yes. And that happened on Wild at Heart. When you make a film, it’s like a soup. And so much is evaporated out before you get it in the bowl, and probably some is lost off the spoon, and some is stuck in your tooth that you spit out later on: it’s only important finally what gets in your stomach, what gets on the screen. And so this process of making the film doesn’t stop until someone sits down in the theatre. Like they say, the projectionist has final cut. They can chop off certain things, rearrange the reels. So you keep on checking what you’re doing with the intuition thing, or, like in Wild at Heart, if vast numbers of people get up out of the audience and leave the theatre, you’ve got a decision to make.
They’re straining the soup.
They just don’t like the soup.
You had two test screenings of Wild at Heart where you had an elephant-stampede out of the theatre — during a scene that involved masturbation, gunplay, and bottles —
It didn’t even involve that. Yes, that’s the scene, but it didn’t really involve those things that way. The scene is almost there in its entirety now. But it really taught me something: an audience can really be with you, but if you rub it in their face too much — which I didn’t think I was doing — they say,
“That’s enough!” and out they go. And you can’t blame them. I thought it was more powerful that way, but it reached a point where it was too much.
We lopped off the end of the scene, and that brought it back into the good zone. The scene is necessary. At one point I took it out entirely, and without that scene, there was no life-or-death threat, and it was very important to underlie the rest of the film.
What do you think causes such discomfort for people watching certain images?
I don’t know. There again, an experienced doctor could tell us. All I know is, it went one step too far, and it snapped their involvement in the story. They rose up out of the story, then they rose up out of their seats, and they eventually got out of the theatre. And the ones that stayed never got back into the film after that. I can’t really blame them.
Is there anything you can’t watch yourself, other than for reasons of boredom?
Oh, sure. Sure. I don’t know what they are, but there are a lot of things all of us don’t want to see.
What won’t you look at? What have you turned away from or turned off because you couldn’t handle it?
[Long pause.] Umm, let’s see. [Long pause.] I can’t remember. I can’t remember.
Have you seen the footage from the concentration camps?
Well, that would be hard to watch and hard to not watch. A lot of people could not watch it. The stuff that human beings do to one another is sometimes impossible to understand or believe, but they still do. So you want to watch to get a hint of how far we’ll go as human beings. It’s just unbelievable. So you could question your motives for watching and question your motives for not watching. It’s a complicated thing.
Were you surprised that it took an external stimulus, a test audience, to tell you to take that scene out of Wild at Heart?
Yeah, I was. That’s when I started changing my ideas about these test screenings. There’s something about several hundred people sitting in a room. It’s not what they write on their cards at the end of the screening, it’s the feeling you have sitting in the room with them. It doesn’t matter who they are. There’s a certain thing we’ll all do if three hundred people are together. It’s important to see your film with that presence. You can learn so much. If there was a machine that could give you that feeling of them being around you . . . but there isn’t. It needs to be those souls sitting right next to you. You feel things completely differently. It’s unbelievable. It’s so frightening but it’s so important. The reason people don’t like it is because it’s so hard to endure. So they say, “I don’t dig test screenings. I don’t believe in them.” Well, I believe in them, but I don’t dig them. I really believe in them now.
So even though on an important level you don’t care what the audience thinks, you want to communicate, don’t you? You’re not just making these things for yourself.
No, you don’t make them for yourself, but you don’t make them for . . . uh, it’s, well, I don’t understand how it works. You can think that you’re making them for yourself, but when you sit with the three hundred people you realize that if you were really making it for yourself you would have done this a little differently. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but they tell you certain things by being there. Certain things you tricked yourself into thinking were working you see honestly and truly are not working when you have three hundred people there. So it’s really a way of checking yourself, by having them there.
Let’s talk about some of your work that hasn’t been produced, starting with the oldest project, Gardenback.
Gardenback is a good example. It should have been a short film. Very abstract. It’s the script I submitted along with The Grandmother to the Center for Advanced Film Studies. No one really understood what I was trying to do with it. I don’t blame them.
You described it as “an abstract film about adultery.”
And it was, but they made me say that. Finally, Frank Daniel asked me, “Is this film about adultery?” I guess it is, but it’s about other things, too. A guy who was making low-budget horror films told me he’d give me $50,000 to do it if I’d turn it into a feature. He didn’t understand it either. But it had a monster in it — which is all that he cared about. He thought it was a monster. Fifty thousand dollars was like someone now giving me five million. But it had to be expanded to be a feature . . .
And that killed it?
That killed it for sure. Because it became less and less abstract and more and more “normal” in a boring way.
Have you been able to steal from the corpse?
Maybe a little bit. It crept into paintings and lots of things. I was fascinated with gardens: people standing in gardens in paintings, form in a garden, at night. I really loved that. Then I became really frustrated, but all that was good because it led to Eraserhead.
Your most celebrated unmade work is Ronnie Rocket. Is it dead in the water, completely?
No, no, no, no, never, not in a million years. It’s hard to say I’m going to make Ronnie Rocket next. I don’t know if it’ll ever be made. It’s definitely not dead. I’ve talked about it so much and scripts of it are around — I’m waiting for the next step to happen to do it, if there is a next step. I’m waiting for a time where I don’t really care what happens, except that the film is finished. I do care, now, enough so that a film like Ronnie Rocket is frightening, because it’s not a commercial picture. It’s an American smokestack industrial thing — it has to do with coal and oil and electricity. It might be a picture that I would love, but I don’t know if too many other people are going to dig it. It’s very abstract.
There’s not an arrow of narrative?
Well, I think it’s pretty straight ahead. I think it’s kind of plain. But it is kind of absurd. It’s not like a regular picture. And I want to have time to go into that world and live in it for a while, and that costs money. I don’t really want to have a normal eleven-week shooting schedule on Ronnie Rocket. I’d rather go with a smaller crew, and build the sets and live in them for a while and let it build up that patina that we were talking about.
Is there anybody out there who would afford you that opportunity?
There are some people, kind of coming around, that have so much money that they don’t really care, necessarily, about making a profit. They wouldn’t mind getting their money back.
Would you junk narrative if you could? Would that be the first thing to go if you could work outside commercial Hollywood cinema?
No way. What are you calling narrative? The story?
Yes, the linear “A leads to B leads to C . . . ”
Well, not necessarily. Sometimes it really works and you need it. Sometimes the linear thing isn’t really so hot. It doesn’t take you underneath the surface and allow for surprise or thrill. But I really believe in a story. How it’s told is the key to the whole thing.
After Blue Velvet, there were a couple of other projects you were interested in. What about Red Dragon, the novel Thomas Harris wrote before Silence of the Lambs?
I was involved in that a little bit, until I got sick of it. I was going into a world that was going to be, for me, real, real violent. And completely degenerate. One of those things: No Redeeming Qualities.
So that movie couldn’t even get into your county club?
The way I was thinking of it, I didn’t want to let it into my country club. It was made. It was called Manhunter.
Your first project with Mark Frost, which never got onto its feet, was Goddess. What can you tell me about that?
That’s when Mark and I first met. I always, like ten trillion other people, liked Marilyn Monroe, and was fascinated by her life. So when this came along I was interested, but, you know, what’s the drill? I got into it carefully.
They were going to put a writer on it. CAA [Creative Artists Agency] loves to package people together. So they packaged me with Mark. I met with him and liked him, and we had a plan. We met with Anthony Summers, who wrote the book. The more we went along the more it was sort of like UFOs. You’re fascinated by them, but you can’t really prove if they exist. Even if you see pictures, or stories, or people are hypnotized, you never really know. Same thing with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and all this. I can’t figure out even now what’s real and what’s a story. It got into the realm of a bio pic and the Kennedys thing and away from this movie actress that was falling. I got cold on it. And when we put in the script who we thought did her in, the studio bailed out real quick.
For political reasons?
Who did you finger?
Never mind. Never mind. [Laughs.]
Was your attraction to Monroe another example of what Wendy Robie said was your attraction to “broken beauty”?
I don’t know what it is. It’s a sadness in the beauty. It’s like mystery and beauty and sadness.
One Saliva Bubble. Steve Martin, Martin Short. Kansas. A ray from a military satellite. And then what happens?
And then all kind of wacko hell breaks loose. And out-and-out wacko dumb comedy. Cliches one end to the other.
Your version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?
Well, sort of. It makes me laugh. Mark and I were laughing like crazy when we wrote it. I thought of this idea on an airplane. Steve Martin and I had met and we were interested in this one particular project way back when. We had both read a book, I’ve forgotten what it was. He loved it, and he still loves it. The only problem is, every time I get ready to commit to it, I think the problem for me is that there’s not enough meat to it. I feel like a lot of people could do it.
Where did the title come from?
It came from a funny accident that caused the satellite to go off.
What about The Lemurians?
The Lemurians was a thing Mark and I were going to do as a TV show. Based on the continent of Lemuria, which was fictitiously thought of as a very evil continent. It was sunk way before Atlantis even rose — sunk because they were so evil. Jacques Cousteau inadvertently moved a rock, very early in his travels — part of it was “Jacques, Jacques, had to move that rock.” A lot of poems in it. Part of the lore surrounds the leaking of Lemurian essence from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Anyway, the essence is leaking, and becomes a threat to all goodness in the world. It’s a comedy!
NBC said, “Thank you very much —”
“— It’s real nice seeing you fellas.” The problem with The Lemurians is it’s a complicated show.
There are detectives tracking extraterrestrials, right?
Yes, and all sorts of things. It’s so complicated that we don’t have time to introduce another TV show right now. It would mean cutting your concentration down to where it’s impossible . . .
Too thin a pancake gets —
I’m a real thin pancake! I’m right on the edge.
What about The Cowboy and the Frenchman?
I really want to release that. I was in Paris with Isabella. And we were taken to a restaurant by this Frenchman. The restaurant was really, really good!
Almost as good as this one!
Yeah, when are we gonna get some food? I’m getting so hungry. It’s 4 p.m. for you. You must be just going insane! So this guy said he was interested in doing this thing — the French newspaper Figaro was going to have six directors do short films commenting on the French, for their two-hundred-year anniversary. And I was going to be the American director. So I said, “I’m flattered that you asked me, but I don’t have an idea about it right now. And I’m busy. But if I get an idea in the next two weeks, I’ll call.” It was a real small thing.
That night I got an idea. I called him. He said, “That’s great, two cliches in one!” I said, “You got it!” So I made it. It was supposed to be four minutes long. Mine turned out to be twenty-one minutes long. I didn’t really go over budget, just over time — because I was having so much fun. It was Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, Tracy Walter, Michael Horse, and the Frenchman, Pierre. We had strange music and horses. We were on a little farm outside of town.
It’s an absurd comedy. A Frenchman was in New York City and some very kind people gave him some pills in Central Park. Then he took them, and the next thing he knows is he ends up at a ranch in the West and Harry Dean Stanton is the foreman and Jack and Tracy are the sidekicks. And they don’t know what he is, until they start going through his valise. Finally, they figure out that he’s a Frenchman. And it goes from there.
That piece is very dreamlike. Do you use your own dreams in your work?
No. One time. Well, twice. There was a scene in Eraserhead that was cut out. And in Blue Velvet I’d been having a lot of trouble solving the ending — not the “ending” ending but near the end. One day I went over to Universal Studios, I forget why I was over there, and I had my script with me, and I was trying to finish it, and I was sitting in a chair, there was a receptionist, and I started writing, and as I was writing I remembered I’d had a dream the night before, and it suddenly became clear. The dream was the scene in Dorothy’s living room. And in the dream I saw Jeffrey reach into the man in the yellow suit’s pocket. Two things came from the dream: the police radio and the pistol in the yellow man’s jacket. Then I went back in and wrote the scene where they’re driving to Ben’s and he says, “Hide the police radio,” so Frank would know that Jeffrey knew he had it. So anyway, those things came from the dreams. That’s the only time it’s happened like that.
What about your acting debut in Zelly and Me in 1988? It seemed like such an odd choice for you — because the movie itself was so precious and sticky-sweet, and everything your work is not. I couldn’t understand the choice, except that Isabella was the star.
It was all Isabella. I consequently met Tina [Rathborne, writer and director] and liked her a lot. I don’t think Tina set out to make the movie as sweet as it was. It was her first feature film, one thing happened after another. Mainly I did it because I had a fascination to see if I could do it. Mainly to overcome this fear of acting, which is phenomenally fearful.
You mean you didn’t do it so you could expose your manly chest?
I was afraid I would cause a lot of guys to feel very bad about themselves. I’m sorry.
Are you still making any kits? [Lynch used to dismember small animals to make “kits,” like organic hobby-shop models.]
I have a strong, strong desire to make kits. I did a duck kit and chicken kit during Dune. I did a fish kit. I didn’t do anything during Blue Velvet. I haven’t done anything lately. My duck kit didn’t turn out well. The photograph was very blurred, you couldn’t read the writing. I wanted to do a mouse kit. I have a photo which may go into a book of a children’s fish kit — which is much more simple than the adult fish kit.
The period after Blue Velvet, when you were all tied up in the bankruptcy of your producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was that a —
Yeah, it was. I almost was going to make One Saliva Bubble then. We had all our scouts, had it cast, was right there ready to go. Dino kept delaying it, delaying it, delaying it. It became obvious it wasn’t going to happen: there wasn’t any money. Shortly thereafter his company went bankrupt. We saw the writing on the wall.
Was there a period where you were kept from working?
No, but if I had wanted to make Ronnie Rocket then, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, because I found out that Dino owned it. And Up at the Lake and One Saliva Bubble. Not only did he own it, but he had made money on it. And so when I finally got it back, I found out that if anybody makes any of those projects they will have to pay, out of first profits, a bunch of money to DDL that Dino has already taken.
How has Dino made money on them?
He paid himself a salary.
That’s nice. How was your parting with him?
Very amiable. Dino does his thing. You can’t fault the guy. He’s just one or two steps ahead of everybody in a certain way, and by the time you learn the game, you’ve already been hurt bad. [Laughs.]
Let’s go to “Twin Peaks.” You’ve been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, haven’t you?
I used to live right next door.
That’s what I figured! But in an interrogation, David, sometimes one has to ask even the obvious questions. Do you know a piece by Marcel Duchamp, dated 1946–66, so it would have been finished just before you got to Philly?
Well, the piece is called Given 1) The Waterfall 2) The Illuminating Gas. It’s a dark, empty room. Along one wall are dark wood boards, nailed up. In the boards, at eye level, are two peepholes, and through them you can see a constructed scene. And in the scene is a naked, sort of dead woman, lying on her back, and off to the right pulses this amazing waterfall. Except for the fact that it’s not a lake, it feels like the beginning spark —
— Of “Twin Peaks.” I’ll be darned!
With TV being the modern peephole, exposing the darkness, in a paradoxical way. I just thought you might have seen it?
Maybe so. Maybe so. But the waterfall was not in the script. We didn’t know there was a waterfall up there. And the girl would have been naked, but it was on television — you can’t do that.
She seemed naked, but we couldn’t see —
Underneath the plastic. But everyone is naked underneath their clothes. [Laughs.]
How did you feel watching the pilot, at your New York City hotel room?
Actually, it was pretty depressing. I was amazed by the poor quality of the image and the sound. There’s a gigantic, huge loss of quality. If we could know the way it should be, and experience that, it’s a whole different thing.
So you were depressed?
Yeah, but the commercials didn’t depress me. I liked them. The commercials, I thought, were sort of thrilling. It was live. It was all around the country. It was kind of nice.
But before “Twin Peaks” ever aired you called commercials “big, violent interruptions” that you thought were pretty absurd, that the system didn’t work —
Well, I still think they’re absurd.
But by the end of the first year of the series you were watching to see who were the advertisers, and you were glad they were big companies; you’d changed and become more of a participant in the world of commercials.
Yeah, I . . . I . . . that’s true. I’m joining in the absurdity. [Laughs.]
Did that change your attitude about making them, or was it a check someone decided to write you?
No. I’ve only done one legitimate commercial.
For heroin, right?
For Opium. [Laughs.] Now I’m doing one for another company, but we’re not going to mention it [Calvin Klein’s Obsession].
It’s going to be tough to keep under the rug. Are you doing it for essentially financial reasons, or you like the challenge, or you’ve always secretly in your heart wanted to sell products?
Let’s see. It’s sort of, it’s — obviously, it’s got to be partly the money. But, these commercials. I liked the idea of them. And I like to — I’ve got kind of a thing now about keeping busy. It’s sort of getting a little bit absurd.
Yeah, something like that. I hope I’m not biting off too much. The Opium spot aired a long time ago. I like it, it’s kind of pretty.
Back to “Twin Peaks.” There’s a sense that there’s a lack of respect for certain characters on the show. There’s a thin line between laughing at a character and making fun of them —
Who are we making fun of?
Maybe Nadine with her eye patch, or Leland in his grief, or Johnny in the headdress banging his head up against the dollhouse. These are things I found spectacularly funny, but there’s a part of me that isn’t comfortable with my own laughter in some cases. Do you feel there’s a danger here?
There’s danger around every corner. I think . . . it’s, uh . . . it depends. If Johnny had a disease or something that you were making fun of, that would be one thing. He could just have an emotional problem and could come out of it. He could be pretending this whole thing, too. It sort of depends on how you see it. It’s not meant in my mind to be offensive or to make fun of anybody, really. But at the same time, because he’s the way he is, there’s a humor side you can’t avoid. A lot of times, someone who’s in bad shape can do something funny — you laugh. At the same time, there can be a lot of compassion underneath that laugh. And yet it’s the way the world is. It’s so screwy — we’re all kind of in this thing together, and there’s got to be some room for a realistic attitude towards things. You can’t just — TV and all these things would be reduced down to Tarzan movies, and we’d have nothing more.
Have you heard of the “Moment of Shit”?
[Very interested.] No, I haven’t heard that.
The “Moment of Shit” is what TV writers call it when everything comes together, and you have that edifying moment, when you are supposed to get the Message, and the Morality comes across —
We have a lot of moments like that. [Laughs.]
The nice thing about “Twin Peaks” is that it turns the fan on all that. Now, is it true that, filming Eraserhead in 1972, you looked at Catherine Coulson putting on her glasses and said, “I see a log in your arms. One day I’ll do a series and you’ll be the Log Lady”? It seems wildly impossible.
It’s sort of true. What happened was, Cath and I did another piece called The Amputee. It’s about four or seven minutes long. I’d like to show it to you. She’s a very interesting actress. Through Eraserhead she got into the other side of the camera and became a camera assistant, and she’s been doing that ever since, until the Log Lady.
I had an idea for a show I wanted to call “I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge.” And that is true. And I wanted her to be a woman who lived with a son or a daughter, single, because her husband was killed in a fire. Her fireplace is completely boarded up, his pipes are there, his sock hat, stuff like this. And she takes the log to various experts in various fields of science or whatever. Like, if she goes to the dentist, the log would get put into the chair. With a little bib put on it. The dentist would X-ray the log, even to find out where its teeth were. Or he’d say to the little kid, “Let’s say the log had a cavity. First I’d give it novocaine.” And go through all the steps.
So, through the log, through this kind of absurdity, you would learn, you’d be gaining so much knowledge through the show. A lot of times they wouldn’t even go to the scientists. They’d stop off at a diner, and there’d be stories there. This was my big show.
So when it came time for shooting the “Twin Peaks” pilot, I called Catherine. And she got herself up to Seattle on her own, stayed at a friend’s house, and came in and did this thing. Flicked the lights at the town meeting. “Who’s that?” “We call her the Log Lady.” And that was pretty much it. Except it was just one of those things that just stuck, so consequently, it became more than that.
Let’s talk about the psycho-killer. In Blue Velvet, “Twin Peaks,” and Wild at Heart, you have characters who are very attractive, in an almost magnetic way, who are psychotic killers. What’s the pull for you in using these characters?
I think it’s the scariest thing to know someone, or suspect someone, that has a very intelligent mind — really nothing is wrong with them in any way — but who is possessed by evil, and who has dedicated themselves to doing evil. This is so unbelievable, so hard to figure.
You think it’s just an act of volition for these people? That they just “decide” to do evil because they’re in the mood for it?
No, I think it’s a complicated thing. I think there is some disturbance, electrical or chemical, and some people might believe it is even beyond that. Some disturbance where they’re smiling at you, but something you see in their eyes gives you the willies. And your smile back to them doesn’t change their mind. The meals that you buy them, the schools they go to: none of that makes one bit of difference to these people. They do what they do, regardless.
The public obviously has a great appetite for characters like this, not only in film and TV, but on the news as well, as if they free us from the bounds of our own civility. There’s a kind of wild freedom in what they do that’s attractive.
I don’t think it’s that at all. We don’t want to do these things. We’re fascinated only because — I’ve never exactly figured out what the fascination is, but I think we want to understand it so we can conquer it. First of all, we want to really see it, so we can see if it’s true. And then, we want to learn about it enough that we can do something about it. It’s just too, too . . . there’s something that captures our interest, but it’s not a sickness, I don’t think.
It was ten years for you between Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and I’m interested in why, after such a long stretch between original pieces, you would turn after Blue Velvet to essentially someone else’s story, Wild at Heart.
Well, it’s hard to figure, you know. [Long pause.] A lot of my stories from that time were owned by Dino. And when you’ve been thinking about something in your mind, it was just forming up so nicely, certain things I was thinking about, and Dino, or anybody, takes that — and you can’t do that. Your mind refuses to — you want those ideas, and in order to go to the next step in your own work you have to do the ones that are there. I couldn’t finish Eraserhead, but I couldn’t start anything else until it was done. So I was really in a frustrating place. This last go around, after Blue Velvet, the ideas that were really my own were locked off from me, and when I read Barry Gifford’s book it was just what the doctor ordered. So many different things in the air pointed toward this way to go. Sometimes you go and you get nothing but red lights, and you can fight it for a while, but pretty soon it’s like you drive a block and stop, drive a block and stop. This one just got green lights like crazy.
Obviously, a film and a book are always going to be different animals — make different noises and eat different things — but you really radically changed this book. There are whole plot development and feeling differences in the movie. How did you come to these things?
When I read the book, they came to me. Barry said, “I don’t care what you do with this — there will be Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Go with it. Go for it.” So it became a point of departure for a lot of things. But Sailor and Lula, what I really loved about the book, stayed always through it.
Did you know at the beginning that the Wizard of Oz thing was going to be so blatant?
No, that kind of crept in at different times. The last piece that came in was the character Jack Nance plays, talking about, “My dog barks some. You may even picture Toto from The Wizard of Oz.”
You make an interesting aesthetic choice to make it so front and center, as opposed to subtle or subliminal. Was that a difficult, decision?
No. Sailor and Lula just have this fascination with The Wizard of Oz. It’s just part of them, like it’s part of so many people.
Do you share this fascination?
Oh yeah. Yeah.
Is that where Dorothy in Blue Velvet got her name?
I think so.
Also in Blue Velvet: Frank Booth and the Lincoln Apartments — Booth and Lincoln — I thought was not coincidental.
No, there are all sorts of things like that.
Another of the changes involves Lula. In the book, she’s raped, but in the movie it’s much more violent, more traumatic. Why did you change this?
Because I didn’t really believe the book. [Laughs.] I wanted Bobby Peru [Willem Dafoe] to go to work on both Sailor and Lula. And I wanted what he did to Lula to tie into what she’d been through before. It also pointed out that Lula plays tricks on herself, like we all do — she blocks out many parts of reality so that she can still continue to be Lula.
I thinks that’s called denial. Denial is a river in Eygpt.
Yeah, denial. Thanks, doctor. [Laughs.]
How would you describe Wild at Heart? You can’t say, as you have, “a road picture, a love story, a psychological drama, and a violent comedy.”
Well, I wouldn’t be able to describe it then. [Long pause.] I don’t have a one-sentence thing that captures it.
You described Blue Velvet as a moral picture —
Yes. You said that Jeffrey learns about the world and that he helps Dorothy in the process. Would you make the same claim about Wild at Heart?
Well, like I always say, we’re all coming at things from different angles. And I think that Sailor and Lula are trying to live properly. They’re struggling in darkness and confusion, like everybody else. It’s hard to say. I don’t know for sure. The idea that there’s room for love in a really cool world, that to me is really interesting.
At the end of the picture, the Good Witch in a bubble tells us, “Don’t turn away from love, don’t turn away from love, don’t turn away from love.” Might one accuse David Lynch of going to Western Union to send a message?
No. That’s the Good Witch talking.
But you resolve the story and the movie in a way that seems to pull back from what’s happened —
In a way. But not . . . see, I didn’t buy the ending in the book. In the first script, the ending was true to the book [Sailor and Lula go their separate ways]. But emotionally, it wasn’t ringing true at all! I couldn’t think of a reason when Samuel Goldwyn asked me, “Why is he leaving?” He hated the ending. If it had been honest, I could have given him an answer. But I said, “I hate the ending, too.” I think they’ve learned a lot more, and grown more, even through fantasy, this way. The other way was a real . . . defeat.
Does the happy ending make you happy?
Well, the thing is . . . yeah, of course it does. And it rings true, to me, also. I think that Sailor and Lula are so fantastic a couple — I really like them a lot.
So you don’t feel that, when push came to shove, you ducked on the harsh realities of love with —
With the happy ending? No. It was even the reverse of that. Even Siskel and Ebert were talking about it — that commercially, a negative ending isn’t so good. So, I almost wanted to do a miserable ending just to show that I wasn’t trying to be commercial. And that’s wrong — doubly wrong. And so, like I said, it’s got to feel honest, and if it does, that’s what you have to do.
Blue Velvet has a happy ending — with a twist.
There’s the same . . . there’s a resolution in both films. Both of them have happy endings.
They both rely in the end on the power of imagination and fantasy to conjure up something: the robin, although the robin may come with an insect in its mouth, or your own good witch, making fantasy real. What happens, though, when you run out of fantasy?
Things get kind of boring.
In your first student film, that ten-second animated loop, heads catch on fire and then they throw up. In Wild at Heart fire is the controlling image and vomit is a recurrent motif —
[Laughs.] I can’t get away from it!
There are not many movies in which you get to see both a mother and her daughter throw up!
Yeah, it’s a real thrill. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.
And the flies on the vomit —
That’s my favorite shot! When the door opens — they take off, they lift up as Sailor comes in.
That’s your favorite shot in the film?
It’s one of several favorites. I do like it.
But it’s interesting that these motifs are there even in your earliest work.
Yeah, a lot of things. There are a lot of things in The Alphabet that keep coming back. And The Grandmother, too. Maybe you do keep doing the same thing over and over.
In the past, you’ve argued for Life as the inspiration for your work, as opposed to Art, which puts you — almost strangely — in the modernist, not postmodernist, camp. But in our last session, you said you’re increasingly feeling the separation of film from life. Is there a change here?
No. To me, stepping into a film was always going way far away from regular life. Way far away.
But does your inspiration remain life its own self?
Oh yeah. Because the closer to the source of an idea you can get, the more power there is.
You’ve said that you never want to be too busy, because if you’re too busy then you can’t dive down and catch the big fish. Well, now you are crazy busy!
Yeah, and I’m not getting any big fish. Right now, I’m in a speed boat, and I’m dragging everything I can to catch what won’t slow me down — it’s the fish near the surface. I’m going to have to cut the gas off and throw the line in, and let it roll out all the way.
Years ago, you said your films both reveal and hide your fears. Do you still think it’s true?
Yeah. Oh yeah. When you go with intuition or subconscious or whatever, you can’t really filter that stuff out. You kind of have to let it come out and happen, without interrupting it. Once you start intellectualizing too much, or talking to the doctor about it, you might say, “Oh my god, man, that’s very bad, I don’t want people to think that!” so you’d start filtering, chopping off that little conduit. So it’s better not to know so much, in a way, about what things mean or how they might be interpreted, or you’ll be too afraid to let it keep happening.
But how do the films hide your fears?
Well, they hide them, because when they bob up, they may already be hidden. They don’t come up and tell you so realistically. They’re more like a dream thing. It might be one or two steps removed from a sentence describing your illness. So they’re more like symbolic things that could be open for interpretation. Just like you talk about a piece of decaying meat. If you happened upon it in a certain setting, you could almost hear people oohing and aahing about its beauty. Until they realized what it was. Then they would not find it beautiful anymore. As soon as it had a name to it.
Sometimes there’s no beauty in anything with a name attached. Isn’t that feeling what kept you out of psychoanalysis?
Well, no, I went once. People have — at least I have — habit patterns, and I wanted to look into one particular one.
It was disturbing?
It was disturbing to me and other people.
No. It was . . . yeah. In a way, yeah. So I decided I would go see this psychiatrist, who was recommended by a friend. I liked this person and we sat down in his office and talked for a little bit, and it was kind of interesting. I realized that so many times you want someone to talk to who isn’t judging you. And that’s kind of cool about it. I could see it would be very good for getting ideas. Just to pay someone to listen to you. But even more than listen, someone who is fascinated from a technical aspect — so they kind of egg you on. It was interesting, and then I asked him about whether it could affect creativity — and he said, “Maybe.” And that was it.
Affect it doesn’t necessarily mean ruin it. Maybe change it?
Anything that would improve it, fine. But I think I asked him if it could affect it negatively, or interrupt it, that wouldn’t be too good. I could see how if you disturb the nest too much you’re liable to . . . you don’t know what could happen.
You might not want to know so much.
I want to go about it in a different way.
Your own method of exploration?
Were you afraid that psychology barks up the tree you’ve so happily climbed?
What it does is destroy the mystery, this kind of magical quality. It can be reduced down to certain neuroses or certain things, and since it’s now named and defined, it’s lost its mystery and the potential for a vast, infinite experience.
And do you still have the same disturbing habit pattern?
Would you like to share it with the class?
[Laughs.] It wouldn’t make any difference.
You used to have this kind of fear that dominated you, the fear of being restricted.
Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did.
How did you get over that?
I’m not over that. I think that’s why I love money so much. I think that the freeing power of money is a very healing sort of thing. Because all we want to do is to be able to do what we want to do. And if we can do that, we get the sense of freedom.
One of my frustrations, one of the limiting things, was the lack of money. And I still don’t have enough to do all the things I want to do yet. But at least I have more than I had then. In terms of painting, I don’t have a studio, a place to paint, but I have enough money to get good canvases made, and enough paint. I really like to paint thick.
Camus, in one of his last books, proposes that to solve the existential problems of life you need money, because money is freedom.
Yeah, up to a certain point, it sure is. It won’t help you if you’ve got a bad disease. And it won’t help you if you desperately want to go to Mars.
There was a period in which you were actually afraid to go out of your house.
Luckily, school came about. But I had a touch of that disease where you are afraid to go out.
And what makes you the angriest dog in the world?
Well, I had tremendous anger. And I think when I began meditating, one of the first things that left was a great chunk of that. I don’t know how it went away, it just evaporated.
What was the anger like? Where did it come from?
I don’t know where it came from. It was directed at those near and dear. So I made life kind of miserable for people around me, at certain times. It was really a bummer. Even though I knew I was doing it, there wasn’t much I could do about it when the thing came over me. So, anger — the memory of the anger — is what does “The Angriest Dog.” Not the actual anger anymore. It’s sort of a bitter attitude toward life. I don’t know where my anger came from and I don’t know where it went, either.
You’ve said both that you have to be happy to create and that you have to create to be happy. There’s a serious chicken-and-egg problem here.
Yeah, it’s like, creating things maybe makes you more happy, but if you’re really, really miserable, you don’t feel like creating stuff. But if you’re kind of into it, it’s a certain kind of happiness: happy gluing one piece of wood to another. You kind of like the wood, and the sun is just right, and the glue, you’ve got enough of it. Some little bit of wire. And you know what the wood does and you know what the glue does, and the wire, and your imagination is seeing the whole thing. And a little bit of action and reaction. It’s a fantastic thing, and it can make you more happy — the doing of it. In the beginning, you’re in the mood to do it, which is a certain kind of happiness.
Are you more attached to process or to achievement?
To me, the process has got to be enjoyable. You can’t just think about the end result. Otherwise, I think eventually you’d have to stop. I don’t see how you could wake up — if you hated the process so much. You’d soon be out of the business. You sort of have to love the trip.
A number of years ago, you said your life was split between innocence and naiveté, and sickness and horror. Do you still feel that polarity?
Yeah. I think my father . . . he’s in his seventies, but I see him as real inno-
cent, and a little bit naive in the same way I am. I think it’s good, up to a point, until you become a fool. Europeans are so much more sophisticated, generally speaking. There’s an innocent, naive thing still swimming around here.
What are you innocent of?
Well . . . [Long pause.] Maybe it’s not so much innocent as unsophisticated. More easily shocked, or at least not afraid of showing shock at something. Certain things I still can’t believe are happening.
That in Africa a few years back Bokassa threw his rivals into pits of crocodiles? Or that he dined on the flesh of his victims? That still shocks you?
What’s horrific and sick, on the other hand, about your life?
No, you don’t want to know all that. [Laughs.]
I do, David, I do.
There are many things that swim together.
[Laughs.] There are all kind of things going on.
That are horrific and sick?
Yeah. You know, just ideas. Mainly it’s all on the idea level. I think that’s the last frontier.
Anything disturb you these days?
Oh yeah, a lot of things disturb me. I’ll tell you what’s disturbing me now. It’s something in the air again. The decay I feel is spreading faster than the building.
Well, the very air around us is decaying.
Well, yeah, everything is falling faster than we can clean it or build it or make it right. So that side of nature is winning. And it’s our own nature. It’s not really our fault in a lot of cases, ’cause we didn’t understand what we were doing, like to the ozone. But when you visit New York City every now and again, you notice each time it’s fallen further. It’s not maintaining, it’s falling. And that’s an indicator of something happening in a lot of other places, but it’s harder to see.
What about politically? You’ve indicated that you don’t think of your films as political, but the two most famous men of the 1980s who called their women “Mommy” were Frank Booth and Ronald Reagan.
You know he called Nancy “Mommy.”
I didn’t know that. I’ll be darned.
You met him twice at the White House.
I sure did. I know there are a lot of very intelligent, wonderful people that would be upset at me, but I really like Ronald Reagan. There’s something about Reagan I liked from the very beginning. I can see why people didn’t like him, and when he was governor I wasn’t feeling the same way. I think I saw him make one speech one time and I must have been moving into some right-wing frame of mind, or something. It was something in the air again. I mostly liked that he carried a wind of old Hollywood, of a cowboy and a brush-clearer. And I thought that, for a while, he was like a real unifying thing for the country. Maybe not for the intellectuals, but for a lot of the other people. Maybe for a lot of the intellectuals too.
Anyway, there’s no winning in politics. It’s something I don’t even know a little bit about. Zip!
But you voted.
But all you have to do is pick up a pencil. Not even a pencil.
Well, most Americans stampede away from the polls. I think there’s never been a democracy in the world where a lower percentage of eligible voters vote.
So you vote because you feel very patriotic, like a real American?
Yeah. But the way you say that is like — [Laughs.] Do you vote?
Yeah. I feel very patriotic. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
The thing is, America is suffering such a . . . everybody’s got a . . . maybe it’s changing a little bit now, it’s coming back a hair. But for a while we were all so down on ourselves, it was not one bit cool — just the word “patriotic.” Because we’d done a lot of things in the name of that that were so, so bad. Anyway, it’s a losing game and it has nothing to do with the films I’m making.
You think not?
Not one bit.
But don’t you think the things that led you to vote for Reagan — not necessarily intellectualized, but the feelings you have inside — involve the decisions you make aesthetically, and what you choose to show, and how you portray x, y, or z?
[Long pause.] You could say so, but not really. But so many things start from an idea. It seems very foreign to me. I know it’s important, but it doesn’t seem so important to me.
Knowing your work, I wouldn’t have imagined that you voted. I could imagine you might be interested in the weird personalities of politics, or the power itself, but not that you would necessarily cast a ballot.
No, I did. There was quite a period when I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t realize it was voting day.
What were these White House events like?
The first time I went there was for a state dinner. I forget who all was up there, I think it was for the president of Argentina. You go to the White House, you meet the president, and then you have dinner. It’s kind of incredible.
How did you get invited?
I don’t know how I got invited. The first time, Dune was going to open at the Kennedy Center. The next time Isabella got invited, and she took me.
Do you think politics is serious business?
See, you know I don’t like talking about this.
Well, David, if I was just trying to be your friend I wouldn’t make you.
[Laughs, pauses.] I guess it’s very serious, you know.
The implications are. If you’re writing a story and you open one door, the characters walk through that door and there may be no getting back to open a different door, and each door leads to two more doors and you need to make decisions. Elections and politics are just like that, don’t you think?
See, you should just take a certain number of pages and write out what you feel, and that would just be fine with me.
Well, I want to know what you feel.
I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what’s really sick. See, I just — I’m involved with something over here, and I know nothing about this business of politics. It’s totally absurd for me to comment on it. I don’t know anything about it.
Well, you had your vote, Citizen Lynch, which you exercised.
And that’s about it.
I feel your discomfort here, but I feel that people who know your work were very surprised — because your work seems to shred so many mythologies, and to penetrate under the surface — that you would make a political decision based on what seemed like very superficial things: that you liked the guy’s haircut, that he’s happy, you liked that sense of a brush-clearer, an old Hollywood actor. And I think that itself disturbed people, or confused people. You are in the public realm, for good or bad.
That’s why I say it’s a no-win situation. All those things that are aside from the film are not one bit important. There’s nothing I can say about it.
But there are even times in talking about the films when you say there’s nothing you can say.
Yeah. Uh, the words . . . unfortunately that’s what this is all about.
I actually thought of giving you a sketch pad so that if you couldn’t answer a question you could sketch me out an answer.
I could draw you one, yeah.
Let’s go back to something we talked about last time: secrets. You put a line in Wild at Heart for Sailor that was not in the book: “We all got a secret side, Baby.” It’s a repeated motif in your work. I said there’s a certain power in a secret, and you said there’s a horror in it, too. Can you address yourself to both sides of that equation?
Well, it’s like common sense.
How’s that, Doctor Lynch?
We talked about the man who knew too much. There are so many different kind of secrets. Part of the thing about secrets is that they have a certain kind of mystery to me. A dark secret. Just the words “dark secret” are so beautiful. Again, for the same reason I don’t want to go back to Spokane, Washington. I don’t want to see something so clearly that it would destroy an imaginary picture. And I’m real thankful for secrets and mysteries, because they provide a pull to learn the secret and learn the mystery, and you can float out there. And I hope, in a way, I don’t ever get the total answer, unless the answer accompanies a tremendous rush of bliss. I love the process of going into a mystery.
You’re secretive yourself, wouldn’t you say?
That’s a possibility, yeah.
Jack Nance says you’re the most secretive guy he’s ever known.
Well, I’m probably speaking much too much with you. [Uneasy laugh.]
There were some pieces written in the mid-eighties that made mention of the fact that you didn’t have any visitors. Your response wasn’t that you didn’t like the way your house was, or, “I have a small house, I can’t have visitors,” or, “I’m never in town” — any of which would have been perfectly fine excuses —
What was my response?
Your response was, “I’m doing things that I don’t want people to see.”
At the time, I probably was. I’m not always doing these things in my house. [Laughs.]
See, but you didn’t tell anyone what you were doing.
So you created a secret.
Well. I suppose I did. In an answer to a question, I created a secret.
I’m just wondering if part of your attraction to secrets is that there’s a kind of power, a kind of control in secrets. I think one reason secrets are so important to teenagers is that for them the world is completely out of control.
I don’t know. Secrets then were totally traumatic to me, because I was doing so many things that I thought could change my world in a negative way. I was living in a fearful state. Secrets and mysteries provide sort of a beautiful little corridor where you can float out and many, many wonderful things can happen in there.
Now it’s come time to deny the rumor or admit to all America that you’ve a woman’s uterus in a bottle somewhere.
What have you heard about this?
We know you’re interested in body parts. We heard that a woman producer was having a hysterectomy and you asked her to save the tissue.
It wasn’t that way at all! This woman was having this operation, and asked the doctor to save this for me, as something she felt that I would want to have. A gift.
Sort of like a valentine.
Yeah. It’s like, there’s many things I have in my house, right? But some things — like the Log Lady — have stuck with certain people as very interesting things. So I guess that could be one of them.