The Happy Spelunker
David Lynch is building a lamp. Well, for now it’s just a couple of metal rods and a tangle of wires, which seems only fitting, given how Lynch’s movies can seem just as amorphous at first glance, only taking their final shape in the dark recesses of our consciousness in the hours and days after we first see them. I’ve come to Lynch’s sprawling, multibuilding compound in the Hollywood Hills, just a stone’s throw from Mulholland Drive, to talk about — or, rather, around — his latest film, Inland Empire (which opened and was reviewed last week), a three-hour nightmare odyssey into the fragmented mind of a Hollywood actress played by Lynch’s longtime muse, Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart).
We’re sitting in Lynch’s painting studio, while an assistant builds canvases in an adjacent workshop — an appropriate setting, considering that Lynch made Inland Empire in much the same way a painter might work on a canvas, bit by bit, over a period of four years. The movie began life as a series of shorts produced for Lynch’s davidlynch.com Web site, where paying subscribers can also order products from Lynch’s nascent organic-coffee business and see the pompadoured director give a daily weather report. Now, Lynch is self-distributing his latest movie in theaters across the country and mounting an unconventional Oscar campaign that has found him camped out on Sunset Boulevard with a live cow and a banner that reads “Without cheese, there wouldn’t have been an Inland Empire.” This is not, I note, the Hollywood norm. “That’s real unfortunate,” he replies with utter Midwestern sincerity as he offers me a David Lynch Signature Cup cappuccino.
Lynch, who once summed up Blue Velvet as “a mystery of love and darkness,” brings a similar economy to the official Inland Empire synopsis that appears in the movie’s press notes: “A story of a mystery . . . a mystery inside worlds within worlds . . . unfolding around a woman . . . a woman in love and in trouble.” (Lynch’s own bio, directly underneath, reads simply: “Eagle Scout Missoula Montana.”) But, as I soon discover, Lynch loves to talk: about the movie industry; about his continuing interest in transcendental meditation; and, most of all, about ideas — how they come to him, where he gets them from and pretty much anything else you want to know except what they mean. Ask that and Lynch will just smile back at you with his gentlemanly smile, exhaling a plume of smoke from the cigarette he holds ever so elegantly between his fingers.
L.A. WEEKLY:When you first started working onInland Empire, did you envision it as a feature film?
DAVID LYNCH: No, but that’s not so unusual. I always say that I love ideas. Let’s say you’re going along and you get an idea, and this particular idea thrills your soul and you fall in love with this idea, but it’s just a fragment. Sometimes, it’s even less than a scene, but let’s say that it’s a scene. So, you get an idea for a scene and you write it out. Normally, you just write it out and you save that idea. But it’s a weird thing, because once you get one idea, if you focus on it, it can draw in other ideas that will marry to it, and the thing expands, and maybe a story comes out of that. That usually happens in the scriptwriting process. So, you work out a lot of things in a script before you ever start shooting — that’s the normal way. In this case, I’d get an idea and I’d shoot it. Then I’d get another idea, write it and shoot that. And I didn’t see how these particular scenes were relating at all. Then, later, I’d get an idea, and I’d see that this idea was unifying these different things. And that was a thrilling thing, to see a story emerging. But that same process would happen in script before, and it would still be thrilling — very thrilling.
So, it was more direct in a way.
It was a little more direct, and in the beginning I never had the idea that it was going to be a feature. But then, I had an idea that it could be. I still didn’t know for sure, and that was when I met with Frederic Sichler from [French financing and sales company] Studio Canal, and I said, “Frederic, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m shooting on DV. Are you in?” And he said, “Yes.” [The cappuccino arrives.]
You’ve been lucky that way, to have had several patrons like that over the course of your career.
I’ve been so lucky, really lucky. And go figure, you know, because since it’s called the film business, the bottom line for a lot of people is money. Whereas, in painting, everybody loves affluence, prosperity and what money can do, but it’s not the reason you paint. And it really isn’t the reason you make films.
How did you come to start shooting with the DV camera?
Through the Web site. It’s a digital camera. The Web site is digital. So, I got this camera for the short things for the site — I call them experiments. I started shooting those things and I started falling in love with this medium, for lots and lots of reasons.
Forty-minute takes. Lightweight camera. Automatic focus. Smaller crew. Sees in the dark. It enables a person to be more hands-on. There’s no trip to the lab. There’s no waiting for dailies. I think we all know it’s the future, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t love the beautiful quality of film. It happened already in the field of sound: Tape is gone and everything is digital, and the tools that you have for sound are incredible. You know, ProTools is like a dream, and digital editing is a dream. All of those things are getting better and better, and the quality of the DV is getting better and better.
When I asked what you love about the medium, I was thinking specifically about the quality of the image. Whereas a lot of filmmakers who are shooting digitally are working with the highest-end HD cameras and trying to make digital look as much like film as possible, in Inland Empireyou embrace digital precisely for all of its blurry, grainy, non-analog aesthetics.
I like the quality of this. It starts low res — a Sony PD150 — but then it’s up-resed, and this up-resing does a whole thing to it. Then it goes over to film to be projected in the theaters and that adds something to it. The quality, though not film quality, is a quality that I love. So, I was a happy camper.
Something that I thought of frequently while watching the movie is that David Lynch must love actors.
What you’re saying is true: I love actors. But the idea is different than that. It’s not like since I love actors, I’m going to do a film about actors. It’s that a scene comes and there’s an actor, there’s an actress, there’s a director — it’s a thing. It’s the idea, and that’s what drives the boat.
I guess what I’m saying is that so many of your films touch on the idea of transformation, and actors transform themselves in a powerful way, and maybe people who aren’t actors can’t fully appreciate the emotional and psychological process that goes into that.
All these things that you’re saying are so interesting, and they’re absolutely true, and they are things that happen. But it’s not how it comes to me in the beginning. You could say these things afterward. How it comes when it’s all together is Inland Empire. A lot of times, if there’s a theme in a movie, I won’t have a clue as to what the theme is until the end, and then these things start revealing themselves. But in the beginning, it’s . . . who knows what it is? Some people have a theme they want to explore and they write a thing around that, and that’s the opposite of what happens to me.
It’s like putting the cart before the horse.
I was going to use that analogy.
In most movies, there are fairly absolute distinctions made between reality and fantasy, and if somebody starts to dream, we know it’s a dream, and when they wake up, we know they’ve woken up. But those boundaries don’t seem to exist in your work.
You know, we look at human beings, and we see the surface of them — one is a little different from another. We hear their voices. But we know there’s an interior going on there — huge, you know, things, and maybe they’re more abstract and they’re hiding, but cinema can go in there and explore that. Cinema can have a surface and then it can start drifting into abstractions because it’s such a beautiful language. It doesn’t rely 100 percent on words. It’s its own thing and it can show abstractions in various ways.
But some audiences rebel against this. If you showed someone this lamp, for example, they wouldn’t necessarily expect to know everything about the origin of the lamp and the meaning of the lamp, just as they wouldn’t expect to fully understand a Picasso hanging on the wall of a museum. But when some of those same people watch a movie, there seems to be this expectation that everything should make “sense.” And they can get angry if it doesn’t.
Well, chances are that the person who sees the movie and says, “I didn’t like it because I didn’t understand it” is the same person who would just walk past a Picasso, because we’re all different kinds of people and some people don’t like abstractions. Some people really like to know what everything is. I don’t know how they go through life, because life has so many things that are abstract, but they do, and they just like to know — they’ve got that kind of mind, or being. Other people love going into a world and having an experience, more than an intellectual understanding, and a knowing that comes from intuition. Everybody has these experiences, but when they come into a film, some people appreciate them and some people don’t. It’s just the way it is.
This is the third film you’ve made starring Laura Dern. Why was she right for the role?
Because I met her on the street and she said, “Oh, I’m your new neighbor,” and I said, “Oh, great!” She said, “We’ve got to do something again,” and I said, “I know we do.” So, with that, I wrote something. And you know, I guess I had her in mind, although the thing I wrote, you wouldn’t necessarily say that about it. But it was marrying with her. So, that first thing was for Laura, and when I saw it, I thought that it indicated more, but I didn’t know. But I would think about it, and that started me going down the trail with Laura.
Did the ideas for this film come from the same wellspring, if you will, as some of the ideas in Mulholland Dr.?
Yes. It’s a brother or sister of Mulholland Dr., because it deals with Los Angeles and the movie business and that world. You know, I think ideas are generated by a lot of things, but your environment kicks up a lot of ideas, and just going about L.A., you’ll pick up ideas. You go to Poland and you get into a mood there and you get ideas.
Why “a woman in trouble”?
I don’t know. It’s just a hair more interesting than a man in trouble.
What got you interested in reporting the weather?
Well, I don’t know. My weather reports aren’t deep weather reports. It actually started just to . . . it’s a daily report, a contact with the membership of the Web site. That’s how it started.
You were one of the first directors, I think, to not only have his own Web site, but to be directly involved in its operations.
Everybody’s got their own Web site now, so it’s a world community. Almost instantaneous information flows around the world. It’s unbelievable. You meet people from Norway, from Spain, from Italy, from Russia, just like they’re your neighbors. And it’s really kind of beautiful. The Internet was a home for short films. Now, it’s going to be a home for feature films.
IsInland Empiregoing to be available for downloading?
It will be, sure, at some point. But with the benefits comes piracy. So, everybody’s looking to see if the film business follows the music business. And it just seems to be that it will. So, the mighty studios . . . I picture them being on the San Andreas Fault, shaking right now. Because it’s already tomorrow: Fast downloads of feature films will be like a song. Pop! There it is. And three years of work and all that money, it’s downloaded in a matter of minutes and there’s no revenue. What’s that going to do to things? I don’t know, but it’s not going to be pretty.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m still a big believer in the theatrical experience. I remember going to the press screening ofMulholland Dr.at the 2001 New York Film Festival, and at some point during the movie my watch stopped, so when it was over, I didn’t know what time it was or how long I’d been in the theater. Great movies can have that trancelike effect — they can make us feel like time has stopped — but it’s a sensation I’ve rarely felt at home in my living room.
I’m with you 100 percent. I always say there’s nothing like a shared experience in a theater — the anticipation, the theatrics of it. You know, the lights dim and the curtain opens and you can go into another world on a big screen with big sound and as few disturbances as possible. It’s beautiful. On a telephone speaker, or your iPod speaker with headphones, I don’t think even if you see the movie that you’ve seen the movie and really had that same experience. And that’s sad. Unfortunately, more and more things are going that way. I think if you download a movie on your iVideo, but then pop it into a little box and squirt it big on the wall, with good speakers, there’s where you might get a good feeling.
I know nothing about meditation — transcendental or otherwise — but I found myself writing in my notes on Inland Empirethat it was “a meditation on the art of performance.” Is your interest in meditation something that’s separate from your work, or is there an interplay?
Separate and totally connected. That doesn’t mean that if you’re a meditator, you’re going to change. You become more and more you. You see what I mean? You get more of a flow of ideas. You get more energy and more inner happiness. So you enjoy the doing of things more. One of the side effects of transcending, of experiencing the ocean of pure bliss consciousness, is that negativity begins to recede. Negativity is the enemy of creativity. It’s like a clamp on the flow of creativity, poisoning the person and the environment. No one likes to be around someone who’s really angry all the time, or really depressed all the time, or filled with anxiety and worry all the time. So, when negativity lifts, it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s not make-believe. The more you transcend, the more of that pure consciousness that you’ll hold during waking, sleeping and dreaming. You can still get really angry, but you can’t hold on to it for very long, and the flow of creativity is less and less hindered.
Does that mean you don’t care about bad reviews anymore?
If you meditate, you’ll still get some bad reviews and some good reviews. But the bad reviews won’t kill you so deeply and the good reviews won’t send you into some sort of ego trip. It’s a balance, but it’s not a flat, dull, hippie balance. This unified field, this ocean of pure consciousness, in Vedic science is called Atman — the self. Know thyself. Dive in. Know it by being it. Unfold that. It’s you. It’s not a foreign thing. We all came from there. It’s like how we were talking about the surface of things. We see surfaces. But modern science started looking into matter, and they found molecules. Think about that: That must have been a big day! Then inside those molecules, they found atoms: Holy smokes! And over 300 years, they found smaller and smaller particles, they found these forces, and deeper and deeper they went. These four forces on a deeper level were three forces, on a deeper level were two forces, and then, only 30 years ago or so: unified field! So, modern science now is tickling at the big truth and verifying ancient Vedic science. It’s a beautiful time — a beautiful, beautiful time.
By the way, that’s a damn good cup of coffee.
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