By Sean Axmaker
David Lynch, the once boyish maverick of such dark, demanding, and confounding films as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway (not to mention the gentle, G-rated slice of slightly askew Americana, The Straight Story), is 60 now. You can see his age in his face and his graying hair (still wildly brushed as if it's trying to escape his head), but his output is, if anything, even greater now. He's producing short films for his website, painting, even marketing his own signature coffee.
And he's still making films the only way he knows how: his way. He made the heady and dreamy three-hour drama Inland Empire, shot totally on digital video (his first feature made in that format), with such Hollywood pros as Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons, yet financed and produced it completely outside of Hollywood.
"It's mostly common sense, making films," he insists. "You don't need a studio. You need some money and you need ideas and then you go make your film." He even bypassed the studio system to distribute the film independently. "There are many, many, many great theaters available to people, and that's the place where people see films," he explains. "So if you can get your film into a theater, that's all you need. And now you can make your own DVDs. If you have a conduit to stores, you put them down that conduit. Again, it's a lot of common sense."
Lynch came to Seattle in January to appear at a special preview screening of Inland Empire and to talk at Town Hall on Transcendental Meditation. Dressed in his trademark neat white shirt and simple black suit, he sat back for the interview with a cup of coffee within reach and an occasional cigarette between his fingers. Soft-spoken and pleasant, calm and confident, answering most questions with simple and succinct answers, he comes off as a gentle but eccentric elementary school teacher patiently trying to explain filmmaking and the creative process as if it were nothing more than basic addition and subtraction.
You wrote in your book, Catching the Big Fish, that you spent a lot of time in the woods while you were growing up. Is that where the settings and atmosphere of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks came from?
Wood is an influence, but it wasn't. I always pictured Blue Velvet as having lumber around it, but it was shot in North Carolina. But there's a lot of lumber around in North Carolina, too, so it worked out. But I pictured it more as a Northwestern kind of town. Then when Twin Peaks came out, yeah, there's things, but I wrote it with Mark Frost. He's not from the Northwest. There's always things about our childhood that ideas come from. So it was an influence, for sure. The woods. Wood and woods.
Blue Velvet captured something I'd never seen any other movie do at that time. It presented what should be a simple and peaceful rural community and revealed this dark layer underneath the surface - not simply a criminal underworld, but a moral underworld.
There's a dark layer underneath every community. Looking back, people made a big deal about Blue Velvet showing the surface and then something under the surface. Since then, if you see TV and newspapers, more and more has been revealed that was hiding there all along. I say the sickness is being revealed and people are dealing with it, which I guess is a good thing. So it's not just in Twin Peaks or Lumberton [in Blue Velvet], it's everywhere.
In Inland Empire, and in previous films as well, the living spaces of your characters are devoid of clutter. They are very austere and they feel more like temporary places because they don't have the baggage of their past and present around them - more like hotel rooms than homes. Why is that?
There's a thing of fast and slow. Normally, a room is slower than a human being. If there's too much clutter, then you don't have a strong human being. It's not something you think about, but I guess that's the thing.
Are you talking visually or cinematically, or...?
Visually. There's fast areas and slow areas. That goes back to the thing of the duck. The duck is an example of that. The bill of the duck is sort of in the middle of fast and slow. It's a little bit fast, and when it hits the head it slows down and the feathers there are very small and it's not completely slow, and it fills out and starts going down into this "S" curve and the feathers get bigger and then it goes into the body, which is a very large, slow area, not a lot of stuff happening. And then it goes into the legs and feet and it's faster and the texture of the legs and feet remind you of the bill, so your eye goes back and you take the trip again. The eye of the duck is the fastest, the most detailed, a gleaming little jewel, and I always thought, what a perfect place to put that, in the middle of the head. It's just a perfect size frame. If you put it in the body, it would get lost. It just wouldn't be framed right. If you put it on the leg, it would be too fast an area for the eye to really bring it out. On the bill, it would be ridiculous.
It's that kind of thing. So a blank wall is such a perfect setting for a human being. Maybe one or two little things, but it's a fast and slow sort of thing. And clutter is, unless it's feeding from the idea, it's just a negative.
Can you talk about the genesis of Inland Empire?
Laura Dern. Thinking about it, the thing started with Laura Dern, and it started - I happened to be out on the street and I see Laura Dern walking down the sidewalk and I'm surprised to see her. And she says, "Oh, David, I'm your new neighbor." I hadn't seen her in a while, and I was very happy to see her, and happier still to know that she's my neighbor. And she said, "David, we have to do something again sometime," and I said, "I know we do. Maybe I'll write something for you."
Now, you could meet a lot of people and say something like that, but ideas started coming from that. So Laura Dern started it. Meeting her on the street, a desire to work together, seeing her face. But it's not Laura Dern, it's just that something started happening because of that conversation.
I've read that the film began as a series of short scenes shot for your website, and a story emerged as you continued shooting.
Yes. In the beginning, I get an idea, and it happens to be something like a scene, and so instead of writing it down and waiting for the next one and writing that down, and waiting for the next one and writing that down, and building a screenplay, I started shooting those scenes and, in shooting them, kind of committing to a look and a feel but staying true to that idea and not ever thinking of a feature at that time - wondering maybe. So in the beginning, there were just scenes and they didn't relate in my mind, I didn't know. And then, all of a sudden, more of a story started coming out that actually related those. It was kind of beautiful.
In the first scene with Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie, you have Laura Dern giving a very quiet, naturalistic performance and Grace Zabriskie comes in with a very exaggerated and arch performance, rolling the dialogue around in very mannered delivery, and it creates a strange dynamic in the scene. And I see this mix of very natural, relatable performances with theatrical performances all through Inland Empire. Do you see it this way?
No, I don't see it as mixing it up, and it comes from the idea. Grace, her character is her character, and Laura's Nikki is Nikki. It's not like two Nikkis talking together, it's Nikki and another person talking and that's the way that other person is. And this comes from the idea.
Why prolong conversations with uncomfortable silences where the characters just stare at one another?
Every film has a pace, and it's not like a continuous sameness, it's like music. Shot by shot, word by word, sequence by sequence, it has a feel and you go until it feels correct. So pace comes out of the idea and pace is one of the elements, this thing about moving in time. So it has a lot to do with the same kind of things that happen in music.
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