The City of Absurdity Blue Velvet
Interviews & Articles

Out of Bounds: David Lynch

by Gerald L'Ecuyer
Interview Magazine, 1987

David Lynch has emerged as one of America's most imaginative directors, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune are densely visual tapestries, with an emotional intensity that is both provocative and disturbing. His most recent effort, Blue Velvet, a twisted murder mystery, has left audiences either bewildered, intoxicated or enraged - and often a murky comination of all three. No film since Last Tango in Paris has generated so much conflicting discussion. One thing is certain: Lynch is the only American director working today who brings an avant-garde sensiblitity to Mainstream cinema.

Born in Montana 41 years ago, Lynch later attended the Corcoran School of Art in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Yet he soon abandoned his career as a painter for filmmaking. His first short films earned him acceptance at the prestigious American Film Institute, where he began what became one of the greatest cult films ever. Five years later he completed that film, Eraserhead. Producer/ director Mel Brooks saw the film and eventually asked Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. The story's industrial Victorian setting provided an appropriately grim landscape in which Lynch could work. The film was brilliantly achieved and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Blue Velvet recently won Lynch the Los Angeles Critics Award for Best Director, and he is also favored to win this year's Best Director Oscar. I met with David Lynch in his small white office in Los Angeles. Dozens of index cards pinned to the wall listed scene breakdowns for his next project, Ronnie Rocket, He has a close relationship with his oldest daughter Jennifer, a budding writer and also his assistant. Lynch himself conveys an almost childlike wonder of the world and it's goings on. During our meeting, when he was halfway through his cup of coffee, he suddenly asked if I wanted to see "a neat trick." He then carefully dragged his styrofoam coffee cup across the desktop. The vibrations caused by the friction transformed the coffee cup into a bubling, rippling, spitting lava pit. He laughed.

David Lynch Have there been any reactions to Blue Velvet that have surprised you?

There were so many violently positive and so many violently negative reactions to the film,... I know some people really hate the picture, but it doesn't bother me, because I like it so much. With Eraserhead, for example, negative criticisms would make me kind of warm inside. They didn't bother me one bit. A film - especially when it's a personal film - is going to hit somebody or it's not. It's like mathematics. There's nothing you can do about it.

So you don't try to fix a film to suit the audience?

The more you try to fix a film, especially a personal one, the more you are going to kill it.

You once said that BlueVelvet has about a one-in-one-hundred chance of being made. Were you surprised when the film got the go-ahead

Yes, Hollywood makes movies for strange reasons. It never surprises me that films are made, but it's surprising me that some films aren't made while others are. But I did not feel that Blue Velvet was so strange - in fact, I always said it was my most normal film. It's an American picture. It deals with human beings and human problems, and its the present day and there are cars in the picture.

And car chases....

And car chases. Dino De Laurentiis gave me a unique and very special deal. He called me up and said, "David, I have crazy idea. You want to make Blue Velvet." I said "Yes," and he said, "You want total artistic control?" And I said "Yes". So he says, "You cut your salary, you cut your budget , and I'll give you total artistic control." So I cut my salary in half, I cut the budget down almost in half and made it. And Dino was true to his word. He gave me total artistic control. He figured maybe he'd break even. Or at least he wouldn't lose. And now they've ended up making money. So now Dino wants to do this deal again for me, and he wants to do it for other directors as well. Blue Velvet has done some neat things for this industry.

The amazing thing about watching the film is that some people in the audience are laughing while others are telling them to be quiet because they think it's all deadly serious. People are so divided in their reactions to the film

I know, I've seen it happening. What can I say? Strange things happen.

The first time I saw the film. I was very affected by Dennis Hopper's performance (as the maniacal Frank Booth). Then the second time, Isabella Rossellini's performance ( as nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens) really stood out - even more than Hop- per's. How was Isabella cast?

No casting agent ever mentioned her. I didn't even know Isabella Rossellini was an actress. I just happened to meet her in a restaurant in New York and we discussed the movie. I told her I was casting it, not even realising she was an actress. Then a week later I was looking at a copy of Screen World and I found a picture of her from a film she did with the Taviani brothers, and I said. "Good night! She's an actress!" So I got a script to her that afternoon, and she loved it instantly. She felt that she knew Dorothy and that she knew the part. So, because of her attitude and because I felt she was right in every way, it happened. Then all I had left to cast was Frank Booth.

What would you have done if you hadn't had Dennis Hopper?

I can't think about it because I'd become crazy. That's what happens with films sometimes, you don't get the right person.To have a successful film is so rare because you can't control the world.

I heard Dennis said that he had to play Frank because he is Frank. Do you find that a little disturbing?

Dennis Hopper's name had come up in meetings before, but as soon as it did, it was shot down because of his reputation. Not because he wasn't right, but because his reputation was so strong that it was just out of the question. And that was sad, because he had been off everything for over a year and a half and no one really knew that. So his manager told me that Dennis was totally different and that we could phone the producers whom he had just worked with to check. And then Dennis called and said, "I have to play Frank because I am Frank." Well that almost blew the deal right there. But he was truly great to work with.

What did he bring to the script?

Other actors who had read the script said the role was two-dimensional. But Dennis, in a couple of key moments, made it three dimensional, and that's exactly what it needed

Your films are always in such barren settings. This town called Lumberton seemed so desolate. Was that by design?

This could be a psychological thing within me. When you work, your assistant director is in charge of background action. He's the one who fills in the background with as many people as you want. And I always opted for as few people as possible. It just felt right. I just don't know how to explain it. But if you walk around a small town., you're not likely to meet a whole lot of people. One of the most important things that happened that wasn't in the script is how we picked the town. Patti Norris, the production designer, wanted me to pick a name for the town. She had said that if we picked a town somewhere in North Carolina, we could get the police to give us their stickers and all that stuff for free. So I looked at the map and bingo! "Lumberton" leaped out like a frog. I loved the name, and I decided that there was going to be logs and lumber related items everywhere in the film. In fact, some of the things were already in the script and they worked out perfectly - like the man buying a new axe in the hardware store. But so many parts of a film are discovered as you go along. That's why I say the film isn't finished until it's finished.

Are you fussy about the way a line is delivered?

A line has to be said in a certain way. A director should never say a line the way he wants to here it. You have to go behind the line and explain things in abstract terms. The line will come out just the way you want it.

People assume that Jeffries character [played by Kyle Maclachlan] is really you, that his vision of things is close to yours.

Jeffrey is an observer. In a way, it's a pretty thankless role. He does some incredible things, but a lot of the time he just watches other people do things. It's not easy to play a person who does that. A lot of very subtle things have to be done so that it seems real. Kyle added a lot of things to Jeffrey's character on his own.

There seems to be such a twisted Freudian undercurrent to the sex scenes. I was wondering if you've ever been through analysis yourself....

Well, like they say: "People who go to psychiatrists ought to have their heads examined!" I did go one day. I wanted to find out about something. I observed a circle , a pattern, in my life and I wanted to take a look at it. So I talked to this psychiatrist for a while. He was a very patient sort of person. I was doing all the talking -which is what you are supposed to do, I guess - and I realized some important things. But when I asked him if he thought the analysis could interfere with my creativity, he said "Well, David, I have to be honest with you, I think it might," And so I said "Thank you very much ." And I know a lot of people think that it can't affect your creativity, but this guy was a doctor! I saw the diplomas on the wall! Honestly, I don't think I want to know so much... I don't want to unravel that ball of twine. I love abstract and mysterious things. I realized that if everything had a name, I might lose interest. But a lot of Freudian people who have seen Blue Velvet say they could have a field day tearing it apart.

I want to talk about the extroadinary moment where Dorothy stands stark naked in front of Jeff's house. How did that scene occur to you?

It came like a spark. That's the way ideas seem to come - at least in my mind. There's a little moment that's very intense. And as it comes up into the light of day, it expands - because it's been living down deep in my mind under all this pressure. It starts to bob to the surface and it becomes filled with all sorts of details. Finally, I see the whole scene, complete with character.

What kind of industry reaction have you had?

I feel that Hollywood has been behind me since The Elephant Man. Dune didn't kill me; it just kind of kept things the same.I'm not really a "hot" director; I'm hot with quite a few qualifications. If Blue Velvet were making $100 million at the box office, then it'd be hard to keep the door shut. These days you need to make a pile of money, before people will take a second look. You need quite a stack, actually, before you're really smoking.

I was surprised when I read that Eraserhead took five years to complete. What were you doing to support yourself during that period

Delivering the Wall Street Journal. And doing odd jobs. I love plumbing and carpentry. I built three sheds in my backyard during that period. They were made out of wood that I found on my paper route.My route took me through two different trash areas. On trash nights, my route would take two hours to do instead of one because I stopped and sorted through the garbage. There are a lot of people who go through garbage, and they're not stupid people.

It's remarkable because Eraserhead does not look like it was shot over five years.

There are scenes where Henry, the main character, is walking down a hall and he opens the door to his apartment. And there's a cut to the interior of the room to show him walking in. Well, he walked in a year and a half after the shot in the hall was done.

Was it hard to keep your faith in the project during that time?

I was quite desperate at times. I even wanted to build an eight-inch-tall Henry and animate-or stop-motion-him through sets to connect the scenes that hadn't been finished. I always think of Eraserlzead as a bridge. That's what a film is, in a way. You have to make a bridge across a huge canyon, and the bridge is made out of the finest, most delicate glass. Until it's all the way across the canyon, it remains glass and can shatter at any moment. But once it's finished, it instantly turns to steel. Things got bleak at times, but they were bleak in a fun way. I think it was sugar that helped me a lot. I went to Bob's Big Boy, which is a restaurant out here. Every afternoon, at 2:30, was Bob's time. I'd have a chocolate shake and several cups of coffee. I got such a rush from the sugar that a lot of times I felt much happier than I really was. It was tough to take, but part of me knew it was going to get done., It was amazing that the whole crew stuck with the project for the whole time. They were really there for me. I never thought about an audience when I did Eraserhead. I just wanted to finish the film because I couldn't think any further than that until it was done. It just had to be done, one way or the other.

Did the cult following it inspired surprise you?

Oh, yeah. We figured that maybe it would get into some festivals. And that's all.

You have been reluctant to talk about how certain effects were obtained in your films. You still won't say, for example, where the baby came from in Eraserhead.

I hate talking about how things are done. It's like a magic trick. As soon as people know how it was done, they say, "Oh." The curiosity instantly vanishes.

The credits on Eraserhead read like your family tree. How does your family view your work?

I was giving a lecture at UCLA and during the question-and-answer session somebody asked me how my family felt about Blue Velvet. And I didn't even think about my kids, Jennifer and Austin; instead, I thought about my parents. Jennifer thought that was quite odd. I don't think I've ever really grown up. There's a point where your family is below instead of above you, but I've never really gotten there. To me, my kids are high-school friends I've conjured up.

So what do your parents think of your films?

After a screening of Eraserhead at the American Film Institute, my daughter, who was eight years old at the time, came out and said, "Dad, this is definitely not a film for kids." And my mother saw it and said, "Oh, I wouldn't want to have a dream like that. . . . " Both my parents were happy with The Elephant Man. It was not so personal a film. I told my mother not to see Blue Velvet. I 'knew my Dad would be front- row center, but I didn't think my mother should see it. But she went and saw it and liked it.

Your father was a research scientist, wasn't he? That must have made for an interesting upbringing.

I'm sure it influenced me, because as a kid I would be taken into rooms where bugs were pinned to the walls. They were re-searching insects and plant disease and fertilizers. Really neat stuff.

Are there people-actors-with whom you would love to work?

I sort of work the other way around. I get a part and say, "Oh, boy, wouldn't they be perfect?" But there are people I would like to write a part for. I'd like to write a part for Isabella again. I'd like to write a part for Laura Dern again. John Hurt, also. I like to work with people I've worked with before. They become like friends and family. I'd rather go through the war with people I get along with.

Did you keep actors in the dark on Blue Velvet? Did everyone read the script and know exactly how they fit into the overall picture?

Everyone read the script, although it doesn't really matter. I mean, I don't know how you're going to figure in the rest of my life, and you don't know how I am going to figure in your life, but we're still here playing our "scene," so to speak. You don't need to see the whole picture, but I don't generally hide it from actors, as some directors do. '

It struck me that every character in Blue Velvet had a distinct vision of what was going on, especially the Laura Dern character

She's a great actress. She wants to know lots of things and she has lots of ideas for her character - some of which she doesn't even talk about. So Laura as Sandy believes certain things very strongly. And so does Frank. In fact, every character is very different from the others. The contrast is so great that everybody seems to stand out. Each person in the film looks different, lives differently, thinks differently, smells different - yet they are all in Lumberton. It's just the way things are.

What about color versus black and white? What made you decide to shoot Blue Velvet in color?

Well, I've never been pressured to shoot in color. Mel Brooks was really hot for the idea of me doing Elephant Man in black and white. Nobody bothered me on Eraserhead, either. I wish I had made Dune in black and white. Blue Velvet was the first film that really felt as if it should be in color. It had the right mood. Black and white would have killed the neighborhood feeling - the "small-town story" feel. Color had the warmth that the film needed.

Were there any important people who encouraged you as a filmmaker?

I remember one in particular: Bushnell Keeler. He was a painter. Until I met him, I thought that Van Gogh was the last man who painted. I was thirteen and lived in the Northwest, so for me there were no painters. When I heard that Bushnell was a painter, and that he did it for a living, I nearly passed out. I became feverish. I didn't want to go to school anymore. It was an awakening. By the time I was a junior in high school, I started renting a room next to his studio. My father payed half the rent which was a super-cool thing for my father to do, because having a studio was not a normal thing. High school didn't have a big hold on me. I knew I was going in a different direction. But life back then was fantastic

What about later influences - in terms of film?

Well, there was Frank Daniel [of the AFI], the former dean of Czechoslovakian Film School. He was a huge influence and a great teacher. He taught me film structure. He taught me that 70 index cards, with a scene written on each one, equals one feature film. I still work by that rule.

Blue Velvet Interviews | Blue Velvet | Interviews | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann