The City of Absurdity   Mulholland Drive


David Lynch ON January 4th, Lynch turned in a ninety-two-page pilot script to ABC. Like much of his work, "Mulholland Drive" was conceived as an oddball film noir, opening with some gruesome deaths and then introducing an ensemble of desirable women and baffled or misshapen men. Lynch had kept many of these strange men to himself at the pitch meeting, because, he says, Krantz worried that "getting into them would blow the deal." The most important, in the completed script, was an edgy young director named Adam, who is forced by a pair of mobsters to cast a particular actress in his new movie. (Adam appears to be a stand-in for Lynch, who is known to fear creative interference of any form. When Lynch was living with Isabella Rossellini, he refused to allow cooked food in the house, lest the smell contaminate his work.) Adam smashes up the mobsters' limo with a 7-iron, then hops into his silver Porsche and drives home to find his wife in bed with the pool man. He pours hot-pink paint in her jewelry box, gets cuffed around by the pool man, and must eventually take counsel from an oracular cowboy.

Meanwhile, Betty auditions for another film and gets so deeply into character that she gropes the sleazy actor reading with her. As Betty and Rita seek Rita's true identity, they stumble across a decomposing corpse. Also, a hit man named Joe accidentally shoots a fat woman through a wall. And two pals, Dan and Herb, meet for breakfast at Denny's to discuss Dan's recurrent nightmare of being frightened by a man who lives behind that same Denny's. They poke around in back, and a black-faced bum jumps out, literally frightening Dan to death.

The day after receiving the script, Jamie Tarses and Stu Bloomberg, who is co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, called Tony Krantz to green-light production. "They were giddy with excitement," Krantz recalls. Steve Tao said, "It's one of the fastest scripts we've ever read – we could see it." ABC would eventually order pilots for seven dramatic series for the fall season, and the network expected to find room on its schedule for three or four. "Mulholland Drive" looked to be a shoo-in.

But the executives did wonder how the seemingly unconnected scenes and characters would be tied together. Lynch's scripts, dense with dream images, don't gather up loose ends and sweep to a close; instead, they jump, around and then break off, as if jarred by an alarm clock. Although this strangeness was a selling point, it was also a cause for concern. "There's a very fine balance between intriguing people and confusing people," Steve Tao said. And so, two weeks after ordering the pilot episode, Bloomberg and Tarses summoned about twenty people from the network, Imagine, and Lynch's production company to meet in ABC's conference room.

At "notes meetings" like this one, networks begin to put their stamp on a show, analyzing everything from the characters' morals to their hair styles. Executives try to clarify motivations and future plot points: "What are the stakes? What is the character's arc?" They also ask, "Will there be a love story, a combative mating dance?" Most executives believe that television shows – unlike movies, which people actively seek out – are watched passively by a tired and fickle audience; and so stories should move quickly and clearly, and characters' problems should engender immediate sympathy. "The secret is to have a character who is very relatable, whom you root for," Jamie Tarses says. "And the rest is how you dress it up."

Tony Krantz considered the discussion normal and amicable: "At those meetings, you want to take signals from the buyer, and make compromises that satisfy them and that don't involve selling your soul to the devil." Steve Tao told me, "David was very collaborative. I had a list of twenty questions. He said, 'I'm not going to answer that, but it's a good question.' Next? 'I'm not going to answer that, but it's a good question.' Next? 'I know that answer, and you're not going to learn it now.' At least I knew he was thinking about our concerns."

Lynch didn't relish the scrutiny, however. "David is willing to attend something like that meeting as a gesture of cooperation," Mary Sweeney says, "but he believes that questions about motivation are not pertinent." Lynch himself says, "A lot of times, I just didn't know what the answer was going to be, and I was covering up so that I wouldn't worry them."

What most worried the network was the last scene: the camera snakes around the Dumpster behind Denny's and finds the bum. "We move closer and the bum's face fills the screen," Lynch had written. "Its face is black with fungus. Its eyes turn and they seem to be red. THE END." ABC was afraid this scene signaled that Lynch was about to depart for his nutty private world of dwarfs and ladies in radiators and extraterrestrial freaks. They wanted to work with the controlled and grounded Lynch of "Blue Velvet" and the early "Twin Peaks," not the Lynch of his more recent "Lost Highway," a man bewitched by sex, violence, and alternate universes. Tao asked nervously, "Are his eyes glowing? Is he an alien?"

"No, no, no, no, no, no," Lynch said soothingly. "The bum's eyes are just catching a reflection from the neon. And with the black fungus around the eyes they just look ... naturally pink."

Afterward, Lynch's producer, Neal Edelstein, said, "ABC thinks viewers are too stupid to want to figure things out, to have a bit of a surreal experience." When I pressed Lynch whether the bum's eyes really glowed only from reflected neon, he chuckled, and said, "Well, and maybe a few other things."

Lynch did hint to the executives that Adam and Betty would have a romance, which reassured them, and said that in the course of the first year Betty and Rita would "cross": Betty would be sucked into the city's underbelly, and Rita would be redeemed. And, in response to politely insistent queries, Lynch promised that when Rita's identity was finally revealed it would only open up other mysteries.

That was a further relief to ABC, which was eager not to repeat the mistakes of "Twin Peaks." When it first aired, in April, 1990, "Twin Peaks" had a 21.7 rating, or nearly twenty million viewers, and a whopping 33 share (meaning that a third of all televisions on at that hour were tuned to the show). But by the time the show was cancelled, a year later, it had fallen to a 5.7 rating and a 9 share. After the core mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" had been solved, in the fifteenth episode (the murderer turned out to be Bob, a fiend inhabiting Laura's father), the plot petered out. "David was quite cognizant that on 'Twin Peaks' he'd written himself into a corner with Laura Palmer," Tao says. "We kept saying we can't have that happen again, because we want a long-running series."

Tony Krantz was also watching out that Lynch didn't get too esoteric. "When 'Twin Peaks' got fourteen Emmy nominations its first year," Krantz said, "ABC mistakenly felt that David and Mark' – the show's co-creator, Mark Frost – "were unassailable gods riding this unstoppable pop-culture wave. So they didn't say boo when the show stopped adhering to conventional storytelling and got all weird."

ABC and Imagine were both unabashedly following Hollywood's conventional wisdom: if you want to achieve popular success with an artist, take whatever it is that makes that artist distinctive, dilute it, and add a spoonful of sugar. Brian Grazer, Imagine Television's other co-chairman, told me, "Television should bring out the best in David, because people want originality within a conventional format – if you change both format and content, become too original, as he has sometimes done, you go south."

As the pilot began filming, in late February, excitement about "Mulholland Drive" swept through Hollywood. "People are grovelling to be on the writing staff," Lynch's producer, Neal Edelstein, said. "It is the pilot." In March, Steve Tao, told me, "We gave a presentation to the advertising community last week, and just the mere mention that David Lynch is coming back to television literally made them gasp!"

Yet privately the executives at ABC were increasingly nervous. That same week, Tony Krantz said, "Steve Tao is seeing the dailies" – each day's raw footage – "and saying, 'Oh, my God, we love it, we love it.' But then he said, 'What is it? What is it? And when he saw some of the closed ending he said, 'What the fuck is it?'" (The closed ending features a Blue Lady and a magician who explodes in blue flames.)

ABC was also worried about pace: that speedy script seemed a bit plodding after it had been realized through Lynch's viewfinder. Justin Theroux, who plays Adam, brooded about the network's unease. "I realized that the show is incidental to the ads," Theroux said. "You could have someone fucking a chicken up there, and it doesn't matter to ABC – they just want people to watch the commercials. In 'Ally McBeal,' you start off with someone talking about a pet frog and some legal case about masturbation – lots of hooks to keep your interest. In 'Mulholland Drive,' you start off with seven minutes of a car accident, someone stumbling around dazed. I'm sure ABC is thinking, O.K., we've just lost x million viewers."

Nor was ABC happy about Lynch's lead actresses, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Usually, a show's producers audition at least fifty actors for each major role, and then bring their three top contenders in to read for the network, at which point the producers and the executives cast the show together. But Lynch casts by scrutinizing head-shot photographs and conducting interviews. Viewing actors as design elements, he often chooses unknowns with broad, blank faces.

"Sometimes the network can give too much respect to an artist," Tony Krantz said, "and ABC did that here, deferring to David without having any chance to see the actors read – to kick the tires. The actresses are fantastic-looking, fine talents, but they're a little old" – both are in their late twenties – "and ABC thinks Betty is too aw-shucks and Okie-from-Muskogee, and that at the beginning, after the accident, Rita looks kind of goofy."

The network communicated its anxieties, as is customary, through its standards-and-practices department, which vets shows for objectionable material. A ream of memos came Lynch's way: change "tits and ass" to "butts and boobs"; we shouldn't see the hit man's gun "blowing brains out across the desk, carpet and wall," or the next bullet piercing the wall and hitting the fat woman's buttocks. Then came the memo saying, Lose the closeup of dog turds on a sidewalk Lynch prized that image (he'd told his cameraman, "Get real tight on this – every kid in America is going to love it!"), and he especially objected to this edict. "Show me someone who hasn't seen dog shit," he said. A compromise was finally negotiated: the poop would take up an eighth of the screen.

The standards-and-practices department was particularly disturbed by Lynch's reverence for cigarettes – for smoke and fire as a magical texture. "We don't like to condone smoking here at the network," Steve Tao explained. "He's found ways around it. Now it's mostly the bad people who smoke." Tao giggled self-consciously: "You smoke, you die." Indeed, the network decreed that characters who smoke should manifest "a hacking cough." Lynch did change the script so that it is Adam, and not a kindly landlady, who fights up, but in a scene shot after the network voiced its concern, Lynch told Justin Theroux, "Take a really fucking big drag – fucking love that cigarette."

Though Lynch remained fairly complaisant, he was concerned about ABC's small incursions on his reality. "If you purify out smoking and dog ... problems on TV," he told me, "and you make a politically correct world, the artificiality eats into our perceptions of life. And no one will watch your show."

Lynch and ABC had fallen into the time-honored pattern of antagonism between the "talent" and the "suits." Executives view writers as unruly teenagers; writers see executives as hysterical parents who, regrettably, still control allowances and bedtimes. To be sure, television's boundaries have broadened enormously since the early nineteen-seventies, when a CBS researcher told Allan Burns, the co-creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," that there were four leprous castes that viewers would never accept as lead characters: divorced people, Jews, New Yorkers, and men with mustaches. But with network television – which, unlike cable, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission – any plot point that might offend viewers remains touchy. A small child named Kenny dies a different awful death in each episode of the animated show "South Park," but that mordancy is possible only because the show airs on Comedy Central. "On a network," says Trey Parker, the show's co-creator, "Kenny would just keep getting an ear infection."

N.Y.P.D. Blue" had its d6but on ABC a year later than had been planned, because Steven Bochco, the executive producer, had to fight endless battles over content. "It was exhausting," Bochco, told me. "But we finally settled on a glossary of naughty words we could use – douche bag, scumbag, asshole, prick." He shook his head and laughed. "Eventually, we're going to win all these battles, with the pathetic argument that 'Shit, there's no one left watching us anyway – what do you care?' "


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© Mike Hartmann