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Highway to Hell

Cinematographer Peter Deming lends creepy noir ambience to director David Lynch's latest detour, Lost Highway.

by Stephen Pizzello

"A work of art in itself is a gesture and it may be warm or cold, inviting or repellent."
- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

On a sunny December day in the Hollywood Hills, David Lynch sits in a deck chair on the outdoor patio of his filmmaking headquarters, a two-story modernist building that houses the aptly named Asymmetrical Productions. He is surrounded by the tools of the painter's trade: an oversized wooden easel, drippy paint cans, a scattered selection of brushes. Resting against a nearby wall is an unfinished example of his oeuvre: a large chunk of roast beef adhered to a canvas with an acrylic glaze, flanked on either side by the similarly embalmed corpses of a tiny frog and sparrow. Scratching at the salt-and-pepper stubble on his unshaven chin, Lynch appraises his creation. "That roast beef has gone through a strange metamorphosis," he says, folding his arms. "It was bigger when I started, but one day a squirrel came by and took a big hunk out of it. I'm kinda workin' with it."

The line is classic Lynch, a collision of avant-garde eccentricity and folksy good humor. It's quotes such as this that have led media pundits to lampoon the director as some sort of cinematic idiot savant - the weird but brilliant neighborhood kid who occasionally comes over to show off something repulsive that he's dug up in his backyard. But the David Lynch that I encounter is clearly no fool; he is well aware of his image, and is most likely its canny architect. This is, after all, the man responsible for Eraserhead, the ultimate midnight movie; the director who unleashed Dennis Hopper's psychotic alter ego, Frank Booth, upon unsuspecting audiences in Blue Velvet; the same David Lynch who once staged a one-man home invasion of the entire nation, swamping suburbia's television sets with the outlandish images of Twin Peaks. He is, in short, the high llama of existential horror, hero to all who find life to be just a little bit strange.

Still, for someone who at various points in his career has been branded "the Czar of Bizarre," "the Wizard of Weird" and "the psychopathic Norman Rockwell," Lynch seems a pleasant enough fellow. When asked to explain how his rather unique thought processes conspire to conjure up his cinematic visions, the director assumes a sincerely thoughtful expression. "Everything sort of follows my initial ideas," he offers. "As soon as I get an idea, I get a picture and a feeling, and I can even hear sounds. The mood and the visuals are very strong. Every single idea I have comes with these things. One moment they're outside of my consciousness, and the next moment they come in with all of this power."

But what is it that triggers these transcendent states? "Sometimes if I listen to music, the ideas really flow," Lynch offers. "It's like the music changes into something else, and I see scenes unfolding. Or I might just be sitting quietly in a chair and bing! - an idea will hit me. At other times, I might be walking down the street when I see something that's meaningful and inspires another scene. On anything that you start, fragments of ideas run together and hook themselves up like a train. Those first fragments become a magnet for everything else you need. You may remember something from the past that's perfect, or you may discover a brand-new thing. Eventually, you get little sequences going.

"Before you think of anything, the whole landscape is open," he concludes. "But once you start falling in love with certain ideas, the road you're on becomes very narrow. If you concentrate, ideas will come to that narrow road and finish it."

To this point in his career, Lynch has led movie audiences down some very twisted roads indeed. This time around, with the help of cinematographer Peter Deming (Evil Dead 2, Hollywood Shuffle, House Party, Drop Dead Fred, My Cousin Vinny, and the upcoming comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), he has unleashed Lost Highway, a neo-noir nightmare that plays like an unholy marriage of Body Heat and Altered States. Violent, non-linear, and shockingly odd, the film may baffle and even offend many viewers, but it certainly reaffirms Lynch's considerable talents as a visualist.

The plot, such as it is, tracks the strange tale of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist whose marriage to a dour, raven-tressed sex kitten (Patricia Arquette) is decidedly on the rocks. Shortly after someone begins breaking into the couple's home and videotaping them as they sleep, the wife is murdered, and Fred is ushered to an amenity-free suite in the Graybar Hotel (a.k.a. prison).

The setup is textbook film noir, but things soon takes a sharp turn toward the surreal. While languishing in his cell, Madison suddenly and inexplicably morphs into a teenaged garage mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty). Released from the clink by the baffled authorities, who tail his every move, Pete soon finds himself lusting after the sultry blonde moll (Patricia Arquette again) of a short-tempered crime boss (Robert Loggia). His infatuation gets him in dutch with the gangster, who subsequently employs a full arsenal of scare tactics - such as introducing the youthful grease monkey to a truly bizarre mystery man (Robert Blake) who has no eyebrows and the apparent ability to be in two places at once.

All of this, of course, must be seen to be believed, which is no doubt part of Lynch's master plan. Early press notes for the film described it simply as "a psychogenic fugue," and the director himself offers no further hints about the movie's true meaning. "The unit publicist was reading up on certain mental disorders during production, and she came upon this true condition called 'psychogenic fugue,' which is where a person gives up himself, his world, his family - everything about himself - and takes on another identity," Lynch relates. "That's Fred Madison completely. I love the term psychogenic fugue. In a way, the musical term fugue fits perfectly, because the film has one theme, and then another theme takes over. To me, jazz is the closest thing to insanity that there is in music."

Some viewers may prescribe a straitjacket for Lynch after experiencing Lost Highway, but adventurous filmgoers will be treated to a torrent of dazzling images that defy indifference: a pitch-dark hallway that looms like a tenebrous abyss; Pullman's transformation into Getty, a sequence which seems inspired by a tab of bad acid; an opulent mansion that serves as a proscenium for porn; a nocturnal interlude of dusty desert coitus caught in the headlights of a car.

Like most of Lost Highway, these scenes have the febrile quality of a dream. By his own assertion, Lynch is "not an intellectual thinker," but an instinctual artist whose primarily motivations are mood, texture, and emotion. "Film noir has a mood that everyone can feel," he says. "It's people in trouble, at night, with a little bit of wind and the right kind of music. It's a beautiful thing."

In order to interpret Lynch's existential directives, his closest collaborators must attune themselves to his singular mindset. Lynch's longtime production/costume designer, Patricia Norris, says that she and the director have developed a strong creative kinship after years of working together. "We both have the same idea of what 'ugly' is - in terms of both decor and people," Norris submits. "All rooms come out of people, and if you understand who the characters are, you understand how they live. Most decorating conveys what's not written, and gives you a sense of the people. In Lost Highway, for example, the porno guy's mansion is really awful-looking - over the top and in bad taste. Everything is too big, and it looks as if he probably had someone else furnish it for him. We took a very different approach to the Madisons' house, because we wanted their relationship to be mysterious and nebulous. We decorated their place very sparingly with the kind of jazzy, Fifties-style 'atomic furniture' that David favors; the look was basically 'a phone and an ashtray.'"

Although cinematographer Deming has not worked with Lynch for nearly as long as Norris, he benefitted from his prior experiences with the director on television commercials, the short-lived television series On the Air, and the HBO omnibus Hotel Room. "David's not a big fan of prep; he doesn't like to be pinned down too much," Deming says. "Before shooting began on this film, we only talked specifically about two scenes: the first involved the hallway in Fred Madison's house, and the other was the love scene in the desert. We discussed different levels of dark - dark, 'next door to dark,' gradations like that. To figure out exactly what he meant, I would reference things we had done together, or other work he had done. The colors David was most interested in were browns, yellows and reds. We wound up shooting a lot of the film with a chocolate #1 filter, which helped me get the look that David wanted. The lab felt that it was the most difficult filter to reproduce in timing."In testing, I ran into a bit of a problem using the chocolate filter at night," he submits. "The filter factor was a stop and a third, and it just ate up the shadows; you couldn't see into the shadow areas at all. Knowing the way David likes darkness, the chocolate filter was too much of a wild card when we were shooting at the low end of the exposure curve. We tried using chocolate gels on the lights, but that also proved to be a little too thick.

"What I ended up doing was having Ron Scott, the timer at CFI, time in the effect to the scene. I'd give him two gray scales: one normal and one with the filter in the camera. He would match the normal one to the filtered one and apply that correction to the whole scene in varying densities. It wasn't my preferred way of doing things, but in the long run I think it was better because it gave the night scenes a slightly different look, even scene to scene. David grew to like the workprint he had watched for six months, and he didn't want to change that. I did one timing for the movie which was fairly consistent with the chocolate look we had designed for the day work, but it wasn't really happening, so we went back to what we had in the workprint to a large degree, improving it in places where it wasn't quite right. We wound up with a movie that has a different and non-uniform look."


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