The City of Absurdity   Mulholland Drive

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ABC pulled the plug on David Lynch's TV series Mulholland Drive. So he turned it into a movie instead. Andrew Pulver reports from Cannes

By Andrew Pulver
The Guardian May 11, 2001

At this year's Cannes festival, director David Lynch is poised to reclaim argu-ably the worst experience of his career with the premiere of a feature-film version of Mulholland Drive. It's a project wrung from the wreckage of a failed TV pilot that claimed a year of his creative life and, for a while at any rate, existed only as a ghostly tape passed from hand to hand among industry insiders.

Lynch has always had an on-off, love-hate relationship with the small screen, exemplified by his detonation of a TV set at the start of Fire Walk With Me. His feelings, you'd have thought, couldn't be clearer. With Twin Peaks, which registered almost 20m viewers in its first series in the spring of 1990, he took on the most remorselessly homogenised medium and scored a stunning success. Maybe he had the perfect kind of weirdness: one that could crawl under the skin of a mass audience on a made-to-order basis.

But the warning signs were there: Lynch's subsequent career is marked by uneasy collaborations with TV networks. ABC abruptly cancelled the sitcom On the Air in 1992 after three episodes were shown. The made-for-cable three-parter Hotel Room made little impact the following year; likewise Lynch's surreal 50-minute Industrial Symphony No 1: The Dream of the Broken-Hearted - a post-Peaks piece of self-indulgence - which was greeted with bemusement.

Mulholland Drive had its genesis during the development of Twin Peaks. Lynch happened to mention the idea to Tony Krantz, the Creative Artists Agency agent responsible for putting Peaks together (Krantz would soon set up as a TV producer, heading the TV arm of Imagine Entertainment). Krantz took Lynch along to pitch the idea for a series to ABC in the summer of 1998. Recalling the impact, ratings and influence of Twin Peaks, the network commissioned a two-hour pilot.

In August of that year, discreet stories in the Hollywood trade press announced that Mulholland Drive was a go project. The aim was for the show to have a prime-time slot in the autumn 1999 TV schedules. Nine months later, however, alert analysts noticed there was no trace of it at ABC's seasonal product presentation.

The first solid indications of Lynch's troubles came a few months later, in a detailed article in the New Yorker magazine. Writer Tad Friend had spent a considerable amount of time on the set watching Lynch work. All, it appeared, had gone swimmingly at the initial pitch meeting, as Lynch explained his idea for a pilot that began with an amnesiac woman staggering out of a car-wreck on the Los Angeles boulevard of the title. Lynch also promised to dig into the underbelly of Hollywood: his convoluted storyline involved a wannabe starlet, a freakish movie producer with a tiny head, and a director whose film is shut down by mobsters.

Nervous and protective of their investment as shooting began, ABC began running their eyes over Lynch's work, objecting to all manner of details, from his casting choices to an extreme close-up of a pile of dog turds. But, Friend revealed, the blood really began to flow when Lynch delivered his 125-minute rough-cut to ABC. Not only did they hate its languid pace, they also demanded it lose 37 minutes to fit the conventional TV time slot.

Lynch's solution was to cut the final part and use it in the first episode of the subsequent series. But ABC had commissioned a complete story. So, in what seems a unprecedented act of compromise, Lynch trimmed the film to the required 88 minutes by cutting scenes throughout. He even ditched a much-haggled-over climax where a man is literally scared to death when a fungus-covered tramp jumps out of the dark at him. But the cuts made no sense of the storyline, and the network dumped the show and its $7m investment. Lynch found this out just as he was heading to Cannes in May 1999 with his movie The Straight Story.

Although the original deal between ABC and Imagine Entertainment called for the Mulholland Drive pilot to be theatrically released in European cinemas, a feature-film reworking wasn't a serious option until The Straight Story's French producers, Alain Sarde and Pierre Edelman, got hold of a tape. In early 2000, it was reported in America's mass-circulation TV Guide magazine that French company Studio Canal Plus had put together a deal that allowed them to take the film away from Imagine and finance extra shoots so that Lynch could complete the film his way. The cost of the film doubled to $14m as sets had to be reconstructed and actors recalled.

As Mulholland Drive nears its Cannes premiere, it looks at least as if Lynch's latest odyssey will have something like a happy ending. What is also oddly apparent is the way his projects, over the years, have a curiously interlocking, incestuous feel: Fire Walk With Me arose out of the ashes of Twin Peaks, as did Mulholland Drive; and this new movie has wormed its way from the rotting corpse of a disastrous TV project. His film-making career doesn't so much develop as congeal. If anything, the experience should remind Lynch, and fellow directors, that they owe cinema a debt for its facility for freedom of expression. It may well turn out that ABC were right to trash Mulholland Drive; but if Lynch fails, it will be his own failure. And that has to be the right way to fail.

Mulholland Drive premieres at Cannes on May 16.

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