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After a painful return to tv, America's oddest auteur gives the real "Story"
By Kristine McKenna, Premiere, November 1999
UNDER A BLAZING SUN, DAVID LYNCH stands on the patio of his Hollywood Hills compound, dabbling in abstraction. Thickened paint rises off the surface of his massive canvas like the contours of a topographical map. Propped against a wall, four completed pieces violent combinations of text and imagery depict elongated figures striding angrily through a void. It's easy to picture Lynch attacking those canvases, tanked up on coffee and cigarettes, endeavoring to forget his latest career disappointment.
"That initial burst of success is like a huge flame, and if you're lucky, it shrinks down and becomes a hand warmer that stays warm for a long time," observes Lynch, who broke out from critic's-darling status in the early '90s, when Twin Peaks, his groundbreaking television series, captured the public imagination.
"My big success is over, and it's no longer interfering with my life the way it was in 1990, when I was on the cover of Time magazine," continues the 53-year-old director, who's endured the critical thrashing that invariably follows massive mainstream success. "The minute I saw that magazine, I knew it was over, and at that point a dark cloud began to form over me. I wasn't unhappy during that period, because there's a freedom that comes when you're down you've taken the beating, things aren't gonna get any worse, and it's all just part of the cycle. It's no fun, though."
Lynch is still getting over his struggles with ABC over the aborted television series Mulholland Drive. But glowing early reviews of Lynch's new film, The Straight Story, suggest that the cycle is reversing and he's about to start having fun again. Based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a senior citizen who's determined to visit his ailing brother despite the fact that he lacks a driver's license, the film chronicles Straight's 320 mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin on his 1966 John Deere lawn mower.
Devoid of sex, violence, or profanity, the $9 million film is a lyrical valentine to the Midwestern landscape and the people who inhabit it. If you were to compare it to Lynch's previous forays into the American heartland Eraserhead (1978) and Blue Velvet (1986) you might assume his worldview has grown sunnier. Lynch cautions, however, that "it's wrong to interpret the film as a barometer of my state of mind. You could draw some strange conclusions from that."
Such as, that he's become a happy guy?
"Yeah, I wouldn't go that far," he laughs. "I have the same frustrations and turmoil I've always had."
That may not be entirely true. When the young, Montana-born artist-filmmaker arrived in Hollywood, fresh from his art studies in Philadelphia in the '70s, his struggle was to get his foot in the door so he could make movies. Lynch has since, been ushered through that door Hollywood even rolled out the red carpet but the studio executives he's met inside have left him baffled, disillusioned, and fiercely protective of his iconoclastic work. Much about Lynch remains unchanged he's still got that charm that can only be described as boyish, and that sensational head of hair but two decades in the trenches of the movie business have left him with a thicker hide.
His ability to soldier on is due to the fact that Lynch does lots of different things. He spent the summer developing a new series of paintings in his studio, in the home he's devoted much of the past three years to creating.
After purchasing three houses on the same steep street, he redesigned and connected them, creating an asymmetrical maze that includes a recording studio, a wood shop (where Lynch designs and builds furniture), and painting studios for Lynch and his companion of eight years, Mary Sweeney. The complex, with its muted colors, poured concrete walls, and exotic woods, bears the unmistakable stamp of Lynch's aesthetic. He may be eccentric, but he has impeccable taste.
Lynch spent a portion of 1999 pouring his heart into the pilot for Mulholland Drive, which was rejected by ABC in May. "I don't understand human behavior," Lynch says with a frown. "All I know is, I loved making it, ABC hated it, and I don't like the cut I turned in. I agreed with ABC that the longer cut was too slow, but I was forced to butcher it because we had a deadline, and there wasn't time to finesse anything. It lost texture, big scenes, and storylines, and there are 300 tape copies of the bad version circulating around. Lots of people have seen it, which is embarrassing, because they're bad-quality tapes, too. I don't want to think about it."
Given that Lynch's past three films Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and Lost Highway (1997) earned both mixed reviews and meager box office, The Straight Story clearly comes at the right time. Based on a screenplay co-written by neophyte screenwriters Sweeney and John Roach, the film stars Sissy Spacek (who's married to Lynch's buddy Jack Fisk, the production designer on the film), and the redoubtable Richard Farnsworth, who came out of retirement to work with Lynch.
"Richard was born to play this role,"Lynch says of Farnsworth, whose career was launched 62 years ago, when he appeared as a Mongolian horseman in The Adventures of Marco Polo. "He's got a quality that's so strong, and he makes every word and glance seem real. He has innocence, and that is a gift."
The movie is very much Sweeney's baby. Besides co-writing the screenplay, she edited and co-produced the film (which Disney scooped up last May, after it was accepted in competition at the Cannes film festival). And Sweeney was the one who spotted the story of Alvin Straight in The New York Times, in 1994. "Alvin's drive struck me as funny, eccentric, and oddly dignified, and I tried to option the story as soon as I read it, but someone beat me to it," she recalls. "I kept tracking it until the rights became available again [Straight died in 1996], and once we got them, in February of 1998, things moved like a runaway train. By late June, John and I gave David a script, and by September we were shooting the film."
Because of weather and the fact that Farnsworth was growing a beard, Lynch says, "We had to shoot in sequence, so we started where Alvin had lived, in Laurens, Iowa, on flat terrain and in hot summer weather. As we progressed east, the weather started changing, and we had to work fast because that neck of the woods gets bitter cold early in the fall, and nearly every scene is outdoors."
On one level, The Straight Story appears to be a warm and simple Disney story, but the film's surface hides some radical elements. For starters, Lynch allows his story to unfold at a leisurely pace, which goes against the current rapid-fire-editing trend. "I wanted the film to have a floating feeling, and I particularly wanted that quality to come through in the aerial landscape shots," he explains. "It took a lot of explaining to get the helicopter pilots to slow down enough to get the look I was after."
Even more audacious was Lynch's decision to cast the supporting roles with unglamorous Midwesterners, most of whom were eligible for Medicare. Farnsworth, who was born in Los Angeles, is 79, and, like his character, walks with a cane. Several other cast members are in their 80s, and cinematographer Freddie Francis (who also shot The Elephant Man and Dune for Lynch) is 81. Ageism, one of the final taboo subjects in American society, is "all tied into money and the fear of death that permeates this culture," Lynch speculates. "Alvin is an old guy, but he's a total rebel he's like James Dean, except he's old. He's also like a million other old guys. The body gets old, but inside we feel ageless, because the self we talk to doesn't have an age."
Lynch concedes that his response to this material has something to do with the fact that he's spent the past few summers in Madison, Wisconsin, where Sweeney was born and raised. "Getting a feeling for Madison and the people there helped me to understand Alvin, and it showed me that the America of his story really does exist," he says. "When I read the script, I felt I knew those people."
Asked how he expects The Straight Story to do at the box office, Lynch says, "Gee, I really don't know. Business is so far down the ladder of importance when it comes to film that it shouldn't even be discussed. It's sick how much attention it gets, but then, the world is ass-backwards." He concludes with a shrug. "It would be fantastic to be able to make movies and never put them out. I love getting them to where they're really right for me that part is just beautiful. When it's time to release them, the heartache begins."