David Lynch discusses painterly filmmaking, the importance of having final cut, and his latest musical project, The Big Dream, released July 16th.
David Lynch's elegant, gray house—the same one that appears in his film Lost Highway—seems to be strangely turned away from the road. Lynch's assistant opens the door and leads the visitor through a screening room and a recording studio. In the orderly kitchen, a coffeemaker is running. Lynch is a notorious coffee consumer, and for a while he sold his own brand, David Lynch's Coffee. Some of the furniture and lamps—which also appeared in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive—were built by Lynch himself. The assistant opens a back door into the garden. A winding, rain-soaked path leads to Lynch's studio, where, smoking and drinking coffee, David Lynch sits, wearing his trademark buttoned-up white shirt and a dark jacket.
Though his new album The Big Dream—a moody, funny, and typically Lynchian work—is about to be released, his biggest project may well be imminent. For forty years, David Lynch has been practicing Transcendental Meditation and, with the David Lynch Foundation, he aims to collect enough money to establish a worldwide network of “peace palaces” to teach and promote the ancient Indian meditation practice. The approach and ambition of this project could perhaps be compared to Joseph Beuys' late political work in which the artist claimed that once everybody thinks for themselves (and thus thinks like an artist) no totalitarian system will ever succeed again—a thought originating with Socrates and continued in the teachings and writings of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.
The following is a conversation about art and peace with David Lynch.
Michael Saur A few years back you had an art retrospective in Paris at the Fondation Cartier in which you put pot roasts, dead mice and ants in your paintings. You like organic matter and decay?
David Lynch Take the rose. The rose grows, a flower appears, and it blooms, and it is very beautiful, and then shortly after, it starts changing again and they say the bloom gets off the rose. Eventually, the rose is gone. I like all the steps.
MS Neither of your parents were artists. Who or what introduced you to this world?
DL There were two things when I was young that influenced me. Bushnell Keeler, a painter friend, and a book called the The Art Spirit, by a writer named Robert Henri. Bushnell Keeler and Robert Henri got me started in the thing I then called “the art life.”
MS What did that mean to you?
DL (laughter) The art life in my mind then was that you smoke cigarettes, drink coffee—you don't get married and you don’t have children—I got married four times, and I have four children. But I still smoke and still drink coffee. And in all fairness, there are experiences in life that, like marriage and children, are good to have and they feed the work. So it’s all good.
MS You started making films to make moving paintings. Would you say that your movies remained paintings?
DL I think you could say a film is like a painting that is moving that also has sound and stories. I like to have a little story with my paintings. Francis Bacon didn’t want to have a story in his work, but people can still dream a story and find it. You can’t help what the viewer is going to think.
MS When you step back and look at all your films together, do you see one canvas?
DL No, I see a family. People use the analogy of children. You see all these different children.
MS A painting by Anselm Kiefer once lost a bit of the straw that was attached to it, and the painting’s owner, the actor Sylvester Stallone, crazy-glued the straw back onto the canvas.
DL Kiefer should glue the straw back. It’s like final cut in a film. It should be with the artist.
The way I came into filmmaking through painting, it surprised me so much that a filmmaker would ever make a movie without final cut, without total freedom, because as a painter you have total freedom.
MS In your first feature, Eraserhead (1977), the protagonist Henry seems torn between domestic expectations and his desire for freedom.
DL Getting caught up in the material world is beguiling and thrilling, but there is something else that is way more important, which makes the material world even greater. It is a kind of trick. It is a puzzle, but it is a solvable puzzle. The answer is, one can have both—one can have freedom and the material world.
MS After the art-house movie Eraserhead, Mel Brooks offered you the opportunity to direct The Elephant Man, a big production about a hideously deformed man in Victorian England who reveals a great inner beauty and lyricism. Can you talk about that experience?
DL You wouldn't think that anybody would select the director of Eraserhead to direct The Elephant Man. But Mel Brooks is a rare bird. He is known for his comedy, which is truly funny, but perhaps not so intellectually stimulating. But he really has a poet's soul. Mel is very intelligent and creative, and he is an artist. He is very sensitive, and he really understands human nature. Otherwise he couldn't do those great comedies. I guess Eraserhead spoke to him, and off we went.
MS Was it luck?
DL Yes, I think it has very much to do with luck. Or fate. It is just the luck of the draw. But you gotta do what you love. I always say that I really believe that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg do what they truly love. They make the films they truly love. And it just happens that there are billions of people who like the same things they like. And there are others who make the films they truly love, but the audience is very small.
MS After The Elephant Man, Dino de Laurentiis hired you to direct Dune, with one of the biggest budgets in the history of Hollywood. What was it like working with him? I know the film didn't turn out as you’d hoped.
DL Dino was one of the last great moguls of Hollywood. He had tremendous energy and a tremendous love for cinema. He loved it in a sort of deal-making angle, but he was absolutely motivated 24/7 and loving it. It was great to be around Dino, and I loved him, and I love his whole family. I learned to make Rigatoni from Dino. But with Dune, I did not have final cut and in the end, I died the death.
I knew when I was signing the contract that I was foolishly optimistic. And I did get burned. I have big regrets, because it is not the film I wanted to make. But I still like parts of it for sure, and I enjoyed a lot the making of it.
MS And of course Blue Velvet, now considered one of the best films ever, would not have happened without Dune.
DL Dino said, “What do you want to do next?” And I said, “Blue Velvet.” He asked who owns it, and I said I do. But I didn't. I had lost it in turnaround. So he bought it from the studio and therefore he had it. I made it with Dino, but I made it with final cut.
MS He left you alone with it?
DL Dino was hands-off totally during the shoot. We were the lowest budget, the smallest film, on Dino's new studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. There were twelve other films being made, all more expensive and with big stars. So for all of us on Blue Velvet it was a beautiful feeling of tremendous freedom.
MS Was de Laurentiis happy with the result?
DL When Dino saw the film, he was very surprised that he liked it so much. He thought that maybe Blue Velvet had a chance for a bigger audience than just an art house audience. A lot of distributors also liked it. So he tested Blue Velvet in a theater in the valley. It was a theater that was running Top Gun, with Tom Cruise, so the audience was a Top Gun audience. After the screening they had people fill out cards. Dino and his people told me it was the worst test screening they had ever seen. So Dino said, “Well, it’s not a blockbuster.” (laughter) But in the end, Blue Velvet did alright.
MS You were on top of the world then. A photograph of you and Isabella Rosellini for Vanity Fair where you have your turtleneck covering your face became emblematic. Were you hiding?
DL No. They gave me the turtleneck, and I was kind of moaning and groaning—not really wanting to wear it. As a joke, I lifted it up over my face, and that was when Annie Leibovitz popped that photo. And I told her, “You’re going to use that photo,” and she did.
MS George Lucas asked you to direct the third Star Wars, right?
DL Yes, but I knew that was not for me. It was George's thing. I heard he doesn't like to direct, but I always felt he should direct it. It wasn't my thing. I really felt that it wouldn't be a satisfying thing for me to do. But I was really flattered that he asked me. My lawyer at the time knew the director who finally made the film and he said, “David, you just made so-and-so a multi-millionaire.”
MS You work with a lot of lesser known actors and actresses. What do you look for in your actors?
DL I like to get a sense of people while talking. I look into their eyes. As we talk, mentally I walk them through the film.
Casting is super-important. There are so many great actors and actresses, but that doesn't mean you can just pick one. Common sense says you have to find the one that is right for the role.
MS Do you avoid stars?
DL Not altogether, but it is a tricky thing to work with a star.
MS Has it become more difficult to raise money to make films?
DL It has become more difficult. Cinema owners want to fill their theaters and the audiences that go to the theater these days like big entertainment. Unfortunately, I’m not making that kind of big entertainment that the people seem to like.
MS You live in the Hollywood Hills. Do you consider yourself part of “Hollywood?”
DL No, people think of Hollywood as place where all the directors get together and party and talk. But I hardly go out of my house. I don't hang out with other directors. I sometimes see actors or actresses. What I like about living in Hollywood is the light and the feeling of freedom and I do like the feeling that this is a place where filmmakers live and work.
MS You’ve talked about wanting to make a film called Ronnie Rocket about a man who is three feet tall and runs on alternating-current electricity.
DL Yes, it was never made partly because I didn't feel it would go over, and partly because I feel the script needs more work.
MS Ronnie Rocket is still a possibility?
DL Yes, it is. But Ronnie Rocket is set in the world of the smokestack industry, and this is a world that doesn't exist anymore. It was still really alive in the ’50s and ’60s, but this industry is going away. And then a thing happened. This thing called graffiti. Graffiti to me is one of the worst things that has happened to the world. It completely ruined the mood of places. Graffiti kills the possibility to go back in time and have the buildings be as they were. Cheap storm windows and graffiti have ruined the world for Ronnie Rocket.
MS Were you disappointed that your last movie, Inland Empire, didn't do very well commercially?
DL I always say that that if you love the work, you cannot get hurt. But in a way I was hurt because some distributors lost money on Inland Empire. It was the first film I did I think where distributors lost some money. I like to think over time, people will discover Inland Empire and I like to think the distributors will get their money back one day.
MS What do you think the difference is between the small and the big screen, having worked in both media?
DL Maybe some films that don't work with a big audience may work in a house on a television. People are more forgiving one at a time. But a big audience is not forgiving.
Small screens don’t give as much opportunity for people to really get lost in a new world. A big screen with great sound is really where cinema should be seen.
MS In Twin Peaks, you play a character called Gordon Cole. In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a Gordon Cole from Paramount Studios calls the former silent star Norma Desmond and she believes this means the studio wants her back, when in fact he only wants to inquire whether they can rent her 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A. Why’d you choose that name?
DL (laughter) Yes, I borrowed that name Gordon Cole. If you are driving around Paramount Studios, you’ll pass two streets, Gordon and Cole. I am positive this is where Billy Wilder got the name. Billy Wilder made one of my favorite films, Sunset Boulevard. I like The Apartment too, but I love, love, love Sunset Boulevard. I always say Billy Wilder was the best at creating a sense of place, a place that feels so real, so good. The apartment where Jack Lemmon lived has just stayed alive in my mind, and the mansion in Sunset Boulevard is beyond the beyond alive.
MS Can you talk about your interest in music a little?
DL Yes, I got a lot more into the world of music, and I love this world of music. I’ve always liked working with sound and sounds that approach music. I really like the blues. I love the sound an electric guitar gives. The electric guitar, to me, is like a motor, a big engine–and it is so beautiful.
MS Your new album called The Big Dream will be released this July. What is this “big dream" that holds the album together?
DL The big dream has got to be love. That is what it's all about.
MS One of the most beautiful songs on the album is “Star Dream Girl”. Who is this girl?
DL After I moved away from Boise, Idaho, I came back in the summer of 1961. Around that time, Jerry Lee Lewis was supposed to play at this big club in the Sagebrush Desert—I think it was called the Miramar. Back then, these big events would catch people's imaginations. They would take their motorcycles or hot rods to these remote places to see some star. So we all drove out to this place, but Jerry never showed up and people were really pissed off. “Star Dream Girl” has that same kind of charisma. People can't wait to see her and come from miles around.
MS What usually comes first, the lyrics, or the music?
DL For example, with the song “Star Dream Girl,” the lyrics came to me all at once, but there was no music yet. Then one night, one of my musicians Dean, was playing guitar in the studio and I was egging him on when he caught a wave like the surfers out in Hawaii. When he finished, we married my lyrics to his musical wave.
MS The song “I Want You” is about the never-ending desires I assume?
DL This is one of my favorites. To me it’s like riding a wave. It goes up and it goes down, but it’s always moving. And yes, it’s about desire.
MS Let’s talk about your work in religion and spirituality. You yourself promote Transcendental Meditation?
DL Yes. I practice Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I have been practicing it for 40 years. I meditate twice a day and I haven't missed a meditation once in 40 years.
MS What does TM do?
DL Transcendental Meditation is a mental technique, an ancient form of meditation that opens the door to that eternal level of life, at the base of all matter and mind. This eternal level is known by many names. It is known as the Reality, Totality, the Self–with a capital S–the Transcendent, the Kingdom of Heaven and many other names. It is also modern science’s Unified Field. Transcendental Meditation is like being given a key that opens the door to that deepest level of life. Experiencing this deepest level is called “transcending.” When one experiences this ocean of pure bliss consciousness and all-positive qualities, they infuse some of this each time they transcend. They begin to rapidly expand whatever consciousness they had to begin with, thus rapidly unfolding their full potential as a human being. The full potential of the human being is called enlightenment and on the way to enlightenment things just get better and better and better.
MS And it changes people?
DL Yes, it is life-transforming for the good. This field deep within is known as the treasury. It is unbounded, infinite, eternal, immortal consciousness. It is bliss. It is unbounded intelligence, love, creativity, energy and peace.
When you transcend and experience this, you grow in this. And the side effect is that negativity starts to recede. Things like stress, traumatic stress, anxieties, depression, sorrow, anger, rage and fear start to lift away. The things that used to cause you stress have less and less power. So a person is cleaning the machine (the physiology) of garbage and infusing it with gold (consciousness and its all-positive qualities). The long and the short of it is a person gets happier and enjoys life.
MS You are currently working on a new movie. Are you not afraid that it will interfere with your creative work?
DL The Transcendent, that Unified Field of pure consciousness within is a field of infinite creativity. Getting wet with that means more creativity, more flow of ideas. And this field within is a field of infinite energy, diving into that you’ll have more energy to do your work. And transcending and the resulting expansion of consciousness means that negativity will start lifting away. Negativity is the enemy of creativity. Negativity, like stress and depression, squeezes the tube of creativity, so it’s money in the bank to meditate each day. It serves the work and the life.
To learn more about The Big Dream go to David Lynch's website
Michael Saur is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books. He lives and works in New York.