The weird according to Lynch
par Michael Burkett
A revealing Peak at the man behind TV´s quirkiest series

David Lynch
David Lynch, creator of television´s evil Twin.

The oddest thing about David Lynch is that he does not appear to be mentally disturbed. Not even a little. In fact, he seems eerily . . . normal.

Talking to him, you keep thinking: "This is the filmmaker who dug Eraserhead and Blue Velvet out of his psyche? This is the TV producer who may have change the face of prime time with the gloriously bizarre soap opera, Twin Peaks? This is the guy who draws the Angriest Dog in the World, the strangest comic strip in the pages of New Times?

No way, Rita Mae. The David Lynch who´s sitting in this Los Angeles hotel room is as fresh-faced, polite and friendly as ex-Eagle Scout from Missoulo, Montana - which is exactly what he is. He´s the grown-up son Ozzie and Harriet dreamed of having; an all-American 44-year-old who still uses words like "neat," "supercool" and "peachy-keen" - as in, I quote, "Oooh! Capuccino! Peachy-keen!"

Clearly, though, dangerous waters run below Lynch´s surface sunshine, and they erupt whenever he gets behind a camera. His macabre, hallucinatory vision of America is strikingly emotional chords at a time when everyone else in Hollywood is striking happy mediums. And with his new movie, Wild at Heart, Lynch conjures up more of the brilliantly weird stuff that´s made him the world´s unlikeliest media darling. "I think America is finally facing itself," Lynch says. "We´re realizing that we´re happy, strange people, and we´re digging our own brand of abstractions just as much as the Europeans dig theirs. We´ve just been told for so long that we´re not that hip, but we are. Really. This country is full of hepcats."

Not long ago, Lynch seemed the last fellow this side of Jupiter destined for pop adoration. But then Twin Peaks swept the Nielsens and scooped up fourteen Emmy nominations, while Wild at Heart copped the top prize at Cannes. Now the word is out and, according to one national news magazine, the word is - gasp! - "Lynchmania."

"I never thought I´d ever read anything like that," says Lynch, as giddy as a teenage 4-H member who´s won a ribbon for his pig. "When I saw it, a kind of woozy feeling came over me, I almost passed out."

Is Lynch kidding? Hard to say. He seems sincere, even when he´s telling you where he gets his best ideas: "Sugar. That´s my main source. I sit comfortably, drinking coffee with lots of sugar, along with a chocolate shake. When you do that, a kind of happiness comes over you."

Lynch must have consumed record amounts to come up with Wild at Heart. This feverish road comedy unites the lustful young Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) with misunderstood bad boy Sailor Ripley. (Nicolas Cage). Their straight-from-the-subconcious odyssey involves sex, violence, cockroach fetishism, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Wizard of Oz and naked fat ladies.

Lynch´s screenplay is based on a novel by Barry Gifford, who penned nary a syllable about bugs, dead pop icons, Dorothy Gale or acres of stretch marks. Nor does the book unfold and conclude like a B-movie musical.

"My first script was depressing and pretty much devoid of happiness," Lynch explains, "and no one wanted to make it. So I found myself in this position where I could look like I´d sold out and gone commercial by adding a happy ending. But I hope that´s not the case; I think the material was screaming for the changes we made."

Happy ending and all, no one will confuse Wild at Heart with feel-good entertainment. However, newer Lynchmaniacs might line up expecting Twin Peaks: The Movie.

"That would be a real horror story," Lynch says. "I don´t want anyone to think that if you love Twin Peaks, you´ll love Wild at Heart. I´ve told my mother not to go anywhere near this picture. She saw Blue Velvet and had open-heart surgery right afterwards."

Lynch´s wicked laughter hints that he´s just made a joke, although one can never be sure. Yet it also suggests that myocardial infarction is precisely the response he´s aiming for.

"Maybe so," he says. "But you know, you really just try to be true to the material. If an idea takes you to the electric fence of your morality, you don´t try to cross over. Sometimes, though, you don´t know when you´re about to get fried."

Example: "Wild at Heart originally contained a very graphic torture scene. At the first test screening, eighty people walked out during that part. But I didn´t change anything, because I thought the audience was just, um, weak. Well, at the second screening, a hundred people left. By then, I knew the scene was killing the film. So I cut it to the degree that it was powerful but didn´t send people running from the theatre."

Lynch wasn´t born with that filmmaking savvy. Unlike most of his movie-mad contemporaries, he always planned to be an artist. It wasn´t until a stint in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that he discovered the power of celluloid. And it wasn´t until he "endured" life in Philadelphia that he was inspired to create the relentlessly bleak Eraserhead, about a strange, miserable couple and their mutant baby. The film took five years to complete because its director was so broke he couldn´t give up his paper route. But in 1978, after a slow start, it became a midnight-movie hit.

Two years later, Lynch got a foothold in Hollywood with The Elephant Man, the first film to combine his gift for wondrous, perverse images with linear storytelling. A box-office success, it earned Lynch a 1980 Oscar nomination and the opportunity to helm Dune - a $40 million adaptation of novelist Frank Herbert´s sci-fi saga which slowly mutated into the heftiest clinker of 1984. (Lynch says it was edited and released without his input.)

His artistic promise was fulfilled, however, with 1986´s Blue Velvet, a harrowing study of violence and voyeurism disguised as a sort of Hardy Boys wet dream. The film seemed to leap from the scariest reaches of Lynch´s brain and directly into our own - prompting moviegoers everywhere to debate whether David Lynch was a genius or a madman.

Wild at Heart will no doubt stir up a similar controversy. Until then, the big question on America´s lip will remain, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" All Lynch will say about that is, "You could be a mind reader or a psychic, so I don´t want to even think about it."

Michael Burkett
New Times, 15 août 1990