Anythin´ interestin´ in the world come out of somebody´s weird thoughts.
- LULA, in Barry Gifford´s Wild at Heart
We´ll start with the kind of scene people expect from David Lynch. We´re sitting in a vinyl booth in a corner of a little diner. The Studio Coffee Shop it´s called, on a Hollywood side street. While he´s editing Wild at Heart, he eats almost every day. He is after all, a creature of habit.
We´ve just finished lunch. He had a tuna-fish sandwich with Swiss cheese on whole-wheat bread, a side of French fries and a diet Coke with lemon. He´s wearing a black shirt - buttoned, of course, all the way up - and a black blazer. His voice is soft, with a touch of Virginia twang. His manner is gee-whiz ingenuous, mildly evasive and a little off. It´s that David Lynch thing: Beaver Cleaver meets Ted Bundy.
And he´s talking Log Ladies.
"When I was growing up," he is saying, "I didn´t see any Log Ladies. But I would see plenty of people who were just as far out in left field as the Log Lady, and maybe a lot farther. And, you know, they weren´t bothering anybody, and people let them be whatever they wanted to be. They became characters in town, and that´s fine."
The waitress walks up. She could be from Central Casting: gray-haired, matronly, a little hard of hearing. "We have good blueberry pie," she says.
"Really?" says Lynch excitedly.
"Would you like a slice?" she asks.
"Yeah," he says. "With a cup of coffee."
She leaves, and he continues. "Catherine Coulson, who play the Log Lady, worked on Eraserhead for six years. And I always wanted to do a whole show about this woman and her log. It was gonna be called I´ll Test My Log With Every Branch Of Knowledge. And Somehow, the Log Lady sneaked into the Twin Peaks pilot."
His pie and coffee arrive. "Thank you," he says, dumping several packets of sugar into his cup. "That looks great. Man, oh, man! I don´t normally have pie, but it just struck me when you mentioned it like that. You really got me."
He picks up his fork, looks down and frowns. "May I use your napkin, Steve?"
Yeah, it all fits. Pie. Coffee. A little diner. A shirt all buttoned all the way up. Man, oh, man! Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lynch.
And now everybody has met Mr. Lynch. If you´re a director and you make a couple of modestly successful movies - say, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet - you can become respected, you can continue to get work and you can make a decent amount of money. But if you´re a director and you make a modestly successful television series - say, Twin Peaks - you can become an icon. A rich icon. And that´s the way it worked for David Lynch.
Sure, we knew him before he and his partner Mark Frost cooked up Twin Peaks. He was a guy who made creepy movies. A guy who seemed intent on uncovering the terrible secrets and the unspeakable rituals that lay beneath the surface of bucolic suburbia. A guy whose girlfriend Isabella Rossellini, in spite of the fact that in Blue Velvet, he photographed her naked, bruised and in the least flattering light possible. A guy who acted a little too normal ever to be normal, who obviously had enough mental skeletons to fill the entire floor of closets that Candy Spelling (TV producer Aaron Spelling´s wife) put in her new house.
And then, last spring, he turned into a guy who came into your living room every week - and suddenly, things were different. Even an unsuccessful show reaches so many more people than a blockbuster movie or a hit record that the slightest provocation becomes revolutionary, the mildest departure from the norm becomes subversive. And Twin Peaks was neither slight nor mild. It stood the TV soap opera on its head, it threw out the idea that television has to be fast-paced and simple, it said that if you want to put a lady talking to her log in the picture every now and then, then, damn it, you could just do that. TV had rarely seen a piece of film making as simultaneously creepy, languid, disturbing and funny as the Twin Peaks pilot. Before you could say, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" Lynch´s obsessions were our obsessions: doughnuts, coffee, pie and an FBI agent who dictated his every thought into a micro-cassette recorder.
Then came the blitz. Twin Peaks viewing parties; endless arguments about whether Laura was still alive and posing as her cousing Maddie, or what Josie was up to, or the identity of that longhaired guy Bob; reams of print; and, just in time for the second season, a batch of merchandising goodies that included The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Lynch´s daughter, Jennifer, a cassette of Agent Dale Cooper´s dictation and an album of Angelo Badalamenti´s stupendously moody sound-track. And in the midst of it all came Wild at Heart, Lynch´s road movie about the road to Oz via hell. Even before Time magazine bestowed on him its October 1, 1990, cover and officially dubbed Lynch a genius, the mild-mannered director had seized 1990´s pop-culture Zeitgeist and remade in its own disquieting, loopy image.
Just ask the Log Lady. "I was driving to work the other day," says Coulson. "and a whole carful of teenager started honking. And I thought, Oh, dear, I´ve pulled into the wrong lane. But I looked over and they yelled, 'It´s the Log Lady! We love you!' It´s kind of an amazing experience for me, being a cult figure."
It didn´t seem possible that Lynch´s reach would be so broad back when he was making Eraserhead and Blue Velvet; his idyllic daydreams and horrific nightmares seemed poor bets to reverberate beyond the art-house crowd, much less make it in prime time. But, in a way, it now seems as if putting David Lynch on TV forced him not to sell out but to grow up.
To grow up part way, at least. "He´s a mature artist, but he´s a kid in a sandbox at the same time," says Michael Ontkean,. who plays Sheriff Harry S. Truman in Twin Peaks. "To me, that´s the greatest combination. He´s a mature enough creator to be organized and not to waste his energy on tangents that are not productive, and he´s highly responsible to all the elements of film making. But, at the same time, he can just work with abandon, and throw things out the window, and completely reverse himself and change his mind in midstream."
Jack Nance, who played the title role in Eraserhead and has worked with Lynch ever since (he´s Pete Martell in Twin Peaks), explains Lynch´s appeal another way. "Lynch is an American, you know what I mean?" he says. "He´s that real small-town boy who makes good. He´s not a big flag-waver, you know, but he´s a real apple-pie American. Of course, he likes to dig into all this subterfuge, all this secret stuff, people´s secrets and all that, and he gets pretty perverse sometimes. He´s not Norman Rockwell - but, still, he´s like Norman Rockwell, you know what I mean?"
The New York Times also compared Lynch to Rockwell: "a psychopathic Norman Rockwell" it called him. But, however graphic and brutal and spooky Lynch´s images can be, and however much he delights in parading deformity and aberration in front of the viewer, there´s something too wide-eyed about his stance to call him psychopathic. He´s drawn to these characters, perhaps, because part of him is still a curious suburban kid who thinks strange things are sort of neat, who saved his cereal-box tops for months and is now ready to use his mail-order X-Ray-Spex and secret decoder ring to root out our dirty little secrets.
Here is one more measure of the fascination we have for Lynch: Hill Street Blues will probably have a far bigger effect on the history of television than Twin Peaks will, but nobody cares what Steven Bocho has for lunch.
David Lynch once said that people only tell ten percent of what they know and it´s up to you to discover the other 90 percent. Here are some of the things we know about him:
He was born in Missoula, Montana, in 1946. His parent had met while on a nature hike.
His father was a Government research scientist who often dropped his son off in the woods, where David saw strange things. Sections of the forest where everything was labeled. Nicely furnished offices in the middle of the woods where every drawer and wall was covered with bugs that had been mounted and cataloged. A guy who carried an ax everywhere he went.
His mother wouldn´t give him coloring books, because she didn´t want him to feel that he had to stay within the lines.
He was embarrassed because he thought his parents were too normal.
His family lived in Washington, then Idaho, then Alexandria, Virginia, where he went to high school.
He ran an unsuccessful race for class treasurer in high school, using the slogan "Save with Dave." He and his girl friend were named Cutest Couple in the senior yearbook.
He became an eagle scout and seated VIPS at John F. Kennedy´s Inaugural Parade.
He didn´t really think, he says, until he was in his 20s.
He went to art school in Boston but dropped out. He went to Europe but came home after ten days. He returned to Virginia and got hired and fired from several jobs. Then he moved to Philadelphia, enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, visited the morgue for fun, got married, fathered a daughter and had his first "thrilling thoughts." "Philadelphia," he said, "is the sickest city I´ve ever been in in my life."
He made a ten-second animated short in which a group of heads vomit and then burst into flame, then a four-minute live-action/animation blend called The Alphabet.
His marriage on the rocks, he went to Los Angeles when the American Film Institute gave him money to make another film, a live-action short in which an abused child grows himself a new grandmother. Watching The Grandmother, says Nance, is "like sitting for half an hour in the electric chair."
He also live in the American Film Institute, having a friend lock him in a dark room each night to elude the security guard.
He made Eraserhead, a nightmarish movie in which a couple gives birth to a monstrous child in a claustrophobic urban setting. He began work on the film in 1971 and planned to shoot it in six weeks. Instead, it took more than five years and wasn´t released until 1977. On that project, everybody pitched in: Coulson, who was hired to play a nurse, wound up playing several other parts, as well as doing Nance´s hair.
He borrowed the money to finish Eraserhead from his parents, his old friend Jack Fisk and Fisk´s wife, Sissy Spacek, among others. The cast and crew began by making $25 a week, then took a voluntary cut to $12.50, then to nothing. "We all helped raise money," remembers Coulson. "I had a waitress job, and David had a paper route, and we´d buy a roll of raw stock a week."
Lynch looked at Coulson one day on the set and got an idea. "He said, 'When you put on your glasses, Catherine, I just saw a log in your arms,'" she says. "And we talked about doing a TV series one day."
He said Eraserhead was inspired by Philadelphia. Others suggested that it was also inspired by his own terror after the birth of his daughter. "I guess it´s accurate to say that," he says.
He started meditating.
He got married again, to Jack Fisk´s sister. They had a son five years later.
He went to Bob´s Big Boy every day for seven years and had a chocolate shake and several cups of coffee, scribbling ideas on napkins.
He collected chunks of wood that he found on the street while delivering The Wall Street Journal. He used them to build a series of elaborate additions to his garage.
His career was revived in 1982, when Mel Brooks saw Eraserhead and asked him to direct The Elephant Man. "Some days," he says of his big break, "the pressure was almost unbearable." He gave Victorian England some of the hallucinatory terror of Eraserhead´s urban landscape and imbued other moments - for instance, a procession of circus freaks through the woods at night - with an astonishing poignancy. Afterwards, Brooks described him as "Jimmy Stewart from Mars." Lynch didn´t mind, he says, because "Mel isn´t exactly Mr. Normal."
He won an Academy Award nomination for The Elephant Man, and a deal with Dino De Laurentiis to direct Frank Herbert´s sprawling s-f epic Dune. He did so with a fetishist´s delight in gadgetry and goop but without much sense of how to deal with the near-constant explanation and exposition required by the labyrnthine story. He also chafed under the size and pressure of the production, which took place in Mexico City. Dune was a flop and Lynch swore never again to direct a movie unless he had final cut.
He got another divorce.
He made Blue Velvet for De Laurentiis in 1986. About an affable young man who becomes obsessed with uncovering the violent, erotic underbelly of a small town - "I don´t know if you´re a detective or a pervert," his girlfriend tells him - it was based on ideas Lynch had scrawled on the napkins at Bob´s Big Boy. While he was shooting the scene in which Dennis Hopper successively worships, abuses and rapes Rossellini, Lynch laughed uncontrollably. It was a shocking, startling, original movie that may have saved the life of Nance, who´d been on skid row and was "dyin´ and drinkin´" until Lynch rescued him and cast him in the movie. It also did wonders for the careers of Roy Orbison, Dean Stockwell, Kyle MacLachlan and - not incidentally - Lynch himself.
Lynch went to work on another batch of projects for De Laurentiis. He was six weeks from rolling the cameras on One Saliva Bubble, with Steve Martin and Martin Short, when the De Laurentiis studio went bankrupt.
He was friends with Mark Frost, a Hill Street Blues writer and story editor. They wrote One Saliva Bubble together and collaborated on Goddess, from a book about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Their agent told them they should do TV. They pitched NBC on a show called The Lamurians, about aliens. The network passed. Then they came up with the idea for a small Northwest town and the murder that exposes the town´s dirty secrets. They wrote it in nine days and shot it in 23. ABC bought it and aired it.
Lynch made Wild at Heart. If Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks showed the placed surface of a small town and the delved into the sickness that lay beneath, this movie was a road trip through a landscape where the sickness was all on the surface, garishly lit and inescapable. Unfocused, sprawling and messy, the film won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. That announcement was greeted by a chorus of hecklers, led by Roger Ebert.
Twin Peaks was nominated for 14 Emmys. Because of Academy rules, only half of the two-hour pilot was shown to the Emmy juges. It won only two minor awards.
Lynch put on a tuxedo, went to the Emmy ceremony and had fun. Backstage, he and Coulson remembered the dingy room where they´d eaten most of their meals during the making of Eraserhead; the Food Room they called it. "Look, Cath!" he exclaimed. "From the Food Room, here we are at the Emmys! Isn´t it a wonderful world?"
David Lynch and I are talking on the phone. It´s the morning after the second episode of Twin Peaksm, which is getting ratings far higher than anybody had expected. The previous night´s installment ended with a dream sequence that included Agent Cooper, 25 years in the future; a one-armed- man who says he cut off his arm because of an evil tattoo on his shoulder, and who then identifies Laura Palmer´s killer; a Laura Palmer look-alioke; and a dancing midget who speaks garbled English. It may well have been the most surreal five minutes in the history of network television. And even Lynch, who used to claim that Twin Peaks was just a regular show, knows it.
So, I ask Lynch, do you still think Twin Peaks is a normal TV show?
"Yeah," he says. "In a way, I do. Although when little Mike [Anderson] was dancing last night, I thought to myself, This is something, you know, perhaps ... unusual for television."
Suddenly, I have trouble hearing him, because a workman is drilling holes in my office wall to install a security system. I apologize and explain to Lynch what´s going on.
"I thought someone was being tortured back there," he says mildly.
No, I assure him, that´s not it.
"Oh," he says, "that´s good." But there´s a trace of disappointment oin his voice.
Here are some other things we know about David Lynch:
He says he drinks 20 cups of coffee a day.
His favorite doughnuts are chocolate. "Man," he says, "they are so good." He´s also partial to jelly ones, and "sometimes a very superfresh glazed."
He uses words such as neat and golly and cool and peachy keen.
He tries to get eight hours sleep a night.
He likes order. "He can afford nicer clothes now," says Coulson. "But he still has ten shirts that are the same and just wears a clean one every day."
He doesn´t like to analyze himself, or his movies, very much. He once went to an analyst to look into a particular "habit pattern" that was troubling him, but he stopped when the shrink warned him that figuring it out might affect his creativity.
He plays things close to the vest. When a reporter asked him if he were secretive, he said, "Uh, that´s a possibility, yeah." When he was shooting Eraserhead, under the auspices of the American Film Institute and on the grounds of the A.F.I film school took several members of the board of directors to meet Lynch. He chatted with them amiably outside the stables where he had been shooting for so long. Then they looked at the padlocked door to the set and politely asked if they could look inside. "No," he said.
He has a remarkable memory, says Coulson. He´s also wel coordinated and has quick reflexed, she adds. He once said his life was divided into innocence and naiveté and sickness and horror.
He lives in the Hollywood Hills in a house without furniture. He doesn´t allow cooking in the house, because he doesn´t like the smell. Occasionally, though, he sends out for pizza. He said to Rossellini, the first time they met, "You could be Ingrid Bergman´s daughter."
The friend who introduced them said, "You idiot, she is Ingrid Bergman´s daughter."
He persuaded his friend and cinematographer Frederick Elmes to let him direct a short scene when Elmes was asked to test two tape stocks for the A.F.I. The scene, titled "The Amputee," featured Coulson as a double amputee.
The A.F.I. bigwigs went to see the test, expecting to see two static shots of a gray scale; when they saw Coulson sitting in a chair with her two stumps, writing a letter, one of them said, "Lynch had something to do with this, didn´t he?"
He´s tough on actors. "He´s a killer to work with, in a lot of ways," says Nance. "If there´s something about you that´s bad, he´s gonna focus on it and blow it way up, until it´s awful. He sees some kind of, I don´t know, aesthetic quality in these flaws and defects."
He´s loyal. He uses the same actors over and over. When Eraserhead finally secured a distributor and seemed likely to make some money, he called his cast and crew together and rewrote the contract to give them all a substantial share of those profits. To this day, they get checks.
He wrote a performance-art piece titled Industrial Symphony No. 1 with Badalamenti for the Brookly Academy of Music. While working on it, he told a saxophone player he wanted him to play "big chunks of plastic." The scary thing, says Badalamenti, is that the guy knew exactly what to play.
He paints. His latest show was presented by the Leo Castelli Gallery, one of New York´s most prestigious. The reviews, however, were terrible.
He has shot television commercials for Obsession perfume.
He´s preparing a book of his photographs. It is devoted entirely to photos of dental equipment.
He writes a weekly comic strip called The Angriest Dog in the World. It was inspired, he says, by a time when he was filled with rage. The strip is exactly the same every week: four near-identical panels showing a stylized dog, rigid with anger, chained in a back yard. The only thing that changes is one panel of dialog coming from inside the house. Example: "In this world, there seem to be several different theories which differ from one another to a considerable extent."
He is obsessed with his work. "He cares an awful lot about working," says Nance. "That´s all he does. He´s a real dull guy."
He once dissected a cat to study its insides.
He has a uterus in a bottle in his house. He didn´t ask for it. It was a gift from a friend who´d had a hysterectomy. He says that ideas are "the most important things," but he doesn´t understand where they come from. He has figured out, though, that he gets more ideas if he drinks lots of coffee and ingests lots of sugar.
So now David Lynch is firmly established as the eccentric artist du jour, placing him alongside such avant nerds as David Byrne and Elvis Costello, ungainly outsiders who have managed to deliver their seemingly threatening, rarefied taste in a form to which the masses can respond. Or it can be put in simpler terms: He made a TV show, it did a lot better than most people thought it would and now he´s famous and making a lot of money.
He likes the money, but he´s not so sure about the famous part; sometimes, he thinks, it gets in the way of the work. But for now, Lynch is facing a more serious problem than what to do when he´s recognized in a restaurant: Where does he get from here?
It´s not like his future is assured, by any means. Certainly, he´s more bankable than he was after he made Eraserhead or Dune or Blue Velvet. Lots of studios would like to have him aboard in order to boast about landing David Lynch. But at the same time, Hollywood is hardly willing to throw unlimited amounts of money at a man simply because he made the cover of Time. For all its impact, Twin Peaks has never been a top-rated show: After a terrific debut last spring, it quickly fell in the ratings, and this season´s numbers have been consistently lackluster. And Wild at Heart, despite winning the big award at Cannes, was an outright flop at the box office.
Meanwhile, the backlash started. Wild at Heart was widely attacked, even by some who loved Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Other fans of the series were frustrated by the way Lynch and Frost toyed with the audience in dragging out the search for Laura Palmer´s killer; still others by how, after its remarkable debut, the show lapsed too easily into the trap of mocking its characters, playing Lynch´s gallery of misfits strictly for laughs. And yet, at the heart of Twin Peaks, there´s a darkness that isn´t funny; there´s something disturbing, ugly and brutal, something that can´t be shrugged off with jokes. In his best moments, Lynch is unafraid to make the show not only amusing but frightening - and it´s those moments, one can only hope, that point the way toward his future.
The trouble is, it´s hard to tell exactly what form that future will take. Since beginning work on Twin Peaks and finishing Wild at Heart, he has collaborated with Frost on American Chronicles, a documentary series for Fox that offers impressionistic, often wordless views of various cities and people; despite its slightly offbeat approach, it´s one of the least bizarre projects he has ever worked on. And beyond that, he has kept quiet about his plans. "I think he would like to have a sustaining power," says Coulson. "He would like this not to be a brief flash of fame but to continue working. I think he really wants Twin Peaks to continue. He loves the long format of the television series, and he likes getting to know these characters really well. And I think he would like to continue to explore feature films."
Lynch himself thinks back to some of the projects he worked on but abandoned over the past years. "I´d really like to make Ronnie Rocket," he says of one of the film projects he recently got back from the ruins of the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. "It´s been in my mind for so many years now that it´d be hard to do, but I do want to make it some day."
Chances are, though, that he´ll come up with something else, obsess over it, scribble notes and then do what he does when it´s time to make a movie: come up with 70 scenes and write them down on 3" * 5" cards.
"When he gets on to something, you know that he´s hot for it," says Nance. "I mean, Blue Velvet was going on years and years before he made it. When we were doing Eraserhead, I was over at his little shack where he was living, and he had done this little pen-and-ink drawing of this rustic roadside tavern with antlers over the door, and this big neon BLUE VELVET sign. He said, 'We´re gonna do that one of these days.' 'Do what?' 'Blue Velvet. It´s gonna be a movie, and we´re gonna do it one of these days.'"
Now, says Nance, he doesn´t know of any similar passions in Lynch´s life. Besides, he adds, "What do you do after the cover of Time magazine? That´s like the kiss of death or something."
Ontkean remembers one idea of Lynch´s that just might blossom at some future date. "While we were shooting the pilot up in Washington," he says, "we were out in the woods one day, and we were waxing about what a good time we were having. He said, 'You know, it would be a great idea if we could just get on a bus with a minimal, skeleton crew - just, you know, like the Merry Pranksters. Just get on the bus and head in a direction, and stop and do a few scenes and then see something on the other side of the road and do something with that. Just completely wing it, film the whole journey, and then, at the end of it, we´d see what we got.' That´s a wonderfully childlike and confident and great way to work, and I bet he does it one day. I bet he just says, 'Now´s the time to get on the bus.' No matter how complex the demands become of him, he has it within him to take that kind of ride."
And now we´ll end with the kind of scene people expect from David Lynch. He has finished his tuna-fish sandwich and his French fries and his pie and his coffee, and now he is talking about why people keep saying funny things about him. "See," he explains, "what I feel is that everybody has obsessions and dreams and desires, and we´re all a little bit different. And if we really start knowing more and more about somebody, the more different he becomes. And if you´re making pictures and you set stuff out for people to see, and they see that you´re different from them. And then they call you different things."
He goes to the counter to pay. He bums a nickel from me so that he´ll have exact change, even though they´ve seen him here often enough that they´d let him slide on the nickel.
He walks outside. I tell him I´ll let him get back to work.
"Okey-doke," he says.
I thank him for his time.
"You betcha," he says.
And then, in view of the HOLLYWOOD sign in the distance, David Lynch shoves his hands in his pockets and walks across the street toward his editing room. As he goes, there´s a satisfied grin on his face; after all, with a slice of blueberry pie and a few cups of coffee bubbling through his system, the good ideas ought to be arriving any minute.