When the film "Blue Velvet" hit movie theaters three years ago, it was clear that director David Lynch was a cinematic visionary in full bloom. The story of a young man in small-town America who stumbles onto a mystery that leads him to discover forbidden sexual knowledge of himself, the modestly budgeted ($6 million) film was hailed as a masterpiece and garnered a best director Oscar nomination for Lynch.
It seemed safe to assume that the Hollywood money men would beat a path to his door, and Lynch was indeed courted by all the usual suspects--he has come close to making more than half a dozen films since "Blue Velvet" elevated him to the ranks of "A" directors. But, basically, he has spent the last three years struggling to get a film off the ground.
Ask him what he's learned from this protracted flirtation with the film industry and he declares that "I've learned that the major studios don't want to make movies with me--and I don't know why that is. I think they respect me, but when it comes down to it, they don't want to take a chance because I could ruin things for them. Hollywood is a fragile place and heads roll easily here.
"As to how all this has affected me, you just learn what your lot in life is, and I think my lot in life is to be true to your school, like the Beach Boys said. And, really, my lot in life is pretty great. I have faith that I can make the pictures I wanna make and have them near the main center but still be different in ways that are important to me."
Though Lynch is exasperated by three years of misfired deals, he hasn't let the slowly creaking machinery of Hollywood hamper his creative output. In fact, Lynch has so many irons in the fire that it's hard to figure out how he fits everything in. On his current agenda:
* A series of new paintings is presently on view at the James Corcoran Gallery in Santa Monica. Trained as a painter, Lynch also maintains a career in the visual arts and is represented in New York by the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery.
* Lynch's debut LP, "Floating Into the Night," will be released by Warner Brothers Records next month. Done in collaboration with singer Julee Cruise and composer Angelo Badalamenti, the pop music record features lyrics and production by Lynch. Lynch will also design a set and direct Cruise's fall tour to promote the record.
* He's presently at work on a musical program to be presented this fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the New Music America series.
* He had the male lead in Tina Rathbourne's debut film of last year, "Zelly and Me," and continues to occasionally go up for acting parts.
* A coffeetable book of Lynch's writings, drawings and photographs will be published next year by Harper & Row.
* He co-wrote and directed the pilot for "Twin Peaks," a nighttime soap opera that will air on ABC early next year as a mid-season replacement.
* He draws a weekly cartoon strip, "The Angriest Dog in the World," that appears locally in the L.A. Reader.
* And, at long last, Lynch is shooting his fifth film, "Wild at Heart," scheduled for release by Propaganda Films next year. Based on a script by Lynch that he adapted from a novel by Barry Gifford, the film stars Laura Dern, Nicholas Cage, Harry Dean Stanton and Willem Dafoe and will be distributed domestically by Samuel Goldwyn Co.
Lynch's creative output is impressive, to say the least, but even more remarkable is the fact that he manages to do all that he does and still has the energy left over to win the devotion of nearly everyone who comes in contact with him.
"David is an unusually balanced individual, very pure, focused and committed," says actor Kyle MacLachlan, who's starred in three Lynch projects ("Dune," "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks"). "But what really makes him great is that he makes such an effort to get down to fundamental human issues. He's very good at taking the dilemmas in his own life and throwing them up on the screen, and it's amazing how emotionally candid he is in his work."
Candid and unequivocating though he is in his work, Lynch is a fascinating bundle of contradictions off the set. When journalists attempt to describe him they frequently compare him to Jimmy Stewart, and Lynch does have a wholesome, boyish charm and a Midwestern drawl reminiscent of Stewart. But he has eccentricities decidedly at odds with Stewart's all-American archetype.
Lynch has never bothered furnishing his house, for example, because he's never seen any furniture that he likes. "I like a real spare feel," he explains. "The way the Japanese live is thrilling to me."
He loves to build things--he's particularly fond of sheds--and speaks of the glories of lumber in rapturous tones. ("This Old House," a PBS how-to show on home improvement, is one of the few TV programs that he watches.) A creature of habit who frequents the same four restaurants, where he always orders the same thing, he lives modestly in all respects other than his work, where he's an extravagant perfectionist. Though he maintains long and solid friendships with a few people (director Jack Fisk and cinematographer Fred Elms are two close friends), he rarely socializes.
"David's not easy to get to know," says vocalist Cruise. "He's very careful and only trusts a few people, and though a lot of people want to claim his friendship, he has so much energy that he'd rather be submerged in his work than socialize. I think he's happiest when he's working."
"I usually do have a pretty good time when I'm working," says Lynch over a tuna sandwich at Musso & Franks, "but sometimes it's pure terror. There are mornings when I'm going to the set and I want to go anywhere but there because there are just too many things that can go wrong. How can I face this? It's too much! It can all go wrong and you can die the death. But, basically, I'm having a great time doing all the stuff I do."
Born 41 years ago in Missoula, Mont., Lynch describes his parents as "regular people" and recalls his childhood as a bucolic montage of "picket fences, dreamy afternoons and camping trips." After high school graduation, he studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, married and had a daughter, Jennifer, now 20. (He subsequently divorced his first wife and married Mary Fisk, with whom he has a son, now 6. Lynch and Fisk divorced two years ago, and Lynch, who has kept steady company with actress Isabella Rossellini for the last three years, now lives alone in a house in the Hollywood Hills.)
While at the academy, Lynch made an animated film short, "The Alphabet," which served as his entry to the American Film Institute, where he worked on his debut film, "Eraserhead," from 1971-76.
There's no other movie remotely like "Eraserhead." Described by Lynch as "a dream of dark and troubling things," this astonishingly original, inexplicably erotic film articulates deeply rooted fears with such dreadful accuracy that it's been labeled a horror film. In fact, "Eraserhead's" story of a befuddled young man and his mutant baby is simply a devastatingly evocative recounting of one man's subconscious life.
Released in 1977 and now permanently enshrined on the revival theater circuit, "Eraserhead" caught the eye of comedian/producer Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct "The Elephant Man," a critical and commercial success that garnered Lynch an Academy Award nomination in 1980. From there, Lynch went on to what proved to be an ill-fated multi-picture deal with Italian entrepreneur Dino De Laurentiis, who hired Lynch to direct the film version of Frank Herbert's classic science-fiction novel "Dune." Budgeted at $40 million and three years in the making, "Dune" was one of the major commercial flops of 1984 and was Lynch's Waterloo.
"I don't know exactly what happened with 'Dune,' " says Lynch. "Sometimes I guess you're supposed to have a bad experience and I really had one--'Dune' was my failure and I blame myself for it."
Having learned some painful lessons on "Dune," Lynch returned to the top of his game two years later with "Blue Velvet," but his relationship with De Laurentiis' company, DEG, had begun to sour. When DEG went bankrupt in 1988, three of Lynch's properties ended up in limbo.
"Dino's company going down had a lot to do with my not making a movie for three years," says Lynch. "A lot of my projects were tied up there, and it's hard to get geared up for new things when you have to deal with that kind of frustration. I'm almost on the verge of regaining control of the projects that got tied up at DEG ("Ronnie Rocket," "One Saliva Bubble," and "Up at the Lake"), and I still want to make them."
Eager to work and tired of waiting for the dust to settle around the dissolution of DEG, Lynch decided to try his hand at television, first with a program called "The Cowboy and the Frenchman," which aired last year on French television, and now with "Twin Peaks."
Co-written by Lynch and Mark Frost, a writer Lynch has collaborated with on several projects during the last four years, "Twin Peaks" is a murder-mystery soap opera set in a logging town in the Pacific Northwest. Featuring a large ensemble cast, the 90-minute pilot was filmed for $3.8 million, put up by ABC and WorldVision, which is handling worldwide distribution.
"I didn't try to make 'Twin Peaks' realistic--it's sort of a mythical town and it's a desire town." says Lynch. "It's where you'd want to go at 10 at night to just float and see what was gonna happen. The story revolves around what happens when the most popular girl in high school is mysteriously murdered--she's found floating face down at the Packard Saw Mill. We then get to know the secret lives of all the people in the town as an FBI agent attempts to unravel the crime."
Though "Twin Peaks" has been picked up for seven episodes, Lynch will only direct the pilot--for the simple reason that he'd rather make movies--and subsequent episodes will be directed by Jonathan Sanger, Tim Hunter, Leslie Glatter, Tina Rathbourne, Mark Frost and Duwayne Dunham.
Though Lynch is very high on "Twin Peaks," he generally has no interest in television. "I didn't watch much TV as a kid and I don't watch it now. I don't find anything beautiful or unique to the medium, and the only thing you can do on TV that you can't do in film is make a continuing story--which is so cool! I love the idea of the soap-opera thing.
"On the downside, there are more restrictions in TV, and you know up front you can't even think in certain directions. Heavy sex or violence is out--although I think the kind of violence that's allowed on TV is the very worst kind. There's no feeling behind it, and that makes it completely diabolical."
Among the many new faces that turn up in "Twin Peaks" is Julee Cruise, who performs a tune in the pilot written by Lynch and Badalamenti. Composer of the score for the hit film "Cousins," Badalamenti first teamed with Lynch on the song "The Mysteries of Love," which was featured in the score to "Blue Velvet," and the two have been working on various music projects, along with vocalist Cruise, for the last three years. The fruits of their labors can be heard on "Floating Into the Night," a moody record that smokes with the ethereal, heavy sensuality of music by the Cocteau Twins or the Cowboy Junkies.
"Music's been real important to me since the time I was small," recalls Lynch, who played a central role in reviving the career of the late Roy Orbison when he featured Orbison's classic song "In Dreams" in "Blue Velvet." "And it's amazing how much we know that we don't realize we know. Like music--I'm not a trained musician, but when you get into it, you discover you really do have an understanding of the form and have incredibly strong feelings about how music should be made. I'm not saying I'm a skilled musician, but me and Angelo--who's a great musician--have an instant dialogue."
"David doesn't know how to talk in musical terms, so he talked to me like he was directing a film," says Cruise. "He'd say things like, 'Really sad, Julee, make it just rip your heart out!' Or, 'You're singing into a void and feel sad but not hopeless.' His music is different from his films. He's much more tender and intimate in his music--it's as if he's whispering a secret to you in his songs."
While Lynch's music focuses on the theme of romantic love, the dark side of his nature dominates his work as a visual artist. Built around a murky palette and an enigmatic vocabulary of crudely drawn forms, Lynch's figurative abstractions pulsate with an eerie quality of violence and menace.
In a field where it usually takes years to build a career, Lynch debuted in 1987 with a show at the respected James Corcoran Gallery. While his first show sold well and garnered fairly good reviews, his show last February at Castelli was lambasted by the New York Times. Though Lynch has worked steadily as a painter for the last 20 years, the fact that he's an established director who debuted with a one-man show at a heavyweight gallery rubbed some people the wrong way.
"Generally the art world's been willing to take my work seriously, but I have encountered some resistance as far as my crossing over into their turf," says Lynch. "A critic in New York crucified me for my last show--it really seemed to bug her that I went from zero to 60 in no time at all just because of who I was. Her review was like, who was I to show up at the Castelli Gallery with this worthless crap?"
"The art world is very protective of its turf," says dealer James Corcoran, "so it's hard for people like David who are crossing over from another field. Several artists I know like his work very much, but at the same time, artists tend to be so dedicated that they have a hard time with the idea that someone could do art--and do it well--while maintaining a career in another field.
Any turf war that Lynch's presence in the art world might have aroused didn't diminish public interest in his work, and the opening of his show two years ago drew hundreds of people. The man of the hour, however, missed this year's Corcoran opening, as he was behind the cameras for "Wild at Heart," which finally began shooting last week.
"We'll shoot 60% of the film in L.A. this month on a budget of $9 or $10 million--which seems a bit high to me," Lynch says with concern (one of the things he learned on "Dune" was the dangers of big budgets). "As to what it's about, 'Wild at Heart' is about finding love in hell--which might be a theme in all my movies. This particular hell is modern life, and it's set in the South. After we're done shooting in L.A., we'll finish up with some location stuff in New Orleans and El Paso.
"Sex is central to 'Wild at Heart' in the same way it was in 'Blue Velvet,' " he continues. "Sex is a doorway to something so powerful and mystical, but movies usually depict it in a completely flat way. Being explicit doesn't tap into the mystical aspect of it either--in fact, that usually kills it because people don't want to see sex so much as they want to experience the emotions that go along with it. These things are hard to convey in film because sex is such a mystery."
Sex is one of several volatile subjects that Lynch explores in his work; and through his work he expresses a world view with an accompanying code of morality. In "Blue Velvet," for instance, he depicted violent sex with a great deal of empathy--a point of view some viewers found offensive. How conscious is he of the underlying messages in his work?
"That's a very dangerous thing," he says warily. "It's important to think about it but it's like money--if you think of it first then you're like a politician. You're gearing your campaign around winning, and everything you say is to make the message known--and a message is a load of crap. I don't know what I want to say to people. I get ideas and I want to put them on film because they thrill me. You may say that people look for meaning in everything, but they don't. They've got life going on around them, but they don't look for meaning there. They look for meaning when they go to a movie. I don't know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn't make sense."
Lynch's feelings about the senselessness of existence reach critical mass in his comic strip, "The Angriest Dog in the World." Best described as an ongoing study in despair, frustration and rage, the strip is often criticized as being highly perverse, and Lynch agrees: "Yes, it is perverse because the humor in the strip is based on sickness--the sickness of people's pitiful state of unhappiness and misery. But it thrills me," he adds with a laugh.
"Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there's humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd. But I don't just find humor in unhappiness--I find it extremely heroic the way people forge on despite the despair they often feel. Like the character in 'Eraserhead'--he's totally confused, yet he struggles to figure things out and do what's best. Isn't that fantastic?
"Playing by rules made up by God knows who kinda stinks, but at the same time, it's fun playing the game," he says. "Life really is the greatest game, and somehow we seem to forget that. You know what dogs are like in a room? They really look like they're having fun. They're bouncing this ball around and chewing on stuff and they're kind of panting and happy. Human beings are supposed to be like that. We can be in a lot of trouble, but basically we should be pretty happy. And I don't know why we aren't."