It is no secret that David Lynch, the writer-director-composer-painter, has an unusual relationship with Bob’s Big Boy. For seven years in the 1980s he ate lunch there every day, ordering cup after cup of over-sweetened coffee and a single chocolate milkshake while scribbling notes on Bob’s little square napkins.
What is not widely known--and what reveals something fundamental about the 53-year-old filmmaker--is that during this period, back when he “thought that sugar was really a beautiful thing” (he doesn’t eat it anymore), he took pains to arrive at Bob’s at precisely 2:30 p.m. each day. The reason: It increased the odds that he would encounter perfection.
“If you go earlier, at lunchtime, they’re making a lot of chocolate milkshakes. The mixture has to cool in a machine, but if it doesn’t sit in there long enough--when they’re serving a lot of them--it’s runny,” he said, his voice soft and serious, as if he were explaining how to assemble a rocket or a valuable watch. “At 2:30, the milkshake mixture hasn’t been sitting there too long, but you’ve got a chance for it to be just great.”
Lynch’s reward for this meticulous preparation was minimal: only three perfect milkshakes out of more than 2,500. But that wasn’t the point. For Lynch, it was enough to know he had set the stage for excellence to occur. Lynch thinks a lot about this idea, which affects not just his diet (he still eats the same thing, every day, for lunch and dinner), but also his preference for sparse furnishings and his Zen-like approach to choosing projects. Whether with milkshakes or movies, Lynch believes you must make room for inspiration to strike--to lay the proper groundwork for greatness to take hold.
So he seems particularly pleased with “The Straight Story,” his eighth feature film, which arrives in theaters Oct. 15. Based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old Iowa man who rode a lawn mower 350 miles to see his ailing brother, the script caught Lynch’s attention, held it and wouldn’t let it go. The result: Three years after his last film (“Lost Highway”), and nine years after his hit TV series “Twin Peaks” introduced his eccentric vision to mainstream America, Lynch has completed a movie unlike any he’s made before.
For one thing, “The Straight Story” marks Lynch’s first time directing a project he did not write (Mary Sweeney, Lynch’s longtime editor and companion, and John Roach share writing credit). The film, which stars Richard Farnsworth as Straight and Sissy Spacek as his daughter, Rose, is not populated by the misfits and mutants that Lynch fans have come to know in films like “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet.” Instead, it celebrates decent Midwestern folk, many of them elderly.
Most surprisingly, the movie--which is being released by Walt Disney Pictures under its family-friendly Disney banner--is rated G.
“This is David Lynch’s view of the wisdom of life when you are 73 years old. It’s an ode to America, to human values,” Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Studios, explained when asked how a filmmaker best known for putting dark and twisted images up on screen came to share a distributor with Mickey Mouse. Schneider sees Lynch’s film as “a journey of redemption . . . that celebrates the aging of America.”
Spacek put it this way: “It’s a 4-mile-an-hour road picture. It’s about living your life and not having regret. It slips up on you and hits you from behind.”
Lynch knows some people will call this a departure for him.
“When you’ve done two or three films that first got an X and finally got an R and then you do a G-rated film, it’s kind of considered to be a different kind of thing for a person,” he acknowledged one morning recently with an understatement that sounded, appropriately, Midwestern. (Lynch himself grew up in Missoula, Mont.--a fact he deems so central to his outlook on life that it is one of only two biographical details he lists in promotional materials. The other: He’s an Eagle Scout.)
Welcoming a visitor to his Hollywood Hills home, Lynch sat in a low-slung chair in a nearly empty room that he laughingly asserted was still too cluttered. His white shirt was buttoned up to his neck. His sandy hair reached for the ceiling. When he talked about “The Straight Story,” his face looked kind, but he seemed reluctant to say too much.
“It’s a story,” he said finally. “Like so many things, you’ve got to see it to appreciate it.”
On a purely visual level, “The Straight Story” is a loving portrait of American farm country. Rarely have endless rows of corn been so embraced by a camera. But among the windmills and silos, bleached-out barns and harvesting machinery, there are also images that will warm the hearts of die-hard Lynch fans: An ample woman on a plastic lawn chair, for example, sunning herself with a metallic reflector while biting into a pink Sno-ball.
Much has been written about the link between Lynch’s formal training as a painter and the vivid imagery of his films. But Lynch is the first to say that his movies bear little resemblance to his canvases, which he creates in an outdoor studio above his home. He sees more connection between filmmaking and musical composition, with which he also enjoys experimenting (often in collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, who has created music for every Lynch project since 1986).
Not surprisingly then, “The Straight Story” is also a striking aural experience. In addition to directing the film, Lynch is credited as its sound designer, and even casual viewers will notice the care he has taken to stimulate the ears as well as the eyes. Whether it’s the whir of a grain elevator, the crash of a lightning storm or the whiz-whoosh of cyclists on a country road passing at close range, the film serves up the audible textures of life in the heartland.
“Film to me is like music in the way it deals with things happening in sequence. Certain events have to precede others in a certain way for it to work. But there’s a connection between music, film, painting, writing, everything,” said Lynch, who does all those things while also making and designing furniture, fiddling around with Photoshop on his computer and raising his and Sweeney’s 7-year-old son. “I guess the more [things] you’re into, the more they’re going to help each other.”
Sweeney calls it “a great blessing” that Lynch directed “The Straight Story.”
“He brought so much grace and lyricism to the visuals and the sound, keeping a perfect balance of emotion, not sentimentality,” she said, adding that it was gratifying for her to offer Lynch a project that would showcase “what everyone who knows him knows he has: a tenderhearted, sweet side.
“For a long time, I’ve been looking for something that would go more in that direction,” said Sweeney, who has edited Lynch’s last three films and produced the last two. “I love all of David’s films. The edgy and dangerous films are also very valid. But dysfunction isn’t the only thing out there. He is pigeonholed as the master of weird, but he is much more. I’m happy that [with “The Straight Story”] a lot of people will be able to enjoy the tremendous power he has as a filmmaker.”
Lynch’s cinematic power first struck the public’s fancy in 1977 with the release of “Eraserhead,” a surrealistic nightmare about a couple raising a mutant baby. The unsettling film, whose main character fantasized about having his head used as an eraser, would become one of the most successful midnight movies on the cult circuit.
“Eraserhead” also impressed comedian Mel Brooks, whose company was producing a film about John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man whose deformed head and body masked a gentle soul. Brooks hired Lynch (whom he famously described as resembling “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”) to write and direct the black-and-white film. After its release in 1980, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including one for Lynch for best director.
Critic Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, praised Lynch for managing to “show us what the monster feels about himself” and made special note of his evocative use of sound: “ ‘The Elephant Man’ has the power and some of the dream logic of a silent film, yet there are also wrenching, pulsating sounds--the hissing of steam and the pounding of the industrial age.”
Suddenly, Lynch was on the A-list. But he was more interested in pursuing his own projects than in making big Hollywood pictures. He turned down an offer from George Lucas to direct “Return of the Jedi,” the third part of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, choosing instead to work on his own small film, “Ronnie Rocket,” at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.
When Zoetrope’s financial woes forced Lynch to suspend production, however, he signed on with producer Dino De Laurentiis to make his first big-budget film: the long-anticipated screen version of “Dune,” Frank Herbert’s best-selling sci-fi novel. It was a huge undertaking--Lynch himself winnowed the 500-page tome into a script that tried to make cinematic sense of Herbert’s complex vision, and employed 20,000 extras to try to bring it to life.
The result: mixed reviews, disappointing box office and what Lynch would later describe as “a tremendous amount of pain.” Devastated by his failure to bring “Dune” to life in a comprehensible way (he would compare the completed film, which cost $45 million to make, to “a garbage compactor” that was confusing instead of mysterious), he sought solace each day at Bob’s Big Boy.
“The coffee and the sugar would really get me going. And I would try to catch ideas,” he said the other day, explaining that the daily routine helped him think in much the same way that uncluttered spaces do. “The more things you have in a room, it does something to the mind. If you start clogging it, now your mind is clogged and your vision is clogged and it putrefies the atmosphere and you’re diminishing your chance for a kind of decent thinking process. . . . You just have to make yourself available to ideas, because you never know when they’re going to happen.”
Apparently, Lynch was onto something, because his next film--mapped out, at least in part, on Bob’s napkins--was “Blue Velvet.” Heralded by Newsweek as “a breakthrough, fusing [Lynch’s] most personal obsessions with sex, death and innocence,” the movie followed an amateur sleuth (Kyle MacLachlan) on a search for the owner of a human ear (found in a field) that leads him into a dark underworld of drugs, corruption and sexual violence. Once again, Lynch received an Oscar nomination for best director.
Since “Blue Velvet,” Lynch has made the initially popular TV series “Twin Peaks” (and the less than popular feature film based on it, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”), two more feature films (“Wild at Heart” in 1990 and “Lost Highway” in 1996) and a few other forays into television. In 1992, for example, he produced the short-lived ABC sitcom “On the Air” and collaborated on the HBO trilogy “Hotel Room.”
But “The Straight Story” intrigued him in a new way, he said, because it posed a challenge: capturing on film the content of a man’s heart.
“It’s a very tricky business, emotion, and how to get it on film,” said Lynch, who sees similarities between this movie and “The Elephant Man.” “Some ideas aren’t so emotional. These ideas are. But how do you translate that and get it through to people? That’s the trick.”
Sweeney said she was moved by the dignity of Straight, who decided--despite poor vision, bad hips and an expired driver’s license--to make a final visit to see his brother. With Roach, whom she has known since the first grade growing up in Madison, Wis., she set out to write a script about a way of life that doesn’t get much attention in the cinema.
"[Roach] and I both have a tremendous love for this part of the country and the characters that live here,” Sweeney said in a telephone interview from her family’s vacation home in Eagle River, Wis. “There are so many examples of courage every day in normal life. My dad was raised on a dairy farm, but he was a very wise man. It’s simplicity without ignorance.”
Sweeney and Roach, who once studied history together at the University of Wisconsin, teamed up again to do research about Straight’s life.
“We spent a fair amount of time with six of his seven children in Des Moines. We drove the route [he took],” Sweeney recalled. “When we got to a place in eastern Iowa where he broke down and camped out in somebody’s yard for a week, we got a lot of good stuff. It all seemed like some sort of story about the human condition.”
Sweeney admits that showing the script to Lynch made her a bit nervous. “It was something we both faced with some trepidation. We have a very nice working relationship--we’ve been working together much longer than we’ve been living together,” she said. “I didn’t think he was going to decide to make it. I just wanted him to read it.”
Lynch recalled: “They showed it to me and that was it. It became, for me, very real. Sometimes you might think you want to do something, but nature--or whatever is out there--doesn’t think that’s a good idea and you get red lights. Sometimes you get a green light or a series of green lights. This was one of those times.”
The movie was shot in sequence beginning last September, so as the film unfolds, so do the autumn colors and the pace of the harvest. Lynch and his cameras followed Straight’s actual route and even shot in the house he’d owned in the small rural town of Laurens, Iowa. (Straight died in 1996, and the house was empty.)
Life on set was delightful, Spacek recalled, because of the gentle way Lynch works.
“He has a vision he wants to communicate. He’s no pushover. But he is so kind and funny and treats everyone with such respect, everyone falls all over themselves to give him what he wants,” she said, adding that she sensed Lynch had a special connection to Straight’s journey. “It sounds to me like something, in David’s life, that he might do.”
Farnsworth also felt bound to Straight.
“I identified with the old guy. I’ve had a few hard knocks in my life. He was on a cane and I was on a cane. It worked fine,” said the 79-year-old actor, who is proud to be in a film with “no four-letter words, no sex and no violence. . . . It’s kind of a travelogue. You’ve got the fields, the flavor of the farmland and that old man: He wanted to do it his way, and he didn’t want anybody helping him.”
Lynch, too, likes to do things his way. He has never made a movie for a studio, preferring instead to obtain financial backers who let him chart his own creative course. In “Mulholland Drive,” a TV pilot he made recently for ABC (it was not picked up), his vision of the corporate pressures that movie studios bring to bear are depicted in nightmarish relief: a film director is called into a sterile office suite and told to cast a certain actress as the lead in his next film. When he resists, his credit cards are canceled, his house is visited by thugs, and he is summoned by a man named Cowboy Bob who tells him to obey, or else.
Disney executives say they’d love to be in business with Lynch. But Lynch, when asked if he would ever make a film for Disney, demurred.
“You never say you would never work with a studio. It’s just never happened,” he said, insisting that he’s not sure what his next project will be. “But to me, just for myself, if you don’t have control, then you would be very stupid to make a film. The director should have the control. It seems completely absurd not to.”