AFTER working together three times in the last 21 years, actress Laura Dern and director David Lynch have developed a kind of shorthand.
"Very quickly we are in sync," Lynch said. "I don't know what it is. We have developed a way of working that is so smooth and fun. Laura is just like family."
Dern, the daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, was a 17-year-old ingenue when Lynch cast her in his 1986 classic "Blue Velvet" as the innocent daughter of a police detective in a small, perverted town. Four years later, she played a sexpot named Lula Pace Fortune in his "Wild at Heart." In their current project, the puzzling three-hour "Inland Empire," which opens Friday, Dern plays a woman in trouble.
Film Independent's Spirit Awards recently announced it would be giving them a special distinction award for their unique collaboration.
The gamin 39-year-old actress admits she didn't quite get Lynch's unique, surreal universe when she appeared in "Blue Velvet."
"I got there was light and there was darkness, and I got that he was a wonderful genius," Dern said recently over tea at Marie Callender's on Wilshire Boulevard. "Kyle MacLachlan and I were sort of the straight men of the story. I felt segregated from aspects of David's world."
But that changed with "Wild at Heart."
"I was immersed into all of it. So [our relationship] has shifted in terms of the roles he's given me. It has shifted in terms of how close we are now.
"To have a filmmaker in your life who gives you that kind of trust to have played these extremes ...."
"Inland Empire" defies description. Shot on a low-resolution Sony camcorder, the drama finds Dern playing an actress named Nikki Grace who is married to a powerful man in Los Angeles. She lands a role in a high-profile love story playing a woman named Susan Blue. Nikki begins an affair with her womanizing leading man (Justin Theroux), then seems to have trouble delineating between her real life and her reel life.
Her problems may be due to the fact that the film in which Nikki is starring has a curse. Another version of the film had been started in Poland but was never completed because the stars were murdered.
Frequently "Inland Empire" switches from Hollywood to Poland and to what could be footage from the unfinished version of the story. However, Nikki also finds herself roaming through Poland streets during winter.
Adding to the puzzle are several scenes involving three large rabbits in clothes that reside in a '50s-style living room; every time they say a line there is canned laughter.
"INLAND EMPIRE" began as an experiment between Lynch and Dern three years ago.
"The process started with him writing a scene and saying he wanted to experiment, meaning, I think, with digital," she said. "The scene was a monologue. At that moment, I was thrilled to have fun with him. We shot that and then he wrote another scene and we shot that. And the light was lit. I could tell he was seeing a movie."
Once he felt it would be a movie, Lynch began writing more scenes. "Finally, at some point, he wrote a big chunk, and we did more of a traditional four-week shoot," Dern said.
In between working on "Inland Empire," Dern went off to do other movies, got pregnant and had a daughter two years ago.
"All of it was an opportunity and a challenge," the actress said. "Everything was liberating and terrifying simultaneously. David's requirement is to be in the moment because you don't necessarily know what's coming after or what's coming before or who specifically you might be playing that day."
But within a day's shooting, she said, Lynch is very specific. "Sometimes the blocking isn't structured, but the dialogue is very structured and he knows the feeling that he wants," she said. "He gives you great trust and a real open door to where emotionally you are going to take it."
Lynch liked the idea of shooting a movie in which he didn't know what would happen next. "If you know what is coming, there is always a possibility that an actor would tip their hand," he said. "You don't necessarily want to give anything away in this."
"I think David's world is more true to human nature than you would like," Dern said. "He lives in abstracts, but the story has a lot of authentic truth about it.
"To David, film is a visual medium that is about taking people into an experience where they intuit their way through it. He's a painter and he paints an experience, and he wants you and I standing next to each other looking at the painting and having completely different interpretations or feelings about it."
JUST like a beaming father, Lynch is proud of Dern's performance.
And he wants to call attention to the fact with awards' voters. But Lynch is displeased with the amount of money spent on Oscar campaigns. "Always this time of year there is so much hype and generated buzz," he said. "You think something is gold and six months later it's fool's gold. If people can just appreciate her performance for what it is ... "
So in what must have looked like a scene from one of his own films, Lynch recently made a "For Your Consideration" sign touting Dern, hired a piano player and a cow named Georgia and sat for about four hours at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue and another four in front of the Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip.
"It was the greatest cow," Lynch said.
"People would come up wanting to pet the cow and talk. So many people came up and said they wanted to help. So there is a part of us that can see through [the hype]. All I want is to try get the word out.... "