David Lynch – The Man Behind The Curtain. The legendary filmmaker talks about his work.
THENEWCINEMA: Godard once said that the terrible thing in cinema was, that it is so hard to do, what a painter does quite naturally: He stops, steps back, gets discouraged, starts again, changes something. He can please himself. What are your thoughts on that kind of filmmaking? Is it possible to work like that in film?
DAVID LYNCH: Yes it is possible and it’s called “action and re-action” in my mind anyways. You do this in every medium. You do something then you look and react to that and it indicates the next move… it happens all the time in cinema, it happens all the time in painting, it happens all the time in any medium. Its action and reaction and it’s going on all the time and then your reaction is another action and your reacting to that one… and it just goes on.
TNC: What I was getting at is… that making films is such a big enterprise compared to making a painting. The luxury of a painter is that he can make a painting, then if he feels like it he can abandon it halfway thru or get back to it later if he changes his mind.
DL: Like I said, I think it’s the same. It is unfortunate that if halfway thru a film you ran out of ideas and you needed to think and therefore stop the production. I don’t think too many people would be very happy. But it is possible I think. In ‘Eraserhead’, for instance, a lot of times because we ran out of money, things stopped. But that gave me an opportunity to think deeper into the thing. I always say, films go so fast it’s difficult to sink in and get deeper into the thing and it’s a sadness. But it is possible in some instances to go at a slower rate and sink in even with a commercial film… I think it is.
TNC: Can you still do that today? Can you shelve a film halfway through? Would you be able to abandon a film if you felt it wasn’t going in the right direction?
DL: (Laughs) I don’t know… but normally before you start you have a script… normally… and a lot of problems are worked out… a lot of thinking has gone into that. Time is spent walking away from the script and getting ideas and going back. Then when you get it all together it’s translating that to cinema… you pretty much… I always say you should stay on the alert for new ideas but at least you have a skeleton, something to follow that you are happy with and in love with. So chances are you wouldn’t reach a point where you would want to stop halfway through.
TNC: How important is script for you? How close do you stay to it? How much does that represent of the final film?
DL: Well I always say a script is organized ideas. The most important thing are the ideas and a script is those ideas in words. But it’s an interim stage, it’s not the film, it’s just the organized ideas that your gonna translate to cinema. So it’s very important as a blueprint, but everybody knows the blueprint is not the house… but it is an indication of what the house will be. Then finally you have the house and it’s way different from the blueprint but it’s similar to the ideas. It’s the ideas that come to be in the concrete form in terms of the cinema.
TNC: Do you feel that you usually achieve what you set out to do, or does the film turn out very differently from the original ideas?
DL: It’s almost exactly the same. The thing to me is… is it true to the ideas? And yes, sometimes it’s like walking into the thing that popped into my mind. It’s like walking into that, but sometimes it’s a little different because you didn’t have the money to build it exactly the way it came into your mind. But you look for a location that is true to the ideas and a lot of times you find a location that is not only true to the ideas but it spawns new ones. So it might not be the same, but it’s true to the original ideas or as close as you can get it.
TNC: I think it was also Godard who once said something like “Show me a location and I will write you the scene.”
DL: It’s absolutely true. You go into a location and a whole thing comes… the type of characters and what they might be saying. You know the mood of the place… ideas can just flow out of a location. Absolutely true!
TNC: In some respect your films seem quite eclectic and sometimes asymmetric. Do you do a lot of reshoots once principal photography is over?
DL: No, I always say the same thing… you don’t want to walk away from anything until it feels correct. So you’re on a location or in a set and you have the people and you have the ideas in the back of your mind driving the boat. You stay there and work until it feels correct.
TNC: Does that get you into trouble with the producers, just to stay on the boat as long as it takes?
DL: Sometimes there are time constraints and the producer gets very upset.
TNC: How do you deal with it? Do you just ignore it and continue on or are you sympathetic to the producer’s point of view?
DL: I am very sympathetic to their point of view and usually they are to mine. But you can’t hurt the film by leaving before it feels correct.
TNC: You get such great performances from your actors. Do you do a lot of improvisation?
DL: No. Ninety-nine percent is the ideas… the original ideas and you rehearse until those things get into the actors. Then they take it along the same track indicated by the original ideas. Once in a while a thing comes up that is a spontaneous… kind of a combustion. Sometimes an improvisation can lead to something, but ninety-nine percent of the time I absolutely follow the script.
TNC: How do you work differently with non-actors?
DL: Same exact way. Everybody has an idea when they read a script and sometimes the actors ideas are close to the thing, right on the money or far away. But in rehearsal you see how far away or right along the same track they are. The key is we’re all going down the same road.
TNC: Do you do a lot of rehearsals ahead of time?
DL: No. But for some actors I take one scene that kind of defines the character and I rehearse that before… that can be very good. But normally you have time to rehearse and talk before you start shooting.
TNC: On set?
DL: Yes, on set.
TNC: Giving advice to a young director, what is key to getting a good performance?
DL: Well I always say, make a safe environment. It’s very important to make a safe and friendly environment where the actor is not afraid to go out on a limb and go deep into the character no matter how embarrassing or strange. If there is fear or tension on a set it doesn’t help the performance, it hurts it. So, create a safe friendly environment so they can go deep into that place and make it real.
TNC: What do you mean by safe environment?
DL: Think of the whole thing as a family and think of the whole thing as fun and a happy moment. Obviously have some good craft services but most importantly keep a very professional but supportive family around everybody. Consider all the people and keep it friendly.
TNC: Do you demand that of your whole crew that they are a part of this?
DL: No I don’t demand anything. I just look at it as the greatest fun, so I guess I like to have people around that feel the same way.
TNC: You seem like such a gentleman. Are you a ‘yes’ guy or do you want things to be done the way you envisioned them once on set?
DL: Everything has to pass thru the director, so you never take a bad idea, but you never turn down a good idea. You have to have it be true to the original idea. So, you have to be able to say no but you can be happy to say yes as well. But, you can’t let anything go, based on those ideas that doesn’t feel correct. You would be a fool to let it go. The thing won’t work later when you try putting it together.
TNC: Right. So, you never have an Abel Ferrera moment when you smash a chair or make an actor cry?
DL: No, no, no! These stories to me are the theater of the absurd. I think you could get as good a performance, if not a better performance by having a happy set.
TNC: If you were mentoring a young filmmaker what would be one key advice you would give him about making films?
DL: Stay true to the idea and find your own voice. Stay true to the idea and don’t take no for an answer. Don’t walk away from anything until it feels correct.
TNC: Fellini once said that he was uneasy on the first two weeks of shooting as he was trying to ‘‘find’’ the film that he was going to make. How is that for you?
DL: No, no, no. I don’t really believe that from Fellini. But I think what he means is… the script is the ideas in word form, but now you’re trying to translate it into cinema form… and when you see your first dailies, and it may not be right. The light is not right… it’s too harsh or, it’s too much, or it’s too this or that. You have to get the whole team to adjust and find a new way to go… find a way to be true to the idea. So there might be some things like that he is talking about… to find that ‘‘look’’ and that mood that says it for him… I understand that.
TNC: What is the first scene you shoot when you start a film, do you shoot the most important scene or the last or the first, you shoot in sequence…?
DL: I don’t know. I don’t have any rules, but it wouldn’t be the last scene, that’s for sure. You want to shoot, in my mind, as much in sequence as you can. So that it grows as naturally as possible.
TNC: You shot “Inland Empire” yourself on DV. How was that different from working with a dedicated director of photography?
DL: It’s exactly the same… you know. Actually I did have some directors of photography working on it, but the thing about digital is that you see right away what you are getting. So, it’s exactly the same.
TNC: Is this how you will work from now on, shooting digitally and operating the camera yourself?
DL: I like to operate myself and I like shooting in digital and digital is getting better and better. There’s a thing about operating yourself … because sometimes you will want to make a move… and with digital you are able to do that more easily. But I also love working with a good director of photography like Peter Deming who loves to experiment. He is absolutely top quality and it is great working with him.
TNC: It’s interesting how some directors of photography and filmmakers bring out the best in each other. You guys seem to do that.
DL: Well good deal. I love working with him and he’s just a great collaborator.
TNC: How important is audience to your kind of filmmaking?
DL: Well first of all the director is the audience and so if you’re true to the ideas and you don’t walk away until it feels correct, then your hope is that others will feel that same thing. You can never know for sure. Every person is different, every audience is different and every group of people that see the film is different. One night the film works great, the other night a different audience… it doesn’t go so good. You have to make yourself happy based on those ideas and then you see what happens.
TNC: Do you see your self as an entertainer or are you doing this more for yourself?
DL: I am basically doing it for myself.
TNC: What’s the principal obstacle for you personally when making a film? What’s the hardest thing?
DL: No, no, no… I love every part of it!!!
TNC: What’s next for David Lynch? What are you working on?
DL: I am working on a documentary film about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
TNC: No fiction films coming up?
DL: No, after I finish the film on Maharishi, I’ll see what happens.
TNC: Are you still doing the daily weather report on your website?
TNC: Any chance I could get a personalized David Lynch weather report as i have never heard it?
DL: With pleasure… ok, let’s see here… “Today is March 9th, 2010 and it Tuesday here in LA. Beautiful blue skies, a few white puffy clouds, golden sunshine, a strong breeze and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.