David Lynch: The American auteur was on stage at the NFT to discuss his oeuvre, his debt to transcendental meditation, the genesis of his latest film, Inland Empire, and why he went on the road with a cow
Thursday February 8, 2007
Mark Kermode: Just to start things rolling, and this is not specifically connected to Inland Empire which we’ve just seen, but transcendental meditation is a really big thing in your life. The last time we talked, it was entirely about how TM had changed and affected your life. In as much as it is possible to explain this complex subject in a pitifully small amount of time, please explain to us what TM has done for your consciousness and what you believe it’s capable of doing for the greater good?
David Lynch: How many people have heard of TM? Quite a few. Good. TM is a mental technique. It’s an ancient form of meditation that allows any human being to dive within and transcend and experience the unbounded, infinite ocean of pure consciousness. Pure vibrant consciousness, bliss, intelligence, creativity, love, power, energy – all there within. At the base of mind, the base of matter, is this field. And it’s there. Modern science has just discovered the unified field by going deeper and deeper and deeper into matter. And there it was: a field of oneness, unity. They can’t go in there with their instruments and everything, but any human being can go dive within through subtle levels of mind and intellect, transcend and experience this field. When you experience this deepest field, it’s a beautiful experience, and experiencing it enlivens it and you grow in consciousness.
You grow in creativity and intelligence. And the side effect is that negativity starts to recede. Things like hate, anger and depression, sorrow, anxieties – these things start to recede and you live life in more freedom, more flow of ideas, more appreciation and understanding of everything.
It’s so beautiful for working on projects. It’s a field of knowingness – you enliven that and you get this kind of intuitive thing going. It’s so beautiful for the arts, for any walk of life. In Vedic science, this field is called Atma, the self and there’s a line, “Know thyself.” In the Bible they say, “First seek the kingdom of heaven which lies within and all else will be added unto you.” You dive within, you experience this, you unfold it and you’re unfolding totality. The human has this potential and they have names for this potential: enlightenment, liberation, salvation, fulfilment – huge potential for the human being. And we don’t need to suffer. You enliven this thing and you realise that bliss is our nature. We’re like happy campers, flowing with ideas. We’re like little dogs with tails wagging. It’s not a goofball thing, it’s a beautiful full thing, really, really great.
MK: I’m right in thinking that your relationship with that has mirrored your film-making career – you started TM around the same time that you were making Eraserhead, is that right?
DL: That’s correct.
MK: And it’s something that you’ve done throughout your career?
MK: So the question that’s always asked is, if TM creates positiveness and all the things you’ve talked about – and I can see that it genuinely does – some people might ask what about all the darkness that’s in your films?
DL: Exactly. We are all different at the surface and one at the core, unity. We are one world family. On the surface, different – I like this, you don’t like this. And we catch ideas. Sometimes, we catch an idea that we fall in love with. And if it’s a cinema idea, we see what cinema could do to that idea and we’re rolling. Stories hold conflict and contrast, highs and lows, life and death, and the human struggle and all kinds of things. But the artist doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering. You gotta understand it. You don’t have to die to do a death scene. You just have to understand it in your own way, but understanding is the thing, understand this suffering, this anger, this character. And you go like that.
I thought when I started meditation that I was going to get real calm and peaceful and it’s going to be over. It’s not that way, it’s so energetic. That’s where all the energy and creativity is. Everything that is a thing has emerged out of this field. So it’s tremendous creativity. And you don’t lose your edge, you get more, stronger feeling for something and it can be magnified. And you don’t get sleepy and laidback in this kind of flat-line peace. It’s a dynamic peace. It’s very powerful, it’s where all the power is. So the thing is you can make all these stories but you’re separate from it. And that’s the key.
MK: I’d like to show a clip from Eraserhead, but before I do, one specific question. One of the recurrent images in your films is of electricity arcing, light-bulbs crackling, two points and something arcing between them. And it seems to me that this somehow relates to what you think about the synaptic arcs in our brains, about making connections. I know you hate saying what things mean in your films, but am I right in thinking that that’s at least in the right area?
DL: [pause] No. [audience laughs] Mark is a beautiful guy. It’s like that, but I didn’t think of it that way. I just love electricity. I like smoke and fire and electricity, these things are mesmerising. You could watch a thing sparking and arcing for hours, and it makes such a beautiful sound. And it’s also a disturbance. There’s something about electricity that does kind of what you say, but it’s not necessarily the reason that it’s there.
MK: This is a clip from Eraserhead. Usually in these circumstances I set up for you in narrative terms what’s happened up to this point, but there’s really no point in explaining. So here’s a clip that I quite like.
MK: One reason why I wanted to show that sequence is that it’s a musical sequence. So much of what you do is related to music or harmony, the suspended chords and the way the narratives work. The other reason is that in the case of Inland Empire, it’s the first time since Eraserhead that you’ve made something without any outside interference at all. It’s taken years to put together, it grew and seemed to form organically, and the end film is entirely your own project. And that was sort of similar to Eraserhead. You’ve said that you don’t have to actually suffer when you’re making art, but people did always talk about Eraserhead as an extremely personal project, as is Inland Empire. Do you see those two things as connected? Please don’t say no again.
DL: I won’t say yes. There’s only been Dune where I didn’t have final cut. You know, I came to filmmaking through painting. Nobody fiddles with a painter and his painter. It should be that way in film, and we should have total control. That way the thing has a chance of holding together as a whole. So all the films were that way. Although I understand what you’re talking about. Eraserhead took about six years from start to finish – I kept running out of money, so that’s why it took so long. Inland Empire, it started as scene by scene, and there were long times before the next scene came. Finally it started unfolding more rapidly. So when it goes like that it’s very frustrating, but it also gives you a chance to go slow and sink into a world and live in that world. The world of Eraserhead, I lived in that world for years, and it was a beautiful experience.
MK: In the case of Inland Empire, just at nuts and bolts level, I’ve read various versions of where the story came from. One of them is that Laura Dern told you about a neighbour coming to see her and that she suggested the title. Another is that it came out of work that you were doing for the website [davidlynch.com]. As far as you can tell, where did the genesis of the story come from?
DL: It is true that Laura Dern came along and started this. She was walking down the sidewalk in front of my house and smiling as she approached. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. She came and announced that she was my new neighbour. And this made us both very happy. And then she said, “David, we gotta do something again some time.” And it struck me and I said, “Yes, we do. Maybe I’ll write something.” And that meeting there triggered a thing, a desire to write something. And desire is like a bait, it can bring things in. And lo and behold, it started bringing things in.
Where the title came from is another story. Later, in the middle of shooting, about a third through, she was telling me that her husband was from the Inland Empire, which is an area east of LA that encompasses many towns. She went on talking but my mind stuck on those words. I’d heard them before but now they had a new meaning and I stopped her and I said, “That’s the title of this film.” Then, at the same time almost, my brother who was up in Montana, cleaning the basement of my parents’ log cabin, discovered this old scrapbook that had fallen behind a chest of drawers. He dusted it off and found that it was my scrapbook from when I lived in Spokane, Washington, aged five. He sent it to me. I get this, I open it up and the first picture is an aerial view of Spokane and underneath it says, “Inland Empire.” So I had the most beautiful feeling of a correct title.
MK: And is it correct that there are certain elements, like for instance the rabbit sitcom, that have their genesis on your website?
DL: Yes, it ran on the site and was called Rabbits. Sometimes we start something and we think it is that. And later, it finds a new home. It was like going towards that, or later, it sprouts and becomes a bigger thing. You don’t ever know. It’s important that when you get an idea, write it down so you won’t forget it. And then, when you’re doing it, so many things can flow from that doing.
MK: Next clip that I want to show is from Blue Velvet. You’ve been talking about Laura Dern and this is a key Laura Dern scene. This has been written about often as ironic, and this has always made me quite cross because there never seemed to be anything ironic about it at all. This is when Laura Dern describes her dream of love. I always thought it was meant to be completely sincere and not ironic at all. You have said in the past that it’s not meant to be ironic, so I hope that’s still the case. Here’s that lovely scene from Blue Velvet.
MK: The thing I absolutely love about that clip is I think that when Laura Dern describes that dream, it’s like you were saying earlier, it’s not in a goofy way but in a real way. And you do really mean that, don’t you?
DL: Yes. The phenomenon of a shared experience in a theatre is very different than seeing a film on your own. And in a theatre, we all have this thing where we want to be very cool and when you see something like this, really kind of embarrassing, the tendency is to laugh so that you are saying out loud that this is embarrassing and not cool and you’re hip to the scene. So this kind of thing happens. But we also always know that when we’re alone with this person that we’re falling in love with, we do say goofy things, but we don’t have a problem with it, it’s so beautiful. And the other person’s so forgiving of these beautiful, loving, goofy things. So there’s a lot of this swimming in this scene. At the same time, there’s something to that scene, a truth to it, in my book.
MK: There’s also, in the background of it, Angelo Badalamenti, the master of the suspended chord, the person whose music kind of embodies that sense that you get in your films of two worlds vibrating against each other. And it’s the thing in between that’s important. He is the great suspended chord writer of his generation.
DL: He is. He can tear your heart out.
MK: The last thing I want to show is a scene from Fire Walk With Me. The reason I want to show this is, when it opened, it got very poor reviews in some places. And I remember watching it, and I think it’s still my favourite of your films; I really, really loved it. It seemed that when the press turned on Fire Walk With Me, they didn’t just dislike it, they were actively hostile towards it. Years later, I spoke to Angelo Badalamenti about it, and I said it must have been heartbreaking when that happened. And he said, “For David, it was like somebody had taken away his kid and was murdering the child.” How bad did it feel when Fire Walk With Me was that badly received? And do you now feel vindicated, now that people feel it’s actually a masterpiece?
DL: No, I didn’t feel bad.
MK: No? He lied!
DL: Angelo lied. When you do something and you have final cut, you have control over it, and you’ve done the best that you can do and not walked away until all the elements feel correct and you really feel that, then you can take that heavy negative reaction. It was on Dune, where I knew I was selling out, and then still you get a bad review, that’s dying two times. And so, I just died a little bit on Fire Walk With Me. But it’s true, and the reaction was understandable at the time. It wasn’t in the same spirit as the series, that’s what people got upset about. And the series was tapering anyway. And there was a dark cloud over things for me right around that time. It was just destined to happen that way. But over time, since then, its reputation has come up.
MK: The key line is, “We live inside a dream.” Do we?
DL: Very much, we do.
MK: So we’re going to show this clip. Again you’ll recognise the setting and the characters. I think this is a great redemptive moment, but then you said maybe it’s dark.
DL: We’ll talk about it.
MK: It isn’t redemptive?
DL: You know, he wants his garmonbozia.
MK: Which is corn?
DL: Which is pain and sorrow.
MK: In what language?
DL: It’s in the subtitle in there.
MK: But where does the word come from?
DL: I don’t know. It just came.
MK: So, in your language.
DL: It’s their language. So in a way, they sort of liked feeding off that. The creamed corn.
MK: When you were making Fire Walk With Me, you said that one of the reasons you wanted to do it was that you wanted to get back to Twin Peaks. You had fallen in love with the place, and I think there’s an entire generation of people who did fall in love with the place of Twin Peaks, with the atmosphere of that series. I know that things, as you say, petered, but there was a moment when it was like, that was the place that we all wanted to be.
DL: It’s strange. Twin Peaks exists in a part of the north-west, a fictitious part, but it’s there. It’s a small town, and yet the story travelled around the world. Go figure, what it was that caught all different cultures and places. It was a strange, beautiful surprise.
MK: And was it as a result of Twin Peaks that, you have a line of coffee, don’t you?
DL: Yes, but not as a result of Twin Peaks.
MK: I know you like coffee.
DL: I love coffee, but many human beings love coffee. And I think this David Lynch signature cup coffee will please those coffee-lovers.
MK: For those who don’t know, it has the most fantastic advert, which is a picture of you and it says, “It’s all in the beans, and I’m just full of beans.”
DL: Yes. [laughs]
MK: Are you happy to take questions? Okay, let’s start there.
Q1: I’ve grown up watching your films and I think there aren’t many film-makers out there who depict the human condition, and human affliction, as you do. What’s your take on that and how does it relate to your transcendental meditation?
DL: The affliction that you’re talking about is suffering, and there’s a thing when our desires are blocked, there’s this huge frustration, and that frustration can turn into anger, and it can turn into what they call unproductive thinking and actions. So the character of say, Frank Booth – I didn’t think about this, Frank Booth just literally came walking along as an idea, but at the same time you can see there’s some very tender thing to Frank, but there’s so much torment and tension and suffering in the guy that he’s just bound by that. Bill Pullman in The Lost Highway, the same thing. It just builds up and builds up and builds up. Now, if that same person could transcend and experience this deepest level, the lid would come off this pressure – beautiful, beautiful. It’s like in darkness, the light would come on and the darkness would just start going. And then Frank would be, maybe not as interesting as in the film, but Frank himself would be a much, much happier cowboy.
Q2: Thank you for such an astonishing new piece of work. Inland Empire has an unconventional distribution method. Is that because the major studios and distributors don’t want to take it up? And if that’s the case, do you believe that the mainstream cinema audience has lost the capacity to think or that the studios are afraid that they have?
DL: There’s a whole bunch of things. One, Inland Empire is three hours long and two, people have trouble understanding it. It’s the kiss of death; for a distributor looking at this, it’s a horror to them. On my website, I started distribution of Eraserhead and the short films and other things, and we made contacts and friends, and a conduit got developed to stores. And we thought, wait a minute, maybe we could do this with Inland Empire. That was before there was even any wondering about distributors and what they would think. Then, the advances that distributors give – just like in the music business, these advances used to be huge. And they just went down and down and down. So people get asked to do an album for nothing now. And the same thing has happened in the film business. So, then you find, at least in the States, I never got a nickel, no matter how much a film made, more than that advance. Not a nickel. All kinds of creative accounting.
So we thought, why not go out and try, and the trying is so beautiful because we go to different cities and meet people like tonight and get a feel for how things are going. And the feel I got from the United States was… I always thought the real film-lovers were in Europe. But there’s a huge, huge bunch in the States, who are just longing for an alternative to what comes out of Hollywood, more and more and more. So that’s a very uplifting feeling. Meeting the theatre owners and having a relationship with them, which is the last stop for a film, in that theatre, in that dark room and the big picture and the right sound, it’s all a good thing. It might not be the future for all film-makers, but it’s a future for more.
MK: What’s the truth or otherwise of this story that you went on the road campaigning for Laura Dern with a cow that said, “If it wasn’t for cheese, there wouldn’t be an Inland Empire”?
DL: This is true. I didn’t have a lot of money to support Laura in the traditional way, which is to buy a lot of these ads in the trades. Theoretically, people in the Academy read these trades and they see a picture that cost so much money, and they change their minds on who they vote for based on this picture. It’s absurd. So lots and lots of money spent, I don’t think it does any good, but they call them vanity pictures and lots of actors, they like to see the picture and they like to know they’re supported by the studio like this. It makes sense, but I didn’t have that money. So I got this idea to go out with a cow and a big placard for Laura, and sat on the corner of Hollywood and La Brea and, within an hour, these television news people came, and a crowd gathered. And it was mainly, I think, for the cow. But Laura appreciated that so much, and people appreciated it, but she still didn’t get a nomination.
Q3: In a lot of your films, you’re very much concerned with stage performances, like we saw in that clip from Eraserhead. And in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, you have actresses playing actresses who are in turn playing another part and they play another part in that film. I was wondering why you’re so focused on this idea of performance in your films?
DL: I don’t know. I always say it comes with the idea. But then you get lots of ideas, but you fall in love with certain ideas. And I have a thing for curtains and the stage. But then, I think everybody does because a curtain hides something and we want to know what’s behind this curtain. And in the cinema, when the curtain opens and the lights go down, it’s so beautiful and magical, there’s something to it. So it thrills me. If an idea comes and it holds that kind of thing, I fall in love.
Q4: I wanted to ask about the idea of the stock company. In Hollywood, you’ve had John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, even Clint had stock-company actors. You’ve surrounded yourself with people like the great Jack Nance, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, the cast from Twin Peaks and the great, underrated On the Air. What is it about those people particularly that you feel drawn to?
DL: I think what happens is, the rule is, get the right person for the role. If there’re two people who are basically both right, and you’ve worked with one of them before, and you have a shorthand to working and have a good relationship with them, you’re going to pick that person. It goes like that.
Q5: Do you watch current movies? If so, are there any current directors that you like?
DL: I haven’t watched any for some time. I like to work but I’m not really a film buff. But I was asked this question just today – I liked Aki Kaurismäki’s film, The Man Without a Past.
Q6: Which painters or creators influenced your work or your vision of art?
DL: I always say Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is my biggest influence. But for painters, I like many, many painters but I love Francis Bacon the most, and Edward Hopper. Both really different, but Edward Hopper makes us all dream, take off from a painting. Magical stuff. And Bacon for a whole bunch of reasons, but those two are big, big, big inspirations.
MK: Am I right in thinking that there’s a major exhibition of your paintings happening, is it in Paris?
DL: It’s in Paris, opens in March. It’s paintings and drawings and photos and things.
MK: Should we go?
DL: Well, that’s up to you. But I think you’d enjoy the show.
Q7: wanted to know how you got to using DV, and in doing that, do you think you would go back to some of those projects that haven’t come around, for instance, Ronnie Rocket or One Saliva Bubble?
DL: I started getting into DV through the website, doing short things with a Sony PD150. Started kind of falling in love with this camera, the way there’s so much freedom connected to it. Then I started, in the early days of Inland Empire, getting an idea for a scene, writing it and shooting it, with just the Sony PD150. When more came, and I see it’s a feature, I stuck with that camera. I did tests up-resing it and the up-res to film, I loved the look of it. It’s not the same quality as film, but it has its own feel that I fell in love with. And more than that, this small camera, with 40-minute takes, automatic focus, seeing exactly what you’re going to get, it is… I’m deeply in love with this now, it’s so good for the scenes and the actors. Magic things can be caught which maybe couldn’t be caught with film because you’re always stopping – the longest you can go after a slate is about nine minutes. It’s always broken and it always moves so slow, everything’s so heavy. It’s a horror compared with DV.
MK: Are you working as your own operator with that camera?
DL: Yes, you can be there very close, in way more tender action and reaction. You can talk and start again and talk. And it can catch a thing that, like I said, maybe they couldn’t have caught before.
MK: Could you now see yourself going back to film?
DL: I don’t know that I will, but the digital world would be very, very friendly to Ronnie Rocket.
Q8: I’m studying film at the moment and my biggest influence is you. Can you give me any advice as a struggling future film director?
DL: Stay true to your voice, stay true to the ideas, never turn down a good idea but never take a bad idea. And don’t take no for an answer.
Q9: I was just wondering whether you would consider cinema as a kind of consciousness, in that it’s making decisions, it’s allowing us to see characters and events in certain ways?
DL: Ideas come from consciousness because ideas are things. Consciousness turns itself into things. So the whole cosmos is vibrating consciousness. There are things that cinema can do that can catch an abstraction and it can say something that can’t be said any other way, or it could be said with words but it would take a poet. Cinema can do abstractions, but I don’t think cinema can make you transcend. I think cinema could get you into deeper and deeper levels, theoretically I guess it could. It can say deeper and abstract things and give indications of hidden things. It’s a magical medium, but this thing of consciousness… The best way to know what it is is to pretend that you didn’t have it. And if you didn’t have consciousness, you wouldn’t exist. Or if you did exist, you wouldn’t know it. It’s the “I am” ness. It’s the ageless thing we talk to. It’s awareness and it’s the thing. Some people think, “I think, therefore I am”, that the brain produces consciousness. But it’s the other way round; consciousness produces the brain – it produces a fish, it produces a tree, from the subtlest it just keeps coming out. It just makes things.
MK: Do you not think there are moments in cinema, especially in your cinema, in which moments of transcendence happen? Like when I watch that Laura Dern speech, something happens which is not of the moment.
DL: It could give you a blissful, beautiful feeling; whether you really get into that real transcendence, I don’t know. But transcending is a natural thing. Many, many, many people have transcended, but they don’t know how they did it, and they don’t know how to do it again. So they say, when you’re falling asleep, and going from waking to sleep, you pass through a gap, that synapse thing. People say, “Woah, I see a white light” or ‘I feel bliss” – it doesn’t always happen but the transcendent is behind all waking, sleeping and dreaming. It permeates creation, it’s there, it’s our self. And you just need to experience it to enliven it. And then it gets more and more and more.
Q10: What is it about Poland that made you decide to film Inland Empire there, and with Polish actors as well?
DL: A car arrived and five or six guys get out and come into my house. And they’re from Lodz, Poland, and they say they’re from the Camerimage film festival. They’re the greatest bunch, these guys who run the festival, the hardest workers. They’ve been putting on this festival for 14 or 15 years now, on their own against all odds and it gets bigger and bigger every year. Really beautiful. They invited me over there and I asked them if I went there, because I heard there were factories, so I asked if they could get me into factories so that I could photograph, and if they could get me nude women at night to photograph.
MK: In the factories?
DL: Not in the factories. It would be very cold. And they said yes to both things. And they were as good as their word. But the city of Lodz is so beautiful to me and there’s so much mood there. The architecture and the clouds and the way it all is, it’s its own place. And I start falling in love. I think a place, like music or anything, it can conjure ideas. And ideas started coming out of Lodz, Poland. And one thing led to another and there it was, Hollywood feeding some of it and Lodz feeding some of it.
Q11: You were saying at the start about going deeply into the world of a film when you’re filming it. But when you finish the film and you’re watching it back, does it seem strange to you? Does it feel like you’re a waking person looking back at a strange dream? Do you have that distance from a film?
DL: After a while. You just know a little bit too much, so it takes a while for that to go. But I can have a good experience sometimes, if I haven’t seen Eraserhead for a while, to go into that world again. I got a DVD made that’s so beautiful. It’s clean, the sound is good even with all the compression. I was tweaking the digital projector. I feel that the DVD is better than the film prints. I just saw a film print because the Museum of Modern Art has Eraserhead and has restored it, and there are many, many, many problems with it on film, but on DVD it was just rock solid.
MK: If I can bring this to a conclusion on that note – the consistent thing through all your movies is the extraordinary soundscape, dating back to the work of Alan Splet. These sounds that we think of as Lynchian, the ambient noise. It does seem to me that sometimes you can watch a David Lynch film with your eyes closed because of what’s happening on the soundtrack.
DL: Well, that’s very nice but it’s sound and picture moving together. And it’s a magic thing. And you try to get those sounds to marry with that picture and enhance it, based on the idea. When they flow together and they marry, then you’ve got a chance at the thing where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s beautiful.
MK: I think you’re an incredible advert for TM, frankly, because if it does what it does to you to everybody else, then I would advocate it immediately, because you are full of beans. Ladies and gentlemen, the fabulous David Lynch.