The brooding filmmaker behind TV´s Twin Peaks lives simply, but he´s wild at art
It takes David Lynch´s limousine just 30 minutes to get from his Hollywood Hills home to the mysterious Pacific Northwest world of Twin Peaks (as re-created on a Van Nuys, Calif. soundstage), and sharing his early morning commute is just about the only way to get the 44-year-old filmmaker alone these days. Lynch is spending the summer filming the TV series` two-hour season premiere, which airs Sept. 30, and the set has been closed tight since a tabloid hit the streets claiming to reveal who killed Laura Palmer.
Though show spokesmen insisted the tab was off target, a memo was promptly circulated, ordering all cast and crew members to shred their script pages at day´s end in order to prevent future Peaks leaks to “newshounds and fanatics” sifting through Dumpsters, and the elusive director virtually dropped out of sight.
Lynch must be caught on the fly it at all. The other is that the brazenly offbeat soap Twin Peaks, with its 14 Emmy nominations, has helped turn one of Hollywood´s least-ready-for-prime-time players, the avantgarde director of films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, into the hottest, busiest property on town. Lynch´s new movie, Wild at Heart, opened Aug. 17, and he is about to launch a multimedia assault on the American mainstream. In the works are a new series for the Fox network and a slew of Peaks-inspired products (cherry pies and ties like those worn by Dr. Jacoby, the series´ weird shrink, were discussed as possibilities). A series sound track and a home video of his macabre Industrial Symphony No.1 performance piece (both composed with Peaks´ Angelo Badalamenti) will soon be released as well.
“Working at this speed is unusually intense, but I really like it,” says Lynch, setling back for the daily drive to Van Nuys. “It gets kind of crazy.”
And kind of crazy is what David Lynch does best. Since his first feature-length film, Eraserhead, a nearly silent black-and-white tragicomedy about a hapless father trapped in a room with his wailing, mutant newborn, Lynch has been serving up celluloid worlds in which the bizarre lurks just below the surface of the mundane. Blue Velvet, voted 1986´s best film by the National Society of Film Critics, was a surrealistic murder mystery that was set in motion with the arresting sight of a severed ear in a field. Lynch´s disquieting dreamlike style was less pronounced in The Elephant Man, 1980 (which earned eight Oscar nominations) and Dune (his only directorial flop, in 1984). But Wild at Heart, loosely adapted from a novella by Barry Gifford and starring Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, may be Lynch´s weirdest offering yet. A “violent comedy, a love story in a twisted world” (by Lynch´s description) that includes freak-show cameos and a fatal head bashing to heavy metal music, it won the Palme d`Or at Cannes this spring.
“There are certain things you can do in films that you can´t do on TV, obviously,” says Lynch. “Wild at Heart goes to extremes – it´s not a film for everybody. But as shocking as some things in it are, they´re based on the truth of human nature, and there´s a lot of humor and love wrapped up in that.” Domestic critical response to the movie has been mixed, but whether it´s a Palme or a bomb, Wild at Heart is sure to add to Lynch´s mystique as the cinema´s reigning Wizard of Odd.
Not that he looks the part. A Montana native, born in Missoula, Lynch was an Eagle Scout at the Kennedy inaugural in 1961, and he still exudes a disarming heartland earnestness. He has yet to outgrow his upbeat boyish lingo (“you betcha”, “neat”, “cool”). He dresses like an overgrown schoolboy, in khakis, cap and long-sleeved shirts buttoned to the neck – a look that almost never varies, even though by 9 A.M. it´s nearly 100 [degrees] F in the San Fernando Valley. (“I have an eerie kind of feeling about my collarbone,” he once said, explaining the buttoned-up look. “Just a breeze on it is sometimes too much for me.”
Lynch values constancy in other aspects of his life as well. He prides himself, for example, on having consumed, at one point in his life, a chocolate shake and multiple cups of coffee every day at precisely 2:30 P.M. at the local Bob´s Big Boy. Says Mark Frost, Lynch´s Twin Peaks co-creator: “David seems to have fewer moving parts than the rest of us. But they´re from a high-quality watch factory, maybe from off the planet somewhere.”
At first meeting, Lynch reveals himself as a cagey mix of modesty, well-timed humor – and calculated impenetrability. He knows what you want – cluse to his disturbing, unhinged artistic vision – and finds myriad ways not to surrender them. “I never talk about themes,” he snaps. “No way. A film should stand on its own. People talk way too much about a film up front, and that diminishes it.”
He will admit to reading Kafka for inspiration. He will also muse about how meditation, which he practices once or twice daily, helps give him access to his subconscious. “It expands the container and allows you to sink down and grab those big ideas as they swim by,” he says. “An idea goes in a little pop like a spark. Everything is there in the spark. It´s kind of a fantastic process.”
Actors delight in sharing that process, letting Lynch guide them to new psychic limits before his lingering, voyeuristic camera. He is, says Kyle MacLachlan (star of Dune, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), “a sound, mood and rhythm director. David hasn´t forgotten the images, fears and desires you have when you´re 10 or 18 or 25. They´re so pure, these images, that they have a lot of impact.” Says Laura Dern, who played girl-next-door Sandy in Blue Velvet and in Wild plays the gum-snapping sex-bunny Lula: “All he´d say to me was ‘More bubble gum, more wind,’ and wind came to mean more mysterious, more eerie. David´s greates gift is that he sees making a movie like a trip to Disneyland.”
Lynch´s 22-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who was written a Twin Peaks companion book entitled The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and is a budding director herself, offers further insights. “My father makes films about what he knows with certainty,” she says. “He knows feeling lost, he knows the white picket fence with strange things behind the door, he knows passion, and he knows extremes of light and dark. Not Amityville Horror satanic dark, just darkness in the purest sense.”
He learned it all, somehow, growing up around Spokane, Wash. and Boise, Idaho. His father, Donald Lynch, was a forest research scientist with the Department of Agriculture; his mother, Sunny, was a housewife. David spent childhood summers hunting rabbits in the Idaho sagebrush and playing in western woods full of the same mystery that seems to linger in the fog around Twin Peaks. He found schoolwork uninspiring and retreated to imaginary worlds through his drawing. When he was in his teens, he, his parents and his brother and sister relocated to Alexandria, Va. There, Lynch had “a kind of happy persona,” but discovered that “all the thrilling things just happened just after school or between classes. It added up to some sort of pitiful joke – so constricting it would drive you nuts. It inspired me to try to break rules. Behind it all, I was getting it together to be a painter.”
It was while studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia that Lynch began experimenting with film, animation and kinetic sculpture. The urban decay around him served as inspiration. “I loved Philadelphia,” he says. “The most corrupt, fear-ridden city I´ve ever seen. It´s one of my major film influences.” In 1967, he married fellow art student Peggy Reavey; daughter Jennifer came along the next year.
In 1970, a 35-minute live-action-animated feature called The Grandmother – about a lonely, abused boy whose deceased grandmother sprouts back to life from a seed planted in his bed – earned Lynch a place at the American Film Institute´s Center for Advanced Film Studies in L.A. He spent the next five years making Eraserhead – five years of guerilla filmmaking at its hungry, resourceful best. He supported himself and his young family with such odd jobs as a paper route: “$9.80 a night was not a thrilling rate, so I was pretty depressed,” he says. “But I worked it to where I was shooting the route in one hour, almost to the second – a totally efficient hour. You learn to fold, bag and drive at the same time.”
Lynch persisted with his filmmaking, but his marriage ended amicably in 1974. (Reavey, remarried, lives in the L.A. area and is a teacher and writer.) Says Jennifer, who will soon direct her own first feature, Boxing Helena: “It was easier for David to handle having a child that could be his buddy rather than a responsibility, because I don´t think he was ready to teach anything to anyone. We grew up and matured together. Now it´s far more best friends than father and daughter. To David, marriage and children have absolutely no place in the art life.”
For a while Lynch wondered whether he had any place there either. “I got an awful lot of pressure to abandon Eraserhead and do something worthwile,” he says, “I just couldn´t. It was frustrating, but also beautiful.” The movie was released in 1977 to discouraging reviews. But it quickly found a passionate cult following and also caught the eye of Mel Brooks, who wanted to produce the story of John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, and needed a writer-director. Lynch accepted, the movie was a hit, and his career was on its way.
Today, Lynch lives in a posh section of Hollywood Hills, in a spacious, uncluttered home built by Llyod Wright, son of Frank. He doesn´t so much entertain at home, says Dern, as “blast you back into whatever space he wants to put you in” with his Bang & Olufsen stereo. Favorite selections range from Elvis to opera to Muddy Waters. Lynch´s taste in interior decor runs to homemade artworks like “the bee board – real bees pinned to a board with names under them like Hugh, Bart, Sam, Mack and Jim,” says Jennifer. “He gets them dead from a bug store.”
As a father, Lynch has, fortunately, fared better than his Eraserhead alter ego. “I´ve always loved palling around with Jennifer,” he says. “We´ve been close since she was born. I heard when she was very young that you´re supposed to put moving colorful objects near [children´s] eyes. It stimulates their brains. I glued all these things onto a matchbook and bent little red matchsticks out and had a little thread, and I´d dangle that in front of her. It seemed to work.”
Jennifer recalls offbeat adventures with Dad – hanging out at Bob´s Big Boy listening to ZZ Top, building a mud pile with tunnels and clay figures on her mother´s oak kitchen table, crawling inside the wood and plaster “palaces” Lynch built for her, and trekking off to film locations. “He was not your normal dad,” she says. “But he´s been the best dad he could be, and we´ve never had a blast.”
Lynch was married a second time, in 1977, to Mary Fisk, sister of his longtime friend Jack Fisk (a director who is married to Sissy Spacek). David and Mary split some years later, and have a son, Austin, 7, who lives in Virginia with his mother.
“Austin´s kind of quiet with a real dry sense of humor,” Lynch says. “He´s now using Warren Beatty as his idol – he wants to direct and act.”
Lynch won´t say much more than that about his private life. Responding to the inevitable questions about Isabella Rossellini, whom he directed in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and has dated for four years, he throws up his hands to deflect curiosity. “She´s one of the people David comes to life around,” says Jennifer. “His wit sharpens. They smile constantly. I´ve never seen two people have more fun together. But David enjoys his independence. Isabella live in New York, and the distance is probably the most painful part, but it also keeps them wanting each other.”
The two get together regularly, often at Rossellini´s country home, where Lynch enjoys running his 1942 motorboat on Long Island Sound. It is one of his few relaxations. “Happiness is doing what you really enjoy,” he says. “What I do is called work, but I love working in all these mediums.”
He hasn´t committed to another film yet. But with his directing fee in the million-plus range, he doesn´t have to worry about running out of cash. Not that he would. He recently sold his beloved, perpetually overheated ´58 Packard and now drives a ´71 Mercedes and an old pickup. “I´m not afraid of not having money,” he says, and in fact one of the few drawbacks of his current success s the complication it has brought to his life. “I really liked living the way I did during Eraserhead,” Lynch says. “I had a TV, a shop with enough wood to build things, a radio, a house, a washing machine. No dryer – the sun dried my clothes, which was amazing. Now I go onto a set with 60 people, and it´s just not the same. It´s harder to feel the mood and settle into it.”
He will manage, of course. For he still has plenty of skewed fantasies he wants to unleash on the world. “I like things that go into hidden, mysterious places, places I want to explore that are very disturbing,” he says. “In that disturbing thing, there is sometimes tremendous poetry and truth.”