IN LOVE WITH AN IDEA
Filmmaker David Lynch talks to Ben Machell about music, art and the ups and downs of the creative life
THE perception of David Lynch as one of cinema’s great outsiders has existed for more than three decades. But visit his home in LA and you realise that, if only in terms of real estate, he ghosted in among the showbiz establishment some time ago.
To find him, you drive up into the leafy exclusivity of the Hollywood Hills; past Orlando Bloom’s house, past the place where Gary Oldman used to live, just around the corner from where Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard is having work done on a mansion overlooking Mulholland Drive. Lynch’s work may have a reputation for dark, sometimes nightmarish surreality — from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks to Lost Highway — but day to day he inhabits a world of eucalyptus-scented sweetness and light.
Still, his home has a touch of brutalism about it, a modernist concrete complex built into the side of a hill. A back door leads you to a recording studio where Lynch sits, surrounded by guitars, amplifiers and mixing equipment. He is about to release an album, The Big Dream. It’s his second LP in three years — its predecessor, Crazy Clown Time, received positive reviews — and it involves the 67-yearold performing his own swampy, atmospheric rock ’ n’ roll numbers, delivering them in his reedy singing voice. ‘‘ I don’t have high hopes it’s going to take over the world,’’ he says, smiling. ‘‘ But I feel real good about it.’’
Lynch possesses a peculiar charisma. His hair still looks fantastic, swept up and set in a messy white quiff. He wears a shirt buttoned to the top, a crumpled jacket and a pair of grubby trousers. He looks as though he could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, some cheerful mechanic or carpenter from a 1950s midwestern town.
He is affable, but also politely distant. That there are other things he’d rather be getting on with is, in the nicest possible way, implicit. So even when he talks about his longstanding obsession with, say, the corrupted underbelly of middle America, or his passion for transcendental meditation, he still manages to make it feel like a passing conversation.
The only point at which he seems uncomfortable is when I ask if it feels weird to be responsible for the adjective Lynchian. He cuts the question off with a sad shake of the head. ‘‘ The doctors have asked me not to think about this kind of thing,’’ he says. ‘‘ It doesn’t do me any good.’’
He says people often seem surprised by his otherwise sunny disposition. This is a writerdirector, remember, whose 1977 debut, Eraserhead, included the film’s protagonist attacking his freakish, mutant baby with a pair of scissors, who featured sadomasochistic rape in his Oscar-nominated Blue Velvet, and for whom psychosis, alienation and a sense of gnomic mystery are recurrent themes. The idea of him as a cheerful guy doesn’t always compute.
‘‘ But actually, when you meet people who have made dark things, a lot of the time you’ll see a kind of happiness in them,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s not all brooding and suffering. If you’re suffering all the time, you can’t really get much work done.’’
Lynch presents himself as an almost obsessive-compulsive creator. He regularly uses the phrase ‘‘ catching ideas’’ to describe the moments of inspiration that will lead him to pick up a guitar, a paintbrush or a camera. ‘‘ If you fall in love with an idea it’s like falling in love with a girl. There’s nothing you can do about it. You have to follow through.’’
So as well as his album, this year he has had a book of his photography published, while last year he held his first solo exhibition of paintings in New York. There’s other stuff, too. He has his own brand of coffee, while not long ago he was asked to design a nightclub in Paris. He recently shot a Duran Duran concert movie.
What he hasn’t done since 2006 and Inland Empire, though, is direct a feature film. Lynch concedes that in the present economic climate there is no guarantee he’d be able to get a project off the ground.
‘‘ They say a good part of it has to do with money,’’ he says, laughing. ‘‘ Film is still a pretty expensive medium, even in the digital world. There’s certain things that they’ve found that make money and get people in the theatres.’’
On the other hand, Lynch says it is also a simple question of inspiration. ‘‘ You can’t just push a button and get a cinema idea. They come along when they come along. I love cinema. I love it. But until the ideas come, you do other things.’’
In September, Lynch and his wife, actress Emily Stofle, announced the birth of their daughter, Lula. ‘‘ You should see her! She’s so beautiful.’’
He already has three adult children from three previous marriages. His eldest is director Jennifer Lynch, now 45, who found notoriety in the early 90s with the film Boxing Helena, about a surgeon who amputates the limbs of the woman with whom he is obsessed. She has since worked on a string of thriller and horror releases. ‘‘ It’s funny when people say, ‘ Oh! You’re weird like your dad,’ ’’ she said last year. ‘‘ But I don’t think he is weird. He’s just a storyteller who, thankfully, looks at things very differently.’’
Lynch’s own childhood was nomadic, his family criss-crossing the US as a result of his father’s job as a research scientist with the Department of Agriculture.
It was growing up in the small towns of middle America — places such as Spokane, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Alexandria, Virginia — that helped nurture a fixation not just with the picket-fence perfection of his country’s post-war baby boom, but with the unspoken corruption beneath the veneer.
Lynch arrived in Los Angeles in 1970 to attend film school. ‘‘ I was a nervous fellow,’’ he remembers. ‘‘ I had big anxieties and a lot of anger. I was not self-assured. It was like I was on . . . thin ice. I was working and catching ideas, but inside was more torment.’’ He says discovering transcendental meditation helped straighten him out, a method he still practises twice a day.
After Eraserhead, he made two big studio pictures, The Elephant Man and the sciencefiction flop Dune. From the mid-80s onwards he operated as his own man, the auteur behind Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and the cult television series Twin Peaks.
Given the booming popularity of intelligent, high-spec box-set TV programs, it would be a good time for Lynch to return to the small screen. There has been mounting speculation online that Twin Peaks might be revived. Could there be a comeback? After all, it was ahead of its time.
‘‘ Well, it was at that particular time,’’ he counters. ‘‘ The ideas came. We had a lot of luck.’’ He isn’t keen to answer the question about a possible revival, instead expanding on the pros and cons of making television. ‘‘ I think TV has taken over the jobs of the art houses, it’s a beautiful thing,’’ he says. ‘‘ And I do like the idea of being able to do a continuing story. The only downside is the screens are not ... it’s just a different thing to being in a theatre.’’
Does he go to Hollywood awards, dinners, meetings? Does he have any sort of social life? He looks stricken, putting his head in his hands and talking through his fingers.
‘‘ Doing those kinds of things is horrible. Going out? Going to dinner or to some event? Absolutely a nightmare,’’ he says, sighing. ‘‘ What you need is freedom to think and catch those ideas. Those other things are such a distraction. The only good that could come from it is that you see something that’d give you an idea. But that doesn’t usually happen.’’
I ask about how he stays afloat financially, and he’s open about the fact he takes on commercial work: he directed a 16-minute advert for Dior, has worked on ‘‘ creative partnerships’’ with Dom Perignon.
It means he has enough cash coming in never to have to compromise or be pragmatic about his personal projects. ‘‘ I have to work for money, but when it comes to cinema or painting or music, you have to do what you really believe in, or you’ll die. You’ll just die.’’
The multi-talented David Lynch at an exhibition in Paris