By Richard Toledo
I cannot begin to describe the honor and joy and nausea I felt at being able to be in the presence of a genius–and my personal idol– Mr. David Lynch. This being my first opportunity to attend a roundtable interview, I was already nervous to begin with. But to have my proverbial cherry popped by Lynch and Laura Dern? Now there’s a threesome made in Heaven. And this was highly unusual for Lynch as he never really makes himself accessible to the media. Just a few weeks ago the man was hanging out on
The interview itself was more than I had hoped for. Lynch is known to be vague, if not downright evasive, when it comes to answering questions regarding his work. At the AFI Fest last month, someone asked him how he feels about the South, and he gave a long, rambling answer that included what his favorite tree is (the Ponderosa Pine in case you ever wanted to know, with the Douglas Fir coming in a close second). So this is what I expected. What I actually got were answers that actually resembled answers! And they were sort of coherent answers, too! Lynch will always be Lynch, but this time he seemed more willing to share his thoughts and what his filmmaking process is like.
All this was of course publicity for his new film INLAND EMPIRE (he insists it be spelled in all capital letters). So far as I know, Rolling Stone is the only publication to give it a good review. (3 ½ stars? Seriously?) As much as it pained me, I had to give it a good thrashing. But only a truly gifted filmmaker can make a mess like INLAND EMPIRE. You can read my review here.
I have to thank
Frosty here. Don’t worry… Some day—and that day may never come—I may call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day–accept this gift…
So how long were you guys in production on this film?
David Lynch: Well, production is a weird thing. How long over from the beginning to the end was about three years but we weren’t always, you know, shooting every day, you know what I mean? A lot of days we weren’t shooting.
[To Laura Dern] Did he just call you up like every once in a while and say like, “I got a camera, I got an idea”?
Laura Dern [to David]: Pretty much, right?
It seemed like there was a lot of different styles in this picture compared to some of your other work. There was a lot of handheld type of stuff. Did you take any different type of approach to this project than you did others?
David: Yes, because I was shooting DV with a small, lightweight camera. It was so beautiful to me to be able to hold the camera and float around and let it move according to what I was feeling or seeing, where as before you’re behind a massive camera. In front of you is an operator and a focus-puller and you got a kind of barrier. Even if you wanted to move, if you felt a thing it was impossible. And like say in the next take you might say, “Can you drift in on this line a little bit, like this,” but it may not happen the same way the next take. So it gives you this, you know, ability to really kind of be in there and stay in there because it’s forty minute takes. It’s very beautiful.
How different was it for you, having worked with David on previous projects?
Laura: You know, again I’ll almost repeat the same idea of liberty that comes with working with that. You’re liberated as an actor in the same way David describes. You never miss anything because you’re right there. You never miss an opportunity of being in the moment because suddenly now, not just the performance but the camera is offering that in-the-moment opportunity. You can catch anything and he can hear what the actor seemingly off camera is doing and wanna capture that and just flip around. And because of the luxury of a forty minute take, if you need it, I mean, forty minutes in the camera, that you just shoot an entire scene without ever stopping and he can get all the coverage he wants and we are staying within the moment of acting out the scene and you know, not cutting and resetting but in fact even while filming talking to me because the luxury of the lack of expense as well to say, “Let’s do it again. OK, go back to this line, let’s keep going.” And you’re just, as an actor it’s just an incredible feeling to stay true to the mood, the feeling that’s going at that given time.
David, could you talk about how this film relates to some of your other work, because there seem to be like similarities with Mulholland Drive and we actually saw some clips of Rabbits [the surreal rabbit-people sitcom Lynch filmed at his house] in this film. So is this film an extension, or how would you view it?
David: It’s different, but similarities because it deals as
Laura [to David]: Thank you!
David: -then, you know, it takes off and becomes different.
It felt almost a little bit like a collage of some of your previous work. It’s like you were taking just little snippets and things. Is that intentional?
David: No. Ideas come along and you, you know, catch an idea and sometimes you catch an idea that you fall in love with and you see the way that cinema could do that. It’s a beautiful day when that happens. And the idea tells you everything. Because we got our own kind of mechanism, we kind of fall in love with certain kinds of things, but every film is different and it’s based on the ideas that come. And these are the things that you try to stay completely true to and all the elements you try to get to be feeling correct before you walk away, and you just go.
So Laura, with this particular role you got so many different levels, so many different performances, various versions of the same person layered upon each other. How was that working for you with the script and what you do as an actress and your focus? How did that change for you as opposed to other films you’ve done?
Laura: You know, now more than ever the day’s work was at hand and what I had, given that we shot in such a way that we would, David would write a scene and we would film that and then he would write another scene and we would film that and so on, it forced me very luxuriously into the moment. I didn’t necessarily know what had come before or what was coming after. And whether one perceives that I am different people, or that I am aspects of one person, either way you can really only act that one way which is being the person you are in that one moment. So in a way, not knowing everything and trying to, somehow, get to logically-minded as an actor and try to help the audience understand how this relates to that etcetera, I was freed from any of that by David keeping me in the moment with whatever character I was playing, you know, whichever aspect of the story I was involved in. And that was extremely freeing and in a way, I think, allows for more imagination as an actor because you know, as much as an actor wants to believe (I think, this is just from my own experience) that they are not informing the audience. There can be a pitfall of feeling, “Because my character is going to do this five scenes from now, maybe I should give them a little bit of a taste of that so they know what’s coming.” But as we see human nature doesn’t work that way, and we’re deeply surprised in the news when we hear, “So-and-so who seemed like such a nice guy did this atrocious thing.” And so being forced by the director, if you will, to just be this aspect of what I’m supposed to explore, I think made me get to be braver by default. [Laughs] That isn’t true!
Would you have only wanted to approach a movie with this, you know, scene-by-scene with David? Is he the only director that you would really trust yourself to do that with?
Laura: Well, I’d rather only work with David period.
David [to Laura]: You work with me now, but watch what happens next time. “Oh, I’d only wanna work with Robert.”
Laura [to David]: [Gestures to journalists] Well they know! We’ve met many times before when you weren’t here.
David [to Laura]: Yeah, exactly. It’s all baloney.
Laura: Poor David Lynch doesn’t realize that Laura has done this so many times before.
But I think for myself, I watched David do this with many other actors on this movie, but I don’t know that I could’ve done it with many other directors because, you know, we’ve been asked if there’s a shorthand and in fact we have a remarkable one. I’m sure he has that with other actors he works with, but for me I have the ability from knowing him since I was 17—separate from who he is as a director to me—to intuit what he needs, and he can intuit what I’m gonna express before it happens. So it’s not what the movie’s about or the character I’m playing, but even as an operator, a cinematographer, I felt like David moved his body and the camera to place just when I was thinking of moving that way. You know there is that thing that happens that is-
David: Laura actually directed this picture.
Laura: I did, [gestures to David] and he was wonderful. [Laughs]
In that scene-by-scene approach to filming, did either of you ever consider releasing it as a set of short films?
Laura: A set of long films, but-
David: You know, after a while the scene-by-scene revealed more. And then I wrote a lot of stuff, and we went and shot more traditionally. You know, we could shoot for several weeks and have stuff to shoot and organize like a regular shooting schedule. But it was just in the beginning that it was scene-by-scene, and those could’ve ended up just being that. A scene, separate, you know, by itself for the Internet or whatever. But I didn’t know what it was gonna be so I’d shoot a scene and then I’d get an idea for another scene and shoot that scene. And lo and behold, after a bunch of ‘em, a thing came out.
Your working process on this was a little different-
David: A little different.
-so with the freedom of digital video, do you see yourself making movies more in line with this, or this kind of process?
David: Not this process but with digital video. And I think maybe I would, you know, it would be nice to have a script written upfront. But it just didn’t happen that time. This time.
Laura [to David]: But as you said, I mean there were chunks of the film that surfaced that you wrote towards the end. I mean, we shot like a month-
David: It all starts coming more and more and more.
Laura: -and we shot four or five weeks solid at one point, like, I mean almost like a traditional movie because you had so much work to do.
So it was all linear?
David: Totally linear. It’s a straight-ahead, linear thing. [Laughs] No, it wasn’t all linear, but it was all scenes that were there.
Laura: And not in order.
David: Some of it could’ve been, you know, back in time, some could’ve been here and then a chunk right now. Like that.
Laura, it seemed like one of the opening scenes when your character is speaking to the old woman, when you’re shooting a scene like that, is it as creepy as it is to do it as it is to see on film or is it not as bad before they put in the music and the close-ups? Or is Grace [Zabriskie] just creepy period?
Laura: Well I have to say she’s the nicest, loveliest lady, but having met her on Wild at Heart I’m just damn terrified every time I see her. [Laughs] I can’t get over who she been made out to be by David when I see her. But you know, it’s the beauty of working with David, is that you are—again, speaking of being in the moment—you are there in the moment and you may have a sense that something is funny, but when you’re in it you’re just trying to make it as authentic as it is. And then when you reflect back or when you see it as an audience, something that even seemed straight when we were shooting it, to me, is just hysterical. Like I pretty much think he’s, you know, the best comedy director going. [Laughs] But you know, other people may not see it that way. It just depends on how you take it.
David: Laura is seeing a psychiatrist.
Laura: Grace is huh-larious. Grace is hilarious! But when I was doing it she was terrifying, so I don’t know why it worked out that way. Maybe because I wasn’t sitting across from her.
[Publicist comes up and says “Last question.”]
David: Whoa, that was quick! How can we possibly get into this?
This is something you may not even be able to answer, but is
David: For sure it is.
We’re still waiting for season 2.
David: Yeah, it’s coming out I think next spring. I think so.
For the record, I’m still waiting for
David: It’s all color-corrected, timed, hi-def masters ready. It’s, I think Universal owns it now and Lost Highway did not make a lot of money at the box office. So they probably have it way low on some list for DVD. I don’t know when they’ll get to it. I haven’t heard a thing. You’ll have to write to Universal. Thank you.
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