By Christian Divine.
David Lynch is an audio-visual artist whose primary canvas is celluloid. His enigmatic films are perhaps the closest the American cinema has come to capturing the otherworldly sensation of dreams – and nightmares. The hallmark of Lynch’s films is that they look and sound like no other. His scripts are not based on traditional structure, but their own odd, internal logic. He is a genuine artist who follows his own industrial muse. Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to interview David about his unique writing process, and to discuss several of his works, including the award-winning film Mulholland Drive, originally conceived as a television series, the cult classic television show Twin Peaks, and its companion film Fire Walk With Me .
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mulholland Drive has the feel of Nathaniel West meets Douglas Sirk. What was the genesis of the idea and why did you first write it for television?
Well, I’m a sucker for a continuing story. That’s the only reason I thought of television.
You’re not into the medium though.
No, the only good thing about it is the continuing story and even now TV is shying away from continuing stories. They’ve done too many polls, and they found out that people skip… Paul and Sarah are out there in the world, Paul sees two shows a month and Sarah sees another thing. So neither one see the whole month. So the networks feel that people get lost.
Do you like the soap opera genre?
I like a continuing story. There’s something about a soap opera that’s fantastic because it just keeps going and going. Theoretically, you can get very deep in a story and you can go so deep and open up the world so beautifully, but it takes time to do that.
How did you pitch ABC the project?
It wasn’t so hard because of Twin Peaks. So it was the same network and some of the same people, and we read them the first two or three pages of the script, and they said, “Let’s go.” But then they hated what they saw.
Did they give you any reason, like “We gotta change this…” or were they completely uninterested?
Completely uninterested. They never talked to me. They didn’t deal with me.
What was the writing process for Mulholland Drive?
If I’m working on my own thing, I sit and I dictate what comes to me. It’s not a huge long process. I have a friend who used to be my assistant, Gaye Hope, and I feel comfortable dictating to her. So she sits at the computer and I sit in a chair, and I try to catch ideas and say them.
Is it hard to get a narrative going that way or is it a more abstract process?
It’s all abstract because little by little you tune into something and it starts to flow. When she comes over here at first it’s slow going. Then it starts to flow and so you knock out quite a few pages. So what you finish in a day is like eleven pages of a script.
Does that include dialogue? Are you acting out the parts in a way as you’re dictating?
Yeah, they sort of come along and then I say the lines, the name of the character and their line… then some action or descriptions and go like that. Just to make it appear on paper as it came to me [laughs], that kind of thing.
When you transcribe the visions to screen, your images are obviously very striking and vibrant. Do you see them as you’re creating them?
Yes, the idea is everything. Whether you get it from a book or another screenplay, or from the ether, the idea tells you how—as you read a book, you picture it, you hear it, and it makes an impression. So you stay true to that impression as you translate it to film.
I still don’t completely understand Mulholland Drive, but I don’t mind because when I watch your films it’s like going into a different world. Are you trying to convey thought or feeling?
Both. The world to me is a mixture of the two. Intuition is thought and feeling working together. You intuit things in life, right? The language of film is so perfect for this intuiting; it’s just beautiful. So you have what they call an “inner-knowing” whether you realize it or not. Right after seeing the film with somebody else, you could argue and say, “No, no, no, that’s not how I see it.” You’d be surprised how much the mind has figured out, and by talking, other things come out. Words are a poor way to say certain things. You realize you know more than you can speak.
When you realized Mulholland Drive wasn’t going to be on TV but a film, what was the process of changing that to feature format? Was that difficult?
It looked like it was going to be impossible. Then I swear to you one night I sat down and [makes cool sound effect] the whole thing came in. And it was like one of the most beautiful experiences. All the missing pieces came so I had no problem. In a pilot everything is open, and you set little paths in motion, but none of them go to a conclusion. So it’s really the opposite of a feature film. It’s ideas that you need, and you focus so hard, and they start coming to you.
Do you write down your dreams?
No, it has nothing to do with dreams. There’s a certain way dreams can be told in film because they’re abstract. So film can tell abstractions like dreams.
And your films truly duplicate the quality of a dream. The first time I saw Blue Velvet and Dean Stockwell starting to sing “In Dreams,” I looked around the theater thinking, “Wow. This is really strange. Where am I?”
Like I said, there’s a similarity. It’s the ideas. It’s always the same: it’s the story and the way it’s told. The only way you can hold it together is to be true to the ideas. They may be more full than you realized at first. But if you’re true to them, they seem to unfold as you go and you know more and more. If you veer off, you go off into a dangerous area where it can fall apart. You should be alert for new things to come along that still tell the thing in an honest way. A lot of time that happens. It’s the original idea that hits you and what you stay true to.
Jean Cocteau considered everything he did poetry, in all mediums. Is it easy for you to jump from film to music to painting?
I like to experiment in all kinds of mediums. Film sort of encompasses all of it, but you can go to still photography and really get deep into a still image, and the way the paper is, and what you can do with Photoshop, and you can go and go. The same with painting or music. Sometimes when you focus on one particular thing, you get ideas for a different thing, and you find yourself over there doing that. Sometimes you can catch fragments that will lead to a film. It’s good to move around; your ideas and desires are moving you.
Do you write to music?
No, I don’t like to have anything going on. If I’m working on music, then I just want music. If I’m working on writing then I want it quiet as possible. But I get a lot of ideas listening to music – there’s an exception to that: if I know a piece of music has led to a scene, I’ll play the music to verify if it’s working. That doesn’t happen too often. Music is so perfect that way.
Sound is very important to your work. That ambient industrial throb…
Absolutely. You look at the image and the scene silent, it’s doing the job it’s supposed to do, but the work isn’t done. When you start working on the sound, keep working until it feels correct. There’s so many wrong sounds and instantly you know it. Sometimes it’s really magical.
How is it to work with collaborators like Mark Frost and Barry Gifford?
It’s different with each person. I really liked working with Mark Frost. He and I complemented each other. It was always fun. And Barry, we share enough similarities, we could get into some interesting places, but it’s not really that complement that I had with Mark.
How did you write with him?
I can’t type, so Mark was always typing. I’d lie down or sit in a chair by him, and we’d just start making up scenes. It just flowed. We would really go fast.
Were you happy with the way Twin Peaks ended?
Oh, it could have gone on forever. The problem was we never meant to follow the murder for a long time. The Black Dahlia has never been solved… these things keep pulling you, and you keep thinking about them and it’s beautiful. So once it’s solved, it really kills the magnet. It’s terrible. We were put under so much pressure by ABC and people in general to solve that, that we killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
In Fire Walk With Me, why did you cut so many of the Twin Peaks characters?
For the sake of the whole. A lot of the scenes with the loved characters broke the flow. They had to go for the sake of the film.
Fire Walk With Me seemed like Twin Peaks from a different angle.
In my mind it was exactly the same thing, but where it focused was pretty tough for people. Some of the scenes in there, I just love ’em for the abstraction.
People call you a dark filmmaker, but your work is often positive.
I feel it’s like two things. You gotta go into a world of contrasts to get a sense of things. Laura Palmer’s life was jam-packed with extreme contrasts.
What’s your fascination with flickering light?
It has to do with a love of industry, fire and smoke, and I love electricity. Electricity is to me… I just like to think about it. I don’t know what is. It’s a magical thing. Lights can give a sense of power or change…
You like to have people who are “different” in your films. Are you attracted to an unusual type?
There’s the so-called normal and the so-called abnormal, and we’re all together in the world. Sometimes the story comes along and there’s many of them in a film. It’s not that you say, “I want to work with a midget, I want to work with a giant, someone with broken arms.” Suddenly, an idea comes and there is a midget, a midget dancing in a red room… it’s just weird.
I think the little man dancing in Twin Peaks is the weirdest moment in TV history.
I remember where I was when I got that idea. I was at CFI on Seward Street, and we were cutting the pilot for Twin Peaks; I don’t know what time of year it was. We left the cutting room and it might have been summer, it was still light, and I was leaning up against the car talking to Dwayne Durham, who’s the editor… and the car, the metal was warm, my elbows were on the roof, and it was not too warm to be uncomfortable, and Bango! Here it comes.
Did you hear the music?
I saw everything but the music. I didn’t hear anything. I stopped Dwayne from talking… It led to many things, and that’s the beautiful thing. We had to do an alternate ending for the European release, and that’s where it first showed up.
Do people or studios tell you to do something more accessible?
A lot of people. I’ve never done a straight out-and-out “studio” picture. It just depends on the ideas. You have to be in love to do it. It’d be a dream to find something that you love and that many millions of people love. I think Spielberg truly loves his work, and millions of people love it, so he’s making a lot of money and he’s still true to himself. That’s the key. Otherwise, it’s a joke, why are you doing it? Also, studios don’t like to give people who haven’t made a lot of money with their films final cut. But if you make a film without that, you’d be better off committing suicide.
This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in Creative Screenwriting 8, #6