Interview: David Lynch on ‘Inland Empire’ I – The Idea

[originally published on Greencine, August 2007]

David Lynch, the once boyish maverick of such dark, demanding, and confounding films as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway (not to mention the gentle, G-rated slice of slightly askew Americana, The Straight Story), is 60 now. You can see his age in has face and his graying hair (still wildly brushed as if trying to escape his head), but his output is, if anything, even greater now. He’s producing short films for his website, painting, even marketing his own signature coffee.

And he’s still making films the only way he knows how: his way. He made heady and dreamy three hour drama Inland Empire, shot totally on digital video (his first feature made in that format), with such Hollywood pros as Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons, yet financed and produced completely outside of Hollywood.

“It’s mostly common sense making films,” he insists. “You don’t need a studio. You need some money and you need ideas and then you go make your film.” He even bypassed the studio system to distribute the film independently. “There are many, many, many great theaters available to people and that’s the place where people see films,” he explains. “So if you can get your film into a theater, that’s all you need. And now you can make your own DVDs. If you have a conduit to stores, you put them down that conduit. Again, it’s a lot of common sense.”

Lynch came to Seattle in January 2007 to appear at a special preview screening of Inland Empire and talk at Town Hall on Transcendental Meditation and granted a few select interviews. Dressed in his trademark neat white shirt and simple black suit, he sat back for the interview with a cup of coffee within reach and an occasional cigarette between his fingers. Soft-spoken and pleasant, calm and confident, answering most questions with simple and succinct answers, he comes off as a gentle but eccentric elementary school teacher patiently trying to explain filmmaking and the creative process as if it were nothing more than basic addition and subtraction.

You wrote in your book, “Catching the Big Fish,” that you spent a lot of time in the woods while you were growing up. Is that where the settings and atmosphere of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks came from?

Wood is an influence, but it wasn’t… I always pictured Blue Velvet as having lumber around it, but it was shot in North Carolina. But there’s a lot of lumber around in North Carolina, too, so it worked out. But I pictured it more as a Northwestern kind of town. Then when Twin Peaks came out, yeah, there’s things, but I wrote it with Mark Frost, he’s not from the Northwest. There’s always things about our childhood that ideas come from. So it was an influence for sure. The woods. Wood and woods.

Blue Velvet captured something I’d never seen any other movie do at that time. It presented what should be a simple and peaceful rural community and revealed this dark layer underneath the surface, not simply a criminal underworld but a moral underworld. And I had lived for a year in La Grande, Oregon, which Blue Velvet‘s Lumberton evoked perfectly for me.

There’s a dark layer underneath every community. Looking back, people made a big deal about Blue Velvet showing the surface and then something under the surface. Since then, if you see TV and newspapers, more and more has been revealed that was hiding there all along. I say the sickness is being revealed and people are dealing with it, which I guess is a good thing. So it’s not just La Grande, or it’s not just in Twin Peaks or Lumberton, it’s everywhere.

In Inland Empire, and in previous films as well, the living spaces of your characters are devoid of clutter. They are very austere and they feel more like temporary places because they don’t have the baggage of their past and present around them, more like hotel rooms than homes. Why is that?

There’s a thing of fast and slow. Normally, a room is slower than a human being. If there’s too much clutter, then you don’t have a strong human being. It’s not something you think about, but I guess that’s the thing.

'Inland Empire' - fast and slow

Are you talking visually or cinematically, or…?

Visually. There’s fast areas and slow areas. That goes back to the thing of the duck. The duck is an example of that. The bill of the duck is sort of in the middle of fast and slow, it’s a little bit fast, and when it hits the head it slows down and the feathers there are very small and it’s not completely slow, and it fills out and starts going down into this S curve and the feathers get bigger and then it goes into the body, which is a very large, slow area, not a lot of stuff happening. And then it goes into the legs and feet and it’s faster and the texture of the legs and feet remind you of the bill so your eye goes back and you take the trip again. The eye of the duck is the fastest, the most detailed, a gleaming little jewel, and I always thought, what a perfect place to put that in the middle of the head. It’s just a perfect size frame. If you put it in the body it would get lost, it just wouldn’t be framed right, if you put it on the leg it would be too fast an area for the eye to really bring it out, on the bill it would be ridiculous. It’s that kind of thing. So a blank wall is such a perfect setting for a human being. Maybe one or two little things, but it’s fast and slow sort of thing. And clutter is, unless it’s feeding from the idea, it’s just a negative.

Can you talk about the genesis of Inland Empire?

Laura Dern. Thinking about it, the thing started with Laura Dern, and it started… I happened to be out on the street and I see Laura Dern walking down the sidewalk and I’m surprised to see her. And she says, “Oh David, I’m your new neighbor.” I hadn’t seen her in a while and I was very happy to see her and happier still to know that she’s my neighbor. And she said, “David, we have to do something again sometime,” and I said, “I know we do. Maybe I’ll write something for you.” Now you could meet a lot of people and say something like that, but ideas started coming from that. So Laura Dern started it, meeting her on the street, a desire to work together, seeing her face. But it’s not Laura Dern, it’s just something started happening because of that conversation.

I’ve read that the film began as a series of short scenes shot for your website, and a story emerged as you continued shooting.

Yes. In the beginning I get an idea, and it happens to be something like a scene, and so instead of writing it down and waiting for the next one and writing that down and waiting for the next one and that down and building a screenplay, I started shooting those scenes and, in shooting them, kind of committing to a look and a feel but staying true to that idea and not ever thinking of a feature at that time, wondering maybe, but… So in the beginning there were just scenes and they didn’t relate in my mind, I didn’t know. And then, all of a sudden, more of a story started coming out that actually related those. It was kind of beautiful.

In the first scene with Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie, you have Laura Dern giving a very quiet, naturalistic performance and Grace Zabriskie comes in with a very exaggerated and arch performance, rolling the dialogue around in very mannered delivery, and it creates a strange dynamic in the scene. And I see this mix of very natural, relatable performances with theatrical performances all through Inland Empire. Do you see it this way?

No, I don’t see it as mixing it up, and it comes from the idea. Grace, her character is her character, and Laura’s Nikki is Nikki. It’s not like two Nikkis talking together, it’s Nikki and another person talking and that’s the way that other person is. And this comes from the idea.

Laura Dern

Why do you prolong conversations with uncomfortable silences where the characters just stare at one another?

Every film has a pace and it’s not like a continuous sameness, it’s like music. Shot by shot, word by word, sequence by sequence, it has a feel and you go until it feels correct. So pace comes out of the idea and pace is one of the elements, this thing about moving in time. So it has a lot to do with the same kind of things that happen in music.

Would you describe Inland Empire as not so much written as a story as grown as a piece of organic art?

Oh yes, it has a complete story, it’s just that there’s the story and the way the story’s told, and then there are stories that are more surface and there are stories that hold abstractions. Something that’s not so concrete that has something to do with feeling or intuiting a thing. And that’s what I love about cinema. So it’s a story but a story that hold abstractions. And again, that comes with the ideas.

Inland Empire, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, have characters who drift into other lives, as if crossing over into a dream world. And they are often surreal and strange. Do you think viewers are right in seeing your films as dreams on the screen?

No. I understand what they’re talking about. That dream quality is the abstraction and so people talk and they say things and they react, just a normal thing, but there are other things that swim with that and this is, to me, the beauty of cinema. Maybe next time I’ll do a more straight ahead picture, but you fall in love with ideas and once you’re in love, what can you do?

Are you in love when you make a movie?

Totally. Totally in love. You’ve got to be. You’ve got to be so in love, even if you don’t know where it’s going, you’re in love with those ideas that got you out there translating this thing, and being in love and focusing on this, it draws more things and it’s so beautiful. The unknown, out of this unknown comes ideas and they pop in. It’s just a thrilling journey.

You describe your movies as working like music and you came to filmmaking from painting. I think back to Robert Bresson, who said that most people think of cinema as coming from theater and novels while he believes it more properly comes from music and painting. In many ways your films couldn’t be more different, but both of you offer very different kinds of experiences and engagements with cinema than the traditional filmmaking. Do you see any similarities between your work and Bresson’s?

(Smiles) I don’t know that I do, but it stands to reason. Cinema is such a great language. And it’s true, you can come at it from theater, you can come at it from novels, you can come at it from painting and music. It really kind of holds all of it, so if a sequence gets more abstract, it starts getting more like the rules of music, and if it gets very concrete, it may get more like the rules of theater. But it holds the possibility for those for and more, probably. It’s a magical medium.

You explain how you arrived at the title Inland Empire in your book, “Catching the Big Fish.” I’d like to know not so much what the title means, but how it means. How do you see the relationship between the title and the film?

I would ask you that. Because you’ve seen the film and you know the title, so you know just as much as I do.

You shot Inland Empire completely on DV. What kind of camera did you use? Was it consumer or industry professional standard?

It was, I think they call it prosumer. It’s high end consumer, but it wasn’t a state of the art camera for the time. The reason I used it was that I started using it for the website for small experiments and then I kind of fell in love with it and then I started using it early on, not knowing if I was making a feature. Once I realized I was making a feature, I didn’t want to change, so I stayed with the Sony PD-150. But before, I had done some tests with the Sony PD-150 resolution up to, it’s not exactly hi-def, but it’s res-ed up with this thing called the Alchemist, which is kind of a miracle. And then tests made from that higher def up to film. I was kind of blown away. It’s its own look and feel, it’s not film, but I really loved it.

A lot of people consider video to be an inferior medium to film, but in reality it is just a different medium, it’s a different tool, and it has a different set of textures and qualities to it. What do you like about these textures and qualities?

I think I like it because it reminded me of an older 35mm, where there wasn’t so much detail, and I think I liked it with less detail, it kind of gives more room to dream. It’s just a strange difference and it’s not quite real, it’s not quite real, and I like that. And what I also like, I mean I like a million different things about working in DV, but the control that you have is much more in terms of color correcting and timing than film. So it’s pretty beautiful to work with.

Film is an expensive medium in which to work as an artist. Does it mean you have to make a certain number of compromises?

No. Compromise is not something that you do. I don’t know what you mean by it, but you want to get the thing to feel correct based on the idea, so why would you compromise?

I guess what I mean by compromise is to say, to make something that is meaningful to you but uncommercial by Hollywood standard, you may give up the resources of a studio…

No. A studio is nothing but a bunch of people in a building. They don’t have anything. It’s a joke. They have nothing. They came about because people were making films and the whole business grew out of it. People just using common sense making films. And they came to L.A, because of the light. They work during the day and go to fantastic restaurants in the evening. And it was a blast, in my mind. I wasn’t there. I don’t remember being there, anyway. So it’s mostly common sense making films. You don’t need a studio. What in the world would you need that for? You need some money and you need ideas and then you go make your film.

You don’t discuss the meaning of your films. What about the interpretations of your audiences?

It’s not a game, that I like to confound people and see what they come up with. The filmmaker should have a definite, solid idea of what it means, but that never comes right away. It kind of comes part way and then more and more as it’s all revealed. And then when you’re working on the whole, by then you know what it means until the whole feels correct. When something is more abstract, all kinds of interpretations come out, but if I said, “Oh, that’s a wrong thing,” and I wasn’t willing to say mine, that would be a very bad thing. So I think every interpretation is valid. The analogy I give is, if a painting is a very super-realistic painting, people standing in front of it get basically the same take on it. Now you stand in front of an abstraction, many, many different things, depending on the viewer, start happening. And because there’s this circle between the painting and the viewer, film and the viewer, the mind is lively, the heart is lively, and any intuition they have is going while they are having this experience, and later all these different kinds of interpretations come out because each person has a little different one from the other. It’s just going to come out that way, and it’s kind of beautiful. There’s another thing I’ve been talking about, this thing of harmonics. Sometimes I think it’s possible to be true to an idea and that idea could be seen as the fundamental notes of a chord, and if you’re really true to those and translate them until they feel correct, then also the harmonics from higher things might be true, because the fundamental notes are true. So harmonics that you didn’t even know about might be true. Now somebody in the audience is getting a more sublime, cosmic kind of interpretation. Ten years from now I might see the same film and get that. If you’re true to the thing, you don’t know what you’re doing at all levels. It’s kind of strange.

Do you think that experience intensifies when you see it in a theaters with an audience around you?

When you see it with an audience, it’s just so interesting. Every screening I see is different because the audience is different. The film is exactly the same, but the audience changes, the feeling in the room is different, and that’s a real thing. Then there’s certain things that happen when a group of people that don’t happen when the viewer is alone. Those things I sort of talked about last night [at his talk about Transcendental Meditation at Town Hall in Seattle]. If something is kind of embarrassing or something, then there are these little titters and laughter because you’ve got to be cool in a screening so you have to laugh at certain things that you wouldn’t necessarily laugh at if you were alone. A lot of interesting things happen in an audience.

You don’t want people to know your intentions or your interpretations of your films because you want them to come to the film themselves. So what do you feel about the interview process, of talking about your films and having it printed for people to read?

It’s okay. There are things to talk about that don’t putrify the moviegoing experience and those things are okay to talk about. And there’s things that, you know, it’s not so bad… I mean, sometimes you ask me a question or someone asks me a question and I gotta think about it. I don’t know so many things and I think about it and it’s kind of interesting to think about some things.

If you directed your own ideal interview situation, are there questions that you would like to be asked?

No, because, again, I came from painting. I know there are people who talk about painting and it’s pretty interesting because when you read some of them, it’s pretty inspiring and you get another take on the painting. But we all know painting, by and large, is a wordless medium. It is it’s own medium. And that’s the way I see film. So it’s, you could say, sometimes painful to talk about it or try to talk about it. If I was a poet, I could conjure some word formations and get a feel that way, but by and large, what more often than not happens is you butcher a thing and so it’s better not to go there.

I hope this hasn’t been too painful for you.

No, no, it’s been great.

© 2007 by Sean Axmaker


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