Catherine E. Coulson had been a seminal part of the David Lynch cosmos, from backcombing Henry’s hair in Eraserhead to starring in his early short ‘The Amputee’ to providing Log Lady introductions to the syndicated episodes of Twin Peaks. It was a great privilege to have been able to speak with her before, very sadly, she passed away in September of 2015.
Garth Twa: You’ve know David Lynch for a long time…
Catherine E. Coulson: We met in 1973, maybe 1972, when David was a Fellow at the American Film Institute and I was teaching an acting class there; I had just come with my theatre group to Los Angeles. He came to the class maybe once or twice but it was in the morning and he was not a morning person. We met because I was married to Jack Nance , who played Henry in Eraserhead, and David Lindeman, who also was an AFI Fellow—in those days, that was the very beginning of their program—introduced Jack and me to David because David was going to do this movie called ‘Gardenback,’ a short that he had written that evolved into Eraserhead. He interviewed both of us—he still to this day doesn’t audition actors, he simply talks to them and gets a feeling for what he wants—and long story short, got hired, so to speak, to work on Eraserhead. I was going to play the nurse who gives Henry and Mary the baby and Jack was going to play Henry, but because I was married to Jack and because there was a lot of work to be done on the set—I think Jack’s brothers came and helped build, and David’s brother, John, came and we got the sets built in the stables—he asked me if I would like to help out in the making of the movie.
It was a long shoot from what I understand.
CC: About four years. It started as a twenty-minute short based on twenty pages—and they said about a minute a page—but it evolved into a feature film. In fact by the time we got to shooting my scenes giving Henry and Mary the baby, it really didn’t seem necessary to have that footage and by then I was helping to raise money for the film so I actually suggested, I think, that we not shoot those. To my grave regret. I’m kind of peripherally in the film, there was another scene I was in a room next door to Henry. You’ve seen Eraserhead, right?
Yes. I saw it at midnight, in a theatre, in the winter. I was still a teenager, so still technically developing biologically. It changed me. It blew apart everything that I believed cinema was capable of doing.
CC: I know, it was pretty unusual. At the time we just called it a simple little love story. We used to joke about it. I used to do Jack’s hair—
You’re responsible for the Eraserhead hairdo?
CC: Well, David designed it, but I executed it. I just combed it for him every time, and cut it for him.
For four years?
CC: Yeah. Poor Jack, he used to wear all these hats to cover it. We used to joke about whether some day people would ever wear their hair like that and, of course, they do. It’s really kind of an amazing phenomena because we were just kids, we were in our early twenties, but I felt, at the time, I was a handmaiden to the genius. David became a really good friend and at one point he moved in with Jack and me because he had been sleeping on the set and that wasn’t so comfortable. We shot a lot at night, all night, because it was quiet then, and we’d talk about wood a lot because his dad was a research botanist for the U.S. Forest Service. We would talk about wood and his dad’s thesis was on, I think, the ponderosa pine, so there’s a scene in Eraserhead when they’re making the pencil erasers and all that.
Suddenly I became this odd kind of cult figure. I would go out to the grocery store and people started asking me about the log and so I became an expert on wood. I became a spokesperson for the Ancient Forest Association.
So you were involved in all aspects of the film, from start to finish?
CC: I worked in all kinds of capacities, from doing hair to helping with the lighting to camera assisting to operating a second camera; I really learned another whole skill set. It was kind of my film school because I was just an actor but I learned to do all these wonderful things. And Fred Elmes came on board and he was a skilled cinematographer, so we all became really close friends and that’s when David decided that we would all own part of the movie when it over. We made a little kind of contract on napkins one day at a restaurant and, to this day, I still get my yearly Eraserhead cheques, which is pretty amazing because there weren’t any ancillary rights then, there were no DVDs, but he just said, ‘You know, I just really want to share this.’ And we always got paid; for a long time I made $25.00 a week but it was going on for a so long we cut back to $12.50 a week. But we always got paid. David took that AFI money and made sure that we each got part of it so we never really worked for free, even though it came out to about a penny an hour. He always had a very generous spirit. And we all did a lot of other work while we were doing Eraserhead. I worked as a waitress, David was a paperboy, Jack delivered flowers, we did all these other jobs to keep ourselves eating. We were trying to finish the film, and we were raising money from everybody. Like I got $200 from this pediatrician who was taking care of my nephew (he was the kid in the film who found the head at the end), and we got a little bit of money from the dentist… I mean, we were just trying to get money from everybody. And we went into George Stevens, Jr., who was the head of the AFI at time, and David and I pitched to him that this movie would never make any money and that the AFI could have a certain percentage if we could just get some more finishing funds. So we got some money from them, they signed this contract that to this day they may have regretted. But I think they thought, well, we just want to finish the movie, we’ve invested this much in it. So they did ante up and really helped out. When it was shown at this film festival thing at the Los Angeles Film Exposition I remember afterwards it was like this dead silence. David didn’t know what people would think of it, but then there was this really amazing guy who had this underground film distribution company and he decided to distribute it at midnight very slowly. It was along with Pink Flamingos, I think.
Those are the very first, the beginning of Midnight Movies.
CC: Yeah, it was just word of mouth and it just started taking off. It really was quite phenomenal for us ‘cause I remember driving by the movie theatre in West Hollywood and seeing people lined up to see it. We were like, ‘Wow, maybe people are going to do their hair like that.’ Then one day I saw an Eraserhead T-shirt with a picture of Jack, you know, a photo that I took. Oh, that was the other thing I did, I was a stills photographer. Fred Elmes, of course lit everything, so in all fairness, you know. But I was the person, because I had a camera, some old camera of my Dad’s, that just snapped the shudder. I did take a lot of photos and when David was doing Dune, I found the negatives and I brought them all down to David and he had them printed. I said, ‘Don’t look at them until we all got there,’ and Jack and David and I were just looking at them together and I remember it was just such a wonderful thing, they were all mixed in with pictures of my nieces and nephews. But David has been a very loyal friend ever since. He really is a good man and I appreciate his generosity to this day. It helped get my kid through college, so anyway.
It was around the Eraserhead time that you starred in The Amputee?
CC: Oh, yeah, that started as just a test for the videotape companies that were trying to get the AFI to use those in teaching as opposed to film. As an AFI Fellow they asked Fred Elmes if he would do some tests and shoot like something like a grey scale or something, you know, twice, the same way each time using these tapes and then they would evaluate whether they should be used by the AFI. So David said to Fred Elmes, ‘I’ll help you do a little scene and you can just shoot the same scene twice.’ There was no sound, it was all voice over, so David wrote this little letter that the amputee reads and then he played the doctor and we shot it twice, exactly the same way so they could compare the stock. Then, I’ll never forget this, they have this kind of video projector thing, very primitive, and we were in the screening room and everybody came in to watch what they thought was going to be a grey scale, and it was this scene, and I remember the head of the AFI Fellows at the time, he goes, ‘Lynch! Lynch had something to do with this!’ It was such a funny moment. David had kind of snuck it in. He found it years later, when he was cleaning out his basement. It’s really a lucky break.
Do you know when Twin Peaks started, as an idea?
CC: During the time when we were doing Eraserhead, he said that he would like someday to do a TV series. Now in those days, film students were more snobby about television a little, but David wasn’t. He said he wanted to do this series—you’ve probably heard the story—called ‘I’ll Test My Log With Every Branch of Knowledge,’ and it was going to be me taking the log to different experts and they would evaluate the log and we would learn about what the expert knew as well as about the wood. And then, years passed, I worked on other of David’s movies, and, you know, we stayed in touch, then he called one day and said, ‘Are you ready to do the log girl?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t think she’s a girl anymore,’ so we changed it to the Log Lady and he put me in the pilot of Twin Peaks. He had gotten this pilot from the American Broadcasting Corporation and Robert Iger, who I think now is the president of Disney, was really far reaching in his vision, he really kind of knew that this guy had something going.
I honestly couldn’t believe that it was on ABC when it came out. Following Father Dowling Mysteries, and up against Falcon Crest. This was an era of Wonder Years, Doogie Howser M.D., Growing Pains…
CC: I know, it’s astonishing, and of course proved to be very successful for them until they moved it around to different nights. But it was a huge phenomenon.
A lot of your work subsequent to Eraserhead had been behind the camera. You were camera assistant on a lot of big, important films, like The Wrath of Khan, and you worked for Jim Jarmusch…
CC: I had continued acting and doing camera work for a number of years and I have some friendships that have lasted a lifetime as well as having learned a tremendous amount about film making. But, you know, I had been an actress since I was a kid, so suddenly I became this odd kind of cult figure. I would go out to the grocery store and people started asking me about the log and so, you know, I became an expert on wood. I became a spokesperson for the Ancient Forest Association, and there was an organization in L.A. called Tree People where we planted trees in urban centres to create more oxygen-infused environments for kids, and then I started planting trees for people who had died of AIDS. I had to become an expert on everything from bark beetles to stems of trees. And I still do have the log. When we finished the series David said, ‘I think you should have the log,’ so I do; I have the log and at one time the Japanese wanted to buy it.
The Twin Peaks magic never diminishes…
CC: What happened to us was that we got to tell a unique story on American television and then it went all over the world and I heard, once I was travelling, I heard myself basically speaking Romanian. I was so impressed! But you know, they dubbed it into all different languages. It’s an amazing phenomenon because it continues on. I mean, now young college students, hipsters, you know, are very into it and very often when I’m in New York or anywhere and I speak, people hear my voice and they say, ‘Excuse me, are you the log lady?’ so I have these little log cards that I give people, a cute little drawing of the log, and I think that’s what people are really interested in more than me, they want to meet the log. And I have the log in a secure location. I’m not going to tell you where it is.