From his early work (the mixed media grand guignol of Fish Kit and Chicken Kit) to The Angriest Dog in the World, his weekly comic strip for the L.A. Reader in the 1990s (the same four frames of a black hypertensive dog choking himself at the extent of his leash, ‘a dog so angry he cannot move’), to his current output of abstract but deeply unnerving canvases, David Lynch has been a singular, accomplished artist. He is not a dabbler or hobbyist; he has never abandoned his first passion, his art, and film only emerged as a medium for his installations during art school—and like his painting, the films are often not figurative, but still affect the viewer as deeply as delta-wavelength dreams of dark business.
David Lynch: The Art Life is a feature-length talk with Lynch at his most candid, most disarming. Lynch reveals, calmly, placidly, more than most have seen of him, gaining insight into his inspirations, his formative experiences, and the inextricability of his life and his art. ‘All art is autobiographical,’ said Federico Fellini (one of Lynch’s stated influences), and this is a very incisive and insightful portrait indeed.
Strangely docile, strangely domesticated, we see the tender relationship of a doting father and his wee, toddling daughter, Lula Bogina, clambering in his studio. Splintered, at times rambling, discursive and intimate; we get to know Lynch, which is rare for a man so reticent to probe too deeply into the meanings and origins of his art, because analyzing a nightmare destroys its power.
What is so striking about your film is your access to David Lynch. It seemed so unlimited, he seemed so comfortable. How did that come about?
Jon Nguyen: Twelve years ago I called a friend of mine who was David’s assistant during Mulholland Drive and said, ‘Ask David if I could make a documentary about him.’ He just laughed at me and said, ‘No way! David’s very private, he’s not just going to let a stranger walk into his life and make a documentary about him.’ I said, ‘Just do it. Ask him.’ And a couple of days later he called me back and said, ‘I can’t believe it, but he agreed to it.’ That was twelve years ago and we ended up doing a fly-on-the-wall doc during the shooting of Inland Empire. But when Jason S., the cinematographer, and I tried to interview David back then, we had the cameras sitting right there at his desk and we’d ask him a question and he would just kind of fold his arms; you could just tell he didn’t want to answer the questions. Finally he was like, ‘You know what? Grab the camera, follow me and when you’re done, you’ll know what the film is about.’ So it became completely cinema verité; we didn’t talk to him really, we were just following him around. Of course he’d talk to the camera and we would hear him communicating with other people, and towards the end of that process, which took a couple of years, Jason said to me, ‘Man, I just get the feeling that David is going to be coming around soon—he’s heading towards turning seventy, getting on in age, and I have the sense that he’s wanting to open up a little bit more.’ So we ended up working on Interview Project Germany—a web series he’d started—and on some other smaller projects with him, so we were kind of always around. He got used to us. Then when he was about to have his daughter, who’s about four now, we approached him again and said, ‘Hey, this is a good chance for you to tell us all the stories from your life, and by the time she becomes a teenager, she’ll be able to hear these stories.’ And it was completely the opposite of the first time—this time we didn’t film him, we sat there with a tape recorder for over two and a half years. Jason was living at his house and on Sundays, he would get the buzz on intercom and get called to wherever David was in the house and he’d say, ‘Let’s talk.’ And David was just telling all his life stories; it wasn’t talk about his filmmaking days. We framed it early on that the film would end at Eraserhead, because it was a film school project, and as you know, it took five years to make it. And I always thought it would be interesting to make a film about a filmmaker and not really focus on his films, because by focusing on his life, that can dig up clues as to what makes him tick. And you see that; you can see little anecdotes that have seeped into his films. He would never admit it. David would never say, ‘Oh, this story created that scene,’ but when you hear it, like when he tells about the naked lady or talks about the lines in the road, that reminds me of Lost Highway, and the naked lady reminds me of Blue Velvet.
Or Ronette Pulaski coming down the trestle in Twin Peaks—it’s that same sort of horrifying image of a woman in trauma.
JN: Yeah. So, we were able to dig up little clues along the way that help us understand how David is as a person, which he hasn’t really let anyone see before.
Where did the interviews take place?
It was all in his house. Everything you saw in the film, from the painting studio to shots of him in present day, that was all up at his house.
So you were in his house, for, like, over two years—did you every come across the baby from Eraserhead? Like, in a cupboard somewhere, or a shoebox…
JN: No. And he doesn’t talk about that.
It’s a great mystery.
JN: It’ll remain a mystery forever.
It seemed a great choice to focus not on his films but on his art because, very specifically to Lynch, that was how he launched, accidentally, his film career. Art was his first love, and perhaps still his greatest love.
JN: You can see it in his films, the way he sets up a scene, he treats it like a moving painting. And he did start that in art school. He needed to use film to make his art, and it’s stayed that way. He treats film like a canvas, but now he has sound and he has pictures that move, and there’s more depth to the sound stage or wherever.
Was there anything that wasn’t included in the film? Maybe that he asked you not to include?
JN: We had twenty-five hours of material, which is a lot—we could have made another five movies if we wanted to—and he listened to so many different cuts, but surprisingly never said, ‘You can’t use that.’ I was worried because some of the stories, like with the stomach spasms and the issues he had like the agoraphobia, I thought, oh, that might be off limits because that’s too personal. But everything he told us was fair game.
Going into it, were there issues of final cut?
JN: We told him along the way that he gets final cut because in the process of interviewing him he might tell us things that are kind of personal, things he’d only tell to a friend, like to Jason, that he might not want the public to know. But he never made any editorial changes in the content. He made some suggestions, like that he wanted to use a specific lithograph at the very end to close out the film, and switching some pictures around like, ‘Oh, I like this picture of my mom better,’ which is fair because I would want certain pictures that I was fond of to represent my mom. So that was it.
It’s amazing that he would agree to give you control over the content of his personal life.
JN: I mean, we tried animations and he wasn’t really fond of the animations, so that was scrapped. But that was okay because by then we were heading in the direction where we felt that if the film was completely narrated by David and we should do it justice by illustrating it with material that just comes from him. Everything you see, besides four photographs that come from a friend of his at art school in Philadelphia, all the material comes from him—all the photographs, all the paintings, and a lot of the music too.
At times you do draw a comparison between some of the content of what he’s saying and the painting you use to illustrate that. And he was okay with that? Because, famously, he avoids direct connections, direct explanations, preserving the mystery of the subconscious, of his id.
JN: I was prepared to have him say, ‘Oh, that those things don’t connect,’ but he never said it. He didn’t say they didn’t connect, he never said they did connect. He only said, ‘I’m happy with the film.’ I was worried, because he doesn’t like people interpreting at all.
I’m curious about the Mr. Smith story, that he never manages to tell. Did you ever find out what it was?
JN: That’s the story that intrigued me.
He choked up.
JN: Yeah, he choked up. We came back to that story over the two years, at least two or three times, sometimes waiting a year or more to get back to it. But the same thing happened—he kind of started telling it and then he choked up and he was like, ‘I can’t talk about it,’ which was kind of intriguing because he said he never knew Mr. Smith, he never met Mr. Smith, really. The last time, when we got really close, I remember going, ‘He’s about to say it,’ but his wife and his child walked into the room and so we lost the opportunity. My only guess is that that was the demarcation line, because the next day he moved to Virginia which he calls the dark period in his life with all the anxieties and stuff. Because it was really the last day, when he was leaving his childhood home behind, even the good old 1950s behind, and switching gears into high school. You know, maybe it has nothing to do with Mr. Smith; maybe it brings back memories of how nice it was back then, back in the day when all his family were all together. So, we’ll never know.
What was your seminal moment, your Lynch moment, and I’m presuming there is one. I remember mine, for example, when Eraserhead first came out and it was a midnight screening, and it changed me, suddenly I saw cracks and crumbling that I’d never seen before, ordinary sounds became ominous: there’s before Eraserhead and then there’s after Eraserhead. There’s that moment when you become a Lynch devotee.
JN: For me, it was seeing Lost Highway in the cinema, where I was completely confused and was thrown off by the fact that filmmaking could be so jarring and so abstract. I always thought that with films the dots always connect, there was a three-act structure, with a resolution and climax, But this film, all of a sudden characters were switching roles and I felt like, ‘Oh, maybe I wasn’t paying attention.’ But he always compares his kind of film to jazz, improvisational and abstract, so it was my first introduction to that other side of filmmaking.
Are you looking forward to the return of Twin Peaks?
JN: I’m very excited. He was writing the scripts to Twin Peaks during the filming of the documentary. He never told us because he was off writing quietly, but when we zoomed in we could see the word ‘Cooper.’ He keeps Twin Peaks kind of secret, so we thought he was going to cut that scene, too, because he would have known that that yellow pad was Twin Peaks, but he probably thought, ‘Oh, well, if you really want to see it…’
Freeze frame! Zoom in!
David Lynch: The Art Life is in UK cinemas from 14 July 2017.