Anyone who believes filmmaker David Lynch is a dark, brooding guy has never seen the way he reacts when a Boston cream doughnut is placed in front of him. "Look at this. Damn! Pies and doughnuts, this is unreal," exclaims a giddy Lynch during Back Stage's interview. To which an accompanying publicist adds, "If you want to make David Lynch happy, just ply him with coffee and doughnuts." It's not a surprising statement, considering that this is the same man who drank a Bob's Big Boy chocolate milk shake every afternoon for seven years straight.
Just as he enjoys his sweets, Lynch finds comfort in revisiting distinct and often disturbing themes in his film and television projects: unconscious desires, corruption of innocence, duality in a character, and the surreal, nightmarish underbellies in small-town America, where he came from, and in Hollywood, his home. Lynch appears to get all of his bile out through his work, which might explain why he is so charming and chipper in person.
A creature of habit in many ways, the Missoula, Mont.–born Lynch nevertheless relishes opportunities to delve into uncharted territory. For Inland Empire, his most risk-taking work to date, the iconic filmmaker did something he's never done before: He didn't shoot on film. He opted for logging his latest feature on digital video, using a relatively low-tech Sony PD-150 camera. "I fell in love with automatic focus, 40-minute takes. [The camera is] lightweight, almost sees in the dark. You see what you've got, and if you don't like it, you tweak it," he says. "You can react in the scene with the actors in a way that you can't in film. The turnaround time is almost instantaneous [with video]. You're not waiting and waiting and waiting."
Inland Empire's lead actor and co-producer, Laura Dern, also found the shoot liberating. "It's seemingly a crude camera to shoot a movie with, but it was an amazing luxury as an actor," she says. "You have 40 minutes in the camera instead of 10. It's very easy to move around with, you can actually shoot an entire scene, all the coverage—close-ups, wide shots—in those 40 minutes, never cutting if you don't want to. There's not much lighting at all, so you don't have lights in your way to reset. It offers a whole other definition of being in the moment to an actor."
Also liberating for Lynch was not relying on a completed script when shooting began for Inland Empire. Instead he put himself and his cast—including Jeremy Irons, Julia Ormond, and recurring Lynch players Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, Justin Theroux, and Grace Zabriskie—at the mercy of happy accidents and ideas as they came to him intuitively, hoping that the finished picture would come together naturally over the three years it took to make it.
Likewise, Dern was unsure what would end up onscreen, but she trusted Lynch's instincts, just as she had on the now classic Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. To her surprise, Inland Empire turned out to be close to how she imagined it. "David asked me to write down, before I initially watched the movie, what I thought the movie was going to be about or what I understood it to be from our process," explains Dern, who plays a Hollywood actor who gets cast in a remake that might be cursed. "The way we shot, the hundreds of hours of footage—who knew how it was going to come together? So I wrote down these ideas, and he had me read them aloud with him after we watched the movie. It was amazing how close it was to the film I saw. Trusting the journey, when I didn't always know where I was going with several different characters, that was definitely the greatest, most fun challenge, but also the scariest part of the challenge."
Trust is key for any actor taking Lynch's unorthodox direction. He has the capacity to create such outrageous, larger-than-life characters that his actors can sometimes feel as if they're overacting. Zabriskie, for example, couldn't believe how much emotion Lynch wanted from her when shooting scenes for the popular 1990 TV series Twin Peaks, in which her character, Sarah Palmer, mourns the death of her daughter, Laura. "On and on, [I was] begging him, 'You can't possibly want more than that.' Then he'd just smile, 'Got another one?'" Zabriskie told Back Stage in 2005. "I just had an immediate sense of being in good hands with David Lynch. I sort of knew right from the get-go that my job was to be an absolute tool in his hands, and that it was going to be different from the normal ways in which I would be creatively involved. With a director like David, you just try to dredge up everything he could possibly use and then trust him to pick and choose."
Lynch, on the other hand, never feels he's asking his actors to overdo it with their performances. "It's not over the top. It's, in my mind, what it requires, again, based on the idea," says the auteur—one of the few living American filmmakers one can classify as such. In the case of Zabriskie's example, he adds, "When your daughter dies, it could be somewhat traumatic, and a few little sniffles aren't going to do it. But Grace can dig down and get the horror and the sadness and the disbelief and a whole bunch of things swimming together, so she just needs the green light to do that."
If Dern could offer fellow actors advice when meeting or working with Lynch, it is to forget all attempts at proving anything and to just be yourself, "because David sees the self better than any director I can think of," she says. "He then exposes that self in a very authentic way in the performances, painting a very surreal and abstract world around it. It's a wonderful combination to learn about acting in. So if David ever calls you, take it, because he has a lot to teach and loves teammates. He has immense respect for actors. I thought—and this is the perfect periodical to share it with—that if David could teach directors about working with actors in any way, I wish he could teach directors that if they truly believe in the actor, the actor will give them everything they want."
Just as he has unconventional ways of getting evocative performances from his actors, his method for casting projects is equally nontraditional. Usually with the help of casting director Johanna Ray (she's cast all of his projects since 1986's Blue Velvet, with the exception of The Straight Story), Lynch selects actors based first on their look, then their personality. He does not seem interested in actors who try to prove to him during meetings that they can act.
Lynch says he enjoys collaborating with Ray because "whenever she says someone's good, I know they're good, and so I can just pick faces knowing that, behind that face, they can do the job." The director casts actors new to his fold based on their headshots, without looking at their credits. Sometimes Ray will put the chosen actors on tape. Then he has informal chats with actors he's interested in, to determine if they "marry to the part."
Dern recalls meeting Lynch when she was 17, at an audition for Blue Velvet: "The first thing that struck me so much about him was we never spoke about movies," she says. "He never asked me what I'd been in. He wasn't interested in what I'd done or what I had to say about acting. We really just spoke about abstracts—anything from trees to where we were raised to TM, transcendental meditation. We covered a lot of subject matters, and I was really impressed by that—that it meant he was exploring what he wanted in the character based on what he wanted from the person. It wasn't about reading for the part per se."
After casting the first actor he saw for each role in his first feature, the 1977 cult classic Eraserhead—which was partially funded by a grant from the American Film Institute, took six years to complete, and inspired producer Mel Brooks to tap Lynch to direct the Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man—Lynch found out that it wasn't always so easy. He tried auditioning actors in the traditional way—in which actors were called in to read scenes—for Dune and Blue Velvet, but then he'd naturally want to start rehearsing with them. It was too time-consuming, so he had to stop. Cold reading seems absurd to Lynch because actors "don't know what I want," he explains. "And then they do these things that are so kind of hard and nerve-racking for them. I feel, if I just talk to them, I can tell."
Once his actors are on the set, he says, he prefers to keep them in the dark, so they can come up with their own interpretation of the characters. Some actors understandably find this frustrating. To Lynch, life does not always make sense, so why should his films? Again, this is where actors need to trust Lynch. Naomi Watts put complete faith in the director and found pleasure in the guessing game when she played dual roles in Mulholland Dr. "He sort of delights in the torture of you not knowing," Watts says. "He loves that you and everybody else aren't quite sure what's going on. And so you find yourself piecing it together at any given moment and sort of conferring with other people on the set. He just smiles from ear to ear and thinks it's hilarious. But at the same time it's kind of fun doing all that. Why do you need all that information? When you think about it, we are capable of doing all kinds of things. If it's a true moment, it's a true moment. David knows where he's going, and sometimes maybe he doesn't; maybe he's discovering it along the way himself, as well. That's, again, another question he'll never answer definitively. But you know that you're in good hands, and it's quite nice just passing yourself over and saying, 'I'm putty in your hand. I'll give you what you need.' And he doesn't stop until he's got it, so you trust him."
Actors can expect little more than a few words or gestures from Lynch when asking "what's my motivation" questions. Still, the director has the utmost respect for his performers. "Actors need certain information, more than the script sometimes," he says. "A lot of times it's just sitting close to them and a few words and a look and a hand moving, and they catch something. There's a lot of things that actors pick up that don't have anything to do with words, and it's like you get in tune in a wordless way. It's just as valid as a whole bunch of words. So it's funny how it goes, but they just need to catch that thing. If they need a little help catching it, fine. But once they catch it, then, as I say, they bring their talent to that." Fueled by Lynch's process, actors such as Watts and Dern have accomplished career-defining performances in his movies. In particular, Lynch has brought to the screen some of the most visceral, spine-tingling, and compelling villains audiences have ever seen: Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Robert Blake's Mystery Man in Lost Highway, and Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru and Diane Ladd's Marietta Fortune in Wild at Heart.
Lynch encourages actors not to worry about anything when they sign on to work with him. "We're going to go down this road together," he says. "And whatever it takes in a real safe environment, we're going to make it real and enjoy the doing."
If you want to know more about how Lynch works, read his book about the creative process, "Catching the Big Fish," coming out in January. In March, he's having a multimedia gallery show at the Foundation Cartier in Paris. You can also subscribe to his website, www.DavidLynch.com.