In the 40 years since his twisted debut Eraserhead, David Lynch has established himself as the godfather of the cinema of the strange. Creating directly from the depths of his subconscious, Lynch challenged accepted notions of realism in the thriller genre with his breakout 1986 hit Blue Velvet, a psychosexual neo-noir, then did the same for serial TV in 1990 with the ABC show Twin Peaks, in which the murder of a small-town beauty queen opened a festering can of worms.
Lynch hasn’t taken a full feature to a film festival in over ten years, since his three-hour digital phantasmagoria Inland Empire (2006) premiered in Venice. His last appearance in Cannes was in 2001, when he unveiled what is perhaps his masterpiece, Mulholland Drive—one of just two films released in the 21st Century to appear in Sight & Sound magazine’s Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time. But this year he’s back with the most anticipated TV event of the year: the first two hours of an 18-episode return to the lumber town of Twin Peaks, where Laura Palmer was brutally murdered, although the director has made it a condition of this interview that he will not discuss the show’s characters—or plot.
Now 71, Lynch relishes his role as a grand disruptor, last year launching his own Festival of Disruption after being inspired by the philosophy of Transcendental Meditation pioneer Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “It’s about disruption of the old, and making way for the new,” the director says. “Disruption is a good thing—being disruptive can mean just bringing better knowledge along to people.”
Why did you want to return to the world of Twin Peaks?
Well, you know, the story was not over. I love the world—and I love the people in the world.
Had you always wanted to go back there?
For a while I didn’t want to go back in, and then Mark Frost asked me to go to lunch, and I realized that I had been thinking about going back in. And then one thing led to another, and there we were—back in.
So what was the starting point? I’ve heard that you think of it as an 18-hour movie, not a series as such.
Well, like I said, I love the world, and ideas started coming. So there we were, and I always saw working in television the same as working on a film. It is a film. So when I shot the pilot for Twin Peaks, way back when, I just saw it as a short film. The pilot was not that short; it was a feature film, it just had an open ending. And the same thing goes with this—it’s a film. It’s broken into parts.
So what was your mood, going in?
Oh, I love mood, and, y’know, Twin Peaks has a mood and it’s the ideas that you follow, and the ideas dictate everything. But most every idea comes along with its mood.
And what was your personal mood?
Happiness to see that world again? Or were you in a good place in your life?
No, I just love working, and, like I said, it was seeing a lot of new faces, as well as a lot of great people I’d worked with before.
How did it compare to the first and second series? A lot of reports about the the first series say that you were very loose, that you liked to embrace accidents.
I always say, you follow the script, but you should be on your toes for new things. A thing isn’t finished ’til it’s finished. And nature has a way of surprising you with ideas along the way. It’s just a fantastic, beautiful thing. So it’s not over till it’s over.
And was it the same on this shoot?
Did you have more of a plan this time round?
No, you never have. You never know what you have, till it’s done.
You’ve often said that you didn’t ever want to solve the murder mystery involving Laura Palmer. Have you gone some way towards addressing that regret in this series? Or is that—again—under wraps?
That’s totally under wraps, Damon, you know that.
Yeah, I know you gotta try.
It’s funny that, in the internet age, people get very upset when you won’t tell them what they’re just about to find out anyway.
No, no, no, they don’t get upset, they get curious. And it sometimes gets frustrating, and they want to know. People want to know right up until the time they know, and then they don’t care anymore. The whole thing is about the experience of going into the world of Twin Peaks, and catching that mood, and going on a trip. And this is a beautiful thing. It’s a delicate world. I always say you should turn the lights down low, make sure there’s no interruptions, get as big a picture as you can, the best sound you can, and go for this experience.
And this is a beautiful thing, a precious thing. For me, personally, I don’t want to know what I’m going to see, I want to discover it on my own, with no bulls—t surrounding it. And that’s really important.
Have you been surprised by the anticipation for the series?
You know, there are many surprises. How something that took place in a small town in the woods can travel around the world. It’s very surprising what happened.
Did you ever have that thought in the back of your mind?
No, you just do the thing. There’s a Vedic expression, “Man has control of action alone, never the fruits of that action.” So when you finish a thing, like I have just now, I’ve got no control of what’s going to happen. It’s up to fate. And the people.
Is it all done now? Have you finished everything?
There’s still a lot of loose ends, deliverables, and things like this. But it’s, you know, a long way down the road now. It’s coming out May 21.
You’re also taking it to Cannes, where you had a bad experience with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992. How do you feel about going back there?
I love the Cannes Film Festival, it’s the best film festival in the world. Not to put any other festival down, but everybody kind of agrees on that. And it’s a big deal, and it will be really great to show the first bit to the people at Cannes.
What does Cannes mean to you?
Well, you know, it’s a celebration of cinema. Big-time celebration of cinema.
And do you have a particular fond memory of a being there?
Yeah, I won the Palme d’Or [in 1990, with Wild at Heart]. That’s a pretty thrilling experience.
It was a very interesting film to win with.
Yeah. It was the first time I was ever there. I wanted to go—I was going to take Eraserhead there, probably to Directors’ Fortnight, or one of the other things, not the main event. But it didn’t work out, so Wild at Heart was the first time I was there. I had no expectations of getting anywhere near a Palme d’Or, but there it happened. Thanks to that great jury, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Did they ever tell you why they voted for you?
They just thought it was a great piece of film [laughs].
Why are you laughing?
I was just making a joke. You know, I don’t know, I didn’t get any feedback.
Last year you screened the making-of film Blue Velvet Revisited at your Festival of Disruption in LA. It gives a fantastic insight into how you worked on that movie—everything was so personal. Surely no major director has ever been allowed that kind of freedom ever since?
I’ve always had that. You have to have that freedom. You have to have the freedom. Freedom is the name of the game. Final cut, and freedom to make the film you want to make, that’s what it’s all about. Why, I say, would anyone go and make a film if they didn’t have that freedom?
But you spent a lot of time handcrafting signs and props, doing things that the art department would normally be doing. You’re getting involved.
Every element is important, and you work along to get them to feel correct for you, the director. I love building things, painting things, and doing stuff. It’s part of the great experience of making a film.
Has that been the case with all your films?
Yes, yes. They send me out with the painter’s kit and different things, for sure.
Is it that kind of hand-crafted quality that makes an auteur? In fact, do you believe in the auteur theory?
[Pauses] You know, in the old days, people came out here to California, and they just made films and had fun doing it. Then they’d go to a great dinner afterwards, when the sun went down, because they were using just sunlight—the light is so beautiful. They’re making it up, they’re getting ideas and they’re working away. There’s no rules, there’s no bulls—t, and they just make the films. Then they got rules, more rules, and more rules, and a certain way of going, where directors aren’t given final cut a lot of times, and it’s just ass-backwards. Of course you want to be involved with everything. It’s making a film.
Obviously you’re busy with Twin Peaks, and you’re probably not thinking too far ahead, but would you like to make another film?
Well when Inland Empire came out, it was three hours long, and no one understood it, so it didn’t do real well. And anything that’s not summer blockbuster fare doesn’t do well these days in the theater. They don’t last in the theater. And arthouses are gone, so hopefully a new wave will come, and they’ll be back at the arthouse. But right now, cable television is the new arthouse.
Do you think you’ll stay that way?
I don’t know what will happen, but whatever happens, it will be based on ideas that come along, and the thrill of doing something based on those ideas.
Where are you right now?
I’m in the wood shop, about ready to make some hinges, but I do have time to talk to you a little more.
What are you making at the moment?
I’m making a table, and this table, it’s a side table next to my chair. And it will have a space for two remotes, one pair of glasses, some pens, a yellow pad, a box of Kleenex, and a wine bottle box, plus another door for cigarettes and a lighter, and another door for cheese crackers and things like this. And it has electricity in the table, too—it’s for a lamp on top of the table.
I take it you designed that yourself.
Yes, I’m designing it and building it myself, yeah. It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you.
Is that based on something that you want from a table?
Yeah. You know, instead of all the stuff being on top of the table, now there’s a place for it within the table.
I’m a bit surprised—you’ve got this massive TV show coming up, and you’re making a table. Is it therapeutic?
No, it’s something I want to do, and ideas come for many, many reasons, and all of us don’t do anything without an idea, so there’s ideas for everything, and sometimes you catch an idea you just fall in love with and away you go. I love working in the wood shop. I haven’t been in here for several years because of working on Twin Peaks.
How is the music coming along?
Music’s coming along real good, but I haven’t been involved with music because of Twin Peaks either, except for what’s in the film.
So you’re not involved in the music for the series?
I didn’t say that.
Is there anything you can say about Twin Peaks, that you’d like to say?
No, but it’s important that, like I said, it’s seen properly. All things these days are seen on machines that have very bad picture and very bad sound, generally speaking. And it’s a real sadness, because people think they’ve seen the film, but they really haven’t. And that’s not right. If people at home had as big a screen as possible, and great sound, and if they did turn the lights down for the things they see, and make it a safe place, a good place to see it, that would be really beautiful.
How do you watch movies yourself? Do you have a big TV, or do you have a screening room?
Oh, I have both those things, but, you know, like if you’re looking at a little screen, like an iPad or something, headphones are super important—and hold the iPad as close to your head as possible.
You do that? Or is it something you recommend doing only if you have to?
I recommend it if you have to do it.
What sort of things do you watch?
I don’t watch anything—I’ve been working. I’m not a film buff, I don’t watch too much stuff, except lately I’ve been watching the news, and some Velocity channel, which is a car channel.
Do you still watch a lot of golf, or is that an obsession that’s passed?
I’d like to watch golf. I haven’t been watching too much golf lately, but I love watching golf, I love watching these great shots, and it’s really beautiful, these courses and stuff. It’s a nice thing to watch sometimes.
You seem to have a very nice life balance, in terms of your art and your hobbies. Is there anything that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to learn how to sew. I have a sewing machine, an industrial sewing machine, but I don’t know how to use it, and I would like to learn how to sew. There’s a lot of things like, you know, covers for things, bags to carry things. A lot of these car shows, they have these guys that do the interiors of the car, the seats and the door panels. These people are artists. All the metal workers, and the machinists, and the interior guys, it’s unreal what they do. They can work that sewing machine like nobody’s business, and cut this foam, and different layers of foam, different types of foam, and stretch this leather, and then iron this leather, steam it, and get it perfect. It’s amazing what they can do.
Your films are all incredibly stylish. Have you ever thought of going into fashion?
I’ve never thought about fashion, but there’s where sewing comes in as well, and getting things shaped just exactly right. They’re artists as well. Total artists.
It’s interesting that there’s never really been that much of a tie-in industry with Twin Peaks—the only spinoffs appear to be books. Was that something you decided?
Well, we didn’t really get into that on the first go-around, but I think now there could be something like that. I don’t know for sure.
So it wouldn’t bother you if people want to exploit the show with figurines and so on?
No, I would like to do the figurines myself. But there’s fan sites that have lots of things up, I don’t know the legal things with that. But there’s a lot of things being made.
Do you ever look at your own fan sites?
No, I don’t. But people tell me about them.
Are you ever curious about how people see you?
You know, the doctor’s asked me not to think about these kinds of things.
I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the doctor.