An Interview with David Lynch

Toy Cameras:
An Interview with David Lynch
By Michael Joshua Rowin

Say what you will about David Lynch, but he’s currently going places in his craft where most others don’t think, let alone fear, to tread. After a career resurgence with his twisting, shifting Hollywood tragedy Mulholland Drive five years ago, the director of the cult classic Eraserhead, the epoch-defining Blue Velvet, the dark TV soap opera Twin Peaks, and the heartland tale The Straight Story turned to digital video for his next project, shooting gut-wrenching sequences with Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart star Laura Dern and other strange episodes for what eventually became Inland Empire, by far his most experimental, difficult work and by far this year’s most ambitious, unforgettable film. Financed by French production company StudioCanal (the saviors behind the salvaged Mulholland Drive), Inland is now coming directly to the people from Lynch himself, who is self-distributing and marketing the film, with the money to do so coming from his website (davidlynch.com) and his very own coffee brand. I spoke to Lynch, currently making the press rounds for Inland’s opening in New York and L.A., over the phone and got some insight into how, regarding his methods, the future is now.

REVERSE SHOT: When interviewed around the time of Lost Highway you stated that you didn’t think the technology was quite there yet for morphing and CGI. Now, in embracing digital video forever onward with Inland Empire and having spent the last few years releasing short films on your expansive website, in what ways do you feel computer and digital technology has finally caught up with your ambitions?

DL: Oh, it’s there, and it’s only getting better every day. I’m totally embracing the digital world in sound and picture, and I just can’t believe how much control and how many tools are available to us. It’s really beautiful.

RS: Did digital video allow Inland Empire to be shot without a script?

DL: I had a script, but not a finished script. So I would script a scene and then go shoot that scene, then write another scene and go and shoot that scene, not knowing if there was going to be anything more than just that scene, or those scenes. There was no improvisation at all. Improvisation means you don’t know what you’re doing, and you go out and try to get a bunch of people to do some stuff. Inland Empire was all scripted, scene by scene, but there was no indication of a feature film. Each scene was specific, had to be a certain way. Then, after five or six scenes, another whole bunch of things started coming, revealing the possibility of a feature.

RS: So you worked off what you had finished and how it was compiling.

DL: Yes. One thing leads to another. This same process is always happening in script form. You get an idea, you write it out, you get another idea, you write it out—you don’t know if those two things are going to live in a final script, you don’t know if it’s going to be a feature or what it is, you just keep getting ideas and writing them. Then a little bit more and little bit more comes, and a feature script starts to emerge, so that lots and lots of work is done just in script form before you go out and start shooting. This was different and yet somewhat the same process [in Inland Empire] as one thing unfolding, another thing unfolding, and then the whole unfolding.

RS: Inland Empire contains disparate storylines, styles, and modes of storytelling. When did these strands start to come together for you as being part of the same film and how did you organize the material once you got in the editing room?

DL: It’s the ideas that tell you everything. In the beginning the ideas were one theme, then two themes, then three themes. Then I’m thinking of those themes and bringing in more ideas that started uniting those themes, those first themes and holding them together in a story. Once the story started unfolding, then much, much script work was done and we started shooting in a more traditional manner. So it’s the ideas that are talking and the ideas that you try to stay completely true to.

RS: How did shooting in DV also change the way you work with actors, in preparing them and directing them on set?

DL: Big, big, big difference. Number one: lightweight camera, smaller crew, 40-minute takes, automatic focus, seeing what you have right before you in the camera and being able to tweak the view and seeing [the actors] exactly the way they’re going to be recorded. So if you don’t like something you can fix it, see it right there. When you start shooting you’ve got 40 minutes. You can go deeper and deeper into a scene, no interruptions. Sometimes the actors will catch a thing and you miss it because you’ve got to reload, or you’ve got to move the camera here or move the camera there, relight. It’s a delicate, delicate thing, and this affords a person to go deep in there with no interruptions. When you hold the camera you can drift on a feel that you couldn’t have done before because there’s a focus puller and an operator between you and the actor. Now you’re right in there, and you’re feeling it and seeing it and you can do things, subtle, little things, that come out of what you’re witnessing. It’s very, very beautiful. When you go out on a reverse shot you don’t spend four or five hours moving this two-ton camera around and relighting, you just turn your body and if something isn’t exactly right you fix it while you’re still rolling, almost, and you keep doing a scene. It’s beautiful.

RS: How did Inland Empire’s actors respond to this sort of work as opposed to traditional filmmaking?

DL: Well, at first, it’s shocking, probably, for some of them to see what looks to be a toy camera coming at them. But little by little I think every one of them started to appreciate the way we can all work together, and at the end you see that camera as a gift rather than a curse.


RS: The transfer of digital video to film generates a unique texture to the image of Inland Empire. Did you intend this look or did the results surprise you? When you saw the transfer is that when you recognized the potential of digital video filmmaking?

DL: Good question. Early on we did tests from the Sony PD150 lo-res digital to uplifting that and going on to film. I was so happily amazed at the quality—it’s not film, but it’s its own feel. I was, like, super-happy with it. If you shoot on film you sit with a color timer and you have to work on the fly. It’s so frustrating—you can’t stop and start, you just go. It’s many, many times you have to see the film to get it color-corrected and timed properly. Now, you go into the telecine bay or the DI room, if you can afford it—I went to the telecine bay—with all the corrections, shot by shot, blacks, midrange, whites, all the color, all the fixes, everything so controllable. Then you’ve done tests from the telecine to film and you dial it in so it’s almost a one-to-one transfer—so beautiful! Film adds another feeling to it, and it’s magical. You’ve done the telecine work, you’ve got a hi-def master now to go to Digibeta and go to the DVD. It’s one-stop shopping.

RS: Your films evoke the most tangible atmospheres of environment and place. How much of Inland Empire was influenced by settings long familiar to your work, like Hollywood and the suburban U.S., and those entirely new, like Poland?

DL: I love L.A. I love the golden age of cinema, I love so many things about this town, and I also fell in love with Lodz, Poland. Little by little places start talking to you, ideas come from different experiences, they pop into your conscious mind and you’re rolling. Even if in the beginning you don’t know where you’re rolling, all that stuff, if you focus on it, will be revealed. But a sense of place, like you said, is so critical to a film. Like Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard—such a sense of place. Billy Wilder in The Apartment—just loved to go back to that world because of the place he creates and the characters. A sense of place with all the great ones: it’s little details, it’s mood, it’s the place, and the characters, of course.

RS: How are the current risks you’re taking and have continually taken throughout your career in response to existing restrictions on filmmaking and art in the mass marketplace?

DL: None whatsoever. Because I couldn’t and wouldn’t work in a studio if I didn’t have final cut. It would be the theater of the absurd. How could anyone do that? Absolutely pure suicide. Sadness. Ridiculousness. Absurdity upon absurdity. Never in a million years. A person’s voice is what’s critical, and staying true to the ideas. No one should interrupt that, it should be supported, there should be enthusiasm and inspiration for that. The other is totally wrong, a horror. I came from painting where it’s just the painter and the painting. In film, you go down the road with many people but you try to get them to tune into those ideas, as a family. But nobody fiddles with the thing. Every decision’s got to pass through the director or the thing won’t hold together until the end, it doesn’t have a prayer. So you need a lot of help, but you go to them to be true to those ideas.

RS: You’re distributing and marketing Inland Empire yourself. How did that come about, and what has the experience been like so far in going it alone?

DL: Just starting out, but the experience is very good. Again, I know zip about distribution, but I’ve got a lot of help. I purchased the United States and Canada—imagine that! I’m going out into the wild blue yonder and getting to meet the people, getting to meet the theater owners, seeing the theaters, seeing it projected in the theaters, talking about the sound and the picture, which is the final venue for a film, any film—the theatrical experience. It’s a beautiful road. It’s about the same amount of work with the possibility of getting ideas and doing new things and the ability to make some decisions on the fly as you go. It’s so far been a great experience.

Read Michael Joshua Rowin's review of Inland Empire.