Tear up the notepad and throw out the questions: this road map is getting us nowhere. Across the table, David Lynch appears to be gently yay-and-naying me to death. “Yes and no,” is his reply to my first query. “No, well, maybe,” is how he greets the second. I feel as though I’m stuck on my own personal stretch of Mulholland Drive, going round and round in an endless loop.
All of which is oddly reassuring. We go to Lynch for severed ears and nightmare rabbits, dancing dwarfs and haunted radiators. We look to him for worlds that are wild at heart and weird on top. Straight answers and facile interpretations have never been his bag. There are no rules, he tells me kindly at one stage. The truth is subjective, we live in relativity and every positive has a negative side. Sometimes, it seems, in the course of the same damn sentence.
We meet at a lithographic studio on the Left Bank of Paris. There is an ink-spattered table in the centre and antique printing presses against the wall, while the far door opens on to a toilet cubicle that is so calcified – so positively infernal in nature – that it may not qualify as a toilet at all. The director explains that he has been based here, on and off, for the past four years. He’s been working on his lithos, on his painting, and on his music, too. He’s been designing a nightclub (Silencio), across the river, and he has been waiting to catch the idea for his next feature film. “I’m jumping around,” he exclaims, sitting stock-still on his artist’s stool.
He comes dressed for work, resplendent in a sky-blue smock. His face is blandly handsome, his iron-gray quiff listing slightly to one side. Pass him on the street and you might take the man for a small-town pharmacist, or a respected high-school principal on the cusp of retirement. Instead, at the age of 65, David Lynch has just recorded his debut album. Crazy Clown Time is a swirling grab-bag of stealthy electronica and black-hearted country blues, its soundtrack honeycombed with orgasmic whimpers and vocoder vocals. Lynch, it transpires, sings lead on most of the tracks; spinning tales of sexual obsession and existential anomie in an acrid wheeze that is perversely endearing.
Crazy Clown Time shouldn’t work and yet somehow it does. In the days before the interview I listen to the CD again and again: first with trepidation, then with anxiety, and finally with a creeping kind of relief. Noah’s Ark is terrific: a spare and creepy “song of love”. I Know, meanwhile, unfurls as a compelling, organ-heavy psychodrama. Give it a few more listens and I may even grow to appreciate Strange and Unproductive Thinking, an epic, unabridged hymn to the joys of transcendental meditation. “Bliss,” Lynch sings. “Which is the result of the laws which govern physical behaviour merging with the highest levels of spirit and together manifesting the magical and mystical level of cosmic awareness.” Say what you like, you don’t get that on The X Factor.
I ask what possessed him to sing the songs, and he chuckles in delight. “That sounds like a value judgement: ‘What the hell were you thinking, buddy?'” He pauses to consider. “It’s a bunch of stuff. You might get someone else, an actor, to play a role. But then there are some roles where you think: ‘I want to be that person. I want to go into that world.’ So I wanted to try. I wanted to see whether I could nail it, assuming I could overcome a lot of fear and embarrassment and find a safe place to work from. But yes, there’s a lot of fear involved. It’s very fearful.”
Is fear an important motivating factor? “No,” he says firmly. “Well, in a way it is.”
Certainly, it has been a constant drumbeat in all his work. Films such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive come fuelled by a fearful fascination with the unknown, with what lies beneath, with a peculiarly American strain of darkness. As a child, he says, he was intrigued by the black pitch that oozed out of the cherry trees and wondered what went on behind the white picket fences. His sister, he adds, was frightened of peas. “And I can understand that, because a pea is a complex thing. It has this hard shell, but then it’s soft inside. It’s the dual nature that made it unsettling for her.”
Writing a song is much the same as writing a film, he explains. It’s all about chasing ideas; about telling a story or letting the story tell you. And this, it turns out, is about as far as he is prepared to go in discussing his working method. “Because none of the things are yourself, not really. The ideas come from someplace else. It’s like fish,” he says.
What’s like fish? “The ideas,” says Lynch. “You didn’t make the fish. You caught the fish. Now you can cook it in a good way or a bad way, but that’s as far as it goes. The fish came from someplace else. And sometimes …” His eyes take on a faraway look. “Sometimes it talks back to you. Tells you how it wants to be cooked.”
I’m guessing it all comes back to transcendental meditation. The director began meditating on the set of his debut feature, Eraserhead, back in the 70s and recently wrote a book (Catching the Big Fish) about the influence of TM on his creative process. Ask him about specific films, songs or paintings, and Lynch’s responses come swathed in shadow. Shift him on to the subject of transcendental meditation, however, and it’s though the lights have come on. It’s beautiful, he insists. We’re beautiful. Happiness lies within. Enlightenment is our birthright.
Is it pedantic to note the obvious paradox here? Fair enough that Lynch, via the magic of TM, has achieved an exalted level of happiness and serenity. And yet out of this blissful state come films (The Straight Story aside) that are black and twisted and reeking of sulphur. Try as I might, I can’t square the circle.
“Yep,” he concedes. “Sure. But it’s not so much what you make; it’s the lack of suffering when you make it. There’s so much happiness in the dark worlds, or in translating the ideas that come. And if you can get rid of the negativity that restricts your energy, it’s as though a load has lifted. Then you can dive into the treasury every day and still more energy comes from that. I mean, you can’t control what people are gonna think about a movie or a painting. So you better enjoy the doing.”
“But,” I begin. “If what you dredge up is the dark sludge of the subconscious …”
“It’s not the dark sludge of the sub-conscious,” he interrupts. “A cinema idea is simply something that cinema can say and which reflects the world. We live in a pretty dark and troubling world right now. The ideas are triggered by the world.”
It is at this point that an assistant sidles over with a jumbo-sized cup of coffee. The director reacts with the excited air of a small boy surprised with a birthday gift. “What’s this?” he exclaims. “What’s this? Oh Mindy, bless your heart.”
Time to try another tack. What value does he place on firsthand experience; on viewing the “dark world” at eye level? In his days as an art student, for instance, Lynch lived with his first wife (Peggy Reavey) in a run-down area of Philadelphia. He has described this as an intense and uncertain time in an intense and dangerous neighbourhood. The Fairmount district, he says, was an important influence on his art and led directly to the writing of Eraserhead (“my Philadelphia Story”), in which a passive young printer nurses a deformed baby and spies a miniature woman crooning about heaven from the radiator at home. Yet Fairmount, I point out, is now a long way behind him.
Lynch nods. “I know what you’re saying. But you do not have to suffer to make a film about suffering. I remember the way I felt inside, when I was living in Philadelphia. But that didn’t help me make Eraserhead. That hurt me, you know. And in any case, I didn’t write Eraserhead in Philadelphia. I wrote it after I left, and it just came out. I don’t even remember the first thing that came, just that next thing I knew I had a 21-page script. The ideas can come along at any time.”
Lynch shot his last feature film back in 2006. At the time I remember thinking that Inland Empire might well prove to be the last feature he would ever make: a demented psychosexual twister; the film in which the director finally shook himself free from the moorings of conventional narrative and lit out for the wide blue yonder. Happily this appears not to be the case. Film is dead, Lynch tells me. It is too heavy, too much of a dinosaur, and its time has largely past. But digital is alive and well and pointing to the future. He admits he’ll miss shooting on celluloid (“because it’s so beautiful”), but is more than happy to shoot on digital instead – as and when the opportunity arrives.
Until then he’s happy pottering around his studio and slurping his coffee; painting his spooky black houses and singing his eerie songs of love gone sour. “I can understand why people might be frustrated with me: ‘Let’s give up on these side ventures and go make a film instead.'” He chuckles. “But all these other things feed into the future. And if the ideas aren’t there for cinema, and if the pressure is on, then you might pick a bad idea and find yourself forced to marry something you’re not totally in love with. So I’m happy to wait.”
By now the bucket of coffee has been drained to the bottom. Lynch reputedly guzzles at least 10 of these things each day. Once again, I’m not sure it quite chimes with the image. Doesn’t the caffeine get in the way of the transcendental meditation? I have a mental image of the director hopped up on beans, buzzing like an angry fly as he recites his mantra on the road to enlightenment.
“No, no, no,” Lynch says, as emphatic as he’s been all afternoon. “You don’t have to give up anything! You don’t have to live a certain way! You just add the meditation – the dive within – to whatever you want to do. That’s the secret. The big treasury within is the self of all that is. The self,” he stresses. “Know thyself! Embrace that experience and kapow, you’re ready to boogie. You can drink all the damn coffee you want.” And with that he’s up and away, gliding back to the bowels of the studio. His smock is flapping, his hairdo is listing. He has a belly full of coffee and he’s off in search of fish.
Xan Brooks, The Guardian