David Keith Lynch (born January 20, 1946) is an American director, screenwriter, visual artist, musician, actor, and author. Known for his surrealist films, he has developed a unique cinematic style. The surreal and, in many cases, violent elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.
Born to a middle-class family in Missoula, Montana, Lynch spent his childhood traveling around the United States, before going on to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he first made the transition to producing short films. He moved to Los Angeles, where he produced his first motion picture, the surrealist horror film Eraserhead (1977). After Eraserhead became a cult classic on the midnight movie circuit, Lynch was employed to direct a biographical film about a deformed man, Joseph Merrick, titled The Elephant Man (1980), from which he gained mainstream success. He was then employed by the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and proceeded to make two films: the science-fiction epic Dune (1984), which proved to be a critical and commercial failure, and then a neo-noir crime film, Blue Velvet (1986), which was critically acclaimed.
Next, Lynch created his own television series with Mark Frost, the popular murder mystery Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017): he also created a cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992); a road movie, Wild at Heart (1990); and a family film, The Straight Story (1999); in the same period. Turning further towards surrealist filmmaking, three of his subsequent films operated on “dream logic”, non-linear narrative structures: the psychological thriller Lost Highway (1997), the neo-noir mystery film Mulholland Drive (2001) and the mystery film Inland Empire (2006). Meanwhile, Lynch embraced the Internet as a medium, producing several web-based shows, such as the animated DumbLand (2002) and the surreal sitcom Rabbits (2002).
Other endeavours of his include: his work as a singer-songwriter, having released two solo albums–Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013); the David Lynch Foundation, which he founded to fund the teaching of Transcendental Meditation in schools; painting and photography; writing two books–Images (1994) and Catching the Big Fish (2006); and directing several music videos and commercials.
Lynch has received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director and a nomination for best screenplay. He has won France’s César Award for Best Foreign Film twice, as well as the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival. The French government awarded him the Legion of Honor, the country’s top civilian honor, as a Chevalier in 2002 and then an Officier in 2007, while that same year, The Guardian described Lynch as “the most important director of this era”. Allmovie called him “the Renaissance man of modern American filmmaking”, while the success of his films has led to him being labelled “the first popular Surrealist.”
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Early life: 1946-1965
Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana on January 20, 1946. His father, Donald Walton Lynch, was a research scientist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his mother, Edwina “Sunny” Lynch (née Sundholm), was an English language tutor. Lynch’s maternal grandfather’s parents had immigrated to the United States from Finland in the 19th century. Lynch was raised a Presbyterian.
The Lynch family often moved around according to where the USDA assigned Donald. It was because of this that when he was two months old, David Lynch moved with his parents to Sandpoint, Idaho, and only two years after that, following the birth of his brother John, the family again moved, this time to Spokane, Washington. It was here that his sister Martha was born, before they once more moved, this time to Durham, North Carolina, then to Boise, Idaho and then to Alexandria, Virginia. Lynch found this transitory early life relatively easy to adjust to, noting that he found it fairly easy to meet new friends whenever he started attending a new school. Commenting on much of his early life, Lynch has remarked that:
I found the world completely and totally fantastic as a child. Of course, I had the usual fears, like going to school … For me, back then, school was a crime against young people. It destroyed the seeds of liberty. The teachers didn’t encourage knowledge or a positive attitude.
Alongside this schooling, he joined the Boy Scouts, although he would later note that he only “became one so I could quit, and put it behind me.” He rose to the highest rank of Eagle Scout. It was through being an Eagle Scout that he was present with other Boy Scouts outside of the White House at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, which took place on Lynch’s birthday in 1961.
Lynch had become interested in painting and drawing from an early age, becoming intrigued by the idea of pursuing it as a career path when living in Virginia, where his friend’s father was a professional painter. At Francis C. Hammond High School in Alexandria, Virginia, he did poorly academically, having little interest in school work, but was popular with other students, and after leaving decided that he wanted to study painting at college, thereby beginning his studies at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1964, where he was a roommate of Peter Wolf. Nonetheless, he left after only a year, stating that “I was not inspired AT ALL in that place”, and instead deciding that he wanted to travel around Europe for three years with his friend Jack Fisk, who was similarly unhappy with his studies at Cooper Union. They had some hopes that in Europe they could train with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka at his school. Upon reaching Salzburg, however, they found that he was not available and, disillusioned, returned to the United States after spending only 15 days of their planned three years in Europe.
Philadelphia and short films: 1966-1970
Back in the United States, Lynch returned to Virginia, but since his parents had moved to Walnut Creek, California, he stayed with his friend Tony Keeler for a while. He decided to move to the city of Philadelphia and enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, after advice from Jack Fisk, who was already enrolled there. He preferred this college to his previous school in Boston, claiming that “In Philadelphia there were great and serious painters, and everybody was inspiring one another and it was a beautiful time there.” It was here that he began a relationship with a fellow student, Peggy Reavey, and they were married in 1967. The following year, Peggy gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. Later describing this situation, Peggy stated that “[Lynch] definitely was a reluctant father, but a very loving one. Hey, I was pregnant when we got married. We were both reluctant.” As a family, they moved to the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, where they were able to purchase a large 12-room house for the relatively low price of $3,500 due to the high crime and poverty rates in the area. Later describing living there, Lynch stated that
We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street … We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen. The house was first broken into only three days after we moved in … The feeling was so close to extreme danger, and the fear was so intense. There was violence and hate and filth. But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city.
Meanwhile, to help financially support his family alongside his art studies, he took up a job printing engravings.
It was at the Pennsylvania Academy that Lynch made his first short film, which was titled Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967). He had first come up with the idea when he developed a wish to see his paintings move, and he subsequently began discussing the idea of creating an animation with an artist named Bruce Samuelson. When this project never came about, Lynch decided to work on a film alone, and so purchased the cheapest 16mm camera that he could find in order to do so. Taking one of the abandoned upper rooms of the Academy as a working space, he spent $200 – which at the time he felt to be a lot of money – to produce Six Men Getting Sick. Describing the work as “57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit”, Lynch played the film on a loop at the Academy’s annual end-of-year exhibit, where it shared joint first prize with a painting by Noel Mahaffey. This led to a commission from one of his fellow students, the wealthy H. Barton Wasserman, who offered him $1000 to create a film installation in his home. Spending $478.28 of that on purchasing the second-hand Bolex camera “of [his] dreams,” Lynch produced a new animated short, but upon getting the film developed, realized that the result was simply a blurred, frameless print. As he would later relate, “So I called up Bart [Wasserman] and said, ‘Bart, the film is a disaster. The camera was broken and what I’ve done hasn’t turned out.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, David, take the rest of the money and make something else for me. Just give me a print.’ End of story.”
Using this leftover money, Lynch decided to experiment on making a work that was a mix of animation with live action, producing a four-minute short called The Alphabet (1968). The film starred Lynch’s wife Peggy as a character known as The Girl, who chants the alphabet to a series of images of horses before dying at the end by hemorrhaging blood all over her bed sheets. Adding a sound effect, Lynch used a broken Uher tape recorder to record the sound of his baby daughter Jennifer crying, creating a distorted sound that Lynch felt to be particularly effective. Later describing what had inspired him, Lynch stated that “Peggy’s niece was having a bad dream one night and was saying the alphabet in her sleep in a tormented way. So that’s sort of what started The Alphabet going. The rest of it was just subconscious.”
Learning about the newly founded American Film Institute, which gave grants to film makers who could support their application with a prior work and a script for a new project, Lynch decided to send them a copy of The Alphabet along with a script that he had written for a new short film, one that would be almost entirely live action, named The Grandmother. The Institute agreed to help finance the work, initially offering him $5000 out of his requested budget of $7,200, but later granting him the additional $2,200 that he had requested. Starring people he knew from both work and college and filmed in his own house, The Grandmother featured a neglected boy who “grows” a grandmother from a seed to care for him. The film critics Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell later remarked that “this film is a true oddity but contains many of the themes and ideas that would filter into his later work, and shows a remarkable grasp of the medium”.
Los Angeles and Eraserhead: 1971-1979
In 1971 Lynch moved with his wife and daughter to Los Angeles, where he began studying filmmaking at the AFI Conservatory, a place that he would later describe as being “completely chaotic and disorganized, which was great … you quickly learned that if you were going to get something done, you would have to do it yourself. They wanted to let people do their thing.” He began writing a script for a proposed work titled Gardenback, which had “unfolded from this painting I’d done.” In this venture he was supported by a number of figures at the Conservatory, who encouraged him to lengthen the script and add more dialogue, something that he reluctantly agreed to do. Nonetheless, with all the interference on his Gardenback project, he became fed up with the Conservatory and quit after returning to start the second year and being put in first year classes. Dean of the AFI, Frank Daniel, asked Lynch to reconsider, believing that he was one of the school’s best students. Lynch agreed on the condition that he could create his own project that would not be interfered with. Feeling that Gardenback was “wrecked”, he instead set about on a new film, which he called Eraserhead.
Despite the fact that the film was planned to be about forty-two minutes long (it ended up being eighty-nine minutes long), the script for Eraserhead was only 21 pages long, and Lynch was able to create the film free from interference. Filming, which began on May 29, 1972, took place at night in some abandoned stables, allowing the production team, which was largely Lynch and some of his friends, including Sissy Spacek, Jack Fisk, cinematographer Frederick Elmes and sound designer Alan Splet to set up a camera room, green room, editing room, sets as well as a food room and a bathroom. Initially, funding for the project came from the AFI, who gave Lynch a $10,000 grant, but it was not enough to complete the work, and under pressure from studios after the success of the relatively cheap feature film Easy Rider, they were unable to provide him with any more. Lynch was then supported by a loan from his father, and by money that he was able to bring in from a paper route that he took up delivering the Wall Street Journal. Not long into the production of Eraserhead, Lynch and his wife Peggy amicably separated and divorced, and so he began living full-time on set. In 1977, Lynch would remarry, this time to Mary Fisk, sister of Jack Fisk.
Filmed in black and white, Eraserhead tells the story of a quiet young man named Henry (Jack Nance) living in a dystopian industrial wasteland, whose girlfriend gives birth to a deformed baby whom she leaves in his care. The baby constantly cries, causing much concern. When he realizes the baby has actually become ill, Henry tries to help it. This leads to its accidental death, after which he is haunted by what seem to be daemons that represent the baby and Henry finds himself in a “heaven” which he arrives at by entering the center of a planet rock. Lynch has consistently refused to either confirm or deny any interpretation of Eraserhead, or to “confess his own thinking behind the many abstractions in the film.” Nonetheless, he admits that it was heavily influenced by the fearful mood of Philadelphia, and referred to the film as “my Philadelphia Story“.
Due to financial problems the filming of Eraserhead was haphazard, regularly stopping and starting again. It was in one such break in 1974 that Lynch created a short film titled The Amputee, which revolved around a woman with two amputated legs (played by Jack Nance’s wife, Catherine Coulson) reading aloud a letter and having her stumps washed by a doctor (played by Lynch himself).
Eraserhead was finally finished in 1976, after five years of production. Lynch subsequently tried to get the film entered into the Cannes Film Festival, but while some reviewers liked it, others felt that it was awful, and so it was not selected for screening. Similarly, reviewers from the New York Film Festival also rejected it, though it was screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where Ben Barenholtz, the distributor of the Elgin Theater, heard about it. He was very supportive of the movie, helping to distribute it around the United States in 1977, and Eraserhead subsequently became popular on the midnight movie underground circuit, and was later described as one of the most important midnight movies of the seventies along with El topo, Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Harder They Come and Night of the Living Dead. The acclaimed film maker Stanley Kubrick said that it was one of his all-time favorite films.
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The Elephant Man and mainstream success: 1980-1982
After the cult success of Eraserhead on the underground circuit, Stuart Cornfeld, an executive producer for Mel Brooks, saw it and later remarked that “I was just 100 percent blown away … I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. It was such a cleansing experience.” Contacting Lynch, he agreed to help him with his next planned project, a film titled Ronnie Rocket for which Lynch had already written a script. However, Lynch soon realized that Ronnie Rocket, a film that he described as being about “electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair”, was not going to be picked up by any financiers, and so he asked Cornfeld to find him a script written by someone else which he could direct. Cornfeld found him four possible scripts. On hearing the title of the first, The Elephant Man, Lynch chose the script
The Elephant Man script, written by Chris de Vore and Eric Bergren, was based on a true story, that of Joseph Merrick, a heavily deformed man living in Victorian London, who was held in a sideshow but was later taken under the care of a London surgeon, Frederick Treves. Lynch wanted to make some alterations that would alter the story from true events, but in his view make a better plot. However, in order to do so he would have to get the permission of Mel Brooks, whose company, BrookFilms, would be responsible for production; subsequently Brooks viewed Eraserhead, and after coming out of the screening theatre, embraced Lynch, declaring that “You’re a madman, I love you! You’re in.”
The resulting film, The Elephant Man, starred John Hurt as John Merrick (his name was changed from Joseph), as well as Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves. Filming took place in London, and Lynch brought his own distinctively surrealist approach to the film, filming it in color stock black and white. Nonetheless it has been described as “one of the most conventional” of his films. The Elephant Man was a huge critical and commercial success, and earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lynch personally.
The De Laurentiis films, Dune and Blue Velvet: 1983-1986
Following on from the success of The Elephant Man, the filmmaker George Lucas, himself a fan of Eraserhead, offered Lynch the opportunity to direct the third film in his Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi. Lynch refused, arguing that Lucas should direct the film himself as the movie should reflect his own vision, not Lynch’s take on it. Soon after however, the opportunity to direct another big-budget science fiction epic arose when Dino de Laurentiis of the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group asked him to create a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune (1965). Lynch agreed, and in doing so was also contractually obliged to produce two other works for the company. He then set about writing a script based upon the original novel, initially with both Chris de Vore and Eric Bergren, and then just by himself when De Laurentiis wasn’t happy with their ideas. Lynch also helped build some of the sets, attempting to create “a certain look” for the film, and he particularly enjoyed building the set for the oil planet of Giedi Prime, for which he “used steel, bolts, and porcelain to construct” it.
Dune is set in the far future, when humans live in an interstellar empire under a feudal system. The main character, Paul Atreides (played by Kyle MacLachlan), is the son of a noble who takes control of the desert planet Arrakis, which grows the rare spice melange, the most highly prized commodity in the empire. Lynch, however, was unhappy with the work, later remarking that ” Dune was a kind of studio film. I didn’t have final cut. And, little by little, I was subconsciously making compromises” to his own vision. Much of his footage was eventually removed from the final theatrical cut, dramatically condensing the plot. Although De Laurentiis hoped it would be as successful as Star Wars, Lynch’s Dune (1984) was a critical and commercial dud; it had cost $45 million to make, and grossed a mere $27.4 million domestically. Later on, Universal Studios released an “extended cut” of the film for syndicated television, containing almost an hour of cutting-room-floor footage and new narration. Such was not representative of Lynch’s intentions, but the studio considered it more comprehensible than the original two-hour version. Lynch objected to these changes and had his name struck from the extended cut, which has “Alan Smithee” credited as the director and “Judas Booth” (a pseudonym which Lynch himself invented, inspired by his own feelings of betrayal) as the screenwriter.
Meanwhile, in 1983, he had begun the writing and drawing of a comic strip, The Angriest Dog in the World, which featured unchanging graphics of a tethered dog that was so angry that it could not move, alongside cryptic philosophical references. It ran from 1983 until 1992 in the Village Voice, Creative Loafing and other tabloid and alternative publications. It was around this period that Lynch also became interested in photography as an art form, and travelled to northern England to take photos of the degrading industrial landscape, something that he was particularly interested in.
Following on from Dune, Lynch was contractually still obliged to produce two other projects for De Laurentiis: the first of these was a planned sequel, which due to the film’s lack of success never went beyond the script stage. The other was a more personal work, based upon a script that Lynch had been working on for some time. Developing from ideas that Lynch had had since 1973, the resulting film, Blue Velvet, was set in the fictional town of Lumberton, USA, and revolves around a college student named Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who finds a severed ear in a field. Subsequently investigating further with the help of friend Sandy (Laura Dern), he uncovers that it is related to a criminal gang led by psychopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped the husband and child of singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and repeatedly subjects her to rape. Lynch himself characterizes the story as “a dream of strange desires wrapped inside a mystery story”.
For the film, Lynch decided to include pop songs from the 1960s, including “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison and “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, the latter of which was largely inspirational for the film, with Lynch stating that “It was the song that sparked the movie … There was something mysterious about it. It made me think about things. And the first things I thought about were lawns – lawns and the neighbourhood.” Other music for the film was also produced, this time composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who would go on to produce the music for most of Lynch’s subsequent cinematic works. Dino de Laurentiis loved the film, and it achieved support from some of the early specialist screenings, but the preview screenings to a mainstream audience were instead highly negative, with most of the audience hating the film. Although Lynch had found success previously with The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet’s controversy with audiences and critics introduced him into the mainstream, and became a huge critical and moderate commercial success. The film earned Lynch his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Woody Allen, whose film Hannah and Her Sisters was nominated for Best Picture, said that Blue Velvet was his favorite film of the year.
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Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart and Fire Walk with Me: 1987-1996
During the late 1980s, Lynch had begun to work in television as well as cinema, directing a short piece titled The Cowboy and the Frenchman for French television in 1989. Around this time, he met the television producer Mark Frost, who had formerly worked on such projects as the television police series Hill Street Blues, and they decided to start working together on a biopic of singer and actress Marilyn Monroe based upon Anthony Summers’s book, The Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. While this project never got off the ground, the duo went on to work on a comedy script named One Saliva Bubble, but that did not see completion either. While they were talking in a coffee shop, Lynch and Frost had the idea of a corpse washing up on the shore of a lake, and subsequently set about on their third project, initially called Northwest Passage but would eventually become the television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991). A drama series set in a small Washington town where popular high school student Laura Palmer has been raped and murdered, Twin Peaks featured FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) as the investigator trying to unearth the killer, and discovering not only the supernatural elements to the murder but also the secrets of many of the local townsfolk; as Lynch himself summed it up, “The project was to mix a police investigation with the ordinary lives of the characters.” Lynch later revealed that “[Mark Frost and I] worked together, especially in the initial stages. Later on we started working more apart.” They pitched the series to the ABC Network, who agreed to finance the pilot episode and eventually commissioned the first season, comprising seven episodes.
A second season went into production soon on 22 additional episodes. Lynch himself only directed six episodes of series to devote his time to working on the film Wild at Heart, but carefully chose the directors for other episodes. Lynch appeared in several episodes of the series as the deaf FBI agent Gordon Cole. The series was a success, with high ratings both in the United States and in many nations abroad, and soon spawned a cult following. Executives at the ABC Network, however, believed that public interest in the show was decreasing. The network insisted that Lynch and Frost reveal who the killer of Laura Palmer was prematurely, which they begrudgingly agreed to do. Lynch felt that agreeing to do so is one of his biggest professional regrets. Following the revealing of the murderer and the series’ move from Thursday to Saturday night, Twin Peaks continued for several more episodes, but was cancelled following a ratings drop. Lynch, who disliked the direction that the writers and directors took in the previous episodes, directed the final episode. He ended the season on a cliffhanger, later stating that “that’s not the ending. That’s the ending that people were stuck with.”
While Twin Peaks was in production, the Brooklyn Academy of Music asked Lynch and the composer Angelo Badalamenti, who had been responsible for the music in Twin Peaks, to create a theatrical piece which would be performed only twice in 1989 as a part of the New Music America Festival. The result was Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted, which starred frequent Lynch collaborators such as Laura Dern, Nicolas Cage and Michael J. Anderson, and contained five songs sung by Julee Cruise. David Lynch produced a fifty-minute video of the performance in 1990. Meanwhile, Lynch was also involved in the creation of various commercials for different companies, including perfume companies like Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani and the Japanese coffee company Namoi, which featured a Japanese man searching the town of Twin Peaks for his missing wife.
While Lynch was working on the first few episodes of Twin Peaks, his friend Monty Montgomery “gave me a book that he wanted to direct as a movie. He asked if I would maybe be executive producer or something, and I said ‘That’s great, Monty, but what if I read it and fall in love with it and want to do it myself?’ And he said, ‘In that case, you can do it yourself’.” The book was Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, which told the tale of two lovers on a road trip. Lynch felt that it was “just exactly the right thing at the right time. The book and the violence in America merged in my mind and many different things happened.” With Gifford’s support, Lynch adapted the novel into a film called Wild at Heart, a crime and road movie starring Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Laura Dern as Lula. Describing his plot as a “strange blend” of “a road picture, a love story, a psychological drama and a violent comedy”, Lynch altered much from the original novel, changing the ending and incorporating numerous references to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. Despite receiving a muted response from American critics and viewers, it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
Following on from the success of Wild at Heart, Lynch decided to return to the world of the now-cancelled Twin Peaks, this time without Mark Frost, to create a film that acted primarily as a prequel but also, in part, as a sequel, with Lynch stating that “I liked the idea of the story going back and forth in time.” The result, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), primarily revolved around the last few days in the life of Laura Palmer, and was much “darker” in tone than the television series, having much of the humour removed, and dealing with such topics as incest and murder. Lynch himself stated that the film was about “the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest.” Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was financed by the company CIBY-2000, and most of the cast of the series agreed to reprise their roles for the film, although some refused and many were not enthusiastic about the project. The film was a commercial and critical failure in the United States; however, it was a hit in Japan and some critics, such as Mark Kermode, have hailed it as Lynch’s “masterpiece”.
Meanwhile, Lynch worked with Mark Frost on some new television shows. After Twin Peaks, they produced a series of documentaries titled American Chronicles (1990) which examined life across the United States, the comedy series On the Air (1992), which was cancelled after only three episodes had aired, and the three-episode HBO mini-series Hotel Room (1993) about events that happen in one hotel room but on different dates.
Lost Highway, The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive: 1997-2001
Following these unsuccessful television ventures, Lynch returned to making feature films. In 1997 he released the non-linear, noiresque Lost Highway, which was co-written by Barry Gifford and starred Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. The film failed commercially and received a mixed response from critics.
Following Lost Highway, Lynch began work directing a film from a script written by Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach. The resulting motion picture, The Straight Story was based upon a true story: that of Alvin Straight (played in the film by Richard Farnsworth), an elderly man from Laurens, Iowa, who goes on a three hundred mile journey to visit his sick brother (played by Harry Dean Stanton) in Mount Zion, Wisconsin, riding a lawnmower for the entire journey. Commenting on why he chose this script, Lynch said that “that’s what I fell in love with next”, and displayed his admiration for Straight, describing him as “like James Dean, except he’s old.” Angelo Badalamenti again produced the music for the film, although it was “very different from the kind of score he’s done for [Lynch] in the past.”
Among the many differences with his earlier films, “The Straight Story” did not contain profanities, sexual content or violence; it was rated G (general viewing) by the Motion Picture Association of America, which came as “shocking news” to many in the film industry, who were surprised that it “did not disturb, offend or mystify.” As Le Blanc and Odell stated, the plot made it “seem as far removed from Lynch’s earlier works as could be imagined, but in fact right from the very opening, this is entirely his film – a surreal road movie”.
The same year, Lynch approached ABC once again with ideas for a television drama. The network gave Lynch the go-ahead to shoot a two-hour pilot for the series Mulholland Drive, but disputes over content and running time led to the project being shelved indefinitely. However, with seven million dollars from the French production company StudioCanal, Lynch completed the pilot as a film, Mulholland Drive. The film, a non-linear narrative surrealist tale of the dark side of Hollywood, stars Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Justin Theroux. The film performed relatively well at the box office worldwide and was a critical success, earning Lynch a Best Director prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Association. In addition, Lynch received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
Internet work and Inland Empire: 2002-2013
With the rising popularity of the Internet, Lynch decided to utilize it as a new distribution channel, releasing several new series that he had created exclusively on his website, davidlynch.com. In 2002, he created a series of online shorts named DumbLand. Intentionally crude both in content and execution, the eight-episode series was later released on DVD. The same year, Lynch released a surreal sitcom on his website called Rabbits, about a family of humanoid rabbits. Later, he made his experiments with Digital Video available in the form of the Japanese-style horror short Darkened Room. In 2006, Lynch’s feature film Inland Empire was released. At three hours long, it was the longest of Lynch’s films. Like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway before it, the film did not follow a traditional narrative structure. It starred Lynch regulars Laura Dern, Harry Dean Stanton and Justin Theroux, with cameos by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring (voices of Suzie and Jane Rabbit), and a performance by Jeremy Irons. Lynch described the piece as “a mystery about a woman in trouble”. In an effort to promote the film, Lynch made appearances with a cow and a placard bearing the slogan “Without cheese there would be no Inland Empire”.
In 2009, Lynch produced a documentary web series directed by his son, Austin Lynch, and friend Jason S. called Interview Project. Interested in working with Werner Herzog, Lynch collaborated with him in 2009 to produce Herzog’s film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. Using a non-standard narrative, the film was based on the true story of an actor who committed matricide while acting in a production of the Oresteia, and starred Grace Zabriskie, a Lynch regular. Lynch has plans to direct a documentary on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi consisting of interviews with people who knew him.
In 2010, Lynch began making guest appearances on the Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show as Gus the Bartender. He had been convinced to appear in the show by its lead actor, Mike Henry, who is a fan of Lynch and who felt that his whole life had changed after seeing Wild at Heart. Lady Blue Shanghai is a 16-minute promotional film that was written, directed and edited by Lynch for Dior. It was released on the Internet in May 2010.
Lynch directed a concert by English new wave band Duran Duran on March 23, 2011. The concert was streamed live on YouTube from the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles as the kickoff to the second season of Unstaged: An Original Series from American Express. “The idea is to try and create on the fly, layers of images permeating Duran Duran on the stage”, Lynch said. “A world of experimentation and hopefully some happy accidents”. The animated short I Touch a Red Button Man, a collaboration between Lynch and the band Interpol, played in the background during Interpol’s concert at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April 2011. The short, which features Interpol’s song “Lights”, was later made available online.
It was believed that Lynch was going to retire from the film industry; according to Abel Ferrara, Lynch “doesn’t even want to make films any more. I’ve talked to him about it, OK? I can tell when he talks about it.” However, in a June 2012 Los Angeles Times interview, Lynch stated that he lacked the inspiration to start a new movie project, but “If I got an idea that I fell in love with, I’d go to work tomorrow”. In September 2012, Lynch appeared in the three-part “Late Show” arc on FX’s Louie as Jack Dahl. In November 2012, Lynch hinted at plans for a new film while attending Plus Camerimage in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Speaking at the festival, Lynch said “something is coming up. It will happen but I don’t know exactly when”. At Plus Camerimage, Lynch was also presented with a lifetime achievement award and the key to the city by Bydgoszcz’s mayor Rafa? Bruski. During an interview with the Los Angeles Times in January 2013, frequent Lynch collaborator Laura Dern confirmed she and Lynch are planning a new project, and The New York Times later revealed Lynch is working on the script. Idem Paris, a short documentary film about the lithographic process, was released online in February 2013. On June 28, 2013, a music video directed by Lynch for the Nine Inch Nails song “Came Back Haunted” was released. He also did photography for the self-titled album from Dumb Numbers released August 2013.
Reviving Twin Peaks: 2014-present
On October 6, 2014, Lynch confirmed via Twitter that he would start shooting together with Mark Frost a new, nine-episode season of Twin Peaks in 2015, with the episodes expected to air in early 2016 on Showtime. Lynch and Frost wrote all nine episodes. On April 5, 2015, Lynch announced via Twitter that the project was still alive, but he was no longer going to direct because the budget was too low for what he wanted to do. However, he later announced on May 15, 2015, via Twitter, that he would indeed be returning to the revival, as he had sorted out his issues with Showtime. This was later confirmed by Showtime CEO David Nevins, who announced that Lynch would direct every episode of the revival and that the original order of nine episodes had been extended to eighteen episodes.
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Lynch says that his work is more similar in many respects to those of European film makers than American ones, believing that most films that “get down and thrill your soul” were by European directors. Lynch has commented on his admiration for such film makers as Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog and Jacques Tati. He has also stated that Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is one of his favourite films, as is Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). He has also cited Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) as an influence on his work.
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There are several recurring themes within Lynch’s work, leading film critics Le Blanc and Odell to state that “his films are so packed with motifs, recurrent characters, images, compositions and techniques that you could view his entire output as one large jigsaw puzzle of ideas”. One of the key themes that they noted was the usage of dreams and dreamlike imagery and structure within his works, something they related to the “surrealist ethos” of relying “on the subconscious to provide visual drive”. This can be seen in John Merrick’s dream of his mother in The Elephant Man, Agent Cooper’s dreams of the red room in Twin Peaks and the “dreamlike logic” of the narrative found in Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Discussing his attitude to dreams, Lynch has stated that “Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I’m quietly sitting in a chair, letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don’t control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I’ve made or discovered; a world I choose … [You can’t really get others to experience it, but] right there is the power of cinema.” His films are known for their use of magic realism.
Another of Lynch’s prominent themes include industry, with repeated imagery of “the clunk of machinery, the power of pistons, shadows of oil drills pumping, screaming woodmills and smoke billowing factories”, as can be seen with the industrial wasteland in Eraserhead, the factories in The Elephant Man, the sawmill in Twin Peaks and the lawn mower in The Straight Story. Describing his interest in such things, Lynch stated that “It makes me feel good to see giant machinery, you know, working: dealing with molten metal. And I like fire and smoke. And the sounds are so powerful. It’s just big stuff. It means that things are being made, and I really like that.”
Another theme is the dark underbelly of violent criminal activity within a society, such as with Frank’s gang in Blue Velvet and the cocaine smugglers in Twin Peaks. The idea of deformity is also found in several of Lynch’s films, from The Elephant Man to the deformed baby in Eraserhead, as well as death from head wounds, found in most of Lynch’s films. Other imagery commonly used in Lynch’s works are flickering electricity or lights, fire and stages upon which a singer performs, often surrounded by drapery.
With the exception of The Elephant Man and Dune, which are set in Victorian London and a fictitious galaxy respectively, all of Lynch’s films have been set in the United States, and he has stated that “I like certain things about America and it gives me ideas. When I go around and I see things, it sparks little stories, or little characters pop out, so it just feels right to me to, you know, make American films.” A number of his works, including Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway are intentionally reminiscent of the 1950s American culture despite being set in the later decades of the 20th century. Lynch stated that “It was a fantastic decade in a lot of ways … there was something in the air that is not there any more at all. It was such a great feeling, and not just because I was a kid. It was a really hopeful time, and things were going up instead of going down. You got the feeling you could do anything. The future was bright. Little did we know we were laying the groundwork then for a disastrous future.”
Lynch also tends to feature his leading female actors in “split” roles, so that many of his female characters have multiple, fractured identities. This practice began with his choice to cast Sheryl Lee as both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks and continued in his later works. In Lost Highway, Patricia Arquette plays the dual role of Renee Madison/Alice Wakefield, while in Mulholland Drive Naomi Watts plays Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms and Laura Harring plays Camilla Rhodes/Rita and in Inland Empire Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace/Susan Blue. By contrast, Lynch rarely creates multi-character roles for his male actors.
He frequently tends to have characters that have supernatural and omnipotent qualities. They can be seen as physical manifestations of various different concepts, such as hatred or fear. Examples of these characters are The Man Inside the Planet from “Eraserhead”, Bob from “Twin Peaks”, The Mystery Man from “Lost Highway”, and The Bum in “Mulholland Dr.”
Lynch is also widely noted for his collaborations with various production artists and composers on his films and other productions. He frequently works with Angelo Badalamenti to compose music for his productions, former wife Mary Sweeney as a film editor, casting director Johanna Ray, and cast members Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, Kyle MacLachlan, Naomi Watts, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Zabriskie, and Laura Dern.
Lynch first trained as a painter, and although he is now better known as a filmmaker, he has continued to paint. Lynch has stated that “all my paintings are organic, violent comedies. They have to be violently done and primitive and crude, and to achieve that I try to let nature paint more than I paint.” Many of his works are very dark in colour, and Lynch has said this is because
I wouldn’t know what to do with [colour]. Colour to me is too real. It’s limiting. It doesn’t allow too much of a dream. The more you throw black into a colour, the more dreamy it gets … Black has depth. It’s like a little egress; you can go into it, and because it keeps on continuing to be dark, the mind kicks in, and a lot of things that are going on in there become manifest. And you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.
Many of his works also contain letters and words added to the painting. He explains:
The words in the paintings are sometimes important to make you start thinking about what else is going on in there. And a lot of times, the words excite me as shapes, and something’ll grow out of that. I used to cut these little letters out and glue them on. They just look good all lined up like teeth … sometimes they become the title of the painting.
Lynch considers the 20th-century Irish artist Francis Bacon to be his “number one kinda hero painter”, stating that “Normally I only like a couple of years of a painter’s work, but I like everything of Bacon’s. The guy, you know, had the stuff.”
Lynch was the subject of a major art retrospective at the Fondation Cartier, Paris from March 3 – May 27, 2007. The show was titled The Air is on Fire and included numerous paintings, photographs, drawings, alternative films and sound work. New site-specific art installations were created specially for the exhibition. A series of events accompanied the exhibition including live performances and concerts. Some of Lynch’s art include photographs of dissected chickens and other animals as a “Build your own Chicken” toy ad.
His alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, presented an exhibition of his work, entitled “The Unified Field”, which opened on September 12, 2014 and ended in January 2015.
His favorite photographers include William Eggleston (The Red Ceiling), Joel-Peter Witkin, and Diane Arbus.
Lynch has also been involved in a number of music projects, many of them related to his films. His album genres switch mainly between experimental rock, ambient soundscapes and, most recently, avant-garde electropop music. Most notably he produced and wrote lyrics for Julee Cruise’s first two albums, Floating into the Night (1989) and The Voice of Love (1993), in collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti who composed the music and also produced. Lynch also worked on the 1998 Jocelyn Montgomery album Lux Vivens. For his own productions, he composed music for Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Mulholland Drive, and Rabbits. In 2001, he released BlueBob, a rock album performed by Lynch and John Neff. The album is notable for Lynch’s unusual guitar playing style. He plays “upside down and backwards, like a lap guitar”, and relies heavily on effects pedals. Most recently Lynch composed several pieces for Inland Empire, including two songs, “Ghost of Love” and “Walkin’ on the Sky”, in which he makes his public debut as a singer. In 2009, his new book-CD set Dark Night of the Soul was released. In 2008, he started his own record label called David Lynch MC which first released Fox Bat Strategy: A Tribute to Dave Jaurequi in early 2009. In August 2009, it was announced that he was releasing Afghani/American singer Ariana Delawari’s Lion of Panjshir album in conjunction with Manimal Vinyl record company.
In November 2010, Lynch released two electropop music singles, “Good Day Today” and “I Know”, through the independent British label Sunday Best Recordings. Describing why he created them, he stated that “I was just sitting and these notes came and then I went down and started working with Dean [Hurley, his engineer] and then these few notes, ‘I want to have a good day, today’ came and the song was built around that”. The singles were followed by an album, Crazy Clown Time, which was released in November 2011 and described as an “electronic blues album”. The songs were sung by Lynch, with guest vocals on one track by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and composed and performed by Lynch and Dean Hurley.
On September 29, 2011, Lynch released This Train with vocalist and long-time musical collaborator Chrysta Bell on the La Rose Noire label. The 11-song album was produced by Lynch and co-written primarily by Lynch and Bell. It includes the song “Polish Poem” which is featured on the Inland Empire soundtrack.
Lynch’s second studio album, The Big Dream, was released in 2013 and included the single, “I’m Waiting Here”, with Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li. The Big Dream‘s release was preceded by TBD716, an enigmatic 43-second video featured on Lynch’s YouTube and Vine accounts.
For Record Store Day 2014 David Lynch released The Big Dream Remix EP which featured four songs from his album remixed by various artists. This included the track “Are You Sure” remixed by Bastille. The band Bastille have been known to take inspiration from David Lynch’s work for their songs and music videos, the main one being their song “Laura Palmer” which is influenced by Lynch’s television show Twin Peaks.
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Lynch designed and constructed furniture for his 1997 film Lost Highway, notably the small table in the Madison house and the VCR case.
In April 1997 he presented a furniture collection at the prestigious Milan Furniture Fair in Italy. “Design and music, art and architecture – they all belong together.”
In 2011 Lynch signed a brand extension agreement licensing the name “Twin Peaks” for use in a Texas restaurant. While his involvement with the project was minimal, many fans expressed outrage. He has since said he regrets the move.
Working with designer Raphael Navot, architectural agency Enia and light designer Thierry Dreyfus, Lynch has conceived and designed a nightclub in Paris. “Silencio” opened in October 2011, and is a private members’ club although is free to the public after midnight. Patrons have access to concerts, films and other performances by artists and guests. Inspired by the club of the same name in his 2001 film Mulholland Drive, the underground space consists of a series of rooms, each dedicated to a certain purpose or atmosphere. “Silencio is something dear to me. I wanted to create an intimate space where all the arts could come together. There won’t be a Warhol-like guru, but it will be open to celebrated artists of all disciplines to come here to programme or create what they want.”
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In 2006, Lynch authored a short book describing his creative processes, stories from throughout his career, and the benefits he had realized through his practice of Transcendental Meditation called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. He describes the metaphor behind the title in the introduction:
Ideas are like fish.
If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.
Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.
The book weaves a non-linear autobiography with descriptions of Lynch’s cognitive experiences during Transcendental Meditation. All author’s royalties will be donated to the David Lynch Foundation.
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Lynch has had several long-term relationships. In 1967, he married Peggy Lentz in Chicago, Illinois. They had one child, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, born in 1968, who is a film director. They filed for divorce in 1974. On June 21, 1977, Lynch married Mary Fisk, and the couple had one child, Austin Jack Lynch, born in 1982. They divorced in 1987, and Lynch began dating Isabella Rossellini after filming Blue Velvet. Lynch and Rossellini broke up in 1991, and Lynch developed a relationship with Mary Sweeney, with whom he had one son. Sweeney also worked as Lynch’s longtime film editor/producer and co-wrote and produced The Straight Story. The two married in May 2006, but divorced that July. Lynch married actress Emily Stofle, who appeared in his 2006 film Inland Empire, in February 2009. They have a daughter.
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Lynch has said that he is “not a political person”. However, he has expressed admiration for former US President Ronald Reagan. Describing his political philosophy, he stated, “at that time, I thought of myself as a libertarian. I believed in next to zero government. And I still would lean toward no government and not so many rules, except for traffic lights and things like this. I really believe in traffic regulations.” Lynch continued to state that “I don’t know if there even is a Libertarian party. They wouldn’t have a prayer of getting anywhere. So I’m a Democrat now. And I’ve always been a Democrat, really. But I don’t like the Democrats a lot, either, because I’m a smoker, and I think a lot of the Democrats have come up with these rules for non-smoking.”
He endorsed the Natural Law Party in the 2000 presidential election and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. In the 2016 presidential election, he endorsed Bernie Sanders.