HOLLYWOOD — The big studios in town — and most audiences — have never quite figured out what to do with writer/director David Lynch, even though such films as Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man all earned him Oscar nominations. After all, Lynch, who started off as a painter, has always marched to the beat of his own weird inner drummer, paying little attention to trends or, some might say, reality as we know it.
Now the highly influential auteur is confusing more people than ever with his latest film, Inland Empire, a three-hour epic shot on video that stars Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, a sitcom family wearing rabbit suits and a bunch of hookers in a dreamlike drama that floats between gilded mansions in Poland and the gritty sidewalks of Hollywood.
What does it all mean? Naturally Lynch, whose credits include Eraserhead, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway, has no intention of trying to explain his films, but here, in an exclusive interview, he happily talks about his approach to cinema, the challenges involved in making Inland Empire and the joys of post.
POST: What kind of film did you set out to make?
DAVID LYNCH: "A film based on the ideas I was receiving. It didn't exist, then I got all these ideas and started playing around with them, and this is the result. It's a magical thing."
POST: All your films have this dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, feel to them, and Inland Empire obviously refers to the subconscious. Do you have very vivid dreams?
LYNCH: "I think people expect me to have these really weird, disturbed dreams, but I don't really. I only had one dream that affected a film and most everything is daydreams. I don't wake up with ideas. I don't sleep a dead sleep, but things don't happen for me asleep at night, unless I wake up and start having thoughts that lead to other thoughts that lead to other thoughts and that's mostly the way it works."
POST: So do your ideas for films surprise you too, such as the characters in rabbit suits?
LYNCH: "Yes. I get many different ideas and you don't know what is going to come. It's like they are all down there and you don't know what is going to pop up. I think in the beginning of a process many ideas pop up and you don't know so much about them. One pops up and you love it so much it becomes the bait for the remainder of the story and it will draw them in because you are focusing on a certain area of little presents down there and they'll come swimming up eventually — then if you work with them and write them down and struggle a little bit it just increases the focus, and ideas will come to help you. You know, I started off as a painter, and the great thing for me about digital now is that it lets me get back to that sort of immediate experience I had in painting. It lets you explore your ideas more deeply and immediately."
POST: You shot the whole film on a low-cost Sony PD 150 consumer digital camera. Why?
LYNCH: "Because at the start I didn't know what I was doing. I'd get ideas for scenes, write them out and shoot them, and think, that was it. Then I'd get another idea, and so on. I used the PD 150 because I'd already been experimenting with it shooting small things for the Website [www.davidlynch.com], and gradually this whole story emerged. And as I'd already committed to the PD 150, we did some tests and up-res'd to film, and I was amazed at the quality. I loved the look, so I just carried on like that."
POST: How many hours did you end up shooting?
LYNCH: "I don't know because a lot of the time we had three cameras going. So we definitely shot a lot, which made editing a very big job."
POST: Did you edit the film yourself?
LYNCH: "Yes, and I did it all on [Apple] Final Cut Pro at my home office, and it took me over six months. I absolutely love editing. I used to work a lot with [producer] Mary Sweeney who cut Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway for me, but no one else could edit this since there wasn't a real organized script to go by and no one knew what was going on except me. But it wasn't a problem because digital editing is such a dream, and when you go in there on your own you discover elements that you wouldn't if you were one step removed, like an ordinary editor. For me it's so important to get in there on your own and go through the whole process."
POST: It's obvious you really like the whole post process.
LYNCH: "I love every aspect of making a film, but I particularly enjoy all the post work when you have all your material and you go on this voyage of discovery and find out yourself what the film really is. The challenges of posting Inland Empire were the same as always — making it all work based on the ideas. What I find is that you think you're going in a certain direction, but as you get closer to the final whole, you're seeing the entire film in post production for the first time, and suddenly things change. There's very quickly more action and reaction, and things go out that you never thought you'd lose, and things come in that you never thought you'd take. The best way I can explain post is that the film wants to be a certain way and you only discover that right near the end. Now you see the entire film clearly, and once you find that it's feeling correct based on all your ideas, you're done."
POST: Inland Empire is full of strange images and visuals, but it doesn't feel like there are many visual effects.
LYNCH: "There aren't. I tried to do as much as possible in-camera. The scenes at the start of the film, where you can see the characters but their faces are all blurred, I did on [Apple] Shake. I started doing that effect myself and then Noriko Miyakawa, my assistant editor, finished the shots. But then I found that when you up-res'd the blurs from low res, a lot of times you'd get all these lines coming in, so we then had to go and re-blur all those shots in high def. I also used [Adobe] After Effects for various shots, but I don't want to talk about what I did exactly."
POST: Why not?
LYNCH: [Laughs] "It's not that I don't want to give anything away, but I feel that, in my book, when people see a film, they should see it pure, without any knowledge of what tricks or visual effects were used. It's a very delicate thing. Preserve the purity of the film; don't putrefy the experience."
POST: How closely did you work with your post supervisor Greg Spence?
LYNCH: "Not so closely, but he had a lot of things to take care of. He's there at the lab — Fotokem — all the time, dealing with all the subtitles [for the scenes shot in Poland] and all the delivery requirements, and working with re-recording mixer Dean Hurley in the studio, marrying the sounds and checking everything, all the way through to the digital version and then the version to film. I'd never worked with him before, but he did a great job. I used to work with this freelance girl, Spike, and she recommended Greg, and it was a good collaboration."
POST: You did a digital intermediate on this. How come?
LYNCH: "Yes, at Fotokem, even though it's so expensive. But it was so important for this film. All my footage was low-res digital, so we put it through the [Snell & Wilcox] Alchemist at Fotokem to get up-res'd, and I love that machine — it's just amazing, incredible. Whoever worked out all those algorithms is a genius, it comes up so smooth and solid. Then you go into the telecine bay with the up-res'd version, and the telecine is the poor man's room. The DI room is very expensive, but the great thing is that on the screen you see exactly what the film will look like. So any corrections you make, you know it's going to look like that on film. Normally, any director's got to do telecine when it comes time to go to the DVD. In my case, I go into the telecine bay, and we've done tests so that the monitor reflects very closely what you'll see on film. So now you can get control of the blacks, mid-range whites, all the colors, and you can tweak shot by shot in telecine. Then you go over to film, and if it's not exactly right, you sit with your colorist and tweak it and get it just perfect for film. Now you've done all your work for DVD. It's just going to Digi Beta and then the process you do for DVD, and it's very, very good.
"With a DI you have so much more control. When you time in film, you sit there with the colorist and you can't stop the projector or the film will burn up, so you're always timing on the fly and it's very frustrating. It takes many, many visits to the lab and many hours until you get a print that holds together. And then you still have to go to the telecine bay when you do the DVD and start all over again."
POST: Audio is also a huge part of all your films.
LYNCH: "Sound and picture moving together in time — that's a beautiful, beautiful thing called cinema. Sound has always been magical for me, and the challenge there is to find the right sounds that marry with the picture, and jump on it. And sometimes you get this magical result where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I did all the sound design myself at my studio at home, and I love it to pieces. Then we did all the sound effects with [editor] Steve Tushar and also did the mix at my studio. With [Digidesign] Pro Tools now you have so many plug-ins available that you can experiment — and do it fast — until you get exactly the sound you want. And the same thing is happening to picture. If you don't like high def, you can just degrade it, change it this way, that way. Post is really magical now because of all these tools, and I'm a huge fan of all of this. It's the future for sure."