As the Spirit Moves Him: David Lynch reconciles the creepy tone of his movies with a search for inner peace.
As the Spirit Moves Him: David Lynch reconciles the creepy tone of his movies with a search for inner peace.

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David Lynch has directed major-studio movies like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, and he co-created the network-TV phenomenon Twin Peaks, but he’s never exactly been a mainstream figure. These days he’s going it alone, self-distributing his latest plunge into his subconscious, Inland Empire, which he describes with a chuckle as “a three-hour picture that no one understands.”

But though Lynch is an artistic loner, his hotel room is bustling during his two-day visit to Washington, where he’s publicizing both Inland Empire and his new book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. As he prepares for an interview, two guys enter to hurriedly show him a brand-new product.

“It’s a new coffee, David Lynch signature coffee,” the director explains after the men leave. “Espresso, house blend, and decaf. I drink a lot of coffee, so it came out of that.”

Lynch, who turns 61 on Saturday, does seem like a lot-of-coffee guy. He smokes and is wearing the film noir uniform—black suit, white shirt, skinny black tie—topped with his trademark blondish-gray rockabilly bouffant. The nearby coffee table is arrayed with glasses, cups, and noirish objects like a full ashtray and an empty bottle of red wine.

The director is not exactly the rowdy type, though. His new book celebrates his longtime practice of Transcendental Meditation, and when asked if he’s tired of the major Hollywood studios, he responds with a gently schoolmarmish, “No, no, no. Not so negative!”

Lynch argues that Inland Empire, his 10th feature, is a result not of rejecting the old but of embracing the new. His 6-year-old Web site,, showed him that he could self-distribute his smaller films, like 1977 cult success Eraserhead. It also introduced him to the medium-priced digital-video camera he ultimately employed for his new film.

“The Web site is what brought the Sony PD150 into my life,” he recalls. “First I looked at it as a toy, sort of. But I liked making small experiments with it. And then I started thinking, and I starting liking it.

“We did tests early on, from DV to film,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how good it looked. Not like film, but it has its own look and feel. I was very, very happy.”

The PD150 is not a high-definition camera, and some critics have suggested that Inland Empire would look better if Lynch had used fancier gear. “Not to me,” he responds. “Shot by shot, you could get some things that would be very beautiful. But the PD150 started reminding me of the early days of 35 [mm film], when it wasn’t so much all there. It kind of gave it room to dream. And I like that.”

He liked it so much, in fact, that he says he’s “finished with film. Because film is heavy and slow, it’s a dinosaur, a heartache. As beautiful as it is, DV will soon surpass it, and the freedom that comes with small cameras—I couldn’t go back to the slowness and the horror of it.”

If the flexibility and inexpensiveness of video allows a director to shoot more material than with film, Lynch says that wasn’t his strategy. “Potentially, you’d shoot a lot with film, too, if you had the money and the time. But you want to shoot ’til you get the scene. Same with video. Why would you shoot a whole bunch more? You could shoot some things that you would have missed before. But the whole idea is to get the scene.”

The major logistical advantage, he says, is that “with 40-minute takes, you can sync in without disturbing to reload. Lots of times when you reload, you don’t only break the actor’s work, but someone will start adjusting a lamp, or someone will walk through. A mood breaks, and it’s a horror to get back to where you were, if there was magic happening. Now you can catch something you wouldn’t have caught before.”

The flip side of the digital transformation is that more people are watching movies on DVD and other small-screen formats. That development doesn’t please Lynch. “There’s nothing like a theatrical event,” he says. “In a theater with people, that dream thing that happens. You want people to have the experience of going into another world. That’s a big picture, with good sound, in a dark room, and stay with it.”

“But it’s true,” he continues, “that DVDs make more [money] than the theatrical [release]. You know, more and more people are seeing films on their computer screen. Terrible sound, even if they got add-on speakers. The picture’s small. And if people see them on their phones—how small can small be? And they think they’ve seen the film. They haven’t, really. I hope one of the next steps is to have machines that squirt it big on a wall, with good sound. So people have the chance of having a good experience.”

Lynch takes credit for sound design on Inland Empire, and audio is essential to his vision. “You don’t do all elements at once, but you’re thinking as you go,” he says. “Sometimes you get a sound or a piece of music upfront, and sometimes I play that music for an actor or for the crew or in my phones while I’m shooting.”

Ultimately, he says, he tries to get all the elements “to feel correct, all marry, then the chance is good for the whole thing hanging together. So every sound, all the music, the way it comes in, the way it grows, the way it goes out—supercritical! Sound and picture moving together through time is a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Inland Empire has been described as a collage, or a series of skits, and Lynch admits that it began as something like that. “It was slow going in the beginning, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know it was a feature. It started with some scenes, and it went like that. Write a scene, get people together, shoot the scene. Thinking, Maybe that’s it. Get another idea, a scene comes out it. Write it, get people together, shoot it. Then maybe that’s it.”

For example, the film’s scenes set in Poland were inspired by Lynch’s trip to Lodz to attend the Camerimage Film Festival, which is dedicated to cinematography. “I fell in love with the city in the winter,” he says. “The architecture and the mood of it. And interiors, a certain kind of feel. So I got an idea for a scene.”

If the various elements of the project remained disconnected, he says, it “probably would have ended up on the Internet site as a stand-alone experiment.” But then “ideas started uniting the scenes that had been shot, and a bunch of things were written. And then it went more traditionally toward the end.”

Lynch rejects the suggestion that Inland Empire might have been constructed in the editing room. “No, no, no. Everything was written. And so the editing was pretty much the same process as on any film.”

Born in Montana, Lynch graduated from high school in Alexandria, studied art in Boston and Philadelphia, and has lived in Los Angeles for decades. Yet he has a Midwestern, gee-whiz demeanor that sounds very old-Hollywood, sometimes even suggesting Ronald Reagan. He’s at his most earnest when discussing the philosophy expounded in Catching the Big Fish. “Ideas are like fish, and you can catch them,” he says. “Consciousness plays a role in that, and expanding consciousness and the joy of doing things, bliss, energy. Flow of creativity, fantastic things!”

In 2005 the director established the David Lynch Foundation to support “consciousness-based education.” He says that “schools are filled with stress, violence, lots and lots of ignorance, and confusion and darkness. Suffering! And I’ve visited schools with consciousness-based education, seen and talked to the students, and it’s a revelation. So beautiful! More and more themselves. Strong, self-assured, bright as a shiny penny.”

Such positive thinking might seem incongruous from the creator of Inland Empire, a shadowy tale in which more than one woman is stabbed in the gut with a screwdriver. “It’s the stories,” Lynch says in response. “There are always going to be stories. The artist doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering. It’s not like expanding peace and bliss is going to make stories boring. And sweet, saccharine, with elevator music. It’s not that kind of thing!”

Expanding energy and bliss, to hear Lynch tell it, is not unlike the growing technological options available to tomorrow’s filmmakers. “The guy or girl in the Midwest has got the camera shop down the road. There’s the camera, there’s the tapes, there’s their friends, there’s a room, there’s a light bulb, there’s music. And if ideas come, they can realize those ideas. And before, they couldn’t.