Interview: David Lynch Directs Traffic on the "Lost Highway"
The Visionary Filmmaker Refuses to De-Mystify his Enigmatic Movie.
Article by Steve Biodrowski
LOST HIGHWAY has many moments that clearly identify it as a “David Lynch Film,” but that film did not spring from his mind alone. Having written many scripts on his own, what did he hope that co-writer Barry Gifford would add? “It’s action and reaction when you’re working with someone,” said Lynch. “I think it’s really wrong to say who does what and who wrote that. It’s really kind of a chemical process: you put those two mechanisms together, and out comes something different than either one of us would do on our own. I don’t know quite how it works, but we both tune in to the same thing, and suddenly it starts letting itself be known.”
The unconventional script that resulted, set several challenges for Lynch as a director. For example, one crucial plot point that had to be visualized is the transition from Fred Madison into Pete Drayton, which is presented almost subliminally. Terminator 2-type computer morphing would have been inappropriate, because Madison is not some kind of shape-shifter disguising himself to escape prison; rather, he literally becomes a different person, with an established past, including a home, a family, a girlfriend, and a job. Trusting the power of visuals and sounds to suggest the change, Lynch wasn’t worried about whether he could pull his audience past this strange narrative leap, “but other people were,” he admitted. “Sometimes there’s a difference between the script and the film. This is a case where people who were worried when they saw the film, they had no problem.” On the other hand, Lynch claimed that the unusual ending was never an issue at all. The audaciousness of stopping the film in mid-chase might seem like something that took considerable daring, but Lynch demurred, saying, “That didn’t take any nerve; that’s just the way it was supposed to be.”
One of Lynch’s unexpected coups is the casting of Robert Blake as the Mystery Man a role that seems the antithesis of the actor’s established image. What made the director think this would work when the actor himself had his doubts? “Number One: Robert Blake’s a great actor,” said Lynch. “I’ve always respected him because he’s his own man and he’s not afraid to say what he’s thinking. He’s never been part of the Hollywood scene well, maybe when he was younger, a little bit but he’s a loner. I just liked his work and always wanted to work with him myself. Actors get pigeonholed and type-cast, and they all probably have nights when they say, ‘Hey, why am I playing these things when I’ve got so much more to give?’ You can see what people are capable of doing which may not be what they’ve been doing. Robert Blake just seemed perfect for this role. We met for lunch, and he said he didn’t understand the script, but we talked.” That talk led to a possibly career defining moment.
Although LOST HIGHWAY was independently financed, the film did undergo a process normally associated with studio productions a test screening, after which 25 minutes were cut. “Mary [Sweeny, producer] screened it for about fifty people,” said Lynch. “It was early enough so that it would be a good time to get some input we knew it was too long, but we knew we were going to do more things to it. Before Mary showed it, I saw the film with Barry, and it drove me crazy. I knew what we had to attack; we attacked those things and more, before we got it right.
“Even with only ten people, you can feel a film differently than if you see a film by yourself,” he added. “By yourself, you’re too relaxed, and you’re not really forced to get that feeling of many people in the room which is a horrific feeling, sometimes, but it forces you to see a film through a group’s eyes, and you can learn a lot of things from it. Up to that time, you’ve been working scene by scene and getting the individual scenes working; but seeing it all at once, it could work great scene by scene, but as a whole, it doesn’t.”
Lynch is a director often praised (or damned) for his visuals, as if that were the beginning and end of his talent, but his films have often made innovative use of sound. In the case of Lost Highway, he handled the sound design himself. “Sound is fifty per cent at least maybe forty per cent in some scenes, sixty per cent in other,” he stated. “Sound and picture working together is what films are. It’s many parts, and every part you try to get up to one hundred per cent so that the whole thing can jump when all the parts are there it’s magical. So every single sound has to be supporting that scene and enlarging it. A room is, say, nine by twelve, but when you’re introducing sound to it, you can create a space that’s giant, hearing things outside the room or feeling certain through a vent, and then there are abstract sounds that are like music they give emotions and set different moods. Then music comes in. Transitions from sound effects to musical sound effects to music, or all things going at once, it’s all letting the film talk to you.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).