A Surreal Meditation on Love, Jealousy, Identify, and Reality
By Frederick C Szebin and Steve Biodrowski
David Lynch. The name is synonymous to film-goers around the world with the cinema of the abstract, the surreal, and the obtuse. The director of ERASERHEAD, DUNE, and BLUE VELVET, offers his first feature since TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. This latest work, LOST HIGHWAY, is a dual-storied (or is it the same story?), noirish tale of lust and murder.
Or is it?
Lynch co-wrote the script with Barry Gifford, whose novel Wild at Heart provided the basis for the director’s 1990 motion picture of the same title. Bill Pullman (INDEPENDENCE DAY) stars with Patricia Arquette (ED WOOD), Balthazar Getty (MR. HOL¬LAND’S OPUS), Robert Loggia (INDEPENDENCE DAY), Robert Blake (IN COLD BLOOD), Gary Busey (SILVER BULLET), and Richard Pryor (STIR CRAZY). The film received a limited release in February with a nationwide release in March.
LOST HIGHWAY follows Fred Madison (Pullman), a jazz musician convicted of murdering his wife, Renee (Arquette). But this plot mutates (along with its protagonist) into the story of Pete Dayton (Getty), a young mechanic who may or may not be another version of Fred, who carries on a dangerous liaison with the mistress of a gangster (also played by Arquette who). This all takes place in an imaginary Los Angeles that seems to have emerged from a parallel uni¬verse, and is overseen by the Mystery Man (Blake), a ghostly figure who may (or may not) have supernatural powers. Film noir, German Expressionism, and French New Wave meld to create a story that may never have happened, could be a dream, or a representation of madness.
WRITING THE SCRIPT
If you expect the film’s ultimate meaning to be defined by its director and co-writer, you’d be sorely disappointed. While talking about his latest film, Lynch prefers to be vague about its meanings, choosing to emphasize the effectiveness of cinema as an art form, rather than commenting on the meaning of his own work.
“I had been thinking about identity,” he said. “This came up in my discussions with Barry Gifford and is one of the things LOST HIGHWAY is about.” Which is as concrete as the director is likely to be.
This is the first time Gifford and Lynch collaborated on a script face to face (Lynch adapt¬ed WILD AT HEART on his own). “It was great,” Lynch says of actually writing with Gifford. “Everybody is different. When you have Person A writing with Person F, it goes a certain way. And if Person A writes with Person G, it goes another way. The interaction is based on the individuals in their room, and the process is interesting. I trust Barry’s instincts. We like similar things and had a great time.”
For a film steeped in technique and style, its origins were surprisingly low-tech. Gifford, who does not use a word processor, said he “would just write on long, yellow legal tablets, and an assistant would type it up. We’re both very hard workers, and we concentrate well. We begin, and we just go through it and knock ourselves out.”
Gifford calls Lynch’s film of WILD AT HEART “a great big dark musical comedy. What David managed to keep was the focus, the tenderness between Sailor and Lula, the integrity; it also inspired him to go off into different directions.”
Judging from those differences between the novel and the film, one might assume that LOST HIGHWAY fit a similar pattern, with Gifford supplying a basic, solid narrative, and Lynch inserting those identifiably Lynchian touches. Actually, both writers claim the collaboration was far more integral than that. According to Lynch, when one of them came up with an idea, it was instant¬ly reshaped by the other per¬son, then checked and re¬checked by each other. One idea can have repercussions on what has come before, and all previous work had to be changed because of it. Lynch referred to the collaboration as “an unfolding, beautiful process.”
Gifford concurred, saying, “I really wouldn’t work with anybody I don’t respect. That doesn’t mean you always love the result. But in this case, it’s a challenge.” That challenge consisted of trusting Lynch to visu¬alize the outrageous ideas they were putting on paper. “There’s a thing, where Michael Massee as Andy gets stuck on the table-that’s so amazing the way David filmed it!” Gifford enthused. “We wrote it, think¬ing, `If a guy launched himself at somebody like that, could his head get imbedded?’ Remember how your mother told you to be careful around the corners of a glass table? We were taking that fantasy, like `Don’t play with that BB gun; you’ll shoot your eye out.’ It’s the same kind of thing: what’s the most horrific thing that could happen, and could it real¬ly happen? David said, `Don’t worry about it; just write it. I’ll worry about how to make it happen.’ Having complete confidence in him that way is very liberating.”
As horrible as this particular image is, the precision of the execution renders it almost comic, in a strange way. “It’s all just fantastic,” said Gifford. “It’s sort of beyond black humor. Because we had this freedom of being in a fantasy world, more or less, we could do anything. If spaceships came down, which they practically did, it wouldn’t be out of con¬text, given where we’re at. That’s a tremendous structure; I don’t know if everyone under¬stood it once we sprang it on them.”
Indeed, many have been perplexed by LOST HIGHWAY. Gifford, however, insists that there is a completely rational explanation for the apparently surreal events on screen. [See sidebar] According to Gifford, Fred Madison is suffering a kind of psychological fugue, a condition in which a person creates another identity for him¬self. This is manifested in the film when Fred literally trans¬forms into Pete, a younger character with his own identity and past history, for the film’s second plot. This is far too much analysis for Lynch, who prefers to leave interpretation to viewers.
“Barry may have his idea of what the film means,” said Lynch, “and I may have my own idea, and they may be two different things. And yet, we worked together on the same film. The beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. Nobody agrees on anything in the world today. When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t do any good for Barry to say `This is what it means.’ Film is what it means. If Barry or any¬one else could capture what the film is in words, then that’s poetry.”
Still, Lynch insists he isn’t being deliberately obtuse; he may not favor advancing a specific interpretation, but he does want the film open to interpretation. “There is a key in the film as to its meaning,” Lynch continued, “but keys are weird. There are surface keys, and there are deeper keys. Intellectual thinking leaves you high and dry sometimes. Intuitive thinking where you get a marriage of feelings and intellect lets you feel the answers where you may not be able to articulate them. Those kinds of things are used in life a lot, but we don’t use them too much in cinema. There are films that stay more on the surface, and there’s no problem interpreting their meaning.”
One key to interpreting the film may – or may not – rest in the character known only as the Mystery Man. Played by Robert Blake, best known for realistic, streetwise characters such as BARETTA, the Mystery Man is the first overt moment in the film when the picture steps beyond the bounds of reality. He’s a ghost¬ly figure who can call himself on the phone and possibly direct Fate. He may even be Fate personified or Fred’s conscience. Or not.
“The Mystery Man came from an old idea I had,” said Lynch. “I told Barry a version of what ended up in the film. I was halfway through the story, and it looked like he wasn’t listening to me. He just said, `That’s it!’ and started writing stuff down. The character came out of a feeling of a man who, whether real or not, gave the impression that he was super¬natural.”
Blake may seem an odd choice for the role, but Lynch admires the Emmy and People’s Choice Award-winner not only for his skill as an actor, but, for his uncompromising honesty. Wanting to work with Blake for quite a while, Lynch cast the actor against type even though Blake admit¬ted that he didn’t understand the script. “He was willing to take a chance,” says Lynch. “Somewhere in talking and rehearsing, there is a magical moment where actors catch a current; they’re on the right road. If they really catch it, then whatever they do from then on is correct and it all comes out of them from that point on.”
Helping Lynch visualize his surreal Los Angeles were two long-time collaborators: producer-editor Mary Sweeney (BLUE VELVET, WILD AT HEART, TWIN PEAKS) and cinematographer Peter Deming (HBO’s HOTEL ROOM, ABC’s ON THE AIR).
PRODUCING THE FILM
A year and a half before LOST HIGHWAY was written, Sweeney had been preparing to begin work on another Lynch script. The producer didn’t like the rewrites as much as the first draft, and told him so. “It kind of took the steam out of his enthusiasm for the project,” said Sweeney. “It was a little tough for me to be honest with him, and it was hard for him to take it. So, it was with no little trepidation that I read LOST HIGHWAY, and I ripped through it. It was a great read, and I was so excited in doing it.”
Sweeney is producer with Tom Sternberg and Deepak Nayar, who served as on-set producer, while Sweeney picked up the reins during post¬production, when her editing skills came into play. Despite the free-flowing nature of the film, Sweeney admits to no problems piecing the work together. “Working with David is just great,” she said. “He’s an all-around filmmaker, very involved every step of the way, certainly in editing, which is very important. We work together very well. There was absolutely no fear; I told him what I thought all the time, and sometimes he wasn’t thrilled. I’ll make a first cut during production; he gives me many notes and goes on his way. I’ll make the changes, and he comes back. He had confidence in me, and our communication was good enough that he could tell me what he wants, knowing he’ll get it. If it doesn’t work on the cutting end, he accepts that. We do collaborate, but he is very much the director in the cutting room.”
Conventional films can be restrictive in their linear narratives, but those restrictions provide guidelines for the filmmakers to follow: the leading man wouldn’t disappear in the middle of the picture, and the film wouldn’t end in the middle of a car chase. Still, editing LOST HIGHWAY was not as wide open as one might imagine. “All of that’s in the script,” said Sweeney. “David knew exactly what he wanted, and it’s enhanced beautifully by the way he shoots things and how visual the film is. Working with him and getting dailies makes every day Christmas-all of the crew shows up; you can’t believe what you’re seeing; and it’s all so exciting. It wasn’t a walk on the wild side for me. The film is very close to the script.
“What’s interesting with David is you have to cut knowing how you’re going to work it out, which I do know very well,” Sweeney continued. “You can trust certain things that feel awkward. He knows exactly what he’s going to do, and it’s going to be full of sounds. David does the sound design for LOST HIGHWAY. You just know the footage is going to be greatly enhanced. It’s as old as the hills in film¬making; the way you cut a scary sequence with music enhances it. There are sequences like that in the film. The transformation from Fred (Pullman) to Pete (Getty) has got terrific sounds.”
Musical is another element that enhances a film, and LOST HIGHWAY mixes existing material from David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed, and Marilyn Manson (who appears in the film as ‘Porno Star #1’), with an origi¬nal score by Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS).
For LOST HIGHWAY, most of the score was recorded in Prague, with additional com¬positions done in London. “David and Angelo work together in such a way,” says Sweeney, “that long before they went to Prague, they had a couple sessions where they sat down and came up with some melodies that Angelo eventual¬ly translated to orchestral arrangements. Some of the music, like the end title music by David Bowie, was chosen by David in pre-production. He knew right away that’s what he wanted for the end titles. Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor and some of that other stuff came in at the eleventh hour, and we had to figure out a place for them. We actually replaced a song with a song from Smashing Pumpkins.
“Music came in different stages,” Sweeney continues. “All through post-production, David listened to music. He listens to music while he thinks about writing. It’s really integral to him. He knows when something is completely ready and when it’s not. We use temporary music tracks, but the problem with temp tracks is you aren’t using what you want in the end. The music will change, and your picture changes in how it’s cut, which changes the internal rhythm of a scene and how it feels. We only use temp music as part of the process of selection. Once a song is in there, it’s pretty much going to stay, except in that one case.”
PHOTOGRAPHING THE DARKNESS
Another important key to the film’s effectiveness is its cinematography. Unlike the brightly-lit comedies Peter Deming has worked on, such as MY COUSIN VINNY, LOST HIGHWAY offers a grayish, murky world of all-encompassing darkness. During the 1940s and 1950s, the heyday of film noir, black-and-white film stocks were used that were much slower and rendered shadows much more effectively that color stocks.
Lynch originally hoped to shoot LOST HIGHWAY in black-and-white, but the financial realities of releasing a monochrome picture to a color-spoiled audience kept that from happening. “In retrospect,” said Deming, “I don’t think filming in black and white would have been the right way to go.” To realize his noirish world, Lynch let Deming shoot LOST HIGHWAY in varying levels of darkness. The film is a little creepier than something that has contrast, with few exteriors or daylight scenes. Whenever he could, Deming consciously used hardly any light at all to keep contrast down.
“There are many places in the movie where I would normally use a back light, but didn’t,” Deming laughed. “So you have people kind of melding into the background. It’s kind of an extension of when Fred walks down the hallway and disappears; it’s keeping that feeling through the rest of the movie. In another film, a director would say, `What about a back light?’ and 90-percent of the time I’d put it there, but not for this movie. That was kind of fun.
“Sometimes I did things that, in other films, would be looked at as a mistake,” Deming continued. “In this film, it may have been a mistake to begin with, but you embrace it!” – he laughed – “I took the look as far as I could. I’ve been watching David’s work since ERASERHEAD, and had a feeling of images that he likes, both in watching his work and talking with him.”
To ensure their planned darkness wouldn’t be `corrected’ by a well-meaning processing lab, Deming kept in daily contact with the lab developing LOST HIGHWAY. He would warn the lab that they would be getting more of the same either under or over exposed and told them not to adjust the contrast. Deming was going for a “thought-out” darkness based on talks with Lynch, who usually left final lighting-or lack of it-up to his cinematographer.
“We talked about two or three scenes before we started shooting,” Deming said. “Basically, we just talked about color and things like that. Once we rehearsed a scene, we discussed how dark he wanted to go. He would rehearse while I watched. Then he would go away as I lighted the scene. If he had any comments about the lighting, he would always mention them. Fortunately it wasn’t too often, but it did happen. It’s not something I dread. I kind of look forward to it.”
Deming relied on spot metering and cranked-down F-stops when shooting dark scenes. Some sequences became so dark that viewers have to lean for¬ward and squint to see what is happening on screen. “I remember when Oliver Stone’s JFK came out,” said Deming. “[Cinematographer] Bob Richardson did a lot of cool stuff with over exposure, burning people out. I joked that maybe I’ll do the same thing with underexposure. Somehow, I don’t think it will take off quite as much. The thing I wanted to achieve was giving the feeling that anything could come out of the background, and to leave a certain question about what you’re looking at. The film is working under the surface while you’re watching it.”
This modus operandi sets up the Mystery Man who at first seems almost a subliminal presence, until he makes eye contact and steps forward. Another image that LOST HIGHWAY offers to keep viewers talking is Fred’s transition into Pete. Not only do main characters change (or do they?), but the plot goes off into another direction (or does it?). Deming did several things to visually distinguish Fred’s and Pete’s stories.
“Fred’s story is certainly darker than Pete’s,” Deming said. “For Pete, we did a little more with weird compositions. To try to get inside his head, David kept throwing the focus out of scenes by pulling the lens in and out while we were shooting. I think we also backed off the color a little bit from the richness in the beginning of the movie. But we didn’t want to drastically change looks because for most people who see it, the first connection is that these two guys are the same guy. Because of that, you don’t want to distinguish the two sections of the film too much.”
Pete’s story comes across as the more classically narrative of the two (or is it just the one?) stories. Fred’s story takes place primarily in his house, whereas Pete’s tale is a bit more mobile. To further confuse clarity, which gleefully seems to be Lynch’s forte, Fred appears to become Pete, then switch back again. More of the transformation was shot than actually used. Lynch’s sensibility is not to give audiences too much information about what is really happening, preferring to let them imagine details from the snippets offered.
With all the planning, a few happy accidents during production did catch Lynch’s fancy. One such happenstance occurred during the rehearsal of a dolly shot. At the end of the rehearsal, Lynch saw the image on a monitor as the dolly was being brought back to its original position, while the camera remained stationary. The director liked the resulting image better than what was planned and wound up using it.
Another time, first assistant director Scott Cameron was changing lenses, as Lynch sat by looking at the monitor. The screen went from sharpness at one focal length, to blur, to focus, at a new focal length. He was impressed with the image and decided to experiment with it while shooting. But for all the planning and lucky breaks in the world, film-making, at best, is a perfect physical representation of Murphy’s Law, and Deming found himself challenged by LOST HIGHWAY’s excursions out¬doors, where scenes were suddenly bright and contrasty, compared to the created murk of the film’s interiors. The biggest challenge came with the nighttime desert scenes, when aesthetics became secondary to mere logistics.
“The weather alternated between cold and wind, dusty and dirty,” said Deming. “We had a lot of different lighting elements with us. The rig for Fred’s drive at the end was pretty elaborate; we had a semi with two generators pulling us in order to have enough power to do what we needed. It was a pretty interesting image as it drove through the middle of nowhere, with everything around it black as night.”
The first cut of LOST HIGHWAY ran two-and-a-half hours. Mary Sweeney hand-picked an audience of 50 people of varying backgrounds and ages to get a variety of impressions. Lynch knew the film was too long, and realized what had to be cut, and the comments of the 50 solidified for him what had to go, even though some of the decisions were difficult to make.
“There was a lot of stuff about Pete’s life with his buddies,” said Sweeney. “There were a couple of great scenes that were visually so fantastic that I hated to lose them, so we kept them in. Pete goes out with his friends, first to the drive-in, then to the bowling alley, where he’s dancing with Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and both of those scenes are significant. We lost a lot in that area, and immediately after the transformation there are a couple of things that weren’t moving the story forward. It all had to do with Pete’s life, which were scenes that weren’t going to give people the answers they were looking for. Those scenes were just hanging there.”
The film was eventually cut down to two hours, ten minutes. An earlier scene that was lost illustrated the tenuous relationship between Fred and his wife. It was one of those character-revealing scenes that could be done without. If it happened to be a clue as to the ultimate meaning of LOST HIGHWAY, we’ll never know. The film is meant to cause discussion, but such films can lead well-intentioned amateur philosophers astray as they lock onto insignificant scenes or actions, thinking them to be genuine clues. If viewers do that with LOST HIGHWAY, Sweeney and Lynch will be quite pleased to have stirred the viewer anyway.
“David sings praises to those people,” says Sweeney. “He gives a lot of details. People give the film a signifi¬cance that tells part of their own story, and that makes David so happy. I’ve had people give very funny reactions. There are all kinds of explana¬tions for who Patricia Arquette (playing both Fred’s wife and Pete’s girlfriend) is; Fred is having a dream about the type of person he’d like to be with, or someone he used to be with, or she’s his alter ego. People come up with great stories and I can’t say if they’re right or wrong. Students write their theses on David’s movies, and they write fascinating things, but it’s not what David was thinking when he made the film. People read a lot into his work. I think it’s great. You stimulate people. That’s very satisfying for an artist.”
Sweeney hopes audiences will embrace LOST HIGHWAY for the intentionally irresolvable puzzle it was meant to be, and don’t resent the lack of concrete answers. Lynch’s intention was to bring dreams into the theaters that viewers can connect with on their own terms, not on the filmmaker’s.
“David has a very strong vision, and in other ways he’s very reckless,” says Sweeney. “He has no fear. The more well-known you get, the more difficult that becomes. I’m very proud that he’s still `out there.’ He’s always lamenting that he wants to change his name, get a wig, grow a beard, make a movie as a complete unknown and see how people take it. His films are so recognizable that he couldn’t do that, but could another person come along and make something like this? It’s an interesting question.”
Lynch’s reputation certainly precedes him on everything he does, but he finds that to be a good thing.”You find out when you screen a movie for people how it’s going,” he says, “but you don’t really know how large a section of the population is going to take it. You have to check things within yourself, let that be your guide and hope for the best when it’s finished. The only thing you can do is make your film and not worry about what will happen. Just stay true to yourself.”
Copyright 1997 by Frederick C. Szebin and Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10)