David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY makes its debut on domestic widescreen DVD tomorrow – a fact that should please fans who have had to content themselves for years with an out-of-print pan-and-scan version or a Region 2 import disc. In honor of this event, we are dipping into the Cinefantastique archives to presents our extensive coverat of the film, which originally appeared in the April 1997 issue (Volume 28, Nuber 10), which featured a cover story on the making of Stuart Gordon’s SPACE TRUCKERS. You can read about the making of the film here, and there is an interview with David Lynch here. Later in the day we will be adding interviews with co-writer Barry Gifford and with actor Robert Blake. You will be able to find articles from this issue in the Archives for April 1997.
According to ESplatter.Com, the long-awaited widescreen DVD of David Lynch’s 1997 masterpiece LOST HIGHWAY will be released on March 25, 2008. The film was released on home video in VHS and laserdisc formats, but the only DVD release has been a Region 2 disc. If memory serves, when co-writer Barry Gifford appeared after the screening of the film last year, he said that the DVD ready to go, but something was holding it up, perhaps legal issues. (Don’t quote me on this – I’ll have to dig up my notes to confirm or contradict my hazy memory.)
MTV.Com has an interview with David Lynch in which the writer-director discusses the recent DVD release of his ultra-weird indie-flick INLAND EMPIRE. Unlike most previous home video releases of the enigmatic director’s films, this one is filled with extras that reveal behind-the-scenes secrets. Lynch explains:
Pulling the curtain on some things isn’t good. I always want to protect the film and experience for people. But this time there were a lot of scenes … that formed a kind of thing that I call “other things that happened.” It’s like, you meet the family in the film — except for the sister who lives in Ohio. And now with this it fills that out. And then — I don’t cook, but I had this recipe for quinoa. And cooking shows are very popular. So I thought I’d do a cooking thing.
Asked if he would consider revisiting any of his previous films to provide a similar DVD treatment, Lynch mentioned TWIN PEAKS feature, FIRE WALK WITH ME:
The only one that’s been talked about is “Fire Walk With Me.” There are many short scenes that weren’t in the final film that on their own are interesting. They just never fit in the film. There’s talk of me editing and mixing those. There’s a scene with Jack Nance. It’s a short scene with Ed [Wright], who played Mr. Mibbler. I loved this guy. He was in “Wild at Heart” as well. Both of them are gone, so to fix those scenes, for the memory of them, it’s real important.
STAR WARS fans may also be interested to read that George Lucas offered Lynch the opportunity to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI, but Lynch turned the project down, saying, “You should direct this. It’s your thing! It’s not my thing.”
Unlike last week, which was thin on science-fiction, fantasy, and horror film DVD releases, today sees a veritable deluge. Only a handful are new titles; most are anniversary versions, collector’s editions, and/or box sets repackaging two or three previously available titles.
David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE is one of the most confounding films of the writer-director’s career, and that is truly saying something. The basic premise sounds like a fairly straight-forward mystery-horror film: Laura Dern plays an actress hired to play a role in the movie (directed by Jeremy Irons). It turns out that the project is a remake of a previous film that was never completed, due to mysterious mishaps. Is the film cursed? Will lightening strike twice? Are Dern and her fellow film-makers doomed to recreate the previous disaster? Read More
October 30 will see the release of the “Definitive Gold Box Edition” DVD set of TWIN PEAKS, the wonderfully weird television show from David Lynch and Mark Frost. The previous DVD release is out of print, and the new version will include lots of material never before available in the U.S., such as the International Version of the pilot, with the Alternate Ending that wrapped up the story so that the two-hour episode could air as a stand-alone movie overseas.
Other features include Introductions for each episode by the Log Lady, several featurettes on such subjects the making of the show and creating the music, a “Return to Twin Peaks” feature, image galleries, TV spots, an interactive map, a “Falling” music video, five Georgia Coffee commercials, and excerpts from series star Kyle MacLachlan’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, which includes a PEAKS parody.
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)
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.” Read More
Making Your Blood Run Cold, Again.
Robert Blake has made a career out of playing realistic, believable characters, whom audiences can relate to as regular, ordinary people – whether a poor young boy in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE or a streetwise cop BARETTA. In fact, in his most famous (and chilling) feature film performance, he portrayed a real person in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel IN COLD BLOOD.Therefore, it is a bit of a shock to find this actor suddenly playing not a regular Joe but a surreal character who may or may not exist only in the mind of a demented protagonist. His small but pivotal supporting performance in David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY is one of the film’s many highlights – almost as unnerving, in its own way, as his role in IN COLD BLOOD, though with a strange overlay of dark humor. Of course, the fact that the Mystery Man (as he is billed in the credits) doesn’t exist makes him somewhat less frightening on a visceral level that a real-life psychopathic killer. But the unreal element adds its own layer – a sense of the uncanny, of dread all the more frightening because it is so unspecified and mysterious.
No one was more taken aback by this unusual bit of casting against type than Blake himself. “I was surprised David Lynch called me,” said the actor. “I would have thought that he’d call Dennis Hopper or one of his guys. But he just said, ‘Hey, I want you to play this.’ I have no idea why! I read the script like nine fuckin’ times, and I didn’t understand one fuckin’ word of it! I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to play this? I’ll be the most cooperative actor in the world, because I have no fuckin’ opinion on anything of what the hell to do!’ I made this mistake once of asking him what my character was, and I realized that he really is too much of an artist to be that specific about things. It was an extraordinary experience. He really is a rare commodity in America. In Europe and other places, you find film authors, or you find them in colleges or at Sundance, where somebody takes an 8mm, four dollars, and goes out and makes a movie. But this guy does it as a professional and really makes the whole film, everything.”
Blake found that his director was resistant to providing analytic explanations for his bizarre characters. “I don’t think he knows!” exclaimed Blake. “He doesn’t come from that place at all. As a matter of fact, when you work with him you have to be really ready to come to him as a child. You work with Sidney Pollack or Mark Rydell, and they want the spine of the character and the subtext, the conflict, the psycho-neurotic mumbo-jumbo, and all of that. David Lynch doesn’t – and I understand it now, because I found out that he was a painter, an artist. He really speaks an entirely different language. He’s very creative, but he doesn’t speak the normal cinema language. If you don’t like him and trust him and get up off of your own shit, it can be a disaster, because he’ll do things: You never find Martin Scorsese or Sidney Pollack walking up to you and saying, “Okay, turn and look at me. Now tell me how you’re going to say the line.’ And I start to turn to the actor I’m working with, and Lynch says, ‘No, no, no! Look at me! Say it to me.’ Directors don’t do that. They let you work off the other actor. He’d see me walking to my dressing room and say, ‘Robert, how are you going to say that line?’ And you just have to go there with him, or it will be a fucking nightmare.”
Blake added that this approach was totally the opposite of what one learns in acting classes, about “working off the other artists, taking it from them. You never give an actor a line reading. You don’t tell him to scratch his nose when he says this word. But David is like that, and you have to be loose enough and trusting enough of yourself to say, ‘You know, I don’t need all that other shit. I don’t need that Method. I can do this. I can do this just the way a child could.’ So then you’re okay. Otherwise, he’ll throw you all day long, because he doesn’t do anything that directors, as such, do.”
Blake refers to this process simply as “letting go.” He was able to find a basis for this trust in his own early career, as a child actor. “I come from the 1930s, 1940s,” he recalled. “I grew up at MGM, and I worked with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, all those people. And I went to Warner Brothers, as a child, worked with Bogart, [John] Huston, and those people. Tracy said, ‘The two most important things in acting are a child’s imagination and a sense of truth.’ That’s what you have to bring to David. You have to get rid of all that acting technique, the classes, the books, and all that bullshit, and just bring him a child’s imagination and a sense of truth, so that you can make true whatever it is that he wants you to do.”
Blake found that verbal communication often didn’t work with his director, who preferred visual modes. For example: “I said, ‘David, I have some ideas about how this character should look.’ He said, ‘No, no, no! Just show me. Use your imagination.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what Tracy said.’ I went off with the makeup people, and I got into this whole weird, fuckin’ Kabuki-looking guy with ears [sticking out] and stuff. I was imagining in my own strange world those times I have seen things that weren’t there, when a ghostly appearance occurred. I knew it was my imagination; I wasn’t really seeing something. But I sort of knew what the Devil looked like; I knew what Fate looked like. I used to have this image of myself that would come to me sometimes. I’d go out to the desert and get involved in some strange, isolated kind of thing, and all of a sudden I would come to myself as this white, ghostly creature. I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my conscience talking to me.’ So I started going with that. I cut my fuckin’ hair off, and I put a crack in the middle of it and all this shit. And the makeup people said, ‘You’re going crazy, man! Nobody in this movie looks like that; everybody looks regular!’ I said, ‘Leave me alone; just give me some shit.’ I put this black outfit on. I walked up to David, and he said, ‘Wonderful!’ and turned around and walked away. Now, you could never do that with a regular director, take a film where there’s all these people who look absolutely normal and say, ‘I’m going to go completely away and make an entirely different film. My film will be separate from Pullman’s, Arquette’s or anybody else’s. I’m making a surrealistic, oriental film!’” – he laughs – “And I did! Imagine how strange his thinking must be to look at me looking all weird like that and [with] all these other straight-looking people, and say, ‘Oh, yes. That’ll work’ You’d never even think of doing that with Sidney Pollack. You wouldn’t walk on his set like a Kabuki dancer. But Lynch just said, ‘Use your imagination. How do you see this guy? What the hell is he?’ Because I asked him what the guy was, and he didn’t answer me!”
Blake added that Lynch “immediately led me to believe that he didn’t deal in those terms, any more than you would walk up to Salvador Dali or Chagall and say, ‘What do you mean in this painting.’ ‘What the fuck do you mean by “What do I mean”? I painted the painting: you get what you get out of it; I got what I got out of it.’ I’m really convinced that Lynch is that way. You know better than to do that with a painter. Nobody goes up to a painter, especially an abstract painter – you don’t ask Heronimous Bosch, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Because he would simply say, ‘If you don’t get it, I can’t tell you. If it don’t mean nothing to you, get the fuck out of here!’ You can’t go up to a great musician who’s just finished an abstract impression of what the tune was and say, ‘Now, what were you doing?’ ‘I was doing my thing.’ David just does his thing.”
Blake’s Mystery Man (as he is called in the credits) is the first intrusion of the preternatural into what has up until that point been a fairly concrete, if somewhat mysterious, narrative. The question then was: how would the normal world react to this portentous, corporeal apparition? “The character does some surreal things,” said Blake, “but I was very curious as to what David was going to do with the way I looked, how was he going to have people react? Normally, when you see somebody who looks that way, you say, ‘God you look weird, man! What the fuck is your story?’ I thought, ‘What is David going to do when I walk into this party scene?’ And it’s very interesting, because he told everybody, ‘React to him like he’s a butler. Don’t look at him and say, “Boy, is he weird!”’ He made all of them behave as though I looked normal. That was just a choice he made at the spur of the moment. I didn’t have Bill Pullman go, ‘Hey, you look crazy!’ He just turned around and said, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ David didn’t have anybody refer to the way I looked throughout the whole movie. No one was surprised or repulsed. He just said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with this character: I’m going to have everybody deal with him like he looks normal.’ And I never asked him why he did that, but I probably wouldn’t have it I was directing. I would have had people ‘behave’ around that makeup, but he didn’t do that.”
Of the final result, Blake said, “I saw the film, and I liked it the way I like Ingmar Bergman, but I didn’t understand it. What you enjoy is the experience of seeing it. I remember when I was a young man; we always used to go to Bergman films, WILD STRAWBERRIES and all these strange films. Everybody would come out, sit there till three o-clock in the morning, smoking dope and discussing the movies. I would, too, except I knew I was full of shit!” – he laughs – “‘Well, I really think that when Max Von Sydow was doing this, he was really doing that.’ It was bullshit. It’s the same with David. I don’t understand it; you just have to groove with it. He takes a realistic character like Robert Loggia’s character and all of a sudden he stops a guy on the highway and beats the shit out of him for following him too close. Where the fuck did that come from, and where did it go to? You just have to roll with it. Like I said, if I was looking at Heronymous Bosch and finding one corner of the painting and saying, ‘Well, if there’s a squirrel over there fucking a cockroach, I wonder what that means?”
Although working with Lynch was a different experience for Blake, it is one that he would not mind repeating. “I would like to work with him sometime where I have a chance to act,” he said, “When you’re doing something so obtuse and stylized like that, I think, personally, the best thing is not to go with it: you let the makeup, wardrobe, character, and the dialogue speak for themselves, and as an actor, your job is almost to be the narrator. Like in the first scene, walking to Bill Pullman: the whole situation is so macabre and so menacing that the thing to do as an actor is to leave it alone. If you start going with it, then it’s going to go over the fucking top; it’s going to become a joke to the audience. So you don’t get to do much acting. If I came in to play a scene like ‘Hey, you fucked my girlfriend, so I’m going to kill you,’ I get to act that. But if I come in dressed in this Kabuki outfit and all this shit, then the best thing for me to do is nothing. I could have made a big deal out of taking the gunout of Pullman’s hand and pointing it at Loggia and killing him, but everything else was cooking, so the less you do, the better it’s going to be. Otherwise, it’ll be all over the fuckin’ place. When I came in to see Pullman, I could have had a whole lot of weird, strange shit going on, but then it would be all fucked up.”
Blake explains this approach by pointing to his early apprenticeship. “I was trained by very good actors,” he stated. “I was on the set when I was five years old with Spencer Tracy. A lot of what I learned growing up in terms of artistry is very clean, very tidy, very organized. If you look at the great films of Warner Brothers or Metro, you don’t see anything like you would see in a film like CASINO: there’s nothing loose; the dialogue is clean; you get through taking, and then I talk and look at you. What I was trained on, by Gable and all those people, was a tremendous amount of economy, simplicity. It was all like a Picasso painting. When I did TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and I watched Bogart work, even though he had scenes where he absolutely went insane, you didn’t see him – what we call – chewing up the scenery. He wasn’t banging off of walls and doing all this stuff; he was very clean and very specific. I like those kinds of actors. I think Anthony Hopkins has become that. The more he works, the less he does. By the time he did Hannibal Lecter, he was doing very little. He just looked – very clean, very economical. He wasn’t all over the fucking place. He wasn’t climbing the walls, wandering around. He didn’t use his arms or hands. He didn’t use any outrageous makeup. He was just clean, tidy, and fucking brilliant. Don’t give it to the audience; leave it to the audience. Which is what I was doing with the Mystery Man. Less is more, until finally was doing nothing except putting the words out.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).
David Lynch has often been quoted describing ERASERHEAD as “a dream of dark and troubling things.” Since that 1978 debut, he has gone on to adapt his dream-like sensibility to far more accessible narrative structures. No matter how arresting the imagery is in The Elephant Man and Dune, and no matter how weird things get in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, the audience basically knows who’s who and what’s happening. In Wild at Heart, Lynch even took a story, from a novel by Barry Gifford, and managed to graft on surreal images without ever quite losing the thread of the main narrative, the “story of Sailor and Lula” (as the book is subtitled).
LOST HIGHWAY, co-written by Gifford, seems to take a similar approach at first with Robert Blake’s Mystery Man intruding upon the otherwise normal, if not altogether happy, life of Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison. But when Madison, imprisoned for the murder of his wife, Rene, metamorphoses into a new character (Balthazar Getty) and then meets Alice, a blonde doppelganger of Rene (both played by Patricia Arquette), the story begins to spin beyond any kind of rational understanding on the part of viewers, who no longer know who’s who or what’s happening.
Many viewers (including critics like Roger Ebert) did not understand what had been sprung on them. “In fact, both Lynch and I thought it was a very easy story to understand and that it made perfect sense,” Gifford claimed. “I think David, especially, was upset by the fact that so many people seemed to have a problem understanding it, saying ‘Oh, this is nonsense. These guys are just being perverse on purpose.’ That was the conclusion of a lot of people, especially people who only saw the movie once, or were pushed out of shape by what they thought was our fucking with their heads.”
Lynch himself has no desire to enlighten viewers via interviews; he wants them to take their own meaning from what they see on the screen. Gifford, on the other hand, is not so reluctant to discuss his intentions. So what is his explanation for the strange narrative?
The answer, of course, depends on the question, and the question that Lynch originally posed, as Gifford recalls, was: “What if one person woke up one day and was another person?” Gifford said, “We had to create a scenario to make that plausible.”
To explain the film’s labyrinth logic, Gifford points to a psychological condition in which a person invents a new identity for himself. “We discovered a clinical, psychological condition which fit our premise a ‘psychogenic fugue,’” said Gifford. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identity for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person. There are different kinds of fugue states, and a psychogenic fugue takes place only in your own mind you don’t really go anywhere. It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. This was something I researched with a clinical psychiatrist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Pete Drayton.”
This explains how Fred Madison, locked in a prison cell, awaiting execution, transforms into a new character with his own past history. “It’s as if you decided to change your life and showed up with a different name and entirely created a new identify for yourself and really grew to believe you were this new person,” said Gifford. “It’s a mental fugue, for lack of a better term. The basic thing I can tell you is that Fred Madison creates this counter world and goes into it, because the crime he has committed is so terrible that he can’t face it.”
The fugue is a kind of escape that Madison ultimately cannot maintain, because unpleasant reality keeps impinging on it. “The fugue state allows him to create a fantasy world, but within this fantasy world, the same problems occur,” said Gifford. “In other words, he’s no better at maintaining this relationship, dealing with or controlling this woman, than he was in real life. This woman isn’t who he thinks she is, really, so all the so-called facts of his known life with Renee pop up again in Alice Wakefield.”
In this interpretation, the appearance of the Mystery Man is the first hint of the psychotic break that Madison will eventually suffer. “He’s a product of Fred’s imagination too,” said Gifford. “I think the phone call scene at the party is pretty interesting. A lot of work went into it. It’s supposed to be seamless; it’s supposed to look easy and sound normal. But there’s a lot that goes into writing this kind of thing. It’s the first visible manifestation of Fred’s madness. No one else can see the Mystery Man.”
Director David Lynch, on the other hand, prefers not to provide pat answers to the many questions raised by the script’s convoluted narrative contortions. “Barry may have his idea of what the film means,” said the director, “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 anyone else could capture what the film is in words, then that’s poetry.”
In his own defense, Gifford responds, “In fact, I never told people what it meant. I did mention this business about psychogenic fugue, as did David, in many interviews. We did agree that we would never explain the film, and we haven’t, to my knowledge. It’s for each person to make up his own mind about it. He’s absolutely right, except that that phrase was in fact used in the promotion in the film, so I wasn’t talking out of school.”
Lynch, for his part, insisted he was not playing fair with the audience, providing the necessary material for them to make their own interpretations, not just generating random images. “There is a key in the film as to its meaning,” said the director. “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.”
So, has the mystery (not to mention the Mystery Man) been explained away? Well, the film is consistent with this reading; however, it does not go out of its way to tip audiences off to this interpretation. For example, there is no obvious stylistic shift when Madison enters the fantasy world of Pete Drayton; if anything, the narrative and visual are more concrete at least until the alternate reality starts to break down again. “If you read the screenplay, it’s easier to see,” said Gifford. “I suppose you could have gone into black and white just as if, on the page, we could have gone to different type, like italics.”
To grasp Gifford’s take on the story requires, perhaps, a second viewing. “I agree, because there’s so much menace the first time you see it,” said the writer. “I don’t know how you felt, and it’s hard for me or David to talk about it, because when you live with a thing for so long and David had to go through the post-production on it, which is monumental in his films, because of the care he takes with the soundtrack and every element of it it’s hard to be objective about it.”
After an initial test screening with a hand-picked, 50 person audience, 25 minutes were cut, bringing the running time down to 130 minutes. “Some people didn’t quite understand things at first, especially in the longer version,” said Gifford. “My youngest son, who’s 21, got it all he’s amazing that way. Some people had some resistance, I think, just because they were trying to make sense out of it, but if you keep an open mind, the sense comes to you; you see what it is; and you can interpret it several ways.”
Despite its willful resistance toward offering easy answers, LOST HIGHWAY is never less than entertaining. For those unable to make sense out of it, the film resembles a bad dream about mysterious forces manipulating a hapless protagonist. “I think the fear of being out of control is a very real one that most people do have,” said Gifford. “Seeing a spirit or a presence or having—I don’t want to sound clinical—a psychotic episode, seeing the Mystery Man, whom nobody else can see, and having conversations with him this is all really an element of losing control. It’s all right there, and it’s not often that you would see it on the screen, especially in this way. There have been other examples of this thing, but never close to being filmed in this way.”
Of the critical reaction, Gifford said, “We went out on a limb with this thing and just let everything out. When you do that, people don’t generally like this sort of stuff, so you know you’re going to get slapped around to some extent. However, here we are, years later. It’s still shown all around the world all the time. There are books written about it and college courses devoted to it. So it provoked interest in some way.”
Ultimately, Gifford thinks viewers should not feel obligated to come to a definite interpretation of what the film means. “This has a lot to do with the idea of entering a movie theatre and surrendering, as you would unto a dream,” said the writer. “The idea is that the images and the sound wash over you, and you submit. Now if you don’t like what you’re seeing—if it’s a bad dream, as I’m sure LOST HIGHWAY was for a lot of people, especially the first forty minutes—you can get up and walk out, unlike having a bad dream while you’re asleep. But that’s the whole sense of seeing it in a movie theatre and seeing it in a correct way: entering that dream world and trying not to analyze it, trying not to think about it while we’re watching it. I know that’s a difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really crucial, especially when dealing with certain films, like Lynch’s. LOST HIGHWAY is certainly one of those. I think it’s a shame when a film is over-analyzed.”
Gifford also prefers to avoid attaching labels to the film. Asked about the film’s noir styling and the script’s hard-boiled elements (such as the dangerous romance between young mechanic Pete Dayton and gangsters moll Alice Wakefield) he responds, “I don’t think it’s ‘hard-boiled at all,” adding, “Certainly, there are the iconic images, like the Patricia Arquette character, Alice Wakefield, resembling Barbara Stanwyck as she looked in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. So you can see how it fits, but I never thought of it as film noir, any more than I thought of it as science fiction or horror. It’s scary, but it’s psychologically frightening, and there isn’t much gore. I hope not everybody feels like they were in a bad dream. That certainly wasn’t my intention. I just don’t think of the word ‘bad’ in connection with it. It was sad more than bad.”
Gifford concluded that what he sees in the film “is a sadness really—terror, certainly—and it’s a kind of a metaphor for our time: a sort of fractured existence, of the pressures that people are laboring under at the very end of the 20th century. In other words, it’s not so easy to cope. I think that LOST HIGHWAY is really reflective of the time. There’s a big revolution in terms of the demand on your brain; it looks like there’ll be no end to it things are changing so fast it seems like you can’t keep up with it. I think, for us, it exists as a metaphor. I don’t want to presume to speak for David in that sense, but for me that’s how it feels.”
Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).
This 1997 effort from David Lynch (co-written with Barry Gifford) is one of the director’s better efforts, but it failed to earn the same rapturous critical reception as BLUE VELVET. Reviewers seemed to see only a rehash of familiar Lynchian motifs, and ignored how expertly orchestrated and synthesized the themes had become in this film. Admittedly, LOST HIGHWAY may lack the shock value of BLUE VELVET (by this time, viewers were trained to expect weirdness from Lynch), but the film is every bit as fine a piece of work, and its demented darkness actually coallesces into a strange kind of giddy joy – not unlike the rush of adrenaline one feels after a brush with danger.
By the time he made this film, Lynch had become so well known as America’s premier Dark Dreamer that the mantle Read More