INTERVIEW: Lost Highways, Lynch Twists and Turns on "Mulholland Drive"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 10.08.01) -- "Recently, I've been thinking of ideas as fish," David Lynch told a captivated crowd of journalists at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. "They are swimming around and once in awhile we catch one. And they pop into the conscious mind and explain everything to us," the maverick director continued in his cryptic drone. "And it's a magical thing and we would be nowhere without these beautiful ideas."
Lynch's latest, "Mulholland Drive," is full of fish (though not, at least this time, literally). Following its New York Film Festival Centerpiece premiere last weekend, Universal Focus debuted the film in theaters on Sunday, fittingly, at midnight. Abstract, painterly, mystifying and weird, "Drive" is a throwback to the eerie world of his TV series "Twin Peaks" and the erotic underbelly of his 1986 masterpiece "Blue Velvet," complete with a midget studio executive, a threatening cowboy, and a passionate love story between two women.
"The spark for 'Mulholland Drive' was the name," the 55-year-old Montana native explained at Cannes, "the name on a signpost in the night, partially illuminated by the headlights of a car. Mulholland Drive is a road in Los Angeles that goes along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains; it's a beautiful road in the daytime, but at night, it's mysterious, dark, and has remained the same throughout the years."
With Lynch's trademark timeless aesthetic -- combining 1950s Hollywood sheen and contemporary nightmarish reality -- "Mulholland Drive" tells the story of aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and her relationship with the lovely Rita (Laura Harring). Robert Forster shows up briefly as a detective, film legend Ann Miller plays a landlord, and Justin Theroux is a young filmmaker with a bad temper and a golf club, confronted with a pair of mob-like henchmen who declare to him at a production meeting, "It's no longer your film."
The line of dialogue is a bit of a wink to audiences, considering the conditions surrounding the actual film. First conceived as a pilot for ABC, "Mulholland Drive" never got past the executive boardroom: the TV network pulled the plug on the project soon after it was delivered. "They hated it," explained Lynch, who also had problems with the way the TV version turned out. "So that opened the door to other possibilities," he said. "This wasn't a total let down. There was a little hair of euphoria. And you should pay attention when you get a little hair of euphoria."
The process of adapting the "open-ended" pilot -- of which Lynch said, "You set many things in motion, but you don't have to close the door" -- to a fully-rounded feature-length film produced a couple of weeks of panic, according to the director. "Because I didn't have any ideas to close it," he noted.
Encouraged by Pierre Edelman, executive producer of Lynch's "The Straight Story," the filmmaker finally found the inspiration to go fishing for more ideas. "One night, sitting down in my chair, the ideas unraveled like a string," Lynch said. "And that was a beautiful evening."
The reconfigured film, with an ending that still feels unresolved, but satisfying in a disturbing, sort of "Lost Highway"-kind of way, premiered in Cannes's international competition, where Lynch left with an award for Best Director, confirming his status as one of the most eccentric and original of American auteurs.
Lynch shies away from explaining his unique visions -- just as his films don't explain themselves. "I'm hoping that people enjoy the ride on 'Mulholland Drive,'" Lynch commented. "I'm hoping that intuition kicks in -- this machinery we have for sensing something, but not necessarily being able to articulate it. Abstractions can exist in cinema and for me, that's one of the powers of cinema," he added. "I love the abstract feel of it and I hope others will, as well."