“I love L.A. so much,” David Lynch intones in the squeaky voice Mel Brooks once famously described as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” on the new Criterion Collection release of his enigmatic and nightmarish love-story-gone-wrong classic “Mulholland Drive.” “I love the light,” he adds. “In L.A. Mulholland Drive is a famous road with much, much mood. There’s so many stories about that road and it’s a very dreamy thing to think about — so many people come here to realize their dreams.”
Parsing “Mulholland Drive” can be tough, though many have tried, leading to often ridiculous theories about what it’s all about. Suffice it to say, it explores the dark side of L.A. dreams of stardom and success mixed in with a love story that features tenebrous and often disturbing mystery elements.
While there is no commentary on the Criterion release of “Mulholland Drive,” there is a long interview with Lynch and lead actress Naomi Watts, plus interviews with co-stars Justin Theroux and Laura Harring, and production designer Jack Fisk. Those looking for answers on the meaning of “Mulholland Drive” will be, as usual, deeply stymied by the always-evasive Lynch, but the interviews on the disc do come with some great stories and anecdotes for those hardcore Lynch-ites who don’t already know them. Here are some highlights from the conversation with Lynch and Watts, and let’s all celebrate the fact that this moody neo-noir surrealist classic has finally received the Criterion treatment.
Naomi Watts says she was ready to quit the business before she got the “Mulholland Drive” gig.
In the interview Watts explains she had struggled in Hollywood before she got her breakthrough role in Lynch’s movie, slogging it out for ten years in L.A. before she received her big break. But before she landed the gig, she was ready to quit altogether. “I was down, down on my luck,” she says half joking about wanting to turn the steering wheel of her car right off the cliffs of Mulholland Drive.
“It’s a great symbolic thing,” she adds of the famous road the movie takes its name from. “It can mean a lot of great things to some people and a lot of dark things to others — the long, unending, winding road.”
“You’re lucky if you get to meet the director,” she says of auditions, noting at best she got a five-minute meeting where the person barely made eye contact. But out of the blue she gets a call: “You have a meeting with David Lynch.”
Watts threw her head back in an ecstatic show of possible salvation remembering her feeling, “Oh my god, this is an incredible opportunity.” According to the actress, their meeting was fated and almost like a spiritual connection that transformed her. “[David] looked at me, really looked at me,” she remembers. “And he was beaming with light and somehow he relaxed me and I could show my true self. Because of so many years of rejection I had built up veneer after veneer.”
“I walked out of that meeting almost in a flood of tears it was one of the most special — Sorry, it’s getting pretty cheesy in here, isn’t it?” she asks Lynch, before they both burst into laughter.
David Lynch has a strange and intuitive auditioning process.
Lynch disciples will probably already know that the director doesn’t really conduct anything resembling traditional auditions. He rarely has an actor put themselves on tape either. Instead, Lynch just looks at head shots, picks faces out that he likes, meets the actor, gets to know them, and then just likes to visualize them in the part as he’s first met them.
“I never have them audition a scene ever,” Lynch states, explaining his live process. “I like to talk to people or see them talking and then I get a feeling about them and I can see if they can make it through [to the end of the movie] — I’m running scenes in my head.”
Unfortunately for Watts, when she first met Lynch, she looked, according to Lynch and the actress, a little underwhelming, “Naomi came and didn’t look exactly like the photograph that I had fallen in love with,” Lynch says delicately.
“It was disappointing,” Watts quips with a laugh. Lynch jokes, “It was not disappointing, it was devastating. So I asked Naomi if she could come back with some make-up on and we did and we talked.”
Lynch says he was 98% convinced of Watts as the lead, but then saw her casually talking to a mutual friend after the meeting and then knew certifiably that she was the one.
“Mulholland Drive” was originally conceived as a spinoff to “Twin Peaks”
As Lynch devotees probably already know, “Mulholland Drive” was originally intended as spin-off show for Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey character on “Twin Peaks.” “The title was going to be used as a possible spin-off from ‘Twin Peaks,’ and that didn’t happen, but the title came over,” Lynch says.
Originally conceptualized as a long-form series at ABC, a pilot was shot, but the show wasn’t picked up or embraced by the network. “The executive in charge watched this pilot at six o’clock in the morning, standing up, on the phone, drinking coffee with the [pilot] on the TV across the room and he didn’t like it,” Lynch explains.
StudioCanal rescued “Mulholland Drive,” but Lynch actually didn’t know how to finish what he had started.
According to Lynch, Pierre Edelman from StudioCanal came for a visit in L.A. and “we were talking and it was very sad that this [the project] was stopped.” Edelman said, “ ‘let me talk to these people in Paris and let me see if we can get money to make it a feature.’” The process started and it took almost a year and a half. “I started getting a really bad feeling,” Lynch says. “Props [from the pilot] were going back into the stream, wardrobe back into the stream, sets destroyed. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Then StudioCanal finally greenlit a movie, but Lynch panicked as he actually didn’t have an idea to take the pilot and transform it into a feature. “Right about that time the contract was finished and it meant we’re going [we got a green light] but I had zero ideas. Zero,” he explains. “And this is a true story, that night of the green light, with no ideas, I sat down and did my meditating. And in this particular meditation, I dived down in there and just like a string of pearls, one idea after another came and I knew exactly just what to do.”
Naomi Watts feared her performance was often too over the top.
“Like all David’s films there’s a heightened reality, a surreal, stylized reality and I felt like when when we were doing some of the scenes — he was pushing and pushing and pushing — and I thought, ‘this could be the worst performance ever,’ ” she admits. “But he’ll never let you go past the truth.”
Watts remembered her character’s entrance scene at the airport when she first comes to L.A. and is wild-eyed about being in the city she had always dreamt of. She explained Lynch’s direction after she had already performed a kind of enraptured disbelief of being in Los Angeles. “‘That’s great, let’s do it again, let’s go even further, it’s like the first time you’ve tasted ice cream,’” she recalls. “Like you’re just a kid whose eyes are popping out of your head!’ And I felt, like, almost ridiculous, but it works, it was her dream.”
The masturbation scene was extremely difficult for Naomi Watts.
Naomi Watts did not want to perform the notorious masturbation scene in the movie and said it was extremely difficult to go through with. Watts said, to make matters worse, possibly from nerves, she had to make “several trips” to the bathroom during that day of shooting. Watts admitted to being upset and angry for having to do the scene. “I was mad at him for making me do this!” she reveals. “I remember saying, ‘David, I can’t do this!, I can’t do this! and being mad at him.”
She was so nervous Lynch built a tent around her so none of the crew could see her performance. When she cried out to him, she heard him from the outside saying, ” ‘OK, Naomi, that’s ok.’ [There’s] no cut, I’m not hearing the word cut, so i just keep going. I remember being pissed!”
“I did anger, I did crying, it was just wildly uncomfortable,” she continued. “The thing with David is he just keeps you going, you want to please him because he’s after something really true and you don’t want to give up.”
About the infamous lesbian sex scene in the film, Watts said Lynch was very careful about how it was directed and shot. “15 years later it’s very hot. It’s very tender. It’s not like that anymore,” she jokes, referring the female bodies that have since aged.
—Rebekah Del Rio’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” was recorded during Lynch’s first meeting with the actress. She came, “fresh off the street,” Lynch said and for some reason which he still couldn’t understand, there was a recording booth ready for her. She sang her version once and that’s the one that’s in the film. The meeting wasn’t even about “Mulholland Drive” necessarily, but the song quickly gave Lynch an idea about how to incorporate it into the movie. “Her version married with this other idea [I had] and that whole ‘Silencio’ scene was born,” he said.
— Laura Harring also tells the story of not auditioning for David Lynch. She was picked from a headshot, she came to meet him, and she said, “I didn’t have to audition and he just [looked at me and] said, ‘Good, good.’”
— The creepy Cowboy character (played by Monty Montgomery) — the one that gave Justin Theroux’s character the wooden line reading about if you do “good” or if you do “bad” — was stiff because, according to Lynch and Theroux, he wasn’t an actor. Mostly known as a producer and friend of Lynch’s, Theroux and Lynch both retell stories that Montgomery couldn’t remember any of his lines, so they had to tape his dialogue onto Theroux’s face so he could read while in the scene (watch the clip below).
— Legendary production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked on most of Lynch’s films, met the director in ninth grade and they became fast friends. He notes that Lynch was the treasurer of the student council.
— Lynch warned the cast about telling the press what the film was about at Cannes. “Now listen, these fucking reporters are gonna try and get you to tell them what the story’s about,” Justin Theroux recalls about what he was told by Lynch. “And I don’t want you to do that. It ruins the experience for everyone else.”
Definitely one of the themes throughout the interviews of Watts, Harring, Theroux, and Fisk is that not everyone needs to understand the movie, their part, or what’s going on. “Even if it doesn’t make sense to everyone, he’ll never not let it be truthful. It has to resonate in authenticity,” Naomi Watts says. “Mulholland Drive” now available via the Criterion Collection.