Before “Twin Peaks” turned Kyle MacLachlan into the iconic Agent Dale Cooper, he was Jeffrey Beaumont, a college kid who uncovers the dark underbelly of his North Carolina hometown in David Lynch’s 1986 Oscar-nominated film “Blue Velvet.” At Lynch’s 2018 Festival of Disruption in Brooklyn, MacLachlan was joined by his co-star Isabella Rossellini, who played troubled nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens, and the two stars looked back on filming one of Lynch’s most memorable and haunting films.
Although “Blue Velvet” tackles some disturbing material — the film’s plot kicks off when Jeffrey (MacLachlan) finds a severed ear in a field, and he later witnesses Dorothy’s (Rossellini) horrifying ritualistic rape — Rossellini says the atmosphere on set was anything but troubling, and stressed the importance of an on-set environment where actors feel both safe and happy.
“You Become More Creative and More Daring”
“It was a very warm set,” she explained. “A lot of people think because I was playing a character that was abused that maybe the set is a portrait, it has to reflect or be a mirror of what we portray, but it’s actually the opposite, at least for me. If a set is threatening in any way, you freeze up, you can’t work. If a set is very warm like David’s sets, very warm, very supportive, you become more creative and more daring.”
Rossellini’s comments fall in line with Lynch’s own, made in his 2006 book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.” “When people are in fear, they don’t want to go to work,” Lynch explains. “Then the fear starts turning into hate, and they begin to hate going into work…If I ran my sets with fear, I would get 1 percent, not 100 percent, of what I get.”
Lynch’s on-set philosophy seems to be one that extended from “Blue Velvet” to his reunion with MacLachlan on “Twin Peaks: The Return” last year. When asked how it was working with Lynch again and if anything had changed, MacLachlan praised Lynch’s creativity, and highlighted how joyous the on-set experience was.
“An artist, it’s not like they get better, but they evolve,” MacLachlan said. “David has always been brilliant, just amazing, and it’s just gotten richer working with him. I think maybe I’ve matured and have a better understanding of our relationship. When the ‘Twin Peaks’ opportunity came along again, I was so excited to revisit ‘Twin Peaks’ and the role of Cooper, but more than anything it was the chance to work with David again now at an older age. To really appreciate what that man can bring in that creative mode.”
The actor continued, “But the actual day to day was pretty much the same. You come to the set, David is smiling, he’s so happy to see you, and can’t wait to get to work. We have a cup of coffee and a small piece of donut… and you just start the day, and it’s just a fun, creative, engaging process with him.”
Courtesy of the David Lynch Foundation
Despite the warm on-set atmosphere, MacLachlan admits that when he first read the script for “Blue Velvet,” he was surprised at how shocking the material was. He explained that script was graphic in detail, even more so than what is seen on screen. MacLachlan said that he showed it to his parents because he wanted their opinion, but admitted that they were a little put off at first.
“‘Blue Velvet’ was my second film and my second film with David,” MacLachlan said. “So I wanted them to be engaged in what I was doing. My dad read the script and said it was okay, and then my mom read the script and she didn’t say anything. Her husband came to me and said she was kind of upset by it, and I said ‘I understand, it’s not an easy thing, but I really feel that David is going to handle it well.'”
MacLachlan trusted Lynch with the sensitive material because he felt that Lynch understood the world of “Blue Velvet” completely, just as he does with the world of “Twin Peaks.” He also agreed that Jeffrey was an avatar for Lynch himself.
“The World of ‘Twin Peaks’ Really Exists”
“I think it was a journey that David saw himself taking if this world existed,” MacLachlan explained. “I think that that’s been a theme that follows us. David creates the world of ‘Twin Peaks.’ I think Dale Cooper is the embodiment of how David [sees himself] — in fact David loved the world of ‘Twin Peaks’ so much that he became a part of it with Gordon Cole. The Cooper role was already taken so he took Cooper’s boss. I think that, in a way, I’m the embodiment of something that David would like to explore, and these worlds are very real to him. The world of ‘Twin Peaks’ really exists, the world of ‘Blue Velvet’ really exists for him, those characters are alive and mean something to him.”
Rossellini liked the script when she first read it, but she admitted that she wasn’t Lynch’s first choice for the role of Dorothy. She met the director for the first time at a restaurant with the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, and he had no idea that Rossellini was film royalty.
“David said, ‘You know, you look like Ingrid Bergman,'” Rossellini said. “And somebody said ‘You idiot, she is her daughter.’ And that’s how we met. Then David found out that I just finished a film with Helen Mirren, and he begged me to get Helen Mirren the script for ‘Blue Velvet.’ He said ‘Please, can I have a phone number? I want her so much for this new film that I’m doing.’ And I didn’t know what to say, and then the next day I received a script with a note from David saying, ‘Last night it occurred to me that maybe you would want to play the role.'”
Rossellini’s turn as Dorothy might be iconic now, but when the film was released, but she admitted the graphic content nearly destroyed her modeling career and had many questioning her motives.
“When I did the film, a lot people read into my image, as if I perceive myself as an image,” Rossellini said. “‘Oh, she’s doing that to rebel against the image of her mother.’ I never think of myself as an image, so I do what is interesting to me. So when people didn’t like the film, they used this to read a lot into ‘oh she used this to rebel’ or some self-destruction.”
MacLachlan credits film critic Pauline Kael for helping to reverse this. “As I recall it was Pauline Kael,” he explained. “She championed the film in a very intelligent way and she taught people and made them understand what this film was about and then from there it became the critical success that it is.”
Rossellini explained that although her character Dorothy is a lounge singer, she cannot sing. It was her inability to sing that brought Lynch and his long-time musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, who created some of the iconic music on “Twin Peaks,” together. She also shed light on one of the film’s deleted scenes, which she felt was integral to her character, but not necessarily important to see in the film.
Looking For the Rainbow
In “Blue Velvet,” Dorothy is despondent over her kidnapped husband and child, but Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), the psychopath who has taken her family and ritualistically rapes her on a nightly basis, has stressed to her that she must stay alive. Still, in one deleted scene, Rossellini talks about her character contemplating suicide, and Dorothy’s connection to a classic film.
“Dorothy is on a roof and has red shoes,” Rossellini explained. “My name is Dorothy, like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I take my red shoes and drop them from the building. To me it was like practicing suicide, and it was very important to me to have the name Dorothy because I was always dreaming for the rainbow. My character, although she was abused, she still had a hope, she still had something. So that scene to me, it wasn’t so important that it was in the film, but it gave me a dimension of this character meditating maybe to commit suicide but also having the red shoes and looking for the rainbow.”
As the Q&A session came to a close, Rossellini saved the best for last, when she shared a hilarious story about meeting Laura Dern, who plays Sandy Williams in the film, for the first time. Prior to filming “Blue Velvet,” Dern had played the role of Diane in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask.” Dern’s performance in the film was so convincing that Rossellini believed that she was really was blind.
“Laura is such a good actress that when David called me and said, ‘I found Laura Dern,’ I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t imagine that character to be blind,'” Rossellini explained. “When I met Laura for the first time…I would grab her hand and walk and at a certain point I would whisper to her, ‘There is a step.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I can see it…Why did you think I was blind?’ I told her because of ‘Mask’ and she said ‘But I’m an actress!’ I’m Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, I should know when an actress is pretending, but she’s so convincing!”