David Lynch often tells the origin story about the moment when, as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he started to think of himself as filmmaker. While working on a painting of a woman in a garden at night, he took a smoke (he swears it was a cigarette, no drugs involved) and looked at his work. He started to hear wind, and then the green in the painting (surrounded by heavy, thick black paint) started to move.
“And the next thought is, ‘Oh, a moving painting,'” said Lynch in 2014, ahead of retrospective of his work at his alma mater. “And that’s what started it: It’s sound and picture.” Soon after Lynch made his first short film, the stop-motion animated short “Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times),” which went on to win the Academy’s student competition for best experimental work.
“In the telling of that story, people skip over the wind part and jump to the painting started to move,” said Dean Hurley, who has worked full-time for Lynch managing his sound studio for the last 13 years. “That’s the romantic essence of David. The fact that the image is making him hear something. Then later in life, with his filmmaking, he ends up working with Angelo [Badalamenti] composing before they’ve even shot things. Those sounds, that music, ends up conjuring the images.”
For “Twin Peaks: The Return” Hurley has multiple credits — re-recording mixer, supervising sound editor, sound supervisor — in assisting Lynch, who for the first time took the well-earned credit of sound designer on the 18-part Showtime series. What follows are edited excerpts from a fascinating hour-long interview with Hurley, who brought IndieWire inside the private sound studio — which Hurley compares to a hidden bunker that keeps the world out and protects Lynch’s process — and how Lynch creates cinema through sound.
I started working with David in January 2005. He owns his own dubbing stage and recording studio hybrid space. It looks like a theater — essentially that’s what a dubbing stage is. It’s got a mixing console in front of an embankment of seats, and a giant 18-foot screen to mix things, but also he’s got isolation booths to record music. I was hired to manage and run the room, but early on it was such a vague description of what my job would entail. It ended up being “going down the rabbit hole with him” because he is not a big person on titles or roles. My job for the past 13 years has been anything sound related or music related that he does. He works with me to help get him where he wants to go.
It’s a converted residence. So you walk in and you’d think you were in a technical facility, but from the outside it does resemble a house. It is an analogy of how he created this whole show because it’s kind of a camouflaged bunker. It’s a protected space where he can experiment, where he gets to dictate every aspect. Sometimes you have to build an electric fence to keep certain people out, and I think that’s how the show ended up the way it is. There’s very few people he wants to let in on the process. So my role ends up being the bridge between the people that don’t need to know a lot of information versus the people who are directly interfacing with him.
It Starts with Sound, But Not Intention
Courtesy od SHOWTIME
The rarity on this show is there’s some ideas that maybe he and I started working on seven years ago. We work all the time doing experiments, so that you’re building up this library. He has been eternally fascinated with sound creation — that’s where so much of his sensitivity exists. Even if he wasn’t making films, he’d probably be making radio plays.
He doesn’t define things going in. This is the part where I’m forever the student, because I’m in my mind thinking, “What is this? Tell me what we’re doing right now, because I have no idea, and I mean this sounds like shit.” David’s the one saying, “Let’s not worry about that now,” and generating more material.
I’ve been trying to take mini pages from his book of lowering your barometer, lowering your frequency, and letting stuff happen. There’s something that happens when the ego enters into intention, like “I’m gonna sit down and I’m gonna write a screenplay. It’s gonna be a kick-ass action movie.” There is a one dimensionality to the success you can have. With David and his sound projects, they are potentially limitless. I have watched him stand at enough distance so he can see the things that the ideas present to him, as opposed to jumping in and being like, “I’m gonna write a pop song.” It might start off as scratching on a table, but that becomes a rhythm that something’s based on.
This is something that I think separates him from many contemporary filmmakers. The longer he can juggle that stuff in air the better, because once it’s in the air anything’s possible. As soon as that stuff lands, then you have to hook on things to it later. But once it’s all dancing around, that’s the moment where things can swap, things can move, ideas can still poke out. They have the chance for alchemy, where he’s looking for that one plus two equals four.
Electricity and Finding Lynch’s Frequency
One of the things that he’s interested in has been electricity. We’ve done experiments with that over the years. I recorded in Poland, after fresh snow, power lines where either a) the transformer load couldn’t handle them and they were unusually loud, or b) the snow was acting like a packing blanket and making that very prominent. I had that from a decade ago. But reading “Twin Peaks” script and reading how electricity was written into the script, I knew that if what I had recorded years ago was a 120-pound-person version of electricity, we needed a 800-pound version of electricity.
The best sound in film is when the script is written in a way that allows it to have a good sound. There’s certain things that you do in terms of writing in perspectives. As opposed to writing a scene where two people are talking the whole time, there’s a break, and you work an intercut into the script, or in post production. That is going to do something to the dynamics of the sound design.
There’s all these descriptors in the script. There was something early on that was more of a placeholder — in the script it was described as a heavy transformer hum, but had a hairy crackling. I’ve vowed never to reveal what this sound is or how it was made, because it destroys a little bit of the magic trick. It was an analog piece of equipment, a giant piece of equipment that would be found in old ladies’ living rooms. Soon as I powered it up, the thing was broken, but it was making this electricity noise. I was like, “What the fuck,” tripping over myself to start recording. Once I’d gotten a bunch of this stuff from different parameters, I showed it to David. He was like, “It’s fucking great.”
As an analogy, I had this very small amp that had a very unique sound. When you used a high gain pedal, and your signal going in was louder than the load the amp was designed to take, it was incredible. Every single time that amp started to sound like, “Oh my God, this sounds like the most incredible amp in the world” — five minutes later, it burst into flames. Every single time, the transformer would smoke and I would have to get a new transformer. But there’s something about things failing and faulty electricity load that can sometimes be the most inspiring thing in the world.
It’s like a frequency. A lot of new-age thought talks about raising your frequency, or getting to a higher frequency plane of understanding where you’re vibrating with the matter around you. I think that’s the thing that I’ve seen with David, the reaction that I’ll get from starting something that’s even remotely close to his idea will start making a conduit between that superhighway between feedback, action, and reaction.
David likes fast. You’ll hear him in interviews talk about action, reaction — in a perfect world, that time is close down to nil. That’s why he likes digital, because he can act and react, and he can manipulate close to real time. David has some tools that he likes to work in private on, so I give him the raw material and he plays with it.
That’s how a lot of how “Twin Peaks” sound was done. For example, Cooper getting shot in Part Eight and the Woodsmen coming out of the black. There’s this bassy plume of tones that are happening in slow-mo. It’s a very dark track. He wanted to take Vladimir Horowitz’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which is a composition he loves, and slow that down… the equivalent of dropping it two octaves. So all of sudden, those triplet pianos of the original composition end up happening seconds away from each other and being almost these giant mortar plumes of tone.
He has groomed me into this way of working. I ended up wiring up everything I can, having everything in the studio. We’ve got storage spaces, but if you’re in the throes of something and something’s in the storage space, you’re not gonna end up utilizing it. For a while, David’s studio was packed with flea-market thrift and secondhand gear. It looked like a junk store. He gives pretty abstract descriptions of sounds, and I got to the point where you want to have enough stuff lying around where you can start to patch things up and get to the thing he’s describing.
If we’re creating sounds in the studio, I’ve tried to get these tools that are very performative and live and instantaneous — almost making these tones that get tailored to the visuals, but performing it in the same way that you would perform foley. With David, and everyone who comes into this fold, is forced to get in touch with their intuitive side. He’s not the one to go on a 20-minute diatribe explaining the reason for something being used. It’s more of a nod, or “Good deal.” The advantage with everybody under one roof is it’s real simple, quick conversations, like editors saying to me: “Hey, do you have the sound of gravel under tires at two miles an hour?”
Almost all post production was done in this space, including picture editing. We had maybe six people up here, in converted closets; we made them into editorial rooms. In terms of the core group, there’s very few people he wants to let in on the process. Ron Eng [sound supervisor and re-recording mixer], who David has worked with of several of his films since “The Straight Story,” and myself end up being the sound supervisors. David starts asking me questions like, “What do we have to utilize for this scene?” It’s like playing the memory game. “Hey, remember that thing that we did where you reversed this and dropped it an octave, and then we played the guitar strings with the cello bow?” And sending that down to his edit suite and letting him play with that. It’s this interesting, more loose way of trying to not define the stages of film because it’s a giant beast. It’s very slow moving.
Most sound teams cover everything — if you see it on screen, cover it with sound because you don’t know what the director is gonna want. When you fall down that path, it’s easy to lose sight of where the rack focus should be on. With David, he’ll put the camera, the audio vantage point, in a certain, specific way. One, two sounds might do it because that’s where he wants the attention to go. That’s what he wants to be prominent. “Less is more” applies there, but it’s also something more than that. It’s a deep, profound thing when you can see a very little amount of something be transformative. He needs to think about things simply … I think sometimes for him, the more essence that something has, it rings a certain truth to it.
You try to get the right thing in there as opposed to something that’s temporary. The sound person should really just be sitting beside the editor. That’s how I’ve worked with David before, because he’s cut a fair amount of his projects that I’ve worked on prior to “Twin Peaks.” When you are putting audio into a sequence of images, you’re scoring it. It’s not unlike woodworking: It’s gonna make a mark in the wood, and it’s gonna change it. If you’re an editor who’s like, “They’ll figure this out later. I’m gonna slather in this bombastic temp music in here because that seems to work”— you’re forever changing what that scene could be. With David, sound drives so much of what is driving the visual, you need to get the sound right or you are changing the music of the piece.