David Lynch on Restoring ‘Inland Empire’ and Laura Dern’s Oscar Snub

"If you’re careful, you can bring out things you never saw that make it that much more beautiful," Lynch told IndieWire about the technologies he's using to refresh his filmography.
INLAND EMPIRE, director David Lynch
David Lynch on the set of "Inland Empire"
Studio Canal/courtesy Everett Collection

Earlier this week Variety sent David Lynch fans into a frenzy by reporting that the director had a secret movie about to drop at Cannes, overshadowing the fact that there was already a must-see David Lynch release currently playing in theaters. (Lynch has since dispelled the Cannes rumors.) “Inland Empire,” Lynch’s audacious 2006 foray into digital filmmaking, has returned to the big screen in the form of a stunning 4K remaster that serves as the perfect way to discover (or rediscover) a masterpiece that was largely ignored during its initial run.

The original version of “Inland Empire” was shot in standard definition video and output to HDCAM-SR tape and 35mm film; for the re-release currently playing in theaters, the footage was downscaled back to SD in order to get rid of false details introduced during the original HD conversion, then upscaled to HD once again using the GaiaHD algorithm. Lynch supervised a new color pass and sound mix that have made the movie even more immersive and affecting than it was before, confirming it as another of the director’s masterpieces about the fragility of identity, the ways in which possessive men destroy the women they love and hate, and the struggle to recognize what’s real in a media-saturated culture.

Like “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive,” “Inland Empire” begins with a flurry of arresting images that only make sense when the movie is over. It then settles into an initially straightforward story about a fading actress (Laura Dern) who gets a part in a film that she hopes will revive her career. Strange things start happening on the set almost immediately, and Dern and her costar (Justin Theroux) learn that the script they’re shooting is a remake of a cursed movie that was never completed. This premise gives way to a number of subplots dealing with violently jealous husbands and lovers, Polish gangsters and prostitutes, murderers and doppelgangers, and even a strangely frightening sitcom in which all the characters are giant rabbits.

Appropriately given the range of subjects and characters, the style of the movie veers wildly from one extreme to another; there are moments of quiet introspection alongside pop musical numbers, and terrifying horror set pieces coexist with self-referential Hollywood comedy. Yet the movie never feels cluttered or incoherent — its three-hour running time allows Lynch to explore dozens of topics and tones without shortchanging any of them. The film is simultaneously a playful show business satire, an experimental DV performance art piece, and a haunting murder mystery in which it’s unclear whether or not a murder has even been committed or for what reason. Most of all, it is David Lynch’s love letter to Laura Dern, a brilliant actress whose fearlessness rivals Lynch’s own.

Lynch spoke to IndieWire about Dern’s performance, how digital technology allowed him to get closer to his original intentions, and more — though not about the Cannes rumors — a few days before the “Inland Empire” remaster was set to expand to more screens.

Silhouette of a rabbit from Inland Empire
“Inland Empire”Janus Films

IndieWire: Revisiting a movie you made 16 years ago, as you’re making decisions about the remaster and those decisions and choices are being filtered through your taste, are you trying to stay true to the person and filmmaker you were when you made it, or does the movie transform into something new because you’re coming at it from a different perspective?

David Lynch: I’m trying to stay true to the ideas that the person that I was was trying to stay true to, and they’re the same ideas. The film is the translation of those ideas, and the trick is that there are so many elements that go together. You always have to go back and check each element with the original idea and ask if it’s correct. Is it the right mood, the right color, the right location, the right speed? The thrilling thing is that because of modern technology getting better and better, I can stay even truer to those ideas. When I shot this thing, it was on the Sony PD-150, which is low-res. Now you can up-res and and up-res and up-res and there are these algorithms somebody has come up with — some kind of AI that looks at the film and gives it more depth and color and focus and makes it look much more beautiful, much more cinematic. It’s really incredible, and it’s probably just the beginning. Who knows what it will be able to do in the future? You’ll be able to create any kind of look you want.

Your excitement about this reminds me of the excitement I sensed back in 2006 when you spoke about “Inland Empire” and shooting on DV.

It’s like day and night, the difference between digital and film. Film is still the most unbelievably beautiful and organic. It’s just incredible. A short time ago we went back into “The Elephant Man” for Blu-ray and it was absolutely amazing, what was hiding in those little 35mm frames that we never saw before that can be brought out now with Dolby Vision and other technologies. You have to be careful — you can bring out too much and ruin the mood. But if you’re careful, you can bring out things you never saw that make it that much more beautiful.

What initially excited you about the digital technology you used on “Inland Empire” when you were shooting?

It was so lightweight and fast. Small lights, lightweight camera, long takes — those three things right there change everything. Of course, now you’ve got digital cameras that are giant with lenses that weigh 50,000 pounds and you’re back in the old world, with a long time to wait for lighting. But there are also smaller and smaller cameras that have more and more features — better automatic focus, more steadying gizmos. And now there are drones that can do things you could never do before. Forget helicopters — now every picture has got drones with all different levels of beautiful sliding and gliding. You can grab the drone and move with it yourself, and then at a certain time let it go and soar around and then run after it and catch it and go back inside — you have these long shots that are incredible. And with the actors, I can get right in there with them and talk to them and watch them and move with them in a way that I never could before.

Laura Dern in Inland Empire
“Inland Empire”Janus Films

Watching Laura Dern’s performance in “Inland Empire” again I was thinking about the liberating conditions the digital camera facilitates and how they create a kind of intimacy that would be hard to get any other way. It’s as great as she’s ever been in a movie.

You want to create a situation where an actor or actress can get down in there and make it real from a very deep level, and to talk to them while they’re going and not have to stop. If you have to wait while the camera reloads, it’s like the temperature of the room was a beautiful 99 degrees and you just slammed it down to almost freezing. Now you’ve got to start from zero and bring it back, and maybe you’ll never get it back. Maybe it gets even better, you just don’t know. But this way, shooting digital, you’ve got a chance of getting magic — you’ve got 40 minutes of tape and you can talk through it and try it again and again and get in there and it’s amazing what can happen that couldn’t happen in the old way. Laura, bless her heart, she should have won an award, but it was not meant to be.

She didn’t get the attention she deserved.

“Inland Empire” didn’t make a nickel when it came out, so I appreciate you having an interest in it. Now that it’s being re-released it has a new life, a chance.

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