Movies: Yes, That’s David Lynch

4 minute read
Rebecca Winters Keegan

A cult movie director and a cow wait placidly on a busy Los Angeles street corner on a sunny autumn day. A giant image of Laura Dern’s face printed with the words FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION looms beside them. The director delivers an encomium on cheese. The scene is surreal enough to be from a David Lynch movie, and it is, a two-minute film that has been downloaded more than 50,000 times on YouTube since it was posted Nov. 9. The director of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks didn’t direct this one; a couple of guys named Nate and Matt recorded Lynch’s street-corner Oscar campaign for Dern’s performance in his new film, Inland Empire. But Empire is only marginally less homespun, and although it’s not on YouTube, the director is distributing it himself.

Empire, Lynch says, is “about a woman in trouble.” But even by the standards applied to Lynch’s films, which exist in their own genre of weird, Empire is a doozy. It’s three hours long, with no real plot, but rather a Greek chorus of Valley Girls cum crack whores, scenes of rabbits watching TV and Dern playing three different characters. At least three; Dern’s not sure. “Once David said there were four, and I was like, Wait a minute–what?” she says.

The Empire endeavor began more than three years ago when Lynch started noodling with a Sony PD150 camera, which costs less than $3,000. “It’s little, and they tell me it’s bad quality,” says Lynch. “I started shooting experiments with it and kind of loved the quality. It reminded me of early 35 mm. When there isn’t a lot of information in a frame, it leaves a person room to dream.”

Dreams and consciousness streams are the stuff of which Lynch films are made. A script? Not so much. Because he’s considered an auteur, Lynch was able to convene a cast, including Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton, before he wrote Empire. “I’d get an idea for a scene, write the scene, gather people together and shoot that scene,” says Lynch. “I didn’t know if the second scene would relate to the first or the third.” This is where Lynch’s decades-long commitment to transcendental meditation–which he documents in a new book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity–came in handy. “Since I believe in the unified field, which unites everything, I figured some day I would understand that they do relate,” he says.

Lynch may understand it. Audiences may not. That hasn’t stopped his earlier films from gaining a following of people who spend an awful lot of time trying. Many critics considered his last movie, 2001’s Mulholland Dr., released by Universal Pictures, a huge creative achievement, but it made a forgettable $20 million in theaters. By forgoing a distributor this time, Lynch gets to skip the awkward step where he turns over control of his vision to those linear folks, studio marketers. “People seeing the film together on a big screen in a dark room with really good sound is really important to me,” says Lynch, who released his first film, Eraserhead, himself in 1977. “But any film like mine that’s not seen as a summer blockbuster is getting harder to get into the theaters. It’s so depressing.”

It’s not that Lynch couldn’t get a distributor. “He has a great, twisted psyche that always gets some sort of primal response from people,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, an indie company that “had some interest” in distributing Empire but never made the deal. It’s that the do-it-yourself ethic that attracted Lynch to the Sony PD150 seemed suited to an experiment in distribution as well. Self-distribution is “very brave,” says Dern. “But it doesn’t make it easier. Nothing about this is traditional.”

Lynch is embarking on an eight-city promotional road tour of the U.S. later this month. When he first started thinking about the costs of self-distribution, he was told of a $2.8 million Oscar publicity campaign for an actress in another current movie, recalls Dern. “He went insane,” she says, beginning to imitate Lynch’s clipped Midwestern accent. “‘People are starving! That’s disgusting. I could go stand on a street corner and talk about my actors!’ As soon as I heard ‘I could stand on a street corner,’ I thought, Oh, no.” Perhaps because there aren’t actually any cows in Inland Empire, Dern didn’t anticipate the bovine prop, however. “The Academy members love show business,” explains Lynch. “And this is show business, being out with the cow.”

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