The following interview is from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book Lynch on Lynch. The interviews in the book were conducted by Rodley between January 1993 and December 1996.
Eraserhead took five years to complete. You must have been completely dedicated to the film to sustain both the project and your own enthusiasm over such an extended production period. What was it about the idea that you loved?
It was the world. In my mind, it was a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood. A little, unknown, twisted, almost silent lost spot where little details and little torments existed. And people were struggling in darkness. They’re living in those fringelands, and they’re the people I really love. Henry’s definitely one of those people. They kind of get lost in time. They’re either working in a factory or fiddling with something or other. It’s a world that’s neither here nor there. It came out of the air in Philadelphia. I always say it’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it!
I could be on the set at night, and I would imagine the whole world around it. I imagined walking out, and there were very few cars—there might be one far away, but in the shadows—and very few people. And the lights in the windows would be really dim, and there would be no movement in the window, and the coffee shop would be empty except for one person who didn’t speak properly. It was just like a mood. The life in that world . . . there was nothing like it. Things go so fast when you’re making a movie now that you’re not able to give the world enough—what it deserves. It wants to be lived in a little bit; it’s got so much to offer, and you’re going just a little too fast. It’s just sad.
When he reviewed Blue Velvet, novelist J. G. Ballard said that the film was “like The Wizard of Oz reshot with a script by Franz Kafka and decor by Francis Bacon.” Kafka certainly comes to mind in Eraserhead. Do you like his work?
Yeah. The one artist that I feel could be my brother—and I almost don’t like saying it, because the reaction is always, “Yeah, you and everybody else”—is Franz Kafka. I really dig him a lot. Some of his things are the most thrilling combos of words I have ever read. If Kafka wrote a crime picture, I’d be there. I’d like to direct that for sure.
In a way, Henry is akin to Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial—a man by turns bemused and alarmed by what is happening to him.
Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn’t understand it at all. He watches things very, very carefully because he’s trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of that pie container just because it’s in his line of sight, and he might wonder why he sat where he did to have that be there like that. Everything is new. It might not be frightening to him, but it could be a key to something. Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it.
There seems to be little differentiation between the outside and the inside in Eraserhead—something that becomes much more pronounced later in Twin Peaks. Views through windows are of brick walls, and although the sounds might be different, it’s mostly just as noisy inside Henry’s apartment block as it is in the world outside. The feeling is of no letting up. There’s a constant . . .
Pressure. Well, again, it’s industry and different things going on—a lot of it unseen but heard. But to me, even though there was plenty of ambiguous torment in Henry, his apartment—actually, his room—was, you know, fairly cozy. It was just this one little place he had to mull things over. The anxiety doesn’t let up, but it doesn’t really let up for anybody. Pressure is, you know, always building. In a way, I’d like to live in Henry’s apartment, and be around there. I love Hitchcock’s Rear Window because it has such a mood, and even though I know what’s going to happen, I love being in that room and feeling that time. It’s like I can smell it.
How did Eraserhead come about?
Well, fate stepped in again and was really smiling on me. The Center [the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies] was completely chaotic and disorganized, which was great. And you quickly learned that if you were going to get something done, you would have to do it yourself. They wanted to let people do their thing. If you could get it going, they would support it. They didn’t have any kind of real program. They ran films all day long, and you could look at them. And if there was something you wanted to see, or something somebody said you’d gotta see, you’d go up, and there it would be. It was an unbelievable screening room. Anything that was on film, they could show there. And people would get ahold of really rare prints. The chandelier would drift up into the ceiling and dim as it went. And they had the greatest projectionists!
My first year at the Center was spent rewriting a forty-five-page script I wrote called Gardenback. The whole thing unfolded from this painting I’d done. The script had a story, in my mind, and it had what some people could call a “monster” in it. When you look at a girl, something crosses from her to you. And in this story, that something is an insect.
Well, a couple of things happened. Caleb Deschanel read this script, and he called me up and said he loved it. He was a fellow at the Center and a director of photography. He said he wanted to shoot it. And that was really great with me. I’d worked with Caleb on a film he was shooting for a guy named Gil Dennis. They wanted a snake to crawl between the wall and the wallpaper in this thing, so I built this snake and this rig and did this thing for Gil. It didn’t work out real well, but it was okay. So Caleb was telling me about this producer over at Fox who was ready to do a series of low-budget horror films. This guy was a sort of friend of his, and he wanted my permission to show him Gardenback.
Frank Daniel—who was the dean of the Czechoslovakian film school—was by far the best teacher I ever had. Just a great, great teacher. Unbelievable! I never really liked teachers, but I liked Frank because he wasn’t a teacher, in a way. He just talked. And he loved cinema, and he knew everything about it. Frank was always trying to talk to me about Gardenback, but I wasn’t, you know, talking. So one day, Caleb and Frank and I went to see this guy at Fox. And this guy said, “Look, I want to give you fifty thousand dollars to make this movie. Caleb will shoot it, and it’ll be a labor of love—you’ll get everybody in there to do stuff for nothing.” But he said, “It’s only forty-five pages. You gotta make it 115 or 110 pages—it’s gotta be a feature script.” And this, like, hurt my head! “What does he mean?”
So Frank tried to explain to me. He said things like, “You have to have these scenes between the people. And they have to talk. You should think about some dialogue.” And I still didn’t know what he was really on about. “What are they gonna say?” I said. And so [laughs] we started having these weekly meetings that were like an experiment, because I really didn’t know what they were getting at. And I was curious to see what they were going to say to me. Eventually, a script got written. Gil Dennis was a writer and would come into the meetings. And Toni Vellani [codirector of the Center] would sit in on these meetings too. So they would all talk to me, and I’d go home and try to write these things.
What I wrote was pretty much worthless, but something happened inside me about structure, about scenes. And I don’t even know what it was, but it sort of percolated down and became part of me. But the script was pretty much worthless. I knew I’d just watered it down. It was way more normal to me. The bits I liked were there, but they were interspersed with all this other stuff. And now it was the end of the first year, and there I was with this thing.
On the first day of the second year, the old fellows came in and met the new fellows. And at the end of this meeting, they assigned different groups to different places to kick off the new year. And I was assigned to a first-year group. In my mind, this was a humiliating thing, and I didn’t understand it. So I got really, really upset. All this frustration came out, and I stormed up to Frank Daniel, and I screamed at him. I just barged in and told him, “I’m outta here. I quit.” I went and told Alan [Splet]. I said, “I’m outta here!” He says, “I’m going with you,” because he was fed up too, and we both stormed out of the place. We went down to Hamburger Hamlet and just sat there drinking coffee. It was over.
I finally went home, and Peggy [Lynch’s wife] said, “What the hell’s going on? They’ve been calling every ten minutes!” And I said, “I quit.” And she said, “Well, they want to see you.” So I calmed down, and the next day I went up, just basically to hear what they had to say. And Frank said, “We must be doing something wrong, because you’re one of our favorite people and you’re upset. What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I sure don’t wanna do this piece a shit Gardenback now—it’s wrecked!” And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to do Eraserhead.” And he said, “Okay, do Eraserhead then.”
So you already had the idea ready to go?
I had this twenty-one-page script. And they said, “It’s twenty-one pages,” and Toni or somebody said, “It’s a twenty-one-minute film.” And I said, “Well . . . er . . . I think it’s going to be longer than that.” So they elected it to be a forty-two-minute film. But the beautiful thing—because they were now feeling a little bit guilty—was that I was able to go to the equipment shed. My friend David Khasky was in charge of all the cameras and cables, lights, everything. And I had this Volkswagen with a four-by-eight wooden rack that held tons of stuff. Well, it was packed four or five feet tall with cables and lights. And the car was packed with camera equipment. And I’d drive down to these stables owned by the school, unload, and drive back up and get more.
The stables were down at the bottom of the mansion down Doheny Road. It was a little mansion in and of itself. It had a greenhouse and a garden shed, all made of brick, with these shingle roofs. But it was all getting old and funny. It had garages and a hayloft, a big L-shaped room above the garages. It had a maid’s quarters and places above for different people who worked for Doheny, kitchens, bathrooms, like a little hotel, with a lot of other stuff around. And I got four or five rooms and the hayloft and a couple of garages.
You just laid claim to them?
Yeah. No one wanted them anyway. They were empty. So we had a camera room, a greenroom, an editing room, rooms for sets, a food room, and a bathroom. We just sort of had the run of the place. I had those stables for many years.
They knew you were there, but they just left you alone?
Yes. They didn’t know I was living there—I got divorced in my second year, and I started living there. I also stayed at Jack Nance and Catherine Coulson’s house sometimes. And Al stayed at the stables a lot. That’s another thing I had: since Al was head of the sound department, I had access to the entire mixing room, the Nagras, microphones and cables, and all the rest. And the soundman. I had everything going for me. I was doing the thing I wanted to do most of all, making films. And I practically had my own little studio.
Did you get a grant to go to the Center, or did your parents have to pay?
You have to get there, and you have to take care of yourself. My father lent me money—me and Peggy and Jennifer [Lynch’s daughter]—and Peggy’s parents helped out too.
So how were you taking care of yourself during that time?
I can’t remember what year it was in Eraserhead, but I got this paper route, and I delivered the Wall Street Journal. That’s how I supported myself. We only shot at night, and my route was at night. So at a certain point, I’d have to stop the shoot and go do the route. But I had the route down so fast that I was only gone about an hour and eight minutes. Sometimes it would be fifty-nine minutes, but I was going flat out to make the hour.
Why were you only shooting at night?
Well, you know, because it was dark! And the park department was up there during the day, so it was noisy and there were people around. At night, no one was there. And it was a nighttime film. The mood was perfect, and that is critical.
Did you now regard yourself primarily as a filmmaker?
I didn’t really think about it; I was making this film. But I always felt there were these filmmakers out there, and I wasn’t part of that. I was separate from that. I never really considered myself in the system at all.
But with the facilities at the Center, are you now looking at the work of other filmmakers? You’ve often mentioned Fellini, a director who not only seems to have been fascinated with physical strangeness on occasion but who also loves his own locale.
Like Roma? Yeah. I love Fellini. And we’ve got the same birthday, so if you believe in astrology . . . His is a totally different time, and an Italian take on life. But there’s something about his films. There’s a mood. They make you dream. They’re so magical and lyrical and surprising and inventive. The guy was unique. If you took his films away, there would be a giant chunk of cinema missing. There’s nothing else around like that. I like Bergman, but his films are so different. Sparse. Sparse dreams.
And I think Herzog is one of the all-time greats. Really great. When I was in England once, I saw Stroszek on TV. I’d missed the beginning of it, so I thought it was, like, some real documentary. I was just captivated in the first two seconds. I’d never seen anything like it.
Later, I met him in New York, and he showed me a journal that he’d kept for the past year: Walking the Perimeter of Germany. He’d notated every single day, and I said he must have had the world’s sharpest pencil! Because this writing was crystal clear, but so small you’d need a magnifying glass to read it. The journal was very small—about two inches by two inches—and each page was filled with, you know, four or five hundred sentences. It was unbelievable!
He can be pretty crazy. He’s threatened to shoot people on set!
That’s not crazy! Get real, Chris!
All are European directors. Was European cinema more interesting to you at the time?
Yeah, for the kind of thing I wanted to do. You go to films for different reasons: just to go, and then there are ones that get down and thrill your soul. And probably most of those came from Europe.
Is that something to do with the fact that they’re not as driven by narrative as American films?
Yes. Exactly. I think so.
What about Jacques Tati? You’ve mentioned him on occasion.
I love that guy. His whole style, and how he sees things. And again, you know, the guy’s an inventor visually, and with the sound, choreography, and music. Then there’s his childlike love of his characters; I really dig it. I met his daughter. But, you know, I hear these stories, how he died a bitter man and he wasn’t really that loved in his own country. And it kills me.
What about the prologue to Eraserhead, with the Man in the Planet? Obviously, it’s very important. How does that relate to Henry’s story and the rest of the film?
Oh, it relates. I’ve got to tell you, it relates. Prologue means what goes before, right? That’s exactly what it is. It’s very important what goes on there. And no one has ever really written about that front part. This Canadian guy, George Godwin, wrote something on it. He came and talked to me and interviewed Jack Nance and wrote his take on it. I wouldn’t really talk about it, but I answered some questions for him. But there’s certain things that happen in that sequence that are a key to the rest. And, er . . . that’s all.
They’re right there, you know. [Laughs]
Many readings of aspects of Eraserhead inevitably end up in the Freudian zone because there are so many obvious . . .
Things you can latch on to—psychological things, yeah.
Does it bother you that people will come to the movie with an orthodoxy? Any kind of orthodoxy? You seem very resistant to any single meaning being placed on your work—particularly by yourself!
No. See, the thing is, I love the idea that one thing can be different for different people. Everything’s that way. Like the O. J. Simpson trial. Everybody hears the same words, they see the same faces, the same expressions, the same anger or frustration or evidence, and they come away with absolutely different verdicts in their minds. Even with a standard, spoon-fed film, people see it differently. It’s just the way it is.
And then there are films or writings that you could read once and then ten years later read again and get way more from. You’ve changed; the work stays the same. But suddenly it’s got way more meaning for you, depending on where you are. I like things that have a kernel of some- thing in them. They have to be abstract. The more concrete they are, the less likely that this thing will happen. The maker has to feel it and know it in a certain way, and be honest to it. Every single decision passes through this one person, and if they judge it and do it correctly, then the work holds together for that one person, and they feel it’s honest and it’s right. And then it’s released, and from that point on, there’s not one thing you can do about it. You can talk about it—try to defend it or try to do this or that. It doesn’t work. People still hate it. They hate it. It doesn’t work for them. And you’ve lost them. You’re not going to get them back. Maybe twenty years later they’ll say, “My God! I was wrong.” Or maybe, twenty years later, they’ll hate it when at first they loved it. Who knows? It’s out of your control.
Certain things are just so beautiful to me, and I don’t know why. Certain things make so much sense, and it’s hard to explain. I felt Eraserhead, I didn’t think it. It was a quiet process, going from inside me to the screen. I’d get something on film, get it paced a certain way, add the right sounds, and then I’d be able to say if it worked or not. Now, just to get to that point, there’s a million times more talking. And in Hollywood, if you can’t write your ideas down, or if you can’t pitch them, or if they’re so abstract they can’t be pitched properly, then they don’t have a chance of surviving. Abstract things are important to a film, but very few people get the chance to really go all out with cinema. Creations are an extension of yourself, and you go out on a limb whenever you create anything. It’s a risk.
Isn’t the problem with, say, Freudian analysis for you that inscribed within such an approach is the tendency to say, “This does mean that, because we’re all part of the same . . .”
Collective subconscious thing. Yes, but the thing is, if a couple of dif- ferent psychoanalysts got together, they wouldn’t agree on everything either. There may be an exact science, but it isn’t psychiatry. The whole picture’s not locked in yet.
Can we talk a bit about the scenes in the radiator? Years later, when the Man from Another Place turned up unexpectedly in Twin Peaks, he seemed very much like the Lady in the Radiator. They appear to come from a similar place. Is that true?
Yes. The floor pattern in Henry’s apartment lobby is the same pattern as the floor in the Red Room in Twin Peaks. That’s one similar factor. The Lady in the Radiator wasn’t in the original script for Eraserhead. I was sitting in the food room one day, and I drew a picture of the Lady in the Radiator, but I didn’t know where it came from. But it was meaningful to me when I saw it finally drawn. And then I saw the radiator in my head. And it was an instrument for producing warmth in a room; it made me sort of happy—like me as Henry, say. I saw this opening to another place. So I ran into the set and looked at the radiator more closely. You know, there are many different types of radiators, but I’d never seen another radiator like this. It had a little kind of chamber, like a stage in it. I’m not kidding you. It was right there, and it just changed everything. So then I had to build the doors and the stage, and do the whole thing. One thing led to another, and suddenly there she was.
The Lady in the Radiator had bad skin. I think she had bad acne as a child, and used a lot of pancake makeup to smooth that out. But inside is where the happiness in her comes from. Her outward appearance is not the thing.
So a film isn’t finished until it’s finished. Anything can come along, and you realize that it’s almost like the thing knows how it will be one day. You might discover some parts of it at first—become excited and fall in love and go—but the thing knows that you haven’t seen the whole yet. Will the person discover those other things? The only way is to stay in there, and be watchful and feel it. And maybe they’ll pop into your conscious mind. But they’ve always been there, somewhere.
In 1974, at a time when Eraserhead was “on hold,” due to lack of finance, you made a little-seen short film called The Amputee. How did that come about?
Well, the AFI was testing two different stocks of black-and-white videotape. They were going to buy a bunch, and they wanted [cinematographer] Fred Elmes to test them to see which one to buy. So Fred came down to the stables and announced that he was gonna shoot this test the next day. I think they were gonna pay him some money to help him out. And a little lightbulb goes off in my head. I said, “Fred, what’re you going to shoot?” He says, “Oh, I don’t know, a test pattern thing or something like that.” I said, “Would they object if you shot something else? What if I wrote something and we shoot two different versions of the same thing? Then they could see the stock but we’ll have shot something.” So he says, “I don’t think that would be a problem. It may even be better.”
So I stayed up all night writing, and working with Catherine Coulson to build this rig. It was really cool because we couldn’t shoot sync sound, so we shot it and then ran it back and Foleyed the whole thing live to picture. It was pretty exciting to do sound effects on the fly.
What’s the film about?
Well, Catherine is in a chair, and she’s a double amputee. And she is going over a letter that she has written. She’s reading it aloud to herself, in her head. And a doctor comes in—that’s me—just to clean the ends of the stumps. And that’s it. [Laughs] It’s very minimal!
Catherine Coulson seems to have been very important to Eraserhead.
Oh yes, very much so. Jack Nance, who played Henry, was her husband. So she got involved with it through that. And then she realized that she was a very important, necessary ingredient to make this thing happen. She stayed with the film from the very beginning to the very end. She was going to play a nurse. Henry and Mary were going to go to the hospital to get the baby, but that scene was never shot. Catherine kept joking, “When am I going to shoot my scene?” like five years later, and stuff like this. But Catherine has got this personality where she sort of denies every kind of desire for herself and fulfills those of others. When everyone else was sleeping during the day, she was out earning money as a waitress. She’d bring her tips back, and food from the restaurant, and take care of stuff. And many times she put her own money into the film.
The first thing she did was hold the boom for Al. And then she started studying with [cinematographer] Herb Cardwell and learned about the camera and became an ace first assistant camera operator. There were only five people working, so everybody had a job. And if we did a dolly move, everybody was doing one and a half jobs to make it happen. And we would rehearse it and rehearse it. Herb was a stickler for smooth dolly moves. And he would teach us to push a dolly. But the word smooth became super-important—to have this certain feeling. And with no money, it took a long time. Everything took a long time. Because we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was all based on common sense.
Coulson has said that years before her appearance as the Log Lady on Twin Peaks, you predicted she would appear on a television series one day with a log. Was that a joke?
No. I had this idea during Eraserhead that I described to her and Jack and whoever would listen. [Laughs] And it was called I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge! It’s a half-hour television show starring Catherine as the lady with the log. Her husband has been killed in a forest fire, and his ashes are on the mantelpiece with his pipes and his sock hat. He was a woodsman. But the fireplace is completely boarded up, because she now is very afraid of fire. And she has a small child, but she doesn’t drive, so she takes cabs. And each show would start with her making a phone call to some expert in one of the many, many fields of knowledge. Maybe on this particular day she calls a dentist, but she makes the appointment for her log. And the log goes in the dental chair and gets a little bib and chain, and the dentist X-rays the log for cavities, goes through the whole thing, and the son is also there. Because she is teaching her son through his observations of what the log is going through. And then sometimes they go to a diner, and they never get to where they’re going. That was the idea. You’d learn something each week, see? For real! In an absurd sort of world.
How did that manifest itself finally in Twin Peaks?
Well, we were shooting the pilot, and we’re coming up to this scene in the Town Council meeting, and it struck me that Catherine had to be in this scene. And all she was gonna do was hold a log and turn the lights on and off to get people’s attention—there’s something about a lady with a log, you know . . . We got a lot of feedback about her, and so she became, like, a regular character.
Did Catherine do Jack Nance’s famous hairdo?
The first night, Charlotte Stewart did Jack’s hair, but again, that hair was fate. I wanted Jack’s hair to stand up—be short on the sides and tall on the top. But Jack had a particular type of hair that, when you tease it and then comb it, it just stays. It was the most fantastic head of hair. And when we first saw what happened for the tall look, and how tall it was, we were shocked. After a few minutes, I said, “This is it!” And it became absolutely normal to us after two or three weeks. Whenever we went out, we’d put Jack in the backseat of the car. He’d sit there, made up in the suit, and we’d take him out to locations, but we’d always have to keep him in the middle of the backseat, out of sight!
Jack was such a professional, I can’t tell you. Unbelievable! You felt he’d been in the theater or old films for, like, a million years or something. He’d come with all this stuff. He had this little bag of makeup and little brushes and, you know, weird little things he’d set out, and just go to work.
Now that he’s dead, he’ll be remembered for his role as Henry more than for any other part. He achieved a sort of iconic, cult status because of the movie.
I consider Jack one of my best friends. Starting with Eraserhead, we worked together on six features over twenty-five years, as well as the Twin Peaks television series. Jack was the unsung hero of actors. I’ll miss his dry, absurdist wit, his stories, and his friendship. I’ll miss all the characters he would have played.
You and Jack did a lot of rehearsal for Eraserhead, didn’t you? There was a lot of meticulous attention to detail.
Yeah. There was a period of time where we would rehearse—just me and Jack in that room—and work things out. And those rehearsals took a long, long time. Not only was it important for the film but Jack loved details. And so we would almost break it down into, like, quarter-inch moves. It was weird.
Yeah, almost like that. Every little thing would be planned. It may just be walking from the corner, past the dresser, to here. But it was so fantastic how it could be. It was just a walk, but a million things could go on in Henry’s brain as he crossed. And we had a lot of little inkie lights, making little pools of light. So Herb spent a long time lighting. Both Herb Cardwell and Fred Elmes were painstaking, and we found our rhythm. After a film’s been going for a couple of years, you find your rhythm! It kinda slowed to one or two shots a night. A master shot would definitely take all night.
Those moments when things are talking to you are really when the camera’s running. And because the camera’s running, people respect that—it’s a kinda religious thing, almost—everyone’s nice and quiet, and everyone’s doing their thing, and that’s the first time you really see it.
Doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on that first take?
Yes, it does. In that first take, a million things are screaming at you. It’s a strange thing, but once you sorta see something, chances are the actors will feel the truth of that. And it’s because you’re, for one time, there, all together in this thing. And it’s pretty real. And so it sometimes can happen very fast. If something feels not quite right, it becomes really apparent. In rehearsals, it used to be very quiet—there were only five people working on it—and things evolved and were worked out down to the subatomic particles almost, and that’s what I love.
When you were looking at dailies, was there much discussion among the key people about what had been achieved and what wasn’t right?
Yeah. One of Herb’s expressions was, “When you see dailies, there should be no surprises.” Especially after you’ve done tests and you’re rolling. The lab has got the look that you want. They develop it this way and print it that way. There are no surprises. And so most of the time, there were none. But like I told you, there were several things that we reshot, and that was really a bummer, because it took us so long to do some of those things the first time. And with black and white, if you want to see it, you’ve got to light it. And there are so many dark things in the movie. Colors automatically separate from each other.
I understand that you screened Sunset Boulevard for everyone before you began filming Eraserhead. Why that movie?
Sunset Boulevard is in my top five movies, for sure. But there wasn’t anything in particular about it that related to Eraserhead. It was just a black-and-white experience of a certain mood.
The characters in that movie also occupy a very particular world, a dead Hollywood. A past.
That’s right. It’s like one avenue into that other world, and a really beautiful avenue. I talked to Billy Wilder, and that mansion wasn’t even on Sunset Boulevard! So I wished I hadn’t heard that, you know. Of course it was on Sunset Boulevard! There it is, right there! And it’s still there somewhere.
I wondered whether it had something to do with that movie’s prologue. We’re being told the story by a corpse, someone who might be “dreaming” or inventing the entire film for us.
Maybe, yeah. You’ve gotta reach for it! Obviously, there’s gotta be something similar because I love it so much. But I don’t know what it is.
Is Henry dreaming the film up? Or is he being dreamt?
See, that’s something I can’t say.
I suppose what I’m asking is, where is the point of view in the film? At times, it’s hard to tell.
That’s good. I wouldn’t even know what to say about that. Maybe if I wrote, I’d do it in the first person, third person . . . I don’t know. It is what it is.
If you yourself decide on one interpretation of events before you start shooting a film—or while you’re making it—do you feel that you will somehow limit the possibilities for the film?
Yes, but, you see, I don’t even think about that. And I don’t know quite how to tell you how I do think about it. But you know it enough to tell somebody what to do in this scene. And then when they do it, you know enough to say, “That part is great, and this part is not right.” You could say to the actor, “It’s not right because . . . ,” and you start saying why. But you might use an analogy or something that has nothing to do with it, but they get it enough. And then when they do it correctly, they don’t even know the depth of the tightness of it, but it’s right.
How much did you work on the way characters spoke in the film? The sparse dialogue seems to be delivered in a very particular way.
Well, it had to be a certain way. And it came out of rehearsals. There are many ways they could speak that would be completely wrong. And so you keep working for the way that is right for the character, right for the mood. You get into phrasing, loud and soft, and this and that. You could see dialogue as kind of a sound effect or a musical effect. And yet it has all this stuff to do with character. And once that way is found, they just talk correctly. Hopefully, a lot of these things are found early on and nailed down.
There’s also a thickness to the soundtrack—a continuous, almost sub- liminal “presence.”
I’m real fascinated by presences—what you call “room tone.” It’s the sound that you hear when there’s silence, in between words or sentences. It’s a tricky thing, because in this seemingly kind of quiet sound, some feelings can be brought in, and a certain kind of picture of a bigger world can be made. And all those things are important to make that world.
One of those presences seems to be electricity: the noise and power of electrical current. Eraserhead is only the first manifestation of your fascination with electricity. What is that about?
I don’t understand it either . . . There are things that come into the home, you know . . . things that are built or created outside the house, which all speak about the time and about the life. And then if something goes wrong with those things, or if they’re not in good working order, it can mean something else too.
I just happen to like electricity, but I’m not really wild about the new plugs in America. I like forties and thirties electricity. And I like smokestack industry. And I like fire, and I like smoke, and I like the noise. But sounds have become little. The sound of a computer is just a Mickey Mouse thing compared to real power. And yet there’s a lot of power there, but it’s a different sort of thing, and it doesn’t thrill my soul.
Many scenes in your films feature the failure of electricity—the faulty neons in the autopsy room in Twin Peaks, the buzzing light fittings in Dorothy Vallens’s apartment block in Blue Velvet, for example. Electrical currents also seem to announce imminent danger or revelation, as in the strobe-light effect you use constantly in Twin Peaks.
Right, exactly, right. Exactly. And what it means, I don’t know.
Electricity becomes linked with the inexplicable.
Yeah, but scientists don’t understand it. They say, “It’s moving electrons.” But there’s a certain point where they say, “We don’t know why that happens.” I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t talked to these guys that are into electricity, but it is a force. When electrons run down a wire— do they have that power. It’s amazing. How did a plug or an outlet get to be shaped that way? And lightbulbs: I can feel these random electrons, you know, hitting me. It’s like when you go under power lines. If you were blindfolded and drove down a highway under those power lines, and really concentrated, you could tell when they occurred. There’s some- thing very disturbing about that amount of electricity—they know these things now. A tumor grows in the head. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not, you know, whacking you.
It becomes very sinister via its association with Killer Bob in Twin Peaks.
Yes, well, something strange is happening when Bob is around. There are, maybe, some worlds coming together. It’s not like dancing in the living room in the evening on a normal summer night! Other things are going on. There’s like a wind or a disturbance, and openings for different things to come in.
Given that Eraserhead was made over a five-year period, it must have been very difficult to maintain such an essentially hermetic world.
It was horrifying. Yet I like talking about Eraserhead because it pulls me back into one of the most beautiful times. And great memories. But in between, when we ran out of money, I was always amazed that so many things held for the film. Jack’s hair didn’t suddenly change, and the stables and the American Film Institute were still there. There was one shot where Henry walks down the hall, turns the doorknob, and a year and a half later he comes through the door! Those things can be extremely frightening, to think about holding a mood and a correctness, something that will stick together after five years. It’s pretty hard.
Did you despair about ever finishing the film?
I despaired plenty. At one time, I was thinking of building a small, eight-inch-tall Henry and animating him through some small cardboard sets, just to fill in the blanks! There are dark times in every picture, and even after every picture. Not everybody loves what you’ve done, and negativity is a powerful thing. And even the positive things are upsetting, in a way, because then you want to please the people the next time again. You’ve got to just think about the work, but it’s not always easy. I despaired a couple of times during The Elephant Man that I would make it through, and at the end of Dune. So much had gone into it, and it was such a disappointment.
I feel now that I shouldn’t have spent so much time on Eraserhead. I should like to have made more films in that time, but it wasn’t happening. It was extremely frustrating to hold on to everything for so long. I couldn’t do anything new because Eraserhead wasn’t finished. I didn’t have anything to show anybody. So I just saw the world going by and tried to raise money, and, little by little, I did it.
And yet, looking at the contact sheets of what seems like hundreds of photographs taken during the production of the movie, you’re smiling in virtually every one.
I was a happy camper. Are you kidding me? Very rarely was I, you know, hanging my head. And in those days, I was building everything. I’d get Jack to help me, or Fred or Catherine. We were putting on our own play, you know what I mean? It was so fantastic. And I had my paper route! And soybeans. I was really into soybeans then. They’re very hard to digest—I wouldn’t recommend them, really! These were dry roasted in a jar, and they were very reasonably priced, and I knew they were healthy, so I’d eat those. It was not a bad time.
But you did have Peggy and Jennifer to think about. Were your own family supportive of your decision to make a film at the possible expense of your home situation?
Well, one night I went to my parents’ house, and my brother and my sister were there, which was kind of rare. Eraserhead had been shut down for quite a while, and we were shooting piecemeal whenever I got enough money. But I had Jennifer, and I had no money. And so my younger brother and my father sit me down in a kind of a darkened living room. My brother is now working for Boeing Aircraft and is very responsible. He’s got a very strange experimental streak in him, but he’s still very responsible.
So they sat me down and told me it was time that I gave up this idea of the film and got a job. And it affected me, like, to my core. It was a very, very emotional and horrifying night. But the end result was, I couldn’t do that. I was lost in this land of Eraserhead for, you know, who knows how long? But they’d tipped their hand, and now I knew what the thinking was. I felt even more on my own.
It all worked out, but that could’ve been that. I always said that you can’t start something else when you’re that deep into one thing and it’s not finished. You’re locked there until you find a way to finish it.
When the movie was finally finished, did your parents say, “Well, it was worth it. It worked out”?
Except for that one evening, which was really more about Jennifer and my ex-wife Peggy than me, my parents have been extremely supportive. My father paid for half of The Alphabet, and while I was at the AFI, he gave me a monthly allowance. He was always giving me money. He kept track of how much I owed him, and one of my happiest days was paying my father back. He wouldn’t have cared if I hadn’t, but it was so fantastic! My parents don’t understand the pictures, necessarily, or why I do what I do, but they’re still supportive.
I understand that eventually the AFI had to pull the plug on the film because of some complication about feature production. What happened exactly?
My world was very small, but going on in the outer world was Easy Rider. And Easy Rider was gonna have repercussions for the American Film Institute, because one of the things that they wanted to do was make feature films. It seems to me they had an agreement with some studios to fund feature films through the AFI for like $250,000 or $500,000. And then, suddenly, the studios heard how little Easy Rider cost, and they said, “Wait a minute!” I don’t know what they said after they said “Wait a minute!” but they didn’t want to give the money to the AFI anymore. I think it had to do with the fear that the AFI would create films that would be good enough to compete with their films. And then the unions said, “If we give equipment and expertise to you AFI folks, that’s great, but if you produce feature films that are in competition with our work, that’s not good.” So the AFI passed an ordinance: no more feature films.
Before all this, Stanton Kaye was a filmmaking fellow at the Center, and he got the go-ahead to make the AFI’s first feature film. It was a huge production, and it was called In Pursuit of Treasure. It was going to be shot in Utah. But there were problems from the beginning. Big problems! At a certain point, they didn’t have anybody to build these gold bricks—the treasure. Toni Vellani found out I could cast plaster. So I was flown up to Utah, and I worked with this guy named Happy, making gold bricks in the basement of this hotel. It was pretty weird! Then I got tired of making gold bricks all day, so I said, “Look, my buddy Jack Fisk can cast stuff. I’m going to bring him up here.” Jack wanted to be an art director, so it was perfect. So Jack and I traded places, and I went home. But this film never got finished, and a lot of money was spent on it. That was another nail in the coffin of feature films for the AFI.
So when Eraserhead was looking like it was going to be a feature, they needed to distance themselves from it. So we came to this “Made in association with . . .” thing. And then they did the greatest thing for me. Because I needed to raise more money, and my percentage points were quickly disappearing, they gave me 40 more of their 50 percent. So I had 90 percent to use to raise money. People are still making money on it. Everybody that invested in it has gotten their money back and made a profit. And it still goes on. It’s amazing that it worked out as good as it did.
What about the baby? How was it made?
I don’t want to talk about it.
I gather that even Stanley Kubrick wanted to know . . .
Well, Kubrick paid me the highest compliment. Just before we started shooting The Elephant Man in England, some guys from Lucas Films came over. They stopped in to visit [producer] Jonathan Sanger, and they said hello to me. We were all talking in the hall at Lee International Studios in Wembley, and they said, “We’re glad we saw you, David, because last night we were out at Elstree, and we met Kubrick. And we were talking, and he said, ‘Do you guys want to come to my house tonight and see my favorite film?’” And they said, “Yeah!” And so they went, and it was Eraserhead. That was a hair of euphoria. Because I think Kubrick’s one of the all-time greats. Almost every one of his films is in my top ten.
Just to return to the baby for a moment. Is the point not to talk about it or what?
Just not to do anything.
I thought you’d made it, that it was your creation.
I never have said that, and I never will. It could’ve been made by somebody else. It could’ve been found. Everybody and his little brother now knows how things are done. Just like finding out the house wasn’t on Sunset Boulevard. Or like Cliffhanger. More people have seen how they did the helicopter shot in that than have seen the movie! Magicians keep their secrets to themselves. And they know that as soon as they tell, someone will say, “Are you kidding me? That’s so simple.” It’s horrifying to me that they do that. People don’t realize it, but as soon as they hear or see that, something dies inside them. They’re deader than they were. They’re not, like, happy to know about this stuff. They’re happy not to know about it. And they shouldn’t know about it. It’s nothing to do with the film! And will only ruin the film! Why would they talk about it? It’s horrifying!
Although, as you yourself said, where there’s a secret, there is a terrible desire to find out more.
There are some secrets that, when you learn them, something comes with that learning that is more than the loss of now knowing. Those kinds of secrets are different. And I believe in those. But talking about how certain things happened in a film, to me, takes a lot away from the film.
I read somewhere that you dissected a cat during the making of Eraserhead to get some ideas for textures in the film.
I examined its parts, the membranes, the hair, the skin. And there are so many textures which may be pretty gross on one side, but when you iso- late them and consider them more abstractly, they are totally beautiful.
Your daughter Jennifer once said in a documentary that a lot had been made of the autobiographical aspect of Eraserhead—of your being the reluctant art school father—and that because she was born with club feet, the baby was inspired by her. That’s very literal, isn’t it?
Sure. Obviously, since a person is alive and they’re noticing things around them, ideas are going to come. But that would mean there’d be a hundred million Eraserhead stories out there. Everybody has a kid and they make Eraserhead? It’s ridiculous! It’s not just that. It’s a million other things.
But it was during Eraserhead that you and Peggy parted?
Yes. It was about a year into the movie.
It must have been very difficult for someone outside of that very closed world of Eraserhead to know how to fit in. Particularly if you’re shooting at night and sleeping during the day.
Yes. Maybe that was part of it. But we separated in the most friendly way, and remain friends to this day.
In those early days, was it very difficult trying to make a film the only way you could and maintain a personal life of husband and father?
Difficult? [Laughs] See, I never was going to get married. I’d sort of perceived this kinda other life. I really wanted to live this thing called the “art life,” where you’re just in it all the time.
Do you find it easier now to keep things together?
It’s easier, because in the beginning you’re climbing, and you want to have as little baggage as possible. You’ve got things to do. And then later, certain things have happened, and if they give you a little bit of security in this strange world, it’s easier. But there are still many, many things to do, and you need time to think. You’ve gotta catch ideas, and distractions are killers. They’re just killers!
Sissy Spacek, who married Jack Fisk, appears in the credits for Eraserhead. What did she do on the movie?
Well, before they got married, Jack brought Sissy over to the set one day. Jack was making a lot of money art directing, and Sissy was mak- ing a lot of money acting. Jack got a job with Billy Friedkin, who was prepping two or three films. Friedkin was very hot then. One film was a surrealist kinda thing. They were looking at a lot of Magrittes, and Jack was bringing books in and stuff. He was on the payroll for several weeks and bringing down a lot of money, which he didn’t really need. And he felt guilty because this thing wasn’t really taking any time. So he’d sign the paychecks over to me. And Sissy came and helped out sometimes. When Jack was playing the Man in the Planet, she did the slate and helped. Jack was in a lot of pain because of the body and face makeup I put on him in that scene. It took three days for him to get back to normal!
Why did you change cinematographer midproduction, from Herb Cardwell to Frederick Elmes?
Well, Herb shot for nine months. He was one of the strangest people I’ve ever met. And a genius for knowledge. He knew, scientifically, how light did what it did when it struck the film. And the process of development and printing. He knew everything. He could build and design complicated mechanical things. He understood so much more than he needed to understand. Something in his brain was just sucking up information, you know, facts and things. And it would, like, make him tired. He just couldn’t help taking things in. A really great guy.
But Herb was running out of money, and he came to me one day and said that he was gonna have to leave. We had no money. He took a com- mercial that was going to be shot in Rio. Fred Elmes was in the next year of fellows at the AFI, and Toni Vellani told me that he thought Fred would be the best replacement. So for two weeks, Fred worked with Herb in the transition. They were very similar, strangely enough.
Herb drove with both feet. His left foot did the brake, and his right foot did the gas. And he’s an excellent pilot. And the smoothest driver I’ve ever ridden with. How many times, when you’re being driven and you turn a corner, are you just thrown over to one side or the other? With Herb, you’re not. He accelerates partway through the turn, in such a way that you don’t feel a thing. When you do feel that thing, it goes into your stomach and you become tight. So riding in a car fills you with tension. With Herb, you just suddenly realize, this is a different experience. It’s unbelievable!
There are many stories about Herb that are fantastically mysterious. On Eraserhead, we would finish work and, instead of coming back to the house—Alan and Herb lived with us, and sometimes my brother was there—Herb would go somewhere else. No one knew where Herb went. He’d come back and he was always kinda tired. He’d say some things, but they were like riddles, really. I still don’t know what Herb was doing. Everybody, including his wife, thought that Herb could be leading a double life. But if he was, it was so well hidden. He was a mystery.
Later, he got a job flying on airplanes, installing these 16 mm film chains that show movies; it was before video. He and five other guys would put new systems into planes and then fly and troubleshoot it if anything went wrong. One time they flew to England, landed at Gatwick, and went to a hotel near the airport. The next day, they were going to meet for breakfast, get back on a plane, and go somewhere else
Herb was always late. Always. So they were all there at breakfast, but Herb wasn’t. They called up, and there’s no answer. And they called again. No answer. So they went up and knocked on the door. No answer. Finally, they got the manager and said, “We can’t find this guy. He’s supposed to be here at breakfast. Maybe you should open up the room.” And the manager opened the room. And Herb was dead. In his bed. Two autopsies were done on Herb, and they still don’t know why he died.
Once the movie was completed, you then had the problem of releasing it. This must have felt strange, given that you’d all been a part of this extremely hermetic world for so long. Now your creation has to go out into the world. How did that work?
Well, first I tried to get it into Cannes. Some people from the festival came to the AFI when we were mixing. We mixed the whole film in eight days, but everything was so prepped and ready that it wasn’t hard. I let these people in because they were so sympathetic, and I could just tell I liked them. They were from the Directors’ Fortnight or something. And they said some very kind things about Eraserhead.
Then we showed it to one guy who was a friend of Terrence Malick’s—his financial backer, I think. Terry was trying to help me get some money, and he said, “I want you to show some scenes to this man. Maybe he’ll help you.” But Terry had not seen anything. So we organized several scenes, and this man came in and sat down, and I was, you know, trembling. I was at the console with Al. And in the middle of this thing, the man stood up and screamed: “PEOPLE DON’T ACT LIKE THAT! PEOPLE DON’T TALK LIKE THAT! THIS IS BULLSHIT!” And out he went. But, like, really upset. And Ron, the projectionist upstairs, heard this, and everybody was just looking at each other. So I thought, Man! You know, this is gonna be really difficult!
Al and I didn’t know anything about Cannes, but it became a goal. But then I got real sick, and Eraserhead wasn’t a composite print yet. There were twelve rolls of picture and twelve rolls of sound. So I got a shop- ping cart from the Farmers Market. I even went upstairs to the manager of the grounds and explained what I wanted to do: I had to go to New York, and I had all this film. And he said, “If you knew how many of these things were stolen, and you come up and ask me? You’re damn right you can take it, and I know you’ll bring it back!”
So I got this shopping cart loaded up, and I took the last bit of money out of the bank account to get this ticket to New York City, a red-eye. I waited till the screening room opened up and then went downtown and delivered the film. The projectionist was the only person I saw, and he said, “Set it over there with the others, and I’ll get it up on the screen as soon as I can.” And I see, like, five films ahead of me. So all day I’m up and down the sidewalk, having coffees and doughnuts, you know, and my head is just like a piece of clay from this flu I have. And finally, like at four in the afternoon or something, they started showing Eraserhead. I was listening from the door, going out and coming back in, and it was going the slowest it’s ever gone. And I’m dying a million deaths. Finally, it’s over, and I get back on the plane and come back to L.A. And three days later, after phoning and trying to find out if they said anything, a person tells me that no one was in the theater! No one was there. They had gone back two days earlier, and the projectionist was running to an empty house! So that was Cannes.
Then I got rejected by the New York Film Festival. So then Mary [Lynch’s second wife] said, “What about the Los Angeles Film Festival?” And I said, “I can’t do it.” And she said, “This is the last day they’re tak- ing entries. I’m going to put the stuff in the car, and we’re going down there.” And I said, “Okay, I’ve been rejected by Cannes and New York, I might as well get rejected here.” And down I went, and told them the same thing. And this guy said, “Wait a minute! We’re not the New York Film Festival. We’re not Cannes. We’re gonna look at this thing. Relax!”
And it got in. It was shown at midnight, and there was a terrible review in Variety. It was not a well-received thing.
After that screening, I went home. It was, like, two in the morning, and I drove over to Fred Elmes’s house. I sat in the car with Fred, and I told him every scene I was going to cut, and exactly where it was gonna be cut, so I wouldn’t forget it. And the next day, I cut this composite print, which you’re not supposed to do. But I just cut it and rearranged it, because I’d been wanting—needing—to do it. It was, like, so long this other way, it was not working. It’s still long for a lot of people.
This guy who’d seen it at the L.A. Film Festival mentioned it to [distributor] Ben Barenholtz, and he asked for a print. What Ben says is that, when the first reel was on, he walked out of the screening room and made a call and said he wanted it. He sent this guy, Fred Baker, out to make the deal, and we made the deal in Schwab’s drugstore! Which was pretty cool! Back to Sunset Boulevard.
What had you taken out?
Three or four scenes. One was the dime scene. A portion of it is still there, but originally it was a sequence of things that Henry saw. The first was two children in the alleyway, but they were in shadow and they were small people. It was a daytime scene, but there’s smoke and dust blowing. You could barely see them. They’re scratching in the dirt, and they find these tightly packed rows of dimes and start digging for more. Henry sees this from his window, and he quickly leaves the room. He gets halfway down the hall, and the baby starts crying. But he doesn’t stop, and goes all the way down, but he has to take the stairs because the elevator is broken. He gets into the lobby, and the sound of the baby is coming down the elevator shaft. So he kicks this couch leg, at which point his landlady comes out, starts in on him, and sends him back to his room. I loved this whole little sequence. When Henry returns to his room, he sees that the kids are gone and some adults are fighting over the dimes—digging, then not digging, now fighting. It turns into night, and they’re still fighting over the dimes. A little bit of that fight is still there.
That night, Jack Nance stuffed a bunch of dimes in his pockets. I had, like, fifty dollars’ worth out there in the dirt. To me, that was like having $500 million in the dirt, and I wanted every one of those dimes back! So Jack is on the upper-story balcony of the stables, and he’s screaming, “Yeah, Lynch! We’ve worked for you for five years, and you want your money!” and stuff like this. He’s really laying into me. And he’s got his grubby little hands on my dimes. That was when I made the final decision to make sure everybody had points in the film. They had them already, but I think I boosted them up! [Laughs]
Wasn’t there another scene taken out, involving two women tied to a bed?
Yeah. Henry sees into a room, and there’s two women tied to a bed, and a man with an electrical box. It was a beautiful thing. It had two terminals coming off the top and these big cables, and the man is just sort of testing them, and big sparks are leaping off these things, and he’s moving toward the women. And Henry leaves that scene! [Laughs] The reason I took that out was it was too disturbing to the film. I didn’t want anyone even to think about what was next door. It just clouded and disturbed it.
The movie found its niche as part of the late-night circuit, around the time of the early John Waters movies. Did that help the film?
Yeah. John Waters was another guy that helped me out a lot. One of his films was opening—I’m not sure which it was—but he’d already established himself as this underground rebel. And he did a Q&A or something after a screening of his new film, and he didn’t talk about his film. He just told people they had to go and see Eraserhead! It really helped the film. It played seventeen cities regularly. And in those days, which is unfortunately not the case now, midnight screenings were really strong. So at the Nuart here in L.A., for instance, it played for four years. It only played one night a week, but every day of the week it was on the marquee. So whether people had seen it or not, it became known over four years. I wish they would do that more. There are a lot of films that could make it if they had that venue.
In some respects, it would be virtually impossible to do Eraserhead now. Not to make it, but it would be virtually impossible to deliver it to an audience because that “underground” circuit barely exists now. Theatrical venues and distributors rarely take such risks today. All the truly experimental work is taking place on video in art galleries.
I’m sure that’s right, but I don’t want to think about it. If people want it, it will come back in some way. For a while, it looks like independent films are gone, and then the next year there are twenty great independent films. You never know what’s going to be coming round the bend. There are probably some young filmmakers who are just cooking with ideas. The second they get ahold of some money and a camera, they’re going to make something very experimental and take tremendous risks. And then those films will come out. Cinema kind of gets spurts now and again, and these move it along and shake things up. Same way with the big films. No one can predict what’s going to happen. It’s fantastic that they can’t.
Obviously, the whole Eraserhead period was a very special time for you. But what, in hindsight, did you think of the actual film?
Well, for some reason, we had to look at some new prints of Eraserhead a couple of years after it was finished. And I was in a different sort of place and able to just relax and see it. After the film was over, I said, “It’s a perfect film.” [Laughs] That’s the only time I’ve ever said that about anything I’ve done. I was just really happy with it on that one day.
Reprinted courtesy of David Lynch, Chris Rodley, and Faber & Faber.