Lynch on Mulholland Dr.
The following interview was originally published in the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch. The interviews included in the book were conducted by Rodley between 1993 and 2005. For Criterion’s release of Mulholland Dr., we republished Rodley's chapter on the film, and here we present a selection of excerpts from Rodley’s conversation with Lynch about his masterpiece Hollywood love story.
So how did you first pitch the idea to ABC as a potential TV series?
I just had two pages that were read to them, and then more pitch stuff to give them a mood and more of a thing. And at that point, they were all saying, “Sounds great. Let’s do it.”
But what was on those two pages?
A couple of things: a woman trying to become a star in Hollywood, and at the same time finding herself becoming a detective and possibly going into a dangerous world.
As the idea developed in your mind, what was it about Mulholland Dr. that made you fall in love with it?
If someone said to you, “What was it about that girl that really made you fall in love with her?” you couldn’t say just one thing. It’s so many things. It’s everything. Same with this. You get an idea. A moment before, it wasn’t there. And it comes SO FAST! And when you get the idea, it sometimes comes with an inspiration, an energy, that fires you up. Maybe the love is in the idea, and it just comes into you. I don’t know. But the idea is really small, and then it expands and shows itself to you so you see it completely. And then it goes to the memory bank so that you can examine it some more. It’s very complete. It’s like a seed. The tree is really there, but it’s not a tree yet. It wants to be a tree, but it’s just a seed.
Sometimes an idea presents itself to you and you’re just as surprised as anyone else. I remember when I was writing Mulholland Dr., the character of the Cowboy just came walking in one night. I just started talking about this cowboy. That’s what happens—something starts occurring, but it wasn’t there a moment ago.
Do you then get anxious about how this idea is going to fit in with everything else?
No, because you’re just in that world yourself. You’re just going. There is no movie yet. Until the process completes itself, you’re just going to carry on. Somewhere along the way, when it looks like it’s taking some sort of shape, the rest of the ideas all gather around to see if they can fit into that shape. Maybe you’ll find out that that thing isn’t going to work, so you save it in a box for later.
You’ve got to be the audience for most of this trip. You can’t second-guess them. If you did, you’d be removing yourself from yourself. Then you’d be out there in really dangerous territory, trying to build something for some abstract group that’s always changing. I think you’d fail. You’ve got to do it from the inside first and hope for the best.
Tell me about the character of Diane—or Betty—as there are two differently named characters, both played by Naomi Watts. What do we call her?
This particular girl—Diane—sees things she wants, but she just can’t get them. It’s all there—the party—but she’s not invited. And it gets to her. You could call it fate—if it doesn’t smile on you, there’s nothing you can do. You can have the greatest talent and the greatest ideas, but if that door doesn’t open, you’re fresh out of luck. It takes so many ingredients and the door opening to finally make it.
There are jokes about how in L.A. everyone is writing a script and everyone has got a résumé and a photo. So there’s a yearning to get the chance to express yourself—a sort of creativity in the air. Everyone is willing to go for broke and take a chance. It’s a modern town in that way. It’s like you want to go to Las Vegas and turn that one dollar into a million dollars. Sunset Boulevard says so much about that Hollywood dream thing to me.
Did you ever feel that way about this town yourself—that it was the place to make your career as a filmmaker?
No. I came in through a weird door, and I didn’t really know about it. I arrived here in August 1970, at night, and I woke up in the morning, and I’d never seen the light so bright. A feeling comes with this light—a feeling of creative freedom. So for me it was almost an immediate full-tilt love affair from then on. Hopefully, everybody finds a place where they feel good about being where they are—a place that does something to them. That’s L.A. to me.
I’m always intrigued by the exact time frame in a lot of your films. […] Mulholland Dr. is defiantly contemporary, and yet it has a feeling that it’s happening in the past—the fifties or even the thirties and forties.
But that’s so much like our actual lives. Many times during the day, we plan for the future, and many times in the day we think of the past. We’re listening to retro radio and watching retro TV. There are all kinds of opportunities to relive the past, and there are new things coming up every second. There is some kind of present, but the present is the most elusive, because it’s going real fast.
There are still many places you could go in L.A. to catch the drift of the old golden age, but they’re getting fewer. It’s like the old oil well that used to be where the Beverly Center is now. That was one of the locations we used for Eraserhead, and it was one of my favorite places in the whole world. You’d go over this doughnut of earth and down inside this place, and you’d be in a completely different world. There were these oil tanks and this working oil well just standing there. It was just incredible. There was a pony ride from the twenties or the thirties. And there was this little key shop that was like four feet by four feet, with a roof. And then there was the Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand, which has moved to another place now. And there was Hull Bros. Lumber, which was a working sawmill, I think, with a hundred-foot-tall mound of sawdust next to it. There was also a nursery. It was all, like, from the thirties—mostly dirt, with this stuff scattered around. The buildings were ancient, and guys wore those green-colored visors and armbands. They were old-timers who knew about wood and Hollywood and everything.
Why are you attracted to all of that?
For me, it’s a thing that I felt as a kid in Our Gang comedies—The Little Rascals. It was feeling the thirties—a feeling of a place back in time, because it hadn’t changed. It was like a set. This place just existed there. And then it was gone. It became the Beverly Center. Now it’s just, like, a congestion of shops and parking and lights and signs. It’s just a huge change.
In its transition from TV pilot to feature film, did Mulholland Dr. become more complicated?
No, it got much simpler. It became obvious what it was. It was like the day I was in the food room at the stable in AFI when we were shooting Eraserhead. We’d been shooting for almost a year by then, and I was drawing the Lady in the Radiator. I tried to picture the radiator in Henry’s room—which was twenty feet away—and I couldn’t. So I went running into Henry’s room, and I looked at the radiator, and I almost started weeping for joy. It was perfect. It was unique because it had a place built in it—for her. But she didn’t exist when that radiator had been handpicked. So the Lady in the Radiator married with what had gone before. I knew it already, of course. It was the same kind of thing with Mulholland Dr.
But there were many more elements to mesh and narrative threads to tie up in Mulholland Dr.
Sure, but when you’re working on something, you have strings that go out here and there, and they end. But one of those strings is going to continue, while others atrophy and fall away. You sometimes go in different directions to find your main path. And maybe one of those strings that were started comes back by surprise at the very end, in a different form, and you say, “That’s how that thing fits in.” All the threads in Mulholland Dr. are tied up.
The movie is full of obvious clues, but there are many other things that are important visual and audio indicators that are not obvious. So at times it does seem as if you’re delighting in teasing or mystifying the viewer.
No, you never do that to an audience. An idea comes, and you make it the way the idea says it wants to be, and you just stay true to that. Clues are beautiful because I believe we’re all detectives. We mull things over, and we figure things out. We’re always working this way. People’s minds hold things and form conclusions with indications. It’s like music. Music starts, a theme comes in, it goes away, and when it comes back, it’s so much greater because of what’s gone before.
But audiences have struggled with trying to work the movie out and, at a certain point, they just want you to tell them what it all means—to you.
Yeah, and I always say the same thing: I think they really know for themselves what it’s about. I think that intuition—the detective in us—puts things together in a way that makes sense for us. They say intuition gives you an inner knowing, but the weird thing about inner knowing is that it’s really hard to communicate that to someone else. As soon as you try, you realize that you don’t have the words, or the ability to say that inner knowing to your friend. But you still know it! It’s really frustrating. I think you can’t communicate it because the knowing is too beautifully abstract. And yet poets can catch an abstraction in words and give you a feeling that you can’t get any other way.
I think people know what Mulholland Dr. is to them, but they don’t trust it. They want to have someone else tell them. I love people analyzing it, but they don’t need me to help them out. That’s the beautiful thing, to figure things out as a detective. Telling them robs them of the joy of thinking it through and feeling it through and coming to a conclusion.
And it doesn’t matter if that conclusion isn’t the same as yours?
Right, because even if you get the whole thing, there would still be some abstract elements in it that you’d have to kind of feel-think. You’d have to say, “I kind of understand that, but I don’t know exactly what it is.” Sort of. The frames are always the same on the film—it’s always the same length, and the same soundtrack is always running along it. But the experience in the room changes depending on the audience. That’s another reason why people shouldn’t be told too much, because “knowing” putrefies that experience.
What is it about women crying that fascinates you?
I don’t know! What IS it? It’s a lot of things swimming together, I guess. I’ve done that kind of scene a few times. Maybe I’ll do it a bunch more. I don’t want to say exactly what it is, because it won’t be enough.
In Mulholland Dr., both Diane and Rita sob uncontrollably while watching Rebekah Del Rio mime to her own performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” at Club Silencio. How did the latter come about?
That was an accident. My friend and former music agent at CAA, Brian Loucks, calls from time to time and says, “I want you to meet so-and-so, can we come over for a coffee?” One day he calls me and says, “I want you to meet Rebekah Del Rio.” So Rebekah comes over with Brian at ten o’clock in the morning, and because I’d said to John Neff, “I think she’s gonna sing,” he’d set up the microphone—a very beautiful microphone—in one of the booths in my recording studio. Rebekah just wanted to come over for a coffee and sing in front of us. She didn’t want to record anything, but she came in and four minutes later—I think before she’d had her coffee—she’s in the booth. And the one take that she sang, four minutes off the street, is the vocal that’s in the film. THE ACTUAL RECORDING!
The weird thing is that she chose to sing that particular Roy Orbison song. I was about to start shooting Blue Velvet, and “Crying” came on the radio. I said, “Jeez! I’ve got to get that song to see if it would work in the film.” In the end, it wasn’t quite right, but I started listening to other cuts, and “In Dreams” came up. It was destined to change things in the most beautiful ways after that. Rebekah knows Barbara Orbison, Roy’s second wife, and she’s the one who translated “Crying” into Spanish, but it’s just so strange that that was the song that was almost in Blue Velvet.
Rebekah’s got one of the most beautiful voices in the world, so I said, “Damn, this is unbelievable!” And I start thinking about it. We listened to it after she left, and I said, “She’s gonna be in the film.” I’d had this other idea that I’d written down one night, so that jumped in and provided the slot for Rebekah.
The lip sync that she did when we actually shot that scene much later was, like, the best I’ve ever seen. She’s the original singer, of course, but even so, there are singers who can’t do that—the lips and the tongue and the breaths don’t work. But this was perfect in every way.
There seems to be a lot of miming in Mulholland Dr., to music—at the auditions for Adam Kesher’s movie—but also people “miming” entire lives. Is the character of Betty in some respects Diane’s “mime”?
Someone who only becomes “real” when she plays someone else for that brilliant audition at Paramount Pictures?
Doing exactly the same scene we’ve already watched her rehearse rather badly with Rita? What was that all about?
It’s like doing something twice—the same piece of material two different ways. It’s always interesting. In Blue Velvet, the song “In Dreams” is played twice, and it’s got a completely different feeling each time, and a different meaning. Or maybe it’s the same meaning but you see it a different way. All the characters are dealing somewhat with a question of identity. Like everyone.