A DEEP DIVE INTO DAVID LYNCH'S CREATIVE PROCESS
...WITH THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW HIM BEST
The world of David Lynch is powered by ideas. It’s a constant stream of images, accidents and gut decisions that all require trust and teamwork to pull off. Here, his closest collaborators – as well as the filmmaker himself – open up about an imagination unlike any other.
As the morning sun rises over Los Angeles, David Lynch gets ready for his day. He slips on a white-collar shirt, along with battered beige chinos and scuffed black shoes, then buttons it flush-tight against his neck. He meditates, drinks coffees – plural – and sits at his multi-complex home studio waiting for his staff. Personal assistants arrive, as does a picture assistant, a runner, Alfredo the maintenance guy, as well as Dean Hurley, who runs his music studio. Then work can begin.
Routine vs. Disruption
David Lynch’s daily life is as paradoxical as his art. In his work, he plucks the abstract from the ordinary and creates chaos from order; he zooms in on the mundane yet illuminates the underbelly. This approach came early for him. Lynch remembers his childhood as one of picket fences, blue skies, red flowers and cherry trees – yet he’d find himself focusing on the millions of little ants swarming beneath that surface. From the twisted exploration of domesticity depicted in his cult 1977 film Eraserhead to the genre-busting TV show Twin Peaks, the director’s work has confounded expectation and flipped worlds upside down, inside-out, back-to-front and back again.
Once Lynch’s day is under way, it remains grounded in routine. He meditates twice a day. He wears the same clothes. He eats the same lunch: one piece of bread with mayonnaise and chicken. He eats the same dinner: the same as lunch, plus vegetable soup. For seven years, he went to Bob’s Big Boy Burgers every day to drink the same milkshake until he decided to climb into the dumpster out back to discover what ingredients they contained.
“David’s work ethic comes from someone who spent their formative years in the 1950s,” says Dean Hurley, who’s worked as Lynch’s in-house engineer since 2005. “He has that kind of button-down professional mentality. He’s very punctual, so you really have to make a point to be there and ready to work by 9am.”
In 1997, Lynch admitted that he had questioned the rigidity of his own routine: “I considered psychoanalysis to talk about these cycles of things like [repetitive] lunches. I asked [the therapist], ‘Could meeting with you affect my creativity?’ And he said, ‘I have to be honest, it could.’ And I said, ‘Thank you very much, goodbye.’” Today this bordering-on-obsessive approach to the rhythm of daily life is to ensure an uninterrupted flow of ideas. By now Lynch knows that keeping things simple, predictable and controllable is the 73-year-old’s best chance to tap into an endless well of creativity.
“You Gotta Have a Set-up”
This is a phrase that Lynch is fond of. “For him, a set-up means a multifaceted one,” says Hurley. “The recording studio is the same as his wood shop: somewhere that he can walk into, turn on the saw and get to work.” The dynamic extends to people, too, so tasks that interfere with creativity can be taken care of by someone else. PAs deal with emails and schedules; the runner gets groceries; Alfredo will take Lynch’s hand-drawn napkin designs of furniture to secure materials.
“It’s like an organised tornado,” says Hurley. “Some days he may just come into the studio and be like, ‘I had this idea last night: I was thinking about Van Morrison and the horns from ‘Into the Mystic’. I love those horns; we need to do something that has that feeling.’ Then he goes off to do something else and returns a couple of hours later.” Sometimes, though, these visions can feel a little too big to pull off. “He sends runners on wild-goose chases,” Hurley adds with a chuckle. “He gets these real pie-in-the-sky ideas like, ‘What would it take for me to drill for oil in my backyard?’ Then somebody has to look all that up and make a report.”
Lynch doesn’t like to leave his complex unless it’s work-related, in which case he’s simply substituting one work environment for another. He doesn’t take vacations and weekends are an obstacle because it means his routine is on pause. “He gets super pained when nobody is in the office,” says Hurley. Lynch’s set-up is all about self-sufficiency – an insular world he never has to leave unless necessary; a place where he can indulge any creative whim: be it painting, building furniture, editing a film, making a record, taking meetings or drinking coffee.
“The goal was to create a home where he could do anything,” Hurley says. “Film is a really cumbersome beast that involves doing your work at a variety of multi-million dollar facilities and David has managed to build this for himself. It’s all about creating and maintaining his freedom.”
Adding to the Tool Belt
Although Lynch prioritises creative autonomy, he remains a prolific collaborator who stays loyal to those he enjoys working with, from actors (such as Laura Dern, Kyle MacLachlan and Naomi Watts) to crew and production people (like cinematographer Peter Deming, casting director Johanna Ray and composer Angelo Badalamenti).
“David has always struck me as being single-minded in what he wants,” says actor Charlotte Stewart who, between appearing in Eraserhead and 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return is Lynch’s longest-living collaborator. “I see myself as a colour on a palette that he chooses from. I don’t choose the colour and I don’t know what the painting is going to be. He puts me on the brush and paints me into the story.”
Another example of Lynch’s creative paradox is that, despite the tenacious approach and exactitude of vision, he’s surprisingly open to input from those he brings into his world. “He’s somebody for whom there should almost be another word for ‘collaboration,’” says Hurley. “It’s super important to him. Film is very collaborative by nature. There’s this concept of the auteur where they collaborate with numerous people. Yet their voice is so distinctive and loud that their work with all these different people can come out in a singular way. So when you get somebody like David who is secure, confident and open – not just open but on a quest to discover – people around him can find new tools for their own voice. He wants to see something more exciting than what’s already going on in his mind.”
“He will suss out a person quickly,” Hurley adds. “He’s like a turkey baster sucking water out of a sponge. He wants to know what you can do. If he sees you do something, he immediately puts that into his tool belt.”
Lynch has a way of building up shorthand languages for individual collaborators, tapping into their essence and forging unique relationships in order to realise something unique. “I have a very unusual way of working with David as a director,” says Angelo Badalamenti, who has worked with Lynch consistently since 1986’s Blue Velvet. “So much of Twin Peaks, for example, was composed without video; only David’s descriptions of various characters and moods. I just follow him and translate his words to music.”
Yet when Trent Reznor worked with Lynch on the music for 1997’s Lost Highway, he says he didn’t even receive a vocal instruction like Badalamenti. “He wrote shit down on a piece of paper,” he remembers. “He scribbled a star-like pattern with an ink pen and said, ‘I would really like it to sound like that.’”
Lynch’s vision can, on occasion, make for mystifying work. “There are no secrets given,” says Peter Deming, who has handled cinematography for Lynch since the early 1990s. “No matter how long you’ve worked with David, he never gives anything up. You find yourself asking, ‘What does this mean?’ or ‘If I knew what that meant, could I do my job better?’ You have to interpret things the best you can because you’re not going to get any kind of explanation.”
But this, in turn, only leads to a greater sense of creative freedom. “We don’t go into a lot of detail about photography and lighting,” Deming explains. “It’s mostly about mood and emotion. For me, creatively, that is a dream. Because you know what the shots are and then the rest is up to you to create a mood. I don’t know if there’s a better way to work.”
For Lynch himself, it’s about striking the balance of having a solid thought but making sure it’s malleable. “I always say that you have to be true to the idea,” he says, speaking on the phone from his workshop, his nasal voice resonating with characteristic matter-of-factness. “The ideas in a film are mostly organised in a script and you follow that because those words are based on being true to the idea. It’s about translating the idea and remaining true to it all along. However, along the way, new ideas can come in and you start to think, ‘How could I think this was done without that?’ Ideas can come in at any stage and to me they are like gifts and blessings.”
On 24 February 1990, Lynch was picked up from his home by a car service to attend a Roy Orbison memorial concert. As he was being driven towards LA’s Amphitheatre, he struck up a conversation with the 29-year-old driver, Harry Goaz. By the end of that drive, Lynch was so enamoured with the young man’s personality, demeanour and soft Texan lilt that he cast him in Twin Peaks as the goofball Deputy Andy Brennan.
“I was really worried about Harry,” says Johanna Ray, Lynch’s casting director since 1986. “I thought, ‘What is he thinking?’ Mark Frost [Twin Peaks co-creator and writer] and I were looking at each other and just thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ But of course it turned out brilliantly. I never questioned anything after that.”
“Working with David is completely different to working with anyone else,” Ray goes on. “When I began working with him, he didn’t even want to meet a lot of actors; he would just look at headshots. When he likes a person, even just from a photo, he says, ‘That’s it.’”
Over the years, Ray began to take more natural images of actors that she thought were a good fit for Lynch. These photos now stretch to over 25 albums’ worth. “When he starts a new film, he says: ‘Johanna, bring up your photo album.’ That’s how he found Naomi Watts and Laura Harring for Mulholland Drive. Pretty much everyone from that film came from this photo album.”
For most directors, it would seem unfathomable – detrimental, even – to cast a film full of people without seeing them act. But Ray believes that Lynch can “get the performance he wants out of anyone”. Even one of the most indelible characters associated with his career, she says, stemmed from chance. “Laura Palmer was a complete fluke,” says Ray. “[Sheryl Lee] was cast as an extra. It just happened that she was the only one who had no problem being naked and wrapped in plastic in the cold.”
One day, years later, the singer Rebekah Del Rio came to Lynch’s home for coffee and offered to perform for him in the studio. He was so knocked out by the performance – a Spanish language version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ – that he crafted a whole new scene around it in Mulholland Drive, leading to one of the most potent moments in the film.
Similarly, the character of Killer Bob came from mistakingly catching prop man Frank Silva on camera; he’d been trying to hide out of frame but his reflection in a nearby mirror showed him looking scary. The image proved so striking that Lynch created the key role and cast him on the spot. “He uses these accidents and little mistakes,” says Ray. “When most directors would freak out about something going wrong, he utilises it.”
Conducting the Orchestra
Once Lynch’s ideas have passed through this process of being shaped by others, spurred by impromptu decisions and rerouted by serendipity, all that’s left is to steer the results towards completion. That might sound like a potentially chaotic scenario, but it’s something the director thrives on.
“David’s biggest asset is his ability to lead a huge group of people,” says Hurley. “Not just telling people what to do but imparting his vision and excitement and have them catch the same wave of excitement. I’ve been in a room with people and seen them flounder – then he’ll walk in and have a seemingly innocuous conversation. Suddenly light bulbs start firing off in people’s minds and everybody starts working in tandem.”
Ray, too, says that people have a tendency to come back changed after a Lynch shoot. “They always say, ‘That was the best experience I’ve ever had working with anyone.’ They’ll say that David has ruined it for them when it comes to working with any other director. I’ve heard that a million times.”
Even Hurley, who has been working with Lynch on a daily basis for well over a decade, still struggles to grasp the magic that Lynch manages to conjure on set. “I can’t quite figure out everything – he’s still an enigma,” he says. “Although I know for sure he can conduct an orchestra like nobody’s business.”
“It’s all about magical combos of people and these combos conjure things,” says Lynch, finally, as if it were the simplest idea in the world. “So if somebody comes in a certain way, and I’m a certain way, then the result is unlike what you would get with any other person.”