David Lynch: interview

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In an exclusive interview to coincide with the re-release of ‘The Elephant Man’ on DVD, iconic film director David Lynch tells Tom Huddleston about his experiences as a little-known American making a story steeped in the grime and savagery of Victorian London

In the pantheon of great London films, there are many that attempt to capture the capital’s harsh realities. There are others that strive for something more ambiguous – a sense of London, a mood, a dream of the city. Among these, David Lynch’s exquisite, emotionally shattering ‘The Elephant Man’, shot in London at the end of the 1970s, is one of the finest. As the film is reissued on DVD, Lynch gave Time Out a rare interview on the phone from California and revealed his thoughts on the much-loved classic.

Despite its historical roots, Lynch’s take on the life of John Merrick – tortured carnival freak turned society darling – never tries to examine the facts of the man’s life, or the society in which he lived. Instead, Lynch refracts the story through the warped lens of his own obsessions: deformity and social exclusion, dreams and childhood fears, the magic of existence and the mystery of death. In doing so, he creates a unique cinematic landscape, a place in which the establishment – in the form of actors such as John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins – rubs shoulders with the avant-garde.

Lynch looks back on the film, his first studio picture, as a labour of love. But he says the actual production was something of a nightmare. ‘It was a very, very difficult film for me, because I was in a place where a lot of people thought I didn’t belong. I had made one feature no one had heard about, and here I am, born in Missoula, Montana, making a Victorian drama. I think a lot of people thought: Who is this nutcake? Who was I to be doing this?’

It’s extraordinary that ‘The Elephant Man’ got made at all, at least in its finished form. Having completed the oblique, deeply personal ‘Eraserhead’ in 1977, the director was fishing around for new ideas. ‘I wrote a script called “Ronnie Rocket”, but I couldn’t get anything going. I met a man named Stuart Cornfeld, who worked for Mel Brooks and had loved “Eraserhead”. One day, just on a feeling, I said, “We’re not getting anywhere with ‘Ronnie Rocket’; are there any other scripts that I might direct?” And he said, “There are four scripts. Come to Nibblers and have lunch, and I’ll tell you.” The first thing he said was “The Elephant Man”. And an explosion went off in my brain. Very strange. I said immediately, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.” ’

Was producer Mel Brooks not taking a huge risk, hiring this virtual unknown to direct such a big, prestige picture? ‘You know, enormous or huge aren’t big enough words. And yet, zero risk in some ways. Mel somehow related to “Eraserhead”. He saw something there that made him think: This is the guy. So I don’t know how much of a risk Mel felt he was taking.’

There are parallels between ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Eraserhead’, not least the sense of a thunderous industrial underworld barely buried beneath everyday existence. For Lynch, the period element was one of the screenplay’s most appealing aspects. ‘I always loved smokestack industry, and I love towns or cities that have grown up around factories. So here is Victorian England, and I don’t know this land, but I know factories, I know this is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so that side of it resonated with me. Then one day I’m standing in East London Hospital. A derelict hospital, but it still had beds in the wards. Thousands of pigeons, broken windows, but long, glorious hallways, fireplaces, all the details. I’m there in the hall looking into a ward and a wind entered me, and I was back in time. I knew it: 100 per cent. Victorian England. And I said: “Now I know it. No one can take it away from me.” It just came in.’

Lynch personally scouted out many of the locations used in the film, shooting key scenes in Liverpool Street Station and Butler’s Wharf in Southwark. ‘But if we’d tried to do “The Elephant Man” even a year later, we couldn’t have. They were redoing the wharf area and just tearing out all the old places we’d found, that had been there for who knows how many hundreds of years. We were so lucky to get certain places. The feel of Victorian England was still there. You could go down the street and see people coming towards you from the 1800s. It was a different London.’

This apple-cheeked Eagle Scout had a hard time proving himself to a seasoned British crew. ‘You know they say forest fires are around 2,000F? This was a baptism by fire far hotter than that. I thought I would be fired off the film. But I had total support from Mel, and it all came right in the end. Mel gave me so much freedom and support.’

One of Lynch’s greatest pleasures was working with the distinguished cast, particularly John Hurt, whose portrayal of Merrick is the raw, bleeding heart of the film. ‘Those actors were beyond great. I cannot say enough good things about John Hurt. What he did is just glorious. His character is so fantastic. It’s a human-being thing; your heart just goes out to him for what he went through.’

Even the more troublesome cast members eventually came around to Lynch’s way of thinking. Screen legend Wendy Hiller was drafted in to play the matronly Mrs Mothershead. ‘I saw her in “Sons and Lovers” and I loved her. And I meet her, I think I’m going to like her, but she comes in and grabs me around the neck. And she’s shorter than I am, for sure, but she lifted me up off the ground almost, and marched me around the room. And she said, “I don’t know you, I will be watching you.” But she turned out to be another one who supported me beyond the beyond. I love Dame Wendy Hiller.’

Lynch’s love of transcendental meditation is well known. Last year he went on a speaking tour with the singer Donovan, advocating TM to audiences across Europe. While making ‘The Elephant Man’, meditation helped to keep the young director on track. ‘When you transcend, negativity recedes, tension and anxiety get less and less. If I didn’t meditate, some of the things I’ve gone through in this business could’ve killed me. I’m not kidding. A lot of artists think they want anger. But a real, strong, bitter anger occupies the mind, leaving no room for creativity. Negativity is the enemy of creativity. Somehow, the French got this idea of the starving artist. Very romantic, except it’s not so romantic for the starving artist.’

Since the release of ‘Inland Empire’ in 2006, many Lynch devotees have voiced concern that his newfound obsession with digital video might spell the end for Lynch the master storyteller. Thankfully, the director has no desire to limit himself. ‘I’m as surprised as anybody when the idea pops in. If I fall in love with it, I go. It could be a straight-ahead film, it could be… who knows?’

But despite working as executive producer on new features by kindred souls Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lynch says he has no movies of his own in the pipeline. ‘I’m painting away, I’m working on photographs and music, and somewhere the idea’s going to swim out, and I’ll know what to do next.’

The Elephant Man: Special Edition’ is out now on DVD. ‘David Lynch: The Collection’ is out Aug 25.

Author: Tom Huddeston



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