David Lynch is a movie director. You probably know that, even if you’ve never seen The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive, each of which earned him an Oscar nomination and helped coin an adjective: Lynchian, akin to Kafkaesque, meaning bizarrely banal, or just plain trippy. He has worked in TV, having created the cult classic Twin Peaks, and is also a painter, cartoonist, computer animator, fine-art photographer, musician, professional furniture-maker, and amateur meteorologist. Every weekday morning at his website, Davidlynch.com — a repository of Lynchian strangeness — he posts a video of himself reporting on the weather outside his Los Angeles home, and he does it without a wink of irony. Yes, David Lynch is many things, and he’s about to become a few more. On the eve of the release of his new movie, Inland Empire, an experimental psychological thriller starring Laura Dern, he’s embarking on one of the most peculiar pursuits in his peculiar career.
He’s getting into the coffee business.
”David Lynch Signature Cup,” says the director, 60, his nasal twang pitched with pride. No joke: Lynch, who fetishized coffee in Twin Peaks (along with cigarettes, pie, lumber, old factories, and very sexy women), is taking on Starbucks. Available in espresso, decaf, and house roast, Lynch’s beans will come packaged in stylish jet-black metal tubes that will include coasters emblazoned with Lynchian graphics including images from his freaky first feature Eraserhead. You’ll soon find it at David lynch.com and at select movie theaters playing Inland Empire, too. ”I think it’s going to be…good coffee for the people,” he says with a hint of a smirk, as if he’s just said something rather sly. ”You want a cup?”
The only answer to that question is yes. We are inside his painting studio, perched atop the sloping grounds of his Hollywood Hills property. He’s got his work clothes on — white dress shirt flecked with green paint, buttoned to his neck and tucked into khaki pants. On his desk is a sculpture he’s been gluing together (it looks like a bra cup mounted on a block of wood) and a cracked toilet seat. Deadpan, Lynch explains: ”That’s just something I gotta fix.”
He’s trying to fix some other things, too. Like Hollywood. And maybe his future as a filmmaker. With Inland Empire, Lynch is going more indie than ever, opting to distribute and market the movie himself. After premiering Inland Empire on Dec. 2 in New York and Dec. 9 in L.A., Lynch will take it city to city beginning in January. ”Just like Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter,” he says. ”Throw the records in the car, we’re hitting the road!” Did Lynch embrace this unconventional strategy because his financiers, StudioCanal, couldn’t cut a suitable deal with a U.S. distributor for a three-hour experimental film with dim commercial prospects? Yes. But with the movie industry struggling with shrinking profit margins and changing technology, Lynch believes that in order to continue exploring his interior worlds — his Inland Empire — he must dramatically change the way he does business, too.
”The world is really changing. Topsy-turvy,” says Lynch, hands covering his face, eyes peeking through tobacco-stained fingers like he’s watching a horror movie. ”I just read that studios are asking artists to lower their fees. This is just the beginning!”
According to Dern, who starred in Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Inland Empire captures that anxiety. She plays several characters, including an actress who begins to lose her mind while starring in an old-fashioned melodrama. Prostitutes, creepy Polish folktales, and giant rabbit heads are also involved. ”The film is a reflection of David’s love for old Hollywood, and coming to terms with the death of what Hollywood represents for him, too,” says Dern. ”It’s a new day. For David, for film, for all of us.”
Hence, the coffee. And the Eraserhead ringtones as well, which you can also purchase through David lynch.com. Most of the revenues generated by these endeavors will help fund Lynch’s bid for self-sufficiency. ”We’re trying to create a David Lynch brand,” says Eric Bassett, who heads up Absurda, the company Lynch has created to handle his business affairs. Ask Lynch what the David Lynch brand stands for, and the man who has spent his entire career refusing to define himself actually has an answer.
When the movie world last heard from Lynch, he had just completed the second major comeback of his career. The first came in 1986, when he erased the debacle of Dune with his disturbing masterpiece, Blue Velvet. After Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart in 1990, he imploded again with another indulgent mess, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the feature-film prequel to the TV series. But he began to change minds again with 1999’s The Straight Story, shocking in its poignant linear normalcy. That same year should have also seen a new TV series starring an unknown actress named Naomi Watts, except ABC hated the pilot for Mulholland Drive and canned it. But one year later, during a session of Transcendental Meditation, Lynch came up with an idea to turn the failed pilot into the movie that marked his triumphant return to form.
”The road to Mulholland Drive was wonderful and weird,” says Lynch, pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket and firing up. ”But the road to Inland Empire was even weirder.”
Like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire wasn’t even supposed to be a movie. It began as a series of experiments with a gadget that has radically changed Lynch’s life, the thing he called ”my little bitty toy camera,” a handheld Sony PD150 digital video recorder. It was the remedy for what he hated about shooting on film: the waiting — for lights to be set up, for the crew to turn the cameras around, etc. One day, about three years ago, Lynch called Dern and asked her if she would shoot a scene he had written for her. She did. Later, he wrote another scene, and asked Dern to do it. This happened many times.
Digital video was clearly firing Lynch’s imagination. At his home, the director shot a surreal sitcom about a family of giant rabbits. ”I don’t know what to say,” he says, blowing cigarette smoke out of the corner of a crooked smile. ”It just felt correct.” At the same time, he was falling in love with Poland after befriending the organizers of a film festival in Lodz. (”I said, ‘I’ll come to your festival, but could you set it up so I could photograph those old factories there? And some nude women, too?’ And they did!”) On one trip to Lodz, he decided to shoot a scene he made up on the fly with some local actors. ”He was intoxicated with the process, freewheeling with this camera and his talent,” says Lynch’s longtime producer and former companion Mary Sweeney.
Lynch originally intended to use a lot of this stuff on his website. But one day, he decided to transfer the Dern scenes to film, just to see what it would look like. It was blurry and flawed — and Lynch liked it. It reminded him of old Hollywood films, ”when the picture wasn’t as clear as today’s film,” he says. ”I think when something isn’t so realistic, when the frame is dark or out of focus, the mind kicks, and you start to dream.”
And then he got an idea. When Lynch talks about getting ideas, he opens and closes his hands, like a radio tower broadcasting a signal. In this case, the idea told him that the Dern monologues, the rabbit sitcom, and the Poland stuff were adding up to something, a movie kind of something, which could be completed with some new footage. He considers the making of Inland Empire the closest he’s come to replicating the greatest creative experience of his career — the five years he spent making Eraserhead while he was a student at the American Film Institute. ”I came from painting, where it’s just you and the paint,” says Lynch. ”Digital facilitates a similar experience. You can get deeper into it.”
Now he’s selling it the way he made it: by himself. Becoming his own movie mogul has been a revealing and revolting experience. Wanting to mount an Oscar campaign on behalf of Dern, Lynch discovered it would cost him $3 million. He was appalled. Instead, Lynch is using guerrilla PR tactics that are part Dern advocacy and part protest, such as sitting on L.A. street corners with a poster of Dern. And a cow. ”It’s like a David Lynch movie,” laughs Dern. ”It’s out-there and irreverent, and yet he’s saying something of pretty phenomenal value. It’s fabulous, insane, and very sweet.”
Lynch hopes Inland Empire can further inspire the desktop filmmaking movement, although he doesn’t embrace the desktop viewing experience. Watching films on computer monitors instead of a movie screen? ”A total nightmare,” he says. And while Lynch’s marketing honcho Bassett is jazzed by the idea of expanding Absurda into an operation that could assist other filmmakers, Sweeney wonders just how ambitious Lynch really is. ”Until he goes through the experience, the jury’s still out,” she says. ”I think he doesn’t know what he’s getting into a little bit.”
CEO Lynch acknowledges a few tactical errors. If the coffee and the ringtones had been ready sooner, he says, he would have had more money to launch his new film. But he’s hoping that publicity around some of his other upcoming endeavors can help the cause. And then there’s Lynch’s self-replenishing fan base. Early reviews of Inland Empire have been mixed, but preview screenings overflow with college kids for whom Lynch films have become an intellectual rite of passage. ”I think that’s just neat,” Lynch says. Ask him who he thinks his audience is and he laughs. ”I don’t know!” But then he takes a long drag off his cigarette. ”If I had to,” he says, ”I would say anyone with an open mind, and anyone open to experiencing other possible worlds. That’s what I want from movies. That’s what I love.”
Read. Watch. Brew? Five ways to get more Lynch into your life.
David Lynch Signature Cup Coffee
We drank it — and it’s pretty damn good. Get free samples at select Inland Empire theaters.
Twin Peaks on DVD
The show’s second season comes to DVD next year. Sorry: Lynch doesn’t do commentary tracks.
A DVD full of David lynch.com content due in January; includes ”Lamp,” in which Lynch…makes a lamp.
Catching the Big Fish
Lynch’s book, about the role Transcendental Meditation has played in his life, is due this month.
An exhibition of paintings in Paris (March); Inland Empire on DVD (next summer); a new Twin Peaks soundtrack.