There’s a dismembered bird’s wing on David Lynch’s desk. It’s large and dirty and molted and just lying there, soaking up the sunshine that’s pouring in through the windows of his hilltop painting studio in Los Angeles. The 55-year-old filmmaker, clad in khakis and a buttoned-to-the-neck dress shirt and burning through cigarette after cigarette, says nothing of the grim object resting between him and his interviewer, as if its presence requires no explanation. But since dirty dismembered bird wings lying inexplicably on desks are, as a general rule, rather strange, you feel compelled to ask, and when you do, he smirks. ”My assistant found this the other day and brought it to me,” says the Montana native in his Western twang. ”Sometimes I put stuff in my paintings, and he thought I could do something with it.”
Of course he could: After all, this is the oddball auteur who made a severed human ear the haunting central image of his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. In fact, his ninth and latest feature, the trippy-sexy neo-noir Mulholland Drive, which opened to strong reviews and promising grosses on Oct. 12, is a cinematic salvage act, combining parts of a failed 1999 ABC pilot with footage shot last year. The result, which earned Lynch a shared best director honor at last spring’s Cannes film festival, is a Frankenstein created by a mad scientist under the influence of Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard (two of Lynch’s favorite films).
”Drive” is the twisted tale of a wide-eyed aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) whose life gets intertwined with a raven-haired amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) searching for her true identity. In between auditions, Betty plays Nancy Drew with her dusky new friend, and their investigation ultimately leads to a bloated corpse, a mysterious blue box, and a role-swapping denouement that defies rational analysis. Even his stars were befuddled when Lynch reconvened them last year, long after the shooting of the pilot. ”I remember the day when David told Naomi and me, ‘Ladies, Mulholland Drive is going to be an international feature film!’ ” recalls Harring, perfectly nailing Lynch’s accent. ”We were so happy, but it wasn’t until we left that we looked at each other and went, What exactly did we just agree to in there?” Adds Watts: ”I would really try to siphon whatever I could out of him, but when he wouldn’t give, I’d be like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ He was almost delighting in my torture!”
Maybe — or maybe he just didn’t know what to say. Likening his creative process to that of the Surrealists, Lynch says all his movies ”are made of ideas, strung together and forming a story and the world that comes with it. And I’ve always believed that if you remain true to the ideas, more often than not, that whole will hold together just correct.”
Trusting in his gut has produced one of cinema’s oddest oeuvres. Lynch became intrigued with filmmaking in the late 1960s while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After getting a grant from the American Film Institute for a 16mm short called The Grandmother (1970), he enrolled at AFI in Los Angeles and soon began working on his first feature-length effort, Eraserhead.