Right now David Lynch is definitely drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and painting a picture. Those are the only three activities you can imagine him doing, despite having no evidence to actually back this up. In new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, you'll discover this is quite literally all he does, day in day out, holed away in his workshop.
This is a documentary purely for the hardcore Lynch fans (which naturally accounts for the vast proportion of his fan base). It's a slow-paced but rich watch, following Lynch around as he paints and sculpts and carves, giving a fly-on-the-wall sense of his day-to-day life – "the art life" as he calls it. Despite the fact he's been interviewed plenty of times over his career, the filmmakers have managed to draw out strange new little anecdotes of his childhood that've had a huge influence on his vision. If you enjoyed Lynch's short book, Catching the Big Fish, you'll love the way this fills in the gaps of his early life.
I spoke to the director, Jon Nguyen, whose previous work includes Lynch (2007), which followed Lynch through the process of making Inland Empire, ahead the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday.
VICE: Hi Jon. In 2006, David Lynch was reluctant to do interviews. How did you change his mind?
Jon Nguyen: With Lynch, I remember we wanted to ask him a lot of questions. And you could tell from his body language that he wasn't really comfortable or interested in answering. At one point he just said, "Follow me and you'll know what the film's going to be about at the end of shooting". And then we realised, he was always cagey. After it was over I remember his friend Jason said, "I feel like David's getting to that age where he's probably going to want to share some of these stories. Maybe in a couple of years, we can come back and see how he feels about it." By the time he had his daughter, who is now about three-and-a-half or four, we approached him again and kind of pitched to him that this was a chance for him to tell her all the stories of her childhood and he thought it was a great idea.
The intimate access to Lynch is so rare. You're literally with him in his personal sanctuary as his daughter is running around.
David's a very private person and he has his close friends, and I think really, if it wasn't for Jason being there helping make it, and him having the trust and that kind of close friendship with David, this wouldn't have happened. You can't come off of the street and get David to open up like this. David's was not the easiest person in the world to interview. He leads the conversation quite often.
The interviews took place on the weekends and that was about 25 interviews over nearly three years. Jason was living at David's complex, so he would get a call on the weekend from David saying, "Hey I've got an hour, why don't you come down?" and then they would sit down and Jason would set up a microphone and it was like chatting to an old friend.
I was surprised to see how solitary his artist's life is.
Throughout the film you sometimes see him writing because he's writing Twin Peaks at that time. But almost always he's just up in his studio painting. I was getting all the material every single day and thinking, "Man all you're showing is David painting." Jason said, "John, all David does is paint, from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed". Of course, when he's making a film, he goes off filmmaking. But outside of filmmaking he wasn't doing anything else. He doesn't make his own coffee, except on the weekends. I'd say "Can't you get shots of him watering the plants or something?" Jason'd say, "I'll ask." But David would only be caught doing mundane things if it's what he was actually doing. He'd never play up to the camera. It just turned out that it was just morning to night, he's in the studio and he's like that since he was a child, working and working on the studio. That's all he does, he's a hardcore artist. He definitely lives the artist life.
Considering he's private, how did you go about the format for the interviews?
So each interview was different. He would talk about his grandparents and their stories and then about his whole family. But we noticed that there was a thread throughout it all that was him discovering art. He did fingerpainting classes and by the time he graduated from high school, had gone through six or seven private studios for painting.
His parents were so brilliantly supportive too. I love the anecdote he tells about his mother not giving him colouring books like his siblings because she could see his real passion for art.
She definitely saw something unique with him, some kind of potential. I'm not his mum, I don't know what she saw, maybe he was doodling and it was something other kids weren't doing. His dad too had a huge influence on him. David says his dad showed him him the world underneath the tree bark with the bugs. He kind of took that. But the thing that surprised me is that scene in the documentary where he takes his dad down to the basement to show him the weird experiments he was doing. [He has rotting fruit and decaying animals on display to see how they change and sadly, his dad is so horrified by the sight, he tells David he shouldn't have kids]. I don't know if he dad realised he was the direct influence on David for that.
There are numerous strange anecdotes he tells from his childhood which could be directly linked to his style and work. Especially striking is the time he was playing out in the street late in the evening as a boy and a naked woman came walking through the street near him.
When I heard that story, wow, it reminded me of that scene from Blue Velvet. And when he sees Bob Dylan live and says "he was so little on stage", it reminded me of the old couples in Mulholland Drive when they come out of the bag. A lot of his artwork incorporates a radio and in the documentary he talks about when he first went to college and after he said goodbye to his dad, he sat in his room for two weeks and never got out of the room he was in. He just listened to the radio until the battery died. That was powerful for me.
He implies that after experiencing that solitude in his room as a young adult, he's always been that way.
Yeah. I imagine he had some sort of agoraphobia about being outside. It definitely became more pronounced. He comes from smalltown America, and all of a sudden, he lands in Philadelphia. It was about two weeks after the race riots happened in a war-torn, completely destroyed, downtrodden town. He's always said that Philadelphia more than anything else had a big influence on his art in his life.
I didn't know he had some kind of intestinal or stomach spasms as a young person, either. What were those linked to?
I don't know what it was but I imagine these stomach spasms came from anxiety or stress. I imagine it was a manifestation of his mindset at the time because he talks about a lot about wanting to keep his family separate from his friends at school and his friends separate from his art friends. He lived in three different worlds and he never let them mingle which to me, links to movies like Mullholland Drive or Lost Highway where characters take on different roles, separated. He won't say this but I can only guess those ghost themes come from his childhood.
Does he still have to lead those separate lives or has he finally found peace in the art life?
When he's in LA, he's not someone that goes to a lot of Hollywood parties, or to dinners and stuff. He leads a quiet life at home. I imagine it might have to do with the anxieties and agoraphobia. So I'm sure he's matured and developed a lot but he still has these issues.
If people watch this they'll realise the struggle that he actually went through to get any recognition at all.
David worked hard to get where he is at. He had doubts, he had to work through all the shitty paintings that he did. And that story that we put in at the end about his Dad telling him he should stop making Eraserhead, and David said no and then came back and sat in front of his sister crying. That to me was a revelation because I just took for granted that everything came easy to David, but really he had a lot of opposition, because he had a family to feed and his Mom and Dad probably didn't want him to be a struggling artist, and if it wasn't for the grants that he received we would not have David Lynch today.
When we wanted some photos of David from that period, I contacted a friend of his that went to art school at the same time in Philadelphia, because he was a photographer. He was like, "Oh I'm so happy he's made it big, everybody knows who David is. I followed his career, because after school in the 60s I tried to make it as an artist, but after a couple of years I had to give it up and pursue another career, and anyways I'll go down to the basement and I'll dig through some of the boxes and try to find pictures." And this guy still lives in Philadelphia today, and he is beginning to receive some recognition now for his photos from that period, but I think, "Man, that could have been David."
Were there any loose ends or questions about the man you were left with after the film wrapped?
There's one story in the film that we never got an answer to. In the film he remembers leaving Montana as a kid and saying goodbye to a man called Mr Smith. I don't know if you can tell but he was nearly crying and getting really sentimental. We came back to that story several times and every single time David would get really choked up and say he was sorry but he couldn't go there. It was strange, because we were like, "You didn't really know Mr Smith, so why is this scene saying goodbye to the Smith family having this effect?". All I can guess now is that that was the demarcation between his happy years, because then his family moved to Virginia, and his dark period set in with his anxieties. He even talks like his boyhood was sunshine and happiness, but Virginia was dark. So I think he lost his youthful innocence maybe. He probably misses the 50s and the happiness with his family.
Did he like the film?
Yeah he did. The thing is we made the film from all the parts that he gave us. He gave us all his family photo albums and access to all his paintings, and then we walked around his painting studio and his house, and did the interviews. We didn't go out and interview third parties, we didn't really insert any pictures that he hadn't given us. He even picked the name. So it's really almost pure David.