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I Was an Extra in David Lynch's Weirdest Movie

With the 'Twin Peaks' reboot set to roll out later this month, we look back at one of the director's criminally underwatched works.

ByRick Paulasillustrated byLia Kantrowitz

As I remember it, it was a little after noon when my boss got the call.

He walked into the editing room at Video Monitoring Services, a company that'd record TV and radio 24/7, to be used to compile "educational compilations" for movie studios curious to watch what their stars were saying on Oprah and the late nights. And he asked if anyone was free that night. A friend of his was working on a movie, and they needed an extra. It paid $60 for a few hours. I said I could do it.

The scene took place in an abandoned building in the then-nearly abandoned Downtown LA. On the ground floor was a bar, though it wasn't clear if it was real or just built for the set. There were about ten of us extras scattered about. There was neon lighting, a mini-strobe, a smoke machine, and a crew of maybe three or four. As background to a scene, I sat at a table miming a conversation with a girl, as instructed by the assistant director. "You know 12-inch voices?" he asked. "Make these about eight."

"Action!" said the director, David Lynch.

With that disheveled coif of hair and a cigarette dangling either at his lips or between his fingers, Lynch flowed through the set carrying his digital camera, aiming it mostly at an older Polish man, clearly the scene's focus. The actor spoke to a woman who the camera never pointed at, suggesting she was someone's stand-in.

Between takes, Lynch dictated a few vague notes to a hefty bald man nearby, who then translated them to the actor. My scene partner and I were too far to hear what the notes were, but when "Action!" was called again, the Polish man's eyes widened into a trance, and he began spit-whispering a fierce incantation, his sausage-like fingers tracing some ancient spell in the air at the woman seated across from him.

"Cut," Lynch said, and this time, he bypassed the translator's services. "You don't want to scare her out of the bar," he said in his high-pitched, Midwestern drawl. "If she sees you acting like that, she'll run right out. Tone it down a little." It's an odd thing to hear the director of Eraserhead say.

After a dozen or so shots—you wouldn't call them "takes" because each was a different set-up—the night was a wrap, and we all went home. In total, we were in the warehouse watching Lynch work for roughly three hours.

A split-second of my "performance" from that night is roughly two-thirds of the way through Lynch's last feature film, Inland Empire. Released in September of 2006, it's the last narrative project (besides a few music videos and a handful of commercials) he was behind the camera for until the forthcoming reemergence of Twin Peaks for Showtime. It's a criminally underwatched, perfect clusterfuck.

The story—don't worry about spoilers, it's unspoilable—can be summed up in the oblique four-word synopsis Lynch gave in interviews leading up to its release: "a woman in trouble."

That woman is played by Laura Dern, who is in nearly every scene (the stand-in the night of my shoot was rumored to be for her), giving a singular performance that makes you understand why Lynch felt the need to drum up Oscar publicity on her behalf by hanging around Hollywood Boulevard for long stretches with a cow. Dern moves through the movie's odd contours among an eccentric set of actors—Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Julia Ormond. Hell, even Terry Crews makes an appearance. An entire separate group of scenes takes place in Poland. There's something in there about "the longest-running radio play in history." Oh, and a sitcom where three people wearing rabbit costumes (Scott Coffey, Laura Elena Harring, and Naomi Watts) deliver stilted lines in front erratic canned laughter.

It's the type of movie that's only worthwhile if you spend a day or two mulling it over. The kind you love, but at the same time, cannot recommend to anyone you know.

As the follow-up to his near-universally adored Mulholland Drive, it's had a virtual nonexistence since its release. It's not streaming, save for when bootlegged version shows up on YouTube once in a while, so for some it might as well not exist at all. It's three-plus hours long, understandably off-putting to most. And unlike Lynch's other features, it's not particularly pleasant to look at, seeing as the whole thing was shot on standard definition digital video. But that format is the reason it's such an interesting experiment and why it deserves attention it hasn't received.

I wasn't needed as an extra that night on such short notice because some production assistant had dropped the ball. It was part of the creative process. Rather than writing a script, storyboarding, luring investors, auditioning the cast, signing contracts, on Inland Empire, Lynch basically just shot a bunch of stuff with his new toy—specifically, the SONY PD-150 camera, a consumer camera you can buy for about $350 these days—and figured it out as he went along.

"I'm never going to go back to film," Lynch told an audience at the San Rafael Film Center in 2007. "Film is a beautiful medium, so beautiful, but it's a dinosaur. It's heavy. It's slow. It tears. Watermarks. Colors don't match in the prints."

Unrestrained by that arduous process, Lynch did what he does: Meditated and caffeinated, and came up with image or scenes he liked. Then, he'd call up his producer to rally the troops (collecting extras when needed) and shoot whatever had come to mind. As he told it in a 2011 interview with Parallex View:

In the beginning I get an idea, and it happens to be something like a scene, and so instead of writing it down and waiting for the next one and writing that down and waiting for the next one and that down and building a screenplay, I started shooting those scenes and, in shooting them, kind of committing to a look and a feel but staying true to that idea and not ever thinking of a feature at that time.

He did this off and on for two years before sitting down with the collection of scraps he'd made, finding some semblance of a story, writing and shooting connective tissue to fill in the gaps, and editing it into the final version. This method led to, as you'd expect, some weird moments on set.

Masuimi Max, the model/actress who appears ever so briefly toward the end, got a call for a role on a Wednesday to shoot on Friday. "I was like, 'Hell yeah, it's a David Lynch movie, I don't care what you want me to do," Max tells me over the phone. Lynch asked her if she knew any one-legged girls and if she had a monkey. "I was like, 'Oh crap, are these deal breakers?'"

They weren't. They found a monkey, one Max tells me caused considerable trouble on set. "When [David] said action, they had strobe lights, and tons of people dancing really fast, and it freaked out the monkey. The monkey would go crazy and start punching me in the face, trying to rip my wig off. They'd cut and say, 'You have to feed him jelly beans.' I said, 'I think it's scared.' One of the ladies was like, 'Bring in the other monkey!' I was like, 'Oh no.' But the second monkey was fine as long as I kept feeding it jelly beans."

The end result of this process is something that just seems more Lynchian, whatever that means, than his other productions. In fact, it may be one of the only times Lynch got to be Lynch.

He began his career as a painter, a quality he tried to incorporate into early shorts, first through stop-motion, next in the detail-oriented, laboriously composed shots of his features. The TV shows and features went through the standard studio process—that is, plenty of rewrites and explanations of what goes where. But that process opened up during his previous feature, Mulholland Drive, which had a quasi-improvisational nature embedded into its final version. It was originally shot as a TV pilot for ABC before both parties felt it was best left off television, and Lynch got French production company StudioCanal to pitch in $7 million to fill in the gaps to make it a feature.

It's not hard to find a direct link from that odd assembly method to
Inland Empire; it feels like the logical next step. And by tossing aside narrative for emotional expression—with the help of his trusty digital camera—Lynch stumbled upon something truly unique. I was lucky to see it up close, watching what I could while speaking with an eight-inch voice.

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