Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of David Lynch.
It’s been nearly ten years since David Lynch released a film, but the director seems to have etched himself into a permanent place in cinematic topicality. Even without the new releases of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead on Criterion, Lynch’s work is an eternal point of entry for cinephiles, a means of accessing an interchangeably abstract, confrontational, darkly funny, discomfiting, and mesmerizing style of filmmaking that stands alone.
Lynch’s work is deeply indebted to other strands of filmmaking ‐ from its references to Classical Hollywood to the now-common use of the word “Lynchian” in describing an array of work ‐ but his films simply do something that other films and filmmakers don’t. That’s something that is hard to explain in clear terms. And for Lynch, that’s entirely the point.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who nominated Vladimir Putin for the ice bucket challenge.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from David Lynch
1. Take Ideas as They Come
Lynch not only advocates for creative minds to be patient in the way they deal with ideas ‐ don’t look for inspiration ‐ but it also explains the considerable restraint with which filmmakers should handle ideas that do come to them. The director’s language interprets inspiration as almost existing independently of oneself ‐ like a television signal sent from elsewhere ‐ and it is toward preserving this alien quality that Lynch urges his audience not to labor in “making sense” of these ideas, at least not in the simplistic and over-rationalizing terms of Hollywood narrative logic.
The notion that ideas need a direct explanation, or to be made sense of soberly, significantly limits the creative possibilities of their eventual expression. Ideas often seem to exist outside of space and time, without their own logic or coherence or reason for being. Why should that quality be undercut when making films?
2. Fail with Your Own Films
“There were very bad reviews [of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me]. I was under a bad cloud during that time and it just didn’t go well. But I loved the film and when you do something you believe in and it doesn’t go well it’s okay. If you sell out like I did in Dune and it doesn’t go, well, then you really die.”
As an admirer of the clunky, bizarre, Sting-tastic mess that is Dune, I think Lynch is being a bit hard on himself here. That said, by juxtaposing two of his notable critical and commercial failures ‐ one a disturbing and enigmatic prequel to Lynch’s canceled TV cult mainstay Twin Peaks, the other a big-budget studio science-fiction movie ‐ Lynch explains how some failures are more virtuous than others. Fail with the film you love, the film you dreamed to make, the film that perhaps only you wanted to see. Failure with the film that escapes you, the film others want you to make, the film that your heart is absent from, that failure is harder to take because that film did not exist to service anyone.
3. Embrace Intuition, Experiment as You Go
As with the often nonsensical character of inspiration, Lynch’s discussion of making The Straight Story stresses that the work of emotion in filmmaking is similarly intuitive: “The film talks to you.” Trust your instincts and work until it feels correct. Learn to harness that emotion and let it take you wherever it will, for it can lead to unexpected directions, or what interviewers like Charlie Rose see as “departures” from one’s typical work.
4. Accept the Mystery
When David Lynch came to my alma mater to promote transcendental meditation, he held an open Q&A session in which he stressed that people should ask whatever they want. For someone who makes such esoteric work, he was a remarkably candid and open speaker, willing to engage the audience on a variety of topics (very few of which had anything to do with transcendental meditation). When an audience member asked Lynch whether the house in Lost Highway takes place “inside or outside reality,” the above was his comically terse, perfectly timed response.
But those two words speak volumes. Lynch is a director who relinquishes any sense of control over the meanings of his films. Most of his films (except Dune, I guess) are rather meaningful and personal, but he does not attempt to impose that meaning onto others. I don’t think this is an attempt to maintain some sort of elevated artistic ambiguity. Rather, Lynch recognizes that he does not own the meaning of a film, and that films do not look to him the way they might to anyone else.
To impose his reading both 1) perpetuates a false sense that he can command audience interpretations of his rich work, and B) undercuts the important creative and emotional work audiences engage in when they view, personalize and interpret a film.
Or, in other words…
5. You Don’t Own the Meaning of a Film
“Well, you know, it’s difficult to say. I always say the same thing: Every viewer is different. People go into a world and they have an experience, and they bring so much of what makes them react, it’s already inside of them. Each viewer gets a different thing from every film. So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn’t speak to them at all. It’s just the way it goes. . . I like to have people be able to form their own opinion as to what it means and have their own ideas about things. But at the same time, no one, to my knowledge, has ever seen the film the way I see it. The interpretation of what it’s all about has never been my interpretation.”
6. Embrace the Cinematic Aspects of Cinema
Cinema is meant to be big. In its ideas, in its style, in the way it’s presented. Keep cinema big.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
A common trope that runs throughout Lynch’s discussions of his work is that he sees an invisible thin line through which you can make too much linear sense of a project and thereby disrupt the depth of creativity potentially residing within it. Lynch’s career has shown a disciplined approach to managing that thin line. This is not to say his work is meaningless or an assemblage of random ‐ if variously nightmarish, beautiful, and iconic ‐ images, but rather that he keeps sober, conventionally cinematic understandings of “meaning” at bay in order to explore an array of possibilities.
Lynch does so through handling inspiration, emotion and interpretation modestly throughout the filmmaking process, giving all of the above enough breathing room to take on a life all their own and guide the work. Now that’s what I call Lynchian.