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In Brisbane for an exhibition of his visual art, American auteur David Lynch talks about his sources of creativity. By Romy Ash.

The dark inspiration of American auteur David Lynch

Filmmaker and artist David Lynch.
Credit: JUST LOOMIS

On and off for seven years, David Lynch went to the same diner, Bob’s Big Boy, at the same time of day, 2.30pm, and ordered the same drink, a milkshake in a ’50s-style silver tin goblet. 

“The reason I went at 2.30 was if you go during lunch they’re making so many shakes, they don’t get a chance to get cold enough,” he says. “The machine that made them was called a Taylor. So liquid would be poured in, and you have three flavours: strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. So say they pour the chocolate in – it’s liquid – then it has to freeze in there so that when they pull the lever the chocolate comes out thick, like in a tube, and it fills the goblet up. I rated the shakes that I got at Bob’s and only three were perfect over the seven years. Only —three—perfect—shakes.” 

He bangs the table three times for emphasis, wobbling the remnants of a Coke and spilling an untouched flat white. The latte art has bubbled and blurred as the coffee’s cooled and now spills over into the saucer. Lynch is sitting across from me, on a poky balcony at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, which is hosting a major exhibition of his work, David Lynch: Between Two Worlds until June 7. It’s not the most salubrious part of the gallery, but it’s the only place Lynch can smoke. 

He’s been smoking since he was five years old. “It’s not a friendly world to smokers anymore,” he says. His hair, which stands up from his forehead in a cockatoo quiff, is tinged a nicotine yellow at its ends. He’s wearing a black suit, a buttoned-up crisp white shirt, snub-nosed black tie and inappropriately woolly socks. Earlier it showered and with the return of the sun, the air is now heavy, humid. 

“I can still remember one of the three perfect ones,” he says, returning to the milkshakes. “It was a day in the Valley, and the Valley is hotter than Hollywood, and so it was a very hot day, probably a hundred degrees. I was tearing apart a small shed. For the wood. I love wood. To me, wood is gold. So if you get a chance to get some free wood, it’s good to take that chance and get it.”

Small-town boy

Lynch grew up in small-town America: Missoula, Montana; Sandpoint, Idaho; Spokane, Washington; Durham, North Carolina; Boise, Idaho. He has an earnest turn of phrase and his sense of humour is often hard to pick. Half the time I think he’s making fun of himself. 

“I really like neighbourhoods,” he says, “and I think all neighbourhoods have similarities, and I think people are sensitive about things they feel in the air, and they’re curious about things. Life is like a mystery and we try to figure out what’s going on. 

“I felt that there was more going on than meets the eye since I was little, but also I had an extremely happy childhood. Life was a good dream. But I still felt there were things happening that maybe weren’t so good, and many things that I felt were hiding, hiding away.”

Blue Velvet, Lynch’s 1986 film, looks behind the white picket fence facade of small-town America. The film came to him with the vision of a severed ear in a field, and the haunting notes of Bernie Wayne’s 1950 song “Blue Velvet”. 

Back in the Valley, he got the wood cleaned and stacked in his car and went to Bob’s. “It was so hot, but inside Bob’s was cool. But I was still very thirsty, so I got a Coca-Cola and a silver goblet shake. And this shake was … One of the things it has to be is, the silver goblet has to be so cold it gets a frost. And the top of the ice-cream is frosted, it’s so cold. Ice-cream the thickness of butter, of cool butter – not hard, but buttery. And flecks of chocolate you can see. This had all those things, and it was… It was just the most refreshing and perfect thing.”

He has a look on his face that’s similar to the look he gets when talking about Transcendental Meditation – the bliss reached as he “dives within” the “ocean of consciousness”. Lynch practises TM as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, every day. “I’ve never missed a meditation in 41 years,” he says. 

Lynch has written a book on TM, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, which is also an autobiography of sorts. The David Lynch Foundation, “for consciousness-based education and world peace”, is dedicated to getting students in low socioeconomic areas to practise meditation in school. He tells me TM is about “expanding the container” of consciousness. You can’t “catch ideas” while you’re meditating, but the overall life-positivity that flows from it creates an environment for creativity.

 “When you think about it, this field within is a field of unbounded creativity. So it stands to reason if you experience that field, you’ll get more creativity,” he explains. “It’s unbounded energy in that field, so you’re going to get more energy to do your things. And it’s unbounded intelligence. All these things feed the work like crazy. And it’s unbounded happiness, so you’ll be happier in your work. The work will be more thrilling, and you’ll feel real good in your body. And it comes to be that there’s no problem, there’s just solutions.” 

This relates to his visits to his favoured diner. “What I would do is have a shake and coffee and try to catch ideas. They had napkins – a napkin dispenser – so I would draw on the napkins, or I would write down ideas on the napkins. It was like having a little office desk with good food and drink. I always say I like diners because they’re normally well lit and safe places, so you can dream any kind of dream and always return to a safe, well-lit diner.”  

Lynch’s “dreams” aren’t often the “good dream” of his childhood, but instead are the strange and fearful places he conjures in his films – films that have, as David Foster Wallace once said, a “psychic intimacy” to them. The horror comes partly from the recognisable. 

I think of the diner scene in Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s Oscar-nominated psychological thriller starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. It’s one of those scenes that seems unrelated to the plot of the film. Two men sit in the Winkie’s diner, speaking about a dream – a nightmare, really. A monstrous figure from the man’s dream appears. It’s terrifying. I have to wonder if this was one of those ideas, jotted down on a napkin at Bob’s Big Boy. Lynch’s drawings on napkins, the insides of matchbooks, on what would be considered ephemera, can be seen at GOMA, under glass and hung on the walls of the gallery. 

We look out over the Pauls milk factory and the William Jolly Bridge. The factory is earmarked for development but for now there are chimneys trailing steam, semitrailers lined up, and silos of milk. Beneath the bridge was once the back end of the city, a place where homeless people slept. Now, the tail of the Kurilpa Bridge curls onto a manicured lawn and a grove of neatly planted trees that borders GOMA. 

Lynch’s minders, of whom there are many, say he won’t mind being tucked at the back of the gallery with a view of Pauls. “He loves factories,” they say. It’s a focus of the exhibition. For years he’s photographed factories, many of them post-industrial boom, in a process of returning to nature.

“I like the idea of factories,” he tells me. “The old smokestack industries thrill my soul. I love the sound that I imagine from factories, the smoke coming out the chimneys. I like the big, giant steel boilers, and fire, and I like steel. I like glass. I like concrete factories. I like lumber mills. I like all these things. I like them for photographing in the winter. I don’t like green leaves, or green trees near the factories. I like dead trees, black trees, a more minimal thing, and then the factory stands out.” 

Most of his paintings, prints, animations and drawings are devoid of colour, and what colours there are look impregnated with crude oil, a thick, luscious brown. The exhibition is a survey of sorts and what is revealed is a diverse arts practice. Lynch came to film through painting. He trained as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “The place had a fantastic mood for painting,” he says. 

Earlier in the day, I watched him onstage, speaking about his life, his art and his filmmaking. He’s wearing the same suit, but onstage his shoulders were high. There was a deep wrinkle that ran right down the centre of his forehead, a dark fissure dividing it in two. Often he closed his eyes, as if looking within for the answers. The hand not holding the microphone played the air. He looked anxious. He has a lifelong fear of public speaking. 

Onstage he said: “Philadelphia is my biggest inspiration, and when I was there – I went there at the very end of 1965, and I stayed there until 1970 – it was a very sick, corrupt, filthy, fear-ridden city, with insanity and negativity in the atmosphere. At the same time, I really loved that city. There was a mood in Philadelphia that I caught and stayed with me, and it’s a mood of a factory town. The city really made me dream. It was a beautiful experience.” 

‘A magical place’

Eraserhead (1977), Lynch’s first feature, was set in Philadelphia but filmed in Los Angeles, much of it in the bowels of a mansion in the Hollywood Hills then owned by the American Film Institute. It has Philadelphia’s mood: the fear, the insanity, the negative atmosphere. Previously he’d made a “moving painting” – an animation projected on a sculpted wall – of trees at night, and from the strength of the short film works that followed, he obtained limited funding to make Eraserhead

“I think in many ways it’s gotten worse for some in Philadelphia, and some probably better. But Philadelphia, what’s happening is like in the ’50s. The girls, say, in Queens or the Bronx, they dressed a certain way, their hair was a certain way, they listened to certain music. Pretty close down the road in Philadelphia the girls were different. Their hair was different, and they listened to different music, and they were each unique. And then over in Boise, Idaho, a whole different thing. Now everything is the same.” 

I ask him if he thinks this is an effect of the internet, as it’s a medium he has embraced. In 2002, on davidlynch.com, he released a series of online shorts, such as the crude animation DumbLand, the surreal sitcom Rabbits, and a daily LA weather report, among other things. 

“The internet’s a magical place,” he says, “it’s a magical place. You can find out anything, and you can share things with the world. It’s like having, say, your own TV station, or your own radio station, or your own movie theatre, or whatever. 

“I did the weather. Then a bird started living in this canvas bag that covered the camera, and we had to stop because that was where the sparrow slept each night. That killed the weather station.” He laughs, blue eyes wide under heavy brows. “Every night, as the light fades, the birds sense it’s time to go to bed, and a bird would fly in and go into the canvas bag, and we didn’t want to disturb his house.” 

Lynch hasn’t released any new material on his website since the late 2000s. Apart from the bird, why has he abandoned the internet as a place to experiment? “Well, because it’s a hungry, hungry, hungry medium. And you got to keep changing and doing new things. It takes all your time.”

Time isn’t something Lynch has had a lot of lately. He has spent the past four years working on the screenplay for season 3 of Twin Peaks, a return of his 1990-91 cult television series. Lynch refuses to elaborate on the show’s reemergence, except to say that there’s “contractual complications” currently halting progress. 

I ask him, now he’s given up his obsession with milkshakes, what he does at 2.30 in the afternoon. “Now… I eat. I have a protein smoothie in the morning, with blueberries and peaches, and then at lunch I have a chicken sandwich, but only one piece of bread, chicken, organic mayonnaise and lettuce, and a lot of lettuce, and the lettuce is the top piece of bread – you see what I mean?” With thumb and forefinger he motions a good two inches of lettuce, the kind of thickness of pastrami you see in a New York deli bagel. “And then at dinner, I mostly have nuts and hard cheese – and red wine, yes.” 

And the ideas, the ones he once sat in the Bob’s Big Boy diner waiting to catch? “I always say you go where the ideas lead you. It’s all based on ideas that you fall in love with. You get fired up and you go do those things. It’s all these fantastic things called ideas that drive the boat – and love.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2015 as "A free Lynch". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.