David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead debuts this week on the Criterion Collection, in an edition that looks gorgeous and is loaded (loaded) with extras. It feels about time, too. Lynch’s bizarre, unclassifiable movie, filmed over several years on pretty much no budget, is one of the seminal works of American independent cinema. A permanent fixture on the midnight movie circuit in the 1970s and '80s, Eraserhead taught generations of adventurous viewers that movies were capable of so much more than what ordinary audiences were used to. In the film, Lynch creates a haunting, industrial netherworld in which his happy-haired protagonist (Jack Nance) moves, a permanent mixture of befuddlement and fear playing out on his face as he confronts responsibility, love, loss, and death. It’s a wonderful movie, and we were honored to get a chance to speak to Lynch about its legacy.
I know you didn’t have much of a budget for Eraserhead. How did you achieve these effects and this look?
Well, it needed to look a certain way, and the look comes about from what’s in front of the camera and how it’s lit. I designed it and built a lot of the things. You just work until you get it to feel correct. I knew what I wanted because of the ideas I got. And I love the world of Eraserhead. I would love to live in that world. I loved being in there during those years.
What about the sound of Eraserhead? Did you chase a sound that you had in your head during production, or did the sound design come later?
It was a film that was inspired by the city of Philadelphia, and it’s an industrial world. It’s a smokestack-industry world. It’s factory-worker homes tucked away out of time. It has a certain feel, and the sounds have to marry to that feel, and [sound editor] Alan Splet and I just would work until we got the thing to feel correct.
Have you been to the parts of Philadelphia that inspired this movie in recent years?
I went there a couple of years ago, and the city is completely different. It felt very normal to me, not like it was then. It was brighter and cleaner and it had graffiti. And graffiti has ruined the world.
It’s defaced the beauty of the architecture, and you can’t film anywhere without the patinas on the bricks on the buildings. It’s been ruined. It happened in all the places I already love, like factories and railroad lines and bridges. All these places have been so badly defaced.
I know you don’t like to speculate publicly about what Eraserhead means, but why do you think it still resonates for people today, after all these years?
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.
What’s the strangest thing anyone has ever said to you about Eraserhead?
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.
One thing many people say is that it’s a movie about the fear of responsibility and parenthood. I was curious, what do your kids think of the film?
Well, I’ve got four kids, and three of them are kinda grown-up, but one of them is 2 years old. She hasn’t seen the film yet.
Have the grown-up ones talked to you about the film?
You know, not really. I know they’ve seen it. They know all about it. But I have not gotten their take on it. I think they really like the film, but I don’t know what their take on it is.
When the film was first released, it wasn’t a huge hit. It found its audience on the midnight movie circuit. Do you think a movie like Eraserhead could find an audience today?
No. The midnight movie circuit was what saved or brought a lot of films to the public. You know, the word Eraserhead was on a marquee of many, many theaters for years. Whether people saw the film or not, they’d see the name, and it just went into their collective consciousness. It was the most beautiful thing for independent cinema and art-house cinema, this idea of running films at midnight. It was really important for Eraserhead. Ben Barenholtz, they call him “the grandfather of the midnight film” — if it wasn’t for Ben, I don’t think Eraserhead would have been discovered at all.
After the success of Eraserhead, you worked with Mel Brooks to make The Elephant Man. If Eraserhead hadn’t become the success that it did become, what would you have done? What would your next film have looked like?
The next film would have been Ronnie Rocket, which I wrote right after Eraserhead.
Do you think you’ll ever make that?
I don’t know. I haven’t so far.
How do you think you’ve changed as a director since Eraserhead?
I’ve changed in a lot of ways, but one thing is always the same. I get ideas, and I try to realize those ideas, translate those ideas into one medium or another. In the case of cinema, you try to translate that idea as best you can with the language of cinema. So that has always stayed the same.
Filmmaking is often described as a series of “happy accidents.” What was the happiest happy accident of the production of Eraserhead?
I’ve never heard cinema described that way, but I describe much of the artistic process as happy accidents. It can be so beautiful to bring ideas springing forward. I just say you should stay on your toes and be aware of everything all the way through the process. Even if you already have a script, things can happen that open up to new ideas that you’ll just be so thankful for. On Eraserhead, in the beginning, there was no Lady in the Radiator. The Lady in the Radiator came along first as a drawing, and then she got born more and more, maybe after five or six months of shooting.
Was it during the making of Eraserhead that you discovered transcendental meditation?
Yes. I started meditating about a year, maybe a little less than a year after we started shooting. And in fact, that could be when the Lady in the Radiator got born.
So the transcendental meditation really sounds like it did affect your work on the film.
Transcendental Meditation affects all avenues of life, they say. When you transcend, they call that a holistic experience. All avenues of life begin to improve. It’s the most beautiful thing for all human beings, but for a filmmaker or a painter or a photographer, it serves the work as it serves the life. Ideas flow more freely, you get more happiness in the doing of the work, you get more energy for your work, and the heavy weight of negativity, like depression or anger or hate or all these things that cramp the flow of creativity, this thing of negativity starts to lift away. It’s the most beautiful thing for the human being. I recommend it to everyone.
Do you ever rewatch your movies?
Sometimes. Like, in the world of painting, I have this feeling that it’s good to sometimes go back and see older work because it can give you ideas for where you are right now. In a way, seeing films from the past could do the same thing. But I haven’t seen them for quite a while.