Since Eraserhead in 1977, David Lynch has reigned as one of our most compellingly enigmatic directors. Whether it’s films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive or TV’s Twin Peaks (that is, 1990’s first season and last year’s triumphant Twin Peaks: The Return — skip season two), Lynch has shown himself to be a master of haunting surreality. He also long ago proved to be adept at concealing the intentions behind his work. Which is why the arrival of a new sort-of memoir, Room to Dream, is so surprising. “I know people will read the book for clues,” says Lynch, sitting with a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes in the painting studio at his home in the Hollywood Hills. “But giving anybody clues has nothing to do with why I did it.”
What he did, as is often the case, is unusual. Room to Dream alternates reported biographical chapters, researched and written by co-author Kristine McKenna, with Lynch’s recollections about that same material. “It’s the strangest thing to see how a life comes together from these different perspectives,” says Lynch, 72. “It’s real, real weird.”
I’ve never thought of you as someone interested in being personally or professionally revealing. So why’d you want to do Room to Dream?
I like to tell stories.
But not generally about yourself and your work, right?
It’s true, I don’t like to talk about my work.
Before we get any further: This coffee we’re drinking is excellent. How often do people say “this a damn fine cup of coffee” to you?
I figured. Sorry. You know that people are going to comb through the book for clues to your work, which are exactly the kinds of clues you rarely give. Did knowing that affect what information about your work was included?
No. There’s no reason for it.
No reason for what?
So why’d you do it?
It’s interesting to go back over your life. There are over 7.5 billion people on Earth and every life is different. You pop out of your mother and your life starts. So many things happen in the first hour! And it’s like, how come somebody becomes a scientist? Certain gates are opened for them. How you got to where you got is interesting.
Do you see your own path differently now?
It made me feel so unbelievably lucky. Life doesn’t have to happen any one way. That’s the main thing.
The material in the book was a result of Kristine McKenna’s research and then your responses to her work. So how did you decide what not to talk about? There’s a section, for example, where Isabella Rossellini discusses how abruptly you ended your relationship with her, but then in your corresponding section you don’t address the subject.
I feel bad about Isabella — this thing that I called her up and said, “I never want to see you again.” I might have done that, but it doesn’t sound like me. I might have wanted to shut the door and not leave a squeak of light coming through. For who knows what reason? I don’t. I’ve just seen Isabella recently and that’s all water under the bridge. But I feel bad about cutting it [the relationship] off that way.
I know in the past you’ve read books about other filmmakers like Truffaut’s …
I’ve read The Name Above the Title by Frank Capra.
Okay, what have you gotten from reading about a filmmaker’s life and what do you hope someone might get from reading about yours?
What I got out of reading about Frank Capra was that Glenn Ford was a fucker, man. Glenn Ford apparently was not a good person to Frank Capra and Frank didn’t have the fight in him to deal with it. Glenn Ford ruined the joy of filmmaking for Frank Capra. I’m really upset with Glenn Ford.
This is a question that’s been in the air lately, and it’s been asked about great directors like Roman Polanski as well as people you’ve worked with like Louis C.K.: How does what we know about an artist’s life affect our attitudes about the artist’s work?
I would hope it doesn’t. Louis C.K.’s done a lot of really funny stuff. It would be a shame for people not to experience those things anymore. There are probably thousands and thousands of examples of people who had screwed-up lives and didn’t do the best things but did great work. And Roman Polanski: People were writing things about him when he went to Switzerland and got arrested — things like he should be hung. Things get a little out of hand. You feel terrible for anyone who’s been a victim. This subject is tricky business.
And political correctness came in. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. You can’t make laws to change people. Transcendental Meditation is the only thing I know of that over time would change people for the good on the deepest level. But when you have it where being politically correct means you can’t say certain things anymore but people still think them — like, there’s still plenty of racism, and I don’t know if it’d be good to have racist jokes that get things out in the open so we can deal with it. I don’t know if that might be better. But now everything is closed in, and people still have strange desires that are not fitting in with today’s life. I feel so bad for those people. It’s “there but for the grace of God go I.” Or pedophiles: They’re born and they’ve got this sickness that they don’t know how to deal with. Instead of repressing it we need to get people help so no one gets hurt.
Does any part of your work come out of a need to deal with thoughts and feelings that you might otherwise repress?
That’s like saying, “Would you be in prison if you didn’t do your work?” I fall in love with certain ideas, and what you’re asking is if bringing those ideas to fruition is about purging them. Not really. I love an idea for itself, and I love what cinema can do with some ideas. I’m sure there’s something inside me that makes me fall in love with particular ideas, and the ideas pass through the machine of me and get realized in a certain way, but it’s not about any sort of purging.
Here’s something I was curious about: In one of the DVD editions of Mulholland Drive there was an insert that listed your clues to unlocking the movie. Are those real clues?
I’ll tell you how that came into being: When I went to Europe for the first time in 1965, it seemed way far away. It was a big deal to go to Europe. Now it’s not a big deal. The world has gotten smaller. So this thing happened that Mulholland Drive was a big success in France and I was asked if I could come up with these ten short clues to the movie. Normally I would’ve said no, but — and I don’t know why — I came up with things that people could think about when they watched it [Mulholland Drive]. But I thought the clues were only going to exist in France and then it blossomed on the internet — that’s what I mean about the world getting smaller — and people started asking me for more clues.
But those are real clues?
Theoretically, could you come up with clues to unlocking your other movies?
Could you do it now?
Got it. I read an anecdote from Questlove where he said that you’d invested in a soda company owned by Michael Jackson. Can you tell me about that?
Okay, so one day I was at Dino De Laurentiis’s company and Dino had a guy who was on the business side. He seemed very intelligent. I had in my pocket $5,000 in cash that I’d saved from my per diems. I used to love carrying money around in my pocket. I don’t carry money around now because people find out you carry cash and you get rolled. But I passed this guy’s office and he said, “David, listen to me. Listen to me. You can get in on the ground floor: This is Michael Jackson’s company: Chewy Nougats. You can buy in now.” So I said, “Well, I got this five grand right here.” My thinking was that I’d double it at least, so I put $5,000 into Chewy Nougats. I followed it for a while and the Chewy part left and it was just called Nougats. Then the Nou was gone and it was called Gats. Then it all disappeared.
So Chewy Nougats was candy? I’m confused.
I don’t even know what it was. I think it was candy. I never really knew. I just knew that if it was Michael Jackson, it was gonna be big.
How do you know Michael Jackson was really involved?
I don’t. I took it on faith.
I’m glad for your sake that you didn’t have more than $5,000 in your pocket.
No kidding. I’ve been bitten twice like that. The next time was way more serious. But that’s not a story for now.
Going back to something you touched on a minute ago, which is Transcendental Meditation’s ability to positively change people: How do you square the benefits you’ve gotten from meditation in certain areas of your life with the areas of your life that have consistently given you trouble. I don’t mean this at all glibly, but you’ve been married four times. Do you know what I mean?
I sure do. So, every human being has consciousness, but not every human being has the same amount. The potential is for infinite consciousness, enlightenment, total fulfillment, total liberation, immortality, no more dying, no more suffering. As human beings it’s our birthright to one day enjoy supreme enlightenment. But enlightenment needs unfolding.
You’re saying it’s a process?
Yeah, and I’m not there yet. It’s still unfolding. An enlightened human being would be flowing with what we call natural law. All the thinking, speaking, and doing would be in this flow that was beneficial to everything. I do plenty of things that are not flowing with natural law.
I’ve been doing Transcendental Meditation for ten years, and I’d say there are specific aspects of my life that meditation has helped. But how do I really know how much of my growth to attribute to meditation and how much might’ve been the result of other means of maturation and self-help?
That’s a real good question. My experience is that your friends will notice changes in you before you do. Every day you seem to be yourself but then a couple of months later, someone will say, “David, you seem different.” You could say that without meditation you would have come to the same place but it’s just not that way. There are people that have stress, anxieties, depression, sorrow, fears, hate, or bitter anger. But when you get Transcendental Meditation the torment goes out and it’s replaced by happiness and awareness and love. And so for your question, “How do you know?” You don’t really know, but you can see other people who didn’t start meditating when you started and they’re the same as ever. But you got happier and you see a bigger picture.
Does your youngest child meditate?
Listen to me, David: Last Friday, Lula, she’s 5 and a half, got an introductory TM lecture. On Saturday, she got taught. Sunday, she got a follow-up talk and what they call her “word of wisdom” — her walking mantra. All my kids started when they were 6 or 5. I’ll tell you a story: I was in Italy, and this nun was asking me about Transcendental Meditation for children and wanted to know at what age kids were old enough to start. I said, “When they’re old enough to keep a secret.” She said, “Oh, no! No secrets!” But you get your mantra and you’re not supposed to say it out loud because it’s meant to take you inward not outward. The nun freaked out about that. Maybe that tells you something about nuns.
How is it being a father to a 5-year-old at 72?
See, I’m not — I’m not the greatest parent.
In what sense?
I love all my children and we get along great, but in the early years, before you can have a relationship of talking to them, it’s tough. And I would get divorced and stuff — I’ve got four kids and three divorces. The work is the main thing, and I know I’ve caused suffering because of that. But at the same time I have huge love for the kids. It’s a tricky business, because nowadays — when I was growing up, for instance, I was on a Little League baseball team and my parents never came to the games. I wouldn’t want ’em to come to the games. I didn’t want my parents to go to my high-school graduation. I wanted them to stay away.
You needed separation?
I had different worlds! Nowadays parents are involved with every single thing and there’s stay-at-home dads. It seems strange but that’s how things have changed.
Is it strange because it’s different from what you know or because you think it’s counterproductive?
Emily, my wife, sends me pictures if she’s at the park and sees a dad there. She’ll say, “Look, a dad is here” and I’ll say, “That’s a homeless man.” But I shouldn’t make fun. It’s beautiful for that man’s kid that he’s there. Everybody’s got their own way.
What made you believe that work had to be so central? It’s not the case that all artists are as single-minded about working as you are.
I never really thought about it but I know that it’s true for me. When I finish a film, to get back into painting is a huge transition. You’ve had paintings in your mind all through working on the film and then you come back to the painting when the film is done and you don’t know where you are anymore. You’ve got to find your way into a painting and that takes time and interruptions kill you. They make you crazy. They’re a nightmare. The time you have for work is so precious.
Is your choice to focus on work at all about finding art easier to deal with than people?
No. It’s like I’ve got a compulsion to do stuff and anything that gets in the way of that — it’s so painful. Relationships, if they’re not smooth and I don’t have room to work, they’re a torment. I can love people, and I do love people, but I need the space to work. I’ve always needed it but I haven’t always faced the music about how much I need it.
I know in the past you’ve had very specific routines in your life. Was it Bob’s Big Boy where you used to go every day for milkshakes?
I went there for seven years. Most all the Bob’s are closed now. But I went one time — maybe the last time — and I’d never thought about food so much. I’d always thought, If you’re full, that’s good or If you enjoy it, it’s good. So I don’t know what prompted me but after seven years of having these shakes I went into this one particular Bob’s Big Boy dumpster.
Well, the dumpster had a metal ladder on it and I got into the dumpster and found the carton that the milkshakes came from. I read the ingredients and it looked like every one ended in “zene” or “ate” — all chemical words. So I said, “That might not be good for me.” Food makes you wonder these days. It’s questionable, these things that we’re eating.
Is there any food you’re as excited about now as you were about those milkshakes?
On Jet Blue I had this onion dip and these vegetable chips. I’m trying to find those chips. I don’t know what they were. The flavor was incredible. Unbelievably good!
No, they were beige and brown. They were lighter, with some gray-brown spots in them. I got two bags; I asked the stewardess if I could have a second because they were so good. Michael, my assistant, has gotten three or four different bags of chips since I had those and we’re still trying to find the right ones.
Maybe somebody who reads this will know the chips you’re talking about and can send you some.
That’d be great!
Do you have any current routines?
I have an exact routine.
Can you tell me about it?
I have coffees in the morning and meditate. Then for lunch I have one piece of bread, toasted, with some mayonnaise and some chicken. That’s it. Then at dinner I have one piece of bread with some mayonnaise and some chicken and I have some vegetable soup.
That’s your day?
And ideally you’re painting in-between all that?
Ideally I’m working on whatever I’m working on. I’ll also have a little trail mix in the evening if I’m still hungry. And coffees; a lot of coffees. Once in a while someone will bring me a doughnut or a cookie.
That’s your big treat?
On the weekend I have crunchy peanut butter and banana.
So it’s eating, meditating, and work. Do you ever watch the news?
I watch crime shows at night. Or shows about customizing cars.
Crime shows like Law & Order?
No, true crime. It’s fascinating what people do. Thank God not everybody does what the people on these shows do, but they’re all based on human nature gone to an extreme and it’s just unbelievable.
“Based on human nature gone to an extreme” could be a fair description of a lot of your work.
This is a wacky thing, but your assistant had to show me how to flush the toilet here before I used it. I’ve never seen a toilet like yours.
These electric toilets are so beautiful, David. I’d always wanted one of these electric toilets and it’s the most fantastic thing. It’s so well-thought-out. It’s modern technology at work — for a toilet! It’s got this great lavender-blue lamplight. It washes you. It dries you. It’s the whole thing.
Does having one of those bad boys make it hard to use any old toilet?
It’s just ridiculous to go back the Stone Age. And the thing is, the price went way down on them. I was all set to pay what I thought they cost and then I looked it up and they cost a fifth of what they used to. So I got four of them. I may even get some more.
And give them out to friends?
They make a great gift.
A year later, how does Twin Peaks: The Return look to you?
It was extremely gratifying. I’m so thankful we did it when we did because since then, as you may know, I think six of the people in the thing have died. They’re gone and it’s just terrible. It’s very sad.
Did you ever read any of fan analysis of the show? The depth is amazing.
Not really. If I did look at it, I probably would love it. People are thinkers. People are detectives and we have life to find clues about in the same way we would with a piece of cinema. You see something and it can conjure so many thoughts and interpretations. That’s why I don’t like to talk about my own intentions, because everyone else’s interpretation is so great.
What detective work are you doing lately?
How to get more uninterrupted time.
If you stopped meditating you’d save about 45 minutes a day right there.
But meditating is money in the bank. I’ve never missed a meditation.
You know, I have to say that talking with you is making me emotional because I started doing Transcendental Meditation after reading your book, Catching the Big Fish. There’s a line in there that’s something like: Meditation helps you become more you. That was pretty close to life-changing for me. So in a full-circle way it’s very meaningful for me to be here with you.
That’s fantastic, David! That’s great! I’m so glad.
So what was Twin Peaks: The Return all about anyway?
[Laughs and shakes his head “no.”]
I thought I’d try and sneak that in there.
Okay, I can tell you what Twin Peaks was about.
So what it’s about?
It’s about 18 hours long.
I should’ve seen that coming. Where does the discipline to not miss meditating once in 40 years come from?
Love. I don’t see how I could be disciplined if meditation was making me suffer. That’s why I say I’ve been so lucky. I love what I do and I get to work on stuff I want to work on. I wish everybody had that opportunity. Say you’re a painter but you need a job to pay your bills: You want a job that probably doesn’t require much thinking because you want to be able to think about your painting. You might not make a lot of money in that kind of job and when you finish that job for the day you’re tired. That’s five days a week. So you’ve got to get into painting on the weekends and when Saturday afternoon comes around you might not be into it. Then Sunday is a weird day because you feel Monday coming up. It’s tough to get the work done.
Maybe I’m wrong but my sense is that you prize the ideas that come from the world within over ones inspired by the world outside. Are you not interested in the latter?
Both kinds of ideas are similar but there’s the cart and then there’s the horse. Some people, I imagine, see a thing happening, some injustice, and say, “I wanna make a film about this.” That’s not the way I work. I might see the same injustice and I don’t want to make a film about it, but a week or two later an idea will pop in my head that could relate to what I saw. Most people might not even recognize the idea as being related to the event.
Is that what happened with O.J. Simpson and Lost Highway?
Well, was there a connection?
It wasn’t conscious. I’d heard that after O.J. got off, he went golfing. And I thought, Here’s a guy who is able to compartmentalize: He brutally murders two people and then he’s out smiling, playing golf. They say that’s like a psychogenic fugue: where you mentally distance yourself from what you’ve done because otherwise you’d go crazy.
And the protagonist in Lost Highway is experiencing a psychogenic fugue?
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Has anybody ever asked you to explain The Straight Story or The Elephant Man?
They ask me about all the other films but those two, no. Elephant Man and Straight Story are — they’re about a bunch of things — but they’re about leaving you with a certain feeling at the end. They’re not about leaving you with a mystery. There are all different kinds of endings. One of my favorite ones is Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That ending is so beautiful; it opens everything up. And that’s a Roman Polanski film. He took a 13-year-old-girl and he made Chinatown. Go figure.
Is Polanski’s behavior in the realm of killing people and then going golfing?
Maybe so. Here’s another thing: I heard on the news that football players, they get hit in the head many times and it affects their behavior. I think possibly this could have happened to O.J. He didn’t start off being the type of person that would kill anybody, but because he’d gotten hit so many times it changed him. It’s something to think about.
Are you thinking about any film or TV ideas?
Not right now. I’ve got these boxes of ideas and I’m starting to go through them to see if there’s any gold. I could go into film or TV again but Twin Peaks [The Return] took almost five years with the writing and preproduction, shooting, post-. I would want to do another series but it’d involve finding the time. So we’ll see.
And you’re not exactly a spring chicken.
I’m pretty much a spring chicken.
Does getting older change what work you want to do?
If you have success then you have the possibility of more interruptions. If you were broke and lived in some trailer, not a lot of people would be asking for your time. It’s a freedom to be poor and unrecognized — you can do your stuff. So interruptions have happened more as I’ve gotten older. But if you’re really excited about something, you go where the love takes you.
You just mentioned listening to the news and hearing about brain injuries and football players.
When you hear other news, say about the country, what do you think?
There’s the news that we hear on CNN, and it would lead you to believe we’re not doing too well. But I believe we’re in transition to a great time on Earth. I believe that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought technologies for the enlightenment of individuals and for peace on Earth. Peace comes from the unified field. Higher states of consciousness, more and more happiness, culminating in enlightenment, come from that field, which is within everyone. It’s a real thing and this time we’re living in could be so beautiful. It’s headed that way.
What makes you say that?
There are people working toward it. There are these peace meditation groups that enliven that unified field and change collective consciousness. They make people who don’t even meditate — who’ve never even heard of meditation — start feeling better in their body. The secret is that field within. For some reason people have lost contact with it, but the Transcendental Meditation technique for making contact with that field is here and people are taking advantage. So it’s a very hopeful time.
How often do you leave your house?
Not often at all. I like to stay here at home. I smoke cigarettes and it’s an unfriendly world for smokers. Smokers are like animals; they put ’em outside. I know smoking is not good for a person but I don’t believe in the secondhand-smoke thing. There’s so many things in the air that are way worse than cigarette smoke. After I started meditating I quit smoking for 21 years but then went back to it. I feel sad that smoking can’t be part of life out there; the lawmakers could make it possible for smokers. But these lawmakers put propositions out there and there’ve always been more nonsmokers than smokers, so in a democracy smokers are screwed.
You could vape.
I don’t like the vaping.
It’ll never look as cool as smoking cigarettes.
Yeah, exactly. Jazz clubs were always smoky and now there’s no smoke and the atmosphere is different. Without smoke you see everything in a jazz club clearly and you smell the urine and beer and sweat. I love the smell of tobacco. I just love it. I hate the smell of marijuana.
Smoking issues aside, does being out in the world make you anxious?
I suffer a hair of agoraphobia. Once I get out there I enjoy it, but it’s the act of leaving the home — that can be hard.
What you were saying earlier about how success is a mixed bag — your success as far as critical reputation is not going to change. You’re set. But there was a time in the early ’90s when you had a critical dip and …
That was great because I had nowhere to go but up.
So what is “up” for you now? What would more success look like aside from having fewer interruptions?
I always use the example of Jimmy Stewart: His career went up and then it went down and then it went up again. I have this theory that if you can come back up again after going down, you have staying power. Maybe I have that. But there’s the phrase, “Keep your eye on the doughnut and not the hole.” Worrying about where “up” is — that’s the hole and not the doughnut. The thing is, if you get an idea that you love and you want to realize it, then the trip of realizing it should be joyful and the result should be joyful. Happiness is not a new car; it’s the doing of the work. If you like the doing, the result will be a joy.
It’s interesting to you hear talk about the joy of the result, because your work, I think, tends to leave people with darker, more enigmatic feelings than joy.
It could be that way for others but for me it’s a joy. Life, work, it’s a joy — a true, true joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.