The bumpy road of 'Mulholland Drive'

With his TV series pilot-turned-film, David Lynch finds unexpected destinations have their allure, too.


October 21, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

In a New Yorker article two years ago, David Lynch, director of personal movie classics like The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, made clear that when he tried to develop Mulholland Drive as a television series, he had every intention of fleshing out a dreamscape of Los Angeles in the form of episodic television. After all, he'd won his biggest audiences to date with the mother of all cutting-edge TV series, Twin Peaks. The prospect of doing another one excited him with its expansiveness and ABC with its glimmer of Twin Peaks-y heat.

"I've never liked having to bend my movie scripts to an end halfway through," Lynch told the New Yorker. "On a series you can keep having beginnings and middles, and develop story forever." But network executives balked at his 125-minute cut of the pilot episode, and eventually canceled the series. Lynch ended up feeling as though "there are aliens on Earth, and they work in television."

Over the phone from his compound in the Hollywood Hills two weeks ago, Lynch was far more philosophical and exuberant. His expanded, rejiggered, 146-minute version of the Mulholland Drive pilot (now playing at the Charles Theatre) has already won him the best director prize at Cannes and is garnering big audiences and appreciative reviews. The film has a soulfulness that belies its typically Lynchian perverseness; it's both funny and moving.

Lynch now says he "wasn't happy with the pilot. It was finished in an arbitrary time limit and under duress." But, more important, he believes works of art need to find their own final form: "A thing wants to be a certain way. We keep working until it is that way. And the route this movie took was critical to the way it is. ABC played their part, first by allowing me to shoot an open-ended pilot, and then by hating it and killing it."

Lynch doesn't want the audience to consider the film a salvage job on a TV show: "It only hurts if they think, 'Oh, this came first or that was part of that' -- it putrefies the experience. Going into a film should be an innocent letting go into a new world."

So the director downplays even the most obvious signs of the movie's troubled metamorphosis. Robert Forster, for example, shows up very briefly as a detective. "He's got one scene," Lynch admits, "but he has a power that can sustain." Asked whether Forster would have been an ongoing character in the series, Lynch merely says, "Might have been."

Lynch credits executive producer Pierre Edelman with seeing the potential of, in Lynch's words, his "half-baked pilot," and connecting him with the French movie and media powerhouse Studio Canal Plus. "At a certain point they got the rights to let me turn the pilot into a feature. But I didn't have the ideas! It was a precarious place to be. So one night I sat down in this chair and, from 6:30 to 7 p.m., the ideas came in. I wrote them down right away. From that point on, the whole thing was looked at from a different angle, and there was a whole new restructuring, with weeks of additional shooting."

'Feelings, moods and thoughts'

Like the pilot, the theatrical version of Mulholland Drive pivots on a raven-haired woman of mystery (Laura Harring) emerging from a botched execution and a car wreck with her life but without her memory. She takes refuge in a Hollywood apartment just when the absent tenant's perky blond niece (Naomi Watts) arrives from Deep River, Ontario, to try for movieland stardom.

The feature lets the relationship between the two ripen into a love story, connects that to the tale of a frustrated movie director (Justin Theroux) and his thuggish financiers, and frames it all as a dream without end. "There is a logic to it," says Lynch, "and there is a surface, straight-ahead story. But there are feelings, moods and thoughts that are more abstract at the same time."

The dark-haired amnesiac sees a poster of the '40s film noir Gilda on the apartment wall and takes the name Rita (after Rita Hayworth); the blond Canadian reveals unexpected depths when she turns her audition reading of a soap opera-ish scene into an erotic tour de force; even the director displays new romantic assurance when he demonstrates to the leads in his movie how they should play a love scene. Much of Mulholland Drive is about the way performances permeate our lives and reveal us to ourselves.

"Yeah," says Lynch, "which person are we now? And that's one of the things you see in Los Angeles -- really everywhere, but more here."

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