David Lynch: 'They murdered my first movie'

Today, his films are considered cinematic masterworks – yet David Lynch is still smarting from criticism of his debut, Eraserhead. On the eve of its re-release, the director talks to Sophie Morris

No one in Hollywood is shy of self-promotion. David Lynch, though – despite being the man who led a cow through town to advertise his last film – is the person one would least expect to put his name and face to a range of merchandise. Yet, at mid-morning in his Los Angeles office, he is supping his own-brand organic espresso, the David Lynch Signature Cup, which you can buy from his website.

It took Lynch around 18 months to find a blend of coffee he was happy to put his name to, quite a conservative commitment given the many years spent patiently chiselling away at some of his films. The coffee is, he says, "exceptionally good". If he reached the ideal blend via the same methodical, perfectionist workmanship with which he executes his films, it no doubt is.

Lynch's movies are, notoriously, as oblique as they are opaque, but it is possible to trace a style of sorts through his oeuvre. He searches out the details most overlook in America's metropolises and in its misleadingly quiet small towns, and abandons the rigours of linear narrative and traditional characterisation in favour of a sheaf of repetitive themes and ticks, and a reflexive strumming on the limitless realm of the subconscious. Acting, Hollywood and film-making also feature frequently. Rather than write around a story, Lynch seems to collect a huge number of complex images, magpie-like, which he then pieces together into a film. He began as a painter and switched to film when he saw a garden he had painted moving on its canvas, and has since introduced generations of film-goers to an experience where image takes precedence over narrative, and identity is fluid.

Even within Lynchian convention he is wont to surprise. Take just the last decade of the 30 years since his feature debut, Eraserhead. In 1997 came Lost Highway, a confusing noir and pure Lynch, which probably won him as many new admirers as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet had in the 1970s and 80s. To follow this with the endearing simplicity of the Disney-financed The Straight Story (1999) was a masterstroke, generating as much buzz for its apparently guileless storytelling as any of his more disturbing offerings. It is a sympathetically observed road movie, which gave the impression Lynch was going rather soft in his late middle age. In fact he only came on board to direct after the script had been written, by his then partner.

Then came Mulholland Drive (2001), the dreamy blockbuster set on the periphery of Hollywood, amid the seedier of the film world's sub-industries. Dazzling, mysterious and dark in equal parts, it won Lynch a best-director award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination.

Critics were still battling to tether Mulholland Drive to some meaning when he stunned them five years later with Inland Empire, starring Laura Dern, one of his favourite leading ladies. Its plot is so unintelligible that it is quite a struggle to watch. You get the feeling that Lynch skipped school the day the teacher explained why all stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but cinema would be a much drier place had he attended that class. "Everything has a structure," he protests. "Sometimes they are more straight-ahead than others. I understand Inland Empire is maybe more abstract than the rest."

He is reluctant to talk about his private life or his films, which suggests interviewing him would be a frustrating process. But again he subverts expectation and is so charming, attentive, and avuncular that it is easy to forget this is the man who created such cinematic monsters as Mystery Man in Inland Empire or Twin Peaks'sBob.

It is not that he won't talk about his films – in fact he has documented much of his filmic practice in two books, Lynch on Lynch and Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. He held forth on the latter during his tour of the UK and Ireland, with the musician Donovan, last autumn. (It was to raise money for the David Lynch Foundation, which funds transcendental meditation as an educational tool.) It is specifics he refuses to be drawn on. Does he make films for a particular audience? "No". Who are his favourite characters out of the many he has written? "I love all the characters. I just love 'em." Where did you get the ideas for Mulholland Drive? "I knew it was about a girl who wanted to be an actress coming to Los Angeles and I knew the title."

Watch documentary footage on Transcendental Meditation

Lynch's inspirations include Fellini, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Bergman and Tati, but his ideas, he always says, just come to him – when he's meditating, in dreams, maybe over breakfast. This is because the real Lynch slips between his own conscious and subconscious as readily as his films do, during his rigorous twice-daily practice of transcendental meditation. He hasn't missed a day in 35 years. The ideas plucked from his subconscious are then worked at until rendered exactly as he saw them. They must be just so. All this sounds painstakingly arduous, but Lynch does not suffer for his art; he revels in it.

"I love to translate ideas," he says. "If you are true to the ideas that you love and never walk away from any element until it's correct, then there's a chance others will feel it's correct and go into that world and have an experience. Hopefully a good experience."

Watch: David Lynch and Donovan bring Transcendental Meditation to an American school

The fact that his first feature, a film-school-funded project which took five years to complete, is being reissued 30 years after it came out proves that plenty of people consider his films a "good experience".

Eraserhead is one of those films you might think brilliant, but is far from an enjoyable watch. Lynch is very pleased with the digital remastering (it has been available in the US since 2000). "It's very clean and pure," he says. Does he wish he had done anything differently? He was delivering papers to raise the money to get it made, so he must have made certain sacrifices.

"It's next door to a perfect film," he pauses, before a low chuckle. For all the weight of his subject matter, Lynch has a wonderful sense of humour – revealed on screen in his Twin Peaks cameo as Gordon Cole, the deaf FBI agent – and spot-on comic timing. He then insists: "It really was close to exactly what I wanted to make. I loved the world of Eraserhead. I can revisit that world by watching the film now."

He recently did just that, with his 16-year-old son. The Philadelphia depicted in grimy monochrome in Eraserhead is a city full of shadows of people, most of them terrifyingly bonkers with – perhaps – the exception of the bewildered lead, Henry Spencer. Lynch will only offer one judgement of the film, describing it as "a dream of dark and troubling things", though he admits that its gothic maelstrom was inspired by his own time in Philadelphia between 1965 and 1970.

"It is known as the city of brotherly love," he explains, "and it's the furthest from a city of brotherly love. There is tremendous corruption, violence, fear, sickness in the atmosphere in Philadelphia. But it was an ideas factory for me. I loved and hated being there. I never wanted to go there, but there I was."

And it was there he created Spencer's sickening, slimy, premature baby, with a bandaged stump for a body and a putrefying head like a skinned squirrel's, perhaps the most unsettling invention in modern cinema.

The only negative comment Lynch utters throughout the entire interview is to condemn the reviewers who "murdered" Eraserhead when it first came out. "The mainstream critics just trashed it like Neanderthals," he says. He followed it up with The Elephant Man in 1980, which earned him eight Oscar nominations, and Blue Velvet (1986), a controversial but mainstream success which led to a five-year relationship with its star, Isabella Rossellini. Between them came Dune, a bungled sci-fi and the only film he regrets making.

It is transcendental meditation, not film-making, upon which Lynch is happy to evangelise, though the one stokes the other.

"Everybody has consciousness," he says, "but not everybody has the same amount. If you want to get more, you just learn the technique to dive within and experience the deepest level of life. Then you can catch ideas on a deeper level and appreciation of everything grows. It's a very beautiful process for the artist and for the human being."

His foundation funds transcendental meditation in some of the worst schools in the US, so the students and teachers can benefit from its stress-busting and creativity-enhancing properties. "It works! ," he says. "These schools are filled with bliss. Relationships improve. Grades are going up. It's a beautiful thing."

His love for meditation earns Lynch the "wacko", "weirdo" and "nutcake" tags as much as his films do, but for a man so obviously at one with the world, however troubling and bizarre that world may be, it clearly makes sense. His British followers, though, have their minds on rather more pressing, Earthly matters right now, such as when – if ever – we will get the second season of Twin Peaks on DVD.

'Eraserhead' will be re-released at selected UK cinemas tomorrow, and on DVD on 20 October

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent