David Lynch is a unique filmmaker, and one of the most elusive artists in any field. He created his own strange, at times unutterable, language of film in a directorial career that started with 1977's Eraserhead and expanded to include The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, The Straight Story, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Dr. He redefined what network TV might be capable of weathering with his series Twin Peaks. He put together a personal website full of art and video of him reading weather reports from outside his California house. Lynch's latest offering is Inland Empire, a bracing film that revisits Mulholland Dr.'s metaphysical math and carries it out a few extra decimal places. It was shot on digital video and has thus far been self-distributed—two distinctions that Lynch has described as profound changes to his method. The A.V. Club drank cappuccino and talked in rounds with Lynch when he was in New York for Inland Empire's première.
The A.V. Club: Welcome back from Poland. How is it there?
David Lynch: I was in Łódź, Poland. It's spelled L-O-D-Z, but it's pronounced "Wootch." There's a famous film school there, and it was the textile capital of the world, so there are huge old factories that were built in the 1800s. Incredible. The weather was pretty good when I was there, but they had two days of fog that shut down the airports in Warsaw and a lot of Poland. It has beautiful winter light, low-hanging grey clouds. The architecture and factories and leafless trees—it's beautiful.
AVC: How's the coffee in Poland?
DL: It's surprisingly good.
AVC: How did the idea first strike you to run a Polish folk tale parallel to a Hollywood story in Inland Empire?
DL: It all just comes with ideas. It's like I'm sitting there, empty, and bingo—in comes an idea. It might just be a little, tiny idea, but some of them I fall in love with. I fall in love with them for two reasons: the idea itself, and then what cinema could do to that idea. It always goes by in fragments, and then the whole thing starts revealing itself. On Inland Empire, it started with one or two things that I would write and shoot. I never thought of it as a feature film. I thought of it as a scene or some kind of thing, and I would just shoot it. Little by little, these scenes that didn't relate to one another started… I start getting ideas to relate them, to bring in a thing and find a bigger thing emerging. That's how it went.
AVC: What can cinema do to an idea?
DL: Cinema is a medium that can translate ideas. But wood can translate ideas, too. You have wood and then you get a chair. Some ideas are for different things.
AVC: Does that translation draw out parallels between different ideas that you weren't aware of when you started?
DL: For sure. I wasn't aware of anything. Then, suddenly, you're aware. It's like somebody giving you a puzzle piece without any kind of frame—you get a puzzle piece and then a few more. It doesn't help you much, but you love the little pieces. You don't know if they relate. In this process, hopefully, a feature film script will emerge. And then, one day, you're surprised by how it all comes together. That's how something like Poland could relate to Hollywood. Everything relates—that's the cool thing about it.
AVC: Do you think literally everything relates?
DL: Everything! The ideas go together themselves. I hardly do anything.
AVC: So do you consider it your role as an artist to make yourself open and receptive to these ideas?
DL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. When you force something, there's a feeling you get when you know it isn't correct.
AVC: Is that feeling the same now as when you started making films?
DL: It's the same, but it happens more smoothly, with more enjoyment.
AVC: Would you describe it as an intellectual phenomenon, or is it something different?
DL: Intuition is the key to everything, in painting, filmmaking, business—everything. I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs. Feeling correct is a feeling I think everyone knows.
AVC: You've been making films for a long time. Is that feeling really still the same?
DL: Some things get easier, some things get harder. When you make your first film, it's really hard in some ways. You're just nowhere. But then you have something. If you have a success, then you might be looking to take a fall. If you had a fall, you get a certain kind of euphoria because you're not dead, so you can still do it again. It's about how you go through the processes. Do you enjoy that "doing"? Is it getting less fun or more fun?
AVC: Is it still getting more fun for you?
DL: Yeah. There's a way to make it not fun, and that's to give up final cut. Then you can be guaranteed that you'll die the death.
AVC: What were the pros and cons you found in using digital video for Inland Empire?
DL: There were no cons. Only pros. The con would be that the quality is, in some ways, less than film. It's for sure less than film-quality, but it has its own qualities. But all the pros added to that are phenomenal. It's a whole new way to go through shooting where you don't get bogged down in massive amounts of weight and huge loss of time, huge loss of energy, where you're killing scenes because of the slowness and heaviness and oppression.
AVC: What about how it looks?
DL: I like the way it looks. It's more like 1930s 35mm, in that there's not so much information. There's something about not seeing everything perfectly. There's more room to dream. It comes gently into a kind of impression, which can be very beautiful.
AVC: What did its ease of use ultimately allow you to do differently in Inland Empire?
DL: I don't know what certain scenes would have been like shooting in film. It would have been like pulling teeth. Shooting in film, there's a kind of stretching, unpleasant horror until a scene is finished and feels correct, when you don't know if you're going to get it. You wait, maybe for a few hours, to move the camera over here, and re-light over there. This kind of thing is a huge problem.
AVC: You've said that you decided to pull together Mulholland Dr. after a spell of transcendental meditation. How much does meditation influence the kind of stories you're trying to tell at this point?
DL: It's nothing and everything, sort of. I don't make films to talk about anything, really. Why I meditate is… When I was working on Eraserhead, I heard this phrase that stuck in my head: True happiness is not out there, true happiness lies within. This had a ring of truth. But I didn't know where the "within" was, nor how to get there. I didn't even know if there really was a within. I didn't know what "within" could possibly mean. Is it somewhere in the body that you go? Then I heard about meditation. I got a call from my sister, who said she started transcendental meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I heard a change in her voice, and I just said, "That's for me."
AVC: How has it manifested itself in your work? Was there a change you observed in what you wanted to do?
DL: It doesn't make you make different films or do anything like that. Transcendental meditation is like a car, a vehicle that allows you to go within. It's a mental technique. You're given a mantra—the mantra that Maharishi gives is very specific, and you start to dive into subtler levels of mind, subtler levels of intellect. You transcend the whole show, into pure bliss consciousness. From your first meditation, you say, "Whoa!" It's a unique experience, but a familiar experience.
AVC: Familiar how? Where else have you found it?
DL: Well, I'd never had that exact powerful an experience, but it was familiar in that it was like, "Where has this been? I recognize it, but where has it been?" I realized I had transcended one time just daydreaming. I was daydreaming along, and all of the sudden—boom! I got this light, a fantastic feeling. Bliss is physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. It's thick. With the technique, you transcend during every meditation, and it's the experience of this deepest level, what modern science calls the unified field, what Vedic science calls Atma, meaning "the self." When you experience this deepest level, you enliven it and it starts to grow. So you grow in consciousness, in awareness, in understanding, in intelligence, in creativity, in bliss, in universal love, in energy, in power. Modern science says now that they've discovered this unified field—the unity of all the particles and forces of creation that have always been there and always will be there—one unified field from which everything that is a thing emerges. It's there, and you can experience it. The reason you want to experience it is that things get better and better. Then you just go about your business. The side effect of this is that negative things start to recede, like anger, tension, fear, depression. More and more, through regular practice, things just get real good.
AVC: Have the practice or the results of it informed the idea of identity drift central to your recent work?
DL: No. The danger of even saying I meditate is, then people say, "Oh, this is somehow connected to that. Right?" It's better that people don't know anything about the filmmaker, so the film can exist on its own. That's the pure way. It comes from ideas, and I translate those ideas. And what meditation does is make the joy of doing it increase like crazy.
AVC: Is it like dreaming?
DL: No. What they say is, there's waking, sleeping, and dreaming. But they have shown that there's a fourth state of consciousness. The nervous system functions in a fourth, unique way, as different as dreaming is from sleeping as sleeping is from waking. When you transcend, it's the only experience that lights the full brain on an EEG machine. It's the only experience that utilizes the full brain. So if you have this experience every day, you get more full-brain coherence. It's money in the bank for a filmmaker, an artist, a businessperson, whatever. Ideas start flowing easier, intuition grows more and more. You're banging on more cylinders.
AVC: Sound design plays a big role in Inland Empire, as in all your films. Are there ideas for scenes that you hear before you visualize them?
DL: Big time. When you get an idea, so many things come in that one moment. You could write the sound of that idea, or the sound of the room it's in. You could write the clothes the character is wearing, what they're saying, how they move, what they look like. Instead of making up, you're actually catching an idea, for a story, characters, place, and mood—all the stuff that comes. When you put a sound to something and it's wrong, it's so obvious. When it's right, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That's a magical thing that can happen in cinema.
AVC: You create art in so many different media. What is it about making movies that still draws you in?
DL: Because you make a world that didn't exist before, and you can go into that world deeper and deeper. It's unbounded out there. One film takes you into one area, another film takes you into another area. There could be trillions, zillions of worlds that exist in the big space.