It would seem there’s no need for another documentary about David Lynch, among the most well-documented filmmakers of this or any other era and subject of at least two previous films, Lynch and Lynch 2. Good news, then: David Lynch: The Art Life finds new ground in both story and form, alternating between his California workspace as he lovingly crafts any number of unclassifiable objects before our eyes and a series of archival materials — including, as far as I can tell, Lynch-shot material that’s never been publicly released — complemented by Lynch’s genteel exposition on his younger years.
Jon Nguyen, the film’s co-director (credited alongside Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes) sat down with us to get into the finer points of his project, its visual and emotional complexities being further revealed in our talk. But don’t just take my word for it. As went our review out of last year’s Venice Film Festival, “The way the film focuses on these intriguing snippets that left a mark on the director is its greatest strength. There’s much to interest the Lynch fan here, but it also might be an unparalleled assessment of the artistic learning of a great American filmmaker.”
The Film Stage: With Lynch, biographical stories are well-known: his time in Philadelphia, his experiences with Jack Fisk, his upbringing, etc. A lot of the stories here are new or have some new angle to them. I wonder if you and your co-directors had read, for instance, Chris Rodley’s interview book Lynch on Lynch, and used that as a guide for what you wanted him to talk about, as well as what he perhaps shouldn’t repeat.
Jon Nguyen: You know, I have to say that I bought Lynch on Lynch and was about to read it, then thought, “You know what? I’m not going to read this. I’m just going to approach it fresh. Whether he repeats stories or not, at least I’ll know what stories I like.” I think if I would’ve read the book, I would’ve been hesitant; I would’ve wanted everything new. So we made a point of not doing research by reading that book to have a fresh approach to these stories.
Did you ever take a look at it?
No. I never went back to see if there was any overlap, because I figured that if there’s an overlap, there’s probably a reason — that means I was drawn towards the story. This film isn’t just for the hardcore Lynch fans; this is for the casual Lynch fan also. If we were to focus towards Lynch on Lynch, we might miss the opportunity to introduce some of these stories to the casual fan.
You worked on the 2007 documentary Lynch, which is part of a series that also includes Lynch 2. I find it fascinating how, in some of its footage of him shooting INLAND EMPIRE, there’s a fiery temperament — a lot of shouting, even berating — but he’s otherwise known to be a serene presence, which you see here.
I understand what you mean by that. The thing you have to realize about Lynch is that, the people he’s screaming at and with whom he seems upset are people who know him really well. You don’t realize that, off-camera, they’re just smiling. He might be yelling and saying things that, to an audience, seem kind of rude, but he works with the same people. They’re all smiling and come back.
I wonder how your experience off-camera influences things once the camera comes on — if you have particular things that you look for.
I have to say that what you hear in The Art Life is the most unguarded… this is how he is when he lets his guard down. This is how his family know him, because the people that conducted the interview is a very close friend. It took us two-and-a-half years to gather all this material; in the time that we spent living up there, we only gathered 25 hours, so these are a very special 25 hours — a time when David really let his guard down. That’s what we captured in the film. In a way, it was a conversation with a friend. If a journalist who he didn’t know came in, it wouldn’t have this feel of “relaxed David,” as if he’s telling the story to his kids.
There’s a great intimacy to your footage, watching him make various things with no exposition or voiceover to shed light on what’s being produced. I’m curious how he feels about being filmed in this process, since he’s someone who doesn’t like to talk about his work, generally. Are there limits?
You know, at this point, we’ve filmed David for thousands of hours — this has been going on for ten years now — and, six years ago, he said that he doesn’t even notice us anymore. That’s why the camera doesn’t feel intrusive; he doesn’t even notice it. The way we kind of hover above his head, shove the camera in his face, we do so often that, eventually, the camera becomes invisible, as if it’s not there at all.
So were there initial periods where you maybe had to step back a bit, and there was some tension or trepidation on his part?
Yeah. During Lynch, the first doc, there were times where we were like, “Ugh, he doesn’t want to be filmed. He doesn’t want to talk.” But that didn’t happen ten years later; we got over that on the first film. By the time we came to this very personal one, we had no issues whatsoever. We’ve got to know him very well, and he felt very comfortable. The camera, as you see, was just constantly surrounding him without him noticing. It was just on all the time. That’s the thing: the camera was just running constantly. For two-and-a-half years. Eventually he just really stopped noticing us. Anybody else, if they came into his studio and turned on the camera, he would’ve froze. By the time we did it, it was too late. He said, “Whatever.”
What is the feeling of sitting down and realizing just how much footage you have, and need to whittle this work down?
On the first film, we had 700 hours’ worth of material. On this film, it was just 25 hours — which is still overwhelming, because you have over 25 hours of David telling his life story. We kept going until… there were a couple of stories that needed resolution and for him to dig deeper, to fill in some holes, so we kept going, and once we got the holes filled up — all these manageable holes filled up — that’s when we stopped interviewing David. But, yeah, it took two-and-a-half years to do that and 25 hours of conversation.
There’s a spareness to this movie, running about 85 minutes without credits, and there isn’t even a lot of talking — just watching.
I almost think it’s two films, in a way. There’s the visual film, the present time of him working quietly, and then there’s the other film, which is the story that he’s telling. In a way, it’s two different films wrapped up into one.
This strikes me as different than the other Lynch documentaries, so I wonder where and how it was decided that this would be more experiential — if there was a clear point of decision.
Early on, we were just like, “We don’t want to to do a talking-heads documentary. Let’s fill up the screen time with seeing David in action, working, instead of just having him in front of the camera, talking to us.” First of all, for him to be interviewed in front of the camera would change the dynamics of the story he would tell. They were told on a microphone kind of hidden away, where he would forget. That was our constant goal: to make him forget that he’s being recorded, because once somebody realizes they’re being recorded, they kind of change a little bit. Just like me. I’m having a conversation with you, but if I was on-camera in front of a live audience, I would act differently. That’s the way it was with David. We were like, “Okay, the stories are going to just be recorded, and the painting studio we’ve been around long enough so that the camera’s constantly on, so we kind of get him to relax a little bit.” We wanted to avoid certain… I’ve seen so many documentaries, and I was like, “Here’s a chance to make a documentary in the way that I would want to,” which forced us to kind of do it differently than films have come out. We wanted to keep it a little more fresh.
One of the things I like most is that the use of some materials — paintings, sculptures, archival footage — really gels with what he’s saying at a particular moment. Was he advising at all?
No. We had freehand on that. I was nervous, when we finally showed him the film — because we’re sort of interpreting his artwork — and I thought, “Oh, he’s going to say, ‘No, that’s not what I meant when I said this story. I didn’t mean this painting or this artwork.’” But he didn’t have any censor on that front. Lucky for us, we had his full catalog of artwork for 40 years, filled with a lot of material to go through, so it was just matching his art to his real-life stories. That kind of came naturally. Certain ones just clicked perfectly.
What excised material were you particularly sorry to see go?
Oh, there’s a lot. [Laughs] There’s a lot of artwork, photographs, stories. We just had to make a condensed film. It had to be cut. There was a lot. I guess you could make 12 films from the material that we had.
How does Lynch continue to surprise you as a person?
When I watch his films, I just think he’s such a master. Like, I just watched Mulholland Dr. this past week, and I’m just so impressed by how every single frame has so much detail and so much thought. None is just wasted. Every scene has a purpose; every frame kind of works perfectly. I was so impressed. Look at that picture of Naomi Watts in her pink sweater, laying on the couch, with the overlap of the palm trees. I was like, “Wow, for his brain to operate that way is really genius.”
There was a slight freak-out when someone took a frame from the film featuring a page of notes for Twin Peaks’ third season, as people tired to pick up what they could. Did that specific subject ever come up? Was there just a huge level of secrecy?
I never wanted to read what he wrote down, because I didn’t want to spoil anything, and I think it’s unfortunate that it leaked out there. We tried to put a lid on that, but hopefully… I guess it didn’t… I mean, I don’t even want to talk about it now, because it might draw people towards it. But, yeah, he was writing a lot during that phase, and as soon as I saw the word “Cooper” on the page, I was just like, “I don’t want to spoil it for myself.” Which is strange, because other people were drawn towards it and I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to see that!” [Laughs]
Did you watch him write? Or is that a secluded process?
Yeah. The cameras were rolling during that time.
Could you put into clear terms what your specific contribution was, in relation to the other directors? I understand if it’s seen as symbiotic and you don’t want to break things down too heavily.
I would say that Rick Barnes is the one who conducted the interview and held the camera. Olivia is the editor. She came aboard as the editor and, towards the end of the process, I gave her a co-director credit because she contributed so much to the final product. I oversaw, as a producer and the person who sat with the editor and the sound people, visual and sound. The whole ten years working with David. So everybody contributed. I could’ve walked away and had credit by myself, if I wanted, but all films are teamwork. In this way, I was willing to not hog it by myself. To be honest, I could’ve put the sound designer on as a co-director also, but of course three’s a lot. Every single film, it makes me realize that a lot — even David’s films — have contributions from many. Scorsese’s editor is such an important part of his filmmaking process. I think most editors are. I bet you so many films out there have been saved by the editor, and I especially felt that way with our film and our editor, Olivia. She deserved the co-director credit because she contributed so much. Of course, Rick does, too, because he held the camera, shot everything, and interviewed David.
Reading and watching interviews with Lynch gets me thinking about his work in a somewhat different way. I’d like to know how your countless hours with him have changed your perception of the oeuvre.
When we learned about his anxiety as a young man, and how he liked to keep his art life separate from his family life separate from his personal, “friend” life, and how he didn’t bring his friends to his house or his parents to his studio — he kept those three things separate; he was afraid of what would happen when they mix — to me, that really helps me understand how, in Mulholland Dr., these characters can change, how they’re so separate and Naomi Watts becomes a completely different character. I think this is compartmentalization that David did in his own life that he projects onto his characters. So that helped me understand the fragmentation and how his characters switch around in his films. Like, “Oh, that’s what David did. He kept things separate.” He talked a certain way with his family, with his friends, with Jack Fisk in the studio, so it makes sense that characters do the same thing in his films.
Did you ever bring that up to him?
No. [Laughs] Because that’s something he could agree with, or he might say, “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” Maybe we will, but I think it makes sense to me. That’s the kind of thing that we put in the film to let his fans understand, to figure out themselves. That’s why we could’ve shown Isabella Rossellini naked on the lawn when he was telling the naked-woman story. We chose not to because it’s nice to watch a film where you feel as if you’re doing the work, instead of somebody spoon-feeding you. We kept saying, “Let’s not spoon-feed them, because his audience is serious about his films. They know his catalogue well enough. They can watch his films and piece them together without us having to do the work for them, and it’s more satisfying that way.”
Well, I specifically thought of that as he told the story, so I’d say it worked.
Yeah. And especially the line in the road when he talks about getting stoned: we could’ve easily taken the line from the opening of Lost Highway and shown it, but it’s more interesting for the audience that knows his films to do the work. It’s just so much more satisfying when you do it yourself instead of having us do it for you. There are so many cases of that in the film.
David Lynch: The Art Life is now playing at the IFC Center and will expand in the coming weeks.