David Lynch’s Room to Dream

As one might well expect from a book about the life and work of the eccentric auteur David Lynch, Room to Dream is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and a little strange. Biography and memoir in one, each chapter contains two sections separated by three or four pages of black-and-white photos from the time period covered in the chapter. First, we get a well-researched and clearly-presented biographical take featuring input from Lynch’s friends, family members, and collaborators. Former L.A. Times journalist Kristine McKenna does a fine job of keeping the story of Lynch’s improbable rise moving along. She gets out of the way and lets her interviewees do the talking when that’s best and weaves their recollections effectively giving us glimpses of the different stages of Lynch’s life and career from multiple angles.

In the second section of each chapter, Lynch takes over and revisits the past in his own words. He goes into greater detail, sometimes, focusing on an aspect of the story that wasn’t covered in as much depth in Ms. McKenna’s section sometimes building on what others said. On a few occasions, he remembers things differently and disagrees with what others have said. For example, Lynch believes that Anthony Hopkins tried to get him fired from directing The Elephant Man. Ms. McKenna’s conclusion, based on her research, is that Hopkins complained bitterly about Lynch but stopped short of demanding he be fired and replaced. Who can really say for sure which account is closer to the truth? Either way, Lynch had the last laugh. The Elephant Man was a critical success and received eight Oscar nominations including Best Director. His career was launched.

As much as one may be put off by Hopkins’ snotty attitude and presumption, regardless of whether or not he actually pushed to remove and replace Lynch or merely complained about him, his concern about being directed by a complete unknown isn’t really too surprising. Lynch was an inexperienced young director whose only full-length film was a bizarre, unclassifiable, no-budget, black-and-white surrealistic nightmare starring a bunch of actors no one had ever heard of before and which had only been shown as the midnight movie at a handful of art house theaters in the States. Yes, it’s recognized as a classic now and, yes, Lynch has become a legend, but at the time he was a completely unknown young American directing a cast of highly-acclaimed British actors including stage legend John Gielgud. Incredible. Thankfully, producer Mel Brooks had great faith in Lynch and admirably threw his full support behind him despite the reservations Hopkins and, quite likely, though less vocally, others had.

Lynch’s rise was an astonishingly steep career trajectory by any measure. He made the animated short loop Six Men Getting Sick in 1966 and the live-action short The Grandmother in 1968 while a student at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Those opened the door to the American Film Institute in California where over a five-year period, on a tiny budget, with a small dedicated crew, he made Eraserhead. That film, in turn, convinced Mel Brooks that Lynch was the guy he was looking for to direct The Elephant Man starring his wife, Anne Bancroft, among many other fine performers.

Then came hard lessons learned from the $40 million (estimate according to IMDb) big-budget disaster of Dune. Despite that not going so well, producer Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch the go-ahead to direct Blue Velvet with full creative control. Lynch found his groove and went on to create the body of work he is best known for.

What we see examples of repeatedly throughout Room to Dream that at least in part explains his success is how Lynch’s charisma, contagious enthusiasm for his projects, and dedication to his craft and vision engenders a sense of loyalty from his actors, crew and other collaborators. The section of the book which recounts Catherine Coulson’s final performance in her iconic role of Margaret Lanterman, AKA the Log Lady, may well have you weeping when you read it. Her scenes will take on a deeper poignancy when you watch Twin Peaks: The Return again. Ms. Coulson was a key member of the Eraserhead team who worked tirelessly to help get that film made even donating her waitressing tips to the cause.

Many of those sharing stories in the book are world-famous — Isabella Rossellini, Kyle Maclachlan, Laura Dern, Sting, John Hurt, Sissy Spacek — but some of the most illuminating insights come from lesser-known behind-the-scenes talents. One of my favorites is handyman and jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Ponce. Mr. Ponce was doing some landscaping work in Lynch’s neighbor’s yard in the mid-nineties. Lynch struck up a conversation with him and the two hit it off. Lynch hired him to do some cleaning. He has been working for Lynch ever since taking care of everything from landscaping to plumbing to electrical work to mechanical repairs to building a set for Inland Empire. 

“People see me here cleaning or raking leaves and they think nothing — they don’t know how much I know,” Mr. Ponce says. “I can smell things from far away, and I can see immediately when someone comes up here who doesn’t have David’s best interest at heart. The negative energy — I can see that, and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. David’s an easygoing, nice person and he can be taken advantage of, so I try to protect him. Anybody who works here has to be somebody I trust.”

Ponce’s picture jibes with the overall depiction of Lynch in the book. While he’s had his fallings out, breakups, business deals gone wrong and so forth the general consensus seems to be that he’s a pretty nice guy. On a scale of Dale Cooper doppelgangers, he’d likely hew more toward the Dougie Jones side of the spectrum than the Evil Coop zone. No doubt the man can be cantankerous, cranky, foul-mouthed and ill-tempered when confronted with realities that get in his way, as demonstrated in this clip below from the making of Twin Peaks: The Return, but some Hollywood veterans who’ve worked with him describe the experience as among the nicest, most pleasant and least dysfunctional gigs they’ve had in their long careers. The man has manners. He’s considerate. He knows everybody on set by name and acknowledges their contributions far beyond the directorial norm. This may in part be due to his long commitment to the daily practice of Transcendental Meditation.

We also see Lynch’s maniacal attention to detail. He’ll fuss over something on set that likely won’t even be visible on screen in the end. To get the feel of the scene just right, it is important for him that all of the details be just so, just right. And, of course, if one gets to the point of fussing over minor details that won’t ever show, it’s only because there’s nothing left to fuss with. Everything is just right and ready to go. He’s like the short story writer who knows he is done with a story when he finds himself putting commas back in that he’d previously cut.

Yet coupled with that powerful desire to get the set to look just the way he envisioned it is the seemingly contradictory willingness to embrace chance and serendipity, to spontaneously incorporate a new element that presents itself into the work. Lynch’s best friend since high school, the production designer and artistic director Jack Fisk, who has worked with many of the finest directors in Hollywood including the Coen Brothers and Terrence Malick and is every bit as well-respected as Lynch in the movie industry (though far less famous to the general public) gives an example of this from when they were teenagers obsessed with painting. A large moth flew onto one of Lynch’s wet paintings, got trapped and flailed away trying to break loose. While another painter might have been upset and set to work to remove the moth and smooth over the disrupted section of paint, Lynch was thrilled and at once accepted the dying moth’s struggle and eventual death as a part of the painting.

Many years later, in a now famous incident, set designer Frank Silva accidentally got himself trapped on the set of Laura Palmer’s bedroom when he blocked the exit door with a dresser. He hid behind the bed during the filming of a scene. Lynch was intrigued by the thought of an unseen character hiding in the room. In a later scene in the Palmers’ living room, Silva’s face was accidentally shown reflected in a mirror. Clearly, he was supposed to be in the show. Lynch incorporated Silva into the series as a central figure, the evil, interdimensional being BOB who possesses Leland Palmer and makes him do bad things. It is hard to imagine Twin Peaks without BOB but such a version might have been if Mr. Lynch was less open to influence, if he didn’t allow himself the room to dream.

Room to Dream. What a perfect title. Mr. Lynch managed to find himself the room to dream and to bring those dreams alive on film, on record, and on canvas so the rest of us can dream along with him. He got past the most common destroyer of artistic ambition — concerned, well-meaning parents who don’t understand what you’re doing — and found collaborators who did get it. That this is a book Lynch fans will enjoy goes without saying, but it’s also a good choice more generally for anyone interested in how movies get made or those who simply enjoy a good memoir.

Room to Dream
David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Random House 2018