What Does David Lynch Do All Day?
Let's ask the makers of the new doc DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE.
Filmmakers who become painters or painters-turned-filmmakers: There's no particular novelty in this, and the two practices have been considered complementary in the careers of directors including Peter Greenaway, Wim Wenders, and Julian Schnabel. But too often the painting practice gets shadowed by the more popular practice of cinema, and we tend to downgrade the film director's other craftsmanship as hobby, or side-project. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life overturns this vision, albeit obliquely, by showing painting as one of Lynch's most consistent commitments—a form of daily labor that has shaped every day of his life and kick-started his filmmaking career. At the same time, the film offers exceptional insights into Lynch's private life.
Shot entirely in his studio, with narrative support from magisterial voice-over storytelling by the man himself, The Art Life explores growing up in the American suburbs (be they in Idaho, Washington, or Virginia), and coming to terms with one's vision. The storytelling is introverted, and disarmingly honest about troubling memories or states of mind. The crucial influence of painter Bushnell Keeler, who encouraged Lynch to pursue the artistic path, and the support of the American Film Institute, that granted the conditions to produce The Grandmother, are still regarded with the innocence of, one may say, a beginner. It's a less familiar aspect of the bold and ambitious director we may think of when considering his films; Lynch shows that artistry is a realm of both wisdom and nervousness. David Lynch: The Art Life stops where his filmmaking career begins, but his painting practice has taught us plenty about the man—about, as painter-turned-critic John Berger would put it, his "ways of seeing."
Director-producer Jon Nguyen and editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm gained unprecedented access to Lynch's intimate life, including family photos and home videos. Their documentary premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where I interviewed the filmmakers, and is now showing at the BFI London Film Festival as well.
What's the background to the documentary's production?
Jon Nguyen: Ten years ago I called up Jason [Scheunemann], who's friends with David. He's also an old friend of mine; I've known him for twenty-five years. I said to him, 'Do me a favor: Ask David if we can make a documentary about him.' He said: 'You're crazy, David would never let you make a documentary, he doesn't know you.' He called me back a couple of days later and said, 'You're not gonna believe this, but David agreed.' This started the whole process with Lynch.
Miranda Scherffig: Do you think he agreed because of his friendship with Jason or because he was familiar with your work as filmmaker?
Nguyen: I think because he trusted Jason, and I was friends with him.
Miranda Scherffig: Regarding the storytelling and the voice-over: How did you come up with such a fluid narrative?
Nguyen: Interviews took place over the course of two years. I think we ended up with [something] like twenty-five hours' worth of material. Jason was living up there at the time. It all happened on the weekends, he would hear a little bell on the intercom in his room. It was David: 'Oh Jason, why don't you come up? Let's talk.' He'd bring this little audio recorder and press record. And David would just... tell the stories.
Miranda Scherffig: Selecting the material was a big job, then.
Olivia Neergaard-Holm: Yeah, from all this, tons of directions we could have taken. We were looking at the interviews and trying to find the red thread, what would be the most interesting story to tell. Obviously we wanted to find out what shaped him, what big events where there in his life, what were the big influences, like his family, and what made him into a painter and eventually a filmmaker. And from an outside point of view, we were also interested in exploring what could have gone wrong, where he could have taken the wrong path and never become the person he is.
Miranda Scherffig: One example is when he tells the story of the AFI scholarship that basically opened the doors of the film industry for him. And yet, after everything he's done and achieved, he still wonders at this event.
Nguyen: David struggles, he struggles as an artist. Like everybody else.
Miranda Scherffig: Was Lynch's work as a painter your main concern from the beginning?
Nguyen: If you really get to know David, that's what he does. Over those two years when we filmed him, when he wakes up in the morning and when he goes to bed, in between he's just painting. Painting and writing, not only filmmaking. That's what he's famous for.
Miranda Scherffig: How did you combine the interview with the images? It looked as if you framed him through still-life portraits of a sort. We see him from three different angles: on the couch, and behind the desk in the studio, and in a small recording booth.
Nguyen: That's what we had access to. We weren't allowed into his house. He has three compounds. One is his office, which is really interesting, where he does business. He has a big staff, and all that area is kind of private, too. The other one is where he lives with his wife and his child, that was off limits. And then the painting studio that you see in the film.
Neergaard-Holm: That space also corresponded well to the story we were trying to tell. We had some material when he was in Paris, for instance, doing some prints. But then it didn't fit into the story. We wanted to achieve a really subjective, immersive atmosphere. You talked about the rhythm, the film's flow: Once it got too far off topic, it was really hard to get back into this rhythm of the voice-over and storytelling. So, actually, the simpler we made it, the better it started to work in terms of the elements that we had. We also had one scene when he makes the coffee. But we just couldn't fit it in. We had it for a long time in the cut but then we needed to make a new transition so... the coffee cup has to go!
Miranda Scherffig: Viewers could have the impression of watching 'One day in the life of David Lynch'—also because we see him working on the same canvas throughout different stages of layering the paint and mixed material.
Nguyen: Yeah, the thing is that he always wears the same clothes! He always does the same thing: He paints. So when you saw those two years, it looks like one day.
Miranda Scherffig: Some scenes appeared as if shot in Super8. Why?
Nguyen: Sometimes the only thing that Jason, the cinematographer, had in his pocket was his iPhone. (He was living up there, in a little room in David's compound.) So in certain moments he wasn't going to run off to his office and grab the camera, and the only thing he had on him was his phone.
Miranda Scherffig: What about the pictures of Philadelphia [where Lynch attended the Academy of Fine Arts and settled with his first wife], all the family materials and the home videos?
Nguyen: David gave us access to everything. He opened all his photo albums with thousands of pictures, from his great grandparents and before! So there were great pictures that didn't make it into the film, and then of course all the home videos. The Philadelphia pictures were taken by Will Brown—it's just four pictures though. Those pictures were taken when David was going to school, so it shows you exactly how the city looked like when he was around.
Miranda Scherffig: Did he suggest to contact the author of the photographs?
Nguyen: No, but he went to school with him, back in the '60s. He was a photographer, so we knew that his pictures would have offered a good representation of the setting. We wanted to show what Philly really looked like, without having to grab images from the news.
Neergaard-Holm: But those photographs that we used when he's talking about Philadelphia, except for those credited as Brown's, it's all David's own photographs.
Miranda Scherffig: Why is the documentary dedicated to his daughter?
Nguyen: Our pitch to David was: 'You're getting old. Your daughter's just born, here's your chance to let her have your memories. You might not be around when she gets old enough to hear these stories.' That's why it is eventually dedicated to her, because these are really the stories that he wanted her to hear. Our promise is that we'll turn over the twenty-five hours of material to her when she gets older, so she can really learn about her dad. She hasn't got a clue now, she's just a little baby... but eventually she'll sit in her room listening to her dad talking to her!
Miranda Scherffig: The documentary also does great justice to the role the painter Bushnell Keeler played as Lynch's mentor. In one scene Lynch tells the story of when Keeler called up his father to tell him how serious and committed to the painting practice he was.
Nguyen: He had a huge responsibility, for everything. He had David under his wings, calling up his dad, saying, 'Hey, he's in the studio all the time,” encouraging him to go back to school in such a quiet way. That's why he's in the film. He's the guy who really protected him, and kind of guided him along the beginning of his career.
Neergaard-Holm: He also saw the potential in him, I guess.
Nguyen: He inspired him to be a painter, too. David saw him as an artist and thought, 'Oh, I can do this.' He owes a lot to him, and there's a lot of gratitude.
Miranda Scherffig: Yet the documentary doesn't give any information about his current status as painter, like gallery shows, collectors, works' prices....
Neergaard-Holm: Well, we did work in that direction, but then started to have lots of titles and information. At the end it's not a complete biographic film, but more like a journey to find certain keys. We're not giving answers, just little hints. We just felt that every time we had detailed information, it just became too concrete. You'd end up focusing on those things instead. Eventually we took everything out.
Miranda Scherffig: What do you think is the 'art life' for David Lynch, besides 'drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and painting,' as he says?
Neergaard-Holm: I think it's this iconic idea: The artist, living without compromises, being very....
Nguyen: Dedicated. Not just practicing once in a while. David really does this from morning to night. It takes him years to make new films... and in that five- or eight-year period, what else do you think he does? He's in the painting studio!