Director of “Dune”
The filmmaker who tamed “The Elephant Man” undertakes the grandest vision of them all—the realization on the screen of the epic universe created by Frank Herbert.
by Paul Mandell
Churubusco Studios in Mexico City wasn’t the same after the Dune company moved in. For one thing, the commissary cuisine had changed. Tacos and hard coffee made way for spinach pastas and fragrant cappuchinos, one of the many continental influences of producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. But the main course for the entire year was Dune. With eight stages needed to house an incredible 70 sets, Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga has been realized after a decade of pitfalls.
There’s the water-rich planet Caladan, where the foliage is rich and everything is green and brown and made of wood. Tiled floors recall Aztec and Venetian sensibilities, but the motifs on the bannisters and archways are derivative of tire tracks. There are the deep purplish caves of the Fremen, and 50-foot sandworms which defy description. And there is the industrial wasteland of the oil planet Giedi Prime, a place where Dune’s avant-garde director David Lynch would undoubtedly feel right at home.
Nattily attired in leather jacket, button- down white shirt, chino pants and dark glasses, Lynch talks with utter conviction. And, except for an occasional hushed snicker—as though he had told himself a better joke—there isn’t a clue as to whether or not he’s putting you on. Only one thing is certain: Lynch is one of the most original filmmakers the motion picture industry has ever seen.
STARLOG: You’re known for your startling use of black and white photography. It’s hard to imagine Eraserhead and The Elephant Man in color. Yet, here you are in Mexico, directing a $50 million science- fiction movie in color. Do you see this as a black and white film?
DAVID LYNCH: I would have loved to have made Dune in black and white, but it really is color film. I don’t feel bad about it. I would have loved to have seen some parts of Dune in black and white. Who knows? Maybe in some places, it may slip towards black and white; I might want to desaturate the color. Black and white takes you kind of far away. Some things are said better in it, some feelings come across better.
STARLOG: Your cameraman, Freddie Francis, says you think in black and white.
LYNCH: Freddie says I do? I have tb think of something to say about him.
STARLOG: You seem to be obsessed with industrial images. Eraserhead was kind of a Freudian-industrial nightmare. The Elephant Man had many of those elements in a peripheral sense.
LYNCH: Much of that is in Dune. I love industry. Pipes. I love fluid and smoke. I love man-made things. I love the machines that make the things. I like to see people hard at work, and I like to see sludge and man-made waste. I don’t know’ why. I like to see what nature does to it, and to see man-made things juxtaposed with nature.
STARLOG: The generator machines in Dune look like tubular monsters.
LYNCH: Yeah, well, there are many things in Dune that are very pleasing to me, but it’s not an industrial film. Giedi-Prime is one of the planets in Dune, and that, to me, is more of an industrial planet. It’s like a planet of black oil, steel and porcelain. But it’s different from an American factory.
STARLOG: How did you begin to write the screenplay? The book is extremely complicated.
LYNCH: Everyone finds it hard to get into the first 60 pages. But after that, it begins to work on you. Because it’s such a long book, the problems are inherent—you try to be true to the book, but you still lose stuff. The things you lose are the key to everything, and what you do with what’s left to make it cinematic is another thing. Sometimes, cinema works real well for condensing words. One line of Frank Herbert’s would make a whole bunch of images. I just went by feelings. Once I started working on my own, I wrote seven drafts. The only people who saw them were Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis. The only problem with my earlier drafts w’as length. Clarity. Sometimes, I went off more into dreams and strange things, but now there’s a balance. To me, it’s true to Frank Herbert. It’s not the book, but it’s true to it. It took me a year-and- a-half to write it, and I’ve been fiddling with it since then.
STARLOG: How were you approached for Dune?
LYNCH: Dino’s office called me and asked if I had ever read Dune. I thought they said “June.” I never read either one of ’em! But once I got the book, it’s like when you hear a new word. And I started hearing it more often. Then, I began finding out that friends of mine had already read it and freaked out over it. It took me a long time to read. Actually, my wife forced me to read it. I wasn’t that keen on it at first, especially the first 60 pages. But the more I read, the more I liked. Because Dune has so many things that I like, I said, “This is a book that can be made into a film.” I became real excited about it and had a couple of meetings with Dino. His main reason for hiring me, really, was The Elephant Man. He wanted a science-fiction film that was about people, not about a bunch of space machines. I had many things inside me that Dino really didn’t know about. I like machines, I like space, I like dreams. Dino had never seen Eraserhead. In fact, he hates Eraserhead. It’s not his cup of tea, whereas Mel Brooks freaked out over it. So, I’ve been lucky that producers have liked the last thing I did, and in that I can grow and show more things in each successive project.
STARLOG: Did you try to bring the oddball eccentricity of Eraserhead to Dune?
LYNCH: This film will be PG, for one thing, and that ties you quite a bit. You can think of some strange things to do, but as soon as they throw in PG, many go out the window. I like to go off the track. I haven’t really been able to do that here. But there are still many things in the film that are strange and exciting. We haven’t started doing montages. There’s gonna be a lot of that in Dune. Right now, I hope that I’ll have time in postproduction to experiment and fiddle around, because we’ve got some really good raw material. But it needs these special things. The biggest problem we still have is length. I know we will have a very long rough cut of Dune. So, we’re not out of the woods yet.
STARLOG: What do you want those montages to be like?
LYNCH: I don’t even really know what’s going to be in them. There are some images that I want to work with. I can picture things in my mind. But it’s not the same as when you have the film right in front of you. Sometimes in fiddling around, by accident, the problem opens up, and it just leads to the solution to everything.
STARLOG: What attracts you to objects in decay? That’s a recurrent theme in your films so far.
LYNCH: Well, if you set a piece of steel out in a vacant lot—at first, the steel could be kind of nice, but it’s sort of a “slow” area. Then, nature starts going to work on it. Pretty soon, the steel becomes a fantastic thing! It’s like smoke coming out of a chimney. A new chimney is one thing, but an old chimney—it’s years of heat, black smoke and hairs that catch in there and build up, right? And the side of the building’s all black with all these broken windows, and rotting grass is caught in there. It’s fantastic stuff! And you never could get it without nature and man both working together.
STARLOG: Why are you generally against making movies in color?
LYNCH: I’m not. When you see Dune, I don’t think you’ll say that this guy had difficulty in color. It’s just that black and white is so pure. And because it’s pure, everything is heightened in a way. It just has more power. Then, you have to have black and white sound to go with it, which is a tricky thing.
Sound is so important to me. The w hole picture now is sort of dry. It gets much more real with sound, especially with sound effects. That’s why I can’t wait to get to work with Alan Splet again and get the right sound for these pictures. He did all the stuff for Eraserhead and Elephant Man. There’s no real technique that we can talk about; the only thing that we decide on is that “picture dictates sound.” It’s finding the sound that paints the right mood, and off you go to the next one. Right now, Alan has about 180 reels of sound effects. Every time I hear sounds, I see pictures. Then, I start getting ideas. It just drives me crazy.
STARLOG: There was a rehearsal over on stage 5 with Carlo Rambaldi’s insect-like monstrosity, the Guild-Navigator. Was that image in the novel, or did you create it yourself?
LYNCH: The Guild Navigator was “sort of” described. I had another picture of the craft in my mind, like a fleshy grasshopper.
STARLOG: How do you work with Rambaldi and Art Director Tony Masters? Who actually conceptualizes it on paper?
LYNCH: I did one drawing first, and then Tony took over. I do many drawings, but they have a habit of getting lost, or they’re not very good. I feel funny about that. When I’m working on a film, it’s their job to draw, right? So, I just draw something that I want, and Tony takes it from there. He shows it to me and we work it out so we’re happy with it. Then, the drawing goes to Carlo. I made several trips to Rambaldi’s studio. He even let me fiddle with the clay for awhile. So, now he has built a fetus, a Navigator and different parts of the Sand-worms. It all contains the feeling of Frank Herbert’s original concepts. And that’s what’s so important. Because to me, ideas are where everything comes from. And you must be true to them. All the power — everything—is in that original idea. So, you can’t just go merrily off on your own. If you do that, you can’t call it Dune—you have to call it something else.
STARLOG: How does it feel, going from Eraserhead which was made with no money, to Elephant Man, made with some money, to a $50 million movie—the most expensive project ever taken on by Universal?
LYNCH: It doesn’t overwhelm me, because I don’t know about money. It’s not that I don’t care; I care about it a lot. But I don’t have to work with it the way Raffaella does. For her, $50 million is much more real than it is to me. I feel a responsibility to Dino and Raffaella, not to screw around and waste money. But I don’t ever see any money. I don’t have to hire and fire people. I just worry about what goes on film… and getting up in the morning.
There are two things going here. I have to please more people than just myself. On Eraserhead, I only had to please myself. On Elephant Man and Dune, I had to please other people as well as myself. It would be wrong to compromise and say, “Well, I’m going to please this person half-way and myself half-way.” You have to sometimes find completely different solutions to the problems, so that you get all excited again. That’s why Dino and I have gotten along. Everytime he has had a problem, instead of compromising, I would think of another idea. Then, he becomes happy, because he sees I’m playing ball. I’m thinking with him in mind, but I’m also trying to think of a solution that doesn’t kill something. I know that this film will be a certain way, and all the ideas are not going to be mine. So, I must accept other people’s ideas, and that’s tricky.
STARLOG: Directing Blade Runner would have been a natural for you.
LYNCH: Well, when I heard about Blade Runner, I thought that I should be doing the film. I identified with it 100%. I know that people who worked on it had seen Eraserhead. But I was really disappointed in the over-all movie. I was expecting so much, and I don’t really know exactly what went wrong. You see, for some things, too much ruins it, and for other things, not enough ruins it. In Blade Runner, it was a matter of not being enough of a storyline. Most of the images, though, were totally beautiful.
STARLOG: Just what is Ronnie Rocket?
LYNCH: Ronnie Rocket is the movie I’d like to do next, if I get the chance. It’s about a three-foot tall guy with red hair and physical problems, and about 60-cycle alternating current electricity.
STARLOG: Is it easy to lose contact with human emotion in a film like Dune, with so much bizarre technology?
LYNCH: Not really. The technology is shot at a different time than the live action. In the beginning, all our scenes were between people in rooms. One or two humans interacting with other humans, and that was it. The technology was woven around all these human reactions. In a film like Star Wars, there’s much more dependence on special effects, and the human part suffers. They don’t care about it that much; it works for what it is. Dune is not quite the same thing.
STARLOG: Jack Nance, who played Eraserhead has a bit part in Dune.
LYNCH: Yeah. He plays a character called Nefed. He calls himself “Nerferd.”
STARLOG: Do you enjoy working with actors?
LYNCH: I love working with actors. It’s just like anything else; it’s the communication. What you do is have a rehearsal, cold. That’s usually the worst something will ever be. But now you have a point of departure. So, you start talking until you get somewhere. And then you shoot. And it’s as simple as that. Sometimes, you can get real magic from something that just wasn’t working at all.The people in Dune do so many different things; they’re not one-note actors. I guess it’s like playing a real good violin. You can go way up. We’ve had some good experiences on Dune. And I never thought I would like to work with actors. I found out that I really loved it.
STARLOG: Left to your own devices, what would you do when you’re not making a movie?
LYNCH: I’m a shed builder. If I was just left alone, I would build sheds. I would plan them at Bob’s Big Boy Coffee Shop, and I would become very excited with these coffees and a chocolate shake. So, when I left Bob’s, I would be racing home with plans for certain parts of a shed, right? Then, I would find the right kind of wood and I would start cutting them up with my power saw, nailing it, fitting it and working it. And I would be almost in heaven with happiness. That is very nifty to me. Painting sometimes gets that way….
STARLOG: Do you think of yourself as a failed artist?
LYNCH: In a way. You see, as long as I’m drawing, I feel as though I’m an artist. And I love the art life. I believe in the art life 100%. In the art life, there are rules—and I’ve broken many of’em. In a way, the art life was Henry in Eraserhead. If Henry was a painter, he would be perfect. He doesn’t have any friends. He can be by himself, right? You live by yourself, go into yourself and capture ideas, or you do whatever you do, but you must think. You have to get all set up to capture an idea, and it takes time. So, you must have time to think all by yourself, you can’t have your TV going. And you must be in an environment that’s inspiring to you—like in Philadelphia in a hotel room. And you get a mood and you start capturing ideas.
STARLOG: Freddie Francis. He photographed and directed many English horror films. Yet, you picked him as your cameraman on Elephant Man and Dune because you had seen his work in Sons and Lovers.
LYNCH: That’s right. Not only was it a great film, but it had a great black and white look. It seemed only natural to hire Freddie. I looked at other works by British directors of photography, and to me, they just didn’t come anywhere near what Freddie was doing. Sons and Lovers could have been about anything, but the photography was about light and dark, and a mood, and Freddie got it. It’s a D.H. Lawrence “factory” film, and it had many images in it that I love, and it was shot the way I love.
STARLOG: You feel closer to the ’50s than any other decade, don’t you?
LYNCH: Absolutely. The ’50s are just about it for me. I like the Beatles, but once they came in, everything changed in an OK way. I prefer the pre-Beatles era, even back to the ’20s. From the ’20s up to 1958, or maybe 1963, are my favorite years. Anything that happens in there I would find moods that I would just totally love. The ’70s, to me, were about the worst! There can be things in the ’80s that I love—high-tech things, NewWave things which echo the ’50s. But the ’70s—it just seems to be totally like leather and hair. There’s nothing there. The ’50s is “closer to the original idea” of what rock and roll is. So, there’s power in that original idea.
STARLOG: Are you hung up on rock ’n’ roll?
LYNCH: I like early Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino. I like all these, like, girl groups: the Ronnettes, the Chiffons and the Marvelettes. I like “Mr. Postman” and Little Richard’s “Bebopaloobop. ” This is the Ronnie Rocket thing, but it’s strange, “twisted” ’50s.
STARLOG: Mexico is a pretty strange place, too. Rich in architecture and many incongruities. Were you able to get a bit of the Mexican influence into Dune?
LYNCH: There might be some, but what influenced Dune most of all was Venice, Italy. I was brought to Italy by Dino. Raffaella and I went to a script conference with him in this place called Abano in Northern Italy, an hour and 15 minutes’ drive to Venice. We piled into the car and went into Venice. Dino got this gondola and dragged us to a certain spot, let us get out, walked down and saw St. Mark’s Piazza. It was a powerful experience.
I had been working with Tony Masters. We were really researching books for different things. When I went into this cathedral, I just went nutty, there was marble like you had never seen, and shapes. Then, Dino bought me this book. I brought it back and started poring through it for ideas and inspiration. It was a point of departure. We kept going and going from there. It was architecture, painting, sculpture, this combined with this, turned upside down. In the way Al Splet and I were working with sounds,Tony Masters and I were using pictures—as inspiration. Much of it came from Venice.
STARLOG: Did you find yourself wrestling with having to tone a scene down, make it less bright?
LYNCH: As I said, I don’t like a dark film, but I like mood and I like contrast. So, some things should be dark, especially when things get strange. But I like light things, too. Arakis is one of the hottest planets in the universe, so it must be bright in some places, really bright. My tendency is to make things too dark.
STARLOG: The 50 million dollar film that no one will see…
LYNCH: Yeah, right. Many times I’m not arguing with Freddie, I’m begging him to make it darker. Dino, on the other hand, is begging him not to listen to me and make it lighter. I think Freddie is afraid that so much of Dune is lit in such a low key, no one will see the images. But it’s not that way. There s plenty of stuff to look at. Wait and see!
Paul Mandell, NY-based freelancer, has reported for American Cinematographer, Cinefex and Fangoria. He saluted the Superman TV series in Starlog #75-77.
Starlog, October 1984, Number 87