Alexandre O. Philippe has never met David Lynch. But when the Swiss-born filmmaker decided to make a documentary about Lynch, the first thing he did was reach out to the American film director, to see if he might want to participate.
“I wasn’t expecting that he would say ‘yes’. We all know that he doesn’t like to talk about his work,” says Philippe, when we meet over tea and cake in London’s Mayfair Hotel. But the man behind cult classics Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man replied, “in classic Lynchian fashion”, to the request. “He said: ‘I need to keep my eye on the doughnut.’”
“Not a day goes by where I don’t think about ‘The Wizard of Oz’”
– David Lynch
It’s the perfect Lynch-ism: enigmatic, sincere, mysterious. It’s the sort of nugget you might expect from Dale Cooper, the FBI Special Agent played by Kyle MacLachlan in Lynch’s seminal Twin Peaks, the surreal murder-mystery that changed TV for good in the 1990s. Maybe the doughnut, though, is Lynch’s own career? It’s been 16 years since he released his last feature film, Inland Empire, and yet the fascination with the 76-year-old and his body of work seems to only get more fervent.
In April, rumours swirled that Lynch would bring a secret new film to the Cannes Film Festival the following month, featuring some regular Lynch players including Laura Dern. He quickly shot down the gossip. “It is not happening,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t have a project. I have nothing at Cannes. It’s unfortunate. It got built up that people thought, ‘Oh, that’d be nice.’” Well, that’s one way of putting it; the hysteria among Lynch fans (on Twitter, at any rate) was palpable.
“People were so excited,” Dern told NME in September. “I literally got a hundred texts. He’s always cooking. The rumour has partial truth.” Dern has been a regular ever since 1986’s Blue Velvet, also appearing in Wild At Heart, Inland Empire and, most recently, 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, in which she played Cooper’s previously unseen confidante Diane. Just like everyone else, especially after this mind-blowing return to Twin Peaks, she’s aching for another Lynch project. “We need one,” she says.
Before that tantalising prospect, though, comes Philippe’s documentary Lynch/Oz, out this week in cinemas. Philippe has already produced works on Alien, The Exorcist and Psycho, among others, but this might be his finest hour. A persuasive video essay, it looks at the influence on Lynch’s work of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 surrealistic tale that spirits Kansas native Dorothy to the Technicolor land of Oz, with its yellow brick road, Munchkins, and wicked witches. If that sounds a little niche, then re-consider the evidence. “It’s really hard to not see the DNA of The Wizard of Oz all over his work,” says Philippe. “And I don’t think it’s all conscious.”
“Lynch is the man behind the curtain of his own work”
– ‘Lynch/Oz’ director Alexandre O. Philippe
Divided into six chapters, Philippe explores different aspects of the umbilical connection between Lynch and Oz with the help of five filmmakers and one critic. Each recorded an audio track of their thoughts, which are superbly illustrated with clips chosen by Philippe and his editor David Lawrence. “It was really an organic process,” says Philippe. “I went to one at a time, because I didn’t know initially how many chapters we would have in the film. It was very much an experiment. And I think the way that the chapters work together is quite beautiful. I mean, it really builds to a real narrative arc.”
That arc begins with critic Amy Nicholson, whose opening chapter ‘Wind’ introduces The Wizard of Oz as “the quintessential American fairytale”, and how, in her mind, the story of Oz is the story of Lynch becoming a filmmaker. Cult director John Waters, in his segment ‘Kindred’, backs that up, noting it was a film he and Lynch – they were both born in 1946, four months apart – saw during their formative years. The two arrived on the film circuit around the same time too, even sharing midnight movie double bills of Waters’ trash classic Pink Flamingos and Lynch’s 1977 disturbing debut Eraserhead. Kindred spirits, alright.
“David has gone over the rainbow from the first film ever,” says Waters in the film. “He lives in a different reality than you or I do, and that’s quite obvious.” He’s not wrong. Just like Dorothy’s journey to Oz, the veneer between reality and dreamscapes can shift at a moment’s notice in Lynch-land. These ‘membranes’, to quote the title of the chapter by Rodney Ascher (Room 237) are all over his work. Like that notorious scene in Winkie’s Diner in Mulholland Drive where Patrick Fischler’s pensive character talks about a nightmare, only to realise he’s still in it. As he approaches the wall behind the diner, lurking in wait is what some critics call “the greatest jump-scare in history”.
Likewise, Lynch/Oz reflects on Lynch’s love of doppelgängers – the tainted reflection in the other side of the mirror. Like the blonde Alice and brunette Renee, both played by Patricia Arquette, in Lost Highway, two women who have got dangerously close to a pornographer/gangster named Mr. Eddy (who also goes by the name Dick Laurent). Or the naïve starlet Betty and the drug-addicted former actress Diane Selwyn, both played by Naomi Watts, in Mulholland Drive. In Lynch’s realm, characters are frequently trapped inside alternate realities.
“His characters are often aspiring actresses who meet a tragic end”
– ‘Lynch/Oz’ director Alexandre O. Philippe
Then there’s the idea of nostalgia in his work, Ascher arguing that Lynch searches for a “lost, perfect American world… perhaps for one that never existed.” If this is a throwback to the 1950s of his youth, the Eagle Scout who grew up in Montana and Idaho, then he’s forced to concede that there is trouble in paradise. Like that opening sequence of Blue Velvet, as the camera glides past the white picket fences of Lumberton, only to dive into the undergrowth and find what lies beneath.
Similarly in Lynch/Oz’s final section, ‘Dig’, by The Green Knight director David Lowery, he talks about Lynch’s obsession with the “tarnishing of the American Dream” – something that also exists in the subtext of Oz – and the fragile balance between light and shade. “I think Lynch accepts the fact that we are at all times surrounded by dark forces, but he also believes that goodness will prevail,” says Lowery. “I think this is what he’s working towards, both in his movies but also in life.”
Aside from the brilliant footage shown of him playing ‘Over The Rainbow’ on a trumpet, Lynch’s love of Oz is never clearer than in ‘Multitudes’, the chapter by director Karyn Kusama (Destroyer). A former waitress who served him pancakes (what an honour!), she recalls seeing Mulholland Drive at the New York Film Festival, when Lynch arrived on stage for a Q&A. An audience member asked him what the film meant. “Well, I think you know,” he replied, in typically evasive fashion. Then another asked about his relationship to Oz. “There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz,” he said, earnestly.
It’s a frank admission by a director who doesn’t often make them. “I mean, I’m not surprised,” says Philippe, a long-term Lynch fan who spent months analysing his work (he estimates he’s watched Mulholland Drive around 70 times). His eagle-eyes even spotted evidence of Lynch’s obsession. Take the 2016 documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, which explores his love of painting. “David Lynch is working in his workshop, and I noticed way in the background, on the wall, there’s, there’s a black-and-white still of The Wizard of Oz. It’s those little clues [that point the way].”
Some of these pointers are overt. The red shoes worn by Laura Dern’s Lula in Lynch’s 1990 violent road movie Wild at Heart, like Dorothy’s own iconic footwear. Or the shot of Lula’s Wicked Witch of a mother Marietta Fortune – played by Dern’s real mother Diane Ladd – riding through the sky on a broomstick. There’s even Sheryl Lee descending to earth at the end of the movie, an apparition of the Good Witch, who guides Nicolas Cage’s Elvis-loving, snakeskin-jacket wearing antihero to return to Lula and embrace true love.
Oz’s tragic star Judy Garland, who died of an overdose aged 47, is also a huge influence. Explored in ‘Judy’, by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Moon Knight), the very question of ‘Who is Judy?’ tolls through Lynch’s work. You’ll find a ‘Garland Avenue’ in Lost Highway or the ‘Eat at Judy’s’ diner in Twin Peaks. But there’s more than that, Philippe argues: “When you look at the arc of some of Lynch’s characters, whether it’s in Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, these are aspiring actresses who meet a very tragic end,” he says. “I do believe that the meta story of Judy Garland and the heartbreak of the Hollywood machine is something that he’s been thinking about. And it’s present in his work.”
Theatricality is also huge for Lynch – from the white face make-up sported by Robert Blake’s terrifying Mystery Man in Lost Highway to the director’s love of the proscenium arch. As even the most casual of Lynch fans will know, billowing velvet curtains – red or blue – are ever-present. Like in the Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks’ Red Room, or the Slow Club where Isabella Rossellini’s torch singer Dorothy (an early nod to Garland’s Oz character) croons along to ‘Blue Velvet’, the song Bobby Vinton took to Number One in 1963. If the curtains are a gateway to magic, as Nicholson suggests in her essay – Lynch is the man pulling the levers, like Oz’s own wizard.
“He’s the man behind the curtain of his own work,” agrees Philippe. “A lot of his movies are about illusions.” Again, realities collide. Philippe cites the scene at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return when Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer visit her house. “The lady who opens the door is the actual lady who lives there in that house, in our world. But when he asks her questions, she speaks to her husband that we never see who is hiding behind curtains. For me, it’s an unmistakable moment. Is it conscious or unconscious? I don’t know. Once again, [it’s] this idea of the man behind the curtain… regardless of whether it comes from The Wizard of Oz or not, it’s a motif that is unmistakably all over David Lynch’s work.”
“David has gone over the rainbow from his first film”
– John Waters
While Lynch hasn’t pulled back the velvet curtain on anything major since Twin Peaks: The Return, he is still very active on his YouTube channel, David Lynch Theater, posting short films, art works, or daily weather reports from sunny LA. “Day three of holiday weekend projects and the fun work train has been rolling continuously,” he announced recently over Thanksgiving. “All aboard the fun work train!” Given the distinct lack of originality in Hollywood right now, you can be forgiven for wanting Lynch to jump on board that train for real.
During the pandemic, when film productions shut down, Dern calls Lynch her “mainstay” throughout. “We would FaceTime together all the time. And we see each other so much. And he and Kyle and I will have group calls together, visits… and yeah, he’s my heart.” Whether they really are cooking up something together remains to be seen. “I mean, look, if he never gives us another movie, he’s given us plenty of wonderful things,” says Philippe. “If he has more to give us then, obviously, I think we would all be very, very happy.” For many, the idea of another David Lynch movie would be the ultimate doughnut.
‘Lynch/Oz’ is released in cinemas and on demand on December 2. A mini season of David Lynch films plays at London’s BFI Southbank throughout December