“I See Myself”: David Lynch on Eraserhead

On the set of Eraserhead

An excerpt from Chris Rodley’s wonderful book, Lynch on Lynch, quoted by Criterion Collection

Eraserhead took five years to complete. You must have been completely dedicated to the film to sustain both the project and your own enthusiasm over such an extended production period. What was it about the idea that you loved?

It was the world. In my mind, it was a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood. A little, unknown, twisted, almost silent lost spot where little details and little torments existed. And people were struggling in darkness. They’re living in those fringelands, and they’re the people I really love. Henry’s definitely one of those people. They kind of get lost in time. They’re either working in a factory or fiddling with something or other. It’s a world that’s neither here nor there. It came out of the air in Philadelphia. I always say it’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it!

I could be on the set at night, and I would imagine the whole world around it. I imagined walking out, and there were very few cars—there might be one far away, but in the shadows—and very few people. And the lights in the windows would be really dim, and there would be no movement in the window, and the coffee shop would be empty except for one person who didn’t speak properly. It was just like a mood. The life in that world . . . there was nothing like it. Things go so fast when you’re making a movie now that you’re not able to give the world enough—what it deserves. It wants to be lived in a little bit; it’s got so much to offer, and you’re going just a little too fast. It’s just sad.

A still from David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986)
A still from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986)

When he reviewed Blue Velvet, novelist J. G. Ballard said that the film was “like The Wizard of Oz reshot with a script by Franz Kafka and decor by Francis Bacon.” Kafka certainly comes to mind in Eraserhead. Do you like his work?

Yeah. The one artist that I feel could be my brother—and I almost don’t like saying it, because the reaction is always, “Yeah, you and everybody else”—is Franz Kafka. I really dig him a lot. Some of his things are the most thrilling combos of words I have ever read. If Kafka wrote a crime picture, I’d be there. I’d like to direct that for sure.

In a way, Henry is akin to Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial—a man by turns bemused and alarmed by what is happening to him.

Henry is very sure that something is happening, but he doesn’t understand it at all. He watches things very, very carefully because he’s trying to figure them out. He might study the corner of that pie container just because it’s in his line of sight, and he might wonder why he sat where he did to have that be there like that. Everything is new. It might not be frightening to him, but it could be a key to something. Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it.

Herb Cardwell, David Lynch and Jack Nance on the set of Eraserhead

There seems to be little differentiation between the outside and the inside in Eraserhead—something that becomes much more pronounced later in Twin Peaks. Views through windows are of brick walls, and although the sounds might be different, it’s mostly just as noisy inside Henry’s apartment block as it is in the world outside. The feeling is of no letting up. There’s a constant . . .

Pressure. Well, again, it’s industry and different things going on—a lot of it unseen but heard. But to me, even though there was plenty of ambiguous torment in Henry, his apartment—actually, his room—was, you know, fairly cozy. It was just this one little place he had to mull things over. The anxiety doesn’t let up, but it doesn’t really let up for anybody. Pressure is, you know, always building. In a way, I’d like to live in Henry’s apartment, and be around there. I love Hitchcock’s Rear Window because it has such a mood, and even though I know what’s going to happen, I love being in that room and feeling that time. It’s like I can smell it.

How did Eraserhead come about?

Well, fate stepped in again and was really smiling on me. The Center [the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies] was completely chaotic and disorganized, which was great. And you quickly learned that if you were going to get something done, you would have to do it yourself. They wanted to let people do their thing. If you could get it going, they would support it. They didn’t have any kind of real program. They ran films all day long, and you could look at them. And if there was something you wanted to see, or something somebody said you’d gotta see, you’d go up, and there it would be. It was an unbelievable screening room. Anything that was on film, they could show there. And people would get ahold of really rare prints. The chandelier would drift up into the ceiling and dim as it went. And they had the greatest projectionists!

My first year at the Center was spent rewriting a forty-five-page script I wrote called Gardenback. The whole thing unfolded from this painting I’d done. The script had a story, in my mind, and it had what some people could call a “monster” in it. When you look at a girl, something crosses from her to you. And in this story, that something is an insect.

Jack Nance as Henry in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977)
Jack Nance as Henry in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977)

Well, a couple of things happened. Caleb Deschanel read this script, and he called me up and said he loved it. He was a fellow at the Center and a director of photography. He said he wanted to shoot it. And that was really great with me. I’d worked with Caleb on a film he was shooting for a guy named Gil Dennis. They wanted a snake to crawl between the wall and the wallpaper in this thing, so I built this snake and this rig and did this thing for Gil. It didn’t work out real well, but it was okay. So Caleb was telling me about this producer over at Fox who was ready to do a series of low-budget horror films. This guy was a sort of friend of his, and he wanted my permission to show him Gardenback.

Frank Daniel—who was the dean of the Czechoslovakian film school—was by far the best teacher I ever had. Just a great, great teacher. Unbelievable! I never really liked teachers, but I liked Frank because he wasn’t a teacher, in a way. He just talked. And he loved cinema, and he knew everything about it. Frank was always trying to talk to me about Gardenback, but I wasn’t, you know, talking. So one day, Caleb and Frank and I went to see this guy at Fox. And this guy said, “Look, I want to give you fifty thousand dollars to make this movie. Caleb will shoot it, and it’ll be a labor of love—you’ll get everybody in there to do stuff for nothing.” But he said, “It’s only forty-five pages. You gotta make it 115 or 110 pages—it’s gotta be a feature script.” And this, like, hurt my head! “What does he mean?”

So Frank tried to explain to me. He said things like, “You have to have these scenes between the people. And they have to talk. You should think about some dialogue.” And I still didn’t know what he was really on about. “What are they gonna say?” I said. And so [laughs] we started having these weekly meetings that were like an experiment, because I really didn’t know what they were getting at. And I was curious to see what they were going to say to me. Eventually, a script got written. Gil Dennis was a writer and would come into the meetings. And Toni Vellani [codirector of the Center] would sit in on these meetings too. So they would all talk to me, and I’d go home and try to write these things.

Poster for the world premiere of Eraserhead on 19 March 1977, The 1977 Los Angeles International Film Exposition
Poster for the world premiere of Eraserhead on 19 March 1977, The 1977 Los Angeles International Film Exposition

What I wrote was pretty much worthless, but something happened inside me about structure, about scenes. And I don’t even know what it was, but it sort of percolated down and became part of me. But the script was pretty much worthless. I knew I’d just watered it down. It was way more normal to me. The bits I liked were there, but they were interspersed with all this other stuff. And now it was the end of the first year, and there I was with this thing.

On the first day of the second year, the old fellows came in and met the new fellows. And at the end of this meeting, they assigned different groups to different places to kick off the new year. And I was assigned to a first-year group. In my mind, this was a humiliating thing, and I didn’t understand it. So I got really, really upset. All this frustration came out, and I stormed up to Frank Daniel, and I screamed at him. I just barged in and told him, “I’m outta here. I quit.” I went and told Alan [Splet]. I said, “I’m outta here!” He says, “I’m going with you,” because he was fed up too, and we both stormed out of the place. We went down to Hamburger Hamlet and just sat there drinking coffee. It was over.

I finally went home, and Peggy [Lynch’s wife] said, “What the hell’s going on? They’ve been calling every ten minutes!” And I said, “I quit.” And she said, “Well, they want to see you.” So I calmed down, and the next day I went up, just basically to hear what they had to say. And Frank said, “We must be doing something wrong, because you’re one of our favorite people and you’re upset. What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I sure don’t wanna do this piece a shit Gardenback now—it’s wrecked!” And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to do Eraserhead.” And he said, “Okay, do Eraserhead then.”

So you already had the idea ready to go?

I had this twenty-one-page script. And they said, “It’s twenty-one pages,” and Toni or somebody said, “It’s a twenty-one-minute film.” And I said, “Well . . . er . . . I think it’s going to be longer than that.” So they elected it to be a forty-two-minute film. But the beautiful thing—because they were now feeling a little bit guilty—was that I was able to go to the equipment shed. My friend David Khasky was in charge of all the cameras and cables, lights, everything. And I had this Volkswagen with a four-by-eight wooden rack that held tons of stuff. Well, it was packed four or five feet tall with cables and lights. And the car was packed with camera equipment. And I’d drive down to these stables owned by the school, unload, and drive back up and get more.

The stables were down at the bottom of the mansion down Doheny Road. It was a little mansion in and of itself. It had a greenhouse and a garden shed, all made of brick, with these shingle roofs. But it was all getting old and funny. It had garages and a hayloft, a big L-shaped room above the garages. It had a maid’s quarters and places above for different people who worked for Doheny, kitchens, bathrooms, like a little hotel, with a lot of other stuff around. And I got four or five rooms and the hayloft and a couple of garages.

Jack Fisk plays The Man in the Planet in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977)
Jack Fisk plays The Man in the Planet in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977)

You just laid claim to them?

Yeah. No one wanted them anyway. They were empty. So we had a camera room, a greenroom, an editing room, rooms for sets, a food room, and a bathroom. We just sort of had the run of the place. I had those stables for many years.

They knew you were there, but they just left you alone?

Yes. They didn’t know I was living there—I got divorced in my second year, and I started living there. I also stayed at Jack Nance and Catherine Coulson’s house sometimes. And Al stayed at the stables a lot. That’s another thing I had: since Al was head of the sound department, I had access to the entire mixing room, the Nagras, microphones and cables, and all the rest. And the soundman. I had everything going for me. I was doing the thing I wanted to do most of all, making films. And I practically had my own little studio.

Did you get a grant to go to the Center, or did your parents have to pay?

You have to get there, and you have to take care of yourself. My father lent me money—me and Peggy and Jennifer [Lynch’s daughter]—and Peggy’s parents helped out too.

So how were you taking care of yourself during that time?

I can’t remember what year it was in Eraserhead, but I got this paper route, and I delivered the Wall Street Journal. That’s how I supported myself. We only shot at night, and my route was at night. So at a certain point, I’d have to stop the shoot and go do the route. But I had the route down so fast that I was only gone about an hour and eight minutes. Sometimes it would be fifty-nine minutes, but I was going flat out to make the hour.

Why were you only shooting at night?

Well, you know, because it was dark! And the park department was up there during the day, so it was noisy and there were people around. At night, no one was there. And it was a nighttime film. The mood was perfect, and that is critical.

Did you now regard yourself primarily as a filmmaker?

I didn’t really think about it; I was making this film. But I always felt there were these filmmakers out there, and I wasn’t part of that. I was separate from that. I never really considered myself in the system at all. [Read More]

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