Remembering Alan Splet

Richard B. Woodward (The Paris Review) pays tribute to the Oscar-winning sound designer who helped create the otherworldly environments of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Blue Velvet
Alan Splet
Alan Splet
“It’s too bad Ronnie Rocket never got made,” says Alan R. Splet about one of several David Lynch scripts still tied to Dino De Laurentiis’s bankruptcy. “There was lots of heavy electricity, amplified power in the script. It went back more toward the Eraserhead side of things. Maybe David feels he’s moved beyond that.”

Splet starts to laugh nervously, almost maniacally, as he recites all the kinds of electricity he could produce if called upon by Lynch. “There’s snapping, humming, buzzing, banging, like lightning, shrieking, squealing …”

As the sound engineer who has worked with Lynch since The Grandmother, their AFI student film completed in 1969, Splet saves up noises that he thinks his friend will like and sends them along on cassettes for Lynch to use or enjoy.

“I remember for Dune I collected a bunch of things and then I flew down to Mexico City,” he says. “One Sunday we set up a Nagra in his apartment and listened to sounds all afternoon. I just gave David a heavy arcing sound to use behind the logo on Twin Peaks. I haven’t heard what he’s done to it, but it’s the kind of thing he likes. He tends to go for power effects.”

No American filmmaker loves industrial sounds more than David Lynch. Eraserhead, Elephant Man, and Dune are filled with nostalgia for nineteenth-century steam and sparks—everything from the brute pounding of a drill press to the creaks and sighs of old elevator motors to the mood of a power plants on a cold night to the whirr of cranes and pulleys and winches to household short-outs. His films echo with the throbs and groans of doomed technology. Or, as he rather inadequately explains his reverence for this kind of sonic material, “The idea of man working with nature is just thrilling to me. I’d rather go to a factory any day than walk in the woods.”

On the set of David Lynch's Eraserhead. Photograph: Catherine Coulson.
On the set of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Photograph: Catherine Coulson.

This wide-eyed ability to find a narrative vein in lonely places makes Lynch the Edward Hopper of American film. The power station in Eraserhead seems to be in the movie mainly because he likes how it looks and sounds: fenced in, deserted, humming, the behemoth that feeds the city from the dark side of town. But it also serves to dwarf and humiliate the main character; it’s another menacing, noisy presence in the urban hellhole that deepens and mocks his passivity.

People tend to remember and talk about Lynch’s potent imagery: the pathetic, mummified baby; oozing chickens; the hypodermic draining of Baron Harkonnen’s puss-filled carbuncles; a close-up of ants and an ear in the grass.

But it’s the eerie sound tracks, off-kilter dialogue, and the underwater pace of events that lifts his work beyond the gross-out, horror genre and into the realm of experimental film. Sound for Lynch is the key to mood; and mood, if not everything for Lynch, is at least half of the equation.

In Bobby Vinton’s song “Blue Velvet,” Lynch found a key to many of the elements in the movie: its lush color scheme, ballad tempo, unhealthy dwelling on the past, and obsessive relationship between a man and a woman. This Golden Oldie, the slow dance at many a senior prom in the early sixties, also turns out to be a psychotic’s favorite material.

The empty high school corridors of David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks
The empty high school corridors of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks

Working for Lynch seems to involve floating suggestions in front of him until he locks on to something he likes. Starting with atmosphere, with the hush of suburban streets in Blue Velvet or the emptiness of high school corridors in Twin Peaks, he tests situations and characters against some deep, inner tuning fork.

On location searches for Wild at Heart in New Orleans with his production designer Patricia Norris, he would stop at the sound of water dripping on tin in a back alley and say, “We have to come back and record that.” He wears headphones for almost every shot, sometimes not even listening to the dialogue track but to some piece of music that he thinks describes the feeling of a scene. Often, it’s not even the music he’ll use in the film; it’s as though sound helps him see what he wants on the screen more clearly.

He is open to all kinds of input from actors—Kyle MacLachlan’s chicken walk in Blue Velvet was his own idea—but Lynch knows exactly what he wants. The opposite of an eclectic temper, he can be maddeningly specific for reasons that only he needs to understand. On Eraserhead Lynch drew two telephone wires for Splet, each line indicating four or five pitches he wanted. It was Splet’s job to go find these sounds. When he played Lynch some Fats Waller pipe-organ numbers as possible sound-track material, the director honed in immediately. “I never listened to any other kind of music for the film,” he says. “I knew that was it.” [Read More]

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