I was sick, just sick and devastated after Dune.
Meditation has saved me a lot of times and that was one of them. It was a dark time. It helped that I had other scripts and I was thinking about what was next, but I couldn’t not think about all the time I’d just spent on that film. When you don’t have the freedom to do what you want and it goes bad, you feel like you’ve sold out and you deserve what you get, and I sold out right from the beginning. I knew the way [producer] Dino [de Laurentiis] was, I knew I didn’t have final cut, and I had to adjust all along the way—it was a horrible thing. I learned about failure, and in a way failure is a beautiful thing because when the dust settles there’s nowhere to go but up, and it’s a freedom. You can’t lose more, but you can gain. You’re down and everybody knows you’re down and that you fucked up and you’re a loser, and you just say, “Okay,” and you keep working.
I get ideas and a lot of times I don’t know what they are or how they fit, but I write them down and one thing leads to another, so in a way I don’t really do anything. I just stay true to the idea. I probably wrote four drafts of Blue Velvet. They weren’t totally different, but I was finding my way, and I gave Kyle [MacLachlan] an unfinished draft of the script when we were shooting Dune.
I didn’t like the song “Blue Velvet” when it came out. It’s not rock ’n’ roll, and it came out during the birth of rock ’n’ roll and that’s where the power was. “Blue Velvet” was schmaltzy and didn’t do a thing for me. Then I heard it one night and it married with green lawns at night and a woman’s red lips seen through a car window—there was some kind of bright light hitting this white face and these red lips. Those two things, and also the words “and I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” These things got me going and it all married together.
If a character comes along and you’re the only writer around, they kind of introduce themselves to you and then you know them. Then they start talking and you go deeper in, and there’s stuff that’s surprising because everybody is a mix of good and evil. Almost everybody has a bunch of stuff swimming in them, and I don’t think most people are aware of the dark parts of themselves. People trick themselves and we all think we’re pretty much OK and that others are at fault. But people have desires. Like Maharishi says, built into the human being is always wanting more, and that desire leads you back home. Everybody finds their way eventually.
An important piece of the Blue Velvet script came to me in a dream, but I didn’t remember the dream until quite a while after I woke up from it. So, imagine me for some reason going over to Universal Studios the day after I had a dream that I didn’t remember. I went there to meet a man and went into the secretary’s room and the man was in the room behind her. In this secretary’s room there was either a couch or a chair near her desk, and because the man wasn’t ready to see me I went and sat down on this chair and waited. Sitting on that chair I remembered my dream, and I asked the secretary for a piece of paper and a pencil, and I wrote down these two things from the dream: a police radio and a gun. That did it for me. I always say I don’t go by nighttime dreams because it’s daydreaming that I like. I love the logic of dreams, though. Anything can happen and it makes sense.
So Richard Roth and I went and pitched this Blue Velvet idea to a friend of his who worked at Warner Bros. I’m telling this guy about finding an ear in a field and a few other things about the story, and he turns to Richard and says, “Is he making this stuff up?” I went ahead and wrote two drafts of the script and showed this gentleman at Warner Bros. the second draft and he hated it. He said it was horrible.
I had a lawyer who didn’t tell me that pitching Blue Velvet to this guy at Warner Bros. put the thing into turnaround and that if I wanted it back I had to do something about it. I don’t know what happened exactly—this is a horror story to me. I went off to Mexico and made Dune, and during that time I thought I had the scripts for Blue Velvet and Ronnie Rocket and that they belonged to me. When the dust settled after Dune, I sat down with Dino and Rick Nicita, and somehow it came out that Warner Bros. owned the script for Blue Velvet. I just about died. So Dino picked up the phone and called the head of the studio—and the story was that Lucy Fisher was running down the hall to tell him not to sell the script, but Dino got it from them and that was that. I guess you could say he gave it back to me, because he made it possible for me to make the film and gave me final cut, but that’s how Dino ended up with the script. Richard Roth was attached to the film up to a certain point, but eventually he decided it was best to let Dino run the show. But Richard’s listed as executive producer of the film and he made his contribution. It was Richard who came up with the name the Slow Club, which is where Dorothy Vallens sings.
Fred Caruso was the producer on Blue Velvet, and I love Fred, bless his heart. There are some people that talk in a way that gives you a feeling of assurance and safety, and Fred had that. He was very calm, very Italian. He just had a way about him and he could always talk me down. Fred often said to me, “I don’t know what you’re doing,” but he was really a good producer.
We went to Wilmington and Dino was making 13 films at the studio and we were the lowest on the totem pole, but we had the greatest time. We were the poorest film on the lot, but Blue Velvet was like going from hell to heaven, because I had tremendous freedom. I didn’t really give up anything when the budget had to be reduced, either, because I could work around things. There weren’t so many rules in those days, and now there are many more rules, and it’s harder and harder to keep the money down. It forces you to either give up something or blow your brains out.
We all had a blast and became really close. We were away in a place, and we’d all have dinner together, we’d see each other every day, and everybody was there for a long period of time, and that doesn’t happen anymore. People come in quick now, then they go away, and you don’t have dinners. I don’t know what’s changed. Now it’s like tremendous pressure. Tremendous. And it just kills me, I can’t tell you. Shoots have to go faster. Blue Velvet started in May and went until Thanksgiving, and the days of long shoots like that are over.
I remember Dino came to dailies the first day of the shoot and we’d done a day of Steadicam up and down the staircase to Dorothy’s apartment, and when we got it back from the lab Fred realized the lens in the camera he’d used was broken and it was so dark that you almost couldn’t see anything. Dino sees that and he starts screaming, and I said, “Dino, calm down; the lens was broken, and we’ve just gotta reshoot it.”
Kyle played Jeffrey Beaumont because Kyle is an innocent, and he’s kind of all-American in a way that makes you think about the Hardy Boys. Jeffrey is curious and he’s a detective—well, everybody’s a detective—but he’s got that going on, and he likes women, and he likes a mystery. I looked at a lot of people before I found Laura Dern, and she’s perfect for Sandy. Sandy is smart and she has this playful nature. She’s a good girl, but that mind… she’s got a dreamy thing swimming in there, and a curious thing. She’s the daughter of a detective. Laura embodied this person that Jeffrey could be pals with at first then fall in love with, and they didn’t have a dark love. They had a pure love.
Dennis Hopper is a great actor, and I really liked him in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause and The American Friend. I was told not to hire Dennis. They said, “No, you cannot do that—he’ll get fucked up and you’ll never get what you want,” but I always wanted Dennis and I knew he was the perfect Frank Booth. I talked to a few other actors about the part, then somewhere in there his agent called and said Dennis was clean and sober and had just shot another picture, and that that director loved working with him and would be happy to talk to me. Then Dennis called and said, “I have to play Frank Booth because I am Frank Booth,” and I said that’s good news and bad news. I had no reservations about hiring him.
To me, Dennis is about the coolest there is. He’s the rebel dream guy, and he has romance and tough guy rolled all into one, and it’s just perfect. And it’s a ’50s thing, born out of the ’50s. There’s a scene with Dennis watching Dorothy sing and Dennis cries in that scene and that was totally perfect. That’s a side of this romantic ’50s rebel thing, where a guy could cry and it was totally OK and cool and then beat the shit out of somebody in the next minute. Macho guys don’t cry now, and it’s false, really, but the ’50s had this poetry swimming through them.
When Dennis has his first scene as Frank Booth with Dorothy, I was laughing uncontrollably, partly because I was so happy. The intensity, the obsession, the drivenness of Frank—and that’s the way it was supposed to be. When people get that obsessed, there’s humor in it to me, and I loved it. He just nailed it. Dennis was Frank from the first second all the way through.
Dennis was originally supposed to sing “In Dreams,” and the way it got switched to Dean Stockwell was fantastic. Dean and Dennis go way back and were friends, and Dean was going to help Dennis work on the song and they were rehearsing. Here’s Dean and here’s Dennis, and we put the music on, and Dean is in perfect lip-sync. Dennis is going along fine at the beginning, but his brain was so fried from drugs he couldn’t remember the lyrics. But I saw the way Dennis was looking at Dean and I thought, This is so perfect, and it switched around. There’s so much luck involved with this business. Why did it happen like that? You could think about it for a million years and not know it was the way to go until you saw it right in front of you.
So we know now that Dean’s going to sing. Frank says, “Candy-colored clown” and puts in the cassette and Dean picks up the light. Patty Norris [the production designer] didn’t put that light there. I didn’t put that light there. Nobody knows where it came from, but Dean thought it was for him. It was a work light, and nothing could be better than that being the microphone. Nothing. I love it. We found a dead snake in the street around the time we shot that scene and Brad Dourif got hold of it, and while Dean was doing “In Dreams,” Brad was standing on the couch in the background working this thing, and it was totally fine with me.
I met Isabella in this restaurant in New York on July 3, and that was a weird night. Real weird. I was with Raffaella De Laurentiis’s ex-husband, and we were going to go down to some club and we had a limo. I was in Dino’s world and I flew Concorde all the time and had limos to drive around in. I don’t know how it happened. So I was in Dino’s restaurant; one thing about Dino, the Italian food he made sure was the best. So we saw a couple of people from Dino’s office sitting over there, and when we were on our way out we stopped to say hello. We sat down and I’m looking at this girl sitting there and I said, “You could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter.” And somebody said, “Stupid! She is Ingrid Bergman’s daughter!”
So that’s the first thing I ever said to Isabella, and then we started talking and in my mind I’m thinking and looking at her. I talked to Helen Mirren about playing Dorothy and she didn’t want to do it, but she did say, “David, something’s wrong. Dorothy should have a child,” and that made perfect sense. Helen Mirren is a great actress and that was her idea. There are women who wouldn’t need to have a child to react exactly the same way to somebody like Frank Booth, though—they’re kind of like victims, and with a great manipulator like Frank they could get into a place where they’d be like Dorothy. But it’s easier to understand Dorothy’s behavior when you see her as a mother protecting her child.
Isabella is so perfect for Blue Velvet—I was really lucky. She’s a foreigner in a country that’s not her own, so she’s already vulnerable to being manipulated, so that’s one thing Isabella has. And she’s got this incredible beauty—that’s another thing she’s got going. But you can see in her eyes that she could be a troubled person, and there’s a fear in there, and the combination of all those things was perfect for Dorothy. I knew she’d just done one movie when we met, but I didn’t care because I knew she could do it. People get used to seeing a certain kind of handsome and a certain kind of beauty in movies, and then you go on the street and see real faces and a lot of them have the stuff. Maybe they can’t carry a whole picture, but they can sure play a character.
There was a bar beneath the apartment where we shot the scene with Dean Stockwell called This Is It, and we went to this bar and were scouting it and they had cages where go-go girls were dancing. I met one of the dancers named Bonnie, and I loved her. The way she looked and the way she talked—she was incredible. I asked her if she’d be in the film, and she wound up dancing on top of Frank’s car, and the way she danced was perfect. And this is a found thing, this girl I met in some bar in Wilmington. I love her so much.
I don’t have it all together in my head when I get to the set. I like to rehearse and work it out, and then you show it to the DP, and, like Freddie [Francis] used to say, he’d just watch where I’m sitting during rehearsal and he knows that’s where the camera goes, and that’s sort of true. You see it for the first time when you’re on the set or on the location; they’re fully dressed, made up, and you have a rehearsal, and that’s when the idea comes to life and you kind of see a way to get it. It’s that rehearsal that’s important. I don’t do a lot of takes—maybe four, six at the most. You get a shorthand with people, and if you heard some things I say to actors you’d say, What the hell! But if you’re really looking at somebody, a different kind of communication kicks in, and actors and musicians pick up on this. It goes right in them. I don’t know why, but some little word or gesture, and the next time it’s way better, and the time after that it’s perfect.
Some local people hung around when we were shooting, but I didn’t see them. I was looking at the actors, and I don’t care about what’s behind me. In fact, if I’d seen it, it would make me crazy. I’ve got to focus and get this thing and that’s it. The rest is bullshit—it drives me nuts. I tune out everything; you keep your eye on the donut not the hole.
People get this story of what happened with Isabella’s performance of the song “Blue Velvet” wrong, and here’s what happened. Isabella learned the song from sheet music that was given to her by an old lady who was teaching her, and what she learned was different from the Bobby Vinton version. I got a local band—not fancy, but they were good musicians—but Isabella had learned the wrong version of the song. It was apples and oranges; it was all over the place. I said to Fred Caruso, “Fred, we can get this if we just keep working,” and Fred said, “David, it’s not going to work; let me call my friend Angelo,” and I fought it. I said, “I want to get this thing,” but finally I knew it wasn’t happening and I said, “Fred, call your friend Angelo.” So Fred called Angelo and he flew down to Wilmington the next day. Isabella was staying in this bed-and-breakfast that had a piano in the lobby, and Angelo worked with her there. That same day we were shooting the scene where Mr. Beaumont has his attack, and my dog, Sparky, the love of my life, appears in that scene. At lunchtime Fred brought Angelo down the driveway, so I say hello to Angelo, and he plays me this thing on his little cassette player of Isabella singing and Angelo playing piano, and I said, “Angelo, we could cut this into the film right now, it’s so beautiful. Way to go.”
I wanted “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil, for the film, and I wanted that song, I wanted it, and I told Fred, “You fucking get that thing, man,” and Fred said, “David, there are a bunch of problems,” and it was mainly money—money, money, money. So Fred said, “David, you’re always writing little things on paper; why don’t you send Angelo some lyrics and he can write a song.” I said, “Fred, first of all, there are 27 zillion songs in the world. I don’t want one of them. I want this song. I want ‘Song to the Siren’ by This Mortal Coil. I don’t think I’m gonna write things on a little piece of paper and send them to this guy I hardly know, and he’s gonna write something that will top what I want. Not in a million years. Get real, Fred.”
Angelo and Fred are crafty Italians, though, and Fred knew that if you send your lyrics you’re invested and that you’re going to have more of a chance of liking something if you helped make it. It was sort of a trick of theirs. So I was outside one night and these ideas came, so I wrote them down and sent them to Angelo, and he laughed when he saw them. He said, “These are the worst fuckin’ lyrics! They don’t rhyme and there’s no form!” Angelo is old school in those ways. But he thought and thought, and he did a version of the song he put together with a singer, but it didn’t have the quality I wanted. I told him I loved the melody but it needed to sound more ethereal. Then he brought Julee Cruise in to sing it, and they got this thing going, overdubbing again and again, and Julee just did beautiful, and Angelo did beautiful, and I had to admit I liked it. Maybe I liked it because I wrote the lyrics, I don’t know, but I did really like it.
Still, I hesitated because I wanted “Song to the Siren,” so nothing was going to come up to that, even though I really liked “Mysteries of Love.” “Song to the Siren” is sung by Elizabeth Fraser. I hear she’s a recluse and is super private, but she has got the stuff. I think it was her boyfriend playing guitar on the song, washed in reverb like crazy, and they conjured magic. It goes into a cosmic kind of thing, while “Mysteries of Love” is warmer and it’s for two people. It’s got some cosmic thing that opens up, too, but it’s warmer.
I finally got “Song to the Siren”—it’s in Lost Highway—and “Mysteries of Love” ended up being pretty perfect for Blue Velvet. You never know how things happen, and Angelo, bless his heart, he’s the greatest. He’s like my brother, and he can write music that is so beautiful. It’s fate, that’s the only way I can figure it. It’s so much pleasure to work with Angelo.
Angelo and I went to Prague to do the score for Blue Velvet, and it was incredible there. There are rooms that have certain kinds of wood and acoustics, and they produce what I call Eastern European air, and it comes into the microphone. It’s a sound and a feel, and it’s not sad but it’s old and it’s so beautiful. When Angelo and I went to Prague, the communists were still running things, and you’re walking down the street and you look into a clothing store and see beautiful dark wood shelves and there would be maybe three sweaters on them. Empty. And bleak. No one talks. You go into the hotel, there’s prostitutes all lined up in the lobby; it was fantastic. And you figure there are cameras and microphones everywhere, you just get this feeling. I’d lie in my bed and listen to see if I could hear high tones. I loved it there. We went up this one hill and looked out and it was like a Pieter Bruegel painting.
Patty Norris’s touch is everywhere in Blue Velvet. Patty is a genius with costumes, beyond the beyond. People come out of the dressing room, Frank is more Frank, Jeffrey’s more Jeffrey, Sandy’s more Sandy—it’s uncanny. Patty started with me on The Elephant Man, then on Blue Velvet she asked me if she could be production designer as well and I said fine. She thinks the same way about rooms as she does about costumes—she really thinks about it. We talked about everything, and when I would come up with something she would add stuff to it. Dorothy’s apartment—the color of it was perfect, but when I first saw the couches they were totally wrong. They were stand-alone couches and I wanted them built in. So we designed these arm things and then I loved them. Patty did a great job.
We shot film of feet walking up a flight of stairs and a hand with a gun that you see on the television in Jeffrey Beaumont’s house. We also filmed a Chair Pull to use that way, but we didn’t end up using it. You know how people have Olympics? People do running, there’s a hundred-yard dash, the 50-yard dash, the mile run, and they pass off batons. The Chair Pull is like that, like an Olympic event. You have these overstuffed chairs, and there’s rope tied around the chair, and a long piece of rope comes off the chair. The girls competing in this race are wearing prom dresses, and each girl has a chalk lane, and they’re all lined up at the starting line with the chairs behind them, and the goal is fifty yards. A starting pistol fires to start the race and whoever pulls their chair across the finish line first wins. It was a hundred degrees and really humid the day we shot this thing, and it was too hot to do it but we did it anyway, and one of the girls passed out and had to see the medic. I invented this. It’s a Chair Pull.
Alan Splet is a true sound thinker, and of course I wanted him to work on Blue Velvet. So there he was, working in his room in Berkeley, and one day he just stopped. Alan has this stubborn streak in him, and he came to me and said, “David, I can’t work on this film anymore. I can’t stand this film. I can’t stand Frank Booth and I can’t do it. It’s making me sick.” I said, “Jeez, Alan, holy smokes,” but that was it. We had half of the picture done, and I finished the sound with the rest of Al’s team.
The film wrapped at Thanksgiving, and about a week before that, Duwayne Dunham set up the editing room in Berkeley, and I got an apartment in Berkeley and we started on post. It seems like we were doing post for a long time. The first cut of nearly every movie I’ve done is usually four hours long, and I can’t remember what we had to lose from Blue Velvet. I think what I lost was a certain pace, maybe, and lingering on a few things here and there. Austin came to see me in Berkeley a couple of times. He was 3 or 4 years old. How the hell did he get out there?
I think Dino got Blue Velvet. The first time he saw it was in a little screening room in L.A. and there were maybe 30 people there. After Dino saw it he came out of his chair super happy and he was smiling. He thought maybe this could be a breakthrough film, so he wanted to screen it for a more regular crowd to see if they’d go for it. Kyle and Laura were living together on Blackburn Avenue then, and I lived with them for a while and then I got a place in Westwood. I had a few different places in Westwood—I don’t know why I kept moving around. The last one I had there I really loved. It was brand-new and I had very few things then and it had clean, empty rooms. I was doing small black-and-white oil paintings there. Anyhow, the night of this screening, which was in the San Fernando Valley, I was at Kyle and Laura’s and I didn’t go to the screening. Laura’s mom and her girlfriend went, though, and Rick Nicita was there with some other CAA agents. After the screening, Rick called from a car and they were screaming, “It’s so fuckin’ great, David, so great!” Then Laura’s mom came home with her friend and they were sitting in the dining room and they were kind of quiet, like worried quiet. The next morning I call Dino and he gets on the phone and I say, “Hey, Dino, how did it go?” He says, “I put you on with Larry,” who’s in charge of distribution, and Larry says, “David, I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s maybe the worst screening I’ve ever been to.” I said, “You’re kidding me! I got a call from Rick and he said it went great,” and he said, “It did not go great. You should read the cards. People were asked to write what they liked best about the movie and they wrote things like ‘Sparky the dog,’ or ‘the end.’ ” So Rick and I go see Dino and he was great. He said, “It’s not for certain people, but it’s all gonna be OK.”
If I remember correctly, My Little Pony and Blue Velvet were the only ones out of those 13 films he was making then that did anything in the theater. I think Dino was proud of Blue Velvet, too. One thing I admired about Dino was that when he got behind something, he just did not give a shit what anybody else thought. Blue Velvet probably wasn’t his cup of tea, but I think he was glad he made it.
I don’t know how I got to that thing of not caring what other people think, but it’s a good thing. The thing is, you fall in love with ideas and it’s like falling in love with a girl. It could be a girl you wouldn’t want to take home to your parents, but you don’t care what anybody else thinks. You’re in love and it’s beautiful and you stay true to those things. There’s this Vedic line that goes, “Man has control of action alone, never the fruit of that action.” In other words, you do the best you can and how the thing goes into the world, you can’t control that. It’s lucky when it goes good and it’s gone good for me, and it’s horrible when it goes bad and it’s gone bad for me. Everybody’s had those experiences, but so what? You die two deaths if you’ve sold out and not done what you were supposed to do. And that was Dune. You die once because you sold out, and you die twice because it was a failure. Fire Walk With Me didn’t do anything out in the world, but I only died one time with that picture, because I felt good about it. You can live with yourself perfectly fine if you stay true to what you love.
I was invited to Swifty Lazar’s Oscar party at Spago because I was nominated for best director for Blue Velvet, but I lost to Oliver Stone, who won for Platoon. I was at the party with Isabella, and people were there with their Oscars, and Anjelica Huston comes over and says, “David, I know you know my father,” because I met John Huston in Mexico. I had an art show in Puerto Vallarta and John Huston came. Freddie Francis was at this art show, too, and Freddie shot B roll on John’s picture Moby-Dick, so we talked and we had a great night. He was such a good guy. Anyhow, Anjelica says, “My father’s in the other room; why don’t you go and say hello.” I say, “I’d love to,” so I open up the door to this private room and there’s John, and at the table with him are George Hamilton and Elizabeth Taylor. I love Elizabeth Taylor and A Place in the Sun so much. That kiss she has with Monty Clift? That’s one of the best-filmed kisses ever. Grace Kelly moving in on Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window is a great filmed kiss, too.
Elizabeth Taylor presented the best director award that night, and there we are in that back room and she said, “I love Blue Velvet,” and my heart is going. I was surprised she saw it and loved it. I told her, “I wish I’d won, because when you presented the award to Oliver Stone he got to kiss you,” and she said, “Come here.” So I go over and she’s sitting down and I’m standing, and there’s Elizabeth Taylor’s face right there and I lean down and I see these violet eyes and this face and I go down on these lips and I keep going down, her lips are miles deep. So incredible. I kissed her and it was so fantastic, then we talked a little bit with John Huston and I left. I kissed her another time at Cannes. I was sitting at her table and I reminded her that I got to kiss her at Spago and asked her if I could kiss her again. I was there with Mary Sweeney, and Elizabeth called my room later and wanted to know if I was married. She liked to marry people and got married like seven or eight times, but I didn’t want to marry Elizabeth Taylor. I also kissed her at this amfAR event, then I went to lunch with her and she told me stories. That was the last time I saw her.
Excerpted from Room to Dream by David Lynch, copyright 2018 by David Lynch and published by Random House.