David Lynch Unexpurgated and Uncut
A conversation with the legendary filmmaker on public radio
I recently had the privilege of interviewing filmmaker David Lynch on public radio’s Interfaith Voices. We discussed meditation, creativity, the role of fear in Hollywood, and Tom Snyder. Here is the uncut, unexpurgated version of our discussion.
David: Have to enjoy the smoke before the interview.
Mitch: This will be like the old Tom Snyder show; you can smoke during this.
D: Yeah, I was on a Tom Snyder show one time.
D: He’s from Philadelphia, actually we both, unbeknownst to each other, came out to California at exactly the same time from Philadelphia.
M: Is that right? Did he share your warm feelings toward Philly?
D: I think his feelings were a bit warmer.
M: Introduction: The director and artist David Lynch is often credited with breaking down the wall between Hollywood movie making and arthouse cinema. Known for projects including Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, and beyond, David is speaking to us today from his Los Angeles home. We are marking the release of the tenth anniversary edition of his book Catching the Big Fish where he explores creativity and his longtime commitment to Transcendental Meditation. David, thanks for being with us.
D: You’re very welcome, Mitch.
M: Can you begin by reading the opening of Catching the Big Fish?
D: I’d be happy to try to read that, here goes:
Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful. I look for a certain kind of fish that is important to me, one that can translate to cinema. But there are all kinds of fish swimming down there. There are fish for business, fish for sports. There are fish for everything. Everything, anything that is a thing, comes from the deepest level. Modern physics calls that level the Unified Field. The more your consciousness — your awareness — is expanded, the deeper you go toward this source, and the bigger the fish you can catch.
M: What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?
D: I’ve caught some beautiful fish, beautiful to me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, everything I’ve ever written or made so-called “on my own” came from ideas that I caught. I always say we really don’t do anything original, we just are blessed with catching some ideas. And then we know what to do, based on the idea. The key is to fall in love with that idea and then follow that idea, stay true to that idea, and then do the best you can, and lo and behold, something comes out into the physical world.
M: In Catching the Big Fish, you write that when pursuing a project of any kind, it’s critical for the project’s success to honor the idea, the inceptive idea, at the heart of it. How can an artist facing various pressures and forces stay focused on that original idea?
D: It’s very easy. When you catch an idea, you see it, and you hear it, and you feel it, and it’s very important that you write that idea down in such a way that when you read the words later, that idea comes back as complete as possible. And so, you have the idea written down, you can always read those words, or you don’t really have to all the time, you have that idea in your head, in your heart. To stay true to that, and all the steps along the way to realizing something, you keep checking back to see if you’re true to that idea. And I always say also along the way, stay on your toes because new ideas can come in; a thing is not finished ’til it’s finished, other ideas can come swimming in, some you can save for later. They don’t relate to what you’re working on now, but others, you say, “Oh my goodness, this thing was not complete, look at this idea.” And the thing jumps, and you know, you’re thankful for that idea.
M: In the ten years since you wrote Catching the Big Fish, what has changed in your outlook as an artist, or on life?
D: Well, everything is always changing they say. So one thing that is changing for sure, is that digital cinema came along. That said goodbye to celluloid and opened up a whole other thing, which gives people more control over the image and the sound and it’s a beautiful world, the digital world. Of course, when you look at celluloid and film emulsion and still-photograph emulsions, and photographs from that, it’s organic and deeply, deeply, deeply beautiful. And digital sometimes just can’t quite get that yet. But it’s still a beautiful medium for the amount of control we have over it. That’s been a big change. And then another change is, the arthouse cinema died away, and there are no more arthouses. I say now that cable television is the new arthouse.
M: When you’re working with digital, is there ever an issue with the technology or the resolution being almost too good? Is it more difficult as an artist to capture some of the mood that you want when digital video picks up just everything?
D: Well, there’s tricks that you can do, there’s so many plugins, there’s so many things to manipulate the image. You can add film grain to it, you can do a bunch of things. Digital, the way it is now, sort of catches the surface, and emulsion seemed to get in there way deeper and kind of made things alive, and I’m hoping that digital one day will get that ability to go deeper, but you can still manipulate the image to get a great mood and a great look, so it’s okay.
M: Over the past decade, you’ve spoken a great deal about your experience of meditation. Why did you originally start meditating?
D: I started meditating for two reasons. One, I heard the word “enlightenment” and I wondered if it was really true that human beings had this potential to become enlightened; and I wanted to know kinda what enlightenment was all about, if it was just an eastern thing or if it was true for people, if that was a full potential of every human being. And also there’s the phrase “true happiness is not out there, true happiness lies within,” and I wondered where the within was. And it seemed that we just think of ourselves as our body, and I wondered where in the world in the body could this thing be, and I started thinking about this phrase “true happiness lies within,” and I felt a truth to it but I didn’t know how to go within, I didn’t even know where the within was. Anyhow, one thing led to another and I found Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I learned this technique on July 1st, 1973 at about 10:30 in the morning, and I just loved that experience and have been meditating twice a day, every day since and it’s money in the bank for the human being. It changes things for the good. I’m really gettin’ sick of all the suffering and negativity in this world, and all they gotta do is get this technique, dive within, and things get really good. It happens for everybody who gets this technique and it’s time to get the word out Mitch, its really ridiculous what’s going on.
M: Inasmuch as you can describe it, walk us through the process of meditating.
D: There are many forms of meditation, everybody knows that, and some work better than others. For instance, Maharishi said, for Yogananda, who teaches Kriya Yoga, he said Yogananda brought the airplane method. I, Maharishi, bring the rocket-ship method. It’s the superhighway to the goal, and it is easy and effortless. And because it’s easy and effortless, a lot of people said “it’s a Mickey Mouse form of meditation, it’s baloney, it’s for children; the real serious guys do hard work in their meditation, twelve hours a day.” But, Maharishi’s technique, it’s easy and effortless because that’s the way you slip into the transcendent. It’s not a trying thing, trying keeps you next to the surface. It doesn’t give transcending, and transcending is the key to everything. Experiencing that deepest level, that level of bliss, of intelligence, of creativity, of love, of energy, of peace. People are tired, they’re depressed, they’re filled with tension and stress, and they make a mess of things. You picture this deepest level as unbounded light. You start enlivening that, and darkness, negativity starts to flee away. And it happens. Easily, and effortlessly. It takes about four days to learn this technique from a legitimate teacher. Someone on the corner tells you they can teach you Transcendental Meditation, say “Thanks Jack, but I want the real thing.” You go and find a legitimate teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, it’s about an hour and a half a day for four days, and then you understand the technique, you understand how to use the mantra, and you’ve got this technique for the rest of your life. All you gotta do then is stay regular and watch life get better and better and better.
M: I think part of the problem with our spiritual and intellectual culture today is that if something works, we are immediately suspicious of it. We’re suspicious of simple things. Which I think is a problem.
D: Well, it is a big problem. The proof is in the pudding, in the tasting. So, it’s difficult to describe the beautiful experience, the bliss of transcending to people who haven’t experienced it. But it’s true that there is a treasury within each one of us human beings, with Transcendental Meditation you can access that treasury easily and effortlessly for the first time and every time, and this transcendent is an unbounded field, it’s always and forever been there; one name for it is atma, meaning the self. It’s the big self, “know thyself” the line is. This is what they’re talking about. It’s a field, it’s so beautiful, so powerful, it’s a field of total knowledge, all the laws of nature are in this field; it’s eternal, it’s immortal, it’s immutable, it’s infinite, it’s unbounded, and all of everything that is a thing has emerged from this field, this fantastic eternal field. And you can experience it with this technique. And when you experience it, bliss comes in, love comes in, peace comes in, intelligence comes in, creativity comes in, energy comes in, and you start really enjoying life, and you look around and everything looks better. Your health improves, you see a bigger and bigger picture, people don’t look like enemies, they look like friends. You start getting ideas, you start thinking more positive. The things that used to stress you don’t stress you so much. Sometimes they make you giggle. You feel good, you want to buy a bunch of people coffees, you want to put your arm around people, you want to enjoy life.
M: How has meditation impacted your work as a filmmaker and an artist?
D: Okay, the ideas, as you can look at it, flow through a conduit and stress squeezes that conduit, tension squeezes it, depression squeezes it, hate squeezes it, anger squeezes it. Now a lot of people, I gotta say one thing Mitch, a lot of artists say, “I don’t wanna get a technique that makes me like everybody else, and makes me calm, and I lose my drive, I lose my edge, I don’t have any more power or any individuality anymore”. This is what I thought about. Au contraire. You get more of you. You get more energy to do the things, the ideas, there are billions of ideas and you’ll find the one you love and you’ll find ’em on a deeper and deeper level when you start expanding that consciousness. And this thing of righteous anger is fine, you can be against something, really truly against something, and fight for something you believe in. You’ll have more energy to do that. You’ll have more power, more edge to really get in and get the thing the way you want it. Suffering is the enemy to creativity, negativity is the enemy to creativity. If you’re depressed you can’t create. If you’ve got diarrhea and vomiting, as I say, you don’t feel like creating. You gotta feel good, you gotta have energy, you gotta have, you know, all these ideas rolling. We start transcending, that conduit widens out, the stress goes, all these things that have been squeezing it, they go away. The ideas start just flowing. You start enjoying things and you love the doing of the thing. Enjoy the doing. So many people do stuff but they don’t enjoy the doing of it. And I always say, that’s your life going by. It’s important to enjoy the doing of something. Jeez, Louise!
M: Speaking of the doing, one of your most acclaimed movies is Mulholland Drive, from 2001, which is a story that unfolds in contemporary Hollywood. There was a time in my life, and I’m actually re-experiencing that right now, where I thought literally every day, sometimes several times a day, about the scene in Mulholland Drive, where Adam, this hotshot director, encounters a mysterious man who asks to see him, The Cowboy. And we’re going play a short piece of that scene for our listeners. I was wondering if first, you could set this up for us, just tell us what people would see if they were looking at it.
D: Well, it’s nighttime, high up on the Hollywood Hills, in a corral where the cowboys that worked in the Westerns hung out. And Adam has to go up there. He enters the corral, it’s all dark and this light buzzes on. He turns around, and here comes The Cowboy.
M: Now, personally speaking, I find a whole philosophy of life in that scene. I think if we lived on another planet and had no information about life except for this scene, and this was all that reached us, we would make it. We would find a way to make it. What The Cowboy says informs a lot of the work that I’m doing right now about the power of thought. How do you view the power of an attitude, and do you think we’re all too busy being smart alecks?
D: Well, there’s a lot of smart aleck stuff going on these days, but, the thing is, the key is, Mitch, you can talk about people changing their attitudes and you can make laws that kinda, indicate what a good attitude is, and you should have that. But the thing is that the torment and the beliefs and the way is inside the people. And you can’t change that unless you get down on a deeper level and you gotta get underneath the problem, Einstein said, in order to solve the problem. You can’t get deeper than the unified field, that transcendent, the ocean of pure consciousness, the being. So you, you teach people Transcendental Meditation. All this negativity flies out, all the gold comes in and attitudes change, but it’s not because of some law or somebody telling you to change your attitude, it’s natural. It just changes. And people don’t, for instance, feel like blowing someone’s head off anymore, they just don’t want to do that anymore. They don’t wanna rob any bank, they don’t wanna beat their wife. You know, they might have enjoyed beating their wife last week, but now they don’t wanna do that anymore.
M: Do you believe that our thoughts are causative in some way?
D: Yeah, everything starts with thinking, thinking goes to speaking, and speaking goes to action. Like a lot of times, action, you go to kill somebody, but then that’s a little bit better way of saying “I would like to kill you,” and there’s another way where you don’t say that, you don’t do that, but you think that. And then there’s another way where you clean out all that and you don’t even think that, that thought doesn’t even come up, you’re just filled with a great, great love for everybody, for everything.
M: One of your earliest movies is Eraserhead from 1977. It takes us through the world of a man who faces strange things in life, including caring for a freakish baby. I grew up on this movie and it meant a great deal to me and to my friends. My personal outlook as a viewer, speaking only for myself, is that it deals with gnostic themes — the ancient gnostics believed that we live under a kind of ersatz or fraudulent god, not the true God, and in the movie we see a deformed deific figure pulling levers like a deformed god who creates flawed beings. You had told me back in 2006 that Eraserhead is your most spiritual movie, which absolutely blew me away. What do you mean when you use the word spiritual? What does that term mean to you?
D: Spiritual, I guess, means truthful. You know, there is, like they say, one truth. And we’re all like detectives trying to find that one truth. And there’s scientists looking all the time for truths, and they call that objective science. And what I believe is objective science will get really far down in there, they’ll really get down close to the truth. And be able to explain it. But the ultimate thing is subjective science, the last step to knowing the whole thing, happens inside the human being, and that’s the thing that is spiritual, and the truth, the thing we’re all looking for.
M: In Catching the Big Fish, you write that much of the movie business today is run on fear and uncertainty. Why is it that way?
D: Well there’s a lot of reasons. There’s this love of money, for one thing, and then there’s stress on top of that, fear of losing their job, making a profit, second guessing what the audience wants for any kind of product. It’s a world of fear and stress, and a lot of times the workplace, because of these things, is not a pleasant place at all. And people run their business on fear, so the people, the employees are afraid. And that conduit of ideas is gonna get squeezed, they’re filled with stress, they take this home, they take it out on their wife, and their kids are affected. The whole house is affected, and the kids are bringing home stress, and the wife’s bringing home stress, and it’s a kind of vicious circle. But somebody who runs a business, who gives all the employees Transcendental Meditation, and takes it for himself or herself, what’s gonna happen is that the workplace is gonna start getting happy. Stress is gonna start going. People are gonna start getting more ideas, people are gonna want to go the extra mile for the boss, and they’re gonna feel real good about helping the company, and they’re gonna come home and the kids are going to be so happy to see them, just like Santa Claus coming home, there’ll be so much happiness. And they’ll even take part in washing the dishes, maybe if they get happy enough. That hasn’t happened to me though.
M: That’ll have to be an experiment at my house. A lot of your films have haunting imagery. The Dwarf, speaking backwards, in Twin Peaks, the severed ear discovered in a field at the beginning of Blue Velvet. And I still cannot get to sleep at night when I see Robert Blake’s white-faced, grinning character from Lost Highway. What is it that scares you, personally?
D: Well, I think death is pretty frightening to people, so I guess that’s the ultimate thing, you know, suffering and death. That’ll get ya.
M: In Catching the Big Fish, you wrote that feelings of anger for —
D: In total enlightenment they say all fear goes away. That’s something very beautiful for each and every human being. Doesn’t matter, every human being has this potential. Education they say, you know, we want to bring out the students’ full potential but they’re not talking about enlightenment, they’re talking about getting them a job or something. But imagine education that truly unfolds the human beings’, the students’, full potential. That is consciousness-based education. They learn all these things that can help ’em get a job and do all that, but also they’ll learn how to dive within, get more creative, get more intelligent, get more happy, get more love, get more inner peace, get more energy, and think of the power you’re giving ’em. Put them on the big super highway to enlightenment. They’re unfolding their full, full, full potential. They get happy. Their grades go up, the fighting stops, the bullying stops, the teacher burnout stops, teachers start to love to teach again. The school gets happy, it gets blissful, students help each other out. And that school becomes like a little lighthouse for the neighborhood, they’re pumping our happiness. They say every human being is like a lightbulb, if you’re filled with negativity you blow that out like light from a lightbulb. If you’re filled with bliss and love and energy and happiness and creativity, all these things that come up when you transcend, you’ll broadcast that out. And you’ll effect the environment in a positive way. This can happen. Every school should have this quiet time program. Every school. And this is something, Mitch, you gotta get out and get happening, with your books.
M: I’m working on it. In Catching the Big Fish you wrote that you were experiencing feelings of anger at a certain point in your life, before you learned to start meditating. Do you still struggle with that today?
D: No, I’m not really that angry about anything. It’s like I say, life gets more like a game. There’s lots of people that are angry and I just say that the anger, you know, you get angry enough and it causes a disease. And there’s all these stress-related illnesses. So there’re illnesses that maybe aren’t connected to stress, who knows why those come, but you can get rid of stress-related illness by transcending every day. Stress goes away. The things that used to stress you don’t stress you so much. And the old stresses that are hooked in there like barbed wire, ingrained all through your body, these stresses, they start to dissolve, evaporate. You start felling so good, so stress-free. And stress-related illness isn’t going to get you. There’s people that things happen to and they get really, really sad or really, really angry and then a little bit down the road they get some kind of strange disease. Save yourself, get this technique, and start enjoying life.
M: Do you believe there are dark forces in the world as palpable things?
D: Yes, there are dark forces in the world, for sure; you just gotta look around, you can feel it. You can feel things going on. You might not be able to see it, but you can feel it. And we’re in a time right now where we’re kind of in a transition from a dark, dark time to a beautiful bright light, positive, golden time. But there’s a lot of negativity that’s gotta go; and there’s always been the very, very good, and the very, very bad swimming in the same sea. And it’s just a question of balance.
M: Describe for us, your perfect day.
D: Perfect day? Lots of ideas, energy to realize the ideas, tools to get the ideas done. And some very, very good coffee along the way.
M: Speaking of coffee, how do you avoid exhaustion or burn out when you’re crashing on a deadline?
D: You meditate regularly; people are very fatigued these days, and when you’re tired you do not feel good. And even if you just sit for a moment, you just start falling asleep you’re so tired. And you’re grouchy. And the world looks dark and miserable. You start transcending every day, and that fatigue starts to lift. Energy starts replacing it, and you’re wide awake, more and more wide awake each day, and its money in the bank.
M: Have you ever seen a ghost, a UFO, or something you can’t explain?
D: No, I haven’t.
M: What would you say gives your greatest satisfaction as an artist? And has it changed as you’ve aged?
D: I love working and so I need ideas to know what to work on, and I love getting ideas that I love. It’s a beautiful thing. For a long time, I didn’t have the money to, I didn’t have the tools to build something that I got an idea for. That’s very frustrating and many people are in that boat. You’ve gotta find a way to realize your ideas; there’s huge satisfaction in realizing an idea. But where there’s a will there’s a way.
M: Now, one of the big parts of Catching the Big Fish that affected me most, personally, is where you wrote about the importance of an artist having a set up: If you’re a painter you gotta have your canvases and paints ready to go. If you’re a writer, you’ve gotta be ready to write down ideas. Has there ever been a crisis point in your life where you didn’t feel you could have a set up, and you just weren’t able to actualize certain ideas — and what did you do about it?
D: Yeah, as I just told you, I didn’t have any money in the early days, and I lived on $200 a month, delivering the Wall Street Journal, but my rent was only $85 a month, I only worked five hours a week and I had a little bungalow, and I had all the things I wanted but except for canvas and paints and to do big things. So I had to do small things, like drawings instead of paintings, and even if I got an idea for a big painting, I didn’t have the money to get the stuff to do it.
M: So sometimes it’s a matter of doing things on the scale that you can afford?
D: Exactly right. And then, if you’re fortunate, you’ll find that something will come along that will give you more money to get those things you need.
M: After meditating, how does the world look differently to you? Physically?
D: The world looks better and better and better. If you’re you know, happy inside, you know, feeling good, the world — they say the world is as you are. If you’re tired and depressed and filled with stress, the world looks one way. It’s like this, there’s Thursday morning, you get up, the alarm goes off, you’re absolutely bagged. The last thing you wanna do is get out of bed, you wanna go back to sleep so bad. You’re not feeling good. You get up, the coffee is cold, somebody didn’t turn the thing on, you’re late for work, there’s nothing but traffic. You get to work; the whole place is stressed, feeling just like you. Then you oppose that with Saturday morning, you wake up, you get to sleep in, and the sunshine is going outside, birds are chirping, and you have the whole day to do whatever you want. There’s a wood shop waiting for you down there, or a painting studio, or whatever. And you just — it’s a different feeling. Everything looks good. Another example is you’re madly in love with someone, and you’re in the car driving, somebody cuts in front of you, so what. You just keep on driving happily, you’re in love, nothin’ bothers you. Somebody left you, your heart is broken. You’re so upset, you’re so distraught, you’re so tormented by this. Somebody cuts in front of you, you wanna kill the fuckin’ guy.
M: Everybody’s laughing. Can we say fucking on NPR? I guess we’ll find out.
D: I don’t know, bleep it out, sorry.
M: What advice would you give to yourself back when you were twelve or thirteen years old? If that were possible?
D: Well, I’d say don’t lose faith.
M: That’s beautiful. I know you’ve got a crunch for time, is there anything else you’d like to say to us?
M: I know you’re on a crunch for time…
D: No, you’ve done a great interview, Mitch.
M: Thank you, man. Is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d like to leave people with?
D: Well, I’d like to tell people that it’s enough suffering; get this technique for yourself, Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Get it for your family, get it for your friends, and let’s all start living together like they say in a Vedic sentence, “The world is my family.” Start enjoying diversity, start enjoying unity in the midst of diversity. Peace on earth. Heaven on earth. And get this going right away. Talking isn’t gonna do it, laws aren’t gonna do it. Watching CNN is just gonna depress you. Get this technique and get going on it right away. If you can’t afford it, because the teachers need to get paid, they’re full-time teachers, write a letter to the David Lynch Foundation and we’re trying to raise money so we can give this technique to people who can’t afford it and who want it. Get it for your kid’s school. Get it for your place of work. And start saying goodbye to suffering and negativity in this world.
M: There’s a line of verse that you sometimes read to your audiences when you speak to them. Is that something you can say to us now?
D: Sure, that’s four-line verse. I’ll say it now okay?
M: Thank you, yes.
D: May everyone be happy. May everyone be free of disease. May auspiciousness be seen everywhere. May suffering belong to no one. Peace.
M: David, thank you so much.
D: You got it, Mitch. Take care buddy.
M: God bless — be well.
D: God bless you, Mitch.
Filmmaker and artist David Lynch is the author of Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, now in its 10th-anniversary edition with interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. His groundbreaking Twin Peaks returns to Showtime in 2017.
Mitch Horowitz is the PEN Award-winning author of books including Occult America; One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life; and the forthcoming The Miracle of a Definite Chief Aim.
For the audio version of this interview, along with lots of goodies and extras, visit InterfaithVoices.org. Special thanks to Heather Brennan for transcription.