business

David Lynch's Weird, Wired World

With a new movie and his ambitious Web site, this Hollywood maverick continues to advance the frontiers of artistic expression

By Thane Peterson

It's bad luck for any moviemaker to be coming out with important new work just as terrorism and war are riveting the nation. It's hard for fiction to compete with reality. I just hope director David Lynch's latest efforts don't get lost in the shuffle because what he's doing is pretty cool.

Lynch has two big new projects coming out within weeks of one another. His latest movie, Mulholland Drive, has just been released, and it's one of his best ever -- a film-noir that, among other things, is a biting critique of Hollywood. Lynch's new Web site, www.davidlynch.com, also is scheduled to go live soon, most likely in early November. In development for more than two years, it could be the most ambitious Web-venture yet by a major filmmaker. If you liked Lynch films such as Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, The Straight Story, and the TV series Twin Peaks, I recommend registering at the site now so you'll get an alert as soon as it's up and running.

Lynch, 55, is an oddity among Hollywood directors. Slight, with pinched features, and a voice that has a flat twang, he seems more like a perpetually annoyed librarian. He works at an indoor-outdoor art studio near Los Angeles and he's very private. The only personal details on his resume: He was an Eagle Scout and born in Missoula, Mont. His family moved shortly after his birth and he actually grew up in Virginia, North Carolina, Idaho, and Washington. His father was a tree scientist who worked for the government and was transferred frequently.

SWEAR WORDS.

  Lynch's movies are quirky and individualistic. His sensibility is artistic rather than commercial, and he insists on having the final cut. He also writes music (some of it for his movies) and is a painter and photographer whose work has been shown in galleries.

Both of these new projects come out of Lynch's insistence on having total artistic control over his work. The first half of Mulholland Drive comes largely from a TV pilot Lynch shot for ABC. "ABC saw the pilot, hated it, and killed it," Lynch says. "They never told me exactly why." After a year of wrangling, the French media giant Canal Plus won the rights to the project so Lynch could make it into a feature film. One reason the second half of the film has a different feel from the first -- it's weirder and far more surrealistic than the beginning -- may be that it was shot 18 months later.

Furious with ABC's rejection, Lynch vowed never to do network TV again. "I've heard him swear it using profanity," says Eric Bassett, head of Bassett & Assoc., an advertising and Internet firm in Laguna Beach, Cal., that is developing Lynch's Web site. "From now on, he's only going to do the Internet and feature films. You could say the Internet is his alternative to network TV." Bassett says Lynch has invested about $1 million of his own money in the site while turning away potential investors because he doesn't want anything to compromise his creative control. However, Apple Computer and a French company called 4D have donated millions in software and technical support, Bassett says.

ON THE TRAIL OF STORIES.

  Lynch has already created three, Internet-only TV series that will be shown weekly in five-minute segments on a subscription basis. "I love the idea of being able to tell continuing stories on the Net," Lynch says. "I love that once they get started you don't know where they're going to go." Bassett says each 7- to 12-episode series is likely to cost about $5, though the price hasn't been locked in yet. The plan is for the site to post new series four times a year, Bassett says.

The first season's three offerings are a sitcom called Rabbits, a mystery called Axxon-N, and an animated comedy series called Dumbland. Bassett says Lynch did all the animation on Dumbland himself. Various experimental videos also will be posted. After each series is finished, it also will be sold on DVDs, via the site's online store. In addition, the store will sell posters, a high-quality DVD version of Eraserhead (Lynch's first feature film), and copies of unreleased short films.

For heavy-duty Lynch fans, the site also will have a members-only section that probably will be available only for a monthly fee. This will include a chat room, where Lynch expects to make occasional appearances, reproductions of Lynch's paintings and photos, and music by "Blue Bob," a group Lynch plays in. In addition, Lynch's 30-something daughter Jennifer will host a daily radio show featuring, music, talk, and listener call-ins and e-mail-ins.

MINI-DEMONS.

  Does Lynch expect the site to generate a profit? "That would be nice," says Bassett, who got to know Lynch through a high school friend and is developing the site for free. "But the goal is to have an outlet for creative freedom."

If creative freedom is what you're looking for, check out Mulholland Drive. The movie starts out like a conventional mystery: A beautiful dark-haired woman in a black evening dress (Laura Elena Harring) is being driven down Mulholland Drive by two men. The car stops, one of the men pulls a gun, and just as he's about to shoot the woman, another car rams them.

Everyone but Harring dies. Stunned and unable to remember who she is, Harring walks into town, sees an older woman leaving on a trip, and slips into her apartment. She's taking a shower when Betty, the niece of the apartment's owner, shows up. Betty, wonderfully acted by newcomer Naomi Watts, has just arrived from small-town Ontario, blond, fresh-faced, and eager to become a Hollywood star. She and the dark woman (who dubs herself Rita, after Rita Hayworth) become fast friends and resolve to uncover Rita's past.

DISTINCTIVE WEIRDNESS.

  Predictable premise, right? Not in Lynch's hands. By the time the movie is over, Rita and Betty may have exchanged destinies. The two discover a corpse that may have been Betty in another incarnation. Rita may have become a star and Betty a strung-out failure who ordered a hit on Rita. Or maybe not -- it's far from clear. At one point, evil is personified by an oily creature living behind a dumpster at a fast food restaurant and at another point by a wholesome elderly couple who turn into vicious mouse-sized demons that attack the down-and-out Betty character. This is vintage Lynch. Some critics had speculated in recent years that the director is mellowing. His last movie, 1999's The Straight Story, was a fairly conventional feel-good opus based on a true story about an ailing, 73-year-old Iowa man who decides to travel 200 miles on a rider lawnmower to visit his estranged brother in Western Wisconsin. It's a fine film, but many directors could have made it. In Mulholland Drive, Lynch moves back toward the distinctive weirdness of his earlier work, only without the sickening violence that marred Blue Velvet. If he can set the same tone on his new Web site, it too could be a triumph.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE