As preparations continued, Lynch began to gather together the people with whom, and equipment with which, he would give his ideas cinematic life. Because of the size of the project, it would no longer be possible for him to photograph it himself, as he had done with THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER. Lynch had met cinematographer Herb Cardwell at Calvin Productions in Philadelphia. One day Alan Splet happened to mention that Cardwell would like to get out of industrial films. “Are you kidding?” Lynch said. “Herb would be great.” So Cardwell, who died a few years after his work on the film, became the project’s first cameraman.
Doreen Small, the film’s production manager during the first year, came to the project through Jack Fisk, for whom she had worked while he was art director on a black exploitation film called COOL BREEZE. Small had moved to L.A. from New York where she had worked in an art gallery. She got into movies through a neighbour who was an assistant art director on COOL BREEZE. Fisk told her about Lynch, saying that he needed help getting props, organizing things – the sort of work she had been doing under Fisk. When she came to ERASERHEAD, no shooting had yet been done. Henry’s room was still being constructed, and it was necessary to find the “decorations” for it: the picture of a nuclear explosion which hangs on the wall; the matted substance which lies under the radiator, “a kind of sticky, oily hair stuff” found at a “kind of oil well over on Robertson Avenue.” She also helped to build a lot of incidental props. And then Lynch suggested that she ask around at the AFI to find out how to be a production manager and script assistant.
The actors whom Lynch gathered for the film all turned out to be the first people he saw for the roles. Charlotte Stewart (Mary X) came to the film through her roommate at that time, Doreen Small. Judith Roberts (the Beautiful Woman Across the Hall), Alan Joseph (Bill X), and Jeanne Bates (Mrs X) had all been members of a theatre workshop, Theatre West. Roberts knew Lynch and recommended Bates to him. Bates at one time had been under contract to Columbia, where she had made twenty-two pictures; she had usually been cast as “the dear young thing and nice young – well, at that time young – mothers,” she said. At first, she recalled, Lynch told her that she was too pretty. “She’s great,” said Lynch. “She would come in all dressed up and very stylish, come into the X’s house, and she just didn’t fit in.” But she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of putting on moles and hair, making herself, with Lynch’s help, look as dreadful as possible. “I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “I wanted to get out of doing nice ladies.” And by the first night of filming she fitted in perfectly.
Lynch’s most important acquisition for the cast was unquestionably Jack Nance who, as Henry, is the centre of the film. Yet, as Lynch put it, “We didn’t have that great an interview.” Jack Nance is a very low-key character. He speaks with a slow drawl in a soft voice with a slight smile of ironic humour almost perpetually on his lips. Catherine Coulson, at that time married to Nance, commented, “Jack is not the kind of person who gets very enthusiastic unless something really catches his imagination.” Having had experience of student filmmakers before, Nance was a little wary of Lynch. “I had done a couple of AFI projects before,” he said. “We kind of kept our distance from one another at first. He wasn’t sure and I wasn’t sure.” Lynch was “this crazy guy with a beat up straw hat and three neckties, and he started telling me strange tales.”
Nance describes himself as a Boston Irish Catholic Yankee who, as a boy, was transplanted to Texas and, as a result, spent all his childhood refighting the Civil War. Beginning as a stage actor in Dallas, he recalls as the happiest time of his life his days on the road in the Southwest: small theatres, old vaudeville houses, one nighters in small towns – the classic suitcase existence of the traveling player. Nance confessed that “I don’t take movies seriously really.” He has done a number of what he calls “Roger Corman hot rod movies and Chuck Norris karate pictures,” but only three projects which he views with some pride: a Sixties cinema verite piece called BUSHMAN, about the plight of a Nigerian tribesman who visits the States as a student during the period of student and racial unrest; ERASERHEAD; and Wim Wenders’ HAMMETT, like ERASERHEAD a film plagued by delays and financial problems.
In the end, it was something unconnected with the film which decided Lynch to hire Nance. As they were about to part company in the parking lot, Nance, who owned a Volkswagen, saw an old VW which had been fitted with a big home-made wooden rack. “It was kind of an ingenious design,” he said. “You could probably load as much on the VW as you could on a truck. I thought what a neat thing. So I said, ‘Boy, whoever built that thing must be on the ball.’ So David said, ‘Thank you, Jack. I did that and you’re hired.’” It was Nance’s enthusiasm about the rack which enabled Lynch to see a whole other side of him, a side which had been dormant during the interview.
Nance himself had a personal reason for being at least curious about the project: the script. “I was reading all of these strange images,” he recalled, “and then I got to the final scene where there’s the giant baby head. And I was struck by that because it was describing in some detail a sort of hallucination that I’d had at one time when I was very sick and running a fever. I was taking codeine, and I was in a hotel room in Great Bend, Kansas, in a blizzard, dying, and I had a terrible nightmarish kind of delirium hallucination, that when I was reading that scene I thought, ‘My god, this is exactly like that time in Great Bend.’ And then later, when he introduced me to the baby, I went, ‘That’s it!’”
It was, incidentally, Nance who named the baby. First he just called it “a little light bulb”, but then he came up with the name “Spike” and it stuck. Asked where it came from, he smiled and replied, “I think it’s on the birth certificate.”
Catherine Coulson, an actress who was to become an important member of the crew, staying with the film to the end, was originally brought in by her husband with a view to playing the part of a nurse in the film. “She was this crusty woman,” said Coulson, “and Jack said to David, ‘You should meet my wife; she’d be perfect for this part.’” Nance told her enthusiastically about Lynch, “an oddball who wears three ties and this hat. He’s built all these sets already down at AFI and he’s really quite, quite brilliant. He’s real sweet and very innocent.”
Coulson met Lynch to audition for the part of the nurse, wearing “a prim little dress and my hair back very severely.” Lynch agreed that she would be fine for the part. Then he began to rehearse Nance and Charlotte Stewart in the scene in which Henry arrives home as Mary is having trouble feeding the baby – the first baby scene in the final version of the film. And Lynch gave Coulson a stopwatch and asked if she would time the scene. She stood on a rolled up carpet, made by Lynch himself, which would eventually adorn the lobby of Henry’s building, and timed the scene “because he wanted to be sure that the film would be the right length,” she said. “Which now is so amusing to me.” If Lynch knew from the start that he was making a feature, some of the other people involved started out with the same view as the AFI: short script, short film. But even Lynch did not at that time have a realistic idea of the scale of the task on which they were embarking. “It was supposed to take a few weeks to shoot,” said Coulson. “I think the original shooting schedule was six weeks.”
As it turned out, the film would finally reach completion more than four years after Lynch started to build his sets.