Beginning with David Lynch’s early short The Grandmother, Alan Splet became a long-time collaborator with the director on the complex and imaginative sound design of all the features up to Blue Velvet.
December 17, 1981 (by phone)
(First of all, I’d like to know how you first met David Lynch?)
We met at Calvin Productions back in Philadelphia in 1970, and David had come to Calvin with THE GRANDMOTHER, which he had done on a grant from the AFI. And he came to Calvin to put sound on the film – it was a thirty-five minute film but he had – it was just totally silent. And initially he was going to work with a friend of mine who was actually running the department there, and through some quirk in fate he wound up with me. And we got along real well and the film turned out really well. AFI was really pleased and David and I formed a lasting friendship.
(When you were doing the sound for THE GRANDMOTHER, how did you arrive at what you arrived at? It’s very distinctive.)
How did we arrive at that?
(How did you build it up?)
Wait a minute now. You’re talking about something we did eleven years ago.
(Yeah. I realize –)
How did we build it up?
(Yeah. What did you start with because – although a lot of the sounds are natural, there’s sort of distortion and – altered quite a bit?)
Well we – and maybe I’m not answering the question right – but we started with – most of the things, most of the sounds are from normal everyday things that we found around the company. David and I would talk about the sound, and David usually had ideas about what he wanted to do but they were very abstract. And then we’d talk about actually getting it down to concrete terms, and then we’d start scouring the company for things to make sounds with – you know, like crushing a plastic box, or in one case we used a pencil sharpener, and in another case we used a staple gun. We didn’t have a lot of stuff available. We didn’t even have a lot of equipment available there, not like we do now, because it was industrial film producers so they weren’t – it wasn’t like they had a lot of equipment around. So we often had to make do with what was there. One time we wanted to – there’s the grandmother’s whistle in the film, and we wanted that little reverb to it, and we didn’t have a reverb device – I mean, that was just beyond our means. And so we got the sound basically by rerecording the whistle through a piece of aluminum heat ducting which we just happened to find in the shop. We re-recorded it, you know, maybe fifteen times through this piece of ducting to get the sort of little bit of echo on it that we wanted. So I mean that was the way we sort of worked. Everything was improvised from the materials we had on hand.
(So they were all natural sounds you started with – you didn’t create anything electronically?)
No, no. We’ve never done that on any of David’s films. I’ve never done it on any films I’ve worked on, I’ve never used a synthesizer. You know, they’re all basically original sounds – some of the sounds of course are just from sound effects records, like there’s the sound of a babbling brook in, this is THE GRANDMOTHER. And there’s some other sounds that we – you know, thunder and things like that – that are just from a library. But a lot of the other, more unusual sounds, we made, you know, just from things laying about.
(How did you get on to ERASERHEAD?)
How did I get on to it?
(Yeah, were you with David right from the start?)
Well, after THE GRANDMOTHER was finished, David took the film down to Washington, D.C., where – which was the headquarters of the American Film Institute – still is actually. And he played the film, he ran the film for George Stevens Jr, who was then the director of the Institute, and Tony Vellani, who is now the assistant dean – in fact, I think he’s the dean actually, at the Centre for Advanced Film Studies down in L.A. And they just flipped out over this film, they loved it. So anyway, he took it down to Washington and played it for George and Tony, and they just – they loved it. And, you know, they were talking about it and they started to talk about the sound. And then they wanted to know how the sound came about. They thought the soundtrack was really good, and they were really impressed with the mix also. So then David started to tell them about me. Well, they were real excited because they were just opening up this Centre in Los Angeles, you know – where it used to be at the Doheny mansion – and they were looking for someone to run the sound department. And so, they were real interested in me having the job. Well, I resisted for a long time, but eventually one thing led to another and I wound up with the job at the AFI and David was a fellow at the AFI. So there we were. Both of us came out to Los Angeles together actually. And of course ERASERHEAD was conceived at the AFI and most of the early, most of the major shooting was done at the AFI. So, and I was there working, so I just naturally fell into, you know, working with David again on the film. And eventually I quit the AFI, but I still continued with David on the film.
(Did you just work on the sound or did you do other things on the film as well?)
Oh, yeah, I – we did everything – I mean, everybody helped out doing everything. I mean, there was nights where we’d work all night on production and I’d help, you know, do the lighting and carrying things around and, you know, help – just help-—yeah, lots of different things. Help build sets. Yeah, we all helped out wherever we could. I mean, everybody, even, you know, Jack Nance helped David with the giant baby head and did all sorts of things. Any time we ever had a shoot, you know, even often when there were shoots where there was no sound I would come down and do other things, you know, like push the dolly or, you know, if it was a complicated scene where there was, you know, maybe somebody had to run a rheostat for a light or something like that, I’d do that, you know. And everybody helped out, you know. Jack would help out when he wasn’t acting. And Jack’s wife at the time, Catherine, would help out. Everybody just plunged in and did whatever they could. It was a great sort of group effort, you know, and the lines were – there were no really sharp lines in who did what. I mean, when we – of course, when we recorded sound I recorded the sound. But even one night – I remember one night where we had – we were so short of – we needed so many functions, we were so short of people that everybody moved functions. I remember our cameraman at the time, Herb Cardwell, was running sound. I was doing something else. David was running the camera. It was like everybody shifted to another function because we had so few people to do whatever we needed to do. I don’t remember what it was at the time, but –
(Were you sort of building the sound for ERASERHEAD while you were shooting? or did a lot of the sound come after it had been finished?)
Well, a lot of the sound came afterwards. But I remember David and I, we built the sound for one scene completely very early on. I think it was because David needed to raise some more money, and we wanted to get a real finish that, you know, that had full sound and picture. So, the scene where Henry first enters his apartment early on in the film, through to the scene where he goes over to the, let’s see – no, I think we stopped at the end where he’s looking at the photograph. We went that far. We built that scene completely. We got all the sounds and we even did a mix on that section. And that was very early on, because I remember we were still shooting down at the stables at the AFI. But then we didn’t do any more after that. I don’t recall really working much more on the sound until the film was pretty much complete. I was actually – I’d been in Scotland for a couple of years, while David was struggling to finish up, the last year and a half or so, where he would just shoot like once every couple of months. And then I came back to help David finish up all the post-production. And that’s when we really got into it. We spent a whole year from summer of – what was it? 1975, I think – to the summer of ’76 – or the spring of ’76 – we spent really going through and, you know, making sound effects and laying tracks, and the mix of course. We had a real, a real push at that time too because we thought we could possibly get it into the Cannes film festival. And I remember at some very late date, David and I finally agreed to go do it, and it meant really working, you know, like almost around the clock. So for about a month and a half I was working, you know – I was sleeping in the same room that I was editing. So I would work all, you know, ’til like three in the morning, then I’d crash right away, get up the next morning, eat breakfast, go right back in and cut again. And we actually got most of the film done very quickly to screen for them. They never accepted it, but – I think it was a little too avant-garde for them.
(Can you remember any sort of details of sounds that you used? I mean, like for the baby’s voice?)
Well, see there I would have to talk to David first. I don’t know what he wants to divulge about the baby. So I’d rather not say anything relative to the baby. Because I know David’s usually very secretive about it. And I’d prefer not to say in that particular case.
(Okay. In the thunderstorm sequence – the thunder sounds very mechanical. Can you recall what was used for that?)
I think we started with regular thunder, just library thunder, but we processed it I’m sure. But, you know, it’s hard for me to remember what we did really. I can recall one interesting thing that – the opening sound where there’s a sort of presence and it kind of widens out as you move in on the planet, the egg planet. And we were kind of wondering, you know, David and I were talking about it and really wasn’t sure what to do and I just took this one presence that we had in the library, called “early morning presence”, and while we were sitting there I was sort of fiddling around with it and I just stuck it through this one third-octave graphic equalizer that I had and I started to push the – each little equalizer, each little third octave, I started to open it up, push it open. And the sound started to open out and we said, “My god, that’s it.” So it was like it – you know, you don’t know how something like that happens. You know, was it conscious? Or did it just – was it a lucky accident or what? But it was the right sound. And there it was, you know.
(So a lot of it was sort of trial and error?)
A lot of stuff is trial and error. You know, it – very rarely do we hit things the first time out. Generally what happens when David and I work is, we’ll talk about the sounds, whatever they happen to be, and then usually I’ll try to get more concrete. David usually thinks in very abstract terms, so he says something like, “Well, gee, it would be nice to have a low sound here. Let’s find –” But then we have to start, you know – what low sound? what kind of sound? And I have to start probing a little bit just to get it a little more concretized. Then when I think I’ve got an idea of what it is, I’ll try to think in terms of what I’ve got and how – you know, something I can use to make it. And I’ll try something on David. David’ll say, “Ah no, no, no,” you know. “Let’s – it should be such and such, such and such.” Then I think back and I think, oh maybe, you know, maybe I’ll do such and such, and such and such. And then I’ll approach it again and try something different. Or maybe even try a different sound, you know. Sometimes I find sounds that, on my own, that I know David’s going to like. Like, there’s a low sound in THE ELEPHANT MAN – and I got that sound, I discovered that sound about a year before and just sort of kept it away on ice, you know, sort of on the back burner. And then when David and I finally got together to work on THE ELEPHANT MAN, one of the first things I did was, I said, “David, I’ve got this low note for you that I think you’re going to love,” you know. And so I played him some of this stuff and he flipped out over it, you know. I knew he would, you know. And so some of this stuff found its way into THE ELEPHANT MAN. So, I mean, occasionally I find sounds that I know he’ll like, I sort of file them away in my head and then when we work together again on something I’ll, you know, pull them out and play them for him, you know, then get his reactions.
(Had you done this kind of sound work before you met David?)
No, no. The first time I ever did anything like that was with David on THE GRANDMOTHER. Before that I’d worked on industrial films, you know, just kind of nuts and bolts films. So it was like, meeting David was like, you know, expanding my world of film by about a million percent.
(What are you working on now?)
I’m working on a film directed by Carroll Ballard called NEVER CRY WOLF. It’s based on a novel by Farley Mowat. – The old gang. We still all know each other too. It’s funny – that period of time was so intense that really we formed lasting friendships from it, you know. It’s like, you know, we still all know each other. Catherine was up here recently and stayed with us for a couple of days. I see Jack every so often when I’m down in L.A. And of course Fred – every – when Fred comes up to San Francisco we all get together. So, it’s like, that period, that ERASERHEAD period sort of spawned all these friendships, you know. I’ve just got to say one more thing: it was a really unusual way to make a film. It’s too bad that most films can’t be made this way. It really was a real group experience, where everybody really shared. I mean, it was like a family for a while. I mean, everybody shared everybody’s problems and, I mean, we shot the film, but there was all sorts of other dramas going on too that we all shared in. And it was a really, kind of an exciting time. And it’s sad that other films aren’t made that way, you know. Most films are such a mechanical process; they come, they work on it, and they leave, you know. That’s kind of too bad. It was a very rare moment in filmmaking. It was certainly good to be part of it.