DAVID LYNCH AND THE MAKING OF ERASERHEAD
by K. George Godwin (1982)
At the 1976 Filmex in Los Angeles, a startlingly original film appeared, apparently out of nowhere. Dark and brooding, its moody black and white images slipping seamlessly from mundane reality into nightmarish fantasy and back again, it wielded a powerful effect on its audience, leaving many stunned and disturbed. Few could fail to be impressed by the assurance and skill with which the filmmaker manipulated both picture and sound to create an imaginary world of such depth and conviction.
But who was the filmmaker? And where did this film ERASERHEAD come from?
David Lynch was thirty at the time of the Filmex premiere of ERASERHEAD and he had only two previous short films to his credit (THE ALPHABET, four minutes; THE GRANDMOTHER, thirty-four minutes – both combining live action with animation). His interest in film had been slight. Unlike the generation of directors epitomized by Lucas and Spielberg, he had not been enthralled by the Saturday matinees of his childhood and filled with an ambition to recreate those thrills. His first love was painting and his work with film began as an extension of his exploration of painting techniques.
During his highschool years in Virginia, Lynch shared a studio with his best friend, Jack Fisk, and on weekends he would go over to Washington, D.C., to study painting at the Corcoran School of Art. After highschool, he went on to the Boston Museum School, which he attended for a year. Dissatisfied with that, he set out on a three year visit to Europe which lasted just fifteen days.
“I didn’t take to Europe,” Lynch recalled. It might have been different if he had “just gone to see it, but I was all the time thinking, ‘This is where I’m going to be painting. And there was no inspiration there at all for the kind of work I wanted to do.” So he returned to the States, finding himself cut off financially. He did not want to go to school and his family were unwilling to give him money.
During this period, he went through a number of jobs – at an art store; printing blueprints; in a frame shop. “And I kept getting fired from these jobs because I couldn’t get up in the morning.” Finally, while working for a man named Michelangelo, Lynch was fired again for scratching a frame – and then rehired as a janitor. This Michelangelo had a bell installed in Lynch’s apartment with which he could wake Lynch in the morning. This arrangement seemed to work well, although instead of being paid, Lynch was simply given food money. “Then he would make me show him my food, because he didn’t want me spending it on just paint and not eating. Well, I wasn’t going to do that. I mean, I was hungry!”
It was while Lynch was working as a janitor, living on peanut butter, bread, and milk, that Jack Fisk turned up one day at four-thirty in the morning. At that time, Fisk’s name was Luton; the two of them were called at the same time for their draft physical. “I never would have woken up for it,” said Lynch, if Fisk had not got him out of bed. Fisk had gone to Philadelphia after highschool to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “And out of school or in art school,” said Lynch, “you’re not in school. Art school didn’t hold any weight. So we were both called in.”
It was on the bus ride to the physical that Lynch’s friend told him about the Academy in Philadelphia. His interest was fired. He gathered together his portfolio and with a little money from his father, he took a bus to Philadelphia and enrolled in the school in late 1965.
“It was a great, great time to be at the Academy,” Lynch recalled. “Schools have waves and it just happened that I hit on a really rising, giant wave. There were so many good people at the school; it was real exciting. And that really started everything rolling. I kind of got a feeling for things in terms of painting, and my own style kind of clicked in.”
Lynch works in a number of different styles, from what he terms “industrial symphony” drawings, complex mosaics of sharply drawn geometric shapes, to action painting, in which he hurls black paint at the canvas and then adds hard edged elements amongst the spray patterns. “I do a lot of figures in quiet rooms,” he added. “I really like figure painting.
“But somewhere along the line in the painting I wanted to do an animated film.” Every year, the Academy had an experimental painting and sculpture contest. In his second year there, Lynch entered this contest with his first attempt at animation, not so much a film as a moving painting, a loop which could repeat itself endlessly. Accompanied by the sound of a siren, it consisted of six “figures”; three sculptured surfaces based on casts of Lynch’s head done for him by Fisk, with film overlapping them, and three purely film figures. “It was more like a painting,” said Lynch, with eighteen or twenty animated elements working in it. The figures caught fire, got headaches, their bodies and stomachs grew, and they all got sick.
Lynch’s experience in making this film-painting did not ignite any filmmaking passion. “That was going to be the end of my filmmaking experience,” he said, “because that cost me $200 to do, and that was just too expensive. The sculptured screen itself cost $100.” In preparing for the film, he had shopped around for a 16mm camera, surprised at the varying prices he was quoted “because I thought all 16mm cameras were the same.” He finally found a “weird” little camera with a fifty-foot cassette, “a little turret, and a real nice little Cook lens.” It also, of course, had a single-frame capability. The dealer had to show Lynch how to operate it, although even “he didn’t know how to run it really.”
“How am I going to light this business?” Lynch asked.
The man gave him two photofloods and told him to set them at forty-five degree angles to his working surface and to “look out for glares.”
The next problem arose from the camera’s lack of reflex viewing. Lynch was working on the seventh floor of an old downtown hotel which was a part of the school. That floor for a long time had been used only to store old furniture, so “it was a great place to work. It was real quiet.” He set up his makeshift animation stand, a big board which he fixed to a radiator, and taped the camera down to a dresser that he dragged in, figuring that its weight would hold the camera steady. Then, having marked the positions of the board and dresser to ensure that neither shifted out of place, he set to work animating. But because the camera had only a rangefinder, he had to set it far enough back to be confident that the whole board would be in frame. When the film was developed, it turned out that the whole board had been caught – along with a lot of the wall and the radiator.
When the film was shown, the sculptured screen had to be hung in the middle of the stage so that all the excess would simply fall away behind it.
Lynch was pleased with the final results, but because of the relatively high cost and the technical difficulties, he was not inclined to pursue film any further. “It was much nicer to paint than to make these movies,” he thought. “But this was one of those things, a crossroads, where you say, ‘Well, that’s the end of it.’ But then something happens and you say, ‘No, that’s not the end of it.’ Because this guy came along and he said, ‘I want one of these for my house.’” A commission from a rich patron who had seen that first effort at the Academy. (Interestingly, another person who saw that single screening was Jonathan Sanger, who would later be Lynch’s producer on THE ELEPHANT MAN.)
Armed with almost a thousand dollars, Lynch bought a new camera and set to work creating a new piece along similar lines – a sculptured screen with a repeating loop of animation. His patron would hang the screen, a piece of sculpture in itself, set up a projector, screw it down, and at the flick of a switch he would have a moving painting whenever he wanted it.
Lynch spent two months animating. The day came to get the developed film back from the lab and he was excited. “I opened it up,” he recalled, “and I quickly held it up to the light to see some frames – and there weren’t even any frame lines. It was just a blur.” The camera, “although a really good Bolex,” was broken. Instead of the usual intermittent action, it slid the film through in a continuous motion. The film was ruined, two months’ work wasted.
Yet this setback turned out to be a very positive thing in terms of Lynch’s work with film. When he called his backer to explain the situation, he was told to “take the rest of the money and do whatever you want.” With a little extra money from his father, who wanted only a print of the finished film in return, not necessarily with a sculptured screen. Lynch made a four-minute animated short, THE ALPHABET.
If the initial commission had worked out, “I daresay there again that would have been the end of it,” said Lynch, “but now I had this little film and this guy told me about the American Film Institute. ‘You ought to apply for a grant. All you have to do is write a script for a film you want to do and send them previous work.’” So Lynch wrote a script which was “very weird because I’d never written anything before. It was just little images and stuff, sort of like shorthand and poetry.” He sent it, along with a print of THE ALPHABET, to the AFI in Washington.
At that time, early in 1968, Lynch was still living in Philadelphia, with a job printing engravings. He was now married to his first wife, Peggy, and they were “really poor.” He was twenty-two and unknown when in the mail he received notice of the first group to be given grants by the AFI. The recipients were all older than himself, had already made names for themselves, had done things – people like Stan Van Der Beek. Lynch said to himself, “Man, I am so embarrassed that I even applied to this place. This is ridiculous,” and he just wanted them to send his film back and forget about it.
Until one day he got a phone call at work. The second group of grants had been awarded – the AFI gave them out every quarter of a year. The call was from George Stevens, Jr, and Tony Vellani at the AFI in Washington. Lynch had submitted a proposed budget of $7118 and they wanted to know, “Can you do it for $5000?” “You got it,” Lynch replied.
Later, George Stevens, Jr, told him how the offer had come about. When weighing applications, the AFI sorted the various films into categories. And this time, after they had arranged them all into their various piles, there was one little film left over in a pile of its own: THE ALPHABET. So they said, “We gotta give this guy a grant.”
Lynch now set to work on THE GRANDMOTHER, a mixture of live action and animation, black-and-white and colour. The $5000 grant was not enough, but the AFI subsequently gave him another $2200 to complete the film.
Though smaller in scale than ERASERHEAD, THE GRANDMOTHER is more audacious in its use of flamboyant surrealistic images. It declares itself forcefully as the work of an artist secure in his imagination, unselfconscious in his willingness to put highly personal, even painful images up on the screen. There is an openness, even an innocence about the film, which gives it not only a genuine charm, but also a poignancy which enables the viewer to feel a direct emotional connection with the often abstract, dreamlike images.
The film, using only images and sound effects – it contains no dialogue – tells of a lonely young boy whose parents are distant, too caught in their own concerns to pay any attention to his emotional needs. Seeking attention, the boy repeatedly wets his bed, but receives only anger from his father. Then he discovers a seed which emits a plaintive cry; he plants it in earth on an attic bed, waters it, and watches it grow into a huge root-like stump. Eventually this thing gives birth to the Grandmother (in a scene strongly reminiscent of the pods giving birth in Kaufman’s remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, a film which THE GRANDMOTHER pre-dates). The Grandmother is a kind, affectionate figure who gives the boy the emotional warmth he needs. But she sickens and dies – at least physically. What she represents still exists, but the boy is unable to see it; he is alone again, his isolation coming from within.
As ERASERHEAD would later do, the film combines mundane reality with strange fantasy; its central character feels trapped and longs to escape – a longing which takes on concrete form as dream becomes indistinguishable from reality. But where ERASERHEAD strives always to maintain a firm sense of realism within its own dreamlike world, THE GRANDMOTHER flies headlong into stylized surrealism. The emotions and mental states it deals with are fully recognizable, but the people are cast in animal, even at times in vegetable, terms. The shifts between animation and live action, the various camera techniques, including pixilation, force a constant awareness of film as a medium. It is, more than anything, like a moving painting. Where conventionally film technique attempts to be as unobtrusive as possible so that the viewer might be drawn as deeply as possible into the content of the film, here Lynch’s techniques become as prominent a part of the film as the images they convey. In this, THE GRANDMOTHER recalls the great German expressionist films, such as CALIGARI. What is surprising is that Lynch had no experience of those films prior to making THE GRANDMOTHER. He rediscovered the approach by coming to film through painting. This is an important point if one is to appreciate his work fully: the medium is not simply a vehicle for conveying the image; both medium and image are integral parts of the whole, bound to each other and subsumed to the intention of the work – the creation of what might be called “mood”.
Lynch’s intention is to use images and sounds in various combinations and juxtapositions to call up in the viewer a pattern of emotions and psychological states which together create an overriding mood, as the notes in a piece of music combine to create a symphony. His style places composition above narrative.
For David Lynch, THE GRANDMOTHER was important for a number of reasons. Although he now sees it as “innocent and sort of primitive,” like a painting by Rousseau, the experience of making it gave him the confidence in his filmmaking skills which he would need for the protracted and arduous task of making his first feature. It was also this film which put him in a position which would enable him to make that feature. When the initial grant had been running out, Lynch had invited Tony Vellani up to Philadelphia to see what had been done so far; Vellani was very impressed and okayed the extra funds. He also told Lynch about the newly formed Centre for Advanced Film Studies which the AFI had set up in Los Angeles. Lynch applied and although he did not get in immediately, he was accepted by the Centre in its second year.
Finally, it was THE GRANDMOTHER which introduced Lynch to soundman Alan Splet who was to become a major collaborator in turning the director’s vision into cinematic reality. When Lynch was making THE ALPHABET, he rented a little Uher tape recorder, which incidentally was broken and so produced certain peculiar sounds which he kept and used in the film. But he did not know how to cut and mix a soundtrack himself. He went to Calvin Productions in Philadelphia, an industrial film company. A man there named Bob McDonald cut the sound effects for him, while another named Bob Collom did the mix.
When Lynch was ready to start working on the sound for THE GRANDMOTHER, he went back to Calvin. He was already creating effects, but he wanted to work with Collom again to create more, and to use the company’s library. Collom told him, “Fine. When you get your stuff together, come on by.” But when Lynch arrived at the door of the sound department, Collom met him and told him that he was not available, that Lynch would have to work with his assistant, Alan Splet.
“I thought,” Lynch recalled, “‘Oh brother, I’m being shunted off to this assistant.’ And so there’s Alan; a strange looking guy. He’s very, very thin, and I remember he had a synthetic black suit and real short hair and a strange look to him. I shook his hand and I felt all the bones shaking in his arm. I thought, ‘Oh brother, this guy is an oddball, the squarest guy I’ve ever seen in my life, and we’re going to try to make some nifty sound effects. This isn’t going to work.’”
But Lynch talked to Splet, explaining what he wanted to do, to use the library as raw material to be played with and altered. That sounded good to Splet, who said he would gather some things together, and they made an appointment to start a couple of weeks later. When that time came, according to Lynch, they began work at nine in the morning and finished at seven or eight that evening. And continued to work straight through the next seven weeks, weekends included.
They created most of the sounds themselves, using the library to supplement their work. Although there were only five tracks, by the time they were through the reels of white leader they began with had been completely transformed into reels of solid brown magnetic tape. “And in a lot of cases,” Lynch commented, “that was very intricate cutting. Alan loves cutting little bits and taking just a half frame of this sound and cutting it in, just getting it to sync in and feel just right, all this painstaking stuff. Way more than most people would even hear.” And all that work came at a bargain price; despite week after week of long hours, Calvin only charged Lynch the in-house rate of $250 per effects reel – even though a typical ten-minute reel might contain only a half-dozen effects, while Lynch’s contained wall-to-wall sound. “So that was an awful good deal,” said Lynch. “Otherwise it would have been thousands of dollars.”
In creating the sounds, they would scour the company in search of useful materials; a plastic box to crush, a pencil sharpener, a staple gun. But Calvin being an industrial film company, there was not a lot of equipment around for the sophisticated manipulation of sound; Splet and Lynch were left to their own ingenuity much of the time. As in the case of the Grandmother’s whistle: “We wanted a little reverb to it,” said Splet, “and we didn’t have a reverb device. That was just beyond our means. So we got the sound basically by re-recording the whistle through a piece of aluminum heat ducting which we just happened to find in the shop. We re-recorded it maybe fifteen times through this piece of ducting to get the little bit of echo on it that we wanted.”
Much of their work together on THE GRANDMOTHER and the two features which followed was essentially a matter of trial and error. But it was not entirely a haphazard process; their roles were complementary. Lynch would have an abstract idea of what was necessary to aid the picture in evoking the required mood. “You have so many possibilities,” he commented, “but really you only have one sound that’s right for that scene. And when you hear it, you really know it. But before you hear it, you at least know that it’s not this. It’s a sound that kind of does this, and it’s low or it’s like a whistle, or it’s like something that starts off rough and then smooths out …” Lynch would even do little drawings to indicate the “shape” of a sound.
Then Splet, the engineer, would have the task of locating something concrete to coincide with Lynch’s concept. “I have to start probing a little bit just to get it a little more concretized,” he said. “Then when I think I’ve got it, I’ll try something on David. He’ll say, ‘Ah no, no, no. It should be such and such.’ Then I think back and I’ll approach it again and try something different.” They would repeat this process until they finally narrowed it down to the sound that Lynch wanted – at which point they would start on the next effect.
For Lynch, sound is a vitally important part of the whole, not simply an enhancement of the picture. As in his use of visual images, his approach to sound is essentially expressionistic. Lynch’s manipulation of sound transforms effects into a kind of music which serves the purpose usually fulfilled by the score, as a guide to the viewer’s emotions, but without being abstractly detached from the visual image as music is. Lynch himself sees it in terms of a spectrum, with music as “brittle” and sound effects as “liquid”. His use of sound lies somewhere in the centre, the area of plasticity where the liquid is beginning to solidify.
The collaboration between Lynch and Splet on THE GRANDMOTHER was so successful that the film went on to win prizes at the San Francisco, Belleview, and Atlanta film festivals, and the Critics’ Choice Award of a panel voting on the twelve best filmmakers to be given grants by the AFI. Also, George Stevens, Jr, and Tony Vellani were so impressed that they offered Splet the position of head of the sound department at the new AFI Centre in L.A. Although he resisted for a while, Splet finally accepted.
So, in 1970, Lynch, his wife and baby daughter, Splet, and Jack Fisk all headed for California together.
The AFI’s Centre for Advanced Film Studies was at that time located at a mansion in Beverly Hills. Its program was a mixture of classes, seminars, and practical filmmaking experience. It exposed the students to a large variety of films and filmmaking techniques, bringing in people from the industry to pass along their experience and knowledge. In those early years, it was a fairly loose situation; now it has moved to a new location in Greystone, California, has larger numbers of students in attendance, and the program is more regimented. There is now a large emphasis on the use of video systems for experimenting with film techniques, but a smaller percentage of students are permitted to actually make films in their second year than was the case in Lynch’s time. Although Lynch is himself now on the board of directors, he is grateful that the school was less formal when he attended as a fellow in the early Seventies.
“I’m thankful that I went when it was more loose,” he said. “If you wanted to learn something, somebody would be around to tell you about somebody that knew that or you could drop in on a class if you wanted to, but you could do a lot of your own work.” Lynch is not a great believer in schools, “even though they’re fun places to be because of the inspiration of other painters and other filmmakers.” There are people who can teach a lot about the forms and techniques of art and film, much can be learned in a classroom situation; but there is a tremendous amount that can only be learned through direct experience – and what is learned from teachers in a classroom can only be truly validated by that experience. The great value of the AFI’s independent grant program, under which THE GRANDMOTHER was made, was that it allowed the filmmaker to learn by doing. “You go off and you just do it,” said Lynch, “you make your own mistakes. You do your budget, get it together, and because they give you that responsibility, not treating you like an idiot, you try to do a good job.”
For Lynch, the most influential part of the Centre’s curriculum was the film analysis class given under the tutelage of Frank Daniel, former dean of the Czechoslovakian film school. A film would be screened and each student would be assigned the analysis of one aspect of it: sound, editing, camera, acting, etc. “And you would really watch the film from the editing point of view,” said Lynch, “or the sound point of view, or the music point of view. And then give your idea of how the guy thought about music and how he used music and how it fit in or it didn’t fit in with the story.” Then Daniel would sum up and add his analysis. And they would also talk about structure. All of which Lynch found invaluable, coming as he did from a painting background. “All these things registered. Even though I never really thought about it so much, I think that a lot of this stuff sunk in.” Indeed, the influence is apparent in some of the differences between THE GRANDMOTHER and ERASERHEAD; where the first is essentially a flow of images spurred by the painter’s mind, the second has a definite structure of incidents. However, despite this emergence of a narrative sense, ERASERHEAD relies on its system of images for the bulk of its power; its meaning is contained more in those images than in its spare narrative.
In applying for admittance to the Centre, Lynch had to submit previous work plus a script – as he had done in applying for the original AFI grant. THE GRANDM0THER of course constituted the previous work, while the script was a piece called GARDENBACK. As it turned out, Lynch spent most of his first year at the Centre working on that script. Caleb Deschanel, subsequently the cinematographer on such films as THE BLACK STALLION and BEING THERE, was at the AFI at that time and he introduced Lynch to a producer at Twentieth Century Fox who became interested in expanding GARDENBACK into a feature. “But,” Lynch recalled, “it wasn’t a film that was really meant to blow up. I couldn’t think in a regular enough way, with regular dialogue, to make it work for them. A lot of people tried to help me, but the bits that I liked started floating further apart and in between was the stuff I didn’t like.”
Finally the frustration became too much. Lynch went down to the sound department and told Alan Splet, “That’s it,” and the two of them walked out. They went to a restaurant and ate a big meal. And when they walked back to Lynch’s house, his wife Peggy told them that the AFI had been calling: would Lynch go back and at least talk to them? So Lynch went back to talk.
“Okay,” they said, “everybody’s gotten upset, but you’ve been calm and reasonable. Now if you’re upset, something must be wrong. What do you want to do?”
“Well,” Lynch replied, “I don’t want to do GARDENBACK. This is ruined. I don’t want to do it. I want to do this thing called ERASERHEAD.”
And they replied, “Go ahead and do it.”
One further difficulty stood in Lynch’s way. That year, a student at the Centre named Stanton Kaye had been picked out of a group which included Jeremy Kagan, Matthew Robbins, and others, to do the first feature film at the AFI, a thing called IN PURSUIT OF TREASURE. Everybody at the Centre worked on it in some way. Lynch, because of his experience in casting, was sent to Kanab, Utah, for two days which stretched into two weeks, to cast ten thousand gold bricks. He worked up to twenty hours a day in a basement with a man called Happy. This relatively expensive film project “turned out to be quite a fiasco,” said Lynch, “which almost shut AFI down.” A lot of money was spent, the film was never made, and “feature” became something of a dirty word at the AFI. There was a reluctance about giving money to directing fellows as a result.
Lynch knew that his film would be a feature, but because of his compressed scriptwriting style, his emphasis on image rather than narrative and dialogue, the ERASERHEAD script was only twenty-one pages long. So the AFI said the film would be twenty-one minutes long. Lynch said, “I think it’s going to be a bit longer than that.” “Well, okay,” they replied. “Forty-two minutes.” According to Doreen Small, who became the film’s production manager, the bargaining went a little further, with Lynch offering to shoot in black-and-white if they would let him shoot in 35mm. But given Lynch’s strong advocacy of black-and-white, such a deal would not have entailed any sacrifice.
ERASERHEAD bears a number of similarities to THE GRANDMOTHER. It too is about loneliness, fear, a longing for security, a desperate need to escape from a grim life which entraps the central character. But in ERASERHEAD these things expand to fill a whole world, a bleak, dying post-industrial wasteland. The family, however, still figures large in its scheme. But where in THE GRANDMOTHER it is distant and unfeeling, isolating the boy, in ERASERHEAD Henry Spencer finds it threatening; not simply closed to him, its interactions a mystery, but ready to actively assault the dull cocoon of his life. His marriage to Mary X does not provide him with a little warmth and companionship, protection from the bleak outside world – it brings hostility and resentment from Mary and leaves him with a demanding, insatiable child which traps him more deeply in the world from which he longs to escape.
Each apparent way out (Mary’s leaving him; the visit of a sexually available neighbour; the seeming escape into some other, outer world in the Eraserhead dream sequence), only leads him back into the trap, the failed promise of escape making it even tighter, more claustrophobic than before. At the centre is the baby, not threatening but helpless; its dependence on Henry is what holds him; he is bound by responsibility. In the end, Henry inflicts a horrible death on the baby, repudiating that responsibility, an act which shatters his world and allows him to escape to his sterile Heaven.
Judging by these films, one might expect David Lynch to be a dark and brooding figure, perhaps resembling in intensity pictures of the young Orson Welles. Or, as Mel Brooks put it, “I expected to meet a grotesque, a fat little German with fat stains running down his chin and just eating pork.” The actuality is quite different from the expectation: a “clean American WASP kid; it’s like Jimmy Stewart thirty-five years ago.”
Lynch is a friendly, rather boyish man in his mid-thirties, who appears to have stepped out of the HAPPY DAYS Fifties of drive-ins, sock-hops, and cruising the strip on a Saturday night. His speech is littered with words like “neat” and “nifty”. There is nothing in his appearance to suggest the bleak intensity of his films.
In late 1981, when Lynch finally agreed to tell the full story of the making of ERASERHEAD, he was based at Universal Studios in a large, airy office in which he was preparing the DUNE project. His desk was a litter of papers and on the wall behind him hung some modular drawings he calls “rickies”. On the office door was tacked a note which read, “Gone for a short hike for woodpeckers. D.K.L.” and on the black office couch sat five stuffed toy woodpeckers – Chucko, Buster, Pete, Bob and Dan; “the boys” (who later would be relocated to Mexico for the shooting of DUNE) – one of whom held a pencil with which, Lynch pointed out, he had scrawled in a moment of treachery the names of Lucas and Spielberg on one of the walls. It was apparent that the man had a sense of humour, but he hardly seemed disturbed. And the childhood he spoke of was almost idyllic.
“When my parents saw THE GRANDMOTHER,” he said, “they were very upset because they didn’t know where this came from. I had a sort of golden childhood.” Born in Missoula, Montana, January 20, 1946, into an “extremely happy” family, his memories are of blue skies, red flowers, white picket fences, and green grass, with birds chirping in the trees and a plane droning overhead. He would take afternoon naps and watch red ants crawling on the cherry tree. His parents never argued, he got along with his brother and sister. His toys were all new, paint gleaming, and he wore “clean little corduroys”. All his grandparents got along and when they visited in their nice Buicks they brought treats. A general aura of happiness suffuses Lynch’s memories of those days. “And I think what happened was that I went to a big city and it scared me.” He began to sense that what he knew was only a small part of the “real world” and that the rest of it was not quite so rosy. “And,” he said, “it was real frightening.”
The idea of the city as a frightening, alien place runs through ERASERHEAD. But if Lynch is to be believed, this is not the calculated expression of an idea. He speaks a great deal of feeling and intuition, indeed he seems to distrust words to some degree and although highly articulate, he claims that “I can’t talk about things so well.” Again, much of this stems from his painting background. He thinks in terms of visual images and there is a fear that translating those images into words will at least partially sterilize them by pinning down only a fraction of the meaning they convey. By refusing to verbalize he can leave the images largely uninterpreted so that they maintain their original power, their multiple associations which might vary widely from viewer to viewer. Lynch will not even say how he interprets ERASERHEAD, what he intended to say with the film, because to him it is like a Rorschach test and every viewer’s interpretation is as valid as his own; he does not want the film to be pinned down, its meanings fixed by an “orthodox” interpretation.
Even during production, he did not tell any of the cast or crew what he was trying to say with the film. “He would give me little clues as to what it meant,” said Fred Elmes, the film’s second cinematographer, “or how this related to that. He gave me enough to keep me involved, to keep me hooked with it.” But Lynch would deal chiefly only with the surface level, the physical expression of the image. “You can do a whole lot of stuff scene by scene,” said Lynch; “if it has resonance in different levels, you can talk mainly on this level and if it’s true” the validity will carry into the other levels. “But you don’t ever have to really talk about this.” Everybody who worked on the film accepted this and trusted that what they were doing was far more than just a film school exercise. “Everybody seemed to tune into what it was that we were doing,” Lynch commented, “and we never really sat down and did any heavy kind of intellectualizing. Like Jack (Nance) says, ‘We’ll leave that to the smart guys back east.’”
Nonetheless, it is possible to see where the main impetus of the film came from. As Lynch himself said, “ERASERHEAD is the real Philadelphia Story. Philadelphia itself was a place I never wanted to go to – ever. It was really a frightening city. There’s an atmosphere in every place that you go. And it’s hard to imagine the atmosphere, but once you’re set in it, you say, ‘I see what you’re talking about.’” In Philadelphia “it’s mainly an atmosphere of fear, just all-pervading fear.”
Lynch was an art student living a hippy existence before hippy times. “We lived in strange ways and strange parts of town,” he recalled. But the hostility between police and hippies had not yet surfaced. “One time I was walking around at night with a stick with nails driven through it and a squad car pulls up alongside of me, and he says, ‘What’ve you got there?’ And I showed him this stick with nails driven through it. He said, ‘Good for you, bud,’ and took off.
Lynch lived in an industrial area, virtually deserted after dark but for occasional echoing footsteps and the odd passing car. It was little narrow streets and tall buildings without lights. Brick and soot-covered windows. Underpasses and railroads. He lived kitty-corner from the city morgue, a few blocks from where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. And next door was Pop’s Diner, where Pop lived with his son, Andy, and another man who had little dogs. “You know how ticks fill up with blood?” Lynch asked. “The dogs were like that, totally ready to burst, like water balloons with legs. Everybody in Philadelphia, the people that lived there, especially in these areas, were extremely strange. All this started taking its toll.”
He lived in Philadelphia for five years. He met and married his first wife there and their daughter, Jennifer, was born there. And all that time, he was poor and struggling to survive. Whatever fears and tensions he might have felt through those years emerge in the densely compressed images of ERASERHEAD. But the film should not be seen as simply a bizarre autobiographical piece. Lynch is an artist, not a reporter. He himself is not present in the film. He has essentially gathered together a number of psychological states related to the city, to fear and isolation, and embodied them in concrete images which will stir up in the viewer echoes of any of those states which he may himself have experienced.
For all the reality which Lynch gives to the world of the film, it is obviously not a realistic film. What Lynch does is to distort what is familiar; at first one perceives it as strange, but as one gradually comes to see its familiarity, one is forced to reevaluate what is usually accepted without question. By showing us the familiar in the strange, he makes us aware of what is strange about the familiar. Normalcy is a habit; but what is normal to the people of ERASERHEAD’s world seems strange to us. Yet they view it all with the same habit of acceptance that we ourselves have in relation to the “real world”. Thus we become aware of the habit itself as a distinct part of our own experience. In the film’s world our own rules no longer apply; we have to seek out the rules by which this new world operates, and so become aware again of the rules we have come to take for granted. If people do not really act as they do in the film’s world, by what rules do people really act?
In seeking the rules of the film’s world, we begin to take notice of any and every little detail; is this, we wonder, significant? Lynch himself finds the extent of this searching both surprising and amusing. Early in the film, Henry puts his right foot in a mud puddle, but when he gets home it is his left foot which is wet. The viewer takes note of the fact and wonders if it means something. In this case, Lynch laughed, “that’s accidental. Both socks were wet, but we couldn’t remember which shoe went in the puddle. You know, it’s hard to believe that someone looks at your films so closely.” But in the world of ERASERHEAD, the viewer has no choice but to search amongst all the details for what is significant.
By shifting the familiar, what we call “reality”, a few degrees over, Lynch knocks us off balance and the resulting uneasiness forces us to reconsider what we normally accept without thinking about it. We discover that the frightening, claustrophobic world of ERASERHEAD is not so different from our own experience as it first seemed. Lynch essentially just gives an external concrete form to familiar mental states: the baby which entraps Henry becomes an insatiable monster; fear of sex becomes a parasitic disease in the form of “foetuses”; the longing for escape into a comfortable security becomes a strange sterile heaven.
Given approximately $10,000 by the AFI, Lynch had to be very careful if he was going to see his film to completion. Yet at the start he had no idea just what a long haul it was going to be. Early in 1972, he began to make preparations. Below the main mansion at the Centre, there was a cluster of stables, garages, quarters for maids and mechanics, and a huge hay loft, plus a greenhouse and the grounds around it. It was there that Lynch established what amounted to a small studio. “We had,” he recalled, “about five or six rooms and this giant loft where all the other sets were built; a miniature soundstage and studio.”
The set-building began immediately, with Lynch being assisted by his brother, John, and Alan Splet. For $100, he had bought a lot of flats from a studio which was going out of business and these were used again and again. When one set was done with, it was taken apart and the pieces used to build another. The same area of the loft served for the pencil factory, the pencil company front office, the lobby of Henry’s building. “All these rooms were the same space with different sets built in it,” commented Catherine Coulson, the film’s camera assistant. “And now I work on union films and I see these art departments with ten people doing the same thing, not quite as well sometimes. David really pretty much did everything himself. He has tremendous energy; he can just go and go and go for something that interests him.”
Lynch derived a lot of pleasure from this work, building a wall out of papier-mache and finishing it so that it looked as if it might be “forty feet thick, but it’s only a sixteenth of an inch thick. That’s what I loved about the whole ERASERHEAD thing; faking it, but still taking the time to get it right and get the mood.” Yet, if a set cost thirty or thirty-five dollars, it was counted expensive.
The baby was also created during this pre-production period. An alien, reptilian creature, little more than a head attached by a thin neck to a soft, shapeless body, it is not so much a deformed human as a perfectly formed “something else”. The illusion of life which Lynch managed to instill in the creature provides the film with much of its power. But Lynch, always reluctant to discuss technical matters, particularly in the area of effects, flatly refuses to discuss the baby, even to the point of declining credit for having designed it. “In a way,” he commented, “nobody designs anything. All these shapes are found in nature, something like archetypes that everyone can relate to even if they can’t intellectualize why.” Lynch talks a great deal about being something like a channel through which ideas and images flow. If asked where he came up with some detail – like the bowl of water in Henry’s drawer, or the X’s vegetable grandmother – he replies, “I can’t even take credit for these things. When you get an idea and you go with it and later on you find out that the proportions were correct, you can’t really take credit for it because it’s happening so much out of your control. If you let ideas flow, they flow, and you get them when you need them.”
But Lynch’s reluctance about talking of the technical aspects of the film is as simple as Ray Harryhausen’s reticence: a feeling that explaining the magic act destroys the illusion. The baby in ERASERHEAD seems appallingly alive; but to reveal how it was done – “it’s all logic and common sense anyway,” said Lynch – would reduce it to a simple technical accomplishment, knowledge of which would strip away much of its effective power. As with Harryhausen’s animation, the principles could be found with a little effort by anyone who wanted to devote the time to the problem; but Lynch himself refuses to undercut the effect he so painstakingly worked to create. He prefers to leave people wondering because their interest may bring them back to the film again and again.
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.
Lynch began by rehearsing all the major scenes. “He worked very meticulously,” Jack Nance recalled. “Every reaction and every look and everything that was happening inside Henry’s head – we had to get into that in great detail. I don’t think it was analyzed. We had these long strange conversations, skull sessions, and things would reveal themselves to us a lot as we were going along. Lynch is really wonderful at drawing images. He doesn’t have a theatrical background; he has an art background. He can communicate with actors. Actors react to imagery. They see themselves in the big picture and so the best directors always give very visual kinds of images that you can work with. Lynch is just great at that.”
Of working with actors, Lynch said, “I like an actor that I can talk to and get what I want from. I don’t want to say, ‘My way,’ and not listen to anybody else’s point of view. If somebody does something that is super and it works, I hope I’ll be able to see it. But if they’re doing something that doesn’t work – I know the rest of the film and the way it’s going and this is wrong – they’ve got to be able to do it so it’s right. Otherwise you just turn them loose.”
As the production progressed, everybody seemed to develop a sense of the rules of the world Lynch was creating. “Because the rules were so strong and the world was so real to us,” said Lynch, “it was real easy to tell when you were doing something wrong.”
“Sometimes we didn’t know what was happening,” Nance commented. “I remember one particular shot, a very simple, quick shot. I was supposed to say, ‘No kidding,’ or something and turn and walk away. And we worked on it take after take after take, a whole reel of film. Herb Cardwell, the cameraman, had to change magazines, so he just opened up the magazine and started throwing the film out on the floor, and he said, ‘Well, at least we won’t have to look at that shit in the screening room.’ For some reason, it didn’t work. It played all right, but there was something that wasn’t there. We had a lot of that; unless we knew exactly what was going on in Henry’s mind, it was no use cranking up the camera.”
“Henry is a total blank,” said Lynch. “When Jack had any kind of expression, it was wrong. The more he could empty out, the closer it got. I just consider myself super fortunate to have had Jack. There’s no other person, in my mind, that could ever do it.”
“Henry was very easy,” according to Nance. “It was like putting on a comfortable suit to put on that character.” In fact, “I would put on the suit and the tie and there was Henry. In spite of the fact the world in ERASERHEAD is strange and very bizarre and Henry is a very bizarre character, the fact is he was just a regular guy. A real ordinary joker.”
Like any ordinary workaday guy, “he was fairly responsible, held down a job, and got along in the world. He had his own ideas of what was cool. He had a haircut that he probably thought was cool and he probably thought that the white socks with the suit was kind of flashy. And he had hip taste in music.” An ordinary everyday guy in an ordinary everyday story: “Happens all the time. It’s basically your boy meets girl story.”
By the time shooting began, on May 29, 1972, Catherine Coulson, who as Nance’s wife had often been present during the rehearsals, had been absorbed into the crew. Lynch would make suggestions: “Well, since you’re going to be here, would you like to maybe hold the boom or push the dolly?” There were so few people involved that quite quickly any distinctions between jobs broke down. Everybody simply did what they could whenever necessary. Soon Lynch suggested that Coulson take some production stills, so Cardwell taught her how to do it. She held the boom and pushed the dolly a few times, and began to learn about lighting. “I started learning what inkies and babies and 2Ks were,” she recalled, “and how to hang them.” When it became apparent that bringing in take-out food was not the best way of feeding the crew, she began making dinner for them all. “We had a little hotplate and a frying pan and we just made every meal. By the time we were really in the thick of it, we were making breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That sort of took care of my nurturing self, and then my art self was also getting satisfied by doing these other jobs.”
After the first few weeks of shooting, the original camera assistant left the film. Coulson was drafted. “lt was a scene with Henry in the hallway,” she recalled, “walking down the hall toward his room. Herb said, ‘This is the follow-focus knob and as he walks toward us, you have to hit the number on the lens how many feet away from the camera he is.’ So he taught me how to tape off the hallway and then he said, ‘As he comes forward of course, you turn the knob faster.’ That was really my first instance of doing what I later found out was a highly technical job!”
“The day shooting began, a number of AFI people – Frank Daniel, Tony Vellani , and some others – looked in at the stables,” Lynch recalled, “and kind of peeped in and sort of smiled. And then they left.” They also watched the first dailies, but “they never said anything about either one. They thought everything was under control.” This was in part because both Herb Cardwell and Alan Splet were very experienced men, in part because everything looked so good; sets had been built at the AFI before, but none so complete as these. Lynch and Splet had devised very effective sound blankets, using fibreglass insulation in burlap bags to cover all the walls not in a shot, which resulted in their obtaining extremely clean sound. “lt just looked like we were really rolling,” said lynch. “And we were.” But another factor to which he attributes the lack of interference from the AFI was the fact that they felt placatory towards him after the failure of GARDENBACK. And, of course, they were busy with the running of the school.
Because the grounds, garages, and greenhouse were also used by the Beverly Hills parks department, the area was very noisy during the day, with trucks and equipment coming and going. It was decided that they would shoot on a night schedule – a decision also influenced by Lynch’s own preference for working at night. This enabled members of the crew to do other jobs at the same time: Splet had his position as head of the sound department at the AFI; Coulson would work as a waitress during the day. It made for a strenuous life, Coulson recalled. “I always say I met David as a young woman and by the time I finished ERASERHEAD, I had aged. We worked long hard hours.”
Yet Coulson said that her only real regret about the film was that she did not get the credit: “Mr Nance’s hair by …” In truth, though, the concept for Henry’s hair-style was Lynch’s – as indeed almost every detail in the film belonged to Lynch, the crew serving to execute his highly specific designs. Of course, some of the credit in this instance must go to Jack Nance’ s hair. Lynch wanted Henry to have it “short on the sides, tall on the top.” What he had in mind was just a couple of inches. Nance had his hair cut in preparaticn two weeks before the start of shooting, allowing it to grow back out a little. When the first night of shooting arrived, Coulson teased it, getting, she said, “a kind of maniacal pleasure from back-combing his hair.” Lynch was in another room at the time, and when he entered he found the crew all laughing. “They thought it was totally ridiculous,” he recalled. “Obviously it was going to have to be cut down.” But Lynch’s instincts told him that this was the genuine Henry look – straight up five or six inches. “‘By god, that’s it.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘No, we’ve got to do this. This is unbelievable.’ And in a couple of hours it literally became ordinary.” Lynch considers himself very lucky in having found Nance. “How many people’s hair would do that?” he asked. “And he was a dream to work with.”
“One of the hardest things,” Coulson recalled, “was keeping Jack’s haircut all those years. When he wasn’t shooting for a long time, he would let it go, but then poor Jack would have to have another haircut before starting to shoot again. My family didn’t know him any other way really, except with that goofy hair, which he would try to comb down. But it really never looked very good. We have a lot of family pictures at Christmastime with Jack with this goofy haircut.” Coulson herself learned how to do the cut when the trips to the barber became too expensive.
The first scene to be shot that night was Henry’s visit to the X’s, where Henry sits awkwardly on the couch beside Mary and has a “conversation” with Mrs X. “So, Henry,” she asks, “what do you do?” “Oh,” he replies, “I’m on vacation.” Despite the peculiarly unnatural pacing Lynch wanted in the dialogue, the sense of disconnection between question and response, the actors had no difficulty in establishing the relationships between characters. “It didn’t cause any kind of problems with ‘what you’re saying has nothing to do with what I’m saying’,” Nance recalled, “because that’s what we were doing.” What was required from the cast was essentially straightforward because Lynch could convey so clearly to them just what was going on in this world.
The first shot of the production was done in a single take.
From May 29, 1972, shooting continued quite steadily for almost a year. During that time the concept of the film went through only one major change from Lynch’s original conception. Most of the ideas had already been developed before shooting started, and the film was to remain faithful to them through to the end. In part this derives from Lynch’s refusal to analyze; he believes in allowing the subconscious to shape his work with as little interference as possible from the conscious. “I think that’s part of these rules,” he said. “You try to stick close to that original thing, unless it really starts feeling wrong, because that idea came with some power to it. You’d be closer to the truth of something if you try to be true to those original ideas.” Because he had essentially unlimited time, no outside interference, and the complete confidence of the cast and crew, Lynch was able to maintain that integrity; he was never required to explain what he was doing and so was able to keep as much of the subconscious purity of the images as was possible. But if other concepts emerged during the filming which seemed valid, he was ready to incorporate them. “You could say, ‘Well, gee, that makes it totally different.’ But the thing is, the film isn’t done ’til it’s done.” What happened during that first year was a certain lightening of the film’s mood.
“It was much less of a dream,” said Doreen Small, “and much more of a nightmare when we began.” At that time, said Small, Lynch smoked a lot of cigarettes, drank a lot of coffee, and woke up in a foul mood – “we used to rotate who would wake David up.” Jack Nance recalled that Lynch could be extremely temperamental if things were not going just the way he wanted. But then he took up meditation.
“I had everything going for me,” Lynch explained. “I was supposedly doing what I wanted to do more than anything else: making films. I practically had a little studio and we were working – and I just wasn’t happy. I was real innocent in metaphysical things and suddenly someone mentioned meditation. And I knew it was for me.”
In the original conception, Henry’s longing for escape had no object. The film would end with the killing of the baby and the disintegration of the world. But as Lynch pulled himself out of his personal gloom, a little light penetrated the world of ERASERHEAD. “One day,” he recalled, “I was sitting in the food room and I just drew this little lady, and little foetuses were falling out of her. And I wrote the lyrics for the song ‘In Heaven’. And I thought she would live in the radiator, where it’s nice and warm, and this would be a real comfort for Henry. So I went running into this set which was just across the hall and I looked at the radiator and, lo and behold! there was this little square in it. It was perfect. And not only that; we had shot scenes with Henry looking at the radiator two different times. There was no loss and there was nothing extra we had to shoot. It fit in perfectly.” So Henry’s longing was answered by Lynch’s subconscious and an entirely acceptable “happy ending” appeared virtually out of nowhere.
For all his confidence in his vision, his assurance in handling cast and crew – even with long-time professionals like Jeanne Bates, he “did not doubt for a moment that he could tell them what to do,” according to Doreen Small – Lynch did have what he termed “an insecurity thing.” Its detrimental effects were cleared up by the meditation, but it also showed up in a number of other ways, like the old straw hat and three ties which he wore at that time. “I still like to have my collar buttoned,” he commented. Lynch, said Jack Nance, “is the most ritualistic person I know. Even coffee used to be a ritual. ‘Jack,’ he’d say, kind of excited, ‘let’s have our coffee now.’” Lynch has a daily routine of giving himself a little treat every afternoon. “For a while,” Nance continued, “it was grilled cheese sandwiches, the same time every day. He tried a number of things before he settled on Bob’s shakes.” Lynch’s dedication to the chocolate shakes at Bob’s Big Boy is now widely known.
The most positive aspect of this side of Lynch’s character appears in the meticulous way he works, the careful planning, the painstaking attention to the smallest of details. “He had very precise ways of doing things,” said Catherine Coulson. “I started helping him in the afternoons to build things. The first thing I had to learn was how to wash paint brushes. And I remember he taught me how to hammer.”
Fred Elmes, who joined the film after nine months of shooting when Herb Cardwell had to leave for financial reasons, told of coming on to the set without knowing the already well-established ground rules. “Everybody,” he said, “knew where everything was and what everything was and how David worked – what to do and what not to do. So I went into it the way I normally would, which is to, in a very quiet way, take charge of what needs to be done and to do it myself. In the case of ERASERHEAD I really had to do it myself because there was nobody else to tell to do it. We were doing a closeup of the baby and David had looked through the camera and lined it up and it was all ready to go. And I went over to the table and I moved this little prop over so that it was not hidden so much by something else. And Catherine turned to me and said, ‘Fred, we don’t move things on that table.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s just that it was blocked and I wanted to see it more clearly.’ And she said, ‘Well, David has never moved anything on the table.’ So I put it back,” he laughed. “Heaven forbid David should see!”
Lynch’s fastidiousness extended to care of the budget as well. But as tight as the money was, he was determined that no one should work for free, so he insisted on paying everyone a small stipend – although Herb Cardwell, during his tenure, received a true salary. “David was kind of wonderful,” Jeanne Bates recalled. “He was very conscientious about wanting to pay the actors a stipend. That was one of the things that was kind of dear about him.” The people involved accepted the small sum because they knew that it mattered to Lynch and they cared about what they were doing. “It was a real artist’s film,” said Coulson, “a film being made by a wonderful human being who I think is quite a genius.” He had a clear, strong vision tempered with enough consideration to let people help him to realize it, but always with enough ego to make it very clear that it was his film. It was rewarding to work with him, Coulson asserted, “because you knew he wasn’t ripping you off. He has the ability to jump into the other person’s place and be compassionate and loving. I had worked on other AFI films where it was just assumed that the actors and technicians worked for free, but David took his initial money from AFI and paid everybody. And I was making $25 a week, but when we ran real low on money, we cut everybody’s salary in half, and I was making $12.50 a week. Which of course I always put back into the food. We would all kind of pool our money to some extent. I never felt that it was right any other way. It really did seem like our film, even though it was David’s film. There was a sense of collaboration.”
There were of course ways to get around such a tight budget, at least in some areas. Lynch would send Doreen Small out to swap meets and such, to see what she could find in the way of knick-knacks. The more bits and pieces, the better; it gave him more to choose from when dressing the sets. “She got a whole box-load of these things for $5,” he recalled, “and she got an electric fan that I really liked.” Then there was the little duck which floats in a bowl of water as the X’s dining table centrepiece, and the tailless mounted fish on the X’s wall.
The Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries proved a useful source. “Henry’s whole wardrobe was gotten at Goodwill,” Lynch recalled. “It was like we were going shopping, and we got his shoes and his socks and his pants, his penholder and all his pens, and got him all geared up with his little tie tack and his tie. And we got Bill X’s hat and some neat things for his belt.”
Another valuable source was Catherine Coulson’s aunt, Margit Fellegi, a flamboyant designer of bathing suits who lived in a big seventeen room Beverly Hills house “and had years and years’ worth of stuff. She loved David,” said Coulson, “and really supplied a lot of props.” She gave them the vaporizer for the sequence of the baby’s illness and some old worn sheets for Henry’s bed. “One of the first jobs I had,” Coulson recalled, “was dying these sheets so that they weren’t ‘white’ white. We were shooting black and white and you don’t want to have ‘white’ white. So I was dipping them in tea and coffee to make them the right colour.” Aunt Margit also supplied the old, ragged blanket which covers Henry’s bed. This was a source of continuity problems because, like Jack Nance, the blanket aged during the years of filming, gathering more and more holes.
Nance and Coulson even gave up their living room furniture for the film. It appears in the lobby of Henry’s building. “When we would give something up, it would be gone for months,” said Coulson, “because we would have to take it so slowly. It wasn’t because of any kind of inefficiency, just because the job was being done basically by a couple of people.”
One of the biggest strokes of luck Lynch encountered came when a friend mentioned that the studios threw out a lot of sound stock. “To them it’s really nothing,” Lynch said, “but to us it was pure gold. So we were going around in the trash at Warner Brothers and we filled my Volkswagen with raw stock. And Alan got it all into nice big reels with very few splices in them and he degaussed them all and we had all the raw stock we needed.”
They began working on the sound early in the production. When it became apparent later in that first year that the initial money would be insufficient, one of Lynch’s efforts at fund-raising involved bringing in a producer to show him what had already been done, in the hope that the man would put some money into the project. Among the mass of loosely edited footage was one scene which had been finalized, complete with sound; the first part of Henry’s visit to the X’s. “We wanted to get a real finish,” recalled Alan Splet, “full sound and picture. We built that scene completely. We got all the sounds and we even did a mix on that section.” The plan, unfortunately, did not work out as Lynch had hoped. The producer “got real upset,” according to Lynch, “and he started giving me and Tony Vellani a lecture on filmmaking.”
Jack Nance described the scene: “The guy blew his stack. He was enraged, he was offended. He went storming out of the screening room, and he was yelling, ‘People don’t talk like that!’ He said, ‘Look, I know people and people don’t act like that! You people are crazy! People don’t talk that way, people don’t act like that. What do you think you’re doing?’”
“He didn’t put any money into it at all,” Lynch concluded, adding wryly, “So there were indications that it was not going to be a blockbuster, that a lot of people weren’t going to be able to relate to it.” He recalled another incident: to all the people involved with the film, Henry’s bizarre world seemed quite ordinary. But “one day we took Henry down to these oil tanks to get a shot, and he was all dressed up, with his hair up and all that. And as he was getting in the car, some secretaries came by and saw him.” The looks on those secretaries’ faces suddenly brought back the strangeness Lynch had experienced the first time he had seen Henry.
At one time or another, everyone on the film was struck by this contrast between the standards which the ERASERHEAD crew accepted as normal and the more general standards of the uninitiated. It was common practice when some technical problem arose for someone to call around the studios asking for advice. Catherine Coulson found herself with the task of finding the right substance to flow out of the dying baby at the film’s climax. “I remember calling the Universal special effects department and saying, ‘Do you have any suggestions as to how to fill a room full of mush?’ And in my perspective that was a rather normal question to ask.” The recipient of such a question would often find it rather peculiar.
Coulson recalled another such incident: “One time when David was editing the film a friend of mine was working next door in another editing room (at the AFI), and she got a call one night from David and Alan, asking, ‘Do you have a radiator in your room?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And they said they needed the sound of a radiator. And she said, ‘I don’t know if it’s that kind of radiator.’ And they said, ‘No, no. We don’t need the sound of a radiator hissing. We need the sound of somebody jumping off a radiator.’”
One area in which cutting corners would have been seriously detrimental was the photography. “We were shooting in black-and-white,” commented Jack Nance, “and it was going to be really good black-and-white,” the best they could make it. “It was a very slow, time-consuming process. All of the lights had to be very meticulously placed.”
The use of black-and-white was dictated more by choice than by necessity. (Lynch would make the same choice again seven years later when he began work on his first commercial feature, the $6 million THE ELEPHANT MAN.) Why this preference for black-and-white? “I’ve been forced to think about this because people ask me,” he said. He has come up with two reasons. “One, I think black-and-white makes things seem not so normal; because we’re used to seeing in colour, it removes you one step from a normal feeling. It makes it easier to go into another world or to go back in time.” And two, “it seems to me that it makes you see more clearly. To me, a frame in black-and-white is purer than a colour frame.” The black-and-white image is more schematic, less chaotic. It allows the filmmaker far greater control, more unity within the film – there is less discontinuity between interiors and exteriors. “It’s less distracting. You’d probably be more apt to see the character and hear the character in black-and-white.”
“I learned a lot from David,” asserted Fred Elmes. “I had done black-and-white films as a student, and always kind of looked down on it; we shot in black-and-white because we couldn’t afford colour mostly. That’s the way I looked at it. But with David I learned to really appreciate all the possibilities of black-and-white.” Born in New Jersey, Elmes had studied still photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and then had gone on to the graduate film school at NYU, which had confirmed for him that he really wanted to be a cinematographer. While a student, he had shot things on the side – some documentary, some dramatic, occasionally working as a camera assistant. After a few more years in New York, he had decided to head for California and the AFI seemed like a safe way to make the transition: to be a student again. However, there was not much for him to shoot at the AFI; the older cameramen got most of the available work. But when it became apparent that Herb Cardwell would be leaving the ERASERHEAD crew before the film was finished – his commitments allowed him to work on it for only nine months – Tony Vellani introduced Elmes to Lynch.
“David came up,” Elmes recalled, “a warm handshake, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And we chatted for a couple of minutes, then he took me in to see dailies. They had selected a couple of reels of film to give me a feel of what was happening, to see if I wanted to be involved. And they started with the real tame stuff; Henry in his room, walking outside and so on. And then they got to the baby, which they saved for the end and, god, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was bizarre, but captivating at the same time. I just didn’t know what I was getting involved in. But I really was hooked right from the beginning.”
There was no difficulty in maintaining visual continuity. “In temperament they were very much the same,” Lynch said of Cardwell and Elmes, “very reasonable and super professional. And Fred had plenty of time to talk with Herb. He saw a lot of the stuff we’d shot and he understood – Fred sort of segued in and took over for Herb.”
“It wasn’t difficult,” Elmes affirmed, “because David had a real clear view of what he wanted. He had no trouble saying what it should look like. And I had done enough before to know how to get a certain look with black-and-white film. So it was a matter of carrying on the style that David had established.”
That style, Lynch hoped would capture something of the feeling of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD, one of his favourite films, in which “the mood and the story, everything is welded together so beautifully.” It was the only film he screened for the entire crew before production began. But Doreen Small also mentioned George Stevens’ A PLACE IN THE SUN, “with Shelley Winters out on the lake with Montgomery Clift, where that lake is so black and so silvery at the same time, that kind of richness, that kind of deep satiny black.”
Lynch would keep the actors waiting for hours in order to get a setup just right. “He didn’t like to keep them waiting,” said Small. “He would come out and talk to them, but he would do what he had to do. It was extraordinary; from the beginning they trusted him. He had a very, very clear idea; he knew exactly how he wanted it to look. The dailies would come back from CFI (the lab) and they’d say, ‘Are you shooting this with one candle in a tunnel?’ And David would send them back, saying, ‘Not dark enough. I want this darker.’”
The results of this care have been called the best black-and-white cinematography to come out of America since the 1940s. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of trial and error involved; Lynch might know what he wanted something to look like, but he and his cinematographers often had to experiment before they found a way to achieve that look. Black-and-white photography presents some special difficulties. “It relies more on lighting than colour does,” said Elmes. “In colour, the art direction fills in a lot because you have all this colour palette to play with.” In black-and-white, the design of the lighting has to make up for that. “We did tests,” Elmes continued. “We photographed gray walls, painted different shades of gray to see how dark is what gray.” They shot makeup tests, tests for hairstyles. “There was a lot of feeling our way because David had not made exactly this kind of film before. We were both in sync as to what it should look like, but how to do it was a little bit new.”
This applied particularly when it came to effects work. They had to learn as they did it. Elmes would find himself reading books on various effects techniques. They made contacts with key effects people at different studios whom they would call to ask for advice on specific problems. “And they would help,” said Elmes. “They would give us little secrets and little tricks on how to do this and how to do that and how to save money doing it. And we would try these things and that’s how the film was made. It was a little trial and error every step of the way. We knew what we wanted and we stayed with it.” And that was part of the reason the film took four years to complete.
Along the way they had to rediscover such old techniques as fitting a frame of film into the camera viewfinder in order to line up a composite as precisely as possible. This was how they obtained the super seen early in the film, in which one of the “foetuses” emerges from Henry’s mouth as he floats in space. More difficult was obtaining a sense of weightlessness. “Things that defy gravity require special handling,” commented Elmes. “These aren’t new tricks in the industry, but they were new to us at the time.” They would obtain clues from their contacts, refine on them, shoot and shoot again. “I mean,” Elmes continued, “no one gave us a book and said, ‘Here’s how you make the foetus float.’” They would shoot with the camera placed sideways, even upside down. For the opening shot of Henry floating against a star field, “we shot a couple of tests because we couldn’t get him to float right. We knew where he was going to go in the shot, we knew what the move was, and how long and everything about it. We just didn’t know how to get it. We shot it a couple of different ways, and ended up with him sitting upright and the camera sideways. We locked the camera off and he sat on the dolly and we just dollied him back and forth, bobbing up and down against a black background.”
Another kind of floating was required for a scene cut from the final version of the film. When Mary leaves Henry, said Coulson, “there was this whole scene where she went into the bathroom to get her stuff and then she just rollerskated through the room. You didn’t know she was on rollerskates; it was like she just flew through the room. We had this fan blowing so that it would blow her hair in a real unusual way. Things like that took a long time because David had never done them before.”
Inevitably, the production encountered technical problems, and shooting in black-and-white was at the root of many of them. During most of that first year, they were lucky because at the same time Peter Bogdanovich was shooting PAPER MOON; the lab, CFI, was processing black-and-white film every day and so there were tight quality controls in effect. But later, there was less demand for black-and-white processing. “They switched over to developing black-and-white twice a week,” recalled Elmes, “which means that the machines weren’t always run and they weren’t always in great shape. We suffered little problems because of that. It was really a matter of staying in touch with them, communicating. A matter of letting them know that you know what you’re doing. Because I think they try to get by with as little as possible. And unless you call them on that, and establish that from the beginning, you’re off to a bad start. So we stayed close with them and we developed good relationships with a couple of people at the lab.”
Occasionally, the film stock was not of the best quality. “We had bad trouble with the stock,” said Lynch. “If you were to expose a gray, a dark gray especially, you’d see this ‘breathing’. We didn’t even know what to call it.” This is particularly noticeable in one of the shots in which Henry appears against vast concrete backgrounds, or in muddy wastelands; there is an odd, fluid shifting in the grays. Luckily, rather than being detrimental, this instability actually adds to the uneasy mood evoked by the images. Also, there is a fluctuation in the shots of Henry walking to the X’s house at night. This resulted from having relied on actual streetlamps for the lighting. With a sixty cycle per second pulse, the streetlamps were out of sync with the camera, producing the fluctuation. “But,” said Lynch, “I really love that look.”
More serious problems arose when there was something wrong with a camera. The shot early in the film in which the camera dollies in on the planet was, according to Fred Elmes, “a massive setup for our means at the time. It was a thirty foot dolly on an Elemack with a crane arm, a Mitchell camera going at high speed, and a model that had to move and coordinate.” The starfield was a black curtain about twenty feet high by sixty feet wide, with holes punched in it and lights behind for the stars. A large area was required to film the shot, which meant that it had to be done outside. “And it could only be done on a weekend,” Elmes continued, “because the only area available was in the gardeners’ setup down at the stables. There was no way we could interrupt their schedule, so Friday at four when they left, we moved in and hung the curtain and we put up the dolly track and started lighting it. It took us the whole weekend to do, so we actually shot it that Monday morning at about three. We had to work very quickly, grab the shot, then clean up real fast so we’d disappeared by the time the gardeners came in at seven in the morning.” But the next day, when they viewed the dailies, “we found out that the high-speed camera was bad, that we had a very strange flickering.” So they had to repeat the arduous process of building the setup, shooting, and quickly tearing it down again the next weekend, “regardless of the money we spent already. At the time all those problems were really earth-shattering because we didn’t always have the money to reshoot something and we hadn’t had the years of experience to know exactly what it was that went wrong. So it was sort of trial and error to find out what the problem was, and then to solve it before we re-shot.”
Those frantic weekend sessions had to be resorted to on any occasion when there was a particularly big setup to be filmed. One such was Henry’s arrival at the X’s house. “That was a set,” said Elmes, “we built that. We started hauling in dirt at five o’clock on Friday. It was the craziest we’d ever tried, but we hauled in dirt, planted plants, built a sidewalk, built the facade of the house.” That took all of Friday night. Saturday night they spent lighting the set, and Sunday night they filmed the scene, tore the set down and cleared it away before seven Monday morning. “I can’t believe we did that,” Elmes said with a kind of awe. “I still don’t believe we did that.
“I don’t know when I slept sometimes,” he added. “We were on a night schedule, partly because a lot of it had to be shot at night and partly because David enjoyed working at night better. I would be up at AFI all day, working on other films or doing things around the classes, and then at five-thirty we’d watch dailies from the night before and then go down and start shooting, and shoot until three or four in the morning. Sometimes later. And then I’d get up at eight or nine and go to AFI or whatever other job I had, and then meet my friends and go horseback riding at seven on Saturday morning. And everyone did this. It just became a way of life. I used to live out in Topanga at the time and I sort of put the car on automatic pilot going back because there was no way I could maneuver the hill by myself. It was a great time. I look back on it real fondly, but we really did work hard.”
At one point, Doreen Small found it impossible to drive back and forth between her place in Topanga Canyon and the AFI in Beverly Hills; she was simply too tired. “So,” she said, “I was living in Henry’s room. But they said I was a fire hazard, so they actually threw me out.”
One of the biggest setups of all involved the explosion of the planet. “We didn’t know quite how we were going to do it,” recalled Elmes. “David felt confident it could be done, and when he built that model of the planet, he built the nose section without any structure behind it so that it could pop out. It was planned right from the beginning that that was going to happen and we were going to move through and into the blackness. He had painted a white rim around it so that it would read right once it was broken away. It was all scored, so we had to be very careful not to bump it because it would fall apart. But when it came time to shoot it, we still really hadn’t come up with a plan. Explosives were out of the question because there would be smoke and fire and that was not the effect we wanted. It just had to break up.
“So,” Elmes continued, “Jack Nance and David came up with a plan to build a catapult. They were going to take these lead weights and put them on the catapult, underneath the planet, and on cue we were going to release it and these lead weights were going to spring out and explode it. I said, ‘David, look, I’m sitting there with the camera ten feet in front of this; do you want me to just stand there?’ David said, ‘No. Maybe we’d better build you something.’ So we built this enormously elaborate shield of four by eight foot plywood boards with holes in them which we covered with plexiglass. We had three cameras” – the only such shot in the film – “because we knew it could only be done once and we were going to get this shot no matter what.” The high-speed cameras were set up, all running at different speeds so that Lynch could choose the most effective shot; the lighting was carefully rigged so that all the pieces would be visible, backlit; the trajectory of the weights and the design of the lighting were such that the weights should not be visible in the shot. But unfortunately the catapult failed to work as planned. They tried a test shot, but the weight limped only a few feet. This was to be the last shot of the night; “it was five-thirty in the morning,” said Elmes, “and the sun was coming up. We had to get this thing to break apart because the gardeners were coming in a couple of hours and all this had to disappear. So David, in a frenzy after finding the catapult wouldn’t work, threw the thing halfway across the driveway, picked up the weights, and did it himself. So that shot was done with David under the planet, throwing the weights up through the nose and out at the camera.”
One of these setups also involved the hiring of a couple of extra people, a rare occurrence on the film. For the scene in which Henry and his neighbour make love in a bed transformed into a pool of milky fluid, Lynch had part of Henry’s room rebuilt outside in front of the stables at the AFI. The bed frame was set up around a big vat which was filled with water and milk. At the time, it happened to be cold for southern California and, according to Jack Nance, “we had a hell of a time heating it. It was like ice-water. I said to Judith (Roberts), ‘It’s a good thing this is just a movie; if it was real I wouldn’t be any use to you right now!’”
“And just so that these people would not die,” added Doreen Small, “David consented to hire a couple of extra people. Not that he worried about paying people; he just didn’t want people around to see what he was doing.” This necessitated the assuming of multiple functions on the part of the cast and crew. Jack Nance would help shift equipment and set up lights; Small would ride the dolly and operate the boom, simultaneously timing the shot, while Lynch himself pushed the dolly. Alan Splet recalled one night when “Herb Cardwell, our cameraman, was running sound. David was running the camera. And I was doing something else” – possibly operating the baby, a task usually taken by Small, who also worked the chicken which comes to life during the dinner scene at the X’s. “But when the baby gets crazy, very hyperactive,” said Small, “it was Alan working it because he plays the cello and he has a certain kind of touch.”
“David is very, very secretive,” said Coulson. “He didn’t want anybody judging his work before it was done.” That desire for secrecy extended to his keeping the people at the AFI off the set. “The big boys up at AFI were dying to see the baby,” recalled Small, but Lynch would not let them near it. “One day,” Nance added, “Tony Vellani brought some people down to the set – guys in suits. Vellani asked if they could get in for a look. David said, ‘No.’ These were the guys putting up the money!”
The only people not involved with the production who were allowed to see the dailies were two projectionists at the AFI who, said Coulson, “were quite wonderful guys, and David still has some contact with them.” But inevitably little rumours leaked out occasionally. “I used to hear stories about David from the AFI people who didn’t realize how close we were,” Coulson continued, “kind of wondering what was going on down there at the stables. But somebody must have known somewhere along the line that something good was going to come out of this. They harassed David to a certain degree, but for the most part they were indirectly supportive and pretty much stayed out of his hair.” Although, recalled Small, “it was very difficult for me to get film out of them after a while,” because officially the film was still not a full-length feature.
As the original grant ran low, the AFI did put more money into the project. But towards the end of the first year, Lynch recalled, “because we needed more and they’d given quite a bit, they said that they didn’t want to stop it; they just said, ‘We can only help you now in terms of equipment. You’re going to have to get the money somewhere else.’” And so in the Spring of 1973, the production came to a halt.
Lynch was used to temporary interruptions in the shooting. Simultaneous with shooting, they would work on major props and “when the thing was actually needed, I would really concentrate on finishing it up. A lot of things weren’t finished until they were actually needed.” Sometimes shooting had to stop until the props were ready.
In the Fall of 1972, shooting stopped for a couple of months while the planet and the giant baby head were completed. The planet was a major project; about ten feet in diameter, with enough room inside for someone to get in and move it for a shot (Jack Nance on at least one occasion), it was made from a combination of materials: plaster, fibreglass, polyester resin, wax. And, as already mentioned, it was built with a breakaway section for the explosion sequence.
The giant baby head, used at the film’s climax, was built in Lynch’s back yard. “Jack and I spent a lot of time that first Fall with David and Peggy,” Coulson recalled, “while Jack and David built the giant baby head. They lived in this little house right in the centre of the city and on either side were these three-story apartment buildings. So people would look down into David’s back yard where there was this giant thing – it was huge – which he had made out of a mold. The neighbours called it ‘that big egg’. David and Jack would be sanding the head and little Jenny, who was four or five, learned how to mix cement and then give it to David, and they would put it on real fast. We were always waiting for the head to dry. That was the big thing. We sat around David’s house and drank coffee and ate sandwiches and watched TV and waited for the head to dry for months, it seemed like. We were always waiting for something to dry. When David was in England doing THE ELEPHANT MAN,” she added, “I talked to him and he was waiting for the Elephant Man cast to dry at his house in England. I couldn’t believe he was still waiting for things to dry!”
The plaster used for the giant baby head was quite gravelly and required a great deal of sanding “and they would sand down all their fingerprints,” Coulson recalled. “So Jack and David were like criminals; they had no fingerprints left. And the neighbours said to me, ‘What is that big egg there?’ Then one day the big egg disappeared.” Shooting had resumed.
But in the Spring of 1973, with no money left, the situation was different. Lynch began what was to become a very bad year. The project, said Lynch, “was just like an animal dying in the desert; at first the birds stay very far away, and then little by little they come in and start taking bites. And you’re just too weak to get them off you. I really thought it was the end. They’d come down and take some piece of equipment, and it would be a horror. I’d wait for them; they’d come down and take something else, and I’d say, ‘You’re going to bring it back?’ And they’d say, ‘Sure, we’re going to bring it back.’ They would never come back.” At what must have been one of the lowest points in his career, Lynch “even thought at one time of building a little dummy Henry and stop-motioning all the parts in between what we had shot. Just to finish it. Because I couldn’t do anything else until this was finished. I was caught in limbo.”
Because the cast and crew had forged such close relationships during that first year, they remained in close touch now, even as they sought other work. Coulson worked in the grant program at the AFI and acted in a few plays, but also washed windows and became a waitress. “I worked in a restaurant,” she recalled, “and David would come down in the afternoon and do some odd jobs for the people who owned the restaurant in exchange for a grilled cheese sandwich and fries. He was always doing odd jobs; we found him lots of things to do to support himself.” Although shooting had stopped, Lynch and Splet cut together some of the material already filmed – in fact, the bulk of the film was already in the can, most of the principal photography completed. Coulson helped out, learning some basic editing skills, how to file trims and so on. Even Jack Nance found himself “running machines and matching up my own voice with my own lips and all of this stuff.”
It was during this hiatus that Fred Elmes shot THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE for John Cassavetes, taking Coulson along as his assistant. But Elmes too remained in close contact with Lynch. In fact, when production finally did resume, there was no problem in maintaining continuity because ERASERHEAD had managed to remain at the centre of their group life. “We talked about it a lot,” recalled Elmes. “We didn’t know quite how it was going to be possible – if we could get the right camera, if we could get all the lights we needed, if we could get the space if AFI needed us to move. There were a lot of ‘ifs’, but we talked about it all the time; it was just kind of assumed that it would be finished. One way or the other, the film was going to get finished.
“David and I used to live a block from each other,” Elmes continued, “so we would go over and have coffee in the afternoon; even in the time we weren’t shooting, we were planning. We would have so many napkins and place mats that had block diagrams and little storyboards written on them as to how we were going to do effects and what we would have to build in order to do the effect, and where we were going to get all this equipment from for free, and how long it was going to take. We really had that planned out and gone over so many times.”
Eventually, as Lynch put it, “a lot of things came together. George Stevens, Jr, arranged a thing with CFI, the lab; at least they would develop the negative. We weren’t even going to see workprint. But we did figure out a way to get enough money to see workprint.” By a combination of deferments, money obtained from friends and relatives, and equipment loaned by the AFI, the production managed to get rolling again.
“Because he couldn’t pay us,” said Elmes, “David offered us a percentage of the profit of the film – if and when it should ever make money. I certainly wasn’t in it for the money and we were all certain that it was not possible for the film to make any substantial amount of money. So it’s a welcome surprise that there’s some money coming back in for it.” Coulson agreed: “There was a sense of collaboration, which is why David gave us all such a nice percentage of the film, something we did not even write down until after the film started making money. Which is a pretty impressive thing for a filmmaker to do. The reward artistically and emotionally was great, but to be able to also get some money back from it – a healthy cheque every quarter – is a real rarity in this particular business.”
Shooting resumed on May 29, 1974, exactly two years after the camera first rolled on the set of the X’s living room.
By this time, Lynch had separated from his first wife and had taken up residence in Henry’s room at the AFI stables. “It was sort of illegal,” he admitted, “but I found a way to camouflage the room to look like no one was in there.” The main door was padlocked from the outside, while a secondary, plywood door was bolted from within. The set was draped with the sound blankets so that if anyone should manage to look in, nothing was visible. Said Coulson, “He never admitted that he lived there, and they never admitted that he lived there. But I think everybody kind of knew.” But, said Lynch, “the parks department turned me in one time. They said people must be living there because there’s garbage piling up. Of course, we were all eating there anyway. But they asked about it, and of course” he told them that no one was “living there. We were working down there.”
When shooting resumed, it was on a piecemeal basis, with long intervals of planning and preparation between setups. Doreen Small had left the project when she moved to Santa Barbara, and Alan Splet had gone to Scotland. There was little live sound left to do, and what there was could be taken care of by remaining members of the crew, although on one occasion someone else was brought in to do it.
The first scene to be filmed after the long break was one involving the Lady in the Radiator. Laurel Near, who played the part, had been singing in a trio with her two sisters, Holly and Timi, the latter being a good friend of Coulson’s. Near was introduced to Lynch, who, she said, “liked my smile,” and he hired her for the part. She had never done film work before and “didn’t know what I was getting into really.”
The Lady in the Radiator’s stage was built outside at the AFI and, according to Fred Elmes, “It just sat there for months and months and months until we could finally get around to shooting that scene.” Lynch even made a stencil and handpainted the pattern of squares on the stage. “We knew where all the black curtains were,” Elmes continued, “and we’d made plans about how we would hang lights. But the problem was there was nothing up there to hang lights on.” They had to build a scaffold and borrow a big extension ladder from the AFI, which they suspended above the stage as a rack for the lights.
The day would begin at five-thirty or six in the evening, with everyone gathering on the set. Elmes would ensure that all the lighting was correct – and then everything would have to wait while Lynch spent a couple of hours applying Near’s makeup. Then shooting would begin. But sometime after midnight, Lynch would have to leave because now he had a job delivering the Wall Street Journal. He made $48.50 a week on a 210-paper route. His first night out, it had taken him about six hours to run the route in his VW, but eventually “I found shortcuts and studied a map, and I got this overview. I got it down to one hour.”
While he was on the job, the others would take a break, eat, change the lighting for a new setup, or just get a bit of rest. “I know occasionally,” recalled Elmes, “the Wall Street Journal didn’t get delivered.” And Coulson remembered running the route for Lynch on occasion; he taped it for her – “and now the orange house on the left, and then you turn right here …”
Shooting would start again on Lynch’s return and continue until dawn. Coulson recalled that “we seemed to get our best stuff right before dawn.” During the first year “Alan would be listening to the sound and say, ‘Wait, I hear birds.’ We’d have to stop when we started to hear the birds.” But later, said Elmes, “we started building canopies over things to keep the daylight out so that we could get one more last shot in before it was too light. I still look at shots in the film and think, ‘That shot looks a little different.’ And then I remember: everything was very subtly filled from the top by skylight because it was the last shot of the morning before we had to wrap it up.”
Although Near found working with Lynch “a real treat; I love his sense of humour and he’s real sincere,” she did not realize how complicated a business it would be. “I thought I was just going to go and dance across the stage.” What she actually got were some long, grueling makeup sessions. She recalled that some of the materials used by Lynch were quite harsh. She went through five or six sessions and “it was real thick stuff that when you took it off it just sort of peeled your whole face off with it. My face hurt a lot after the sessions. But they took a lot of time and they were real sweet to me, they took care of me.”
When it came time to film Near’s musical number, it was shot synced to a pre-recorded tape of the song, “In Heaven”. “I got the soundman at the AFI to teach me how to hook that up,” Lynch said, “and I ran that setup myself.” In the tradition of Bacall’s number in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, it was not actually Near’s voice singing the song. New wave composer-performer Peter Ivers, who also wrote the music for the song, sings it in the film.
In keeping with Lynch’s penchant for controlling all aspects of the production, he himself took on the makeup chores. “No one ever really taught me” the techniques, he said. He had developed a liking for casting people’s heads while at art school, “and I’ll cast anyone’s head that’ll let me.” Jack Nance had to “go under” three times before Lynch managed to capture the requisite “Henry expression” for the Eraserhead dream sequence, in which Henry, having reached his Heaven, is decapitated and his head found by a young boy who sells it to a pencil factory where it is found to consist of top quality rubber, ideal for erasers. “Jack is the greatest, not only as an actor but as a person that will go through practically living hell for you – and for the film. A Henry expression is a subtle sort of thing and to hold that long enough for the mould to set is a real trick. He did it fantastically.”
Coulson assisted in the making of the head and she recalled that it “was very strange for me because I was working on the plaster and filing it down. I was filing down the face of my husband.”
Calls for advice to outside experts occasionally led to odd places. One of the film’s effects contacts was Tim Baar, an Oscar-winner for THE TIME MACHINE, and he was able to put Lynch in touch with a man who could supply genuine human hair for the Eraserhead. “You better believe it’s real,” Lynch laughed.
Lynch dislikes standard makeup blood. “It looks too gray” in black-and-white, he said, “and it’s always too thick. Real pig’s blood would be the best thing to use, with maybe a little bit of darker colouring in it.” But for Henry’s nosebleed when he is cornered by the aggressive Mrs X, Lynch came up with a concoction of his own, the ingredients of which he no longer recalls, but “it was pretty toxic and it really burned the inside of Jack’s nose.”
Yet another person to suffer these discomforts for the film was good friend Jack Fisk, acclaimed art director and now a director in his own right with RAGGEDY MAN. Fisk and his wife, actress Sissy Spacek, not only gave financial assistance to the film; they spent a day working on the production. While Spacek took on the task of continuity clerk, Fisk was transformed into the deformed Man in the Planet, the bizarre figure who sits at the controls of ERASERHEAD’s strange world. “I’d just started growing a beard,” Fisk recalled, “and I’d had it about two weeks. David got this stuff and it was like a latex which he brushed on my face so it didn’t look like I had a beard, but my skin was kind of deformed. Then he built out my chest, like something was bulging out of my chest. When I went home after doing this, I was trying to get that stuff out of my beard, and it was impossible to get it out. Sissy didn’t want me to shave my beard off, so I was in a tub of hot water, pulling it out a little piece at a time. I’ve never really forgiven David for that,” he added with a laugh.
One of the more elaborate efforts in this area involved doing a body cast of Charlotte Stewart. Lynch was assisted in this by Doreen Small. “We had to get her undressed and cast her body,” related Small, “and David’s wife was there.” But it went off without a hitch and they obtained a thin shell in the form of Stewart’s torso. This was to be used in the scene in which Henry awakens to find Mary feverish in the bed beside him and begins to pull the “foetuses” from her body. “We cut a hole in Henry’s bed,” recalled Small, “and Charlotte would sort of settle in underneath it and we put this very thin shell of her body on top so there was a space between her actual body and the shell. Originally, Henry broke through that when he first found the foetuses.” These “foetuses” were actually human umbilical cords which Catherine Coulson had obtained from a hospital – a half dozen or so of them. “Those were one of the things that we had in the refrigerator,” Lynch commented.
For that particular scene, said Small, “I was under the bed to keep tension on the umbilicals – the ‘billy cords’ as Jack would call them. And Jack pulled and we sort of missed and one of them landed in his shoe. He got so grossed out that we had to stop filming for a couple of days.” Jack Nance recalled having joked a number of times during the production: “Well, David, this is going to have them bolting for the fire exits. There ought to be a jail sentence for what this will do to them.” In this instance, Nance himself became one of the film’s earliest victims.
The use of the umbilicals illustrates Lynch’s concern for authenticity in details; he has a passion for organic textures and, as he says, “There’s nothing like the real thing.” This is a part of his concern for proportions and relationships between the elements with which he works. “I’m going to tell you,” he said, “about the duck. A duck is a shape that works because of the size and the texture of the parts. If you could make up rules out of a duck, if you could measure the beak and get the texture of the beak, and notice the relationship of the beak to the body, which has a fluffy texture; and then notice that the feet are bigger than the beak, but they’re not quite as hard as the beak, yet they’re the same colour; and then you have this ‘S’ curve of the neck – but then the eye of the duck is the neatest part; it’s the littlest, but it’s the most brilliant and the most intricate.” The eye is what makes the whole thing come together and work. “I like in a scene something, one little thing that on its own would be nothing, but in the context and the balance of the things around it, it pops out and just gleams and it makes everything else work.” Details like Henry searching his drawer for the torn picture of Mary, and pausing to flip a penny into a bowl of water which sits in the drawer; a peculiar moment which somehow gives a strange weight to the scene. “The timing does it,” said Lynch. But details like that come from the “nowhere” of Lynch’s subconscious: “I don’t even know why I put that there. I can’t even take credit for these things. It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to make something that’s mathematically right, like a duck.’ You get an idea and you go with it and later on you find out that the proportions were correct, but it’s happening so much out of your control. It’s sort of a blessing to get an idea.”
But if he trusts to fortune for that “duck’s eye” detail, Lynch works extremely hard to create the right context for that detail to work in. He studies textures and uses them with great care. Jack Nance commented that Lynch was “the only man I’ve ever known that shaved a mouse.” He also dissected a cat. He called a veterinarian and asked for a dead cat; soon after, the man called back and told Lynch to come on down. “And he said, ‘Here it is,’ and he put it in this box. It went in like a slinky. Just slinked in. And he said, ‘Just do me one favour; will this cat be recognizable in your movie?’ And I said, ‘You would never recognize that cat.’ So I took it home and I had my basement set up like an operating theatre. First I put the cat in formaldehyde in a bottle with a kind of narrow mouthed top. And it got rigor mortis in the jar and I could not get this cat out. It was like a boat you build in the basement; you cannot get it out of the door. But finally it popped out and I dissected the cat. It was an experience. I examined all parts of it, like membranes and hair and skin, and there are so many different textures that on one side are sort of gross, but just isolated in an abstract way are totally beautiful. It’s the kind of thing where, if you don’t name it, it’s beautiful. But as soon as you name it, all kinds of associations become attached to it and people will be turned off. To me a lot of these things are really beautiful. And somehow I think other people feel that in ERASERHEAD: sort of finding beauty in something that was ugly, or could be ugly.” Although Lynch commented of dissecting the cat that “I don’t know what good it did me really,” viewers who have seen the horrifying death of the film’s baby will know the value of his explorations into the cat’s textures.
The cat itself had been intended for a part in the film: “some kids had tied wire and did a cat in,” said Lynch, “and Henry trips on the wire. It’s just underneath the frame line where he walks through those oil tanks; the cat was there.” Even though the cat just missed stardom when that moment was cut from the film, its story did not quite end there. “The shot where the camera goes over this puddle of black water,” Lynch continued, “the cat went into that puddle. I came back a year or two later and fished the cat out; it was covered in oil and a sort of tar and it had preserved itself. I came back again a couple of years after that and there it still was, out in the dirt. I’ve got a photograph of this cat and it looks like it’s coming out of the ground. It’s earth-coloured and the earth, everything has been rained on and dried and heated – and it’s pretty neat looking.”
The quest for the organic would send Doreen Small and Catherine Coulson out in search of such substances as instant cream of wheat (a disturbing mixture in combination with the textures of a dissected cat), mashed potatoes, grape jelly. Coulson recalled going downtown one Saturday afternoon to film the scene in which the boy finds Henry’s head in the Eraserhead dream sequence. “We had to stop at the market to buy some jellied consomme which we were going to use underneath the head. It had a kind of glistening texture that David wanted. I remember running in to buy it and thinking, ‘Other people don’t spend their Saturday afternoons doing this.’”
For another scene, which was later cut from the film, in which Henry goes to a drawer to find the vaporizer for the sick baby, Small and Coulson headed once more to the market. The vaporizer, recalled Coulson, “was in a drawer that was full of vanilla pudding and peas. So when Henry reached in he had to reach into the vanilla pudding and pull out the vaporizer which was then covered with peas and vanilla pudding. So the problem was how to make a drawerful of vanilla pudding. Doreen and I went out to the grocery store and we tried to figure out what kind of vanilla pudding would mix up the fastest. So we hand-beat instant vanilla pudding, filled this drawer with it, and then put these green peas on top of it.”
Such labours were taken in stride by those for whom ERASERHEAD’s world had become a normal part of their existence.
The closeness of the group was not disrupted even when extra people had to be brought in – supplementary crew and actors to play small parts, who were needed only for a limited time. More often than not, these people were drawn from among the friends and relatives of the group. Many of them came to the film through Catherine Coulson. V. Phipps-Wilson, who portrayed Henry’s landlady, a part later cut from the film, was a friend of Coulson’s, as were Neil Moran, boss of the pencil factory, and Hal Landon, Jr, the operator of the pencil machine. That machine, incidentally, was designed by Lynch himself and built out of odds and ends of machinery although Lynch “never saw a real pencil machine; it was sort of like common sense.”
The part of the boy who finds and sells Henry’s head was played by Coulson’s nephew, Tom Coulson. “Tom was a young teenager,” said Coulson, “and just thrilled to be working on this. When he came to be interviewed, my brother and sister-in-law were there, and his seven brothers and sisters, and Jack and I; everybody was standing outside the stables like a cheering section when Tom went up for his interview. And David came back down the stairs and said, ‘Well, Tom has the part.’ Everybody cheered. Tom stayed with us for a while during the summer and helped David build a lot of sets. He was like David’s young assistant.”
Also among those who came to help were Jack Nance’s brothers, who came in from Texas and stayed awhile when the crew were shooting the planet. Yet, according to Coulson, for all the closeness that the crew developed, the feeling of being a family involved in a special activity, “we didn’t have too many clubby little things.” Nance named the baby “Spike” and it stuck. He also gave a name to the hat rack which stands in a corner of Henry’s room with an overcoat hanging from it: “Uncle Edgar.” Nance kept his cigarettes in Uncle Edgar’s pocket. On one occasion Coulson found some overalls at Standard Brands for $1.99 “and we were all wearing them for painting the set and David wrote ERASERHEAD on them – like you’d write ‘Al’s Garage’.”
On at least one occasion Lynch felt a little awkward about inflicting this closely shared world on an “outsider”. The X’s kitchen was not a set but a location and the vegetative grandmother was played by the building’s landlady, Jean Lange. “She was very, very nice,” Lynch recalled, “but she didn’t know what was going on. I felt kind of bad about that. I sort of felt like I was taking advantage of her, although she did have a very fun time.”
The production’s final major crisis occurred when the AFI told Lynch that he could no longer remain at the stables. Despite their wariness of features, the AFI had seemed, at least implicitly, to consent to ERASERHEAD’s expansion into a feature. “But then,” Lynch asserted, “around that time, the unions told them, ‘If you’re going to have us come in and help you, give seminars and help bring these people along, we don’t want you making films that are going to compete with our guys. You can’t make feature films.’” So the AFI cut the production adrift, although they now receive a percentage of the profits in return for the services and equipment they provided during those years at the stables. Martin Brest, who went on to direct GOING IN STYLE, was not so lucky; his AFI-made feature HOT TOMORROWS, started several years after Lynch began ERASERHEAD, was shelved with no possibility of distribution. “And every film that’s made there now,” said Lynch, “AFI owns lock, stock, and barrel – has all the rights, everything. I am a very lucky person,” he added; he was able to retain the rights to his film.
“We kind of got kicked out of AFI,” he recalled. “After two or three years of being down there, they suddenly gave us this unrealistic, ridiculous deadline.” There was about thirty hours’ worth of work left to do on the stable sets and they had to get it done in thirty straight hours of shooting, with the only break provided by Lynch’s leaving to throw his paper route. What was left were Henry’s scenes in the elevator. “We were totally exhausted,” said Lynch, “but we got everything. But we weren’t used to shooting like that, being under the gun like that. There are a lot of things that you might think of along the way if you have time, but we had to just race through that.”
Lynch rented a little guest house joined to a double garage. The latter was transformed into a small post-production studio. It was there that he and Alan Splet would finally pull the film together. But there were still some major effects sequences left to shoot. These ended up being done for the most part in Fred Elmes’ living room. “We did effects in every imaginable situation,” Elmes recalled. “Most of the miniatures were actually done in my living room. We were given an animation stand for a little while; it was a horizontal job, twelve feet long, and I had it set up in my living room. We would rent special cameras to do pin-registered effects and things like that. We would build lots of things for weeks, and then shoot it in two or three days because that’s the period of time we could afford to rent the camera for. We would rent it over the weekend because you could get two days for the price of one.
“What we would do,” he continued, “is just build the effect, like the surface of the planet, bring it into the living room, mount a Mitchell camera – I think in that case it was sideways; it was actually shot sideways, trucking along this thing. We did tests. We tried it in real time and we tried it in slow motion, and it didn’t work. It wasn’t what we were looking for, so we ended up doing it stop-frame. Fortunately, the animation stand was rigged to time out things. The shot actually took us about two hours to film.”
For something like the little worm which crawls across the planet’s surface, growing bigger all the while, “it probably took a day to build it,” said Elmes, “another day to do the test on it, and another day to shoot it.”
“I love doing stuff like that,” said Lynch. “Whatever you can think of, you can do. It’s fun to try to think of solutions to problems and to do those things yourself. In every aspect of ERASERHEAD, it was just great fun.” Whether it was devising the explosion of the planet, or just rigging a simple drip tube with holes punched in it to create the rain on Henry’s window. “Then you find out that in Hollywood some of the fun is taken out of it because you’re not the one doing it; there are people that specialize in this and people that specialize in that and it saves time,” but a certain amount of control is lost, even when the technology filters through the director on its way into the film. Lynch would prefer to keep as much control over all the elements of a project as he possibly can.
On THE ELEPHANT MAN, Lynch was initially to do Merrick’s makeup himself but “what I did was a total flop. I was making this sort of skin and in theory it was a nifty idea; this skin would float over something, move and look like real skin.” But the structure over which he placed this skin was too rigid. It was as if John Hurt “was working inside of a helmet, a diving mask.” A large part of the film had been shot before Chris Tucker came to the rescue; it was another tense time for Lynch, but he still prefers to do as much as possible himself.
Elmes, like Lynch, sees effects in a purely functional light. He enjoys effects work – “I find it intriguing,” he said. “You can make magic, you can make almost anything happen in movies.” But for himself, he does not like the idea of effects specialization. He, like Lynch, does not want to become bound to any one particular approach to effects. “I have a grasp of what’s possible, what’s involved in photographing effects, how opticals work, how the laboratory treats them.” But rather than approach a problem from a particular technical perspective, he feels most comfortable with just a general knowledge which permits him to look for whatever solution is the most straightforward and useful for that particular problem. A feeling he shares with Lynch.
It was partly this attitude which resulted in the almost complete absence of opticals in ERASERHEAD. The impracticality of opticals was partly due to the production’s limited finances, partly due to a fear of the loss of control which would be involved in sending material to the lab. But also the quality to be gotten from mechanical effects better suited their needs on the film, emphasizing the density, the solidity of the images. “What we lacked in monetary resource,” commented Elmes, “we had in time. We could take the time to build something right, and we could shoot a test, and if it didn’t look right we’d go back to the drawing board and build it again.”
Coulson, working as a camera assistant on STAR TREK II in late 1981, found it interesting to watch the effects people photographing planet surfaces. “I’m thinking,” she said, “how we photographed our planet surface. David just thought that all up, and Fred thought about how to light it. And we made a big black star field. That’s the stuff that George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic do now on a much more sophisticated scale, but in a way with the same kind of results.” It is arguable that the technical superiority of what ILM achieves is not proportional to the vastly greater amounts of money available to them as compared with the budget of ERASERHEAD. The effects in Lynch’s film are really remarkably good.
For his garage post-production facility, Lynch acquired a Moviola, “a real old-fashioned, totally black one with a magnifying glass on it. It was tremendously loud and it would really eat film if anything went wrong. I was kind of afraid to use it a lot, but it worked out real well. It did the job and I sold if after the film was finished,” so the cost was negligible.
Somehow, through all the production troubles which culminated in the forced move from the AFI after some three years in residence there, no film was ever lost. Initially stored in the editing department at the AFI, it all ended up stacked on shelves in Lynch’s garage “and it was not too well organized,” Lynch recalled. After Doreen Small left the production, “we didn’t really take great notes. A lot of times things wouldn’t get quite organized. But I knew in my head where things were. I had to go by feel to find stuff, but it was sort of uncanny how you get to know your shelves and you feel where things are. And we shot quite a bit of film actually,” he added. He estimates that they shot a ratio of “around ten-to-one.”
When Alan Splet returned in the Summer of 1975 from two years in Scotland, he rejoined Lynch, actually moving into the garage facility. Lynch recalled with wry affection Splet’s passion for oranges at that time. “Alan was eating oranges in those days,” he said, “and there were orange peels everywhere. I’d come home and there’d be lines of orange peels on the chair arms. The whole place smelled like oranges. We had an orange tree in the yard, but Alan was bringing them home in these boxes.”
They bought “quite a bit of equipment” for Splet and built a “pretty good console,” all of which, like the Moviola, was resold after the job was done. “And we’d rent the odd thing that we couldn’t afford,” said Lynch, “for maybe a week or something. Alan had a real good setup.”
They worked together on the massive job of creating the film’s many sound effects. “That’s when we really got into it,” said Splet. He had come to have a feel for the way Lynch thought, for what he wanted. “I can recall one interesting instance,” he said, “the opening sound where there’s a sort of presence and it kind of widens out as you move in on the planet. David and I were talking about it and really weren’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 open it up, push it open. And the sound started to open out and we said, ‘My god, that’s it.’ You don’t know how something like that happens – was it conscious? was it a lucky accident or what? But it was the right sound.”
“It starts off in space,” said Lynch, “and we wanted this open sound. So we got this sound, then it changes subtly as you go in and in, and those changes are all equalized. Then when you come in on the next cut it’s lower, and you’re roaring along, and then there’s a kind of a segue – and one by one we got all those till they felt right. It just started like that.” Lynch uses the sound, the flow of sounds, to draw the viewer in. And once held, the viewer is subjected to a continuous, finely modulated pattern of sound which amounts almost to an emotional and psychological assault. Lynch’s technique gives the viewer no breathing space; the film becomes a mental rollercoaster which leaves one exhausted and drained, yet nonetheless exhilarated from the ride.
The sound forcefully enhances the lifelessness of the film’s world. There is an almost constant machine ambience underlining the bleak images, a lack of living sounds. Even thunder sounds like the rumble of rolling stock in a freight yard. The only animals seen in the film are a bitch with her puppies; the sound of their suckling is oddly off-centre, like the squealing of rats. The effect is of Henry being trapped in a great machine, intensely claustrophobic.
Splet, an inveterate collector of sounds, had acquired a huge library of effects to work with. Even now he will sometimes collect with Lynch in mind. “Sometimes I find sounds that I know David’s going to like,” he said. “There’s a low sound in THE ELEPHANT MAN; I discovered that sound about a year before and just sort of kept it away on ice. 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.’ So I played him some of this stuff and he flipped out over it. I knew he would.”
As Lynch cut the picture together and locked in each sequence, Splet cut in the sound. They worked from the Summer of 1975 through to the Spring of 1976. Towards the end of that period, recalled Splet, “we had a real push because we thought we could possibly get it into the Cannes film festival. I remember at some very late date, David and I finally agreed to do it, and it meant really working almost around the clock. I was sleeping in the same room that I was editing in. So for about a month and a half I would work ’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.”
“The mix only took seven days,” Lynch recalled. “To me, there’s no reason for a mix to take a real long time because Alan has sort of spoiled me. He knows all the tracks since he cut them himself and he was doing the mixing. We talked so much about every single thing that it seems like it took us a long time at a week.”
As for the prospect of a Cannes screening, Lynch picked up the story: “The film was rough cut,” he said, “but they said that they would take a rough cut. I was kind of sick at the time with a cold. I got this money to go to New York; it was part of the ERASERHEAD money. It would cost a fortune to go. And I got a shopping cart from Farmer’s Market; the owner let me have the cart to take the film to New York and back. I had twenty-four reels; twelve of sound and twelve of picture. I took it to New York and I was so sick and I screened it for these people, but I never saw their faces. There were supposed to be three heavy-duty Cannes guys in this little screening room in some weird place in New York. All day I waited for my turn to show ERASERHEAD. And then I wondered about it: it seemed like the movie was five million years long. Then I got it back and I left, and I found out later that the Cannes guys had gone back the day before. I had flown all the way to New York and there wasn’t anybody in the room – there was some guy in there, but I don’t know who he was. Obviously I didn’t get into the film festival.”
Lynch also tried to enter the film in the New York film festival. This time he simply sent the rough cut; it was turned down. Later, the film now completed, Lynch tried once more to get ERASERHEAD seen. “I thought,” he recalled, “there’s no way I’m even going to get into festivals with this.” His second wife, Mary, the sister of best friend Jack Fisk, “talked me into trying Filmex. It was the last day of applications and she said, ‘We’re going to get right in the car and drive over there, and you’re going to turn it in. You’ve got to give it a try.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ll just go over and get rejected again.’ So I went in and set the film down, and I said, ‘Look, this has been rejected from Cannes, it’s been rejected from New York; you guys take a look at it.’ And I thought he’d say, ‘Well, we’ll probably reject it too.’ But he said, ‘We don’t care where it’s been rejected from. We’re our own people. We’re going to look at it and we’ll let you know.’”
As it turned out, ERASERHEAD was accepted for Filmex. In fact, the festival people were “really excited” about their find.
The film’s unofficial premiere was a screening at the AFI, mostly for cast, crew, and friends. It ran about one hour and fifty minutes and, recalled Doreen Small, “it was very long. It was unremitting. Just didn’t give you a break. There’s the roaring in the sound effects, and it gets a little loud and it gets a little difficult.”
“Nobody knew what to think,” said Catherine Coulson. “They came out kind of quiet. David was real depressed, because people really didn’t respond – they didn’t know what to say.”
“The theatre was so quiet after the screening,” added Fred Elmes, “it was a little bit spooky. No one knew quite what to say. It was really completely different. No one had seen it except for the couple of close people, nobody had seen the whole movie together. And it was sort of different, I think, than anyone had imagined it to be. It was really a shock. It does take your breath away at the end and it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Which I think depressed David a bit because he was kind of expecting some response.”
This was the version that was screened at Filmex. Lynch knew that the film was too long; he knew that scenes should be cut, but he liked each individual scene. Yet “the pacing is slow anyway in ERASERHEAD – and that’s great, I love the feel of it – but I think these scenes were dragging it down to where the pacing was painful. It was pushing you out of the film. I stayed out of the room at Filmex, but I could feel that it was too long. Fred was in there and people weren’t reacting; it was like lead, it was just too long. So that night I made a decision; in my heart, I knew that these scenes had to go. I’d never been able to quite do it, but when you feel an audience not reacting, then you can do it. Because it’s way better than suffering through that. So out they came.”
Jack Nance had a much more positive memory of the Filmex screening. “That was the first time that I saw it in toto,” he recalled. “All of these bits and pieces that I’d seen ten thousand times all of a sudden ran from beginning to end, all together – and hell, I was ecstatic. I loved it. To finally get an audience reaction like we got was a big kick. At the end of the screening there was complete dead silence. And I knew that it worked. I said to Lynch, ‘You see, I told you it would turn them into zombies.’ People were stunned, and there was this long, shocked silence. Then a huge burst of applause. It was beautiful. I’d been waiting five years for that applause. It was great.”
Applause or not, Lynch set about tightening the film up. Those cuts were extensive, amounting to about twenty minutes of screen time. They included: a scene in which the Xs bring Mary home from the hospital with the baby; a phone call that Henry receives; a fit that Mary has in Henry’s apartment. The scene for which Catherine Coulson had originally been hired, in which the Xs pick Mary up at the hospital and a disgusted nurse (Coulson) hands them the baby, was not actually filmed; by the time they got around to that scene, late in the production when finances were very tight, Coulson suggested that the scene was not critical and therefore should be dropped – “one of the hardest things I had to do,” she said. However, she did act in another scene, one of those now cut by Lynch.
“It’s just down the hall from Henry’s room,” she said. “There are some women who are in a room with a very strange man who has this black box. My friend Phipps-Wilson and I were lying on this bed. Now, somehow it didn’t seem at all sexual, but we were bound by these kind of battery cables. And the guy had this black box and he was just kind of walking toward us with these prongs. I remember wearing this slip and some pearls. It wasn’t sexy really; it was David’s sexy, which is always kind of pristine in a way. And what happened was, Henry hears these strange noises and he walks down the hall. He opens the door a crack, and this is his vision of what he sees. The women kind of look at him and then he shuts the door real fast.”
The single largest excision was a lengthy sequence, the tail end of which is still seen in the release version. On a rainy, windy night Henry looks down from his window and in the windswept gloom of the alley sees two men fighting, an apparent murder. When he looks again a little later, there is nothing down there. This brief disturbing moment was originally preceded by what Lynch calls the “digging for dimes” sequence.
“Henry hears this sort of calling,” Lynch said, “and he looks out his window. It’s daytime out there, the wind is blowing dust, and there’s this little kid out in the alley. His little friends have run off and he’s left alone. You see his little friends go and then he comes up. So he’s standing there in this wind and there’s an oil puddle there, a pipe, and he’s kicking the dirt. Just being alone. Suddenly he sees this shiny thing in the dirt, and he gets down and starts digging and he finds all these rows of dimes. So he really starts digging and Henry sees this and he’s going crazy. He runs out of the room, but the baby starts crying immediately; but he’s got a good run going and he makes it to the elevator and he’s pushing the button, but the elevator won’t come. So he runs down the stairs. He runs into the lobby and we see the elevator door is propped open with a mop; there’s a mop bucket in there and the landlady has been cleaning; that’s why he couldn’t get the elevator. But because the door’s open, the baby’s crying is real loud and echoing all through the elevator shaft. So Henry gets frustrated and kicks this couch in the lobby, and the landlady (V. Phipps-Wilson) comes and says, ‘Don’t you kick my wood.’ She gives him this business; she’s cracked and she starts into this landlady-tenant thing. So Henry leaves her and goes back upstairs. He looks out the window, and meanwhile more people have come and they’re digging and the dust is blowing. By night there’s just sort of fighting going on out there.” But all that was left of this after Lynch cut the film down was that brief glimpse of fighting. He left that in because “it has the right feeling for the night, for Henry’s world.”
“It wasn’t like an overall trim,” Lynch said of the cut. “I lifted out whole scenes. I always felt they were too long, but I always wanted to fool myself that they could be there. After the premiere I knew that they couldn’t.” Luckily, because he chose this approach, the sound did not require re-mixing: “it just needed that twenty-frame pull up here and there.” But because the cuts were made in the final composite print there are, in the release prints, characters and actors listed in the credits who no longer appear in the film.
Coulson was sorry to see some of the material go; she regrets now that she did not appear as an actress in the film. “I think it would be fun to say I acted in ERASERHEAD. When I say now what I did on it, nobody really believes me because it was so many different things that in a way it’s almost too much. It’s like too many excuses; you kind of don’t believe any of them.” But also, like Lynch, she feels that in themselves the scenes which were deleted are good ones. “I wish that sometime David would show those scenes that he cut.”
Filmex was the big break for David Lynch and ERASERHEAD. Because of the festival screening, the film found a distributor, a man who knew just the right way to sell it: Ben Barenholtz of Libra Films in New York. Somebody who had seen the film at Filmex mentioned it to Barenholtz, who then called Lynch and had a print shipped to New York. Barenholtz was the man who pioneered midnight screenings at his Elgin Theatre in New York, turning films like EL TOPO, PINK FLAMINGOS, and THE HARDER THEY COME into midnight hits, films which would never survive a regular theatre run. He was immediately impressed by ERASERHEAD. “It was so original,” he said, “there was so much in it and I just thought I could do something with it. I was in my screening room with somebody who was working for me at the time and about halfway through the film I told him to get on the phone and make a deal for the film. I liked it.”
Nursing a film through to midnight success is a long, slow process. It relies on what Barenholtz calls “a discovery aspect.” The audience must find the film for itself and appreciate it without the aid of established publicity mechanisms. Because the film has appeal to only a limited audience, the investment involved in promoting it through the usual channels is simply not economically feasible. “Many limited audience films,” said Barenholtz, “are killed if you go through the normal process.”
Barenholtz, said Lynch, “learned through experience about releasing a film with no money and just word-of-mouth, letting it ride these ups and downs that they go through.” Patience is the chief requirement; to give the film time to grow. ERASERHEAD took more than four years to make; Lynch would just have to wait a while longer. He described the process involved: “The major studios will put a film out for a week and if it doesn’t do so many dollars they’ll pull it forever. It’s gone. Well, Ben would put a film out and just kind of water it and just watch it. First, the real weirdos would see it; they’ll see anything if it’s running at midnight. And if it clicks with them, it’ll enter the next phase, which is a slightly bigger group of people.” The film goes through a number of these “levels”, the audience pyramiding out and, one hopes, stabilizing; this type of film depends for a long life on a faithful repeat audience, not a constant turnover of new people. “And these transition areas,” Lynch continued, “are critical. But you can’t tell how long it will take for the word to spread and for people to respond.” So you just wait. “The first night in New York there were twenty-five people in the theatre. I think it went down to twenty-four the next night. But the next weekend it got more and more people. And went from there.” It was given a little assistance by a plug from John Waters, himself creator of several midnight classics, including PINK FLAMINGOS. “He was real good to me,” said Lynch, “because when ERASERHEAD opened, his film DESPERATE LIVING was opening in New York at the same time and at a personal appearance, he told the audience that his favourite film was ERASERHEAD, and he recommended that everyone see it. So he really helped the film out.”
But the process was so slow, the response so long in growing that, according to Doreen Small, Lynch “doubted himself for a while; things were getting a little bleak. David was going to give it up and teach meditation. But all of us, the close circle, weren’t going to let him go. If he didn’t stick with it, it would have almost invalidated a whole bunch of our lives.”
In the years since the film’s release, it has been shown at a number of festivals, including Edinburgh and Avoriaz in France. Word has filtered back to Lynch that ERASERHEAD is a favourite with a number of directors besides John Waters, among them Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin, who was on the panel at Avoriaz which awarded the film the Golden Antenna award and the Jurors’ Choice award. Lynch finds the admiration of other filmmakers very gratifying after the long hard years of effort he put into the film. ERASERHEAD continues to play steadily, “’as strong now,” according to Barenholtz, “as it was four years ago.” It has opened in about a dozen countries from Europe to Australia, Mexico to Japan, repeating the kind of success achieved in the U.S. whenever it has been handled carefully. Hardly a day passes without the film being screened at least once somewhere in the world. In both France and Japan, it was given a more general release, but although the initial response looked quite good, Barenholtz was not optimistic about the possibility of achieving success by that route.
Despite Lynch’s less than favourable opinion of television – he has said that he wants to make films that can only be seen in a theatre – he personally supervised the transferring of ERASERHEAD to videotape late in 1981 for a pay-TV showing on New Year’s Eve. “The bad part about it,” he said, “is that ERASERHEAD works best when you run the mix on magnetic with a brand new print off the original negative on a huge screen. That’s the way it should be seen. That’s the way every film should be seen. If it can’t be that way, you’re always going to miss something. The worst thing about TV is the sound. So much will be lost for those people; they’ll think they saw ERASERHEAD but they haven’t seen it. You can’t really experience it on TV. You can only go into the world a little bit. Right outside the TV is your rug, and the dog, and that window – it’s so simple to escape with just a nod. It’s not the same experience at all.” Nonetheless, he felt that the transfer job was as good as it could be, and he made a point of taking the sound from the original mag tape. But the film was never shot with TV in mind; the extreme darkness of many of the images was a problem from the video point of view. However, the film was quite well received on TV and following its New Year’s Eve broadcast, it reopened at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre for another midnight run.
By the time ERASERHEAD had been completed, said Lynch, “film had really gotten in my blood.” Although he still possesses a love of painting, making films is what he wants to do most. “Sound and picture: there are two senses involved. It can really do something. It covers so many different things; you can’t get the same feeling from any other art form. And no one has really figured out even yet how powerful it is. I don’t ever want to figure it out so it’s like a mathematical thing, but I really want to explore it in a ‘feeling’ way, really learn about this business of pacing and what goes next to what, and think in terms of sound and picture real close together.” Ironically, despite the technical achievement of his first feature, ERASERHEAD could almost be said to have been an obstacle to the furthering of Lynch’s career: first, being a limited audience film released on the midnight circuit meant that few people in a position to put up money for movies were likely to see it; and second, the few who did see it were likely to find it too strange to consider its director a likely prospect for more commercial enterprises. The midnight circuit is essentially a small ghetto off to the side of the mainstream film industry.
So, as ERASERHEAD began its slow climb to cult fame, Lynch remarried, sold the sound and editing equipment he had bought, and converted the garage into a workshop. “I built sheds,” he said. “And I built one very good shed. Mostly out of found wood.” His “dream world is going into my little back yard and having my saw all set up and everything, feeling that California sun on the back of my neck, and running wood through the saw.”
One of those who discovered Lynch’s film in its early days was Stuart Cornfeld, who would eventually be executive producer on THE ELEPHANT MAN. A friend at the AFI had mentioned the film to him and he went along to the premiere showing at the Nuart in L.A. where there were about twenty-five people in the audience. “And,” recalled Cornfeld, “I looked at this friend of mine who I went with and I said, ‘Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ I thought it was the best film I’d ever seen and certainly the most unique. The guy did so many things that had never even been tried before, let alone executed.” The following Monday Cornfeld called the AFI, obtained Lynch’s phone number, and called the director. “I said, ‘Listen, I just wanted to tell you I thought your film was incredible.’ He thanked me and I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was repairing roofs; that the initial reception that the film had had a year before was somewhat disappointing and that he hadn’t received any offers to do anything.” Lynch and Cornfeld got together and became good friends.
Lynch wrote a new screenplay around that time: RONNIE ROCKET, a film which would, he said, “cost a lot of money to do.” Set in an ERASERHEAD-like world, all he is willing to say about the story is that “Ronnie Rocket is a small person with red hair and physical problems. The movie is also about sixty-cycle electricity – sixty-cycle alternating current electricity.” It is, said Cornfeld, “much stranger than ERASERHEAD – I don’t like to use the word strange; let’s just say more things happen in RONNIE ROCKET than happened in ERASERHEAD .”
Together, they attempted to get the project off the ground, but, said Cornfeld, “nobody was very interested in it.”
“I think it will be commercial,” asserted Lynch, “but other people who have track records for predicting this or that say they don’t think it will be commercial. And how are you going to argue with them?” No interest was forthcoming; Lynch was still an unknown, even though “toward the end of the two years it would be possible to mention ERASERHEAD to ten people and have one of them have heard about it – they hadn’t seen it, but they’d heard about it. But, in terms of the industry, they were the last people to hear about it – and by then I’d gotten THE ELEPHANT MAN.”
There came a point when, desperate to be working again, Lynch decided that he should consider directing someone else’s script. He mentioned this to Cornfeld, who thought it a good idea. A few weeks later, Jonathan Sanger, who owned the rights to the Chris DeVore-Eric Bergren ELEPHANT MAN script, gave it to Cornfeld. “I read it,” Cornfeld recalled, “and said, ‘I know the guy to direct this.’” Cornfeld thought of Lynch “basically because of his ability to deliver a character as being sympathetic even if they’re ‘different’. It was also the tone of the piece, seemingly bleak yet ultimately transcendent, which is where I think that David has his greatest strength.”
At Cornfeld’s suggestion, Sanger went to see ERASERHEAD. Fascinated, he asked to meet Lynch. “He was not at all what I had expected he would be,” recalled Sanger, echoing a reaction common among those who meet Lynch only after having seen the film. “We just started talking about the script, and everything I felt about it he felt about it too. We had really good discussions, and I had a very good feeling about him right from the start. When I saw ERASERHEAD initially, it was the kind of movie where just his use of film technique to me was astonishing for somebody who’d never had very much film experience before. And when I saw THE GRANDMOTHER, I said, ‘Jesus, he’s not a flash in the pan. This is somebody who has a real consistency of vision.’”
For Lynch’s part, he said that as soon as Cornfeld said “elephant man”, the words “made a little noise in my head. And I knew I was going to do it, I knew I was going to do that film.” Even though he had at that time never even heard the name John Merrick, let alone the story of the man’s life.
But despite the trio’s enthusiasm, they could not interest the major companies. “The response was not negative,” said Sanger, “but it wasn’t positive either.” A film about a grotesquely deformed Victorian, with a producer who had not actually produced a feature before and an unknown director with only a bizarre midnight cult film to his credit: the package did not sound very commercial. Then the Broadway play appeared and the chances for the independently written screenplay seemed to fade away entirely. Until the script found its way to Mel Brooks, for whom Cornfeld was working as associate producer on HISTORY OF THE WORLD – PART ONE. Brooks liked the script; he was looking for projects for his Brooksfilms company to take on. He met Lynch and, said Cornfeld, was impressed. When he saw ERASERHEAD, Brooks said, he was “flabbergasted. It’s very clear. It’s beautiful and it’s clear. It’s like Beckett, it’s like Ionesco. And it’s very moving. And very, very well done; really kind of Max Reinhardt expressionist filmmaking.” He was also impressed by THE GRANDMOTHER. “I thought that was lovely, touching, and weird and beautiful.” With Brooks’ enthusiasm and influence, backing was finally arranged for the film. The Chris DeVore-Eric Bergren script was rewritten, with Lynch now collaborating with the two original authors. And eventually the film went on to garner several Academy Award nominations and resulted in Lynch’s being offered the DUNE project by Dino De Laurentiis.
THE ELEPHANT MAN bears the imprint of Lynch’s distinctive style; the careful, moody photography, the expressionistic use of sound. But here the narrative is far more prominent; and the story is not Lynch’s own. Though visually powerful, many of the images lack the intensity and resonance possessed by the images of ERASERHEAD. The necessities of telling the story seem to have brought Lynch closer to the surface of the material here than he had to be in the previous film. “It goes back,” he said, “to personal films and films that aren’t your own. I am really happy with THE ELEPHANT MAN. I think I did the best job I could’ve done. And I didn’t sell out – I may have sold out in a couple of instances, but I could’ve sold out in so many more. But when you compare it to ERASERHEAD – I had control over so much more of ERASERHEAD.”
Interestingly, while THE ELEPHANT MAN depicts a world which is like a prelude to the dead, industrial wasteland of ERASERHEAD, the film is much more optimistic than ERASERHEAD. Henry is lost and helpless, completely ineffectual in his trap; but Merrick is able to assert his identity and affect the seemingly unfeeling world around him. As dark as Merrick’s Victorian world is, that little bit of light represented by the Lady in the Radiator seems to have grown stronger.
With his reputation now firmly established, the offers come to Lynch in great numbers. Though no one is offering him the kinds of films he would really like to do, films set in the Forties, “a dark sort of film noir kind of thing,” or the Fifties, a time “just like my woodpeckers and bobby socks and wild fins and plastic,” or the Sixties, “kind of dreamy and the girl next door and sidewalks.
“I like diners,” Lynch continued. “I don’t like dark places. I like light places with formica and metal and nice shiny silver; metal, mugs, glasses, a good Coca Cola machine. So I’m looking for stories or a script in the Fifties, you know, detectives and that kind of thing, diner stuff.”
A successful career would seem to be virtually certain for Lynch now. He already has another project lined up to follow DUNE, a story of multiple murder called RED DRAGON. But ERASERHEAD is likely to remain his most distinctive, purely Lynchian film until he has the box office power to create and control his own projects; at which time he may at last be able to give life to his pet project – RONNIE ROCKET.
For those who worked so hard with Lynch to make his vision a reality, the creation of ERASERHEAD remains a very special period in their lives; they forged strong friendships during those years, friendships which still remain strong today although they have all gone on to other things. Their admiration for Lynch is combined with an almost fiercely protective loyalty. They trusted what amounted to several years of their lives to the belief that what he was doing was worthwhile. The film’s success has vindicated that belief, and confirmed and strengthened their admiration for Lynch. As Doreen Small put it, “We were all hand-maidens to genius.”
Yet while they worked, it seemed that none believed – or dared to believe – that the film would actually find an audience. “One of the things we used to talk about,” recalled Catherine Coulson, “was ‘wouldn’t it be fun if this film were really successful.’ We used to joke about people wearing their hair like Henry Spencer. And now I understand people do that,” she laughed. “It’s so amazing. It really does happen.”
What counted, as Fred Elmes said, was that “if it was going to be done at all, it was going to be done the right way.” As for finding an audience, “we thought it was a real long shot. It was really a surprise when David told us that he had a distributor and he was going to sign a contract with him. It was such a dream come true because none of us had ever imagined that there would be an audience out there for it. It was so nice to see David happy, that it was all for some good. We used to buy New York papers and find reviews of it, see how people liked it and what the responses were. And we’d get reports from the distributor: it just opened in Cleveland, it just opened here, and it just opened there. It was great. We’re all still close now. And,” he added with a touch of amazement, “we have a movie. A movie came out of all that.”
For his part, Jack Nance considers ERASERHEAD his most rewarding filmmaking experience. He “got an appreciation for the movies” out of it, “what a monumental task making a film really is. I used to think, here they’ve got all these dozens, hundreds of people working on these movies, and, here’s one guy to move this wire and another guy to do this and another guy to do that. But really there’s a lot of work involved. It’s hard work and I got a real appreciation for that. I really like having had the experience of being behind the camera, but I wouldn’t want to do that stuff because everything is heavy in movies. Little bitty boxes weigh five hundred pounds and you have to carry them up. There’s a lot of schlepping. It’s hard work. I don’t envy those guys their job, but it was neat to do it.”
Catherine Coulson remembered it as a “richly rewarding” time. “We had the opportunity to work things through and then see them happen. And to actually see them on film and to have it be good was so wonderfully rewarding. I’m very happy I had that experience.” It was for her the start of a completely new career and “every once in a while when I’m on the bridge of the Enterprise pulling focus and being in charge of several cameras, I think back on that time when Herb Cardwell said, ‘You pull this knob faster the closer he gets to the camera.’
“We became like a family,” she continued. “I got to know David better and better and we became really good friends; basically Jack’s and my home life became ERASERHEAD and oftentimes after we were through shooting, David would come over and we would all eat pancakes at our house. We spent a lot of time that first Fall with David and Peggy while Jack and David built the giant baby head in David’s back yard. We’re all still real good friends. Peggy and Jenny used to come down to the stables and Jenny would ask David if she could go play with the baby. I remember spending New Year’s Eve at the stables. We were all drinking champagne and Jack gave Jenny, who was about four, a couple of sips of champagne so she would go to sleep. We all listened to music and had a real nice time in our little home away from home.”
“The old gang,” said Alan Splet, “we still all know each other. That ERASERHEAD period spawned all these friendships. I’ve just got to say one thing: it was a really unusual way to make a film. It’s too bad most films can’t be made this way. It was a real group experience where everybody really shared. It was like a family for a while; everybody shared everybody’s problems. We shot a film, but there were all sorts of other dramas going on too that we all shared in. It was really an exciting time, and it’s sad that other films aren’t made that way. Most films are such a mechanical process; they come, they work on it, and they leave. It was a very rare moment in filmmaking. It was good to be a part of it.”
This small group of people, fired by the vision of David Lynch, managed to create, on a minute budget, one of the greatest films ever made.
Doreen Small summed it up for all those involved: “I think it never gets any better than ERASERHEAD got. Maybe it’ll feel as good, but I don’t think it can feel better than that. So committed to something, so proud of something.”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I would like to thank the following for taking the time to speak to me during the preparation of this article: Ben Barenholtz, Jeanne Bates, Mel Brooks, Stuart Cornfeld, Catherine Coulson, Fred Elmes, Jack Fisk, Peter Ivers, Jack Nance, Laurel Near, Jonathan Sanger, Doreen Small, and Alan Splet. Thanks also to Steve Martin, David Lynch’s former assistant, for his help; and to my friend Tim Kulchyski for all those long post-midnight-screening talks which helped me to get a grip on ERASERHEAD. And thanks most of all to David Lynch himself, who showed not only patience and courtesy, but also an enthusiastic interest in this project from the start. Kenneth George Godwin.