In March 1987, I interviewed David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini for the London listings magazine Time Out to coincide with the UK release of Blue Velvet. At this stage in his career, Lynch was already considered one of American film’s most distinctive and original directors, but his third film, Dune, had been a critical and commercial flop which hadn’t come close to recouping its $40,000,000 budget. Blue Velvet, a return to relatively low-budget film-making, was to set him back on track.
This interview has been retro-edited to alter or delete some of my more embarrassing and distracting writing mannerisms. The quotations from Lynch and Rossellini, however, have not been changed. The preliminary ramble about the definition of a cult movie may seem a little redundant to a contemporary readership, but back in 1987 the differences between commercial and cult cinema had yet to be extensively defined in the mainstream press.
Michael Clark chose it as his favourite film of 1986. The Face has already proclaimed it the cult film of 1987. Blue Velvet looks set to become one of that choice cluster of movies that anyone who is anyone will have to see. If you’ve seen it, you’re triple hip. If you haven’t seen it, you’re dead.
This is the sort of must-see factor which film studios count on to push their product into profit. But cult films, unlike big crowd-pleasing moneyspinners such as Aliens or Crocodile Dundee, rarely break box-office records. They’re not megabudget. They don’t fit easily into any particular genre. They’re not manufactured to a formula; they’re created by people who consider themselves artists rather than businessmen. And they often reek of controversy: unfettered violence, explicit or kinky sex, probings into those private places which are strictly no-flow for the mainstream – something to offend some of the people all the time.
Devotees of a cult movie can bask safe in the knowledge that the object of their devotion is not cheapened by universal approval, that their tastes are recherché and their tolerance unbounded. And each cult breeds a counter-cult; overenthusiastic word of mouth can only result in anti-climax for some, while latecomers to the party may feel that a reputation for truly recherché taste can only be maintained by a vote of nix. You know a film has achieved cult status when, after the first flush of must-see cultdom, the triple hipsters start saying they hate it.
The 1970s cult film par excellence was Eraserhead, which chimed perfectly with the punk mentality (mutant babies, sperm-squishing, industrial landscapes and Henry’s prototype Mohican). David Lynch, its writer-director, recalls: “My daughter was eight when she saw Eraserhead, and when she came out she said, ‘Dad, that is definitely not a film for kids.'” No-one knew what the hell it was about, but there you have an other characteristic of the cult film. Ideally, the plot should pile on enough obfuscation for people to be able to talk endlessly about their own theories and interpretations. Cult films are lumbered with the baggage of being irresistibly attractive to bores.
A decade has passed since Eraserhead. In the meantime, Lynch has turned out his straightforward arthouse movie (The Elephant Man) and his megabudget disaster (Dune) and now he’s back with total artistic control and another cult film, albeit with a budget big by cult standards ($6 million), big-league backing (Dino De Laurentis) and the sort of PR drive from a major distributor that is enabling the film to make a media killing: interviews with the director and his leading lady on and off screen (Isabella Rossellini) are already springing up all over the shop, signalled by many a vogueish magazine cover (all of them Rossellini, but then it wasn’t Lynch who has the $2 million modelling contract with Lancôme). Making Blue Velvet was, for its writer-director, “the best film experience for me since Eraserhead, for sure.”
And here they are in Claridge’s Causerie, all chipper and chatting about the film and laughing a lot, though they’re not giving much away about themselves. (And why should they?) Lynch, who usually wears his shirt buttoned straight up to the neck, unencumbered by material additions, has been obliged to add a hastily purchased tie to keep the Maître d’ happy. Rossellini is wearing no make-up and a sweater that could perhaps be described as “sloppy”, but she is glowing with the sort of effortless glamour that makes this journalist feel overdressed, overhung and overdrawn.
Kyle MacLachlan, last seen riding sandworms in Dune, plays Jeffrey, the college student hero of Blue Velvet whose discovery of a severed ear propels him into investigating the vice and corruption festering beneath the sunny surface of his home town, Lumberton. Jeffrey wears his shirt buttoned straight up to the neck, sans tie. How much of Lynch is there in Jeffrey? How about hiding in women’s closets to watch them disrobing?
“Well,” says Lynch, “the parts where he’s hitting women is me.”
“It’s dangerous to say things like that!” interrupts Rossellini, not wanting her director to go down in cold print as a woman-beater on the strength of a passing quip.
“None of him, in a way, and a lot of him,” Lynch continues. “He’s not quite as handsome as I am… I lived in a lot of different towns, and a bunch of them were sort of like Lumberton.”
It’s this business about hitting women which has given the film its controversial flavour. Mostly it’s Rossellini who gets hit. She plays Dorothy, a nightclub singer who is being used and abused by a maniac called Frank, played by Dennis Hopper at his wiggiest, every other word a “fuck” and snorting on an inhaler for kicks. Hopper read the script and told Lynch, “I am Frank.” One sincerely hopes not. One would prefer to think people like Frank don’t exist; he is one of the scariest villains ever to appear on screen.
“Dennis is a really talented guy,” says Lynch. “He’s a painter, a director, an actor, a photographer and really good at each thing. A happening sort of guy. I sort of think of him as Mr Sixties, but he’s the best part of the 1960s to me.” Hopper is now busy being Mr Eighties, Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Hoosiers, and popping up in just about every American movie that gets made.
Critics are already groping in vain for a genre into which to slot Blue Velvet, but as with Eraserhead, a big part of its allure is its unclassifiability. “It’s sort of a thriller and murder mystery,” says Lynch, “but it’s also a psychological drama.” And a rites-of-passage pic. And it explores the dark side of sexuality so glossily slicked over by 9½ Weeks. The nudity in Blue Velvet is harsh, unflattered by soft-focus lingerie. Dorothy comes across as less of a film noir femme fatale as a screwed-up dame, more put upon than putting out. She is the sort of character that will have Women Against Violence Against Women picketing the cinema; not only does she get beaten up and sexually abused, she seems to like it. Rossellini says the nudity worried her less than the exacting emotional demands of her role. “I didn’t have much experience as an actress, so my biggest concern was if I was going to be able to play Dorothy well enough.”
Rossellini herself is a result of the notorious liaison between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. She has been married, briefly, to Martin Scorsese. Her first major film role was as Gregory Hines’ Russian wife in White Nights, but Blue Velvet is in another league entirely, and she acquits herself admirably. (She’ll be coming up next in Tough Guys Don’t Dance, directed by Norman Mailer from his novel about a boozy writer who treats women extremely badly.)
Lynch’s next project is Ronnie Rocket, which he has been trying to set up for ages. Coppola was going to produce it before Zoetrope went down the plughole. The title character is “three and a half feet tall, has physical problems, is bald and wears a red wig, and it’s an absurd comedy and it has to do with electricity. Dino has said he wants to do it if it can be budgeted for seven million dollars.” Ronnie Rocket, which sounds as if it has the makings of another cult movie, will be set in one of those nightmare industrial landscapes Lynch is so fond of (there’s another one in Blue Velvet).
“I love industry,” he explains, “because they’re building things and I feel the power of the building. Factory workers and factory neighbourhoods became a world in my head, but I never worked in a factory. It would be nice to go in and really talk to workers, and have them show me how to run the machines and stuff. But I wouldn’t really want to give up film-making and work in a factory.”
Lynch, a former art student, still paints and does the sort of things art students do. I ask him about his “kits.” “I’ve made two,” he says. “One is a Fish Kit that I made here in London right after The Elephant Man. I bought a mackerel. The kits are based on the model airplane kits where you get a box and you take out the parts and you have to read the instructions and assemble them. So these things end up being photographs of parts of things and some instructions about how to put it together. Then it says to put it in water when it’s finished. And then I did a chicken kit in Mexico, but it didn’t come with feathers, you had to purchase them extra. And so it’s a naked chicken. And then I was all set to do a mouse kit in Blue Velvet, but you’ve just reminded me, I had about 12 mice in my freezer, and I never did the kit. The house was a rental, so I’m sure the landlord found them.”
Lynch has never, as far as I know, made a Robin Kit, although the robin features prominently in Blue Velvet as a symbol of everything being hunky-dory. (Lieutenant Pinkerton promised to return to Madam Butterfly when the robins nested, but as far as she was concerned, they never did.) “Everyone likes robins,” says Lynch, who goes on to describe an occasion when he was growing up in Boise, Idaho, and threw a dirt-clod at a robin and killed it. (“Now we’re maybe getting down to it.”) He and his friend Willard then set it on fire and floated it down the ditch, “like a Viking funeral”.
It’s all frou-frou dessert from here one: Lynch talking passionately about popcorn (cheese popcorn, candied popcorn, chocolate popcorn, crumble-coated popcorn with peanuts inside…) “On Blue Velvet, I ate an awful lot of popcorn.” And then I describe how I first saw Blue Velvet in a dubbed version in Italy, where it was called Velluto blu, which leads to a discussion of European retitling of American films: Les dents de la mer (the one about the killer shark), La fièvre du samedi soir (the one with John Travolta) and Rose Bonbon, which is the French title for Pretty in Pink.
At this point Rossellini bursts out laughing. “Rose Bonbon – that’s the name of a striptease at the Crazy Horse! Poor Molly Ringwald!”