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A product of mellow suburbia, it is almost surprising that David Lynch became one of cinema’s most original directors. We take a look into the back story of one of the most renowned filmmakers of our time.
As Lynch so eloquently put it himself in Lynch on Lynch by Chris Rodley, ‘My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast.’
Lynch and his family moved frequently, as his father worked as a research scientist for the USDA. Though it now seems unexpected, Lynch was an Eagle Scout. He was never one for school, and though he tried attending college in Boston, it didn’t take and he instead moved to Europe for several years. Upon returning from Europe, Lynch attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting.
‘In Philadelphia there were great and serious painters and everybody was inspiring one another and it was a beautiful time there,’ Lynch shared in Lynch on Lynch. It was there that he met his first wife, Peggy Reavey. She got pregnant, and the pair married and moved to Fairmount in Philadelphia. They were able to purchase a home at a steal, but the area was immensely high in crime. Despite the downside of their neighborhood, Lynch said that it influenced him greatly: ‘We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street … We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen. The house was first broken into only three days after we moved in … The feeling was so close to extreme danger, and the fear was so intense. There was violence and hate and filth. But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city,’ he recounted to Rodley.
During this time he made his first short film, titled Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). The film was one minute long and took $200 to produce. The idea was borne out of wanting to see his paintings move. The film won him praise at his university, and he found himself wanting to transition into filmmaking. He heard about the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which was offering grants to filmmakers who had previous work and a script for a new project. He sent his second short film, The Alphabet, was accepted to the Institute, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1971.
He was a natural and was one of the school’s most promising students. Despite this, he struggled with having his work prodded by professors and students and decided to drop out. After some cajoling, he returned under the condition that his new project would not be interfered with. With that, he began work on his feature Eraserhead.
When Eraserhead was finally finished after five years of production, he entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival, where it met with polarizing reviews. The dystopian world in which the film was set was not for everyone, but nevertheless the film got distribution and went onto become a cult classic.
Off the cult success of Eraserhead, Mel Brooks’ executive producer Stuart Cornfeld contracted Lynch to direct the Joseph Merrick biopic The Elephant Man. The film was an enormous success and garnered much critical praise. The film received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lynch. After the success of his second feature, Lynch was approached by famed producer Dino De Laurentiis (Scarface) and asked to make Dune in 1984 and later Blue Velvet in 1986.
Lynch’s next endeavor was the popular murder mystery Twin Peaks, which is now in development for a reboot. Following the success of the show, he made the filmic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me in 1992. He followed the prequel with his films Wild At Heart and The Straight Story.
On the cusp of a new millennium, he shifted gears and moved towards films with non-linear narrative structures and dream logics. First came the psychological thriller Mulholland Drive and then the mystery film Inland Empire. Ever one to adapt to new creative mediums, he has also produced digital content such as the animated series Dumbland and the surreal sitcom Rabbits.
Though Lynch is known for his superb filmmaking, Lynch is also a singer-songwriter and has released two albums Crazy Clown Time (2011) and the 2013 album The Big Dream. A true artist, he has also written two books, Images and Catching the Big Fish.
In addition to his artistic pursuits, Lynch founded the David Lynch Foundation in 2005. Lynch formed the foundation with the goal of bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to children and adults as an avenue to overcome traumatic experiences. Transcendental Meditation is a meditation practice performed twenty minutes twice a day that focuses on settling the mind inward to create a peaceful awareness. Lynch has practiced Transcendental Meditation every day since 1973 and, after seeing the benefits of the practice firsthand, he knew he had to introduce it to a larger audience.
The foundation specifically focuses on children in inner-city schools, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, victims of abuse, the homeless, and those in prison. In Los Angeles alone, the David Lynch Foundation has brought TM to over 2,400 children and adults since 2009. According to the foundation website, their efforts have prompted a 21% increase in high school graduation rates and a 98% decrease in suspensions. In addition to their work with students, the foundation cites a 40-55% reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression in military veterans and a ‘greater resilience and improved quality of life in abused women and children’ that have participated in TM.
With all the different facets of Lynch’s creativity, he is undeniably a true artist. The art that he creates has the capacity to heal and to entertain, to spark imagination and to spark change. When Lynch came to Los Angeles 45 years ago, he changed it for the better.