by Tara DiLullo

The release of a new David Lynch film is always a reason for fans of avant-garde cinema to rejoice. Watching a Lynch film is never simple. The audience is always challenged to follow his twisted visions as he meshes the linear with the absolutely bizarre. While Lynch has a fervent cult following, average audiences have embraced only a select few of his projects. Blue VelvetThe Straight Story, and his foray into series television, Twin Peaks, are the projects that have achieved a modicum of mainstream popularity.

Two years ago, ABC television in the U.S. attempted to work with Lynch again on another television series. They commissioned Lynch to create a pilot, which became Mulholland Drive. The core of the story revolves around Betty (Naomi Watts), a naive fresh-faced actress just arrived in L.A. looking for fame and fortune. When a stunning dark-haired amnesiac named Rita (Laura Harring) turns up in Betty’s borrowed apartment, the pair bond and travel a path of self-discovery.

Even by television standards, Twin Peaks was a quirky, albeit vastly entertaining, surrealistic oddity that barely fit the description of episodic television. You then have to wonder what the suits at ABC were expecting when Lynch delivered a Mulholland Drive pilot chock full of explicit lesbianism, violence, and meandering storylines. While the subject matter now sounds no worse than an average episode of WWF Smackdown, ABC balked and demanded edits.

Lynch declined. He took his project and hit the road, finding funding overseas with the French film company, Studio Canal. They anted up another million dollars to shoot more footage and undertake the theatrical distribution of Mulholland Drive. Now, two years later and a shared best director award for Lynch at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Mulholland Drive is opening in theaters this month for American audiences.

Recently, Justin Theroux, who plays film director Adam Kesher in the film, hosted a screening of Mulholland Drive in Philadelphia. He prefaced the start of the film by letting us know that he had just spoken to David Lynch. Lynch told Theroux to let us know that he had “nothing to impart. The audience is going to have an experience. Don’t wreck it.”

Afterwards, Justin participated in an audience Q&A, where he discussed this cinematic odyssey, working with Lynch and his interpretation of what is going on in Mulholland Drive.

What’s it like working with a script that’s so difficult to understand?

It’s a lot like watching a movie that is hard to understand. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s even more indecipherable when it’s a script because you don’t have all of the telltale “Lynchian symbology” to guide you through it — the tempo and mood and music and all the rest of it. So, you rely on David, asking him questions about what is going on, and he doesn’t give you any answers. [Audience laughs] You go through the entire experience wondering what’s going to happen, then being surprised when you see the film.

To what extent did David speak to you as an actor in trying to describe the role to you?

He is a big believer in working from the subconscious. That’s the way in which he writes — he dictates his films to someone else and works that way. That [approach] really carries through on the set, and I know this is true with all of the actors on the movie. You’ll ask him questions, just simple questions that any actor would want to know, like “Where am I going from here?” or “Why am I meeting this person?” and he doesn’t answer them at all. On one hand, that is a wonderful thing, because it whittles away any sort of intellectualization of the part. He’ll say, “In this scene, you are really angry, and in the next scene — maybe you won’t be.” [Laughter] He gets a much more true, spontaneous performance, I think.

Do you think he always knew where the film was going?

I do! If you’re cynical, you could say he’s the king of the shaggy dog — stories that go nowhere. But I don’t think so — I think he does know where it’s going, and I think he does have a purpose and an intention. He’s also a big believer in mistakes. He hates improvisation, yet if something goes wrong — he loves it. I think everyone in the film receives at least several welts to the head, and bites. He loved that because those are things he didn’t have to reproduce or Foley. He loves real violence — he encourages it at every turn. [Laughs] I think he has intentions, although there are a lot of scenes in his work and in his films which don’t necessarily fit in — within a narrative — but they fit in tonally, or thematically. The hit men thing isn’t really a payoff, or the blue box [element], but at the same time, if you remove them, something is lost from the film.

Since this was originally a TV pilot, where does the original pilot begin and where does the added material come in?

We added a large portion of the ending and shot stuff in the middle, so it’s really all sort of woven in. What was the television show, he ended up removing things and throwing things out.

Was the pilot going in an entirely different direction?

I couldn’t even tell you. I never saw a second script, and he never answered any questions for us.

Did you know what he had planned for other episodes?

No, we didn’t know what he had in store. To give you an example, he had an Asian gardener at my house [in the film] that I would have these Zen conversations with, but it doesn’t appear anywhere in the film because it wouldn’t make any sense. [Audience laughs] While the key makes a lot of sense! [Laughing] I think that Lynch is working in a hybrid form between the TV series, where he could spend a lot of time developing those ideas, and then the film, which is an abridgement of that process. I would agree and respectfully disagree at the same time. When he talks about it, he likes to think of it like a painter working on three feet of canvas who realizes he has three more feet. He loves the fact that it had this sort of mutated life form. It had its own life — like some sort of Bonsai tree that had been pruned by what he thought were his limitations — then the restraints were taken off, and he was given more money to make more film. He is very happy with the bizarre machinations that it has gone through. I can also safely say that every note that was ever handed down by the network, as far as changing the content, was completely ignored by David Lynch. Including nudity, violence, all these things which were the key factors in why it didn’t make it on the air.

There was a rumor when the pilot was pulled that it might have been related to the Columbine incident. Was that totally a cop-out?

I don’t know. It doesn’t relate to Columbine, really. The motto of ABC that year was that they were going to go “young.” They gave us these wonderful shows like Wasteland with Rebecca Gayheart, and things like that. That was what they wanted — they had a whole spate of shows that were “dramedies,” as they were calling them, about kids with their heads up their asses. [Laughs] Also, the execs were seeing dailies [of the film] on a daily basis. They were getting the rushes with just thirty minutes of people looking off into the distance. I think they had already decided to can it even before [David] had cut it together. David was also refusing all these ridiculous notes that they kept handing down. You know, my character couldn’t smoke. Or they said, he can smoke, but he must have a hacking cough [audience laughs] or another one said, he can smoke, but he must reference trying to quit. Also, the shot of dog shit in the film — there was an enormous uproar over it. [ABC] threatened to shut the whole production down if he shot the scene of dog shit. David was like, “Look, bring me a person who hasn’t seen dog shit and I’ll cut it out of the film.”

What was the mood when you found out that it wasn’t going to be aired? Was everyone disappointed?

It was a disappointment only because it was owned by like, six hundred awful corporations. Disney owned a piece of it, ABC owned a piece, Imagine owned a piece. So, it was all of us knowing that there was probably no possible way to free it from the hundreds of pounds of contracts that it was under. We were just disappointed that it would never get seen, and we were sad that we had all just spend a lot of time and energy working on it. Other networks pretended that they wanted to help [the film] but it was finally a French company [Studio Canal] that stepped up to the plate and spent the legal time and money to get it released from the clutches of Mickey Mouse. [Laughs]

How long did you spend working on the project from the original pilot to the reshoots?

About two and a half years. We worked on it for a couple months and then we had a long hiatus, maybe a year, and then we shot the additional footage.

Did David talk about the time he lived here in Philadelphia?

Yeah, apparently he didn’t have a very good time here. He went to art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and he saw many awful things. He does credit it with forming many of his worldviews. [Audience laughs] I think he saw a dead body on his doorstep, and someone getting held up at a baptism…

Did you have any reservations working with David Lynch, just because he’s so abstract?

I was very excited to work with him only knowing his body of work. If he had been a first-time director, I think I would have had many more reservations. David works from the subconscious. I have talked to him about filmmaking in general and he always talks about the subconscious, and his dream life in a sort of Jungian way. I think he injects these moments into his films that have a dreamlike quality that don’t add to the narrative — they add tremendously to the tone. I think this film would have been a poorer film if it didn’t have those scenes. I think, to watch this film or any of his films, and latch onto a prop, like the blue key — saying, “What the fuck is the blue key!” will make you very unsatisfied at the end of the film. When I watch his films, it’s sort of like listening to a John Coltrane CD. You are sort of asked to do the same thing as you do listening to a jazz record. You don’t ask why there’s a break or a solo or a high clarinet, it just happens. You can’t plot any of the pieces of those songs and say, this is what this is all about. Yet the overall tone is what’s more important.

Is there anything else that was cut that you wished had remained?

No. I only know a couple things that were cut. There were a couple characters that he wanted to expand on their stories, like the redheaded guy in the jitterbug sequence. David had more ideas for that character. But I don’t think [anything was missing] that would shed any light on the subject matter itself.

What was the budget for the film?

When it was with Disney, it was $7mil. After that, the re-shoots cost $1mil.

What is your acting background?

I studied acting in college and studied abroad in London. Then I moved to New York and did plays and off-Broadway shows. I got some small roles in films, and television roles.

Did you audition for Mulholland Drive?

David doesn’t have auditions. He just looks at photographs, then takes meetings. He whittles down people by process of elimination with photographs. He vibes who he likes, he takes a meeting with them — maybe he’ll see some other work on their reel, but mostly he just has coffee and conversation. That’s how I got the job.

What was your reaction to seeing the premiere, and does it make sense to you, or should it?

The first time I saw it was at the Cannes Film Festival [last May]. I was so nervous… I couldn’t… The first time I really saw it was a few weeks ago at the Toronto Film Festival, and the press really loved it. After seeing it a couple times now, I think I do understand it quite clearly, actually. I think I have a pretty clear picture in my mind.

Wanna share the picture?

[Laughs] Oh, you want to know? I think there are several wonderful themes throughout the film, which uses L.A. as a backdrop. I think the film sort of starts out in this demented fantasy life of this weak-minded girl [Betty] who has this idea of what Hollywood is… You move to Hollywood — all of the cliches of the dream factory. There’s also this side storyline — this love storyline with [Rita] who is sort of her dress-up doll. She can project all these things onto her and idolize her and take her by the hand. At a certain point in the film, the story flips over and the reality is seedier. Betty is someone who is really close to celebrity, but is very far away from it. I think that’s one of the tragedies, and why David chose L.A. There are very few “haves” in Hollywood. What you see, mostly, when you go — there is this cloying desperation, ankle biters who are very close in proximity to celebrity. The B-Storyline is that Betty is in love with Rita who is a celebrity, and has a lot, and Betty in turn is really just a girl that won a jitterbug contest and moved out to L.A. in hopes of becoming a wonderful actress.

Do you know if the original pilot might be released down the road?

It is never to be seen again. He submitted a cut that ABC insisted on, and he submitted in anger, rather than what he wanted.

What has Lynch been working on since?

He has been painting and sculpting. And he’s obsessed with his website, He has all sorts of fucked up animations on it. He’s very excited about it — it’s like his very own TV station.

Has David given up on working in the studio system from now on?

He is pretty much indie. The one project that he got very burned on was Dune, where he didn’t have creative control. He still refers to that as the worst experience ever. It took a lot to get him to go back and do television again, and now that he’s been burned there, he won’t do it again. He really does stick to the more respectable avant-garde studios.

What projects are you working on next?

Mary Harron is making a movie of a  book called, Please Kill Me, which is the history of punk rock. Hopefully, I’ll be doing one of several parts in that film. I’m working on a script for New Line with Ben Stiller.

What is the release strategy for Mulholland Drive?

Prayer. [Laughter]