by Clarke Speicher

Surrealist director David Lynch hit ratings gold when his series Twin Peaks launched in 1990 on ABC. The question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” was on the lips of viewers nationwide. When the question was finally answered, people stopped watching, and the show was promptly canceled.

No such luck befell Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s second television venture for ABC. Lynch’s muse this time around was Los Angeles — and all of the ill-fated dreams associated with Hollywood, especially for budding starlet Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Harring). Confused by Lynch’s off-beat style, ABC executives promptly canned the show before it could even air.

Undaunted, Lynch shopped the film around and found studio backing from French financiers Canal. The film went on to win Lynch best director honors at the Cannes Film Festival and has been acclaimed as one of his greatest works.

Justin Theroux — who beat out hundreds of actors for the part of Adam Kesher, a Hollywood director who has an interest in Betty and Rita — is just happy someone finally got to see it.

After going through the usual casting call, Lynch hand-picked Theroux as his male lead.

“Hand-picked may be overstating it a bit,” Theroux says. “David just looks at photographs, has meetings with the ones he likes. If he likes talking to you, then you’ve got the part.”

Most of Theroux’s acting experience comes from off-Broadway plays, but his film credits include small parts in 1999’s American Psycho and last year’s independent romantic comedy, The Broken Hearts Club, as well as appearances on The District and Sex and the City.

Theroux sat down with The Review after a screening of Mulholland Drive at the Ritz East in Philadelphia to talk about working with an eccentric director like Lynch, the agony of cancellation, and the exact meaning of all of it.

Is David Lynch a control freak?

No! No, he’s a very soft-spoken guy. I’ve seen him get angry a few times, but he gets angry in a funny way. He’s corny and sort of dorky.

Did you have any reservations about working with Lynch because he’s so abstract, or were you excited to be working with him?

I was very excited to be working with him only because I’m familiar with his body of work. If he had been some first-time director trying to pull this, I definitely would have been concerned. But with David, I had faith.

Do you think Lynch even understands this film?

I do. I guess if you’re being cynical, you could say he’s the king of the shaggy dog, sort of, 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. Maybe he’s just covering his ass, but he’s also a big believer in mistakes. He hates improvisation, but if something goes wrong, he loves it. Everyone in the filming of this received at least several welts on their heads in fights. He loves real violence and encourages it. There are scenes that exist in a lot of his films that don’t necessarily fit in any sort of narrative, but they fit in thematically or tonally, like adding colors to the canvas. The hit man thing doesn’t really have a payoff, or the person covered in schmutz or the blue box. But if you remove them, something’s lost in the film.

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

It’s a lot like watching a movie that’s hard to understand. It’s even more indecipherable when it’s a script, because he’s a big believer in working from the subconscious. You ask him simple questions any actor would want to know, like, “Where am I going from here? Why am I meeting this person?” and he doesn’t answer them at all. Which, in a weird way, is a wonderful thing because it sort of whittles away any intellectualization of the part and really frees you for the moment.

What was your reaction the first time you watched Mulholland Drive?

The first time I saw it was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was so nervous I couldn’t concentrate. The first time I really saw it was at the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago, and I really loved it. After seeing it a couple of times now, I think I understand it, or at least have a clear picture in my head of what I think it means.


You want to know what I think? I think there are several wonderful themes throughout this film. I think this film begins in this sort of demented fantasy life of a weak-minded girl who basically has an idea of what Hollywood is — you have a brilliant audition, then meet the hottest director, and then you blah, blah, blah. But there’s also this side storyline, a twisted love story where she treats this girl as a sort of dress-up doll to project all of these things onto and take by the hand. And then it flips and shows the reality, where she is sort of close to celebrity, but she’s also very far away. And I think that’s the tragedy of Los Angeles. There are very few haves and what you see most is this desperation with people so physically close to celebrity they turn into a manic personality. She falls in love with a celebrity, but she’s just a girl who won a jitterbug contest.

There’s a shot right before everything drifts into insanity that looks like it came from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Do you think that might be the key to figuring everything out?

Which shot?

When they’re lying in bed together and one girl is lying facing the ceiling with her profile to the camera, and the other girl is lying on her side so that their lips sort of match up, and it looks like one face.

I never even noticed that before. I don’t know if that’s the key, but I know if David were here he’d say, “That’s wonderful.” He’s perfectly happy having anyone leave this theater making any conclusion they want as long as it left some sort of impression.

This was intended as a series for ABC. Where does the original pilot end and the filming Lynch did later begin?

We added, obviously, a large portion of the ending and we shot stuff in the middle, so it’s all sort of woven in. A lot of the stuff from the television show ended up being thrown out. He had some Asian gardener at my house that I would have these Zen conversations with, but he doesn’t appear anywhere in the movie because it wouldn’t make any sense. As opposed to the key, which makes lots of sense.

Was it going in a different direction as a series than the way it ended up as a movie?

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

Why did ABC decide not to air it?

I can tell you every note that was ever handed down from the network, as far as changing the content, was completely ignored by David Lynch including nudity and violence, which was the main factor in why it never made it on the air. If it was sanitized in any way, it just wouldn’t have been a true work by David Lynch. There was one note that said I couldn’t smoke, but if I did smoke, then I had to have a hacking cough and references that I’m trying to quit. There was also a problem with the shot of a pile of dog shit. They threatened to shut the whole production down if we shot a pile of dog shit. David said, “Bring me a person who hasn’t seen dog shit, and I’ll take it out.” I realized that the show is incidental to the ads. You could have someone fucking a chicken up there, and it doesn’t matter to ABC. They just want people to watch the commercials. In Ally McBeal, you start off with someone talking about a pet frog and some legal case about masturbation — lots of hooks to keep your interest. In Mulholland Drive, you start off with seven minutes of a car accident, someone stumbling around dazed. I’m sure ABC was thinking, “OK, we’ve just lost 10 million viewers.”

Did Lynch like that it became a movie?

He loves the fact that it had this sort of mutated life form. The restraints were taken off and he was given more money to film more, so he’s happy with the machinations that it’s gone through. He compared the show to being a dead body, like a body with no head, but the film production company Canal Plus came in and allowed him to bring life to it.

Will the original pilot ever be seen again?

It will never be seen again. He submitted a cut that was an awful cut that they insisted on, but he was extremely dissatisfied with it.

What was your reaction when you found out it wasn’t going to be a show? Did you know it would automatically be a movie?

I was disappointed only because it was owned by like 600 corporations — ABC owned a piece of it, Imagine owned a piece of it, and Disney, too — and just knowing there was probably no possible way to extrapolate it from the hundreds of contracts it was under. So it was disappointing knowing it would never be seen, and also because we had also spent a lot of time working on it.

Did David Lynch ever speak to you about when he used to live in Philadelphia?

Yeah, apparently he didn’t have a very good time. He said he saw many awful things that he credits with forming his world view. I think he found a dead body on his doorstep once and he saw some people on their way to a baptism get held up.