Of Broken Dreams: A ‘Mulholland Drive’ retrospective
Brian Whisenant takes a ride down Mulholland Dr, looking back at David Lynch’s landmark film and talks with actor Patrick Fischler and the film’s director of photography Peter Deming
When people discover that you write about movies and sometimes even make them, there is an inevitable question that comes up.
“What is your favorite film?”
When that film is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the follow up goes something like this.
“YES…Great film…a masterpiece” then…in an almost whisper –
“What do YOU think it’s about?”
I have always hesitated to answer much beyond, “dreams or broken dreams” because, in my opinion, to over analyze Mulholland Drive is to break its magical spell. But when I was given the opportunity to write this 20 year retrospective on Lynch’s film, I could not pass it up.
I first saw Mulholland Drive when I was living in NYC back in 2001. After the credits rolled, and I found myself coming out of the theater, I didn’t know where I was, couldn’t remember how to get home, or even where the closest subway was. I was completely disoriented by what I had just witnessed.
Going in, I knew almost nothing about the background of the film, not that it was originally intended as a TV series or much else. It first came to my attention when David won Best Director at Cannes. I do remember being disappointed (but not surprised) that neither the film for Best Picture nor its actors were nominated for Oscars and a bit relieved that David got in for Best Director.
In preparing for this piece I had the incredible pleasure of speaking with cinematographer Peter Deming and actor Patrick Fischler who have both worked with David Lynch on multiple occasions. We talk about what it was like making Mulholland Drive, working with David and the film’s legacy 20 years after its release.
A love story in the city of dreams
Mulholland Drive begins with Rita, played by Laura Harring, surviving a car accident on Mulholland Dr, stumbling into a house, which will soon be occupied by Betty (Naomi Watts), fresh into town, ready to take on Hollywood! Betty is surprised to find Rita in the shower, with amnesia. But Betty is on the case! She is determined to not only become a film actress but also help Rita rediscover who she is and what happened to her on Mulholland Dr along the way.
To understand Mulholland Drive it might be best to start with Los Angeles itself. Lynch did, after all, in one of his few descriptions of the film call it A LOVE STORY IN THE CITY OF DREAMS.
“A lot of us move to LA from other parts of the county, where the weather is different, where we have seasons. To a lot of people who grew up in the midwest, the northeast…it’s kind of strange. Counter to the overall sunny feeling of LA, there is a lot of darkness going on,” cinematographer Peter Deming tells me when discussing the setting of the film.
“It’s an archetype for people who move there, like Betty. You go to this place, and it’s always nice and they make movies and everything is sort of fantastical.
“When we were shooting the pilot, and Betty is talking to Rita, and she is so incredibly happy and bubbly, being in Los Angeles…for a lot of us who had worked with David over a number of years, this was sort of, a little contrary…. One of the crew members who knew David pretty well said, David, now when this goes to series I feel like bad things are going to happen to Betty. And David didn’t say a thing. He just looked at us and didn’t say a word.”
Mulholland Drive, from failed pilot to famed feature
“We were making a film that was going to be shown on television that would hopefully be the start of a series,” Peter said, when I asked him about shooting the original 90 minutes that were initially intended for ABC Television.
Once ABC declined to move forward, David called up actress Laura Harring and told her “Mulholland Drive is dead in the water.” And it was, but not forever.
According to actor Patrick Fischler, who played Dan: “When it didn’t get picked up, a couple of months went by, and then I got an actual letter in the mail from David that he sent to a lot of the cast saying Studio Canal had offered him money to add an ending and to make it into a movie.”
Peter: “We did not reshoot anything from the pilot. David wrote what was essentially the third act and that was the additional photography. I will say there were a number of subplots that were in the pilot…a number of scenes in the pilot that had to be trimmed down (for the film). We shot all new material and a fair amount of things we shot for the pilot were pulled out to make it a feature film.”
Working with David and making the film
On working with David, Peter says: “Typically there are no shot lists or storyboards. We would rehearse the day’s work or the scene we were working on and quickly talk about how we want to shoot it and what the shots are. David likes to work spontaneously.
“One of his first creative endeavors – and it still is a love of his – is as a painter. As a painter you approach a canvas with tools that everyone else has – paints, brushes, all those things. And what happens on that canvas is what comes out of whatever preconceived notions you have in your head as well as whatever is happening that day, whether it’s something that happened to you, the weather – there’s all sorts of things that can affect you creatively. To me he approaches filmmaking somewhat from that place.”
What does it all mean????
I asked Peter if figuring out what was happening in a Lynch film was as important to the Director of Photography as it might be to the actors and he said, “It definitely is something you try (laughing) to work out when you read the script -put the pieces together. But it’s not, definitely not always, apparent. But I think, particularly when you’re shooting, you have to rely on David on those parts you’re not exactly sure about – let him take the lead whether it’s visually or whatever storytelling aspect you’re doing that day because there have definitely been times (laughing again) where I haven’t really known exactly where the story was going, why things happen, and that’s just sort of…I wouldn’t say normal, but happens often in David’s work, and you just trust in the man who is steering the ship, and that has always proved to be a smart decision.”
The Winkie’s Diner scene
For years, watching “Mulholland Drive” I used to think that the key to figuring out the film was the very memorable, very scary scene at Winkie’s Diner. In the scene, Patrick Fischler’s Dan tells Michael Cooke’s Herb about a dream he had that took place at that very diner where they are sitting. As the scene progresses, the dream becomes a reality, a living nightmare for Dan.
I asked Patrick about bringing the scene to life, from script to screen.
“That’s how it was written,” Patrick says. “What I remember – when I got the pages, I thought, Oh shit, oh wow, I really get to do something here. What he (Lynch) wrote, and what is there, is almost identical. I don’t think he edited anything out. I don’t think he changed anything. That was it.”
Preparing for the scene Patrick told me: “I got to set. I think I was 29, and I overacted the shit out of it in rehearsal. I remember it pretty vividly. David, who was just Love personified, such a gentle man said, “that was great, just great, really great Patrick, but you know…you just had a bad dream.” And I’ll never forget the fact that he was like – “you just had a bad dream,” gave me a sort of ability to realize, just simplify. He didn’t say it, but that was his direction.”
Patrick also divulged a little of his own character work that I had personally never heard before. “I also think, and this is me maybe thinking it, and I don’t know if I was ever told this, but I think my character, and it was never talked about – his job, I think he’s an agent. Because everything is connected to Hollywood in the movie.”
I asked Peter Deming about shooting the scene and he told me this: “The scene on the page was pretty straightforward, and David had come to me a few days before, and he was trying to find a way to make the scene feel a little bit nervous. We talked about doing hand held and different ways of shooting it, and what we finally zeroed in on – we had a little gib arm, and we started shooting the actors and that, combined with the dialogue and how David directed the scene, made it uncomfortable for most people.”
I shared with Patrick that when I saw the film again recently at the Los Feliz 3 in Los Angeles, it was really fun to see people who had clearly never seen the movie before jump when the Bum character (played by Bonnie Aarons) comes into view.
“It’s not scary to me when I watch it,” Patrick says, “because A, it’s me and B, I’m looking at it so differently, but when I saw it at the screening” (the film had no premiere outside of Cannes. He saw it for the first time at a cast and crew screening with his wife) the audience screamed. The audience was scared.
“It’s talked about now as one of the scariest scenes in movie history, but I couldn’t tell without the camera and the sound, and he drops the sound out…none of that was there. I had no idea. All I was doing was the scene. The jump scare – I thought it was a jump scare for my character. I did not know it would be a jump scare like it is for the audience.”
The Legacy of Mulholland Drive
Patrick continued, “Through my entire career, to this day, at least weekly someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh my god, I love Mulholland Drive. What does it mean?’ I always just say, what do you think it means? They say what they think it means, and I say – that’s it. I think David would want that too. I think it’s up to whatever your interpretation of the movie is.”
“David Lynch and Mulholland Drive changed me personally, as an actor. Who I am inside as an actor I credit fully to this movie and to David. I was a different actor going in that day when we shot than when I came out of the day. I truly could never ask for anything more.” he says.
When I bring up Mulholland Drive’s many accolades, Peter Deming responds: “It’s obviously very satisfying but it’s an amazing feat on David’s part because…when the network turned it down it sat for over a year and no one knew if it would ever see the light of day until David came up with this idea to make it a movie, found the funding in France and they were able to buy the pilot back from ABC…. Next thing you know it’s playing in Cannes, and everyone’s freaking out. We took this thing that was rejected, well, David did, and made it something that a lot of people really cherish and that’s all due to him for sure.”
For the anniversary, Naomi Watts posted a behind the scenes video on her Instagram stating, “20 years later this still stands as the most meaningful and memorable experience in my career. Indebted and grateful don’t begin to convey how I feel for being included in this film, with one of the world’s most remarkable and distinguished filmmakers.”
Although I tried to speak to David myself, his assistant very kindly told me he was currently focused on the very art Peter mentioned in my interview with him. After talking to Peter and Patrick I did email again, telling David how much he is loved, by them and by me.
During my most recent viewing of the film, having already talked to Peter and Patrick, I found myself caring even more deeply for these characters as they folded in and out of the two stories before me, trying desperately to find their place or maybe make their way out.
Who really knows, other than David himself, the true ins and outs of this incredible film. 20 years later Mulholland Drive is a haunting mind trip of a movie, a mystery not meant to be solved.
Mulholland Drive was released on October 19, 2001 by Universal Pictures. It is currently streaming on Showtime and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.