Learning from David Lynch's Most Practical Directing Advice
There are few storytellers as unique as David Lynch, who is often hailed as one of the most important filmmakers of recent cinema.
Known for his surrealist imagery and unconventional storytelling techniques, director David Lynch can captivate, confuse, or disturb audiences with his films. He challenged norms with his 1977 body horror film, Eraserhead, which went on to become a cult classic after playing midnight circuits.
In 1980, The Elephant Man jettisoned him into the mainstream. He went on to create critical successes like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, the latter of which is a dreamy, nonlinear film that can be interpreted a number of ways.
Although it would be impossible to mimic Lynch's creative process and style of direction, the following nuggets of Lynchian wisdom can perhaps help aspiring filmmakers to think outside the box -- if the box exists at all. We might be dreaming right now.
1. Coach your brain to develop even fragments of ideas.
Lynch is often asked where he gets his unique ideas, and he usually gives a variation on this answer. Sometimes he says ideas are like seeds, small things that can grow into a larger, more cohesive whole. Sometimes Lynch likens himself to a radio receiver, ready to accept any signals flying throughout the universe.
In the clip below, he says ideas can be hooked. Even if you start with a partial idea, write it down, and use it as a way to draw in, hook, and develop the next part of your idea. "And pretty soon, you might have a script," Lynch says.
Lynch also says ideas are like fish. You catch them and prepare them for consumption, like a chef.
2. Create a routine so you have time for creativity.
Lynch says he prefers order in his daily life so his brain can be free to pursue all the ideas he's going to hook during his development process. In 2000, he told Charlie Rose about how he eats the same things every day, except when he's traveling.
"The purer the environment," he says, "the more fantastic the interior world can be, it seems to me."
3. Communicate extensively and experiment with your actors.
One of a director's biggest responsibilities is making sure your actors are on the same page with you and able to fulfill your creative vision. For someone with a vision as exceptional as Lynch's, he knows that communicating and being willing to try different things with his actors will bring everyone closer to the goal. No ideas are stupid, so experiment away.
4. While working with actors, don't forget the emotion of scenes.
Take a look at this clip of Lynch directing on set. He's passionate and excited, and he lets himself get emotional to evoke the same things in his actors. Don't be afraid to get caught up in the wonder or feeling of the story you hope to tell.
5. Stay true to your ideas.
Once you have your fishy ideas hooked and strung together for a full story, Lynch told Creative Screenwriting that you then have to stay true to those ideas.
"It’s the ideas," Lynch says. "It’s always the same. It’s the story and the way it’s told. The only way you can hold it together is to be true to the ideas. They may be more full than you realized at first. But if you’re true to them, they seem to unfold as you go and you know more and more. If you veer off, you go off into a dangerous area where it can fall apart. You should be alert for new things to come along that still tell the thing in an honest way. A lot of time that happens. It’s the original idea that hits you and what you stay true to."
Lynch repeats this sentiment in his talk at the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art.
6. Never choose a project just to do something different.
While talking to Elvis Mitchell in 1998, Lynch said he doesn't work on a project with the idea that it's going to be different than anything else being made, in this case Blue Velvet.
He points out that he cannot know what the Hollywood landscape will be a year or two after working on a project, so his movie might be totally unique, or it might not be. In Lynch's eyes there's no point in worrying about the film's reception at that point.
7. Don't get caught up in the digital vs. film debate. Do what works best for you.
Before Inland Empire, Lynch shot exclusively on film. But then he picked up the Sony DSR-PD150, a smaller, easier camera to use on the fly, which ended up being perfect for him.
Although he has no interest in shooting on film from a practical standpoint, Lynch has also acknowledged the beauty and depth of celluloid and hopes the two can coexist.
8. The soundscape of a film is just as important as the imagery.
As a musician himself, Lynch often gives just as much attention to the sounds of his films and how music, sound effects, and story coalesce. He considers finding the right sounds an important part of the experiment of filmmaking, and states, "Cinema is sound and picture flowing together in time." He also says he views film as he does music, as a work of art that flows and has different movements and tempos.
9. You can be vague, because "the film is the thing."
Lynch doesn't like to be asked what his films are about, and he doesn't like to have to explain himself. He believes as a director that his responsibility is to translate the ideas he's received, put them together in a perfect combination of visuals and sound, and let a work stand on its own.
Film and "the language of cinema," as he calls it, are meant to inspire thought and conversation. So don't shy away from telling nontraditional stories that can be interpreted many different ways.
10. Consider meditation as a creative tool.
Lynch practices transcendental meditation as a method of inner reflection and a way to expand his consciousness. He claims his helps him find his creative center and gets his ideas flowing.
Check out the interview below for a very Lynchian description of the process and benefits, and then let us know if you've ever tried to meditate before working on a script or set!
What have you learned from watching Lynch's films?