Writer, critic & curator Kristine McKenna On the art & life of David Lynch

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Kristine McKenna at home in L.A., photographed by James Wright after our interview

Kristine McKenna’s career spans conversations with some of the greatest artists in living memory. From Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young; to Orson Wells, Wim Wenders and Robert Altman, McKenna’s body of work is a treasure trove of probing, unforgettable interviews. It was a meeting in 1980, however, with an impressionable young director named David Lynch that proved to be a turning point. Developing a close friendship with Lynch, McKenna found herself in the unique position to help shape the public perception of a man who remains one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. To Lynch, words have a tendency to oversimplify and risk stripping a work of its inherent artistry. Even in collaborative creation of his 'quasi-memoir', Room to Dream, co-authored with McKenna, Lynch questions the very essence of memoirs. Speaking to Jack Nance, the star of Eraserhead, Lynch asserts, “You can tell all the stories you want, but you still haven’t gotten what the experience was like across. It’s like telling somebody a dream. It doesn’t give them the dream.” So how did Mckenna – a highly respected critic and journalist whose career began in the 1970s chronicling the LA punk scene – manage to gain the trust of a man who famously declines to explain his work? Perhaps it’s because she respects his decision not to.


James Wright: You first met with David Lynch in 1980 at a cafe on Sunset Boulevard called Ben Franks after watching Eraserhead. What was your initial impression of him over that coffee and lemon meringue pie?

Kristine McKenna: That he was more like a boy than a man. He seemed very young, shy and really inside himself. He said that there was a long period where he didn't feel like he could talk or answer conventional questions, so it was a very tentative conversation for him.


JW: He didn't feel he was equipped to answer questions because, up to that point, he had been an insular person?

KM: Look at the film he was working on. He was just ‘doing’, just persisting in doing it and not trying to explain what it was. David is still the first to admit that the most profound parts of life can't be explained. There are things beyond language that are better expressed in film; he can convey ideas and emotions that he really couldn't talk about.

I think one of his central themes is the drug of love – that initial hit and then the mess that comes after. I think that's certainly been part of his life

JW: He had just finished working on Eraserhead, but what stage of your career were you at?

KM: I was really into punk rock and I was writing for Wet Magazine. They didn't pay me, but they let me do whatever I wanted. So I tracked David down and wrote a piece on him.


JW: Have you ever reflected on how your background in music might have influenced your ability to connect with David and his work on a broader and perhaps deeper level compared to other journalists who were primarily focused on film?

KM: Definitely. In fact one of my main selling points was that I was good friends with Captain Beefheart who David loved. Beefheart was so obscure and I was kind of his gateway – that excited him – and that I was interested in his paintings because nobody had expressed much interest in them prior to that. 


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David Lynch with Naomi Watts. Photograph courtesy Kristine McKenna

JW: Following the coffee shop meeting you’ve said that you had no idea why David was subsequently so nice to you, inviting you to his sets and suggesting you as the writer whenever he was asked to be interviewed. Looking back, can you discern any early chemistry that the two of you shared?

KM: Possibly. You know, it's so funny, we were doing his correspondence and the other day I found a letter I wrote him in 1982 saying I want to work for you, and here I am, 42 years later and I'm working for him. There's something very pure in David, and he really exudes happiness. Everybody loves him. Everybody wants to be next to him because he's a very reassuring presence. 


JW: But if everyone wants to be next to him, why is it that you end up next to him?

KM: Because of the kind of work we're doing. The actors who all love him, only get to see him fleetingly. I mean he doesn't just have dinner with people. So we always have projects going on and he trusts me. 


JW: Looking back at your body of work, you’ve interviewed a number of the great auteurs: Jim Jarmusch, Robert Altman, Orson Wells, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Kieślowski et al. As you grew to know him more, did you begin to develop a sense of what made David so unique?

KM: David has maintained a really vivid imagination and he's maintained a really fierce connection to his imagination. I wouldn't say that Bob Altman didn't or Kieslowski didn't, but they didn't have the kind of eccentric imagination he has. I don't really know why. I swear I've always just kind of felt like he was a guardian angel who made my life easier. Really. I don't feel like I deserve it or anything. 

I think what interested me the most is the fact that he was able to build a successful career with such an unorthodox vision. I think people respond to the element of magic in his work

JW: Do you think you reflected back to him the purity you speak about in him?

KM: Maybe. When I first met him, the first thing he did was make me buy a mantra.


JW: Because he felt there was some sort of spiritual void that he identified?

KM: Yeah, and I didn't hide that I felt a spiritual void. I struggled for a long time. I guess with depression. He saw that and he cared. Not many other people I interviewed noticed.


JW: The early chapters of Room to Dream paint the picture of a boy who in many ways represented an almost dream-like version of a rural American youth: a bright-eyed Eagle scout who became a formally dressed fraternity student in a jacket and tie. At art school in Philadelphia, however, you begin to reveal his early interest in the ‘dark’, the violent, even sexually violent aspects of life that came to characterise a certain portion of his work as an artist. After over a hundred hours of interviews, how do you view that duality in David as a person and as an artist?

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David Lynch and Kristine McKenna's co-authored book, 'Room to Dream'. Image via Canongate

KM: It's an interesting question. Doing his archive, a couple of things I've learned: he had the most extraordinary family. They wrote letters to each other constantly for fifty years. He was the eldest boy and the fair-haired president of his class, in what was an incredibly idyllic childhood. But then you go out in the world and you see what's going on. He went from small town Boise, Idaho to D.C. His erotic imagination is really strong and that's what takes him into the dark place. I think sex has complications for him that it doesn't for other people.


JW: There's one three-line anecdote that really stayed with me throughout the entirety of the book, which is about sharing an apartment with Jack Fisk (the acclaimed production designer). Lynch is at art school in Philadelphia and he comes into the room filled with glee because a moth has flown into the canvas he was painting; it has died and is stuck in the paint. He’s described as being ecstatic because, in this accident happening, there's death present in his creation, which feels like some sort of an entry point for his work: there's beauty to be found in the darkness. Do you personally share a similar worldview in that the moments of greatest beauty can be found in the darkness?

KM: Wow, that's an interesting question. I don't revel in it like David does. For instance he just keeps his box of dead insects. I don't find that quite as delicious as he does, but I understand what he's getting at with it. He's still like that. He's still superstitious; he still believes in magic. He notices things. He looks for signs.

David spent a day at a slaughterhouse taking pictures. He's interested in decay and entropy and nature. He's still delighted by the world. It's what makes him so fun

JW: He speaks a good deal about having ideas and trying to “catch them”.

KM: Yes. Lots. He uses that. Going through the period of his life in the sixties, as I have been this week, there's all the letters from his family of course, but there's also an envelope with some toenails from a dead person that the guy at the morgue gave him that he's been carrying around for like sixty years. 


JW: Wow. Do you think that the marriage of the lightness of him as a person and the darkness of his work makes for a complexity that has always made him so interesting to women?

KM: Oh, that's interesting. Part of the reason he's interesting to me is because he loves women. He still has love letters from the fourth grade, he saved his whole life. That's part of what women respond to. When he's courting a woman, I don't think the darkness comes into play. He's really fun. 

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Kristine with Captain Beefheart, Trinidad, CA, 1984. Photograph by Nick Chase, courtesy Kristine McKenna


JW: After decades of practising Transcendental Meditation, do you think today's David Lynch would want to visit a morgue to be close to real life dead bodies?

KM: Yes, definitely. He's still interested in that kind of stuff. He spent a day at a slaughterhouse taking pictures. He’s taken pictures of people with horrible disorders of the mouth that he finds beautiful. So yes, he still would want to do that. He's interested in decay and entropy and nature. He's still delighted by the world, which is what makes him so fun. He's still amazed by it everyday.


JW: Was there one aspect of his life or one particular project that you were most looking forward to diving into and exploring in depth?

KM: I think what interested me the most is the fact that he was able to build a successful career with such an unorthodox vision. I think people respond to the element of magic in his work. That things can happen in a kind of magical way and they do. 


I think David has always told the same story. Leonard Cohen said that every songwriter has one song, and you keep thinking you're doing something new, but she returns to you again and again in the original blue gown. That's how he put it


JW: What three David Lynch projects go in the personal Kristine McKenna ‘pantheon’?

KM: If I had to save three it would be Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and either Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. Why The Elephant Man? Because it's so classically beautiful and it's executed with such subtlety. It's just a beautiful movie. Eraserhead because it's so audacious and crazy. How he did that on nothing, I don’t know. It was $300K. And Mulholland Drive combines everything that he's interested in: illusions about life, terrible violence, the craven impulses of people. It's a big, complete movie.


JW: It is true that Showtime never saw a script for the Twin Peaks: The Return?

KM: It’s true. They financed the whole thing entirely. There aren't many directors in the world who can get away with doing that: you get what you are going to get. And it’s going to be eighteen episodes, not nine.


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Kristine with Leonard Cohen at KCRW in the mid '80s. Photograph by Nick Chase, courtesy Kristine McKenna

JW: And there's going to be three minute sequences of someone just sweeping the floor. Do you remember watching Twin Peaks when it aired?

KM: My first impressions of season one was that it was such a masterful melodrama. He took all the clichés of melodrama and refreshed them somehow and gave them deep, new meaning. The first season was just exquisite and really well performed. Season 2 fell apart because David left to go shoot Wild at Heart and all these other directors shot them and he didn't have control over the scripts. Season 3, he obviously had total control and I thought that was, it was uneven. There were parts of it I didn't really care for, but there are extraordinary parts too.


JW: I don't think there are too many other people who would be as compelling as a subject to spend time with as David Lynch. But, looking back on your body of work, are there any other artists about whom you’ve thought: ‘I would love to spend the same amount of time with that person as I did with David’?

KM: Well, Kieslowski and Tarkovsky. I think those are the only two. Jim Jarmusch I really admire but he doesn't have the depth of those two European filmmakers. I'd say those are the two I feel like I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what they did.


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Kristine with William Eggleston at the Chateau Marmont, 1994. Photograph by Andrea Eggleston, courtesy Kristine McKenna

JW: Over the course of conducting 120 interviews for the book, did you notice a kind of evolution as to the types of stories David wanted to tell? Or do you think that has remained entirely consistent?

KM: I think David's told the same story, always. He'll continue to tell that story. I kind of believe that. Leonard Cohen said that. He said every songwriter has one song and that you keep thinking you're doing something new but she returns to you again and again in the original blue gown. That's how he put it. It was so beautiful.  I think one of his central themes is the drug of love – that initial hit and then the mess that comes after. I think that's certainly been part of his life.


JW: Are there any misconceptions about David that you’d like to clarify?

KM: I mean, he still considers himself a painter first. 


JW: Really?

KM: The art world has never taken him seriously. 


JW: Why is that?

KM: Because it's kind of like you're not allowed to cross over, the same reason Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell took their painting seriously but the feeling was they should stay in their lane. David started out as a painter and he's never stopped painting. I'm trying to get him a new gallery right now and it's very challenging. 

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Kristine with Ray Charles at his recording studio in Los Angeles, 1980. Photograph by Steve Samiof, courtesy Kristine McKenna


JW: That surprises me. 

KM: It surprises me too. People don't know his work in the U.S. 


JW: Do you think his formal training as a painter fed into his sensibility as a filmmaker?

KM: Absolutely. The drawings that he made were very mysterious, very beautifully executed. Often erotic.


JW: You and David met quite early in your careers. Has your collaboration with him influenced your approach to interviewing other subjects?

KM: Possibly. My friends tease me about this – I asked really off-the-wall, unconventional questions, the kind of questions David's totally comfortable with. I think the collaboration shaped me as a person because I aspire to be like him. Because he has peace of mind and happiness. I didn't have that then. And I wanted to know how to get that. I'm closer to that now than I was then.


I loved David from the time I met him. Sometimes you meet people and your heart just opens to them and it stays open

JW: Can you give an example of your unorthodox questions?

KM: “Why does love die”? I got really different answers from various artists to that one.


JW: That's a great question. Why does love die?

KM: Allen Ginsberg says love doesn't die it just gets covered up by misunderstandings and history and time and weariness. Ray Charles said it’s because people get together thinking they can change a person and they can't. I still love everyone I ever loved. Love changes. That first eighteen-month chemistry love dies because that's all about illusion. It has to die. By illusion and projection. But I think authentic love doesn't die. Authentic love… doesn't die. 

I have loved David from the time I met him. Sometimes you meet people and your heart just opens to them and it stays open.


JW: That’s beautiful. In the process of doing his archive, are there aspects of his character and personality that reveal themselves with every piece of ephemera and memorabilia that you find?

KM: The depth of his letters. He was a big letter writer and maintained these love affairs with high school girlfriends that went on until they died. He never stopped loving them.

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Bryan Ferry cover story for the NME, 1982; Photograph by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Kristine McKenna


JW: The question at the heart of all of his work, and of your characterisation of him as a person, is this very pure example of a type of homespun American charm: a person with kindness and grace paired with a hugely contrasting, somewhat opaque interest in the sinister and the erotic.

KM: But that is part of life, and not everybody has the courage to look at the full spectrum of what this experience is here on Earth. We prefer to not have that in our panoramic vision, generally. But he's comfortable with it, and doesn't put things in a hierarchy of value, really. Bad experiences are no less good than good experiences.


JW: Does he have any regrets as a filmmaker or an artist?

KM: I think he wishes he'd made a few more films. He has several unproduced screenplays. And he has two he's working on right now. But no, I think it's kind of amazing that he navigated those shark infested waters as well as he did and came out intact. 


JW: Do you think you’ve always had the instinct and ability for developing intimacy, even as a young writer?

KM: I always felt like it was an incredible privilege to get to talk to the people I talked to. So I wanted to engage them at as high a level as I could. I didn't want to talk about promoting a product. I wanted to talk about questions I was wrestling with, and they probably were too. So right from the start, I came up with unusual questions.


JW:  Do you think that's something innate within you?

KM: Yes, I think I'm a curious person, definitely. 

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Grace Jones cover story for the NME, 1983. Photograph by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Kristine McKenna


JW: And do you think there's a scarcity of that in the world?

KM: There's a lot of narcissism today. A lot of people don't have the courage to ask what they really want to know, which is a shame. But I just decided for a conversation to have any meaning, you have to ask what you're really interested in.


JW: Who was the most generous interviewee other than David?

KM: Leonard Cohen, definitely Leonard, because he really cared about people. And he was really interested in other people other than himself. And because he understood depression – he wrestled with it his whole life. He knew about darkness and so he could speak to that with the knowledge most people can't. Joe Strummer also was incredibly generous. But no one was like David.



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