ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
"Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," "Mulholland Drive" and "Eraserhead"; they're some of the most disturbing, visually arresting and confounding films to come out of American cinema. They also came out of director David Lynch's fertile, if twisted, imagination. Lynch's work has been called surreal and experimental. Now he's experimenting with digital video. Reporter Andrea Shea has more on his new film.
ANDREA SHEA: "Inland Empire" is David Lynch's first film in five years. Before we turn to it, though, here's a sampler to remind us why David Lynch's films have been called brutal, bizarre and beautiful. Lush images, transgressive characters, intricate non-linear plot-lines, creepy sound effects and unusual music are all tell-tale Lynch.
(Soundbite of movie, "Blue Velvet")
Ms. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI (Actor): (As Dorothy Vallens) Put your hands up on your head. Do it. Get on your knees. Do it.
(Soundbite of movie, "Lost Highway")
Mr. ROBERT BLAKE (Actor): (As Mystery Man) We've met before, haven't we?
Mr. BILL PULLMAN (Actor): (As Fred Madison) I don't think so.
(Soundbite of knocking)
SHEA: The David Lynch experience often leaves audiences dazed and confused. His new film is no different. A bleary-eyed Matt Forsyth(ph) drove from Newport, Rhode Island to the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts to see "Inland Empire."
Mr. MATT FORSYTH: I can't really say that I understood it. I think it's probably the least understandable of any of his movies that I've ever seen, but as far as, like, what actually happened in it, I really don't know, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHEA: Kevin DuPhrain(ph) of Quincy, Massachusetts sympathizes.
Mr. KEVIN DUPHRAIN: If this movie were an I.Q. test, I'd be very much in trouble.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUPHRAIN: But I liked it. It's very unsettling. It was just like watching a three-hour nightmare.
SHEA: Sitting at nearby restaurant in-between cigarettes and holding a cappuccino, David Lynch says processing that three-hour nightmare is something like remembering a dream.
Mr. DAVID LYNCH (Filmmaker): If you sit and think about it, you know much more than you would realize. At the same time, if you try to tell your dreams to a friend, no matter how good your words are, they don't have the same experience, so it's a tricky business.
SHEA: Now, if you think Lynch is going to deconstruct "Inland Empire" or any of his films, think again. He never explains his movies.
Mr. LYNCH: Why? Because the film should stand on its own. Nothing should be added; nothing should be subtracted. It is that. It's that. And it took a long way to get it to be just that way. So you just take your punches. People can interpret it any way. It's super-cool for me, and they can walk out. But as soon as you say certain things, then that's what it becomes.
Mr. PETER KEHOE (Critic): You have to use, I think, all parts of your brain when you're seeing a David Lynch movie, the part that responds to the subconscious and to images and the part that tries to rationalize.
SHEA: Peter Kehoe reviews films for the Boston Phoenix. He sees "Inland Empire" as a cinematic fugue and compares it to James Joyce's puzzler, "Ulysses."
Mr. KEHOE: So you can spend the rest of your life with this film or, you know, going back to "Eraserhead," almost all of his movies, trying to figure out what they mean. Or you can get a job and, you know, become a productive member of society.
SHEA: Like, say, actress Laura Dern.
Ms. LAURA DERN (Actress): When I was hired by David at 17, I remember reading "Blue Velvet," and it just, you know, it blew my mind, and it scared me, and it confused me, and you know, all the things his movies do when I'm watching them.
(Soundbite of movie, "Blue Velvet")
Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor): (As Frank Booth) In dreams I talk to you.
SHEA: When David Lynch contacted Dern about "Inland Empire," she says he described the plot in one sentence, but that's as far as he'd go.
Ms. DERN: I want to make this film about a woman in trouble. And at first, you know, one could say, great. Could you give me some more information? But in fact, that one line carried me through three years.
(Soundbite of movie, "Inland Empire")
SHEA: "Inland Empire" started as an experiment, according to Lynch. He says it grew organically out of shooting short films for his Web site with a small consumer digital camera that he grew to love.
Mr. LYNCH: And I started getting ideas for one scene at a time. And I would write the scene out and gather people together and shoot that scene, not knowing if it would ever hook on to any other scenes and not knowing if it would go, you know, wherever. I didn't think about it.
SHEA: While this was liberating for Lynch, it made it difficult for Dern. In the end, though, Dern says the confusion she felt while acting on the fly mirrors the experience of her character, Nikki, who can't figure out if it's today or tomorrow.
Ms. DERN: One of the pitfalls for an actor, knowing what has come before and what is coming ahead, is that we feel sometimes we're supposed to inform the audience in what the character's trajectory is. But in real life, as we know, it doesn't work that way.
SHEA: Dern says she relishes working with a maverick artist like Lynch, who's given her some weird but juicy roles. And sure, it can be bizarre on the set, she says. Take this story about a new producer who approached Dern while making "Inland Empire."
Ms. DERN: And he took me aside and he said, Laura, David called me this morning. I can't figure out if it's a joke. I said, what did he say? He said bring me a one-legged woman, a monkey and a lumberjack by 3:15. I said, yeah, you're on a David Lynch movie, dude. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. He's like, but what did that mean? I said that you need to bring him a lumberjack, a monkey and a one-legged woman by 3:15. And by 4:00, we were shooting with all three of the individuals that he had found for David. That's pure David Lynch.
SHEA: A handful of independent theaters are screening "Inland Empire," which might be one of the purest examples of Lynch ever. The digital camera freed him from clunky equipment and the high cost of film, and he's also distributing "Inland Empire" himself, which mean no one is telling him to edit down his three-hour-long experience. And, David Lynch says emphatically, he'll never go back to shooting with celluloid again. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.
(Soundbite of "Twin Peaks" theme)
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