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david lynched

9.6.99

"I feel it's possibly true that there are aliens on earth, and they work in television."
- David Lynch after ABC dropped his new series

The coming months will be bittersweet ones for fans of David Lynch. Yes, his new movie THE STRAIGHT STORY opens in October. But the movie could have opened in synergy with another Lynch project -- the ABC series MULHOLLAND DRIVE -- and that's not going to happen now. What began as Lynch's triumphant return to the network that aired TWIN PEAKS has collapsed into a flaming wreck of glimpsed possibilities and wasted talent: The tantalizing new Lynch series we've been hearing about for over a year is now officially dead. Whether we will be allowed to view the corpse remains to be seen; the corpse may be too mutilated to bear looking at.

In recent interviews in the August MOVIELINE and the Sept. 6 NEW YORKER, Lynch talks about the vast amount of network meddling that turned MULHOLLAND DRIVE from a potential new TWIN PEAKS into just another 88 minutes of television. Lynch pitched the series to ABC, who were enthusiastically receptive to another Lynch-created landmark of "appointment television"; the network spent $4.5 million on the pilot. Touchstone, according to the NEW YORKER, threw in another $2.5 million for a total budget of $7 million, "with the proviso -- which Lynch grudgingly accepted -- that he shoot extra footage to be used as a 'closed ending.' Disney's Buena Vista International intended to recoup the company's money by releasing the longer version as a film in Europe," just as ABC had done with TWIN PEAKS and its notorious "European version" of the pilot.

Lynch shot his 92-page script and edited the footage down to two hours and 5 minutes -- a no-no in network time, in which a two-hour pilot translates as 88 minutes plus commercials. It wasn't just the length ABC had problems with. A close-up of dog shit had to be minimized so that it only occupied one-eighth of the screen. ("Show me someone who hasn't seen dog shit," remarked Lynch, who found this particular adjustment especially annoying.) Various bits of violence had to be muted or deleted. Sympathetic characters couldn't smoke -- only the villains were allowed to inhale. Sundry moments of Lynchian digressions and weirdness had to go.

In brief, ABC took the pilot's wild, unruly mop of hair and gave it a crewcut. MULHOLLAND DRIVE wasn't like FRIENDS, wasn't like E/R, wasn't like anything else out there. That's why ABC committed $4.5 million to it, and that's also why they ultimately chickened out. After pressuring Lynch to crop and tame his vision for prime time (he did deliver an 88-minute cut), ABC officially passed on the series.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE may now be aired as a two-part TV movie, if for no other reason than that ABC spent $4.5 million on it and they want to get some use out of it. It's possible they might use the "closed-ending" version, which will probably be shown in Europe and eventually make its way to video. At present, there is a campaign among Lynch fans to get ABC to show the pilot. It might not be aired until early 2000, if then.

"I hope no one watches," Lynch has said, and I for one have not yet decided whether to watch. On the one hand, it is footage shot by Lynch, and if the network decides to restore Lynch's original 125-minute cut and air it over two nights, perhaps some of the elements that made it Lynchian will be restored as well. And I'm a Lynch die-hard who will find it very hard to resist adding even this truncated work to my Lynch collection. (Hell, I even have ON THE AIR and HOTEL ROOM on tape -- not to mention a nearly decade-old complete collection of TWIN PEAKS episodes taped off TV, which I can't wait to shitcan when the DVDs come out; the sound/picture quality blows.)

On the other hand, watching the MULHOLLAND DRIVE pilot knowing it will never be followed by a series will obviously be frustrating. To be drawn into this Lynchian world, compelled by the sound and images, intrigued by the characters, and then rudely locked out again, forever ... that's gonna suck. Plus, I've read the script. It reads beautifully (it even has a character called The Cowboy, one of Lynch's enigmatic sages in the tradition of the dancing dwarf and LOST HIGHWAY's Mystery Man) and could have made a great start for a strange, phantasmagoric, fundamentally Lynchian take on Los Angeles.

Could have. Yep. Two of the saddest words in the English language.

At the heart of all this is network timidity. Probably half of the new shows this fall will go into the toilet, and millions of dollars go down with each show that flops. What I can't understand is why ABC is so meek in 1999 -- when it's clear, after THE X-FILES and ALLY McBEAL, that television with a touch of the surreal makes for great watercooler discussion and strong ratings -- when they were happy to commit to TWIN PEAKS back in 1989. After all, TWIN PEAKS at that point was some odd show by this weird guy whose recent output included an expensive bomb (DUNE) and a controversial, moderately prosperous art film (BLUE VELVET).

Maybe because Lynch went into it with co-creator Mark Frost, whom the networks knew and trusted from his work on HILL STREET BLUES and other series, ABC was more willing to go along with Lynch's vision -- they knew Frost would be there to rein him in. (On MULHOLLAND DRIVE, the marriage was Lynch and Joyce Eliason, a veteran of TV movies and miniseries like THE LAST DON.) The show also had a built-in audience grabber: Who killed Laura Palmer? (The MULHOLLAND DRIVE pilot, by contrast, really has no comparable grabber.)

However, by 1999, ABC remembered how goofy TWIN PEAKS got after its first season -- remembered how drastically the ratings fell after Laura Palmer's murderer was unmasked. They wanted to be sure Lynch wouldn't go galloping off into the Black Lodge again. And Lynch, mystery man that he is, wouldn't give ABC that reassurance. He told ABC he would keep MULHOLLAND DRIVE tight and focused, but he also wanted room to discover the story and characters, and he honestly didn't know where the path might lead. That was what lured him back to TV in the first place, even after the disappointments of TWIN PEAKS and ON THE AIR. Lynch said he loved the open-endedness of series drama, the palatial space of a story that doesn't have to be resolved in two hours. These days, the MULHOLLAND DRIVE experience has left Lynch so bruised and embittered that he swears he'll never work in television again. (Then again, that's what he said after ON THE AIR got yanked.)

So MULHOLLAND DRIVE is dead, and ABC is pouring most of its fall hype into WASTELAND -- the new series from Kevin Williamson -- which is not only exactly like his other hit show (only with older characters), it's exactly like at least four other new shows airing this fall. The trials and tribulations of teens and twentysomethings are the key focus of the networks. If you're interested in any other kind of story -- anything different, anything not targeted to the 15-25 demographic -- well, as far as the networks are concerned, you can go fuck yourself.

It's been said that MULHOLLAND DRIVE is yet another casualty of Columbine -- it was violent at the precise moment when TV violence is taboo. That seems almost incidental to me, though. The words of Justin Theroux, one of MULHOLLAND DRIVE's many actors who will now miss their shot at Lynchian cult stardom, seem more accurate: "ABC assumes that America wants WASTELAND and not MULHOLLAND DRIVE, which means that they assume America is stupid. The sad thing is, they're probably right."


2001 update: This story did have a happy ending -- Le Canal Plus gave Lynch some money to shoot new footage to add to the MULHOLLAND pilot; the result won Lynch a shared Best Director award at Cannes and will be released in October 2001 -- two years after we should've seen it on ABC. It's about frickin' time.


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