Daily Transmission #4: Interviewing David Lynch

Celebrity interviews are rarely good. This is not the fault of the writer, or the interview subject. The very concept is flawed. There are only so many ways you can ask, “Tell me about your latest project,” and only so many ways a celebrity can answer.

It’s like asking, “What’s the capital of Pennsylvania?” The answer will be Harrisburg, or, if the interview subject is quite clever, “Not Miami.” You can’t ask for the capital of Pennsylvania and expect the interview subject to explain their thoughts on the human condition. There’s just not much meat in the question, or the format.

Ask a celebrity about their latest project and they will spit out the one sentence, well-rehearsed answer which will lead to a stale anecdote about something mildly funny that happened on the set of the new movie.

And the interview ends.

It’s the nature of the beast. That’s how quick, celebrity interviews are handled. (Spoiler Alert: It’s all marketing, and if you needed me to tell you that, deduct 100 points from your final score.)

I’ve interviewed between 50 and 1,000,000 people for stories during my career. I can’t keep track of them all. They happen fast and are forgotten seconds after the story is published.

Most of my interviews have been with celebrities of B, C, or E-list status. The interviews take place over the phone, with a caffeinated PR handler listening in and making sure their celebrity stays on message. If a question is too interesting, the PR handler will cut into the conversation and either politely or rudely scold me and demand the interview come back around to the latest project. At which point I kindly apologize and ask, “So what was it like working with Andy Dick? I heard he can be a handful.”

Writing Tip: Pretend you care. Of all the people involved in quick celebrity interviews, the PR handler cares the most. They think this matters. They truly believe that a 300-word story buried in a magazine or on a website filled with glitchy ads will somehow turn a tired romantic comedy into the next Star Wars simply because the actress who plays the sister of the film’s main character was brave enough to answer the question, “What was it like working with Andy Samberg? Was he always funny on the set?”

The interview lasts between ten and twenty minutes, and if I get a good thirty seconds of honest conversation with the person, it’s a win. I transcribe the story soon after I hang up, so that the info is fresh in my head. Then I write the story, submit the story and forget the story.

There are writers who are great at these quick, celebrity interviews. Writers can make entire careers asking about latest projects. And I have friends who are truly gifted at turning a twenty-minute interview into an amazing story. Some writers have a knack for it. I am not one of them.

Longer interviews, the type the turn into 2,000-word feature stories are a different animal, one that requires more research and more time with the interview subject. I like these stories. I like reading them. I like writing them. They make sense to me. But a quick, three question interview about the season finale of Ice Road Truckers? I struggle making those stories work. And I wonder who is reading the story and caring about the answers.

“Well, I wasn’t going to watch Ice Road Truckers, but then I read that this one trucker has a good BBQ recipie. Now I gotta watch!”

Of all the people I’ve interviewed, only a few stand out. I remember my first celebrity interview, when I was a young Associate Editor for the now defunct Stuff Magazine. It was with the all-girl classical pop band Bond. They were very nice. I don’t remember their names or why I was interviewing them. I think they were British.

I vaguely remember interviewing Bradley Cooper back when he was just a co-star on Alias. He was nice, too.

Dick Dale, the “king of surf guitar” best known for his track “Misirlou” (a.k.a. The Pulp Fiction song), yelled at me during an interview because I wasn’t asking about his 12-year-old son. He was very proud of his son.

And one time an MMA fighter bit me.

But of all the celebrities, David Lynch was my favorite and most memorable interview.

It was a short, phone interview, maybe thirty minutes of actual talk time after half-a-day of phone tag with his assistant. But it was amazing.

David Lynch is a genius. He is a personal hero of mine. His work inspires me and his personality charms me. His brain works on a higher, alien level. He doesn’t belong here. I believe he is trapped on this planet and he is trying to communicate with us through his bizarre, beautiful work. And I’m thankful that he exists.

Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s masterpiece. It’s always on my list of favorite films, and on some days, it beats out The Godfather for the top spot. Roger Ebert once wrote of having near out-of-body experiences while watching great movies. Watching Mulholland Drive in a nearly-empty theater, I understood what Ebert meant.

I love David Lynch. I love how he works. I love that he makes art on his own terms. I love that he makes his own furniture. I am a fan.

When I was offered an interview with Lynch for Stuff Magazine’s “A Guy and His Stuff” section, I jumped at the chance. (I’m guessing this was around 2002 or 2003.)

I called his office in L.A. and when he answered, my first instinct was to hang up and bury the phone deep in the Earth. I collected myself, took a breath and started the interview…by first explaining my fandom and how much I worshiped him.

Writing Tip: Don’t do that. Don’t start by saying, “I’m such a huge fan!” That’s not a question. Your interview subject can’t answer that. It’s like screaming, “Corn is from the ground!” What do you say to that? Most celebrities will offer a polite, “That’s so nice,” and you can move on from your gushing praise, but it’s always better to start an interview with an actual question instead of a statement.

Speaking with David Lynch is like talking to a grandfather. He was warm and friendly, chatty and funny. He is the only celebrity who knew my name and called me Dan. When I asked what was in his pocket, he said, “Well, Dan, let me see.” Most interview subjects don’t even know the publication you’re writing for, let alone your own name. This little moment was wonderful. This stuck with me. He called me Dan.

I wish I could say that I was calm and cool during the interview. I was not. I was a nervous fanboy stumbling over my questions. I’m sure if you listen back to the tape (that microcassette is a sacred artifact which I have kept safe all these years) you can hear ocean waves — that’s the sweat dumping out of my forehead.

I was not a professional reporter. I was Chris Farley on SNL’s The Chris Farley Show asking, “Remember when you made Blue Velvet? That was awesome.”

The story turned out well enough. Lynch offered great answers to my inane questions. What was in his pocket? His answer: Four pairs of sunglasses, a picture of a tree frog and a pair of pink panties. There is no answer more Lynchian than that.

My girlfriend framed the magazine page. I scanned it and you can see it below. (Click it to make it big and good.) Can you tell I was nervous?

Of all the people I’ve interviewed, David Lynch was my favorite.