A phantasmagoric psychological epic that could be broadly described as an exploration of fracturing identity, 2006’s Inland Empire is arguably filmmaker David Lynch’s most labyrinthine and challenging work, which is of course saying something.
Starring Laura Dern as an actress landing a highly coveted role opposite a ladies-man movie star (Justin Theroux) in On High In Blue Tomorrows, a remake of a supposedly cursed gypsy folktale, Lynch’s movie dips in and out of scenes involving their onscreen identities, depicting a deadpan sitcom about anthropomorphized rabbits, a group of Polish prostitutes, an abusive hypnotist named the Phantom, and more. Lynch is as always doggedly and good-naturedly opaque about narrative “meaning,” but his film’s associative logic proved years ahead of its time, and its free-form, heavy-lidded mood still packs a heavy punch.
After originally shooting Inland Empire on standard definition video, Lynch supervised a complicated process with distributor Janus Films to upscale and re-release the film in UHD/4K resolution. He gave it a new color pass, added a layer of grain and remastered the audio with the film’s original mixers, Ron Eng and Dean Hurley.
The A.V. Club recently spoke with Lynch about revisiting the film and whether that awakened a desire to do it with more of his movies.
The A.V. Club: With Inland Empire, I understand there wasn’t a full script before production. Were you writing scenes as you went along?
David Lynch: Let’s clear this up. When you write a script, at least what my experience has been, you don’t suddenly see the whole script and spit it out and type it out with no typos, just perfect, in one sitting. That never happens, never will happen. You get an idea, and you write that one out, then you’re going along, you don’t have any script, you had an idea and you wrote it out. Then you go along, you get another idea and you write it out. Now you have two ideas, but you don’t have a script. You go along a little bit more and you get a third idea, you write it out. And you look and you say, “Wait a minute, I have three ideas, and none of them relate to one another.” Fine! No problem. There’s no script, just three ideas that don’t relate. You go along and you get a fourth idea, and this fourth idea relates to the first three, and you say, “Oh, something’s happening.” And then, when something starts happening, more ideas flood in, quicker! Quicker they come, like schools of fish, schools of fish! And the thing starts to emerge, and a script appears. That’s exactly the way it happens. And that’s exactly the way it happened on Inland Empire.
The only difference was that I happened to shoot each of those first three ideas. Not only did I write them down, but I shot them. I built a set, or I went to a location and I shot them, and they didn’t relate. And then I got the fourth idea, which related to them, and now I’m stuck with the [technical format], because I’ve already shot these three. But now the whole thing has come together and I’m starting to write and I’ve got the whole thing now coming. That’s the way it happened. So it wasn’t that I had no script. I had a script all along the way. It just wasn’t complete until it was complete, the way every other script is.
AVC: Had you revisited Inland Empire at all prior to the remastering experience?
DL: One time, but I became so depressed because I was watching a DVD and some scenes were so dark I couldn’t see them. And I thought, “Well, this is a catastrophe that this is out in the world.” And I got very depressed. But then I got a chance to fix it.
AVC: Inland Empire was made around the time that your eponymous website was still a big passion project, and I know you had a lot of passion as well for the Sony PD-150 camera on which the film was shot. Was that miniDV format as big a creative component as any particular single narrative inspiration or thematic ingredient you were seeking to explore?
DL: In a way. You know, sometimes if you see a Polaroid picture for the first time, as opposed to, I don’t know, an image from a regular film camera, you say, “Oh, I have some ideas that maybe could work with the Polaroid.” And so every time you see something new, some kind of ideas start coming, and some of those ideas can lead even more out there, and a whole other world can open up. So the Sony PD-150, number one it gave me some ideas maybe that way, because of its freedom—freedom. Long, long takes, lightweight, hold it yourself, automatic focus, it was a brand new ballgame.
AVC: Inland Empire connects to associative logic in a way that is completely intuitive for a younger generation raised on hyperlinks and ping-ponging all around the web. At the time it was made, that was all still new and fresh. Does Inland Empire feel in that way like a snapshot of an era at all, or is that irrelevant?
DL: Irrelevant, you know, because it’s a world. I think of films as a chance for people to go into another world. That film makes a world for people to go into and have experiences; every film does that. They can take you back in time to something long, long, long ago. You can have a film about cavemen, and a whole situation with them looking for firewood and stuff like this. Every film is different in that way.
AVC: What most inspired this revisitation and restoration of Inland Empire?
DL: I hear that there’s new technologies. So I started with Sony PD-150 quality, and that was up-resed, and in those days that was the most you could do. And then it came out. And the way you make a DVD and all these things, every time you do something with a film there can be some people that know how to do it the very best, and some people who don’t do it so well. And so anyway, time passes and now there’s this thing with AI, where the computer looks at it with a new kind of intelligence, and it can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is incredible. And it’s just the beginning, it’s just the beginning. So it doesn’t really matter in a strange way what you start with. In the future, the manipulation you can do will be incredible.
AVC: In the initial restoration comparisons, what did you see that was most surprising to you?
DL: I saw what Inland Empire used to be, and I see what it is now. And to me there’s a huge jump in quality. I saw more focus, deeper colors. And it’s not like it became film, but we added grain. The things you can do, it brought it into its own thing. It’s really nice-looking now; it’s really beautiful to me.
AVC: The decision to add that fine layer of grain—was that a simple or intuitive one?
DL: Well, everybody knows that certain video skin looks plastic. And when you put a little grain in there, it starts looking really sweet, really fantastic. So it’s all about using your tools to get it to look and feel the way you want it. And now you have a lot more tools. With Inland Empire, it’s like, Here’s the film that you made, and it used to look this way. And there was a little bit of sadness in your heart, because [long pause] in a way, the look of it took away from going into the world. It blocked a little bit of it, it had a tendency to kind of keep calling attention to itself. Now I think it’s easier to go into that world.
AVC: Was there one element of the restoration that was most time-consuming for you?
DL: The time-consuming part was looking at the different techniques used to see which one was the best. They sent me split-screens. So I’ve got this one on this side, and this one on this side, and then there was a different combo with different things. And seeing all those different things, some jumped out. The two newest ones, thank goodness, jumped out as being the best. And of those two, one was better than the other. So there it was, after all these different tests and comparing: one jumped out. But it just took a long time to check everything. And then video is ridiculous sometimes in color, so you desaturate things, and they start looking way, way, way more like cinema. And then you add a little bit of grain, and then things start looking pretty beautiful, especially when the new quality comes and you’re in a very good place.
AVC: Some notable filmmakers have returned to their works years later with re-edits, because just as a viewer’s relationship to a piece of art can change over time, so too can a creator’s. Was a new narrative cut something you ever considered with Inland Empire?
DL: No. But Dune—people have said, “Don’t you want to go back and fiddle with Dune?” And I was so depressed and sickened by it, you know? I want to say, I loved everybody that I worked with; they were so fantastic. I loved all the actors; I loved the crew; I loved working in Mexico; I loved everything except that I didn’t have final cut. And I even loved Dino [De Laurentiis], who wouldn’t give me what I wanted [laughs]. And Raffaella, the producer, who was his daughter—I loved her. But the thing was a horrible sadness and failure to me, and if I could go back in I’ve thought, well, maybe I would on that one go back in.
DL: Yeah, but I mean, nobody’s…it’s not going to happen.
AVC: Well that’s interesting, because in the past you were always much less open to it.
David Lynch: Yeah, I wanted to walk away. I always say, and it’s true, that with Dune, I sold out before I finished. It’s not like there’s a bunch of gold in the vaults waiting to be cut and put back together. It’s like, early on I knew what Dino wanted and what I could get away with and what I couldn’t. And so I started selling out, and it’s a sad, sad, pathetic, ridiculous story. But I would like to see what is there. I can’t remember, that’s the weird thing [laughs]. I can’t remember. And so it might be interesting—there could be something there. But I don’t think it’s a silk purse. I know it’s a sow’s ear.
AVC: Everyone assumes that Inland Empire will be your next film to make its way to Criterion. Are there any new supplemental features planned for that release?
David Lynch: For Inland Empire? No, I don’t know anything at all. Those are the things I call bells and whistles. And, you know, bells and whistles, there are novelty stores on Hollywood Boulevard that sell those. It’s the film, that’s what’s important—the film. And the rest is like, you know, golly day, if people say, “Okay, I can get the thing but if there’s no bells and whistles then I’m not going to buy it,” that’s fine. But for me the bells and whistles are almost ridiculous or absurd, sorry. You work so hard to get the film to be the film, and a certain way, and its quality and all that. That’s the thing you go for.