Jon Nguyen – 'You can't just walk in off the street and get David Lynch to open up to you'
The iconoclastic filmmaker has never been keen to discuss his life and work, which makes intimate documentary The Art Life all the more remarkable
David Lynch is a very private man. The enigmatic artist and sometime filmmaker is notoriously reticent when it comes to talking about both his life and work. Unperturbed by this, documentary-makers Jon Nguyen and Olivia Neergaard-Holm have created an intimate examination in David Lynch: The Art Life, a journey through his personal history and artistic process, narrated by the elusive man himself. The film features anecdotes, unseen artwork and movie footage, and drops tantalising hints about the genesis of some of his more profound cinematic ideas.
Ten years ago, Nguyen produced Lynch One, a documentary exploring the director's creative process as he completed his (even now) most recent film, Inland Empire. The documentary-maker's approach to Lynch was audacious and proved to be surprisingly successful. 'I contacted a friend of mine who had been David's assistant during Mulholland Drive,' recalls Nguyen. 'I said, "could you do me a favour and ask David if we could make a documentary about him?" He laughed at me and said, "David's very private; he'll never agree to it." Two days later I got a call back from my friend – kind of astonished – saying that David had agreed.'
Nguyen and his team gradually got to know Lynch (and vice versa). 'I remember he didn't really want to answer a lot of questions,' states Nguyen. 'He just said, "pick up the camera and you'll find out what the film's about at the end." So we kind of chased him around for a year and made Lynch One. But our relationship with him got closer and over the years we worked on some small projects. We knew that eventually we would get to a certain point in our relationship – and maybe perhaps in his life – where he would be more open and willing to talk. We started asking him questions in the first documentary and he didn't really answer them; you could tell by his body language that he wasn't interested in talking to us. So this film is the complete opposite: it's him talking and answering questions. Whereas the first is cinéma vérité, this one is David taking us on a journey through his life.'
It's been a long process, starting with around two dozen interviews conducted across four and a half years and followed by a further period of filming from 2013–2015. Throughout this time, Nguyen and his team were granted unprecedented access, not only to Lynch's portfolio but to his family photos as well. 'There are albums that contain thousands of pictures going all the way back to his great-great-grandparents: the early settlers. He gave us access to his music library and the 8mm student films that he made in the 60s and 70s.' Intriguingly, Nguyen says that his film features experimental work that has never been seen before, including out-takes from The Grandmother and Six Men Getting Sick.
While The Art Life weaves an intimate tapestry of Lynch's formative years, the filmmakers spent much of their time in his studio discussing day-to-day projects as he freestyled with whatever medium took his fancy. 'The thing we realised after filming him was that David spent most of his time in the painting studio. When he has a lot of freedom, that's what he does from morning to night.'
Despite Lynch's guarded reputation, Nguyen insists that thanks to their long history, he was fairly open from the start. 'We had a strong relationship with David at that point,' he asserts. 'It's a film that was 12 years in the making, really, because you can't just walk in off the street and get David Lynch to open up to you.'
David Lynch: The Art Life, Glasgow Film Festival, Cineworld, Fri 24 and Sat 25 Feb.