Daniel Knox on “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return” at the Music Box Theatre

Fifteen years ago, I stood for hours while enduring subzero temperatures in a line that stretched for several blocks to see one of the greatest living filmmakers present his latest surrealist epic at my favorite cinema palace, Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. Needless to say, it was entirely worth the wait. The Windy City premiere of “Inland Empire” featuring an introduction and Q&A from David Lynch surely goes down as one of my all-time greatest moviegoing experiences, and it was preceded by a fittingly mysterious piece of music performed on the organ by the sublime singer-songwriter, composer, projectionist and film lover Daniel Knox. Over the subsequent decade and a half, Knox has proven himself to be a master festival programmer, and I honestly can’t imagine a better way to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of Lynch’s appearance at Chicago’s own Club Silencio than by purchasing a pass to the venue’s “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return,” running from Thursday, April 7th, through Thursday, April 14th.

This year also marks the fifth anniversary of Lynch’s magnum opus, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” all eighteen hours of which were edited by Duwayne Dunham, who will be among the retrospective’s special guests. Dunham will attend the opening night screening of 1986’s game-changing “Blue Velvet” as well as the Saturday afternoon screening of 1990’s Palme d’Or winner, “Wild at Heart.” Richard Green will be on hand for a double bill of 2001’s masterpiece, “Mulholland Dr.”, in which he played the Magician, and Chris Leavens’ 2002 documentary, “I Don’t Know Jack,” about the life of “Eraserhead” star Jack Nance, on Friday evening. Green served as the latter film’s producer, and will also be showing clips from his upcoming directorial effort, a documentary about the late Catherine Coulson, forever immortalized as the Log Lady. Coulson’s “Twin Peaks” co-star Charlotte Stewart (a.k.a Betty Briggs), will be at Monday night’s screening of Lynch’s 1977 feature debut, “Eraserhead” (where she plays Mary X), and may also stick around for Tuesday night’s “Celebration of ‘Twin Peaks.’” Knox advises fans to plan on staying all night long for a surprise-filled program that includes a screening of 1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” damn fine beverages from Glassworks Coffee, heavenly cherry pie from Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, giveaways, rarely shown footage and an additional special guest that “may not necessarily be human” (Scott Ryan, managing editor of The Blue Rose Magazine, will be moderating all Q&As).

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking via Zoom with Knox about the festival’s enormously enticing lineup, the inclusion of “satellite films” such as Jennifer Lynch’s “Boxing Helena” (1993) and Alien Castle’s “Desire & Hell at Sunset Motel” (1991) and the fleeting yet haunting moment in “Inland Empire” (which will be screening in a restored version) that never fails to give him chills.

Before our discussion today, I couldn’t help revisiting the footage of you at the Chicago premiere of “Inland Empire,” where you provided a haunting overture to the picture.  

That was a really special night. David was touring with “Inland Empire,” and the Music Box was on the list of venues he’d be visiting. I submitted a piece of music I had written, they accepted it and I played it on the Music Box organ for two shows. The Music Box let me do it on the condition that I project the second show of the night so that another projectionist wouldn’t have to stay late. I went to dinner with David in between the two shows. It was me, him, his wife and some people who work at the theater. I sat across from him and he had ravioli. He talked with his hands a lot, and for some reason, there are two unimportant things that stuck in my mind from that dinner. He got a phone call from Justin Theroux who had just sold his script for “Tropic Thunder” to Miramax, and David told him to be mindful of the Weinsteins’ scissors. I also remember him telling me that the Italian dubbing of “Blue Velvet” had turned the dialogue into straight pornography. He could’ve just been telling me a tale.

What was your process like in crafting that piece of music to set the tone for “Inland Empire”?

I sat and watched the press screening for it at the Lake Street screening room, so I got the chance to see it before audiences in Chicago did. I ended up writing something very simple. It wasn’t anything too big. Because that movie is so immense, I felt like something really slow and clear was what needed to be heard beforehand, not anything cute or dark. I wanted it to give a little bit of space, more than anything else. As for the significance of his work in my life, Lynch is everything to me. When I was young in the mid-‘90s, I discovered “Twin Peaks” when they were airing it on Bravo, and that was my ticket out of where I was. It was something outside of what I felt were the boundaries of my imagination at the time and it was just like a passport to another world for me.

The first film I saw of his was “The Straight Story,” which I loved.

That’s a very interesting first movie to see of his.

Then I saw “Mulholland Dr.”, and though the film baffled me upon my initial viewing, it became lodged in my brain until I saw it again, and suddenly it all made sense in a purely intuitive way that only cinema could make possible. Now I cite it—along with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Shining”—as my all-time favorite film. What was the first Lynch film that grabbed you?

Well, funnily enough, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” was the first thing I saw. Back then, it was hard to find the pilot anywhere, and it was even harder to find the series at all on tape, so I watched “Fire Walk With Me” without understanding that it was a prequel. I think that’s actually not a bad way to watch it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you watch it that way, it’s okay. That film is still my favorite, with “Blue Velvet” being a close second. If I had only ever seen “Fire Walk With Me,” and never had watched the rest of the series, it still connects to ideas that are even bigger than what the movie seems to contain. It’s sort of akin to how a movie trailer provides short descriptions of ideas that aren’t fully expressed. I feel like “Fire Walk With Me” is Lynch at his best because it’s taking all these really big ideas and giving them to you in this package that doesn’t spell anything out and allows you to intuit them. It’s unforgiving in that way. That’s what I love about it.

I wrote about the shared sensibilities of Lynch and Fred Rogers in a 2018 essay on “Twin Peaks,” and I love the connections you have drawn between them in your own artistry.

The comparison that I draw between those two is that they are both very thoughtful men who think about the pace of things and are creating a space for imagination. Now that’s the simple way to put it. The difference would be that Mister Rogers has a lot of directness and Lynch has a lot of abstraction. But I think that even with those two polar opposites, there are similarities to draw between those two ideas, because Lynch is being very direct in certain ways and Fred Rogers is being abstract in certain ways too. There are a lot of crazy ideas going on in the Land of Make Believe. Take a look at the patience and the simplicity of something like “The Straight Story,” and then watch an episode of “Mister Rogers” where he just shows you how amazing it is to ride an escalator—how interesting it is and how you should take a look at it and why we use this and how it works. I think it shows that both of them have a fascination with human nature and with people in general. They are both curious people, and that is what inspired me to do a record of “Mister Rogers” songs and a record of “Twin Peaks” music.

What led you to program your first Lynch retrospective at the Music Box in 2017?

I have until just recently been a projectionist at the Music Box Theatre. I mainly did the midnight movies, which are fun because you can add stuff beforehand and it’s not going to bother anybody. It’s nice to have things onscreen that are relevant to the movie. I would experiment with doing a “Ninja Turtles” pre-show where I would cut together action figure commercials in order to make it a more immersive and interesting experience. Over time, whenever we would get David Lynch stuff, I would put a bunch of material before the feature, and I would ask them for as much time as possible. I cut things together that I thought were not just interesting for David Lynch fans but contextually relevant to the film itself, such as the “Siskel & Ebert” review or Kyle MacLachlan’s interview on “The Tonight Show.” It would give you a sense of what the atmosphere of the world was like when the film was released, and to me, that’s an interesting way to precede a movie

So they finally relented and let me include added material before certain features. We talked about it and negotiated what it could be and what I thought it should be. I personally don’t enjoy a convention atmosphere. I’m just not a social person. I like people one at a time, and I like to watch movies. I like to be in the theater as much as possible, and I like to see as much as I can. For the first Lynch retrospective, I wanted to cultivate a sort of anti-convention atmosphere that felt more like an exhibition. When you step into the Music Box, I want you to feel like you are stepping into the world of David Lynch. I want to recapture that special feeling I had as a kid when I would go to Blockbuster and rent all these tapes. I was inside of that world. Before each feature, aside from events where there are guests, there will be a twenty-minute pre-show comprised of immersive material including a short film. 

Anything that strikes you about Duwayne Dunham’s brilliant approach to editing?

There are so many fascinating moments in “Wild at Heart” that involve sound, such as the transitions and the sort of white dissolve/blow out moments. I also like how dreamy the pacing is in “Blue Velvet.” When you see the deleted scenes, there’s so much more material there that I feel Lynch would’ve fought for. I’m interested to find out what the dynamic was between him and Dunham, what Lynch wanted to keep in and what he ultimately thought should not be in the final cut. On opening night, we’re going to show “Blue Velvet” followed by a Q&A with Dunham, and then “Blue Velvet Revisited,” which is a very interesting movie with lots of silent 16mm or super 8 footage chronicling the making of the film. We’ll also be showing some previously unannounced deleted scenes from “Blue Velvet” after that.

What finally made me cave in and purchase a festival pass was the inclusion of “Zelly & Me,” a film in which Lynch acts opposite Isabella Rossellini and Glynis Johns that has been impossible for me to find. 

It’s funny that you mention “Zelly & Me,” which was also on Bravo when I was a kid. They would air that around the time that they were showing “Twin Peaks.” Isabella Rossellini plays the nanny for a young girl who’s an orphan, and the director Tina Rathborne directed the third and seventeenth episodes of “Twin Peaks.” Funnily enough, I wrote her a little letter on her website, and yesterday, she called me, and we had a conversation for an hour talking about her experience of making that film and directing the funeral episode of “Twin Peaks.” She’s going to send us a little introduction for “Zelly & Me” because it never screens and it’s such a rare thing to show. Films like that, as well as “Boxing Helena” and “Desire & Hell at Sunset Hotel,” aren’t Lynch films—they are satellite films in that universe. Once you had seen all the Lynch movies at the video store, that was where you went next because they occupied the edge of that world. They featured the people that were connected to it. As a kid, I would watch the credits, read the names and seek out whatever the actors and crew members had made. To be able to put on a film festival for an audience in the same way that I would stack VHS tapes on my TV and have my own little private film festival is really amazing. 

You could consider Harry Dean Stanton’s “Lucky” a satellite film as well. Tell me a bit about the rare print you’re showing of “Boxing Helena.”

It’s the NC-17 cut, which I believe has never been shown, and then we have another film with Sherilyn Fenn, “Desire & Hell at Sunset Hotel.” A lot of people have asked me, “Why are you showing this? What does this have to do with anything, Daniel?” Well, it’s got Sherilyn Fenn in it and it’s kind of got a nod to Lynch in some ways. The cover of the VHS looked like “Twin Peaks” to me, so I rented it and I watched it. It’s got kind of that HBO, made for TV movie feel. Honestly, this one’s for me, and here’s the amazing thing about it: we have the only print that exists in the world, on loan from the Academy Archive. It came out during the Rodney King riots and it almost never gets screened. 

The thing is, I don’t give a shit if you don’t like it. Come see it anyway. If you care about movies, this is a unique opportunity. You can tell me how much you don’t like it afterwards—I won’t listen to you, though, because I love it. It’s a favorite of mine. I have it on VHS, Laserdisc and Korean VCD, and I have two posters for it. I adore this movie. It is a weird, special kind of thing, so definitely don’t miss it. You remember when “Pulp Fiction” came out and everybody was making those movies that had a similar sort of feel or idea to them? Imagine that there was the same hysteria about “Twin Peaks,” and somebody was making a movie like that—not as good but still in the same world. That’s what “Desire & Hell at Sunset Hotel” is, and that, to me, is interesting.

Official poster for “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return” by Sean Longmore.

The great worth of a festival like this is its ability to champion films that still have yet to receive the release they deserve. When I interviewed Barry Gifford last year, we spoke at length about the episodes he wrote for David Lynch’s “Hotel Room” series, including the brilliant “Blackout” starring Alicia Witt and Crispin Glover.

I will neither confirm nor deny the possible late night inclusion of a “Hotel Room” moment or moments. [laughs] I love “Hotel Room” and I even love “On the Air,” which is obviously flawed and an interesting misstep in some ways. But “Hotel Room” stands up with some of Lynch’s best work, especially the episode that you mentioned. Some people have said to me that the retrospective isn’t complete because we’re not playing all of “Twin Peaks,” and it’s like, ‘Give me a fuckin’ break.’ That being said, there are a lot of things l’m showing that are not on the schedule that are included in the pre-shows and the things I’m showing afterwards, so stick around. With the exception of all of “Twin Peaks” and “On the Air,” my criteria for this was, “Did Lynch write it, did he direct it or did he pick up a camera?” If he did any of those three things, it’s in. So just keep your eyes open and your ears open and you’ll see we’re showing it all

Is David Lynch aware of this retrospective happening?

I don’t know. I wonder about that. I feel like he’s someone who, on a personal level, would probably object to the idea of a pre-show. He would probably object to the idea of showing everything and things like that, but I think that’s fine. It’s like how George Lucas might not like the way people are currently handling “Star Wars,” though that’s not really a reasonable comparison. I’m not making “Twin Peaks: The Next Generation,” I’m just putting a festival on. But my point is, I don’t know what he would think of this and I don’t know if he knows about it. I’m sure he does just because we had to get permission for a few things that are more on the outskirts, but it seems like these days, he is mostly focused on painting and predicting the weather.

I imagine he’d approve of this retrospective since it stands as an extension of what you did all those years ago for “Inland Empire” It’s the antithesis of most movie theater experiences where you have to sit through a half hour of ads before you struggle to lose yourself in the film. The material you are bookending each feature with honors, complements and brings us fully into the zone of the work itself.

I appreciate that. The idea is to allow for full immersion into his world. I think to do that properly, you would need months and a lot of time and space in between, but we don’t have that. We have eight days, and during that time, I’m just trying to give everybody the opportunity to see as much as they can, and really live there. The day that is going to be really special, but may be a hard day for some people, is the day that we are showing “Inland Empire”—Wednesday, April 13th. We’re showing “Mulholland Dr.” in the afternoon, and then after that, everything we’re showing has to do with “Inland Empire,” including the documentary “Lynch One,” which is about the making of it. So expect to see some rabbits. It’s gonna be a marathon day, and if you are a true Lynch fan, this is the day to come and really get your money’s worth. 

I want people to understand how wonderful of a communal experience seeing this work is. I’ll never forget how the audience roared with laughter and leapt out of their chairs during the premiere of “Inland Empire.”

I was just thinking about something in that movie yesterday. Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” which plays over the end credits, is such a manic song to be playing after what you’ve just seen. As the very last end credits are rolling, and there’s still all this stuff going on while you’re processing what’s just happened, there’s this moment in the song where Nina sings the lyric, “Don’t you know that I need you?” In the film, Lynch adds a tail of reverb to that moment that just lets it hang there for a second. It’s not in the original recording, and it gives me chills every time I hear it. It’s such a subtle thing, and it may be one of the most potent and impactful parts of the film. After everything that you’ve gone through, it gives you this wide open space to sit in by yourself for a moment, and then the song picks up again. It’s really amazing. 

“David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return” runs from Thursday, April 7th, through Thursday, April 14th, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., in Chicago. For tickets and showtimes, click here. The live music performance, “An Evening with Daniel Knox,” will take place at 9pm on Friday, April 15th, at Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave., in Chicago (click here for tickets). 

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