John Neff on “The Straight Story,” “Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire”

A day prior to seeing the new 4K restoration of 2006’s surrealist epic “Inland Empire” at the Music Box Theatre’s “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return,” programmed by Daniel Knox, I had the pleasure of Zooming with the film’s additional location sound recordist, John Neff. It was one of three cinematic masterworks directed by Lynch in which Neff played a crucial role. Our paths crossed serendipitously as a result of me posting daily dispatches from Knox’s euphoric retrospective, where “Inland Empire” played to a full house and received multiple ovations during its exhilarating end credit sequence. 

The film stars Laura Dern in a career-best performance as an actress whose identity starts to merge with that of a “lost girl” (Karolina Gruszka), as she goes about filming the remake of a seemingly cursed production that was never completed. One of many personas Dern takes on throughout the course of the picture is that of a prostitute, who delivers a mesmerizing monologue to a silent, spectacled man in the upper floor of an ominous building. 

In the Facebook group, Lynchland Gang, Bob Sinisi recently shared the following stills, which illustrate how a particular line delivered by Gruszka was lifted from Erich von Stroheim’s 1932 film, “Queen Kelly,” as glimpsed in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, “Sunset Blvd.”, a film that also haunts Lynch’s brilliant 2001 mind-bender, “Mulholland Dr.” Responding to Sinisi’s post, fellow group member Brad Brandhorst noted that “Queen Kelly” “interestingly is an unfinished European movie about a young woman who is kidnapped by a prince and eventually ends up in a world of prostitution.” This startling connection is yet another example of how Lynch’s artistry is a gift that keeps on giving. 

Left: Karolina Gruszka in “Inland Empire”; Right: Gloria Swanson in “Queen Kelly”

Of course, one of the great pleasures of a Lynch film that is made all the more apparent when viewing it on the big screen is its brilliantly intricate sound design. The director’s collaborations with the late genius Alan Splet set the bar for all that followed. How Neff, a veteran musician whose first record was released in 1965, became professionally involved with Lynch is a fascinating story that he detailed beautifully for me during our virtual chat last month. 

What were your impressions of David Lynch’s work prior to designing and installing Asymmetrical Studio at his home in Hollywood? 

I didn’t know anything about David. He was a client of mine in 1996 at my studio design firm in Los Angeles, and we were designing his recording studio and theater. I lived in Maui for 14 years and Lynch’s films didn’t play there, except for “Dune.” I saw that, and I knew the guys in Toto. They used to visit my studio in Maui, and I had heard the music for “Dune” while it was being recorded. I met David and Mary Sweeney when they came into my design firm office. I designed the technical side of his studio—all the wiring and outboard gear, the speakers, the amps, the console, the projectors, specifying the screen—installing them and making sure it all worked. So David was sort of an unknown quantity to me. I didn’t know his whole background. I knew about “The Elephant Man,” but I thought David Bowie was in it. I had forgotten that he was in the play. 

At what point did you and David begin working as artistic collaborators?

It started right off the bat. Before the studio was done, he shot a Honda Passport commercial. It had no words or sales pitch, just images and music and sound effects. Before the studio was done, he asked, “You’re an engineer, right?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Can you mix this for me?” I replied, “Well, mixing the picture is a little difficult. I need a projectionist here to run the picture and then I can take care of the audio.” So we did that. I mixed the spot and I did foley for some footsteps. It starts with this guy coming up out of the LA subway, and the footsteps weren’t right. There was concrete behind the console at David’s studio, and I was wearing Italian leather dress shoes. I set up a microphone, walked the footsteps, recorded it and David was kind of shocked that it made the scene work. 

Angelo Badalamenti played the synthesizer on it and David did some sound effects. The commercial ran for the entire model year instead of just ten or thirteen weeks. It ran the entire nine months, and we were installing the studio the following week. David said to me, “You’re the only one who knows how this thing runs. You’re gonna have to run it.” I laughed and I said, “I cannot afford the pay cut.” And he laughed, and I went about the installation. A few days later, he came back with a better offer. It was about 25% down from what I was then making, and I had a home in LA, so I took it. The very first thing we did was Jocelyn Montgomery’s album, Lux Vivens, which is Latin for “Living Light.” It’s a beautiful cinematic soundscape album featuring a woman with an incredible voice, and she plays the violin as well. 

That was the first time David played guitar. The father of his daughter Jennifer’s child, Sydney, was a roadie for Slayer and set David up with a Marshall and a hot rod guitar with a whammy bar. David used that to set moods by dive bombing on the whammy bar and doing things like that. It was strictly to create non-musical sound effects and they are on that album. The very first cut of the song “Sapientie” has David’s guitar on it. We spent about six months on that album, and when we were done with it, David wanted to continue experimenting. I got him a set of real good DW drums for the studio, and we started recording. Sometimes he would play drums, sometimes I would play drums. 

I had a DW set too—I already had a relationship with them—and we would write and record drum tracks before putting them up on the Cinema Sound on the big screen. The sound was enormous, and we would play live to it through amplifiers mic’d up. We would just jam for ten or twelve minutes. Then we’d pick the things that worked the best, build around them, and then edit it down into songs. After that, he would come up with a typewritten piece of paper from a typewriter—not even a computer—with a piece of poetry and say, “Here’s your lyrics.” I couldn’t even take them home to learn them, I had to sing it right then. I had to make up the melody and sing the song with lyrics I had never seen before, and that’s how our album BlueBOB was made. We spent two years on it. 

What was it like shooting the music video for the album’s song, “Thank You, Judge,” with Naomi Watts and Eli Roth? Daniel Knox recently screened it as part of his Lynch retrospective in Chicago.

David directed it, and I had some input for imagery. He walked into the studio one day after we had the rhythm track done, and asked, “What have you lost in your divorces?” I wrote a list of about 36 things, and he laughed. He then took out some things and added in some absurd things along with the vignettes involving the courtroom, the cop and the ex-wife. We recorded the song, and afterward, he wanted to make the video. So he got Naomi and Eli, who was an intern with us in those days. He was working for us. In fact, I get killed in his first movie, “Cabin Fever.” We went around to some of David’s favorite locations—some shitty neighborhoods in the Valley—and made the video in one day. By the way, that’s David in the mask! He felted a head, poured latex on it and made the mask himself.

Naomi wasn’t big yet. When we shot the video, “Mulholland Dr.” was a pilot. It hadn’t turned into a movie yet, so she was a friend. Scott Coffey, the son of David’s assistant, Gaye Pope, had come into the theater with a movie called “Ellie Parker” that he shot with Naomi in it. It had terrible sound and couldn’t be fixed, so we passed on it, but David was taken with her. She and Lynch are on the same creative wavelength, that’s for sure. For the ex-wife courtroom sequence in “Thank You, Judge,” he told her to just go off, and she did. She was calling me the MF word and all kinds of stuff in front of the judge in the courtroom. That audio got blanked out, but she really got into it and portrayed it perfectly. 

In Roger Ebert’s review of Lynch’s wonderful 1999 film, “The Straight Story,” for which you served as a score engineer and re-recording mixer, he writes, “There are fields of waving corn and grain here, and rivers and woods and little bed barns, but on the soundtrack the wind whispering in the trees plays a sad and lonely song, and we are reminded not of the fields we drive past on our way to picnics, but on our way to funerals, on autumn days when the roads are empty.”

That’s a great quote, and I’m really happy to hear that from Roger. That’s beautiful. David shot “The Straight Story” on the road while I was back at the studio working on some BlueBOB songs. When he came back, I did the temp music for it and two of my pieces are still in the film—in the bar scene where they are trading war veteran stories, and the doctor’s office where Alvin, Richard Farnsworth’s character, is getting the bad news. On January 30th, 1999, we had fourteen string players and three guitar players in David’s studio, and recorded the score for the film in one twelve-hour day. It was my first orchestral score recording in all those years of working in the studio, and it worked out pretty well. I’m very happy with it. I recorded the score, mixed it, and then mixed it into the film in 5.1 surround. 

The re-recording mixer position was totally by accident. When the film was in editing and almost ready for audio post, dialogue was sent out to a dialogue editor for treatment. I asked David, “Who’s mixing this film? Who am I gonna sit next to? I wanna learn,” and he looked at me like I was from another planet. He said, “Why, you’re mixing it!” I said, “I’ve never mixed a film before!”, and he said, “I’ll be right next to you. We’ll do it together.” So it was totally by happenstance that I got the job, since I was his engineer for the studio. He did not bring in another film mixer. 

He had a supervising sound editor, Ron Eng, who did sound effects and cut effects for the movie on that stem. We had Walter Spencer on dialogue and myself running the entire mix and the effects stem. David had some faders on the effects and music stems, so he had about eight faders to run on that mix. He’s very hands on. For the bar scene, I used a prerecorded song that I had made in Maui in the 80s called “The Most Requested Song.” I isolated the acoustic guitar and the strings, and it just set a mood. It fit the scene. I still had the master tapes, so I just used those tracks and remixed them into the film.

This reminds me of how Lynch intuitively creates pieces that may be of use for later projects. 

Yeah, “Inland Empire” is that—that whole film was made of pieces.

I find Lynch’s work therapeutic in how it provides you with the space to meditate upon it while inviting you to draw your own conclusions regarding its meaning, which is very empowering as a viewer.

Yes it is, and it allows the viewer to settle into a mood, which is meditative in its own way. “The Straight Story” is a long meditation. It’s a beautiful reflection on a man’s journey to fix an old problem, but it’s very meditative. If you described the story itself to somebody, they’d go, “What the hell is that?” But when you see the film, especially in the theater where the music and sound effects are big—it was my first 5.1 mix—it is completely immersive. When Alvin is surrounded by semis, I went to the Castaic Truck Stop at the base of grapevine in California, and recorded idling semis and semis just starting to take off onto this upgrade. I recorded these really strenuous engine sounds with a portable DAT recorder and a stereo mic. We mixed that into the scene, and that’s where all that tension is from. You have these big motors surrounding you in 5.1 and in the subwoofer, and here’s Alvin on his little lawnmower.

“The Straight Story” and “Mulholland Dr.” are both masterpieces, and in neither case is the sound intrusive. I love the use of silence and ambience in “The Straight Story.”

Here’s a little secret: Richard could not remember his lines. Mary Sweeney read him a line, his eyes would kind of go in this little arc while he was listening to the line, and then he would say it. In post-production, we had to cut out all of her prompts and just leave his dialogue. When David and Mary edited the film, they left all the prompts in picture-wise, because they showed Alvin as this heavy thinker. It was like he was developing his thought and then speaking, and that was strictly because he was getting line prompts. But it turned into a very beautiful aspect of the movie. 

At the retrospective last night, Charlotte Stewart revealed that Lynch did the same thing for her when she shot her scene in “Twin Peaks: The Return.” In conversation with Charlie Rose, Fred Rogers once said, “It’s about the white spaces between the paragraphs, which I think are more important than any of the text, because it allows you to think about what’s just been said.” I have no doubt Lynch would agree.

When I interviewed Rebekah Del Rio last year, she recalled meeting you during her visit to Asymmetrical Studio, in which she recorded the track of “Llorando” that went on to play a pivotal role in “Mulholland Dr.”

Brian Loucks, Rebekah’s agent at CAA, brought her in to meet David. She was visiting LA, had lived in Nashville and had just done a country album, but she had this Spanish version of “Crying” that they were telling us about. David said, “You’re a singer, let’s hear you sing,” and she stood up in the theater and started singing “Llorando.” But David said, “No, no, no—down there, in the booth.” I had set up a beautiful Telefunken U47 tube microphone that I had got for David from a fellow in Los Angeles, and in fact, David still uses it for his various postings. 

I had a nice reverb on it with a little echo, and Rebekah went in and had one false start. She had a cracked note and apologized, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m nervous.” Then she started again, and gave us what you hear in the film. We had known her ten minutes, and he wrote her into the movie because of that. Rebekah wasn’t aware she was being recorded. She loved the sound because I had headphones for her with the reverb and echo in it and she loved that sound on her voice. It really helped her performance, and she just knocked it out of the park. None of us knew what was going to become of that. David did.

In his book Catching the Big Fish, David writes about the moment, ten minutes into a meditation session, that the ideas came “like a string of pearls” for how to make “Mulholland Dr.” a complete film, using the materials he had shot for the pilot. The resulting picture is an astounding work of intuitive creativity.

It’s a great film, and it took three and a half months to mix it. It was that complex. After the pilot was rejected, the project languished for fifteen months. The French came along, StudioCanal, and said, “We’ll put up money to finish this as a feature film.” David said, “I have no ideas for how to do that,” so it just went for months and months. David is a transcendental meditator. So am I and so is everybody in the studio. We have a 5:30pm group meditation in the studio, while David meditates downstairs in his office. I was able to participate in these daily sessions after David paid for me and my family to get initiated in 2000. Meditating has opened up my clarity and I think more clearly now. It relieves stress, and is really good.

After one session on a Friday night, David came upstairs and he said, “Call Gaye. I’ve got an idea. She has to come in this weekend.” So she came in and the way they worked was she would run the computer and he would sit in his chair. He’d dictate the dialogue and the camera moves and all that sort of stuff, while she wrote it all down. Writing it disturbs David’s flow, so he doesn’t like to write out his own films. He always has somebody else do the typing. So she came in, they wrote the whole ending over the weekend, and Monday morning, he called the French and said, “Okay, I’ve got an idea, let’s go forward.” 

By that point, Disney had bought ABC and all the sets and costumes and props were thrown into the general population. They weren’t set aside for “Mulholland Dr.”, including Aunt Ruth’s apartment, which was a set on the Paramount stage 5. It took about six weeks to find everything, and in that time, David said, “We’re not gonna be able to do this. We can’t find the set, we can’t find the props, we’re not gonna be able to pick this up.” So he gave up until they found the stuff. Then it went back into production and became what you see today.

In addition to serving as music editor and re-recording mixer for “Mulholland Dr.”, the film also includes your compositions “Go Get Some,” “Pretty 50s” and “Mountains Falling,” which are used to intensify a sense of heartache.

All of those songs were on the BlueBOB album. “Pretty 50s” was unfinished. It’s only two guitar tracks and my drums. There’s no bass on it. David fell in love with it, and didn’t want to touch it. It was supposed to have words and a melody and the whole business, but he stopped it and said, “We’re putting this in the picture.” David chose the songs and the placement. I did the editing and put them in the film when I mixed it. “Mountains Falling” went into the film without any vocals. On the film’s soundtrack CD, it’s got the vocals—it’s one of the biggest songs on the BlueBOB album. “Go Get Some” is this beautiful little thing that sets a mood, and it just fit there. 

The scene involving the man behind Winkie’s still causes viewers to leap from their chairs, and that is in large part due to the sound.

It took three days to mix that scene. We went down some funny roads, but for the actual appearance of the bum itself, we used all 105 dB available in theatrical Dolby Digital sound. We went to the top with that, and it’s a very complex cue with about twenty elements. For the scene in the restaurant, we used some music cues that had been originally created for “Lost Highway” to create tension. They were never included in “Lost Highway,” so we used them here, and it set the suspense. Then I put in some under cues of noise and tones to add to the dreamlike quality. When the two men are walking down the sidewalk, all those swirling strings come up, and you know something’s gonna happen, though you don’t know what it will be. 

After the bum materializes, the sound gets all echoey. One guy is hollering, “Dan! Dan!”, as the other loses consciousness. We initially went down a different road than what you hear, but I said to David, “That’s not what happens when you die.” He asked, “How do you know?”, and I said, “Because I died in a doctor’s office in January of 1976. Luckily, they brought me back. Your hearing is the last thing to go, and everything sounds like its echoing in a tunnel.” So David said, “Let’s try that,” and what you hear in the scene really is what it sounds like when you die.

What experience of seeing your sound mixing work in a theater was particularly memorable for you?

In October of 2021, I did two nights at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, with Rebekah. I saw “Mulholland Dr.” in the theater for the first time in years and heard my mix the way it was supposed to be. I went to the booth and told them to turn it up three dB, which they did, because some of the dialogue is a little quiet. I would’ve changed a few things in that movie. In the 4K restoration, I hope they put a mastering limiter on the dialogue stem to make the quieter parts a little louder. I will get that restoration because I want to hear what they did to the sound. I’m sure the picture is gonna be fabulous.

Was there a particularly challenging sequence, apart from Winkie’s, that you believe came off well?

The scene with the hitman. For the whole fight sequence that occurs after he accidentally shoots the woman through the wall, David and I dropped melons off the roof of the studio to create punch noises. We built that up so big. In the beginning of the scene, she’s beating the hell out of him until he gets her wrestled over and shoots her. Then the janitor shows up, he shoots the janitor and the vacuum goes off. And then he shoots the vacuum, the fire alarm goes off and he has to climb out the fire escape. It’s a comedy, and the sound for all that was so much fun.

That scene gets an explosive laugh every time, primarily because of the exquisite timing of the sound effects.

I enjoyed the audience responses at that screening. I also saw the film in Cannes at the premiere. I went there and I was treated very well. We got an eight-minute standing ovation at the end of the premiere, and that was the first time I had really seen a full house audience respond to the sound of my mixes. It was very gratifying, and the response to “The Straight Story” was too.

How did you go about building the sound for Club Silencio?

We mixed it all as if it was live, which is why it sounds so good, and then it’s revealed as a recording. Conte Candoli comes out and plays the trumpet for real in the middle of all that, which was weird. For the theater itself, I set up a couple of big reverbs, and I dropped “Llorando” in without adding in any more reverb. It was strictly the way it was recorded the day we met her, and it fit with the theater reverb. I added some bottom to the voice of Richard Green, who played the Magician, to beef him up and make him more authoritarian. It worked, and he really liked the sound of his voice. 

Tell me about your experience collaborating with Lynch on the animated web series “Dumbland,” particularly his uproarious musical number in the episode, “Ants”?

It took me a couple of months to make that chorus. David gave me one voice track through the little VT-1 Voice Transformer, and that was it. I had hundreds of ants to deal with, and they’re all singing, so I ended up running it through two five-channel vocal harmonizers. I played the harmonies on a keyboard, and triggered all of these tracks of the ants, but it was only from one track of David. 

I felt there were some shades of “Dumbland” in “Inland Empire,” particularly during the hilariously awkward barbecue scene.

Yes, I agree with that, and I mixed that scene. That was a very difficult day because I had the Polish circus performers all mic’d up with lavalier mics. I had eight channels of lavalier and two booms, and I was printing ten channels of sound. I recorded location sound for a year and a half on that picture, but I did not go to Poland. All of my work was in LA. There was no script for a film. We were just shooting scenes, and it was all originally intended for, his subscription website, until Laura Dern delivered the monologue. It was called “A Meeting Upstairs.” We shot this 56-minute monologue with Laura in a set that we built in David’s painting studio on top of the recording studio. It’s her explaining all the bad things she did in her life to God—she’s dead—and it starts with that long stairway, which is the side of the studio. It goes from the street up to David’s painting studio, and we shot that one night in July of 2003.

At the end of it, we were all in tears, and David said, “I’m screwed.” We said, “What are you talking about?”, and he said, “I can’t put this on the web, it’s too good. I’m gonna have to do something else with it.” And that was the birth of “Inland Empire.” There was also a series proposed for the website called “Axxon N.,” in which a housebound woman in a dingy neighborhood lives across the street from this industrial area, and there’s this shop-type building with hand-lettered “Axxon N.” on the door. She sees people come in but she never sees them come out. It just heightens her curiosity to the point where one day, she gets out of the house, goes across the street, walks in the door, turns left, and she is another person in another life. That was the other seed of “Inland Empire.”

Were you there for the filming of Grace Zabriskie’s scene?

No, that was after I left. They got more serious with the sets, and David hired his regular professional sound recordist once the money came in from France to make it a real film.

What was your perspective on the birth of “No Stars,” the song that Rebekah Del Rio ultimately ended up singing in “Twin Peaks: The Return”?

I wrote the music, and it was to be a BlueBOB song for our second album. One day, David called Rebekah in, and he wanted her to sing this song. He brought out his typewritten sheet—the poem called “No Stars,” in English—and it was very free form. He said, “I want this in Spanish too,” so she rewrote the lyrics in Spanish, and came up with the melody in one afternoon. Then we recorded it. 

What is the benefit of going with your first instinct, which Lynch had Del Rio do in this instance?

Before I worked for Lynch, I had a studio in Maui with Walter Becker from Steely Dan. We did Donald Fagen’s solo album, “Kamakiriad,” and Walter’s solo album, “11 Tracks of Whack.” Those were the most excruciating records I’ve ever made, just from splitting a finer hair. Everything had to be perfect, and Donald knew what he wanted it to sound like in his head, but couldn’t describe it in technical terms. So you always go all around the circle with Donald until you find the right sound that he wants. I go from that to Lynch, who throws the spaghetti at the wall, sees what sticks and works with it.

Has that made you more open to taking risks in the work you’ve done outside of Lynch?

Yes. I was very tight-lipped about my own music. I wanted it to be perfect when it was played in the studio, and very rarely do you get that. So I trust my first instincts now since working with Lynch. I used to say, “No, that can’t be right,” and then work all around it. But now, I trust my instincts, and David has proven that to be a path of life.

At what point did you decide to retire, and do you believe that creating art will always be a part of your life?

Well, I made my first record in 1965 when I was 14 years old. I’ve worked in studios for 56 years, and that was enough. When I turned 70, I said, “That’s it, I’m done.” So last year, I sold everything, including 42 old vintage guitars. I retired, closed the studio and now I’ve got a nice little nest egg. I’m very happy in my retirement. I’m in negotiations to produce an album for somebody in another person’s studio, so I guess I’ll never fully quit, but I don’t have my own studio. I don’t have $3,000 a month rent anymore, which is good. The financial pressure is off. 

Asymmetrical Studio is still intact, and I call David every year on his birthday. We email about three or four times a year, and that’s where it is because I left to build my own studio in the middle of “Inland Empire” and he was a little miffed about that. It’s called The Lab, and that was the name because I had so much equipment, it was ridiculous—a whole lifetime collection. After leaving Maui, I had my own studio in Phoenix in the early 90s. In between working for people like Walter Becker and David Lynch, I’ve always had my own studio where I’ve been able to create my own stuff. Now that I’ve sold all my recording gear, I have to go to someone else’s studio if I want to record. That was a burden I placed on myself because if I have the recording gear, I’m gonna use it. 

I’ve produced four albums for a girl named Christie Josef, and I played bass in her band, so I still have my finger in it. I’m still playing music live. We don’t go out very often, but it’s good for the mind. I’ve got a guitar right next to me, and I play it almost every day. I’ve got a little amplifier in the apartment with some pedals and a real nice stereo. I play along with some records and play just for myself. It’s fun.

The new 4K restoration of David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” opens on Friday, May 6th, at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. For tickets and showtimes, click here.

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