On June 29 and 30, the museum screens the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. Doris Duke Theatre director Taylour Chang was surprised to learn that the director, Jon Nguyen, is based on O‘ahu.
Nguyen has worked in the film industry for 20 years in many capacities, from casting assistant on the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach to producer of the documentary Lynch, also about David Lynch. In fact, he has worked mainly on David Lynch-related projects for the past 12 years. He is currently developing a feature-length screenplay set on O‘ahu and another undisclosed David Lynch-related project.
He has extended family in Hawai‘i and has lived here on and off throughout the years. With a Danish wife, he currently splits his time between O‘ahu and Copenhagen. We wanted to find out what it was like to bring to the screen the life of a notoriously private man. Nguyen answered questions by email. And you can hear him talk in real life at both screenings of his film.
What was your first introduction to Lynch’s work, and how did you become a fan?
I had seen Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man, but didn’t really discover David Lynch until Lost Highway. That’s when David Lynch’s name became deeply seeded.
How did you transition from being a fan to making David Lynch: The Art of Life?
In 2006, I didn’t know Lynch, but I decided to contact a mutual friend with a proposition. “Would you ask Lynch if we could make a documentary about him?” My friend laughed and said “I highly doubt it, David is a very private person, he’ll never agree to it.” But A few days later, I received a call telling me that Lynch had agreed to let us make a film about him. Our first endeavor became 2008’s Lynch (one) a feature-length documentary shot during the production of Lynch’s last film Inland Empire. Since that film’s release, I’ve collaborated on David Lynch: The Art Life (what I call Lynch 2) and David Lynch Presents Interview Project Germany. David Lynch: The Art Life is the result of a relationship that was built on trust over the past decade.
The task of translating David Lynch’s private life into a film must have been a daunting one—how did you approach that?
Lynch has always been reluctant to discuss his films’ meanings and source of inspiration, so we circumvented this by focusing the film on his personal life story. We knew that by focusing on his early years, the clues and keys to understanding his films would be illuminated. David Lynch: The Art Life is constructed almost entirely of material that we received from Lynch—archival film, photos, paintings and music. We felt we had a unique opportunity to let David Lynch and his work and words speak for themselves.
David Lynch is a famously private person. How did you build that trust and gain access?
I don’t think Lynch enjoyed being on camera when we first started out a decade ago. I remember one of the first interview sessions we had with him. He sat across from the camera, arms crossed, smoking a cigarette. His answers to our questions were terse. Finally he said “Pick up the camera and follow me, you’ll know what the film is about when you’re done.” This forced our first film Lynch (one) to take a more fly on the wall cinema verité style. But over the ensuing years, our relationship with him grew stronger. When his daughter was born four years ago, we approached him again to ask if we could make a documentary that focused solely on his early years. Our cameraperson camped up at Lynch’s house for over two years, gathering material. He gave us incredible access to his archives of personal material. Over the two-year period, we managed to conduct 24 interviews which became the backbone of this film.
What were some of the most surprising moments and realizations you had about David Lynch while making the film?
As Lynch states in the opening of the film…”I think every time you do something, like a painting or whatever, you go with ideas and sometimes the past can conjure those ideas and color them, even if they’re new ideas, the past colors them.” For us to correlate the demarcation between his personal life stories and his art has been very revealing.
Does seeing Lynch’s private life change the experience of watching his films?
Absolutely. As you’ll discover from watching the film, one of the most illuminating things we discovered was how much his personal experiences have colored his art and films. It is perhaps fortuitous that Lynch has been so reluctant to speak directly about his films. Getting him to candidly open up about his own life in our film shines an interesting light onto his art and film work. There’s a borderlessness about his personal life, his art life and his film life.