An old guy named Jess is on my computer screen, because David Lynch sent a camera crew on the road to interview people more or less at random, and they happened to find Jess waiting for his trailer to be fixed in Needles, Calif. Jess is sitting against a chain-link fence, with his dusty ball cap pulled down low and his eyes hidden behind dark aviator sunglasses. He briefly summarizes his childhood, his military service and his botched marriage. The camera peers at his gnarled hands and wary face, and at the high fence that divides one section of desert from another.
"I haven't talked to any of my family in 15 years. I haven't even seen my own kids in 25," Jess says. "I ain't proud of anything except just bein' alive."
Jess is the first of 121 people interviewed by Lynch's crew during a 32,000-kilometre, 70-day road trip around the United States. Their stories, trimmed down to monologue episodes of three to five minutes each, started appearing online earlier this month at davidlynch.com, as part of Interview Project. Every three days, a new interview goes up, and another dot appears on the map of the crew's journey.
Tommie Holliday, another interviewee, seems like a regular working-class guy, as he recounts his job history in front of his van in Kingman, Ariz. But then he tells about the time his sweetheart killed a persistent ex-boyfriend with a machine gun, and how he's got 16 months left in his probation for helping her bury the body. When that's over, Tommie wants to collect his woman and disappear into the wilds of Montana, where he's sure he'll be "the happiest man on this Earth." But for now, he reckons he's "a big fat zero, man. I ain't gotta life, I ain't doin' nothin,' just hangin' out."
Interviews are a big part of our media culture, but most people interviewed on TV are celebrities, experts or politicians. Not one of the people in Interview Project is a celebrity, and none has a product or agenda to promote. You could call them ordinary people, though ordinariness tends to vanish as you try to get near it. Lynch knows all about that, having spent much of his career exposing the vivid realities that lie under the surface of the ordinary.
"Interview Project is a road trip where people have been found and interviewed," says Lynch, in the weirdly redundant video that introduces the series. "The team found the people driving along the roads, going into bars, going into different locations, and there they were. The people told their stories."
The implication is that we're getting the straight goods from these "found" people. But the videos of Interview Project aren't just lengths of unedited monologue, like those uploaded to YouTube by the thousands. These use standard filmmaking techniques, including "establishing," cutaway shots and soundtrack music. Lynch's brief template intros to each interview practically insist that we notice the artifice of filmmaking, as he speaks through an exaggerated rumble of room noise and addresses the "wrong" camera at the same point each time. His two directors, Austin Lynch (his son) and Jason S. (who doesn't use his last name), trimmed out much more interview footage than they used.
"On average we spent between 35 and 60 minutes with each person, and have that amount of footage plus any additional B-roll footage that we shot," said Jason S., who insisted that his own interview take place through e-mail. His crew also shot plenty of footage of their surroundings, during the interviews and while in transit.
"After watching several episodes with Pierre Edelman, [executive producer of Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Dr. ]it became clear that the road trip aspect of the project highlights the randomness of what we did, and is also something that we hope the majority of people can relate to," Jason said. "We wanted the website to give our viewers the opportunity to meet these people in the same way that we did."
In most cases, Jason said, people spoke more or less where they were found, though a few asked for a change of setting. Kee, a Navajo from Tuba City, Ariz., led the crew several miles away from his home to a spot among the soft red rocks where he talked about the trials of being gay on a reservation, and of finding his path with God's help. A written note on Kee's video page says that the long scar on his cheek came from a knife wound inflicted by his sister. Another filmmaker would have put Kee's account of the incident in the video, but it's just as effective to have it conveyed to us off-screen. It confirms that this peaceful man has had a turbulent past.
Not all of the interviews have to do with the burdens of the past. Palmer Black, a retired naval officer in Blanding, Utah, stands beside his bungalow in a one-piece work-suit and says he wants to be remembered as a happy guy and a good barbecue cook. "I love little kids and puppies," he says. Unusually, his episode is shot in black and white. It's left to us to decide whether that's meant to be a reflection of his character, a tribute to his name, or simply a way of increasing the visual variety of these carefully produced miniatures.
Interview Project was clearly designed with the Internet in mind, though it would be easy to transfer the series to DVD, or to break it up into a documentary series for public television (121 interviews would more than fill 13 episodes of 30 minutes each). Jason S. agreed they would work well on in-flight video, and said that more interviews might be shot if the series catches on with viewers and sponsors.
For his part, Lynch seems keen to remind us of means of dissemination that preceded the Internet. Each interview begins with the hum and crackle of a radio dial being turned from one station to the next, and his invariable greeting: "Hello, you're tuned into Interview Project." The activity of gathering the interviews recalls the expeditions of John and Alan Lomax, who in the 1930s drove to farms and penitentiaries in the American South, recording and interviewing musicians who in many cases had never seen a microphone before. Like Lynch, the Lomaxes were searching for people whose stories had been overlooked or displaced by a new attention-hogging medium. The myth of the hidden culture of the United States is still alive and well, and flourishing in full view on the Internet, through Interview Project.Report Typo/Error