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A different world greeted Lynch when, in his early 20s, he and his young wife were in Philadelphia to study art. (Lynch has been married twice, each union producing a child, and had a four-year bicoastal relationship with actress Isabella Rossellini.) The neighborhood was hairy, hostile, especially for a lad trying to fit his bucolic vision into the urban nightmare around him. Lynch says Eraserhead sprang fully formed from nights in that "crime- ridden" city. "My original image was of a man's head bouncing on the ground, being picked up by a boy and taken to a pencil factory. I don't know where it came from." Some movie folk didn't know where Eraserhead was going either; it was twice rejected by the New York Film Festival. Could it have been the picture's grim gray palette that put the festival off? Or the man with seared skin? Or the snakelike creatures in the radiator? Or the hideous mutant baby in the bureau drawer?
Lynch made Eraserhead at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, with financial help from his boyhood pal Jack Fisk (a talented production designer) and Fisk's wife, actress Sissy Spacek. Around him the first-time director gathered technicians and players he has used ever since: cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound-effects ace Alan Splet and, as Eraserhead's high-haired Henry Spencer, actor Jack Nance. "It seemed like we were never going to finish the film," recalls Nance, who plays henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks. "We had to scrap an awful lot, and we failed an awful lot. But we were kids then. Now we're old." Fortunately, the film found an audience. With its loping internal logic and its unapologetic otherness, Eraserhead soon became a hit on the midnight movie circuit.
Then everything started coming up robins in springtime. Mel Brooks, looking to produce films other than his own, saw Eraserhead and determined that Lynch should direct The Elephant Man. The film, cued by the parable of physical deformity as a kind of saint's sackcloth, embellished by Lynch's phantasmagoric direction and anchored by John Hurt's delicate performance as John Merrick, won the director big-studio notice. He could do anything now -- anything but turn Frank Herbert's daunting science fantasy into a movie Dino De Laurentiis would like. "I sold out on Dune," Lynch says today. "I was making it for the producers, not for myself. That's why the right of final cut is crucial. One person has to be the filter for everything. I believe this is a lesson world; we're supposed to learn stuff. But 3 1/2 years to learn that lesson is too long."
A character in Dune says, "Let me teach you the weirding way." In 1986 Lynch took moviegoers the whole way with Blue Velvet (also, ironically, made for De Laurentiis). "I started with the idea of front yards at night," Lynch says, "and Bobby Vinton's song playing from a distance. Then I always had this fantasy of sneaking into a girl's room and hiding through the night. It was a strange angle to come at a murder mystery." The murders were the least mysterious element in this feral, fertile inversion of It's a Wonderful Life. Each shot was crafted with the off-center elegance and pristine passion of a modernist painter. But with its mix of battered beauties and severed ears, Blue Velvet might have been his drop-dead letter to Hollywood. Instead, it made the maverick bankable. His next big project would find takers on network TV.