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The Best Films David Lynch Never Made
We’re all wondering right now: Is that it? Is our Twin Peaks revival gone forever? At first glance it would appear so; Lynch has reportedly fallen out over budget concerns and walked without even consulting with his lawyers. Is it a case of cold feet? We don’t know, and neither does Showtime’s boss, David Nevins who said in an interview with Adweek, “We’re (Showtime) in the middle of it. I can’t say too much.”
Hopefully things can get sorted out soon, for our own sanity and as this is an article, it must contain my opinion. While I won’t directly state whether I think Lynch will return or not, I will say that Lynch, for all his great successes in film and TV, does have a track record for projects that have been thrown into the ‘wood chipper’ – for a fancy play on words. Some of them could have been held in as high regard as his biggest successes, which means even Twin Peaks is not immune to such politics. So to remind you that Twin Peaks isn’t just a one off, let’s take a look back at some of the best films Lynch never made.
One Saliva Bubble
If you had to pick a few words to describe a David Lynch film you might say: surreal, nightmarish and that he loves small town America where the underbelly of society seeps to the top and exposes the dark truths of life. But none of those things apply to Lynch’s and Mark Frosts script for One Saliva Bubble – a wacko comedy of the wackiest kind.
In 1987 Lynch was due to release this “dumb comedy” which was going to star Steve Martin and Martin Short.
The plot begins when a single saliva bubble (as you might have guessed) which escapes from the mouth of a laughing security guard and lands on an exposed copper wire, and unluckily for him, the bubble has severe repercussions – you could say ‘downright odd’, but amusing. The bubble causes an electrical short inside the Pentagon which affects a space satellite that consequently begins an ominous countdown. But what is it counting down to?
The question hangs in the air as the story introduces us to the small American town of Newtonville. We meet a unique set of characters that range from a Swiss scientist, an assassin, Chinese acrobats, a Heinz 57 convention and ‘the world’s stupidest man.’
Straight after we meet this quirky array of oddballs, things get even odder. The countdown ends and it shoots a laser beam, which zaps Newtonville, causing the characters to change not only their clothes, but personalities and jobs. The assassin becomes a car salesman, the scientist becomes the village idiot, a black jazz musician becomes a white floozy etc. Strangely, no one notices this occurrence apart from Pentagon generals who begin attempting to fix the problem.
At this point it may sound like nothing you have ever read before, perhaps that it’s quite an original piece of cinema, hey, even the great Steve Martin according to Lynch “loved it … and he still loves it.” So if he’s even got the approval of a comedy great, then why no film?
Lynch said when asked a few years after the project was put on hold “The only problem is, every time I get ready to commit to it, I think the problem for me is that there’s not enough meat to it. I feel like a lot of people could do it.”
Regardless of what Lynch said, I think it’s pretty original – it seems to have a Lynch feel to it, with the small town community and a surreal situation.
Someone must have been whispering in Lynch’s ear because I’m surprised this never took off. David Lynch’s films, for all their dark themes and sometimes bleak atmosphere, have always injected a kind of warped humour or a slapstick moment that lightens the tone; and considering the success of his comic strip in the L.A Reader, called The Angriest Dog in The World (which ran from 1983 to 1992) you would think it would be a no-brainer in terms of success. However, the doubting voice inside of Lynch’s head, in the end, was the voice of studio execs who apparently didn’t want to finance the project.
One Saliva Bubble was officially abandoned, and Lynch and Frost looked to give up on comedy and gave birth to a little known show called Twin Peaks. Yep, we can thank One Saliva Bubble’s cancellation for Twin Peaks. The abandoned comedy had some motifs that would become part of Twin Peaks: from the ensemble of quirky and detailed characters, to the slapstick warped humor of small town America. Maybe the more serious tone of Twin Peaks sat better with Lynch than an all-out comedy, but it’s still a loss because this could’ve given his career another dimension.
If anyone was disappointed that they have never got to witness a comedy from both of them, then I just quickly want to shine a light on the 1992 ABC series, by Lynch/Frost called On the Air which followed the antics of a fictional television program, ‘The Lester Guy Show’ which airs live variety acts and as you probably already guessed, things don’t go too smoothly for ‘The Lester Guy Show’ as the acts they hire aren’t, let’s say, ‘the most well-rehearsed’ resulting in disastrous results for the fictional network ‘ZBC’.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if this was Lynch’s attempt at a satire on his own dealings with TV producers over the years, and how they thought his shows might have been disasters, so he decided to make a comedy out if it. Unfortunately the show was categorized too ‘out there’ which is ironic because at the time Twin Peaks was categorized as ‘too out there’. On the Air was cancelled after its first season and quickly disappeared from everyone’s memory; nevertheless it has since gained attention as all of its seven episodes have been placed on YouTube for your to view at your pleasure.
Moving on, we are back to Lynch’s favorite dish on the menu: a dark and mutated pie with a light sprinkling of industrial fog:
Ronnie Rocket is perhaps the most famous un-made Lynch project to date. It all started when fans found two versions of the script online, which garnered a lot of attention for being both original and typically ‘Lynchian’. It has almost become a bit of a cult favourite. Some fans have gone so far as to create a fan poster for the project.
To describe what Ronnie Rocket is, is almost impossible on a first attempt – it’s a world that provides different meanings and themes and in the end it’s just best to make your own mind up what it means, just like any other Lynch film.
Ronnie Rocket is set in a post-apocalyptic city in which a detective is investigating a mystery where you cannot live or go near the inner city as strange things happen if you do. The detective meets a man in a hospital bed named, Ronald D’Arte, who warns him of the dangers of the inner city and then draws him a strange set of symbols which leaves the detective scratching his head and wanting to find answers. The detective leaves, but we stay with Ronald who is, of course, Ronnie Rocket. Ronnie is three foot nothing (and was surprise, surprise, due to be played by Lynch favorite, Michael J. Anderson – ‘the man from another place’ in Twin Peaks.) Fortunately for Ronnie, two mad scientists just want to help (apparently). They abduct Ronnie and try to ‘re-create’ him as a ‘normal looking guy’ but their experiment doesn’t go as planned. They accidentally put too much voltage into him, which leaves Ronnie with a head of flaming red hair and an electrical/machine implant in his chest which causes his body to pulsate electrical currents. Now his life is about to change for the better … and for the worst.
The story leaves Ronnie for a while and picks back up with the detective who is exploring the dank and dingy city. It has an eerie and industrial feel to it, in many ways similar to Eraserhead. The detective, regardless of the warning he received from Ronnie about the inner city, goes on trying to solve this city’s strange secrets. What he finds is not only frightening, but mind boggling. He discovers the city is plagued by electrical mayhem involving a mercurial and demon-like figure called Hank Bartells (rumoured to be played by Dennis Hopper at the time). As you might have guessed, Hank Bartells is not a nice guy; he’s almost like a long forgotten cousin of X-Men’s Apocalypse – a huge and overpowering brute. Bartells indulges himself by tampering with the city’s electrical grid and to make life hell for the residence of this apocalyptic city, he sends black coated “Donut men” to assault people with cattle prods. As the result of the prodding, people are overcome with seizures and the sudden urge to eat their own body parts. He doesn’t just wreak physical damage on the residents, he has wired the city so that if you got close to the center of the city you begin to lose your mind, forget who you are and reality becomes distorted. The detective begins to suffer an identity crisis, ala Lost Highway, Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive; however, all this electricity affects Ronnie in a different way.
Ronnie has to plug himself in to a wall socket every fifteen minutes otherwise, well, its ‘lights out.’ But he doesn’t let his misfortune get him down; he joins a rock band and becomes a teen idol in his local high school. Nothing stays right in Ronnie’s world for very long, Bartells story collides with Ronnie’s when he sees the success the band is having – disgruntled, he decides to electrocute Ronnie every time he performs, causing his life essence to decrease rapidly. Now Ronnie must fight back against Bartells to save his own life and maybe the city’s.
As I’ve said before, there are a helluva lot of themes packed into this project: an identity crisis, social anxiety and image. Lynch said “It’s an absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence. It’s about electricity.” While you can see the clarity of those themes in the script, another theme seems to be playing a larger role than some may think. It’s a theme that could’ve made this film timeless and relevant today: global warming. This could possibly be Lynch’s first statement on the subject. Bartells and Ronnie are technically abusing the power of electricity for personal gains. Ronnie to the extent that he can’t live without it, which may be what Lynch was trying to warn us about: that we are becoming too reliant on it.
Ronnie Rocket, like Eraserhead, could’ve had a kind of Clockwork Orange tinkering-on-the-edge-of-sanity sensibility to it. I can kind of imagine the Bartells clan as a distant cousin of the Droogs.
I can also see this film being in black and white like Eraserhead was, but with bursts of color when the electricity erupts. This film wasn’t going to just be similar to Eraserhead in terms of tone, but also the way Lynch wanted to film it. “I want to have time to go into that world and live in it for a while, and that costs money. I don’t really want to have a normal eleven-week shooting schedule on Ronnie Rocket. I’d rather go with a smaller crew, and build the sets and live in them for a while.” That is exactly how Lynch shot Eraserhead: fully built sets and long breaks in between shooting scenes so he could come up with new ideas.
Lynch didn’t get his way though. It was, again, too ‘out there’ for studios and they turned down the project because as Lynch put it: “They (the studios) were struggling to get their heads around it.”
As with many Lynch films, it’s not really about getting your ‘head around it’ but to go with the feeling you pull from the film, which is both his greatest trait but his biggest weakness when it comes to securing deals for his bigger budget films.
The only reason Eraserhead got made was because Lynch spent his own money on the project, but what some may not know is that Eraserhead had to stop filming after a scene about halfway through the film for seven years so he could raise more money and I don’t think Lynch will want to be doing that again.
Even Lynch admitted Ronnie Rocket may have been too much of a risk; however, he has denied speculation that the project is dead and buried. He spoke to salon.com three years ago and said, “I want to make it; I love that world.” He still claims though that he is waiting for the ‘big idea’ for the project, something which will lift it to greatness.
Let’s hope Ronnie Rocket will one day come to fruition.
For now though we are leaving Lynch world to turn to a project that could’ve changed his career in a very different way from what you might expect.
A 1950s’ blonde-haired icon has died mysteriously from an overdose of Barbiturates (a central nervous system depressant). It appeared to be a suicide, but many people thought it was much more sinister than that. Venus Descending sounds like your typical David Lynch movie, with him having an interest in the ‘actress in trouble’ as he calls it, with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire being the main examples. But you’re smart folks so you’ve probably figured out that Venus Descending didn’t come from an abstraction Lynch received from the deep recesses of his mind. No, it’s a true story: the death of Marilyn Monroe.
“I always, like ten trillion other people, liked Marilyn Monroe,” stated Lynch in 87’ “and was fascinated by her life.”
Moving away from surrealist pieces, Lynch was due to tackle a movie version of the book written by Anthony Summers called Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe in 1985. It recounted Marilyn’s early life and career while delving into what happened on that shocking summer night. Summers suggested it may not have been suicide, but murder. It seems like a plot Lynch would come alive in – he has always been interested in what occurrences are happening behind the ‘red curtain’ so to speak and with that Lynch began to try and push the project forward.
Lynch and Mark Frost penned a script the year after the book’s release. They both stated that their screenplay was based on the book, but would steer away from her marriages and career and instead focus on her death. Lynch and Frost said they’d come up with their own theory of how she died and according to people who read their script, it stayed pretty close to Summers’ original theory. In Summers’ book he said that Monroe was murdered and that she did not accidentally take an overdose of pills. Summers suspected links to the mafia and the CIA and that Bobby Kennedy was inside the house at the time of her death. The reason was that she knew something which could incriminate the Kennedys’ so ‘bumping her off’ would have been their only option.
This may seem like a contradiction to Lynch’s career but Lynch and Frost’s writing of the script didn’t go too smoothly. They began to have problems with what was real and what wasn’t, they struggled to come to terms with what facts they could believe and which were fictional. For two writers who are all about blurring the lines between reality and dreams, it seems like something they would have relished, but I suspect something else was giving them this stumbling block. Throughout Lynch’s career he hasn’t suffered much from studio politics as his films are often on a lower budget. He even financed some of his own films i.e. Eraserhead and Inland Empire. He is used to shooting with his own schedule, with Inland Empire shooting a scene at a time, sometimes months between takes, but Venus Descending would’ve been something which could’ve taken Lynch’s career up a notch in terms of fame. No doubt the film would have been widely anticipated around the globe, Monroe’s story has fascinated so many and plenty of people would have been ready to see what Lynch and Frost could cook up, but with the upside of more recognition as a filmmaker came more pressure from mainstream Hollywood that Lynch was probably not used to; so when he and Frost faced problems in their script, they returned to Summers, hoping he could give them some definite answers.
“I had to move away from the fallen actress thing.” Lynch said on the result of the chat with Summers. In the end Summers, Lynch and Frost thought it best to focus on the Kennedys’ side of the story because there were more facts on their side of things, so it would be easier to tell a more concrete tale. Even though the point of view slightly changed in the script, their theory on who killed her didn’t: they believed it was something to do with the Kennedys’ too.
After the script was finished they handed it to different studios to see their reaction and unfortunately for Lynch and Frost, “(The studios) bailed out real quick for political reasons.”
Lynch stated in the 2011 book by Greg Olsen, David Lynch: Beautiful Dark. It’s such a shame; it could have been the most in depth and intriguing examination of shady governmental/Hollywood activities we had ever seen before. For all of Lynch’s examinations of Hollywood in past movies, it would have been nice to have thrown in this true-ish tale in his cannon too. They even had all bases covered in terms of having a healthy mix of tone, style and fact as Lynch could cover the latter. Mark Frost could cover the fact based elements, as Frost’s career has mainly been writing non-fiction works from the likes of The Grand Slam and Game Six.
If things had worked out, to this very day we could still be asking questions about it: it could have been a timeless piece of cinema and and in truth we would be talking about it today because late last year a book written by investigative journalists Jay Morgalis and Richard Buskin called, The Murder of Marilyn Monroe: Case Closed gathered quotes from key witnesses of that fateful night on August 4th 1962, which summed up that the Kennedys’ did in fact kill Monroe with the aid of her own psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson and the famous actor Peter Lawford. They confirmed that she was given a lethal injection of pentobarbital to the heart by Dr. Greenson because she was threatening to expose secrets and affairs she had had with all of them, which she kept written down in her red diary. They broke into her home that night to find it and initially tried to just knock her out, but she kept waking up and fighting back, which didn’t help their search for the red diary (which they were really struggling to find) so to make the search easier and not wake up the neighbors, the unspoken had to be done. It’s a tragic ending, something which invokes the nightmarish scenarios in Lynch’s own films. Even though Venus Descending was never made, its DNA can be found in many of Lynch/Frost’s works afterwards.
You can see the inspiration in Mulholland Drive, with the neo-noir story of a blonde haired actress who is haunted by Hollywood’s underbelly. The film included shady studio execs who manipulated films for their own gain – perhaps Lynch making a nod to the studios turning down the film. Also, Mulholland Drive’s main character Dianne becomes involved in multiple relationships which ultimately end in the plot of a murder of an actress. Dianne, then later dies under abstract and mysterious circumstances. Even Twin Peaks has a nod to the abandoned project. The script for Venus Descending included a detective who carried around a tape recorder he would repeatedly speak evidence into. We don’t know if the detective was Dale Cooper but it seems there were plenty of ideas Lynch and Frost felt were worth using again.
Anyway, moving away from Lynch’s true story land let’s take a look at a project which would unite him with one of fiction’s greatest minds.
Lynch’s career has been one of unique artistic vision. No one comes close to his sound design and the dark fever dream tone he injects into his work. The way he asks his actors to put emphasize certain words and express very specific gestures, are all tricks he uses to elevate the very precise atmosphere he wants to create. The best example of these tropes is in the brilliant ‘Espresso’ scene in Mulholland Drive.
Tone and character nuances are all Lynch trademarks, but his dream logic and themes can be compared to another great visual mind: Franz Kafka.
Lynch said in Lynch on Lynch that, “The one artist I feel could be my brother is Franz Kafka.”
Kafka uses alienation, mutilation, physical and psychological brutality and parent/child conflict in his work to portray theme; and many of these themes, despite Lynch being decades apart, are used in his work too. Lynch used a parent/child conflict in Eraserhead, which dealt with a father’s struggles to bring up his mutated baby in a world he feels is now alienating him because his child is seen as grotesque by others in his apartment block. Physical and psychological abuse is also present in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, as in both the lead character is trying to come to terms and make sense of their own, fragile and tortured mind. Both auteurs are interested in what can go wrong in close knit environments such as the home and the trauma you can experience from domestic abuse. Also, as quite often the case with both Lynch and Kafka the plot is the theme, instead of the theme being embedded in the plot, which is considered the norm. So with each sharing the same sensibilities of story, Lynch thought it would bode well to adapt Kafka’s 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis.
The novella was about a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who in 1915 works to keep his family financially stable. But one morning he awakes to find that he has transformed into a large, monstrous insect-like creature. With nowhere to go, he hides in his apartment, waiting for his family to visit so he can get help but when his family arrive, instead of feeling sorry for him and helping him, they are repulsed at the sight of the once ‘golden boy’ of the family who is now an ugly mutated insect. His family attempt to accept his transformation, but in the end it’s too much to bear. They begin to push him away but his sister does try and help as she brings food and talks to him, even though he must stay concealed as she hasn’t the courage to face the sight of him. However, his friendship with his sister leads to his own fate. As his family try to keep guests distracted from the worsening conditions of the apartment and Gregor, his sister plays the violin to some boarders, and while the boarders grow tired of her performance Gregor is overcome with emotion and moves out of his apartment and towards the sound of the violin to hear better. However, he is caught by some of the boarders and like Gregor’s family, they are repulsed. They threaten to leave and not pay income and with the guilt that he might be letting his family down, Gregor goes back to his apartment and mysteriously dies overnight.
You can see that alienation and psychological trauma is present. The story seems to explore the horrors of being an outcast and the worries of letting your family down. And like a lot of Lynch’s best work, The Metamorphosis uses an abstract device (the insect) to explore a theme.
There was reportedly a complete script . Lynch wrote it by himself and it was due to be set in 1950s’ America. However, due to the studios worrying that the cost of creating a realistic bug would be too much of a risk, and that it wouldn’t make any money in their eyes, the studios pulled out of a deal.
It’s a great loss to many people hoping to see two great visionaries share a vision. I have a feeling it could’ve been held in the same high regard as other Lynch classics like The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. It also would’ve been great for Kafka fans, to finally see what his stories would look like on screen. The only real film we have of Kafka world is Orson Welles’, The Trial in 1962.
If there is one thing to take away from all these abandoned projects and yes, you can call me Captain Bloomin’ Obvious, but Lynch and studios just weren’t meant for each other. To think Lynch’s career of abandoned projects ends here, think again, here are some even lesser known projects from the veteran director.
Other, lesser known projects
The projects listed above have been more high profile than the ones here. These don’t have many details other than a small description. But they leave you with a yearning to have seen them made.
Many can’t forget Dune, as it was Lynch’s only exploration into science fiction, which is safe to say ended in disaster. Dune was made on at the time, a huge blockbuster 40 million dollar budget, but it only took 30 million at the box office, meaning the film was considered a financial bomb, regardless of being number 2 at the box office in its opening weekend. It was still thought to have been given a go light for a sequel before Dune released. Dune Messiah, as the sequel was titled, was supposed to have Lynch return in the director’s chair – and was never necessarily cancelled, but it just drifted away, to never be mentioned again. Presumably because of the 10 million losses and the slating the critics gave it upon release.
Lynch worked on a mystery called Up the Lake in 1986 which was never given any more of a description than being a ‘mystery.’ Perhaps it was the early seed of the idea of Twin Peaks, as Laura Palmer’s body was found wrapped into plastic next to water so, perhaps this was Lynch tinkering with the idea, but you never know, it could’ve been something else entirely.
Venus Descending wouldn’t have been Lynch’s only book adaptation. He was originally attached to directing the adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel, Red Dragon, which in the end went to Michael Mann who ended up directing Red Dragon in 1986, but changed the name to Manhunter. Lynch said of why he left the project that, “(I was) involved in that a little bit, until I got sick of it. I was going into a world that was going to be, for me, real, real violent and completely degenerate.” Lynch’s thoughts were also shared by Michael Mann at first, but Mann found a way of lessening any gratuitous violence by making the film more of a psychological thriller which explored what made a serial killer tick and why he is how he is, instead of endless bloody murders.
One other project which is the most surprising to me, but interesting, is Lynch last year was rumored to be collaborating with Kanye West for his music video of his song, Blood on the Leaves from his 2013 album Yeezus. And at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music Lynch said, “I love ‘Blood On The Leaves.’ I just think it’s one of the most modern pieces and so minimal, so powerful, but at the same time so beautiful. It’s a great, great song.” However, when Lynch was hired to collaborate with Kanye he ran into a creative block.
“Kanye’s a good guy,” he told The Daily Beast, “and a great musician. I loved the song, and that’s what brought us together, but I couldn’t come up with ideas that thrilled either one of us.” He went on to say he felt like he “let Kanye down a little bit.”
It’s strange for Lynch to get a creative block especially when it was his idea to do the video in the first place. We could be guessing all day as to why but to create a nice little segue, maybe it was because he was so burnt out after writing those nine Twin Peaks scripts with Mark Frost.
So I’m going to finish with Twin Peaks, considering it’s the hottest topic in Lynch land at the moment. We are all worried at the state of the reboot, but showing you all these intriguing and potentially brilliant abandoned projects from Lynch will hopefully shed some light on why Lynch is holding out for a better deal with Showtime, because having that many abandoned projects couldn’t have helped his financial state over the years. So if the rumors are true and Showtime is reducing his cut of Blu-ray and streaming sales to bulk up the show’s budget, then it may make sense why he needs to make as much of a profit for himself with this reboot. Perhaps Lynch is just playing hard ball tactics though, but he isn’t like many Hollywood directors who are happy to milk a franchise just for the money, he wants do things entirely how he envisions them and if anybody gets in the way of that he’ll say ‘fine, its someone else’s project now.’
I’m going to stick by Lynch no matter what, but I sure do hope Twin Peaks season 3 doesn’t join his long list of exciting but never-to-be-made projects, because now knowing all these abandoned projects exists, it certainly made me feel like his career could have been vaster and even more spectacular.
Be sure to let me know below which unmade Lynch project was your favorite on the list.