David Lynch interview: ‘Even in the so-called dark things, there’s beauty’

In a rare interview, the Mulholland Drive director tells Matthew Sweet about his work with composer Angelo Badalamenti

From the darkness of Mulholland Drive to the soaring sweep of Twin Peaks, Angelo Badalamenti created the soundscape that accompanies director David Lynch’s vision. The composer died in December 2022, and Lynch has now given an interview to BBC Radio 3’s Sound of Cinema. “Even in the so-called dark things, there’s a beauty,” he tells Matthew Sweet.

David Lynch: Angelo, he can do anything, he can write any kind of music. He studied all the classical things, but he wrote jingles for a long time, so he can kind of do anything. The secret to Angelo is that if you know what you want, you’ve got to bring it out of him. It’s there in him but you’ve got to bring it out.

Matthew Sweet: You first met him on the set of Blue Velvet, can you describe how he struck you? Was it love at first sight?

DL: In a way it was – Wilmington North Carolina was where we were. I wanted to get a local band, not a good band, just a local, hard-working band to back up Isabella Rossellini singing Blue Velvet. We were working away, working away and nothing was happening. We’ve got Fred Caruso to thank because he kept at me: “David. This isn’t working, let me call my friend Angelo” but he was calling him Andy then. Angelo went by Andy Bedali in t he early days, bless his heart – he sure didn’t have to do that, but he did and Fred said, “Andy will come up and make this right.” And I said, ‘okay bring Angelo up’. And the next morning he worked with Isabella in the lobby of her hotel which had a piano that was there and came at lunchtime and played it for me at the Beaumont house in Blue Velvet. And I said, Angelo, we can cut this into the film just the way it is! It’s fantastic!

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Lyrics start saying something to Angelo’s music brain and out comes this feeling from the lyrics. Because he can do anything, I could say things to him and he’d start playing that. And if I didn’t like that, I’d say something different and it would change!

MS: You wrote lyrics for him in Mysteries of Love in Blue Velvet, and I think I can tell that Angelo Badalmenti loved you, because he’d say in interviews, David Lynch gave me these lyrics and they didn’t rhyme, they had no hooks, what am I supposed to do with this!

DL: Angelo is in a way, old school – so I kind of confounded him, and he did like lyrics that rhymed and he did like form, but he could break that form easily if you force him. And bless his heart, this guy could do anything! Another thing, Fred Caruso said, “You’re always writing these little things on scraps of paper, why don’t you send something up to Angelo?” I said, “Fred! Give me a break!” Anyway, one thing led to another and he wrote Mysteries of Love. And then I said, “okay Angelo – I want you to score this picture.” And I’d listen to Shostakovich in A minor all the time writing this, this has got to have this Russian American feel in this film, and he said “okay” and off he went. And then we started working together, big time after that.

MS: Could we hear about what happened when you were in the room together, there is something a bit alchemical about this. The way I’ve heard him describe it is that you’re having a feeling or a dream or a vision and he’s next to you translating it into music. What would you have said to him when describing what you wanted as the main theme for Twin Peaks?

DL: Well the main theme of Twin Peaks is Falling. And Falling was a thing Angelo and I wrote and Julee Cruise sang it. We wrote that before, when Twin Peaks was just a dream, only in the beginnings, and I said you guys, this thing is going to be the theme of this show. And they looked at me like, are you crazy?

MS: You describe being in the room…

DL: How it always works with Angelo and me, I know the mood of a thing and the feel of a thing. So, sitting with Angelo, I sit next to him on a bench or close to him always, and I say, “Angelo it’s gotta have this kind of a feel”. And he closes his eyes and he plays something, and then I say, “no it’s gotta be lower, or slower, or more mystery in there”, and then he starts playing something else. And then I say, “no that’s still too fast, it’s not dark enough, it’s not heavy and foreboding enough”. And then he starts playing something, and it all just comes over him, and I say “that’s beautiful Angelo”, and I try to psychically pull out the next stuff. But because he caught the first thing, then in the world of music it’s logical that these other things follow, and he knows that and there they are and he brings them out, and there it is – no two ways about it.

MS: I feel you’re almost reaching for something together. Those climbing piano notes in Laura Palmer’s theme, that sustained synth bed below it. Where do you go together, you and he in that music?

DL: Well Angelo goes to the stars for sure. He catches a thing and I’m there as his brother filling the air with this freedom and energy to get it. It’s so delicate, the early stages of everything is so delicate, and it just needs to be safe and packed with possibilities so Angelo can find it. Then, when he catches it’s so incredible, so incredible.

MS: There’s sorrow and a sense of sin in a lot of your music together. Angelo said you brought out his dark side, what did he mean by that?

DL: I brought out if anything, true Angelo, which is love. The feeling he can get is a heart feeling, full heart, deep love – deep, deep love. Even in the so-called dark things, there’s a beauty. It can be foreboding, but there is also something else in there that’s bigger. It’s truthful.

MS: Let’s talk about Lost Highway, a film that gave me nightmares. It’s a good example of how the music expresses the nature of the characters, because Bill Pullman’s character is a saxophonist and he plays this crazy, wailing riff in a track called Red Bats with Teeth. Did you want that note of derangement that enters this cue? The madness of it.

DL: I think his name is Bob who is this saxophone player, and he’s a great saxophone player. We were at Capital Records I believe and Bob was there, riffing. And I would say, “Bob” – and this was like all through Lost Highway, this kind of talk went on – “Bob, I’m gonna go to sleep with the amount of energy you’re putting out. You’re sending me to sleep, pal”. And then he’d look at me funny and he’d play louder, with way more power. I’d say “Bob, I talk about falling asleep, I actually went to sleep during that last one, come on man!” So then, pretty soon, Bob is absolutely insane mad, crazed and he comes up with this thing. And he really loved it. Angelo was there, but it was more up to Bob to find that thing in him.

MS: Mulholland Drive, your Hollywood noir, makes the space of the LA bungalow one of its theatres of operation. You and Angelo are both credited as composers for this, why is that? Why are you there too in this one?

DL: Again, I’m working with Angelo and sometimes I – I don’t meant to trick Angelo or anything like that, but I’ll say something like, “play Shostakovich”, so Angelo will start playing. Then I’ll say, “play Wagner, Angelo”. And then he’ll start playing Wagner, and somewhere in there there’s these notes that fly and I’ll say “Angelo, what is that thing right there?”, so then Angelo plays that, and his eyes pop open, and he plays it again and plays it again and he finds this thing or that thing. And then we had two things that were quite good, but they didn’t feel finished and I said “Angelo, why don’t we play both of them together?” and his eyes widen up and he thinks and he plays both of them together and that’s the theme of Mulholland Drive. And he wrote some beautiful things for that film. We find them, together, because in the world of music, there’s a thing called common sense. You can’t just give the music over to somebody. They can be in another house, another state, another country. They see the film unfinished, and then you can’t expect them to write a thing that you’d plug in that’s going to work. Once in a while maybe, but it has to pass through one person, and that’s the filmmaker. It’s not an ego thing, it’s so that it all holds together. You can’t let the set designer design that, and the music person design the music and the editor design the editing. It’s just ridiculous, they’re there to help you. The filmmaker makes the final decisions on all these things, and talks to people and gets them to zero in on the ideas that you’re trying to translate into cinema.

MS: Angelo was a schoolteacher before he was a composer. He taught music and he taught English, what did he teach you?

DL: Angelo brought me into the world of music, he opened up a whole world for me. I played the trumpet in junior high, and I had to quit playing trumpet in high school because in order to play the trumpet in school, you had to be part of the marching band and go to school at six in the morning and practise marching to go to some football game!

MS: You didn’t fancy that idea?

DL: It was horrible, so I quit! I said, “you’re kidding me, I’m not getting up at 5 in the morning” so Angelo brought me into the world of music and opened up this world that was so incredible, and Angelo and I would talk. He lived in New Jersey and I live in LA, and we would talk on the phone pretty god darn regularly, since I met him. We were like brothers, I just love Angelo, I just love him. And when he passed over, went to the other side, it struck me harder than – so many people have died that I’ve worked with, I miss every one of them, and I just don’t see why people have to die. But Angelo, it really hit me. I’m not going to be able to call Angelo on the phone, I’m not going to be able to hear his voice anymore, I’m not going to be able to work with him. All this music that’s in him, it’s not going to come out. It’s just horrible.

MS: I’ve noticed that all the way through this conversation David, you’ve referred to him in the present tense.

DL: You have to keep Angelo alive. I believe life is a continuum, and that no one really dies, they just drop their physical body and we’ll all meet again, like the song says. It’s sad but it’s not devastating if you think like that. Otherwise I don’t see how anybody could ever, once they see someone die, that they’d just disappear forever and that’s what we’re all bound to do. I’m sorry but it just doesn’t make any sense, it’s a continuum, and we’re all going to be fine at the end of the story.

MS: Is he there in the music you compose now? Say if I listen to the music you composed on your own, like Inland Empire, can I hear his influence?

DL: You might. There’s certain things that I like, that Angelo liked and played, and if those ever come out, someone would say Angelo wrote that, there’s certain things, but really the number one thing Angelo can do is beauty and love. He can tear your heart out, he can make you weep like a baby, just pull the heartstrings Angelo can do, just a beautiful soul he is and so talented.

MS: I want to do something social, in our minds, I want you and Angelo to go out for lunch together.

DL: Angelo is Italian, so it’s like pasta, spaghetti and meatballs, that’s Angelo, when he calls a sauce gravy. I associate Angelo with really good Italian food.

MS: What’s the best dinner you had with him? You and he out together, can you remember a really good night out together?

DL: After The Straight Story screened at Cannes Film Festival, Angelo and I, and Harry Dean and a bunch of people went to this petite bar at the Carlton Hotel. And we were having some wine and some hors-d’oeuvres, Harry Dean suddenly said something about a dream he had. A dream he had of chocolate bunnies. So Angelo and I laughed, and then Harry Dean said another sentence, coupled on top of what he had said that was funny to us, and now this sentence, it got us another laugh, even bigger than the first. And then Harry Dean said a third thing and it made us laugh even harder and then Harry Dean said a fourth thing, and Angelo and I found ourselves laughing even harder still. And Harry Dean said 17 things that night! So Angelo and I almost died! We couldn’t laugh any more. It was painful, all the laughter tears were gone and we were just dying! And we talk about this. No stand-up comic has every come close to this, for us. How did Harry Dean Stanton do this? Also Angelo and I would talk about Martin Luther King as this poet, who had this way of speaking that was like music, and was built like music, more and more and then this cosmic feeling comes more and more until you want to cry because it’s so beautiful and profound, this kind of thing we would talk about.

MS: Do you find that you still talk to him?

DL: I talk to Angelo all the time.

MS: Can I ask what you say? Can I ask what you ask him?

DL: I just talk to him like, I talk to him about the weather, or Angelo you play this thing so beautifully when I listen to his old stuff. I still have a bunch of things and he’s just alive still for me.

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