“Henry Is A Total Blank”: David Lynch On The Origins Of Eraserhead

In an exclusive extract from his new biography, Room To Dream, David Lynch recalls meeting Jack Nance and the music he played on set while filming Eraserhead

Photo credit: Dean Hurley

Jack, Jack’s dog Five, and my brother, John, drove cross country from Philly with me, and the drive west was beautiful. I remember one point when we were driving down into this gigantic valley and the sky was so big that when you came up over the ridge you could see four different kinds of weather at the same time. There was sunshine in one part of the sky and a violent storm in another part. We drove thirty hours straight to Oklahoma City, where we stayed with my aunt and uncle, then the second day we drove a long way and pulled off the road at night in New Mexico. It was a moonless night and we went down into these bushes to sleep. It was real quiet, then suddenly there was a whooshing sound and we saw a horse tied to one of the bushes. When we woke up the next morning there were Indians in pickup trucks driving in circles around us. We were on an Indian reservation and they probably wondered why the hell we were on their property, and I don’t blame them. We didn’t know we were on a reservation.

We got into L.A. after midnight on the third day. We drove down Sunset Boulevard, then turned at the Whisky a Go Go and went to Al Splet’s place, where we spent the night. The next morning I woke up and that’s when I discovered L.A. light. I almost got run over, because I was standing in the middle of San Vicente Boulevard – I couldn’t believe how beautiful the light was! I loved Los Angeles right off the bat. Who wouldn’t? So I’m standing out there looking at the light and I look over and there’s 950 San Vicente with a FOR RENT sign. Within a couple of hours I rented that house for two hundred twenty dollars a month.

I’d sold the Ford Falcon back in Philly and I needed a car, so Jack, John, and I walked down to Santa Monica Boulevard and stuck our thumbs out. We got a ride with this actress and she said, “All the used-car lots are on Santa Monica Boulevard down in Santa Monica and I’m going that way, so I’ll take you right there.” We went in and out of a few places, then my brother spotted a 1959 Volkswagen with faded gray paint. My brother knows about cars, so he looked it over and said, “This is a good car.” I’d just won second prize in the Bellevue Film Festival for The Grandmother and the prize was two hundred and fifty dollars, so I used that money to buy the car, which cost maybe two hundred. I needed insurance and right across the street is State Farm, so I walk up these wooden steps to this nice guy on the second floor and he took care of the insurance. In a day I had a car with insurance and a house. It was unreal. Lots of people lived with us in that house on and off – Herb Cardwell was there, and Al Splet, and my brother, and Jack was with us for a while, too. It didn’t bother me having all those people living with us, but it would really bother me now.

The day Jack and my brother and I walked up to the AFI and I saw this mansion for the first time, I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy to be there. When I arrived in L.A. I wanted to make Gardenback and I’d finished a forty-page script; then I met Caleb Deschanel and he liked the script. He thought it was a horror film, sort of, and he took it to this producer he knew who made low-budget horror films. This guy says, “I want to make this and I’m going to give you fifty thousand dollars, but you gotta make the script a hundred or a hundred and twenty pages.” That really depressed me. The whole story was there but I still spent the next whole fuckin’ school year meeting with Frank Daniel and this student named Gill Dennis, who was kind of Frank’s sidekick, padding this thing with mundane dialogue I hated. In the back of my mind I was thinking, Do I really want to make this? Because I’d started getting ideas for Eraserhead.

One day during my first year at the AFI, Toni Vellani told me, “I want you to come and meet Roberto Rossellini.” So I walked over to Toni’s office and there was Roberto. We shook hands and sat down and talked and we just clicked. He told Toni, “I’d like David to be an exchange student and come to Rome and attend my film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.” They wrote it up in Variety that I was going there, but the next thing I know Rossellini’s school goes belly-up. It’s fate. I wasn’t supposed to go there. Still, it was nice meeting him.

I needed money, so Toni said, “You can intern with this guy Ed Parone who’s doing Major Barbara at the Mark Taper Forum,” so I interned there. What I was doing as an intern was getting coffees for Ed Parone. The play starred David Birney and Blythe Danner, and it was the debut of Richard Dreyfuss, who stole the show. I hated the play and didn’t like the director. He wasn’t very nice to me. Maybe I wasn’t getting good coffees for him, I don’t know. I had a bad attitude and had zero interest in theater. Blythe Danner was nice, though.

Toni knew I built things so he then got me a job in Utah, building props for Stanton Kaye’s film In Pursuit of Treasure. Before I got there I heard stories about Stanton Kaye, like they had to push him up the hill to go direct, he wasn’t on time, he didn’t give a shit or whatever – he was acting weird. I went to Utah and started building the treasure for In Pursuit of Treasure. I was making Aztec gods and gold bricks, just making stuff up, and it was just me in a basement with this guy named Happy, who worked at a circus and was a carny. “Happ,” I called him. I was only supposed to be there for a week, and after two weeks of this I wanted to go home, so I said, “My buddy Jack can do this stuff.” So Jack came and met a lot of people who saw that he was great, and it opened doors for him. I think that was a kind of a turning point for Jack.

The first day of my second year I go up to the AFI and I’ve been put in first-year classes, like I’d flunked. Plus, I’d wasted the last fucking year, and anger came up in me like unreal. I stormed down the hall, and Gill saw me and saw the look on my face and he said, “David, stop! Stop!” He chased me but I went right up to Frank’s office, past Mierka, his assistant, and walked in and said, “I quit!” I stormed out and went to see Alan and he said, “I quit, too!” So the two of us went to Hamburger Hamlet and griped and bitched and had coffee. A few hours later I went home and when Peggy saw me she said, “What’s going on? The school’s calling and they’re really upset that you left.” So I went up there and Frank said, “David, when you want to quit, we’re doing something wrong. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do Eraserhead,” and he said, “Then you’ll do Eraserhead.”

Once I started working on Eraserhead I stopped going to classes, but I’d go up from time to time to see a film. The projectionist in the big room at the AFI was a film buff beyond the beyond and when he’d say, “David, you’ve got to see this film,” I knew it would be something special. One thing he showed me was Blood of the Beasts, this French film that intercuts between two lovers walking through these streets in a little French town and a big old-style slaughterhouse. Cobblestone courtyard, big chains, and steel things. They bring a horse out and there’s steam coming out of the nostrils; they put this thing on the horse’s forehead and boom! Down the horse would go. Chains around his hooves hoist him up and they had him skinned in no time, blood going in the grate; then cut to this couple walking. It was something.

I was looking for actors for Eraserhead and there was a theater director named David Lindeman who I remember as a student at the AFI. I described the character of Henry to him and asked if he knew any actors who could play that, and he gave me two names. One of them was Jack Nance, so I decided to meet Jack. With Eraserhead, the first person I met was the person I cast, every single one. It’s not like I would take just anybody, but they were all perfect.

The Doheny mansion was built on a hill and it had a ground floor, a second floor, and underneath the ground floor was a basement with rooms that had been turned into offices. There was also a bowling alley there and a laundry room where the Dohenys had their wash done. Because sunlight is good for cleaning clothes, they had this pit that you couldn’t see from the street or from any angle. It had, like, sixteen-foot walls and was just an open pit where they hung their laundry. Beautiful pit. Concrete walls and real nice steps going up and out. That’s where I built the stage the Lady in the Radiator performs on. It sat there for a while because it took a long time to build it, probably because I didn’t have any money.

Anyhow, Jack Nance and I met in one of those basement offices. He came in and he was in a grumpy mood, like, What the fuck is this student-film bullshit. We sat and talked but it was real stilted and didn’t go well. When we finished talking, I said, “I’ll walk you out,” and we walked down this hall, not saying anything, and out some doors to a parking lot. We got out there and Jack looked at this car we passed and said, “That’s a cool roof rack.” I said, “Thanks,” and he said, “Is that yours? Oh my God!” Suddenly he was a completely different person. We started talking about Henry right then, and I said, “Henry’s got a confused look,” so Jack did a confused look. I said, “No, no, that’s not it. Let’s say Henry looks lost.” Jack did a lost look and I said, “No, that’s not it, either. Maybe it’s like he’s wondering,” and he put a wondering face on. I said no again, then finally I took him by the shoulders and I said, “Just be a total blank.” And he went blank and I said, “Jack, that’s it!” After that Jack went around saying, “Henry is a total blank.” I took him home and showed him to Peggy and she gave him a thumbs-up behind his back, then I took him back to the AFI. Jack was absolutely perfect in every way. I’ve thought about who else could’ve played Henry, everybody in the whole world I’ve seen since then, and there’s nobody. It was fate. Jack was perfect and, like Charlotte said, Jack didn’t mind waiting. He’d sit around thinking so many things in his head, and he doesn’t care what’s going on around him.

When I met Jack he had this kind of afro. We didn’t want his hair to look freshly cut for the film, so about a week before we began shooting I got a barber to come to the stables and he took Jack into the hayloft and cut his hair. I wanted it short on the sides, long on the top—that’s the look and it was very important. For some reason that’s just a thing I liked from the get-go in life. Jack’s haircut was very important, but it wasn’t until the first night of shooting when Charlotte ratted his hair that it really got there. It stood up way taller than I probably would’ve gone for, so she played a major role in the creation of Henry.

There was this incredible studio way down on the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard that was closing up shop, so I rented a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck and Jack and I went over there on a cloudy day and they were selling everything. We left there with this truck piled twelve feet high with flats, kegs of nails, wire, a thirty-by-forty-foot black backdrop, the radiator that’s in Henry’s room—different things. We said, “How much,” and the guy said, “Hundred bucks.” I built every set for the film out of those flats. There was a rug place on that same stretch of Sunset that looked like an old gas station or car-repair place. It was stucco and had a faded sign, and it was real dark and dusty as hell, and there were huge stacks of rugs piled up on a dirt floor. You’d look through these piles, lifting them up as you go, and when you found one you liked, these guys would come out of the darkness and roll back the pile and pull it out for you. If you didn’t like it they’d throw it back on top and the dust would fly. I got all the rugs in the film there, and we got all the sound stock we needed out of bins at Warner Bros. The bins were filled with beautiful rolls of mag that had been thrown away. Al and I had taken the back seat out of the Volkswagen and we got away with hundreds of rolls of used sound stock. You can reuse sound stock if you put it in a degausser, and Al would do this. I didn’t want to go near this thing, because it’s a huge magnet, and you feed the stock into the degausser and you have to turn it a certain way, and you’re rearranging the molecules, and then you bring it out a certain way and it’s clean.

Nobody was using the stables at the AFI, so I set up there and had a pretty-good-size studio for four years. Some people from the school came down the first night of shooting and they never came down again. I was so lucky – it was like I’d died and gone to heaven. During that first year the only people there were the actors, Doreen Small, Catherine Coulson, Herb Cardwell, then Fred when he took over from Herb, and me. Al was there when we shot location sound, but other than that nobody else was there. Ever. Over a four-year period there were a few weekends when extra people showed up to help, but day in and day out that was the crew. Right there. That’s it.

Photo: Sunny Lynch

Doreen Small was integral to Eraserhead and she did great work. I never made anybody go have their chart done, though. People say things like, “David made me learn TM,” but you can’t force people to do things like that. It’s got to come from their desire to do it.

Alan Splet is the one who told me about this guy James Farrell, who lived in a little house in Silver Lake where you’d park on a patch of dirt. So I go see James and he’s an astrologer but he’s also a psychic, and this guy was something else. He was a very special psychic and gave magical readings. You’d get there and say hello to his wife, then she’d leave and he’d give a reading. I had no money, but I was able to see him many times because he was very reasonable – in those days everything was reasonable.

Many years later, sometime during Dune, I wanted to talk to him and now he’s living in an apartment building in Century City. He opens the door and he looks different, he’s almost floating, and he says, “David, I’ve gone totally gay!” He was so happy being gay, just no problem, and I say fine, and then he gave me a reading. I asked him about these girls that I was seeing and he said, “David, they all know each other.” Meaning that girls, they’ve got the surface, but there’s part of them that knows much more, and it made sense to me the way he said it. Girls are more advanced in many ways because they’re mothers, and this mothering thing is so important. Maharishi said the mother is ten times more important than the father for children. If women ran the world, I think peace would be way closer.

Five years or so after that reading, I’m talking with Mark Frost in a booth in Du-par’s on Ventura Boulevard. People are coming and going and at one point somebody walked by with a woman and I glimpsed some guy’s pants, a kind of orangey-pink sweater, and a little bit of a brownish-pink head. So I’m talking to Mark and then the coins started dropping. I turned around, and just then he turned around, and I said, “James?” And he said, “David?” I went over and talked to him, and there was something strange about him. His skin had sort of a red-orange hue to it, then later I heard that James died of AIDS. He was a brilliant astrologer and an incredible psychic and a really good person.

I played Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde in the food room at the stables, and Jack and I would listen to it at sunset as it got dark before we started shooting. I played it really loud, and I also played Vladimir Horowitz’s Moonlight Sonata. Oh my God, this guy could play it. He plays it slow, and I heard that he had the ability to play a piano key in one hundred different intensities, from the tiniest little note to a break-the-window note. Such soul comes through when he plays it. And Beethoven wrote that damn thing when he was deaf! Just amazing. Captain Beefheart was really a great artist, and I used to listen to Trout Mask Replica all the time then, too. People would start showing up at the stables at around six o’clock, and while we were waiting, Jack and I would sit in the food room and crank the music. We were in the best part of Beverly Hills, and we’d sit and watch the woods and the sunlight getting dimmer and smoke cigarettes and listen to this really loud music.

During that first year working on the film, I was drifting away from home, but not on purpose – I was just working all the time. Peggy and I were always friends and there was no dispute at home, because she’s an artist, too. When Jennifer and I made her a mud sculpture on the dining room table for her birthday, we got buckets and buckets of mud, and the mound went up at least three feet and to the very edge of the table. How many wives would love that in their dining room? About one! They’d fucking freak out! They’d say, You’re ruining the table! Peg just went crazy for it. She’s a great girl and she was letting me be an artist, but she had to take the back seat for a long time and I think she got depressed. It wasn’t a good time for her.

I ran out of money a year into shooting Eraserhead and Herb left, but I understood why Herb had to leave. Herb was a very interesting fellow. He was an excellent pilot because he thought in three dimensions, and he was a great mechanical engineer. One time Herb said to Peggy and me, “I’m getting an airplane. How would you like to fly out to the desert with me for the day?” We said, “Great.” When we got back it was getting dark, and as he was taxiing in he got on the radio and said good night to the tower. The way he said good night to the tower made the hair on the back of my neck go up. I had this feeling that in another time Herb was a long-distance space pilot. The way he said good night was just so beautiful, like he’d been saying it for a billion years.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna is published by Random House

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