| Naomi Watts Chases Hollywood Dreams Along M.D.|
Australian actress Naomi Watts (Tank Girl) portrays a wholesome young starlet eager to fulfill her Hollywood dreams in David Lynch's latest noir fantasia, Mulholland Drive. Betty Elms, fresh off the plane from Canada, finds herself temporarily diverted from her earnest, sparkling hopes for movie stardom by the unexpected appearance of Rita (Laura Elena Harring), the amnesia-stricken survivor of a traumatic car accident. Out of the plum goodness of her heart, surely made of solid gold, Betty guides Rita on her quest for self-discovery. This path gradually leads them to dark revelations that shake the foundations of their unexpectedly fragile reality.
Those who have not seen Mulholland Drive should be advised that our interview with Ms. Watts (daughter of a Pink Floyd sound engineer) divulges certain details of the plot that first-time viewers may not wish to uncover. Though Lynch's tapestry suggests multiple interpretations and demands repeated viewings, this interview considers one possibility suggested by Ms. Watts and implied by several critics in their reviews. Our discussion is by no means the only reading, but provides a unique response to the material from an actor translating Lynch's abstractions into grounded, character-driven motivation. Read no further if you don't want to know the key narrative shift of Mulholland Drive.
The world of "Betty" (largely pulled, one assumes, from the two-hour television pilot that ABC dropped from its fall season lineup) is revealed midway through Mulholland Drive as perhaps being an elaborate romantic fantasy created by Diane (also played by the chameleonic Watts). She's an embittered actress living in a dingy hole-in-the-wall whose movie career never took flight. What's more, her entire world has been corrupted by a self-destructive, obsessive love for Rita, now seen as a cavalier Hollywood diva named Carmela (Harring) that drifts from one relationship to the next, breaking hearts along the way. Finding solace from an unforgiving reality, Diane can only find meaning within her fabricated romance with Carmela/Rita in the "Betty" dreamscape (and their passionate love scene is already notorious in some circles). Even in the dream, dark impulses start to emerge that may ultimately destroy Diane/Betty.
After touching on her experience working with David Lynch, one of the most innovative American filmmakers working today, Ms. Watts shared her thoughts on Mulholland Drive.
filmcritic.com: Did you have any preconceived ideas about working with David Lynch?
Naomi Watts: I thought he would be inaccessible; a really dark, intense, brooding kind of guy. And I couldn't have been more wrong. He's just an incredibly charming, highly spirited human being who is great to be around, and everybody shared that opinion. He's got one of the funniest senses of humor I've ever experienced in a man. A real dry wit, but incredibly mischievous at the same time. We teased each other the whole time.
On top of that, working with David was an extremely different experience, because the way he works with his actors is quite different from the normal director-actor relationship. He really doesn't tell you much about what he's thinking. I know he's not divulging anything to the press [about the film], but he's the same with actors. He wants you to interpret it yourself, so he doesn't give directions. As actors, for the most part we're trained to know where we've come from, where we're going, what the truth and meaning is behind every scene, but he basically asks us to undo all that. He's saying that all those questions don't matter, that you simply treat each scene with the right mood and ideas that it needs. David guides you along, but he doesn't tell you exactly what it is or what it means, so it's up to you to make [those things] up.
How did you intuit his directions?
Obviously this is a non-linear story and there are a few ways to interpret it. At first I asked a lot of questions, but he would just smile quite smugly and pretend that he was trying to torture me, so I pretty much learned early on to stop asking. Now, he is very expressive and communicative, but again, with not too much instruction. While he does have these ideas about how things should play, he's not attached to them or fixated on them because that would leave him no opportunity for new things to occur. Mostly, I remember him using a lot of physical or facial expressions, gesturing with his hands. David's not someone who needs to talk about stuff for a long time at all.
Could Mulholland Drive be read as an allegory for the revolving door or glass ceiling of young actresses in Hollywood?
but I feel that it's more about how complex we are as human beings; that there is a full spectrum of black and white, pure and evil, or darkness and light. There's innocence and sexuality in all of us. It's not just about the gray somewhere in between, but we can experience those two extreme emotions in one person.
Do you think Betty is Diane's alter ego?
For me, Diane is the reality-based character. That is the truth of the situation. Things are so awful in her life, in this rock bottom place, this horrid state of dementia, that she creates Betty as how she would have liked it to have been. Betty was optimistic and hopeful and pretty and peppy and sweet and everyone loves her and she's in control of Rita. Rita doesn't know who she is and Betty loves this power and this control she has over Rita. So that's the wish, the dream, the fantasy, the projection, whatever you want to call it. It's the reverse when we're talking about Diane and Carmela.
What spurs Diane to create this elaborate fantasy about Rita?
Because it's an unrequited love story. Carmela is a movie star, she's beautiful, a femme fatale, the directors are in love with her, everyone's in love with her. She's a powerful, strong woman. Carmela pulls her friend Diane into her life for a minute but then cuts her off and stops reciprocating any friendship. [That plunges] Diane into this massive psychosis that she can't get out of, and then the worst happens.
It seemed as if Lynch was setting up a relationship in the "Betty" world between you and Adam (the intense Hollywood movie director played by Justin Theroux), but then that shifts into a relationship between you and Rita. Conversely, in the "Diane" world, Adam and Carmela wind up together. How do you think Adam figures into your relationships in Mulholland Drive?
Adam is basically someone who pulls Carmela away from me. Diane is a narcissist, so she sees Adam in the "Betty" world [as being] in love with her. They have a moment. And I think again because she's so in awe of Carmela's life, she just represents everything that Diane wants and doesn't have. So she basically tries to change it all around. That's when she creates Justin's character, Adam, as being someone that wants her, instead of Carmela. I think it's just an obstacle in the way of her love affair with Carmela.
During the "Betty" reality, can you describe what goes through Betty when she's having her sexually charged (and quite disturbing) audition scene with a much older actor?
This whole other character emerges. It comes out of left field, but we've had hints that Betty is not all that good and pretty and perky and sweet and innocent. There is going to be some kind of transformation, and that's where we learn more about her. We see her come alive and undergo a change. The way Betty is set up [in the beginning] seems almost like a cardboard cutout. I thought when I first read the script, "Oh my God, it's so one-dimensional -- she should be on the side of a cereal box in 1952!" But there were moments of release, like when she pulls the [substantial amount of] money out of Rita's purse you think, "Is this person gonna call the police right now? No." You see the fear register on her face but then there's an excitement, too. Then we see her in the audition scene, and it's the same thing. We get a hint that there's a whole other layer about to reveal itself. Again, that's Diane's projection of her complexities, and who she is and who she wishes to be. But then there's this whole other truth coming through.
Did your interpretation of the project change significantly when it was decided that Mulholland Drive would not be a TV pilot or series but a theatrical release? The new scenes are quite unique and different.
How do you know what's new?
I read the TV pilot after I saw the movie.
how did you get that?
It was online. (laughs)
I know! There are a few of you out there who managed to get hold of it. It's very crafty of you! (laughs) Well, David doesn't like to delineate what was for TV and what was [new footage for] the film. He feels it takes away from the mystery.
Though obviously you know the answer to that, so I can't lie to you! Betty was set up in a different way for the TV series. but we knew that she would change extraordinarily because she's a David Lynch character. We know he creates people that are incredibly complex and go through some weird changes and an extreme spectrum of emotions. Also, it would have been a long road because a TV-series can last one, two, three, four, possibly five years or longer. I knew that it had to go in different places, but when we got the new additional scenes there was definitely new ways to interpret the whole thing as a finished feature length.
Have you been going to any of the film festivals with the movie?
I've been going to them all.
Are you curious about the audience's response?
Yeah, I am. I'm really curious and there seems to be, knock-on-wood, a lot of interest in this film and not just from the die-hard Lynch fans. It's probably because this was supposed to be a TV series and the network said no to it. There was a lot of press about it a long time ago that sort of perpetuated itself. Then there's that TV versus film thing that [a few critics] are really capitalizing on. Also, it's David Lynch's next movie, and he did The Straight Story last, so there are some who are really keen to know that he's back to his old stuff. Although I think The Straight Story is a great film and still very much has the Lynchian stamp on it, some of his older fans preferred that non-linear structure that he's used to doing. So I'm really buzzed about the things I've been hearing. I just hope the public sees it.
I'd say the party line on this movie is to try and see it twice, if not more because it's really an internal film, and intimate. I know that after having read it, shot it, and now to be speaking about it and having seen it three times that the second or third time is best because there are so many things going on. Everyone I've spoken to, and a lot of the journalists included, have said that the second viewing is where it really comes together for them. It's a movie where you need to use your mind. But having said that it shouldn't be too cerebral. People can have an incredibly visceral reaction where they don't quite know what made them connect with the film, but it just happens.
I found Mulholland Drive tremendously emotional. It hits on a more primal level than a cerebral one, although you can certainly deconstruct it afterwards. I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time at the New York Film Festival. If you're curious to read the review, it's on filmcritic.com. There are two reviews. My editor wrote the one on top and I wrote the one on the bottom. It might be interesting for you, because we disagree somewhat.
And you were pro?
We both liked the movie, but he had a more mixed reaction than I did. Close but no cigar. I'm of the school that really loved The Straight Story but was enormously happy to see David Lynch return to this particular vein. It was an interesting companion piece or extension of a lot of his ideas over the years.
That's exactly it, actually. There are a lot of comments that are made or repeated from his other movies, and I don't think that repetition is a bad thing. It runs true for him, and he finds new meaning in the same thing and I love that about him.
I think that's really true. There are the same themes, but they keep broadening every time. It's a much fuller presentation. I think it was Jean Renoir who said the best filmmakers make the same movies over and over again.
Oh really? I'm gonna steal that line from you.
Jeremiah Kipp - © 2001 filmcritic.com