David Lynch and Jay Leno: A Late-Night Love Story (Part 2)
A beautifully uneasy conversation mostly about traffic
RECAP: In Part 1 of my Limited Event Series David Lynch and Jay Leno: A Late-Night Love Story, I began a deep-dive into the legendary American filmmaker’s appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. David Lynch made the trip to NBC Studios Burbank five times between 1990 and 2001, promoting television projects like Twin Peaks and On the Air and his films Lost Highway, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive.
In Part 1, we looked specifically at Lynch’s first two Tonight Show experiences. While they are as cringey as you might suspect, the line between two worlds fades. While not exactly tulpas of each other, Lynch and Leno bond over their mutual love of spark plugs, industrial areas, and ritualistic eating. Will this bond strengthen or diminish as the ‘90s darken and the new millennium approaches? Which one of them resides in our world and who is a Black Lodge entity? Will they see each other again in 25 years?
Rules of the Road
“We love you, David!” an audience member shrieks, slicing through the finishing notes of Kevin Eubanks’ smooth jazz guitar soloing and interrupting Jay Leno as he welcomes David Lynch back to The Tonight Show after a five-year break. “You have many fans,” Leno remarks with a hint of jealously to an embarrassed but pleased Lynch. He does, and one happens to be in the studio audience on this night in 1997 when Lynch is charged with selling his latest film, Lost Highway.
Lost Highway is very much a David Lynch film, but it is also downright spooky in ways that other David Lynch films are not. It works as a simple horror movie to the uninitiated, and with a soundtrack chock-full of Nine Inch Nails, Outsider-era David Bowie, and Rammstein, the film is a fine companion to the mid-to-late ‘90s industrial and goth subcultures at the height of their dark powers.
This interview, like the previous encounters we’ve analyzed, has a rocky start. “You look great,” Leno tells Lynch, a surface-level observation from one noticeably grayer and heavier man to another grayer yet still rail-thin man. “I’ve been trying to catch ideas,” Lynch responds, deflecting the compliment in an attempt to bring the conversation to the world of the mind. “Have you been working out? It looks like you’re staying in shape.” The hint was not received. “No sir, I haven’t.”
The audience laughs and the conversation picks up where Lynch’s 1992 interview left off: with food. Lynch is on a diet now, which may explain his svelte physique (make a mental note of this — Lynch’s rocking bod will get him into trouble in a future Tonight Show appearance). Lynch has abandoned his daily intake of Bob’s Big Boy milkshakes in favor of a more austere regimen devised for him by “someone” and not, as Leno asks, a lady on a tape whom one must eat along with (I challenge you to show me a more Lynchian concept for a short film).
Lynch owns a treadmill, we learn, which Lynch left outdoors for six months before “fortunately” discovering it no longer worked upon plugging it in. While mechanically-inclined, Lynch has no desire to fix the treadmill. The mind is busy chasing ideas — he has no time to run in place in his garage.
Jay Leno, of course, is also mechanically-inclined and has quite a garage himself. Leno is a renowned collector of classic automobiles and works alongside a team of mechanics on restoration projects and maintenance. As of writing, Leno owns over 181 cars and 160 motorcycles valued between $52 and $100 million. The most expensive car in Leno’s Burbank garage is a McLaren F1 worth around $20 million.
Save for a broken treadmill, we don’t know what else is in David Lynch’s carport, but he reveals that he loves driving and is a firm believer in the rules of the road. Lynch picks up a thread left dangling between the two before the monologue to lament the lack of respect Los Angelenos have for red lights. It’s a “big problem” for Lynch, and while he sympathizes with the frustration of sitting in traffic, it remains “extremely important” to stop at red lights.
Why is Lynch spending so much time talking about red lights? Doesn’t he know he has a film to promote? Did he observe some egregious driving behavior on the way to the studio that just had to be addressed, forcefully and publicly, on network television?
Lost Highway is a film about a lot of things: trauma, disassociation, Hollywood, jazz. But, as the title suggests, it’s also about driving. Significant portions of the film consist entirely of a first-person perspective of an empty two-lane highway speeding by at night, a familiar case of the “white line fever” hypnotic state experienced by anyone who’s driven long stretches with little rest. Indeed driving is a recurring theme in several of Lynch’s works; the car is simultaneously a private space sheltered from the troubles of the outside world, a portal between worlds and time, and an ever-present danger that can be weaponized by malicious supernatural forces or human recklessness. The cars are also pretty — classic profiles from the ‘60s and ‘70s that help dress each scene with Lynch’s beloved Americana. Examples of many, if not all, of these cars likely reside in Leno’s Garage, perfectly preserved and sheltered from the killing fields that are the Los Angeles freeway system.
“If we all want to get there quicker and safer, we all have to obey the rules,” Lynch tells Leno, spoken as if it were a maverick position from a straight shooter. More sage traffic advice follows:
JL: The traffic jams...do you get frustrated?
DL: Very frustrated. You have to sit on the frustration (audience laughs) and a good tip for...
JL: Sit on the frustration?
DL: Let someone into traffic, and you feel better, and they feel better.
JL: Well I do, I'm a very polite...
DL: And this is a beautiful thing because it goes on through the day.
JL: It just goes on throughout the whole day.
Sitting in traffic becomes an exercise in restraint, generosity, and collective responsibility. These small gestures, perhaps similar to the principles of Transcendental Meditation (of which Lynch is a longtime practitioner and advocate), have the compounding effect of improving the lives of others in outmeasured ways. As the David Lynch Foundation for TM proposes, “Change Begins Within.”
This may be a hint to uncovering some of the secrets of Lost Highway, but Lynch famously refuses to elaborate on his work after the fact. When asked by Leno to tell him about the film and why Robert Blake (acquitted in 2004 for the murder of his wife) was so creepy, Lynch offered the following: “I can't tell you what it's about, except maybe a story of a man in trouble. And it's maybe beautifully uneasy.”
For an interview that ends in such dark territory, Lynch is clearly having a wonderful time. “This is one funny guy,” he says to the audience about Leno earlier in the clip after a semantic back-and-forth about water heaters. It’s a controversial opinion, but I imagine Lynch remains amused by the most divisive host in the genre’s history.
The conversation ends with a request for Lynch to visit The Tonight Show more often and a chummy “you bet, Jay” in response. David Lynch keeps this bet, appearing two more times in 2000 and 2001. These subsequent interviews really veer off the highway into late-night’s dark unknown. Buckle in, Sonny Jim, we’re going on a road trip.
Bonus content: Patricia Arquette, one of Lost Highway’s lead actors, also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1997 to promote the film. I’ll leave you with a partial transcript of their conversation courtesy Lynchnet.com:
Leno: Now let me ask you about your new movie. This sounds like the perfect lead in. Because this movie is very odd.
Arquette: Well, yes, it's a very adventurous movie and it's not for the weak-hearted. You know, it's not for the, uh . . .
Leno: It's scary.
Arquette: It's straight-out scary. It's very dark. It's not for kids or for people who want some light fair.
Arquette: But it's a movie that people will be talking about probably in about 50 years still.
Leno: David Lynch is very . . . sort of . . . He's an interesting man. He makes very odd, surrealistic . . . Surrealistic would probably be a good word.
Arquette: Yeah, it's like deciphering a dream this movie, you know. I have a certain interpretation of it, but most film makers want to force you to know exactly what they want you to believe, you to feel at any possible moment and David is much freer about it. He wants the audience to participate in the experience. But it's a very physical movie in watching it he sort of creates that energy of chaos and fear.