‘Mulholland Drive’: David Lynch’s Surrealist Masterpiece Bridges the Gap Between the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

Mulholland Drive poster art by Kevin Tong


January 4, 2024


By Koraljka Suton


An idea comes, and you make it the way the idea says it wants to be, and you just stay true to that. Clues are beautiful because I believe we’re all detectives. We mull things over, and we figure things out. We’re always working this way. People’s minds hold things and form conclusions with indications. It’s like music. Music starts, a theme comes in, it goes away, and when it comes back, it’s so much greater because of what’s gone before.David Lynch

Having talked David Lynch into making Twin Peaksin 1990, agent Tony Krantz became very keen on persuading his client to do another TV series. Although hesitant at first, the director eventually gave in. In 1999, he pitched an intriguing idea for a pilot to the ABC television network: a woman survives a car accident and, with only her purse in hand, flees the scene with a severe case of amnesia. Inside the purse—$125,000 and a mysterious blue key. Another woman, Betty, tries to help the stranger figure out who she is. After the ABC executives asked Lynch what happened next, he cleverly answered: ‘You have to buy the pitch for me to tell you.’ Buy the pitch they did and a pilot produced by Touchstone Pictures was filmed in Los Angeles over the course of six weeks. Lynch made several cuts—a longer one, which he himself proclaimed too slow, and a shorter ninety-minute version he disliked because he lacked time for the much-needed process of fine-tuning. And so, the pilot was doomed. According to Lynch, the ABC executive who canceled it watched it at six in the morning while standing up and drinking coffee. Far from ideal circumstances for immersing oneself in a David Lynch project.


The cut was criticized, among other things, for the ages of the main actresses (both were over thirty), its nonlinear storytelling, and the depiction of cigarette smoking. But this misfortune would ultimately turn out to be a blessing in disguise because French producers Pierre Edelman and Alain Sarde wanted to finance the project through Le Studio Canal+, if Lynch agreed to turn the ill-fated pilot into a feature film. Even though the director didn’t immediately jump on board, his aforementioned agent managed to convince him to say ‘yes’ (again). But it was only after he started rewriting the script that everything fell into place for the auteur, as he told Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker Magazine in 2001: ‘One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle (…) Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is (…) It was a big change, and it required ideas—ideas that I was so happy with when they came in (…) I sat down in a chair at 6:30. And at 7:00, they were all there. They came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.’ In this type of approach to creating art lies one of the many reasons behind Lynch’s brilliance as a writer and filmmaker. He saw his project as an entity that wanted to be brought forth and himself as a vessel that enabled its manifestation. In doing so, he acknowledges the fact that it is his job to merely uncover that which yearns to be uncovered and molded into something observable, implying that his (co-)creation is bigger than himself, with a life and destiny of its own. And what a life Mulholland Drive ended up having—it would be my guess that not even Lynch could have dreamt that up.

The additional eighteen pages of script became forty-five minutes of extra footage (known as the film’s third act) that was filmed in October 2000, on a $7 million budget. Mulholland Drive had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, where Lynch won the Best Director prize (which he shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There), whereas the movie itself garnered overwhelming critical acclaim. It was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and one Academy Award (Best Director). It earned first place in a 2016 BBC poll titled Greatest Films of the 21st Century. And just last year, it landed in 8th place in The Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time critics’ poll. More than two decades after its original release, critics and audiences alike are still enthusiastically analyzing Lynch’s masterpiece and ascribing new nuances of meaning to its non-linear plot. Lynch himself refused to give a straightforward explanation, but instead provided his viewers with ‘ten clues to unlocking this thriller’ that can be found on the film’s original DVD release (or here). What was once a doomed pilot deemed too confusing for TV became one of the defining pictures of David Lynch’s career, as well as one of the most celebrated films of the 21st century. And rightfully so.


The story follows Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring bright-eyed and bushy-tailed actress who moves from Ontario to the City of Angels in pursuit of the Hollywood dream. Her aunt is making a movie in Canada, so the ingénue is staying at her place. But upon arrival, Betty comes across an intruder (Laura Harring) in the shower. Having stumbled into the house after surviving both a murder attempt and a car crash up on Mulholland Drive, the unknown woman has no idea who she is or why she has a purse full of cash. Betty vows to aid the helpless, vulnerable and confused dark-haired beauty, while at the same time preparing for an audition that could bring her one step closer to her dream career. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is being coerced into casting a girl named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his newest picture, but he protests. At Winkie’s diner, a man (Patrick Fischler) tells his friend about a horrible dream that included an encounter with a monstrous figure behind said diner. An incompetent hitman (Mark Pellegrino) ends up killing three people instead of one and accidentally setting the crime scene on fire.

Some of these narrative threads appear superfluous at first glance because we seemingly never get back to them. Others take us down rabbit holes that leave us feeling dazed, confused and disoriented. But all of them have their rightful place in Lynch’s surrealist picture that stubbornly defies genre categorization. Lynch doesn’t want us knowing everything—he wants us intrigued and immersed. He doesn’t want to impose his intent on us—he wants us to come up with our own interpretations. And in the process of doing so, we may very well discover a thing or two about ourselves. Because the ways in which we read symbols, ascribe meaning to them and focus on some while disregarding others, can tell us a great deal about our own subconscious and the aspects of the human experience we feel personally drawn to. Aspects that entice, captivate or preoccupy us. Aspects that seem to whisper: there is something for you here.


And perhaps one of the reasons why we find ourselves revisiting Mulholland Drive time and time again is because we want to know ourselves. Man’s desire to unearth his own core has always been one of his main driving forces, both when it comes to the pursuit of deeper personal meaning i.e., fulfillment, and in terms of creating and consuming art. And if there ever was a subject matter that Lynch’s film tackles in ways simultaneously overt and covert, identity would be it. All that we really are as opposed to everything we wish we were. Our inability to face reality because in it, our actions are direct reflections of our fluid identities and our circumstances confront us with our failures and shortcomings. What better way to deal with the tricky and ethereal topic of identity than to set the film’s story in Hollywood—a land of artifice, manipulation, dishonesty and disconnect where raw, authentic, vulnerable portrayals of life are its very lifebloodThis dichotomy is unsettling. And Lynch presents it as such by making us feel as if we were peeling an onion, whereby a layer of pretense is followed by a layer of authenticity, succeeded by another layer of pretense. Like a Russian doll containing truth nested inside illusion swallowed whole by truth engulfed by illusion.

And yet, despite Mulholland Drive providing fertile ground for a plethora of nuanced readings, critics and viewers have reached a consensus when it comes to understanding the film’s primary plot (the key to deciphering which resides in an actual key): the first two-thirds of the film are a dream and the last third is the somber reality. A reality so bleak that we are invited to spend the majority of the film’s running time submerged inside the dreamer’s preferred universe. A universe in which the wannabe actress doesn’t feel enormous guilt over a crime she has committed. One in which her Hollywood dream didn’t get shattered to pieces. One where the person she loves is not a capable, seductive and opportunistic careerist who got it all (and ended up leaving her, the dreamer, on the side of the proverbial road), but a lost, scared, vulnerable puppy with no grasp on her own identity, absolutely dependent on the dreamer. In short, it is a reality in which the dreamer, while remaining innocent and naïve, exerts control, the very thing she finds herself spiraling out of in her waking life. But details, events, people, places and phrases from her lived reality spill over into the dreamscape, taking on forms that showcase not just her desires, but also her worst fears. The nightmarish figure behind the diner embodies everything about her (and about us) that lurks in the shadows of her subconscious mind—both the things she knows and those she doesn’t know about herself. Everything she doesn’t want to be true about her. Envy, jealousy, loneliness, rage, pain caused by betrayal, disillusionment that accompanies perceived failure. No matter how hard she tries, she can never outrun the reality of herself—because wherever she goes, there she is. And even when she closes her eyes and envisions heaven, her subconscious will welcome her with open arms to her own personal hell.


The multilayeredness of dreams has always fascinated us as both moviegoers and humans. Dreams enable us to digest and integrate the things that overwhelm us on a daily basis. They give us a chance to work through anything that gets temporarily locked away because we lack the capacity to deal with it in our waking lives. In the dream state, our defenses are down, the protective mechanisms that often make up our entire personalities are turned off and our buried truths finally get a chance to come out to play. Even when our dreams don’t make narrative sense, we emerge from them deeply moved in one way or another. Touched, saddened, frightened, enraged, frustrated, happy or relieved. What we remember (provided we remember anything at all) is the feeling flavor left in their wake, our cells still brimming with the viscerality of the experience.

And so, calling Lynch’s Mulholland Drive dream-like is the greatest compliment there is. Lynch made his film in a way that demands to be felt, evoking raw emotion and making our conscious, rational minds take a backseat to our subconscious ones that momentarily get plugged in and proceed to pick up on symbols, repetitions and visual cues—just like they would if we were dreaming. Even if we emerge on the other side without having cognitively understood the film (which was the case for many of us on our first viewing), the subconscious mind that Lynch is both depicting and addressing has been soaking everything in and allowing the content to settle. The (re-)organizing of the puzzle pieces comes later. In a way, reaching the end of Mulholland Drive is similar to waking up from a dream—we may not have connected the dots (yet), but we are filled to the brim with the echoes of impressions, emotions and sensations that have been brought forth from the subconscious to the conscious. And the fun part is, we can always indulge our rational minds and come to satisfactory conclusions by putting together the scattered and fragmented bits and pieces of Lynch’s work of art, just like we would if we were trying to figure out the meaning and symbolism of our dreams immediately after waking up, with the objective of gaining a greater awareness of ourselves.

And so, if we were to then take our conclusions and immerse ourselves in Mulholland Drive a second, third or fourth time (as many of us do), it would be like experiencing a past dream we had previously analyzed for the purpose of expanding our self-awareness. The themes and motifs of the dream remain unchanged (that is, after all, how we know that we are having the same dream), but our experience of it changes because it has now become informed by the newfound self-awareness that arose from the dream analysis that preceded it. This is what happens when we decide to return to Mulholland Drive again and again. And it is the reason why the film bears numerous viewings and never gets tiresome—there is, after all, no limit to how much our awareness can or cannot expand. And David Lynch knows that.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


Screenwriter must-read: David Lynch’s screenplay for Mulholland Drive [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only.) The Criterion Collection and StudioCanal both offer the movie’s DVD/Blu-ray in a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director David Lynch and director of photography Peter Deming. Absolutely our highest recommendation.


Filmmaker Magazine’s Scott Macaulay speaks with the director about his dreamy depiction of life beneath the Hollywood sign, Mulholland Drive.

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Could you talk about the process you went through to re-conceive Mulholland Drive from a TV series into a feature film?
Mulholland Drive started as an open-ended pilot. At a certain point, ABC saw that open-ended pilot and hated it. That could have been seen as a huge negative, but, in fact, it was a blessing. About a year later, Studiocanal bought it from all the parties that were involved from the beginning, and it came time for me to really commit to making it into a feature. I had zero idea how I was going to do that, so it was a time of high anxiety. One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle. Everything was then restructured, and we did additional shooting. Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is.

When you say you had zero idea of how to finish it, why was that?
Because it was, you know, an open-ended thing in the beginning, and now it’s a close-ended feature film. It was a big change, and it required ideas—ideas that I was so happy with when they came in.

When you say the ideas came to you about how to finish the movie, in what form did they come?
I sat down in a chair at 6:30. And at 7:00, they were all there. They came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.

Then what happened?
I wrote them down right away, because if you forget something like that you commit suicide. It’s important to write them down in a certain way so they’ll always trigger those [same] ideas again. Pretty quickly after that I started writing out how to reshape things. I restructured and added [material].

Can I ask more specifically what those ideas were that came to you in that half hour?
The ideas were how to make an open-ended thing restructured so it would hold an ending. It was strange because it was as if the clues were all there in the original script, but they weren’t really. I don’t know how to explain it. It was strange.

What about the physical and emotional process of making the pilot and having it rejected by ABC—how do you think that experience found its way into the feature? Or did it?
Well it did… because I went that route [initially]. I’m a sucker for a continuing story. The chance to do a continuing story is the only reason I like television. Somewhere during all of this I heard that ABC, or television [networks] in general, had done polls and found out that a lot of people don’t always watch the same show [every week]. They miss a couple of episodes a month. So [the networks] were becoming afraid of continuing stories. They wanted stories that had closure at the end of the 42 or 44 minutes. That [knowledge] could have fed into this, I don’t know. But the way I look at it is—[ABC] played a big part in making this the feature that it is today. So it doesn’t really matter what kind of strange route we all have to take. We get to some place, we look back, and we see that it was kind of meant to be.

What are your thoughts about doing another TV series?
Not good.

How do you think the passage of time between making the pilot and shooting and editing the feature, shaped those ideas?
They say the mind is working even when you’re sleeping, like it’s on a backburner. So, I think it might have been percolating these things during the passage of time that was required to do all the legal work.

Do you drive Mulholland Drive often?
I live near it, and I drive it quite often. Do you know Mulholland Drive?

Yes. I’ve driven it many times.
Yeah. So it’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.

You’ve said that in a film mystery is good and confusion is bad.

How in your films, and particularly this new one, do you know which an audience is feeling?
You sense it yourself when the ideas talking to you form a mystery. A mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It pulls you into the world, and the ideas have a way of putting in clues. They’re not spoon-fed to you, but they’re there. All you have to do is pay attention, and use your intuition.

How do you translate that process for the actors? Naomi Watts’s character, for instance, from the first part of the movie to the end, goes through a profound change. How do you talk an actress through such a journey?
You start by talking, just like you said. The first rehearsals are critical, because there you rehearse and talk, rehearse and talk—action and reaction—until you see in their eyes that they’ve caught the character and the drift of the feeling of the ideas that, you know, I caught. Once that happens, in terms of acting and sets and props and locations, then you’re rolling along as one unit on the same road. It’s all about bringing people in tune with the ideas.

Tell me a little bit about your casting process.
Get the right person for the role. In this case, I needed to look in an area where I could find people who would go for a long time in a series. But I looked for them in the same way [that I cast my features]. I start with still photos, and that gets narrowed down, and eventually I sit one on one [with the actors]. I never read anybody—nobody reads any part of the script. I just talk to them, and as I’m talking to them I’m running the scenes of the film.

Do you cast on the basis of those meetings, or do you then give out the script and call people back?
No, no. They don’t read before they’re cast because then I’ll just start wanting to rehearse. It’s unfair to an actor, I think, to have them do a cold reading. They could be the right one, but they’ve got the wrong take on it at first. It could be a heartache for them. It’s not the way to find the right person in my book.

This is, I think, the first of your movies to in some way address moviemaking as a subject. Did your experience making films in Hollywood, or in casting your lead actresses, inspire this movie?
It had nothing to do with it. I can relate to it, but it didn’t come from personal experience. Sunset Boulevard is one of my favorite films: It’s about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood. The ideas [in Mulholland Drive] lead us into a section of the world of Hollywood, [but] the characters are not representational of [all] actors, they’re just these particular actors, or directors, or whatever. And so, you’ve got to be really careful…

Do you remember the first time you heard the Roy Orbison song “Crying” which appears in this movie?
I heard “Crying” riding with Kyle [MacLachlan] to the airport in New York City while going through Central Park. I said, “I’ve got to get a Roy Orbison album that has ‘Crying’ on it.” So I got it. And I forgot about it when I heard “In Dreams”—it was perfect for Blue Velvet. Ironically, “Crying” is in Mulholland Drive, sung in Spanish.

I heard you’re launching your own Web site: davidlynch.com.
I am. I’ve been working on it for two years, and it’s going to launch in October. It’s a pay-per-view membership site. It starts where it starts, and it’s going to go from there. It’s an experiment. There are many things on it—it’s a point of departure.

Has it been fulfilling to work on so far?
Yeah. I’m into Flash animation and Photoshop big time. After Effects and a lot of DV work. What’s strange is that these different things are homes for new ideas you wouldn’t necessarily use for feature films. So it’s broadening the world of ideas.

How do you think the films you make relate to your life and what’s going on in your life at the moment?
There must be a relationship, but I don’t know exactly what it is. All I know is, I fall into something, and I have a yearning to turn it into a film.

Some scenes in the film, such as the hit-man scene, seem to be used almost for tonal or textural reasons, as opposed to narrative or character development. That scene, for examples, throws in a dark humor that is very effective at that point in the film.
Well, everything has its place. So much of this is like music. You’re going along, and another instrument is introduced, another melody. And it’s introduced in a certain way, with a certain pacing, certain harmonies. It’s not willy nilly—“Oh this scene would be nice here.” I guess you could see it that way, but it’s really the ideas that are talking to you.

I’ve read some very psychoanalytic interpretations of Mulholland Drive. Do you think about your stories in those terms when you write them?
If you’re true to the ideas, sometimes these ideas can be bigger than what even you think. It’s weird. It’s just important to be true to the ideas. I have my take on everything, but since things sometimes get more and more abstract I know there are going to be lots of interpretations, and they’re going to be as valid as mine.

These days everyone wants an audience to feel exactly the same thing.
That’s a narrow road. And that [approach] can be a very entertaining and a fantastic experience—I’m not putting it down one little bit, but cinema is a very wide road. It can do many things, and some stories allow for more abstractions. It’s still important to not lose people along the way. I think [Mulholland Drive] walks that line—there’s a lot to see if you pay attention.

Is it important to you that your movies have that space for different interpretations?
It’s the beauty of things that we might be the same at our core, but we’re very different on the surface. We may see the exact same thing, but it’s beautiful how the same thing strikes people differently.

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On the way to Mulholland Drive is a short documentary with interviews with David Lynch, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Angelo Badalamenti, and shots from the Mulholland Drive set.


Rare behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Mulholland Drive.


A new interview with David Lynch and Naomi Watts on Mulholland Drive, from the Criterion Blu-Ray.


I was about to leave for the Cannes Film Festival with [my new film] ‘The Straight Story,’ when my producer Tony Krantz called and said, ‘ABC doesn’t want Mulholland Drive for fall and they don’t want it for midseason. They don’t want it.’ So if you’re writing about film directors going back into television, this might be a worthless interview, because, at this point, I don’t think I’m back in television.David Lynch




A cinematographer who has worked across multiple genres and styles for multiple legendary directors, Peter Deming is a consumate professional. Really, there’s just one key thing about Peter everyone should know: the man shot Mulholland Drive. The great folks at Craft Track were lucky to speak with him and get his take on shooting and some of the on-set stories he has to offer.

The Team Deakins podcast is an ongoing conversation between acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins and James Deakins, his collaborator, about cinematography, the film business, and whatever other questions are submitted. In this episode, Roger Deakins and James Deakins have the pleasure of talking with cinematographer Peter Deming (My Cousin Vinny, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, The Cabin in the Woods): “A frequent collaborator with director David Lynch, Peter shares how he started working with David and their very particular style of working together. We learn a lot about the shooting of the film Mulholland Drive and really love having the chance to ask all our questions. He also explains what ‘lens whacking’ is and when you might use it. Peter tells us how he works differently when shooting film or digital and talks about shooting dark scenes.”


Shooting Mulholland Drive (with David Lynch & Peter Deming). This featurette contains plenty of raw footage from the shooting of different sequences from the film.


In this interview, cinematographer Peter Deming, ASC, explains in great detail how various sequences were shot (with some great comments about the one featuring Monty Montgomery’s mysterious cowboy), the management of light and some of David Lynch’s stranger decisions, and the dual nature, moods, and colors of Mulholland Drive. Production designer Jack Fisk talks about his friendship with David Lynch and the work they did together during the years, the different locations from Los Angeles that were used in Mulholland Drive, and the ambiance of the film (which comes from David Lynch’s love for Los Angeles).




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. —David Lynch




I had a hand in creating the Silencio club for the film, but all these images are images that David loves—the red drapes, the patterned floors and the rest of the colours and textures. We looked for a theatre location for that scene together, but when you work with David, he’s written the script, he’s visualised everything in his head and the trick is to get inside that head as much as you dare and help him make a three-dimensional version of that idea. Working with David more than any other director, I’m trying to create physically something that he’s already designed in his head.Jack Fisk


David Lynch on Mulholland Drive.

Open YouTube video


“Jimmy Stewart on Mars” was how Mel Brooks, who produced The Elephant Man, described David Lynch. The collision between the quotidian and the dreamlike has been Lynch’s key theme, from the suburban nightmares of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks to the noir netherworlds of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. In this discussion, just before the 1997 release of Lost Highway, Lynch demonstrates his aversion to interpretation, preferring to let viewers take what they will from the mood and texture of his films. He reveals his method of working by instinct and embracing the role of chance in his creative process.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Photographed by Melissa Moseley © StudioCanal, Touchstone Pictures, Asymmetrical Productions, United Archives GMbH: Alamy. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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