1977’s Eraserhead is a fucked up trip through a bleak industrial fantasy land – here are some things you may have missed about the making of this cult classic
You probably know that David Lynch’s first feature film, 1977’s Eraserhead, is a black-and-white mind-melter. That it follows a guy with a strange hairdo who looks like the nerdy cousin of Kramer from Seinfeld. That its 89 minutes are chock-full of WTF moments, including a profoundly disturbing scene featuring a baby that might not be a baby. You might even know that Lynch started making the movie when he was 25 and completed it when he was 30. But you definitely can’t say what the film is really about. Urban alienation? Fear of fatherhood? Sexual repression? Truth is, no one knows. Lynch himself describes it as a strange comedy, an abstract picture open to myriad interpretations. Whatever it’s about, we know it takes place on Planet Lynch and is the mother of all midnight movies. And thanks to an epic internet trawl, we also know these things.
LYNCH LIVED AND WORKED IN THE DISUSED STABLES WHERE THE FILM WAS MADE
In Eraserhead Stories, Lynch recalls how he lived in the disused stables where the film was partially shot. “To live and work in the same place is the best,” he explains. “I lived in Henry’s room; I lived there maybe on and off for two years. It was illegal what I was doing.” The room itself had no windows and was incredibly dark, which suited Lynch not only because Lynch likes things dark, but because he slept there during the day. The stables were located on the campus of the American Film Institute, without whom the film probably wouldn’t exist. “I got the whole stables to work in and a garage and some stalls and a hayloft; it was like a mini sound stage. Then I got all this equipment from AFI. It was like heaven.”
WHILE HE WAS MAKING IT LYNCH HAD A PAPER ROUND FOR EXTRA CASH
Because they were strapped for cash during production, most of the crew on Eraserhead worked other jobs during the day. Early on, Lynch himself had a paper route delivering the Wall Street Journal from door to door. Can you imagine? David Lynch in his standard blazer-and-shirt combo, delivering your Monday morning paper, his thoughts consumed with Henry Spencer’s peculiar existence. Lynch had other odd jobs too. He fixed a roof at a restaurant in Beverley Hills where his assistant director worked during the day; they would give him sandwiches and French fries. It probably didn’t help finance the film but it did mean he could afford to buy his beloved Dutch apple pie from the local grocery store.
He told the Wall Street Journal, “I did it to support myself while making Eraserhead. I’d pick up my papers at 11:30 at night. I had throws that were particularly fantastic. There was one where I’d release the paper, which would soar with the speed of the car and slam into the front door of this building, triggering its lobby lights—a fantastic experience.”
JACK NANCE HAD TO BE HIDDEN BECAUSE HIS HAIR WAS SO STRANGE
Jack Nance’s iconic short-back-and-sides hairdo probably wouldn’t turn many heads in London today, but in the 70s it was next-level weird. “When we would drive Jack around as Henry, he would sit in the middle of the back seat because there was no strange hair in those days – there was hippy hair but not hair like that – and he would draw a small crowd. So we had to keep him hidden as we went around,” Lynch explained in an interview with the BBC. “As luck would have it, Jack has a certain type of hair and when you comb it up it stays up. When Jack came in it was a big shock. Some people said, ‘David, you can’t do that, it’s too strange’. But it was so perfect in proportion to Jack’s body, it was so beautiful, so it stayed.”
LYNCH OBTAINED THE REMAINS OF A DEAD CAT
One of the more bizarre stories surrounding Eraserhead involves a dead cat. A dead cat that Lynch acquired from a veterinarian who told him it couldn’t show up in the film, or at least be recognizable. Despite this, Lynch had to have that dead cat. He drove down there, picked it up and put it in a cardboard box. Before Lynch’s lunch that day he put it into a jar of formaldehyde (“it went in like a slinky”).
Was he using it for research? Would he use part of it for the creepy baby that no one knows how he made? “It served many purposes,” he says enigmatically. In a making-of clip, Lynch finds the dead cat a year later. “If you look down here you can see the remains of a cat we had down here.” The curious cameraman asks, “Was this here when you got here?” To which Lynch casually replies: “No, I brought this down here.” As if that was a totally normal thing for a filmmaker to do.
IN THE SPACE OF ONE CUT AN ENTIRE YEAR PASSED IRL
Because Eraserhead was AFI-funded and Lynch’s dreams were more costly to translate onto celluloid than anyone had imagined, the production hit a series of financial brick walls. At some points filming suddenly stopped. This meant that crazy amounts of time elapsed between scenes and cuts. In Eraserhead Stories Lynch explains the most epic one: “I know that there’s one particular shot when Henry walks down the hall, he puts his hand on the door knob and turns it. There’s a cut. And a year and a half later he comes through the door.”
LYNCH BLINDFOLDED THE PROJECTIONIST WHO SCREENED THE DAILIES
When Lynch watched the dailies during production he would blindfold the projectionist. He did this because he wanted to make sure no one revealed the secret of how the strange baby in the film was made. The slimy little thing, nicknamed “Spike”, has had fans scratching their heads for decades. How did they make it? A dead rabbit? A calf fetus? No one knows and no crewmember will ever reveal (Lynch made them sign releases saying they could never talk about it). There aren’t even any production shots detailing its elaborate creation like you see for Alien, only speculation. It all sounds like the act of a deeply paranoid man, but really, Lynch just loves to spin a good mystery.
JACK NANCE GOT THE LEAD ROLE BECAUSE OF A ROOF RACK
It’s fair to say Lynch wasn’t impressed when he initially met Jack Nance. “He came for an interview and it was one of the worst interviews I’d ever had.” He explains: “Jack was really down on strange student pictures. He didn’t know whether he wanted to be bothered with it. He was moaning and groaning. So I said, well thanks a million for coming in, Jack.” Then something changed. Lynch wanted him. Why? Because he has great taste in roof racks, of course! “We walked out together and he passed my car; he didn’t know it was my car, but he passed my Volkswagen and I had a roof rack on my car. It was a four-foot by eight-foot rack, because on my paper route I would find wood and sometimes strap it to it. Jack said, ‘Oh man, that’s a nifty roof-rack, I wonder whose that is’; I said ‘it’s mine’; he said ‘you’re kidding me’. And so in a way this roof rack sort of sealed the deal.”
VARIETY REALLY HATED THE FILM WHEN IT CAME OUT
Variety had some unkind words to say about Eraserhead when they reviewed the film in 1976. They described it as “a sickening bad-taste exercise made by David Lynch under the auspices of the American Film Institute.” So yeah, they basically hated it. Granted, a film as strange and disturbing as this hadn’t really been seen before so it was always going to shock people to their very core. But to deny the scale and power of its low-budget artistry (“The mind boggles to learn that Lynch laboured on this pic for five years”) is a little bit embarrassing now.