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Lynch took his first stab at filmmaking in 1967, with a creation called Six Men Getting Sick, a one-of-a-kind one-minute 16mm film loop. About ten years later, word began to get around about a phenomenal young student at the American Film Institute who had spent five years delivering a paper route on his bike to finance the production of a film called Eraserhead. By the time The Elephant Man came out in 1980, a Lynch movie was something you really didn't want to miss. The Elephant Man received Oscar nominations for Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay.
"I think The Elephant Man was the best thing I could have worked on after Eraserhead," Lynch says. "I was able to find my way into the mainstream and at the same time not compromise. I don't ever want to compromise again the way I did on Dune." Lynch's attempt to bring Frank Herbert's unwieldy sci-fi classic to the screen in 1984 was an unmitigated flop, though a flop shot through with flashes of perverse genius.
"The making of that film was very crazy," Lynch remembers. "We had four crews going at the same time. We had six months shooting principal photography and six months shooting miniatures, models and special effects." Thinking back, he realizes that the shoot wasn't the problem. "The problem was that I thought I was selling out. I mean, I was selling out. And that was a killer."
The period after Dune was a bleak one, personally and professionally. In 1986, eager to show the world that Dune had been a fluke, he used his creative freedom to produce his most provocative and original movie: No one had ever seen anything like Blue Velvet. Nor have they since. One of the stars of the film was Isabella Rossellini. Shortly after the release of the picture, she and Lynch moved in together. (This was shortly after his divorce from his second wife, Mary Fisk, the sister of longtime friend Jack Fisk and mother of his teenage son.)
After proving himself on the big screen, Lynch decided to try his hand at the small screen. He created a little tale about a Northwest community that comes unglued when the murdered body of the high school homecoming queen washes ashore all neatly wrapped in plastic. It was called Twin Peaks, and while it probably did not revolutionize television, it certainly took it to places it had never gone before.
Radical though Twin Peaks was for TV, The Straight Story is the most radical move of David Lynch's career.
Longtime collaborator Angelo Baladamenti, who has composed and conducted most of the music in the director's movies since Blue Velvet, says he was mystified at first. "The whole time I'm reading the script I kept thinking, 'When is it gonna become a David Lynch movie?' When I finally realized that he was for real, I was thrilled."
The Straight Story came to Lynch by way of Mary Sweeney, his editor and, since 1994, his partner and companion and mother of his seven-year-old son. Sweeney had heard about Alvin Straight at the same time her childhood friend John Roach did. Straight had made his journey in 1994; two years later he was dead, but not before he'd patched things over with his brother, Lyle (portrayed in the movie by Harry Dean Stanton). Sweeney thought that Alvin Straight's travels might make a good movie, but though she acted quickly, "I found out that the rights had already been snapped up," she says.
The producer Ray Stark had bought the story, hoping to nab Paul Newman to play Alvin, but eventually he backed out of the deal. In 1998 Sweeney optioned the rights from the Straight family. "The story never lost its charm for me," she says.
Sweeney had met Lynch when they worked together on the editing of Blue Velvet in 1985. And while she was tracking down the rights to Alvin's story, she kept telling Lynch what a great movie it would make. But David wasn't necessarily the best director or the first director she thought of. She does admit that, of course, she wanted Lynch to direct it. She would die to have Lynch direct it. She just didn't think Lynch would do it. "He didn't do anything to encourage me in that direction," she says.
Enter John Roach. Sweeney and Roach have been friends since first grade. Roach has worked primarily in Wisconsin for his own production company, doing television, mostly commercials and industrial films. He also writes for a local paper. "We had just always talked about doing something together," Sweeney says, "and when this story popped up, it just seemed a natural for us to collaborate on it."
The first draft of the screenplay, Roach says, was written in eight days, followed by two weeks of "just throwing stuff back and forth" before Lynch read their script. Rather than thinking it was just cute or quaint, Lynch liked it.
Though Sweeney and Roach never met face-to-face with Alvin Straight, Roach did speak to him once on the telephone. "He wasn't rude by any means," the first-time screenwriter remembers, "but he was brusque and to the point. He was like a lot of older guys out in the Midwest who will kind of bark at you just to test you. Once you hold up, they'll give you a wink." Straight eventually became eager to have the film made.
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