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The Art Life: 10 revealing facts from David Lynch's youth

A new documentary delves into the famed filmmaker's formative years, and his passion for painting.

A new documentary delves into the famed filmmaker's formative years, and his passion for painting.

Long before he was fascinated by film, Lynch was a passionate painter.

David Lynch is best known as a filmmaker — a master of artful, surreal and often dark imagery that's so memorable, his name has become an adjective used to describe other such films: Lynchian.

Movie buffs know his unforgettable films and TV series — among them Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive — which have garnered multiple awards, among them the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

They tend to know far less about Lynch himself, especially his childhood; but an image-rich new documentary called David Lynch: The Art Life takes viewers from Lynch's earliest memories through to the making of his first feature film, Eraserhead.

Here are 10 things we learned:

1. Lynch had a very happy childhood

He lived in a good neighbourhood, had great friends, and loving parents and siblings. "I never heard my parents argue, ever, about anything," he says in the film. "They got along like Ike and Mike. Super happy household. As I look back, I didn't think anything of it, but I had tremendous freedom. Nobody was overbearing. It was as if there was just a foundation of love, and off we went, each in our own direction."

2. One of the greatest things his mother ever did was not give him colouring books

"I was always drawing … and this is one of the greatest things she did. She refused to ever have me have colouring books. She did not do that for my brother or my sister," he remembers. "Somehow a really beautiful thing came to her that those would be restrictive and kill some kind of creativity."

3. One evening as a child he and his friends witnessed a shocking scene

A woman, naked and with a bloodied mouth, walked strangely toward them on the street. "[It was] like the strangest dream, because I had never seen an adult woman naked," he says. "She was like a giant. And she came closer and closer, and my brother started to cry. Something was bad wrong with her. And I don't know what happened, but I think she sat down on a curb crying. It was very mysterious, like we were seeing something otherworldly. And I wanted to do something for her, but I was little; I didn't know what to do. And I don't remember any more than that."

4. By the time he got to Grade 9, Lynch hated school and started getting into trouble

"I never studied. I never did anything. I hated it so much. I hated it, like powerful hate. The only thing that was important is what happened outside of school – and that had huge impact on me. People and relationships. Slow dancing parties. Big big love. And dreams. Dark, fantastic dreams. Incredible time."

5. Long before Lynch became a filmmaker, he was obsessed with painting

"I met this kid, Toby Keeler, who didn't go to Hammond High School. He went to private school. And Toby told me his father was a painter," he says. "That realization that you could be a painter blew all the wiring. And that's what I wanted to do, from that second."

6. Lynch began renting space in Bushnell Keeler's studio, and Keeler became his mentor

One time, Lynch and his father had a devastating fight over his curfew — and Keeler intervened. "Bushnell called my father and he said, 'I don't want to interfere with any of your business, but I would like to let you know that every day, David comes down here and is painting. He's not goofing around. I wish my son had something that he loved to do and was working like this. I just think it's important you know that he's real serious about this and he's really working.' This went a long way with my dad — and I think after that I could come home any time I wanted and it was totally cool."

7. When he went away to school in Boston, he locked himself in his apartment and didn't leave for 2 weeks

His father drove him there, took him to the grocery store, got him stocked up with food and supplies, then drove off. "Then I went back in the apartment and I never left. It was two weeks before school. I had a transistor radio, so I sometimes listened to music. But I ended up sitting in a chair, and the only time I got out of the chair was to pee or eat. And the batteries went down and down on the radio so I had to hold it to my ear to hear it, and then it went dead. So I was basically unable to do anything — and definitely unable to leave the apartment. And it took all my strength to go to school the first day. So it was something I needed to go through, I guess. But I still would much rather stay at home. And there is still always a nervousness of going out."

8. He discovered film when he 1st had an idea for 'a moving painting'

"I had some kind of a cubicle setup in this painting studio at the academy. And when I went into my little cubicle, it was very private. And there were other cubicles like that around where people could work in privacy. And I was painting a painting about four foot square. And it was mostly black but it had some green plant and leaves coming out of the black. And I was sitting back, probably taking a smoke, looking at it. And from the painting I heard a wind and the green started moving. And I thought, 'Oh, a moving painting, but with sound.' And that idea stuck in my head: a moving painting."

9. Getting into the Center for Advanced Film Studies in L.A. was a game-changer

He drove from Philadelphia, where he'd been living, and parked the truck near the school. "The next morning was that first morning I experienced California sunshine. Unreal. I just stood in the street and looked up at the sun. It was unbelievable. And it was a kind of a thing where it was pulling fear out of me. Imagine coming from Philadelphia and that world out to L.A. and being shown where you're going to go to school – a 55-room mansion at the top of a hill in the best part of Beverly Hills. And the stables were given to me. It wasn't like anybody else even wanted them. They were just sitting there. And I was able to get them. It's just unbelievable. What a gift that was. Unbelievable. For four years I had those stables. And I was able to build down there, live down there, eat down there. It was incredible."

10. Sometimes mistakes are the best things that can happen

"Accidents or destroying something can lead to something good," Lynch says. "Boundaries, they just screw you. And you have to sometimes make a huge mess and make big mistakes to find that thing you're looking for."

David Lynch: The Art Life is in select theatres across North America starting today.

— Jennifer Van Evra, q digital staff

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