You Want People to Enter the Dream: Mary Sweeney on Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and The Straight Story

Few editors have impacted the way I view cinema as profoundly as Mary Sweeney. Her professional partnership with David Lynch, which spanned two decades, began when she served as assistant editor on his 1986 landmark, “Blue Velvet,” followed by roles as first assistant film editor and script supervisor on 1990’s Palme d’Or winner, “Wild at Heart.” Her first solo editing assignment was the seventh episode of “Twin Peaks” in its second season, which is arguably the greatest hour of the initial series, paving the way for 1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (which she also edited), as well as the wildly audacious 18-part magnum opus that is 2017’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.” Thanks to Daniel Knox’s recent Lynch retrospective at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I was able to view Sweeney’s work on the hilarious pilot of Lynch’s “On the Air,” and the mesmerizing first episode of “Hotel Room”—two shows that were sadly short-lived—on the big screen.

Having grown up in the midwest, Sweeney was so moved by the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who drove 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin on a riding mower to visit his ailing brother in 1994, that she co-wrote a script with her friend John Roach that was based on his journey. The resulting film, 1999’s glorious “The Straight Story,” earned Lynch his only G rating, as well as its magnificent leading man, Richard Farnsworth, his first Best Actor Oscar nomination mere months prior to his passing in October of 2000. Sweeney’s editing beautifully complements the score by Lynch’s frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, which accompanied countless road trips my family took through the farm fields of Illinois to visit my uncle Chuck, whose indomitable soul is similar to that of Alvin’s.

And then there’s my all-time favorite film, 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.”, which led Sweeney to receive a well-deserved BAFTA, while igniting the career of its star, Naomi Watts, whose portrayal of aspiring actress Betty ranks among the most astonishing Lynch has ever directed. Prior to these two cinematic masterworks, Sweeney edited one of Lynch’s most haunting and challenging films to date, 1997’s “Lost Highway,” which served as a crucial precursor for all that followed. Though its narrative trickery centering on the tormented relationship between saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) has proven to be more accessible to modern audiences—as affirmed by the rapturous response it received at Knox’s retrospective—it was considered an impenetrable head-scratcher by critics and audiences alike when it was released. As Sweeney told Scott Ryan in his essential new book, Fire Walk With Me: Your Laura Disappeared, “David Lynch is an avant-garde filmmaker, meaning literally he is leading. He is out in the lead. He is forging a trail.”

Sweeney’s personal relationship with Lynch produced a son, musician Riley, who memorably appeared in “Twin Peaks: The Return.” Prior to the highly anticipated premiere of “Lost Highway” in its new 4K restoration distributed by Janus Films at the Music Box, Sweeney spoke with me on the phone from Madison, Wisconsin, where Lynch used to spend his summers during their many years together.

I have always likened the skills I use to write with how I approach editing. As a professor of screenwriting, do you sense a through line between the intuitive processes of writing and editing, both of which have—to borrow one of your terms—an “emotional music” to them?

Yeah, definitely. I came to screenwriting after twenty years of film editing, so I had already internalized the narrative flow and the musical flow of a feature film. I was very mindful in co-writing the screenplay for “The Straight Story” of how I would edit it, honestly, but the processes are also very different. Editing is interesting. I have happily become friends with many other editors, which of course, usually doesn’t happen when you’re working because you’re in a cave all the time for an insane number of hours. I’m in the Film Editors Branch of the Academy and I’ve been on the executive committee, so all of a sudden, I found myself meeting all these other editors for the first time. Now when you say you’ve done both, you mean you’ve done film editing?

Yes, I’ve done enough film editing to realize that I rely on the same intuition I use to gauge the rhythm of my writing.

Exactly, and that is consistent. Since you’ve done it, you can see how working with words on a page—which you have so much control over in that you’re inventing and originating the story—is very different from getting dailies and having a script. Your job is not just to translate but to transcend. Obviously, you are transcending just by shooting the script, and then from the shoot to the final rewrite, which is the edit of the script. It is a transformation at each point, and that includes when you do the sound mix. It’s such a beautiful process, making a film. It’s even more important when you’re film editing than when you’re writing to capture an ebb and flow, and it is very musical.

I’m not a musician, though music was always part of my family’s life growing up. We all had a good ear, but not the discipline or money for piano lessons. It just wasn’t in our culture, growing up in Madison. But it is so closely connected, the music of it, to emotions. Of course, emotions are so beautifully, abstractly expressed in music, and emotions in film are expressed in a way similar to how metaphors are incomplete. It’s so important that you don’t give away all the information and spell everything out. You can communicate things purely through motion and expression and sound effects. You can also mix sound effects without the composed music, which of course is the big kahuna of shaping a film in terms of pushing the emotions. Audiences today are sophisticated, and you can’t really push the pedal to the metal with the music anymore like you could in the 40s and the 50s, because they know they are being manipulated. They are too sharp.

That idea of not spelling everything out—both as a writer and an editor—reminds me of the final moments in one of my all-time favorite films, “The Straight Story,” which was the first David Lynch film I ever saw.

Oh wow! What an introduction to David! Okay, get ready… [laughs]

I love how you linger in the meaningful silence shared between the brothers, rather than rely on reams of dialogue.

I had the great privilege of being able to rewrite in case anybody else decided to do stuff with that script. I had the last say. David doesn’t sit in the cutting room with me, but everything has to be according to what he likes, and fortunately, we liked a lot of the same things. There were a number of people—and David was not one of them—who wanted more at the end of the script. They were like, “Okay…is that it?” But that story is so emotionally powerful and so simple that it could very easily lend itself to sentiment and schlock if you are not really, really temperate with it and keep it very spare. The dialogue is intentionally spare in the picture because that’s the way I remember all these people when I grew up here. It’s very much a love letter to this part of the country, and a lot of other parts of it that are considered “flyover.” I wanted to show how the people who occupy it have a dignity and though they may lack the power of language, they find other ways to communicate. The lack of dialogue and how I went about editing it was very consistent with that kind of laconic culture.

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