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When Mulholland Drive premiered 20 years ago, David Lynch’s newest tribute to his favorite city in the world was decried by many as one of the new millennium’s first cinema classics. Upon its debut in 2001, the movie’s long, windy road to getting produced all too easily invited comparisons to the story’s titular Los Angeles route. Now, as the film celebrates its two-decade long release, stars Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts and Melissa George reflect on working with Lynch as ET looks back on conversations with the director and cast.
In the beginning, there was prominent Twin Peaks resident Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), who Lynch originally envisioned for Mulholland Drive’s first incarnation: an aspiring actress coming to Hollywood to follow her dreams. From this initial conception in the early ‘90s, the idea evolved and expanded. Watts, Theroux and Laura Harring were now front and center. And the final product jumped mediums. By the end, one of the few original elements to stay with the project was Lynch’s trademark obsession with La La Land -- and a fascination in those who seek it.
“People have been getting off the bus for years and years. And I say it's like going to Las Vegas. Everybody goes there thinking I've got a chance to win,” Lynch told ET leading up to the movie’s premiere in 2001. “But 99 percent of them come back with less than they went in with.”
“Hollywood's a beautiful draw for people,” Lynch added. “And for expression and for a chance for stardom.”
Mulholland Drive follows three people in Los Angeles who have found themselves in precarious situations within the entertainment industry. Adam (Theroux) is a frustrated filmmaker on and off the backlot, going increasingly manic while trying to maintain his creative vision in all aspects of life. Betty (Watts) is an acting natural and seemingly cliche L.A. ingenue -- leaving audiences to guess if the latter is the result of the former. Rita (Harring) kicks off the movie (and its film-noir tone) when she gets into a car accident on, yup, Mulholland Drive and left with no memory of who she is, or anything about the gangster-related activity that led to her predicament.
In one of many “only in Hollywood” moments behind the scenes, Harring’s casting was jump started by an eerie coincidence en route to meeting the director in person. “I was so excited about meeting David Lynch, I had a car accident on the way. And I kid you not, I heard right after I arrived [that my character] has a car accident in the first scene,” the actress recalled in 2001, adding the moment felt like “an omen.”
When Mulholland Drive premiered in October 2001, much of the audience might not have been aware of its television origins. The story goes: Lynch wrote and filmed a TV pilot for ABC in 1999 starring Watts, Theroux, Harring and a handful of faces pulled from the filmmaker’s repertoire. But, like most pilots, it landed in the rejection pile. Not to be dismayed, Lynch corralled his cast back together to film additional scenes that created a brand new story out of the ashes of Mulholland Drive’s initial vision.
In contrast to Fire Walk With Me,where Lynch turned to cinema to provide a final chapter (at the time) for Twin Peaks following its cancellation, the movie wasn’t intended to wrap up loose ends or provide a sense of closure. Instead, Lynch turned this potential first chapter of a larger saga into a self-contained, surreal exploration about the dark side of stepping off the bus at Hollywood and Vine. Of course, some real-life dreams did come true for the cast.
“It changed my life. It really did for sure. David Lynch kind of cracked me open,” Watts says now, while reflecting on the milestone anniversary. “I would get things here and there, but nothing spectacular.”
The actress also recognized her unique fate of landing a breakout role that was two for one, so to speak. “And [Lynch] just gave me the role of a lifetime to play these two diametrically opposed characters all in one movie,” Watts says. “It was such a gift and I had just the most incredible experience working with him. He's one of my mentors. He's just a cinema god, as far as I'm concerned.”
Those dual performances were the crux of the shocking, upending twist once Mulholland Drive, “the TV pilot,” ends; and when Mulholland Drive, “reborn,” takes the reins. It’s revealed -- of course, in no certain terms -- that everyone we know in this world have actually been skewed depictions of people from the life of the “real” Betty (...whose name is actually Diane). This second performance from Watts is of someone who fell into Lynch’s aforementioned “99 percent” of Hollywood seekers. And the only movie this character will ever star in is one that’s been playing in her mind as it unravels inside and out.
For the uninitiated with Lynch’s work, Mulholland Drivebecame the initiation when the movie enjoyed mainstream success and acclaim. It also served as a reminder to how little elaboration the filmmaker is famously willing to offer in terms of meanings and objectives (or even plot clarity) with his work. “I don't talk about things like that. You see the film and you feel. And think your way through. Just like any other film. And you come up with conclusions,” Lynch explained in 2001. “It's beautiful to go into a new world and that's what cinema gives us a chance to do.”
Theroux filled in some of those gaps. “David loves Los Angeles and Hollywood. I don't necessarily think this is his take on it. I think this is his take on, sort of, a weak-minded person's take on Hollywood,” Theroux said at the time. “He definitely shows a Hollywood that I've never really seen before. He shows a Hollywood that, sort of, exists in David Lynch's head and, therefore, [Betty]’s head.”
Theroux pointed to the high-profile positions in Hollywood (“directors,” “producers,” and “studio heads”) and how they’re portrayals in Mulholland Drive may not be accurate on the surface, but they are how people imagine them as they chug along inside the Hollywood grind.
“The studio head is this sort of bizarre man who lives [underground] with curtains and behind glass,” Theroux continued. “Those kinds of things are really like how the studio system exists in your subconscious. They have this incredible power to shut things down. Turn things on. And manipulate people. And sort of wreck and change [our] lives.”
Two decades later, Theroux actually found himself as that man behind the curtain. He’s not only the lead star of AppleTV+’s The Mosquito Coast, but an executive producer to boot. The moment came amid discussions about who should play his wife, Margot, on the series, which debuted earlier this year and was renewed for a second season. His former Mulholland Drive scene partner, Melissa George, came to mind -- despite hardly sharing a frame together onscreen.
“When we were casting about, looking for our Margot, I sort of had, like, an [epiphany], ‘Oh my god. What about Melissa George? She's a fabulous actress,’” Theroux says now.
The moment was reminiscent of Theroux and George's memorable scene midway through Mulholland Drive. Adam has been stiff-armed into casting an actress named Camilla Rhodes (George) in his current project, following a bizarre meeting with a mysterious cowboy figure below the iconic Hollywood sign. His instructions: while Camilla is auditioning, turn to the studio heads and say, “This is the girl.”
George also reflected on the full-circle coincidence while promoting the series earlier this year. “The famous line of the film, ‘This is the girl.’ And 20 years later, he was the one [who] called and said, ‘Please do a casting for this. I think you're my Margot,’” she recalls.