Vanity Fair wrote:
Nobody’s saying that Cheetos were the only reason David Lynch said yes to appearing in The Fabelmans, but they were definitely an important part of the deal.
Steven Spielberg’s dramatized memoir—which has been nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture—features a final scene (spoiler warning) in which Gabriel LaBelle’s aspiring young filmmaker meets one of his idols: the irascible Western director John Ford. Yes, this really happened to Spielberg in real life, right down to the unexplained lipstick kisses on Ford’s face and the blunt advice he offered about finding interesting horizons for his shots. “That’s word for word," Spielberg says. “He didn’t say any less, and he didn’t say any more.”
When Spielberg and his Lincoln and West Side Story screenwriter Tony Kushner were drafting the script, they knew this moment from Spielberg’s teenage years would make the perfect ending, but they struggled with who to cast as the fearsome, aging director of The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath.
“Tony and I were discussing a number of possibilities, and then Tony’s husband, Mark Harris, said, “‘What about David Lynch?’ So I owe it all to Mark Harris,” Spielberg told Vanity Fair at a post-screening Q&A for the movie at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Harris, a veteran journalist and author of the biography Mike Nichols, also wrote extensively about Ford in his 2015 book Five Came Back, about Hollywood’s efforts during World War II.
“You just get a picture of David Lynch and you put an eye patch on him and you’re like, That is perfection,” says The Fabelmans producer Kristie Macosko Krieger. “His look is similar. And he’s also a director and he’s a director playing a director, and he’s iconic and John Ford is iconic. It was like, This makes perfect sense for so many reasons.”
Everybody loved the notion—except for David Lynch. “Getting him to say yes was another matter,” Spielberg says.
The two directors, Spielberg and Lynch, had been in each other’s orbits for decades but didn’t know each other well. Spielberg personally made two calls to Lynch, both times getting shut down. The two bonded over their shared interest in transcendental meditation, but Lynch just wasn’t interested in putting himself onscreen for a movie he wasn’t directing himself.
Team Fabelmans was not ready to give up. Spielberg has a history of putting filmmakers onscreen in his movies, with François Truffaut as Lacombe, the French UFO scientist, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Richard Attenborough as the billionaire impresario John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Plus, Lynch as Ford did have that meta element of a legendary director playing a legendary director. There’s a thrill of recognition when he appears and the viewers realize what they’re seeing. “That’s exactly what it is,” Macosko Krieger says. “It’s just a little added Aha! A little added, Hey, audience, you can be in on this with us?”
Instead of contacting Lynch a third time, Spielberg called a mutual friend—his Jurassic Park star and a frequent Lynch collaborator on movies from Blue Velvet to Wild at Heart and Inland Empire.
How did Dern actually convince Lynch to play the part? Here’s her side of the story…
Dern agreed to be an intermediary partly because she just wanted to see it. “When they described the opportunity to me of David and Steven collaborating to pay homage to John Ford in this way, it was like, I just wanted all of us who love movies to have this,” she tells Vanity Fair.
First, Dern called Lynch, then went to visit him in person to talk through why he was hesitant. “David took it so seriously because he would never let another filmmaker down. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to say yes if I can’t do this,’” Dern recalls. (Lynch declined to be interviewed for this story.)
She helped Lynch understand why everyone else loved the idea. “We listened to an interview of John Ford that Peter Bogdanovich had done, and he was listening to other interviews of John Ford,” she says. “It was kind of gorgeous to hear him say, ‘I think the voice…’ I’m like, ‘Of course the voice is another reason!’ They both have these American colloquialisms. They have this Americana about them.”
Finally, Lynch said yes, with one condition. “He said, ‘All I want, all I’ll ask for, is I want to have my costume two weeks before I shoot because I’m going to wear it every day,” Spielberg says.
Lynch, now 77, has been very conscientious about COVID, so meeting him in person wasn’t an option until the day of shooting. “He did not want to come in to do a costume fitting,” Macosko Krieger says. “So, they sent all of his measurements, and Mark Bridges, our costume designer, put together his costume and dropped it in a paper bag on his front door.” Lynch tried it on and communicated back that the sleeves needed adjustment.
“Somebody from Mark Bridge’s office picked it up, took it back, fixed the arms, and sent it back to David Lynch, who is going to become John Ford,” Macosko Krieger says. “And then David Lynch brought his costume to set on the day we shot his scene.”
Dern says living with the costume was Lynch’s way of getting into Ford’s skin. She says he actually did wear it every day. “He worked in it. He painted in it,” she says, saying it reminded her how “meticulous” Lynch is. “Everything matters to David, like everything matters to Steven. Such different filmmakers, but they care…. David cares about every frame. He cares about the clothes being real.”
Maybe too real. “He shows up on the set, and it’s filthy. It’s filthy and it’s wrinkled!” Spielberg says with amusement. “And you can really see the wrinkles where he was sitting on chairs. He really wore it nonstop for two weeks.” A moment later, he adds, “He didn’t sleep in it, I don’t think.”
They filmed the sequence where Sammy Fabelman meets his hero at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, which dates back to 1894 and still has offices that look appropriately authentic.
The crew was reduced to only essential workers. Even the producer kept her distance. “I never met David Lynch, even on set the day he worked because we were trying to keep the whole thing very quiet and secretive. We were trying to not let it get out,” Macosko Krieger says. “And he didn’t want to be around so many people because of COVID. I think that that was scary to him, as it was scary to all of us. Who wants to give David Lynch COVID? Not me.”
Lynch had made one other stipulation as part of his agreement to be in the movie. “He wanted Cheetos in his dressing room,” Kushner says.
This part was easy. “We were like, ‘Absolutely! He can have as many Cheetos as he wants!’ Macosko Krieger says. “And we just put that in his trailer.”
“Okay, this is why we love David Lynch,” Dern exclaims when she hears about this part of the deal. “David Lynch is the American cinema hero. By the way, I think John Ford might have been the only other filmmaker, if he lived in this moment, who might’ve asked for the Cheetos.”
Filming the scene happened in one shift, not even long enough to finish the Cheetos. “At the end of the day, when he left, there was still a lot left in the bag,” Kushner says. “And he very politely said, ‘Can I take these home with me?’”
They said yes to his request.
Lynch is known for being deliberately perplexing at times, but Dern says this represents a genuine part of his personality. “Only David would ask if he could take the rest of the bag—only him—because there’s no presumption about David,” she says. “It’s all humility. And he makes art purely to make art because he has to, because he needs to.”
And sometimes, in the process, he gets the munchies.