Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, ASC (standing tall on dolly) and director David Lynch (at eyepiece) plot a setup while shooting the decidedly odd and controversial neo-noir mystery Blue Velvet (1986). The unsetting, dream-like film lays bare the creepy underbelly of small-town life, featuring Kyle MacLachlan as amateur detective Jeffrey Beaumont and Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth, the sociopathic criminal he must confront. Elmes and Lynch's other collaborations include Eraserhead (1977) and Wild at Heart (1990).
"The whole idea of this film is going underneath the surface of a supposedly peaceful neighborhood in a small American town," Lynch told American Cinematographer (see AC Nov. 1986). "It's a real American film and it starts, because it's so personal to me, with that first image of blue skies and a picket fence and the roses and the angle looking up. I don't know if Fred and I even talked about the angle, but it's something that had to be looking up because it's a childhood sort of image. It had to start with that kind of thing, but then there's a transition from the blue skies to things that are connected to plants and watering, and then that became pressure and then it had to do with introducing certain people. The image of the mother watching television and the image of the gun on the TV didn't happen until the very end, but it said something about Jeffery and his love for a detective thing — it gives it a mood."
For Lynch, whose films are filled with bizarre imagery centered on the set of delving deeper into the sensual textures of decay, the opening sequence's depiction of swarming insects in a suburban lawn was especially compelling. Fred Elmes, conversely, was not attracted to this sort of imagery, but was intrigued by the progression inherent in both the opening sequence and the rest of the film. "David loves to go through things," Elmes told AC, "and I find that fascinating. I don't think I would ever compete with David because his imagination goes that way. We did that on Eraserhead and I learned a lot about his style by just making those transitions work. I've noticed he does that in all of his films, whether I'm involved or not. My goal is to take the audience through the story in such a way that there's a change, so that there's a beginning, a middle and an end, visually. So I think we work along the same lines: I love to make things progress and to change styles. Since the story, to me, is about a young man's descent into a world that he's never been exposed to, a world that is frightening and intriguing in the same sentence, I somehow had to capture the fact that he's going through a change. He's getting into a situation deeper than he wants to be, in over his head, and then has to find his way out again. It was my job to set up a situation visually where you went along with him on that trip. It's a dark film because when he gets down under the surface and in over his head, he's in the muck and the mire of this other world that he doesn't want to be in, but he's still intrigued and caught up in it — so I tried to create a style that would fit that mood."