There are many bewildering enigmas in David Lynch's long career, but one of the most fascinating is his unproduced science fiction screenplay, Ronnie Rocket. Lynch fans have been obsessed with this project for years, even making their own posters and fan videos for it. But Lynch himself seems to be obsessed, too. He's mentioned it on and off, over the years. And yesterday, speaking with Salon.com, he confessed he still wants to make this film.
So what's Ronnie Rocket about, anyway? And why hasn't it gotten made?
Doing an interview with Salon.com yesterday about his new music CD, Lynch said he still looks at the Ronnie Rocket screenplay "from time to time … there's always something I haven't figured out yet. I want to make it; I love that world." Salon describes the film as an "unproduced '50-inspired science fiction film."
There's a wealth of information online about Ronnie Rocket, notably at LynchNet and CityofAbsurdity. And by all accounts, this is a project that Lynch has been working on, on and off, since the beginning of his career. In a 2001 retrospective on his career in Entertainment Weekly, Lynch explained that he wanted to follow up Eraserhead with the equally weird Ronnie Rocket, but couldn't find financing. So he made The Elephant Man instead.
So what is Ronnie Rocket about? Lynch has described it as "an absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence. It's about electricity." And he's said it's "about a three-foot tall guy with red hair and physical problems, and about 60-cycle alternating current electricity." Possible cast members included Isabella Rosellini, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton. And the title role of Ronnie Rocket would have gone to Michael J. Anderson, if the film had been made in the 1980s.
Luckily, there are not one, but two, script drafts of Ronnie Rocket available online. The earlier draft, called Ronny Rocket, is here. The later draft is here. They're the same basic story, but it's much more cohesive in the later draft, with the theme of electricity more clearly present in both the main strands of the story.
In both script drafts, it's a sort of weird detective story — there's a detective investigating a bizarre mystery in a weird city, where you can neither leave nor go deeper into the inner city. And he starts the movie questioning Ronald D'Arte, a man in a hospital bed who draws a strange set of symbols. After the detective leaves Ronald, two unscrupulous surgeons, Dr. Pink and Dr. Platinum, come and find Ronald and kidnap him to surgically transform him into the Average Handsome Man. Instead, Dr. Pink and Dr. Platinum — who are in a polyamorous group marriage with Isabella Rossellini's character — over-electrocute him and turn him into a bizarre freak with a red wig and an electrical apparatus in his chest. They rename the new Ronald "Ronnie Rocket."
The Detective continues investigating, and his investigations revolve around a mysterious crime boss named Hank Bartell, who controls all the electricity. (This is much clearer in the later draft.) According to the detective's informant, Terry, "he's got the electricity fouled up, reversed or somethin' so's its around the wrong way and all the power is suckin up light . . . he's making darkness as fast as you can pee your pants and with this darkness buddy comes confusion and this confusion gets stronger as you get close to him, i.e., Hank Bartells, which you've got to do but you can't do so if you did though you wouldn't even remember your own name . . . see?"
Meanwhile, Dr. Pink and Dr. Platinum decide to send Ronnie to high school — but Ronnie keeps having to plug himself into electrical outlets to keep from winding down. Through a chain of weird circumstances, Ronnie winds up plugging himself in near a band that's rehearsing. And when the band's unscrupulous managers hear Ronnie's unearthly singing, they recruit him to be the band's new singer. But to get a wild enough performance out of Ronnie, they keep feeding him more and more voltage, until he's in danger of burning out. Every performance is more extreme and insane than the last, and Ronnie's more and more debilitated by the extreme voltage.
The main difference between the two versions seems to be the notion that the evil crime boss Hank has "reversed" the electricity, and this is the cause of the identity crisis that the Detective encounters, along with at least some of Ronnie Rocket's problems. In the earlier draft, the Detective's investigations are much less clearly related to electricity.
It all leads to a more-than-usually surreal ending, which almost approaches 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of cosmic weirdness. Both versions of the script end more or less the same, except that the later version includes an ultra-strange coda.
So after reading both versions of the script, it's hard not to be left with a very Eraserhead feeling. It's definitely very 1950s, but filtered through a very 1980s lens. It's sort of hard to imagine this screenplay being filmed today, as written — but it sounds as though Lynch has continued to tinker with it over the years. And just maybe, one of these days, we'll actually get to see it. But probably not.