Elle, July 1990
STAR OF DAVID
Laura Dern, her flaxen hair tumbling on the scarlet silk teddy she wears over skin-tight bicycle pants, is sprawled in the passenger seat of a ´65 Thunderbird convertible driven by Nicolas Cage. When he parks it by a two-bit motel, the 23-year-old actress gets out and stretches like a beautiful cobra in the late afternoon sun. Cage, impassive in sunglasses and a jacket made from python skins, is her cool-cat beau in Wild at Heart, the movie they are making together, but her snaker charmer is the director David Lynch.
Dern and Cage play Lula Pace Fortune and Sailor Ripley in the film, based on Barry Gifford´s terse picaresque novel about a Deep South Romeo and Juliet on the lam. "David´s nickname for me is the Tidbit," Dern later explains. "My nickname for him is also the Tidbit, which some people find rather bizarre. When we were making Blue Velvet and in our friendship since, going to dinners with friends and so on, I would do crazy things, or make wild, sexual jokes, and David would say, 'She´s such a tidbit - she´s the ultimate tidbit.'
When he asked me to play Lula, he said he wanted me to play her as the Tidbit, because no one knew that side of my character that he had seen. Then I knew that he just wanted to open all the doors for me and let me leave the planet - and I do, I get to go to Jupiter in this movie. Lula is the wildest character I´ve ever played, and in a way the sanest, because I never felt repressed. It was as if I was on a drug for three months. When I saw the film, I was surprised that Lula was subtler than I thought. Perhaps in my wildness I got back to being to who I think I really am.
Lula´s a very body-oriented, sexual character," she continues, "but I don´t think she ever becomes a trampo because she´s so unself-conscious. She doesn´t care what other people think about her, and that enables her to get away with so much more. She just happens to like hot pink that shows her tits real good because it makes her feel good - she doesn´t think, Boy, I´m going to turn this guy on with this dress. She´s just turned on by anything that´s sensual - and Sailor´s turned on by that.
And she gets turned on by him because though he´s so Elvis, he´s also the ultimate protector.
Things get about as dark as they can get in Wild at Heart, but I don´t think we´ve seen a love story as pure as this for a long time. It´s David´s favorite kind of love - which is cool love and love on the run and Viva Las Vegas, like fifties love. It´s more about love than Blue Velvet, which was so symbolically about light and dark that my character, Sandy, became a kind of sentimental archetype."
Calm and phlegmatic, permanently ruminating on a match, Lynch has spent some part of the morning touching up the motel sign with a paintbrush. After watching Dern uncoil another four times, he mutters, "Cut," and wanders off to embrace an old friend. The actor Jack Nance spent five years playing the bewildered Henry in Lynch´s long-hatching first feature, Eraserhead, and has just arrived on the dusty San Fernando Valley set to play a deranged dog-loving rocket scientist in Lynch´s fifth feature. This is all very touching, but when is something strange going to happen? You do not visit a David Lynch movie looking for light, languor, and family reunions.
Come twilight, the motel court-yard has been illuminated with fairy lights, and Lynch´s cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, is framing another shot. Lula and Sailor are drinking at a table with assorted misfits - Nance, John Lurie, a good ol´ boy, a magician who produces doves and flames from his handkerchief. "I brought this guy on the set who reached over and pulled a quarter out of my nose," Lynch muses, "and I realized that to have him in the film would create a mood. I love the idea that something magical or phenomenal could happen in a person´s life - in all our lives. It´s about outside forces operating, and magic is an indicator of that."
At the approach of Willem Dafoe, who plays Bobby Peru, a vicious hustler with rotting teeth and a moustache like a scar, squeals rend the air and three fleshy porno actresses in veils and bikinis dance out of a chalet. Their combined weight, I would guess, is 900 pounds, but they do not faze Bobby, who shakes Sailor´s hand and mauls Lula - who´s changed into a black leather bra and micro-mini - with his eyes. When he leaves, the odor of malice lingers, and you get the sense that the tall, blond, white-midriffed girl has been crawled on by a tarantula.
In contrast to Sandy, the beatific high-school Sandra Dee that Dern played in Blue Velvet, Lula is a chain-smoking, speed-metal freak, hungrily in love with her parole-breaking Sailor, as he is with her. Escaping from Lula´s jealous mom (Diane Ladd, Dern´s mother), and her detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton), Sailor and Lula zig-zag across the South, reminiscing about the violent deaths of various relatives, making love in murky motel rooms, encountering all kinds of weirdos and transients.
Is Laura Dern David Lynch´s muse? He not only modeled Lula as much on Dern as on her brunette counterpart in the novel, but says he would have considered no other actress for the role.
"Laura is a real special person, and a special person to me," he says. "She´s real smart. She´s beautiful in an offbeat way, but very beautiful especially when she moves. She´s got a great sense of humor. She understands sexual things and human nature, but she´s pretty young to know all that. She´s very mature - but she´s got kind of a wild, free nature as well."
No matter how wild, or how cruelly she suffers at the hands of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, Dern is a fresh peach in Lynch´s overripe America, not really serpentine at all. It probably thrills Lynch to cast his girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini, as the Sick Sadie of his movies instead. The sex victim of the ferocious psychopath Frank (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, Rossellini´s Dorothy Vallens is a fright-wigged torch singer who fellates the boy detective Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) when she discovers him spying on her - and then tenderly implores him to "Feel me. Hit me." In Wild at Heart, she plays, in an ill-fitting blond wig, Perdita Durango, a spiteful Chicana who drowned her baby.
The curve ball that David Lynch threw the critical establishment when he presented the extraordinary Eraserhead (1977) - featuring Nance as the father of a skinless, screaming mutant, and Elme´s sooty photography - was that of a gee-whiz all-American boy entranced by images of organic decay, industrial tumult, sexual brutality, and lush depravity. That scandalous incongruity persisted even as Lynch definitely entered the mainstream with the spring success of his TV soap, Twin Peaks. Journalists are still dumbfounded by Lynch´s placidity, his normalcy, as if he should be a mad poet-dreamer or bent aesthete, a sort of Pop-Art Aleister Crowley. I don´t know what demons drive Lynch, but it is perfectly reasonable these days for an artist of the night to be respectable and hardworking by day. His occult stimulant, he often claims, is caffeine - his ideas are inspired by the sugar-silted cups of coffee he drinks in diners like those in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks. It´s a Diet Pepsi he sips with a tuna salad sandwich during our $9 lunch in an old Hollywood café, the coffee machine behind the counter roaring like a buzzsaw in Twin Peaks´ mill.
Lynch is unresponsive to questions that ask him to comment on meaning in his work. All he will admit is the need to create an ambience, for its own sake. His films, and the paintings he does in his spare time, take shape from the images that float into his head and coalesce there in coherent or abstract forms - floating is a recurring motif in his work, a device that can take him and his audience into unbidden realms. There have been few bona fide Surrealists in Hollywood, but Lynch is one bit simply because his compositions are specific in their abstruseness, but because, as in dreams, you never know what dank subterranean craves will lead to next: the brackish wormscapes of Dune (his gargantuan sci-fi folly); the erotic netherworld Jeffrey discovers inside the labyrinths of a severed ear in Blue Velvet; or the cankered but fragrant lumber town of Twin Peaks. It´s easy to see why the idea of making a road movie appealed to Lynch - as did the moods Gifford´s Southern Gothic vernacular must have conjured up over a fourth syrupy cup of Nescafé.
Lynch resents being labeled a poet of the macabre. "I don´t want to give the impression that I sit around thinking of horrible things, you know. I get all kinds of different ideas and feelings. If I´m lucky they start organizing themselves into a story - then maybe some ideas come along that are too eerie, too violent, or too funny, and they don´t fit that story. But if the ideas are good, you write them down and save them for something else maybe two or three projects down the road. There´s nowhere you can´t go when you´re making a movie - if you can think of it, you can go there, I guess.
"I think you discover a lot when you make a film, but that´s not the reason you´re doing it. When I was making Eraserhead, I realized that I was discovering certain ..., er, personal things. I realized that I was talking in a sort of code, and later on I understood some stuff about myself that I didn´t know at the time, but did know subconsciously." Eraserhead is nothing if not an allegory of the primal terrors of fatherhood. Lynch (who has been married and divorced twice) is the father of seven-year-old Austin and 22-year-old Jennifer - who was born with a club foot. Now a filmmaker herself, Jennifer - the author of a screenplay called Boxing Helena, in which Madonna may play the role of a girl whose limbs are amputated by her possessive boyfriend - recalls growing up on the set of the movie. "None of the things that took place ever struck me as bizarre. They were just intriguing me. My father´s always been in love with factories and soot and the dark side of things, much more than with actual evil. I think darkness fascinates him because people feel they can cut loose at night. In Blue Velvet, he went way down into this dark world of obsession and showed how we key into things that are bad for us but which make us feel good."
As might be guessed, he told her stories when she was growing up. "They were wonderful, although I wouldn´t necessarily tell them to any children of mine! They were his way of expressing lessons to me and they were always about something he had seen or was creating. I think a lot of the things he says and does are less to do with his own life than with what he´s seen, and it´s through those patches of ideas that you get to know him. He sidewinds around things but in such a mysterious way that you never feel you´ve been cheated out of anything - you just sometimes feel he´s avoiding the subject of himself. I´m sometimes concerned with the fact that when he and I are talking, other things are going on for him: That´s not to say he´s not attentive, because he is, but he has this third eye that looks at everything differently, before anyone else does. He´s always pointing something out in a way that people might not want it pointed out."
"David has a real knack for making you very uncomfortable," says Nance, reflecting on the scene in Blue Velvet in which the brutalized Dorothy turns up naked at Jeffrey´s house. "When a woman has been attacked or stripped, the first thing you´d do is put a coat on her. But David didn´t do that - and so she stands around nude until finally the mother says, 'I´ll get a coat,' as an afterthought. I found myself laughing out of embarrassment."
My father´s very in love with the cleanliness and patriotism of America," adds Jennifer. "How stable it appears on the outside, and how behind every door there is something off-kilter."
Lynch locate moral squalor there, too - the putrefying of the American Dream in its emotional heartland, the home. It is no coincidence that the sadomasochistic heroine of Blue Velvet takes her name from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, or that a good witch appears in a dream to the recidivist Sailor in Wild at Heart. And it is the fairy-tale twinning of good and evil in Lynch´s work that makes it so watchable, and implies the need for a moral reordering. The hypnotic to and fro between the compassion and cruelty meted out to John Merrick in The Elephant Man, and the uncontaminated beauty hiding in his nightmare anatomy, forcibly align its maker with Jean Cocteau.
"I like to have contrasts in a film because there are so many horrific things and so many beautiful things in life," says Lynch simply. "When they talk to me, most people dwell on the frightening, dark parts and they don´t even mention the things that make them feel good about the films. Right or wrong, the Dennis Hopper character is, to most people, the coolest character in Blue Velvet, and yet there´s another side to that picture. The scene in which Sandy tells Jeffrey about the robins is real important to me. It´s a strange scene, that´s for sure. I remember working with Laura on it and this kind of feeling emerging - I don´t know whether it´s like a fifties party dream or a fifties in-a-girl´s-bedroom kind of euphoric, wondrous romantic dream. On one level, it´s kind of goofy, but it makes you feel really good. If a film makes you recoil just to make you recoil, that´s no fun at all. It has to be done in the context of something that´s thrilling, and you have to hope that it will take you somewhere fantastic."
Like other modern American Renaissance artists - David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Jonathan Demme - Lynch runs the risk of spreading himself too thin, but the age it took to make Eraserhead and the failure of Dune have seemingly spurred on him on to multimedia workaholism. He finds his current fame alarming, however. "The important thing is to do the films and the other things you can control. The rest is diabolical - it will screw you up. To hear what people were saying about me after Dune could have completely destroyed my confidence and happiness, and you need to be happy to make stuff. Sometimes when you talk about it, it helps you, in a weird way, to figure out what you´re doing. But if you talk about it too much, it can break the magical spell - especially for me, since I like to go on my intuition. Something could be so ridiculously somple that if you analyse it, you will lose the drift. I couldn´t make a film if it wasn´t completely thrilling."
A few weeks after wrapping up Wild at Heart, Lynch and his son are sitting in the stalls at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watching rehearsals for Industrial Symphony #1, the concert he mounted with composer Angelo Badalamenti for singer Julee Cruise. Fuming industrial pipes dissect the stage and dozens of plastic dolls float on wires above it, as, later, will the angel-voiced Cruise (recalling the fairy that the Elephant Man watches flying above a London stage). "It´s gonna get violent," Lynch warns Austin, predicting Cruise´s shrieking death dive. The image of a naked girl climbing from a car onstage is partially mirrored in Wild at Heart, but the strongest link between the movie and the concert was the short film, projected as the latter began, that showed a pair of lovers splitting up on the phone. Since they, too, are played by Cage and Dern, is this a symbolic ending for Sailor and Lula? Lynch denies it, and Dern agrees with him. "But I think it might have been if David had taken Wild at Heart further, because its original ending was a little closer to that than it is now. I think he realized that if you´re going to find love in Hell, you´re going to make it out the other side."
When Sam Goldwyn, Jr., and I were doing the dance to see if he would distribute Wild at Heart, he told me he hated the way the first draft of the script ended," says Lynch. "I felt, too, taht it would be wrong to leave Sailor and Lula without some kind of hope. Not that there´s a happy ending - although that could be a red herring I´m throwing you."
So is David Lynch really mild at heart, a closet Hollywood romantic? "The beauty about him," Dern concludes, "is that because he gets all this weird stuff out of his system, he´s quite a normal man. I´ve met directors who make very sane films who disturb me much more as people. And David just keeps coming up with all this stuff - he´s the ultimate Tidbit."