Premiere, September 1990, p. 80-84

Wild at Heart

Think 'Twin Peaks' was weird? Wait till you see 'Wild at Heart', David Lynch´s latest

David Lynch

by Ralph Rugoff


Surrounded by a leather-jacketed horde of nose-ringed head-bangers, Laura Dern is undergoing a delicate operation: the seat of her very tight black dance pants is being stitched up by a Wild at Heart wardrobe assistant. Dern looks understandably anxious. The pants, the only thing she´s wearing other than a pair of stiletto heels, a studded bustier, and glowing red lipstick, began to split during a speed-metal dance number in which she and costar Nicolas Cage seem to be simulating an unusually frenetic live-sex show. Choreographed to the drilling assault of Powermad, a band whose drums beat faster than the human heart, it´s a performance that calls for Dern to suddenly drop to her knees, insert her arms through Cage´s spread legs, and teasingly lick the crotch of his pants. During a rehearsal earlier in the day, Cage had broken out in bemused laughter. "What kind of rating are we going to get?" he wondered aloud. Dern was more flustered: conscious of the eyes of passing crew members, she abruptly stepped out of character at one point, stopping virtually in mid-movement, her cheeks inflamed in a high blush. "This is sooo embarrassing," she exclaimed, looking for all the world like the proverbial Girl Next Door caught out in an absurd moment while somehow mistakenly dressed in someone else´s clothes.

The man making Laura Dern do these embarrassing things is no other than Twin Peaks´ David Lynch, a director with a penchant for mingling all sorts of dualities: the normal and the perverse, the familiar and the bizarre, the innocent and the macabre. But in Wild at Heart, a violent and comic love story about a young couple on the run, Lynch has pulled out all the stops, pushing every detail to its most vivid extreme. It´s as if he were determined to make Blue Velvet, his controversial 1986 film, seem tame by comparison. Like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart deals with secrets, voyeurism, small-town evil, and the shadowy interface between sex and violence. Above all, though, Lynch´s latest film is paean to wildness, to following the dictates of your heart - whether it be a heart of darkness or of light.

In addition to Nicolas Cage, Wild at Heart boasts such offbeat actors as Willem Dafoe, Harry Dean Stanton, and Crispin Glover (who appears in a cameo as a welder), as well as an exotic Isabella Rossellini and an array of outlandish-looking extras. Yet much of the wildness in Wild at Heart is supposed to emanate from Laura Dern. As Lula Fortunem, she plays a bubbling jet of sexuality, a twenty-year-old southerner who - to paraphrase e. e. cummings - says whatever´s on her mind and does whatever´s in her pants.

That unsettling mix may be what Lynch is after, but extracting Dern´s performance has proved to be a tricky task, requiring long talks on the set. In a smoky bar scene during which Cage, playing the jail-fresh Sailor Ripley, recounts the first time he had sex with someone other than a prostitute, Dern´s Lula listens with a sultry expression, her red mouth open like she´s waiting for someone to replace a lost lollipop. "That´s an awful long way to go just to get some pussy," she drawls, wriggling her shoulders and arching her back with a cartoon sexiness. While Lynch has referred to his film as a "character study," at this point Lula seems more like a caricature. The director calls Dern aside and whispers to her with avuncular concern. She nods her head as she listens, looking like she´d very much rather be alone with Lynch - a good friend outside of work - than in front of this crush of crew and extras and fuming smoke machines.

What does Lynch say to her? "He´s got some key words for me on this role," says Dern. "He´ll refer to chewing gum or to cigarettes, and then I know what to do."

Lynch, a toothpick habitually stuck in his mouth, smile ironically when the subject of gum is raised. "I try to keep it real simple," he says drolly. "Every character is made up of so many little subtleties, strange choices, odd little ways of saying a word. When it´s right, you take it for granted, but when it´s not working, it´s amazing how complicated it is to get it back. Lula is a hard character to get a handle on, and bubble gum has a lot to do with keeping her on track. It refers to the more emotional, airhead side of her - whereas Laura herself is kind of mental; she´s got her own set of qualities that really separate her from Lula."

At 10 P.M. on the set - a North Hollywood C&W bar situated next to the headquarters of the International House of Pancakes - relative calm prevails, but it´s the calm before the storm. Smoky red light splashes around the interior of the club, spilling onto the stage, where Powermad´s lead singer naps, his pasty arms fixed in a crucification stretch. Six dozen extras in metalhead regalia restlessly mill about the dance floor waiting for instructions. Lynch, surrounded by a tawdry crew of tattooed girls, appears momentarily at sea, like a slightly bewildered chaperon at his daughter´s first slam-dance party. "When it strikes you, just do these Elvis Presley screams and let it go," Lynch advises. At the Elvis reference, the girls look at him askance. "We have to dance to this?" one asks skeptically. "Make it real for yourselves," he replies earnestly. "If you can´t feel it, don´t do it."

Rather than acting like the director of a $10 million film, Lynch evokes an affable small-town mayor. Casually shooting the breeze with crew members, he peppers his conversation with such anachronistic colloquialisms as "Holy smokes!" and "Okeydokey." On this particular night, he will film until five in the morning, but even as his face grows tired and puffy, his eyes will stay uncannily focused.

Three cameras have been set up for the scene, and you get the feeling he would like nothing more than to squint through all three at the same time. Absolutely nothing gets past him: he provides directions on everything from the density of the smoke to the position of the extras. For the Steadicam takes, Lynch and director of photography Frederick Elmes glue themselves to the camera operator as he whirls through a throbbing swarm of dancers, Lynch gently directing with a touch on the shoulder or an urgent whisper, his eyes fixed on the camera´s video monitor, scurrying after it like a kid peeping through a hole in a moving fence.

In contrast to Dern, Nicolas Cage seems to have a precise fix on his role. He brings the club to a standstill when he reprimands a punk for dancing too close to Lula. After grabbing the microphone from the band, he launches into a swooney version of "Love Me Tender." Despite the fact that he´s only lip-synching (to his own pre-recorded voice), the set hushes with awe. Without coaching from their director, the extras go wild, mobbing Cage for autographs when he finishes his steamy, hip-grinding number. An assistant director has to shoo them away. Lynch beams with pleasure throughout the entire performance, looking very much like someone lost in a happy daydream.

For much of the film, Cage wears his own snakeskin jacket, which looks like something he might have found in the closet of a Reno casino owner. Though not mentioned in the original script, the jacket has since become a key prop in Wild at Heart, taking on the status of a minor character or subplot, as props often do in Lynch´s films. After finishing the scene where he deals with the offending punk, Cage even makes a brief, manifestolike speech about it: "This is a snakeskin jacket. For me, it´s a symbol of individuality and my belief in personal freedom." He intones these lines with a deadpan gravity that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or to take him seriously. "I´ve often played roles that were very large and sort of manic, and I wondered how I could be that ludicrous, but in a very contained way," he says. "Sailor is a lot more sedate than I´ve been in a while in film - he´s a strong character who doesn´t need to rant and rave to get attention. The challenge is to be megacool in a way that will be totally absurd."

"Nick´s got nerve," Lynch marvels. "It´s amazing how much courage it takes to say certain things, and he´s got that courage."

More so than any of his films since Eraserhead, Lynch is going after nonnaturalistic performances, encouraging his actors to "really go out there," as Dern notes. During filming, he exhibits an unusual willingness to improvise and to explore unmapped territory. A typical moment occurs on location in Palmdale, a desert town north of Los Angeles. As Bobby Peru, Dafoe is the film´s "black angel," a vision of human treachery; in the scene at hand, he tries to sell Sailor on a booby-trapped holdup job. Between takes, when a restless Dafoe aimlessly sings a couple of his lines to himself, Lynch jumps on it. "Play with that on just those two lines," he requests. "Just keep that dark mood to it. Dark and strange, like a myth." They go through the scene again, and by delivering the lines in a nursery-rhyme singsong, Dafoe adds another, unexpected layer of menace to the moment. Lynch looks thrilled.

"For a second you think, 'This is nuts. He´s asking me to sing these lines?'" Dafoe says later. "But stylistically, I think this film has a lot of room for that - there are necessarily naturalistic dictates on what to do. So if some accident happens that David really responds to, he just accomodates it."

Lynch´s openness to the fortuitous is a key aspect of his method. Freddie Francis, the cinematographer on The Elephant Man, "used to call me 'Lucky Lynch,' because happy accidents would occur," he remarks. "You have to grab them and use the ones you like. The script is a blueprint that will only get to you so far - you might also get ideas from an actor, a location, a costume. Nothing´s fixed until the film´s done."

Luck hasn´t always been on such friendly terms with Lynch. Despite the fact that this has been an extremely productive and busy couple of years for him - his output has included a TV series, a record album, two exhibits of paintings, a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and an ongoing comic strip - his story has seemed at times like Pilgrim´s Progress, strewn with unhappy accidents and projects mired in the quicksand of "development."

Several of Lynch´s scripts, including Ronnie Rocket, a project he´s wanted to do for more than a decade, became buried in contractual entanglements with Dino DeLaurentiis´s company, which is now a part of Carolco Productions. "I´ve had a bad time with obstacles," says Lynch of the four years since Blue Velvet. "It wasn´t all Dino´s fault, but when his company went down the tubes, I got swallowed up in that."

Wild at Heart, on the other hand, "was just a green light from the moment I said I wanted to do it," Lynch recalls. By Hollywood standards, the film´s genesis was unusually swift. "I read the book [by Barry Gifford] one day and bought it the next," remembers producer Monty Montgomery. Initially, Montgomery who codirected The Loveless with Kathryn Bigelow, planned to direct Wild at Heart himself; he approached Lynch as a possible producer. Lynch responded cannily: "I said, 'Monty, what happens if I read this book and really love it? It would make me crazy.' And he said, 'Well, if that happens, then you´ll direct it.'"

At the time, Lynch was developing a screenplay based on a 1940s noir novel for Propaganda Films. Company chiefs Steve Golin and Joni Sighvatsson were amenable to switching films in midstream, but it meant Lynch had to work fast: production was scheduled to begin two months after the rights had been purchased. Lynch responded by writing a draft in record time. "One shouldn´t be proud of writing fast," he cautions. "But I wrote that draft in a week."

After seeing the script, author Gifford quipped that Lynch had taken everything that was dark in his novel and made it much more perverse. "It´s not entirely my fault - his book suggested these ideas to me," Lynch responds. "I just made the brighter things a little brighter and the darker things a little darker."

The dark parts of Wild at Heart are dark indeed, especially the more violent scenes. But even the film´s most gruesome scenes are given a comic-book twist: when Dafoe´s head is blown off with a shotgun, Lynch shows it flying through the air and then holds on it as it smashes to the ground and bounces away. During the same sequence, two security guards crawl across a blood-drenched floor searching for the hand one of them just lost to a shotgun blast; as one guard voices hope that doctors will be able to sew the appendage back on, Lynch cuts to a dog escaping out the back door, the missing hand in its mouth.

Watching Lynch on the set, it´s hard to square this brand of Grand Guignol humor with his mild, Howdy Doody manner. But perhaps he´s simply not as normal as he looks. "They don´t have to wear it on the sleeve for you to smell it," remarks Dafoe. "He´s got a dark side, all right. You don´t make a film like this unless you´ve got a dark side."

Also from the dark side is Lynch´s patented, precision-engineered weirdness, which leaves an audience feeling exhilarated, disoriented, and in shock - in other words, like it´s just survived a car accident. "David has developed his very personal brand of surrealism even more [in this film] than in Blue Velvet," comments Isabella Rossellini, who appears in the movie wearing a blond wig and virtually contiguous eyebrows. "In Blue Velvet, I think you saw it strongest in the scene with Dean Stockwell. In Wild at Heart, that mood impregnates the whole film. It´s about the reality of the unconscious, of our emotions, of how you remember things - and not the reality of a fact. When he puts a wig on me and makes my eyebrow very hairy, it´s part of that perception of the brain."

Besides plainly enjoying the work of shocking America, Lynch exhibits a dead-quick shrewdness on the set. "David has a certain slyness; he knows how to deal with a producer," confides one associate. "When Monty [Montgomery] comes in and tells him they´ve got to hurry up, he just looks up and counts the crack in the ceiling." Most of the time, though, Lynch seems preternaturally alert, as if he tuned in to a secret antenna.

There a few moments, though, when Lynch´s total involvement takes its toll. During the all-night shooting of the dance-club sequence, a distant haggardness clings to him: two thirds of the way through a ten-week production schedule, he is beginning to look smaller, as if literally worn down by the process of making the film. "On every film, there´s one day or more where you wish you could go anywhere else but to the set," he confesses. "It´s really fearful making a film, because something always could go wrong and you could be making a disastrous failure. Chances are it will be a failure, to some degree - you just hope it´s not a complete one. But you never hit it 100 percent, and if you can´t live with that, you´ll stop making films. I think that´s why the old guys end up quitting. I think they just had enough of failing."

But for Lynch, the most demanding taks lies at the end of the road. "That´s when you see where your film is dragging," he says, "and it almost seems like time stands still - it´s so boring and unbelievably poor that you go back and make the changes you knew you should´ve made all along."

Response to the initial screenings of Wild at Heart may have scared the film´s producers as well. Upset by the film´s surreal and graphic violence, people were walking out. Were changes made in the final edit to mollify future audiences? "Certainly there are choices you make where you want an audience to be with you, but finally, you have to go with what´s pulling you," says Lynch. "I just try to remeber how I was affected when I first got the idea, and if it´s thrilling to me, hopefully it will be thrilling to at least a couple of other people."

Considering the reaction to Twin Peaks and the fact that Wild at Heart won the Palme d´or at Cannes last May, chances are that what Lynch finds thrilling will be thrilling for the rest of us. He seems a long way from having had enough - quite the opposite: Lynch may be wilder at heart than ever.

Ralph Rugoff is a regular tributor to PREMIERE