SOMETHING REALLY WILD
David Lynch, Nicolas Cage, and Laura Dern talk about the mysteries of love, moviemaking, and Wild at Heart
by Virginia Campbell
Photographed by Michelle Clement
Stylist Allison Starcher / Celestine Cloutier, L.A. Grooming Friedericke / Celestine Cloutier, L.A.
A friend of mine told me that when he went to see Blue Velvet in New York back in 1986, a small fire broke out somewhere in the theater in the middle of the movie. As wisps of smoke began to drift across the audience, people started to rise up out of their seats. But up on the screen, Dennis Hopper, inhaling God knows what gas from his plastic mask, was in the middle of terrorizing Isabella Rossellini, screaming, "Mommy! Baby wants to fuck!" with Kyle MacLachlan watching from the closet in Oedipal thrall. Instead of stampeding for the doors like responsible New Yorkers, the people in this audience were just sort of half-heartedly backing their way up the aisles, eyes fixed on the screen. And when no actual flames seemed to materialize, they all sat back down again. If you ask me, that´s entertainment.
How in the world did a film as "entertaining" as Blue Velvet ever get made! Each time I´ve seen this movie, I´ve found myself asking that question. But actually, when you think of it, it isn´t all that mysterious. It was probably just a matter of Dino De Laurentiis bumbling along out on the fringe with yet another mind-boggling project to add alongside such outré classics as Orca, Million Dollar Mystery, and Conan the Barbarian. Dino was doing his usual thing - making movies no one else would dream of making - and David Lynch was just the dolphin that got swept up in his tuna net.
Wild at Heart, Lynch´s follow-up to Blue Velvet, has been a long time coming, largely because Dino De Laurentiis went broke and nobody else in town would take Lynch on his auteur terms - he won´t make a movie unless he has the guarantee of real creative control, i.e., final cut. Lynch spent a good deal of time trying to launch projects such as Ronnie Rocket, in which a detective travels inside the consciousness of a young idiot savant dwarf rock´n´roller, and One Saliva Bubble, the title of which [never mind the content] couldn´t be counterbalanced even by the proposed casting of box office names Steve Martin and Martin Short. Now, perhaps thanks to the trouble Lynch had getting a film off the ground, a much larger audience has been exposed to this director´s strange sensibility through the cult soap opera sensation "Twin Peaks." But Wild at Heart, a lurid, hilarious, and romantic road tour of psychosexual heaven and hell that stars Laura Dern as sexy southern yo-yo Lula Pace Fortune, a girl who escapes her mother´s clutches to pursue true love with good-hearted bad-boy parolee Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), is what we´ve really been waiting for. It aspires to far more than "Twin Peaks" ever could have.
In fact after all the fun with "Twin Peaks," the gleeful collective revelling in its stunning weirdness, it´s almost necessary to reorient one´s thinking to what David Lynch is after on the big as opposed to the small screen. After all, the absurdist poetry of everyday American life (which Americans themselves seem to be getting hip to now) is just the tip of Lynch´s iceberg. Hearing about the film Lynch didn´t make before he made Wild at Heart does the job of reminding one of his larger ambitions.
Prague Comes to Tinseltown
Franz Kafka is David Lynch´s favorite writer - a fact that should surprise no one. And it is Kafka´s most famous story, "The Metamorphosis" [the dark, droll, heart-wrenching one that begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"], that Lynch wanted to make into a movie about a year and a half ago, before he turned to Wild at Heart. In fact, Lynch still wants to make it. "I could be a no-win situation," he admits [this is a story in which the protagonist is a cockroach]. "But I would like to do it, because, you know, I would just like to do it. I think it would be really thrilling. We ran into some problems, though, with the bug. It was going to cost two and a half million to make the bug and the it still wouldn´t be able to do all the things... You see, I want the bug to come to work at, say, seven in the morning, and go into hair and makeup and come out and be able to work all day. I want to talk to the bug and rehearse and do all the stuff, and right now they say it´s impossible."
It´s pronouncements like this one, delivered deadpan in a genially pitched voice and mid-western accent, that make for Lynch´s considerable reputation as an eccentric. Everything written about Lynch sooner or later begins to recount what are, to be fair, strange fascinations [morgues, human organs, factories, Reagan Republicanism], curious habits (eating the same thing at Bob´s Big Boy every day at the same time for seven years, living without furniture, always wearing shirts buttoned at the neck), and quaint expressions ("cool enough," "neat"). Lynch does give the press something to run with. He presents a case of double cognitive dissonance; first, you have a very friendly man (he´s got a great handshake, the warmest in Hollywood) who talks without missing a beat about such personal predilections as dissecting bodies; and you also have an obviously sophisticated person who intermittently affects extremely unsophisticated enthusiasms, all without a trace of irony (Kyle MacLachlan´s Agent Cooper in "Twin Peaks" is reportedly a deliberate, affectionate portrait of Lynch).
It´s all well and good to shake your head at Lynch´s eccentricities. But his creativity, much like Kafka´s, is rare and mysterious and not to be diminished (or romanticized) by the details of his personality. Kafka once admitted that the key to his art was his ability to dream while he was awake. The inexorable, skewed logic of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the new Wild at Heart also seems to be derived from conscious access to what are properly unconscious states of mind. The imagery alone bespeaks the sheer ingenuity of dream reality, in which several psychological imperatives are satisfied in single gestures. If you bring this up with Lynch, and ask him if he too can dream while he is awake, he almost answers yes: "I think that´s the whole thing," he says. "Every film is like a waking dream. All the ideas are like daydreams."
Take the idea of the ear in Blue Velvet. The story begins when Jeffrey finds a human ear lying in the grass - horrible and fascinating in its detachment from an unknown body - and the camera literally enters into the ear. At the film´s end, when Jeffrey has solved his dark mystery, the camera emerges back out of an ear. But this ear is attached to a body - Jeffrey´s. In the terms of dream logic, then, the whole intervening drama has taken place inside Jeffrey´s head, and it is Jeffrey´s unconscious problem - one having to do with a breakdown between reality (the body) and perception (the ear) - that has been resolved.
Lynch does not, of course, deal openly with abstract notions like these. He proceeds from dream images toward ideas, and he leaves those ideas up to you. Wild at Heart has a terrific example of this. In a scene that resembles the kind of nightmare in which the awful event (you killed someone, you´re lost, whatever) has already happened, Sailor and Lula come upon a car accident minutes after it occurs. There´s shattered glass, blood, dead bodies. And then a beautiful girl (Sherilyn Fenn) walks distractedly toward them out of the night, with blood oozing into her hair. She says nothing about the accident, she doesn´t seem to notice the blood. What she´s worried about is how angry her mother´s going to be with her because she lost her purse. You´ll have to see Wild at Heart to appreciate what a frightening, perfect microcosm of Lula´s inner situation this scene is. It´s the vision of a real dreamer.
"Movies are an incredible thing," Lynch says. "Because it´s possible to say very abstract things with this medium and to give people feelings that are really thrilling and, you know, big feelings. It can be so magical. I´m always looking for the right kind of story to allow certain things that I think film can do to happen. That´s one of the reasons I love Wild at Heart. It´s got some kind of strange cinema going on in it. It feels different, it´s a different way of telling a story."
Lynch was having no luck with his own scripts when friend and producer Monty Montgomery turned him on to Barry Gifford´s then-unpublished novel about two modern hayseed lovers on the run from an angry, possessive mom. ("Monty wanted to direct the story and he wanted me to read it to see what I thought. And I said well, what if I like it, what then? And he said, well then you can direct it. Which is kinda cool. I said I was just joking. But then I read it," Lynch laughs.) Gifford´s characters were full-tilt originals, simultaneously down to earth and out to lunch in a way Lynch fell for right off - he says he mentally cast Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage on first reading. But beyond Sailor and Lula, the novel´s situation appealed to him: "It´s a love story where people start off being in love, which is kind of unusual. In a wild modern world, it´s an indication of how it´s cool to be in love. And Lula and Sailor have the perfect take on sex in the middle of a solid relationship. They are, like, so innocent and yet completely wild at the same time. It´s like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad."
Of course, just how the Garden of Eden goes bad is the point at which Wild at Heart moves into Lynch territory. The book is structured as an inspired dialogue of affection and irrelevance between Lula and Sailor on the road, with added monologue from the detective on their trail. Lynch set the film with a backstory of evil, violence, and mystery that lends it, for all its gum-chewing, funky charm, an epic nightmare quality. He begins by showing us the murder Sailor committed (for which he´s now on parole); he has a good man viciously assassinated; and he includes an absolutely surreal subtext drawn from The Wizard of Oz.
Most important, Lynch gave Wild at Heart his signature psychosexual kick. He transformed Lula´s mother, Marietta (played by Laura Dern´s real mother, Diane Ladd), into a character who parallels Dennis Hopper´s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet - Marietta Fortune´s obsession with separating Lula from Sailor goes well beyond the parameters of a caring Mom. In part, Wild at Heart plays a kind of Pink Velvet, a counterpart to Jeffrey´s discoveries in Lumberton. It´s the feminine side of the great, horrible adventure of facing one´s sexual nature and winning liberation from the parents inside one´s head. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey cries at the memory of violent sex with mystery woman Dorothy. In Wild at Heart, Lula cries after allowing herself to be seduced by the violent Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe).
Tidbit Goes to Jupiter
Maybe Laura Dern was destined to become David Lynch´s Grace Kelly. When she was five, she saw Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte on TV and watched in horror as Bette Davis opened a hatbox at the top of a flight of stairs and her father´s head rolled out. (Laura´s mom had to call Bruce Dern on a set and have him talk her down.)
Lynch´s casting director Johanna Ray brought Dern to the director´s attention after a long search for Blue Velvet´s Sandy. "David told me he wanted 'the most beautiful, popular girl in high school,'" says Ray. "So I brought in a lot of top, interesting, beautiful actresses, and he didn´t respond to any of them. Finally he picked up the photo of one actress who was not so conventionally beautiful, who was more human and less unattainable, and he said she looked interesting. Then I knew he would respond to Laura, and the first time he saw her, that was it."
Dern and Lynch have been close friends ever since Blue Velvet. "He has a giant heart," she says of him. "He´s Disneyland for me." He calls her Tidbit. "David trusts me," she says. "Laura trusts me," he says. Lynch never considered anyone else for the role of Lula: "I saw her 100% and a lot of people didn´t. They knew I was friends with her and they respected her work, but they didn´t see her as Lula. It was many things - whether someone is as bankable as somebody else, whether they´ve ever done anything like it before."
If the doubters feared that Laura - so demure as Sandy - would never be able to steam up Wild at Heart, they just didn´t know the kind of eroticism Lynch wanted on screen. It´s quite unlike anything we´ve seen - very graphic (at least in the early screening version I saw well before the film went on to win the Palme d´Or at Cannes last May), but healthy and full of feeling. As invented by Dern and Lynch, Lula embodies the most self-possessed, realistically feminine sexiness any American movie has ever presented. Not fuzzy, romanticized pap and not centerfold, wet-dream stuff either. "One idea of sexuality os that the woman´s the vixen," says Dern, "and then there´s Sandy in Blue Velvet, the Madonna who you want to marry but not sleep with. I´ve seen those two so much in films it drives me nuts. I realized Lula would give me the opportunity to be sexual yet pure at the same time. She´s so turned on, but there´s an innocence."
Dern´s transformation into Lula didn´t come easily. "Laura read the book and loved it and I thought we were there," says Lynch. "But when we started rehearsing we both realized we had a long way to go. Laura went to work. I´d tell her something, and she´d say, 'OK, I understand,' and she´d come back and whole giant old barrier would have come down and Lula would come closer to being. Three or four giant things had to be removed from inside her, and then Bingo! Man-oh-man, it was coming out."
Lynch´s erotic vision definitely banked on the trust he knew Dern had in him. When Dern realized Lynch and cinematographer Fred Elmes were going for a close-up of her naked breasts, she protested, "David, do you know what´s going to happen when the boy in the eighth grade that I never liked goes to the Cinema Dome to see this movie? Do you understand?" But as she got into the role of Lula, Dern took the lead. In one scene that never made it into the film, she decided with the camera rolling, to simulate an orgasm as Lula relates to Sailor her dream of being ripped open by a wild animal. For another, genuinely inspired moment that was cut from the film after the screening I saw, Dern had Lula hover over Sailor alluringly, and when the scene was being shot she spontaneously lowered her thinly body-stocking self onto Cage´s face, purring, "Take a bite out of Lula." Believe me, it would have made cinema history.
"A couple of people working on the film saw that scene and said they had to hide their eyes!" exclaims Dern. "And one of them said to me, 'what a nasty scene!' And I thought, 'nasty' is oral sex? People out there beat each other to get turned on, and this is nasty?"
"Lula should be a definition in the dictionary now for 'bird-brain genius,' Dern says of her character. "That´s what she is, an airhead wisewoman. She´s the coolest thing. I love her. She´s the ultimate person. She´s definitely on Jupiter, as I have been since I did the film. I don´t think I´ll ever come back. I might visit Pluto or Saturn, but Earth is not a possibility for me anymore."
Elvis With Tears
One of the keys to the ineffable, netherworldly feel of Lynch´s movies is the weird "rightness" of the actors he chooses. Unlike the vast majority of filmmakers, Lynch doesn´t ask actors to read for the parts he´s casting; he thinks that´s humiliating. "All I do is ask them goofball questions," he says, "just so I can see their mouth moving and a gleam in their eye or something."
"He´s able to extract incredibly interesting information about actors´ lives," says Johanna Ray. "It usually has nothing to do with acting, nothing to do with the film and nothing to do with the business. He has this amazing power of drawing out information that people haven´t talked about with anyone. Even when I talk to him on the phone sometimes, I find myself telling him things and thinking, why am I telling him this?"
Lynch hit his customary bullseye in casting Nicolas Cage to play Sailor Ripley, even without his usual casting procedure. Where had he seen Cage that this actor came so quickly to mind for the role of Sailor? You figure the answer might be Peggy Sue Got Married, or Birdy, or The Cotton Club, or Moonstruck, or Vampire´s Kiss. "At Thrifty Drugs," says Lynch. Cage remembers the incident: "He said 'hi,' and I saw this man who looked like James Stewart and I knew I recognized him from somewhere but I wasn´t sure. And he said 'hi' again and I said 'hi' and he said, 'We´re supposed to say hi when we see each other, right?' and I said, 'Yeah, right, hi.'"
Once you see Cage as Sailor Ripley, it´s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. He´s got eyes that are perfect windows to Sailor´s combination of a flawed character, a good heart, and a simple mind. But he also has a certain period feel to him, which is probably why he´s been cast in films like Racing With the Moon and Peggy Sue, and it´s certainly an important part of what appealed to Lynch Like Blue Velvet and "Twin Peaks," Wild at Heart takes place in a "present" that´s really a re-imagined ´50s, an era for which Lynch obviously feels a powerful affinity.(Just how Lynch re-imagines the ´50s is rather interesting. He gives expression to all the darkness that the post-War generation swept forcibly outside their white picket fences, and in so doing allows the solid values of that time to shine without the tarnish of repression.) Lynch cast Kyle MacLachlan for his ´50s smalltown boy quality in Blue Velvet. In Wild at Heart, he was looking for the "cool" ´50s and he went straight for the Elvis he saw in Nicolas Cage.
"Elvis had this innocence about him that was endearing," says Cage, who got what Lynch was after to a tee, spontaneously contributing to his character a snakeskin jacket he´d once bought second-hand on Melrose knowing it would fit into some role some time. "The way Elvis said 'sugar' or 'baby,' he really meant it. He had a simplicity about him, a likability thing. Like Elvis, Sailor isn´t sexually innocent, but his love is innocent. There´s nothing tainted about it. He´s an open book."
Nicolas Cage himself is by no means an open book, but he opened himself up remarkably for David Lynch. "David had already set a course down for himself that was so personal that it kind of went beyond right or wrong," he says. Cage made what for him was an unprecedented concession by agreeing not to watch dailies, something he´s gone to the mat for with other directors. "I do like to watch dailies," he says, "but David wasn´t comfortable with it, and David made me comfortable with what he was doing, so I didn´t want to press it. I trusted him."
Lynch describes Cage as "completely fearless," but Cage disagrees. "There are things I´m afraid of. One of them is being emotional. I´ve seen moments on screen when I cried, and I thought it was maudlin. You can give away so much of yourself that it becomes a little bit like jacking off. I had conversations with David about whether it was OK for a man to cry. And he said, if you´re a real man, you can cry."
David Lynch´s sets are described as "intimate and peaceful." This may in large part be due to his exercise of old-fashioned leadership. ("David is a leader in a sense that whatever the circumstance - the colder it gets, the later - you don´t see it on his face," says Cage.) It may have also to do with his rapport with actors: unlike a lot of directors, Lynch seems to genuinely like and respect them. (This goes beyond the rational: Lynch won´t make a film without Jack Nance, the man faced with parenting a bleating larva in Eraserhead. "Jack is David´s lucky charm," says Johanna Ray. "We went through a lot in Wild at Heart (because of a scheduling conflict) to get Jack into the film.")
But another thing figure into the relative peacefulness of Lynch´s sets - the apparent strength and vibrancy of the director´s creative conviction. And this may owe something to Lynch´s habit of meditation, which he´s done for 40 minutes daily for the last 17 years. On the set of Wild at Heart, he disappeared every day at lunchtime to meditate. "What they say about meditation," Lynch says, "is that you expand your container. Everybody is a certain amount aware or conscious. If you could make yourself more conscious, you might be able to capture ideas at a deeper or higher level. And to me it´s about capturing ideas. They´re right out there. Right there. For me, I don´t want my container to stay the same size. I want it to get bigger. So that´s one reason I meditate."
Lynch´s container-expansion would appear to be somewhat contagious. "Every single day on Wild at Heart something jumpered to a whole other level," he says, "because you get so many people together tuning into the thing, everybody´s senses are heightened, and you see things and feel things and you get ideas. And the ideas are likely to be right for the film because you´re all right there where you´re supposed to be. So all you have to do is be ready and keep your eyes open when these happy accidents occur and they can take the film who knows where."
It´s no wonder actors like Lynch so much. They´re junkies for being, as they say, "in the moment" and Lynch is very nimble in his "moments."
"These things happen almost magically," says Cage. "It´s really an openness, to let things happen naturally. I´ve learned that 'floating' from David.
One of the terrifically "right," charmed moments in Wild at Heart came about not by accident, but spontaneously, when Lynch added in a clinching line of dialogue for Cage. The scene is itself an example of what´s best about the film; it´s the kind of moment that´s too full of problematic truth for "normal" films. Sailor is telling Lula, in graphic detail, about an incident in the past when he had sex with another woman, and Lula´s enjoying it. The underlying kick to this scene is the implied trust and intimacy between Lula and Sailor. At one point the blonde Lula asks Sailor, "What color was her hair?" And Sailor answers, "Jet black." Then in the line Lynch put in while the scene was being shot, Sailor very sweetly adds, just in case he´s made his girl a little insecure, "But gentlemen prefer blondes." You smile when you hear this line, partly because you watched this sensitive guy Sailor beat a man to death in the opening scene of the film.
Good News in Hollywood
"David´s changed since Blue Velvet," says Dern. "He said a lot less then. Now he´s more excited and more verbal in his desires. Also, Blue Velvet was such a specific painting, and we were all specific symbols in his painting, and our purpose was to deliver what the script asked. With Wild at Heart, the script was 'here' and we got to journey and play till we got to 'there.' There was a lot more freedom.
What Dern´s comments leave out is that the director who made Blue Velvet was coming back from the huge failure of Dune, a film so off in its totality that the majority of Lynch´s admirers tend not to be able to watch it, much less defend it (they have perhaps not yet discovered that this painterly sci-fi plays just great if you turn the sound off and watch it as a silent picture). Lynch was on a relatively tight rein with De Laurentiis when he did Blue Velvet. By contrast, he came to Wild at Heart as the celebrated director of Blue Velvet, and he had a good deal of leeway. Wild at Heart went into production like lightning with a script that Lynch proceeded to rewrite substantially as he shot. And not only that, he shot a lot. He brought in a first cut that was some four hours long. After the early marketing screening (which quite a number of shocked folk walked out on), for which the film had been trimmed to about two hours and a half, he cut more scenes and then went out and shot more footage. "I don´t think anything´s finished till it´s finished," he says.
The clichéd ending to the story of a film that gets made the way Wild at Heart seems to have been made is that the final picture should be an uneven, self-indulgent, possibly intermittently effective but basically disappointing, if not outright terrible, film. But Wild at Heart is a cliché buster. And its early success, at Cannes and with critics, on top of the "Twin Peaks" coup, has Lynch´s stock at a dizzying high. It´s nice to see the odds defied. There´s so little good news in Hollywood. Not that Lynch couldn´t fall quickly from his elevation. It´s possible that a big studio will come along and give him enough rope to hang himself. Or maybe the intuitive threads that make up the lifeline to his creativity will get tangled up in all the kudos - nobody in showbiz is immune to the dangers of massive amounts of praise. But maybe not. And maybe there´s hope for Gregor Samsa on the big screen, if someone could just find a bug that will work with David Lynch for the right money.