AP Film Studies: Barry Gifford on the Wild at Heart Legacy

Gifford says he wants to make another Sailor and Lula movie with Cage and Lynch.

At its core, 1990's Wild at Heart is a classic love story about two star-crossed kids, Lula and Sailor, played by Laura Dern and a gloriously unhinged Nicolas Cage. It's what's surrounding that core that's fucked up.

As written by Barry Gifford and directed by David Lynch—post Blue Velvet, mid-Twin Peaks—the romance is populated by everything from Willem Dafoe's corn-toothed pervert to Diane Ladd's psychotic mama bear and Isabella Rossellini's demonic hit woman. Plus, some Wizard of Oz and ample splattered viscera.

It's the perfect pairing of director and author. While Gifford is best known for his Lynch collaborations, he's also a poet and novelist in his own right, with eight Sailor and Lula novels to date.

Gifford visits Portland this weekend for two appearances: A Friday reading of his latest book, Writers, with his friend Willy Vlautin and a Saturday screening of Wild at Heart at the Hollywood.

WW: Why do you think, more than 25 years, people keep coming back to this story of Sailor and Lula? Is their story timeless?

It's a genuine true love story, and that's what I was always after. The way they speak to each other is really the key. The way they treat each other, the respect they have for each other. That it is a genuine love story that goes on through the whole of their lives. There's an openness between them that everybody would like to have.

The thing about it is time is compressed. This all takes place now, within these last couple decades. Sailor and Lula age and so forth, but it's always the same time. I don't know what it's going to be like in the year 2018 or 2030.

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage

It really is a pure love story, but it's surrounded in this absolute insanity.

There a line from a William Carlos William poem: 'The pure products of America go crazy.' I've always had that in my head. My feeling was that Sailor and Lula were out there in the world. They each have their story, their background, their personal history. But there's all this shit coming down around them. You can't avoid the shit. You just have to deal with it.

Wild At Heart was a pretty divisive movie. And then you and Lynch did something else divisive and not based on one of your books, Lost Highway.

Originally it was (based on a book). David optioned my novel Night People. He went through about a year trying to figure out how to make a film about it. He was obsessed by it, but he couldn't really figure it out. He said 'Well, to tell you the truth, what I really like about it are two sentences: 'we're just a couple of apaches riding wild on the lost highway,' and then the sentence where a bad guy says 'You and me, mister, we can really out-ugly them sonofa bitches.' He loved the concept of a lost highway. I said, 'well, that was the title of a Hank Williams song' and he said 'yes, but the way you use it and the context in which you put it, I'd like to do that.'

So David came up to where I live in San Francisco, and we just sat across from each other and wrote the screenplay. I said 'we're a couple of halfway original thinkers, why don't we just do that. Let's incorporate those things, and we'll go from there.'

What was the writing process like?

We work in a very similar way. We're very concentrated. Usually, when you have a partnership in writing, you have one person who walks around the room and talks it out, and the other person sits at the typewriter or the computer or with a pencil and paper. Both of us are really the guy who walks around the room. So we had to bring in someone to type it up as we went along. It didn't take us very long. We tweaked it as we were going. It was very organic.

Both of these films are divisive, but they really stick with people.

Sailor and Lula became part of everyday language. I remember going on a TV show in LA and a guy said 'I named my dog Sailor.' David's own daughter, who is two and a half, is named Lula. I just spoke with the film department at Stanford University—which has my literary archive—and they have a course on Lost Highway. There are courses in Rome and Paris and universities all over the place just on that movie. It's really incredible that that movie was taken so seriously, and it still is.

And Sailor and Lula are now cult icons. Did you ever see that coming?

Of course I never realized it. There's no way you can know what was going to happen with it. I was doing a press conference (in Mexico City), and a beautiful young woman said 'do you mind if I take off my shirt.? I said 'Whatever you like, it's your country.' So she comes up to the front, and she doesn't take off her whole shirt, but she takes it down, and on her shoulders and back, written in Gothic lettering, is 'This world is wild at heart and weird on top.' Certainly, there are greater stories and people. What did Shakespeare have going for him, and how did people respond to that?

Did I foresee this? Absolutely not. Sometimes I'm horrified what people do. From top to bottom, you get a reaction. The characters turned out to be universal, and for that I'm grateful.

You've done a whole Sailor and Lula series on page. Would you ever want to do another movie about them?

A few months ago I was having breakfast with Nic Cage. We hadn't seen each other in a while, and he found out about the new book, which is about Sailor's son, Pace, from age 58 until the end of his life. He said 'I'm 50 years old now. I could play Pace.' Then David read the book and called me up and he's crazy about it. He's doing the Twin Peaks redux now, but when that's over we're going to sit down and talk about doing The Up-Down, because it really is a fitting bookend to the whole story. Who knows, man! We're just talking. I'd love to see it done.

GO: Barry Gifford and Willy Vlautin present Writers Friday, March 25, 7:30 pm at Powell's. Gibbons hosts a Q&A screening of Wild at Heart Saturday, March 26, 7:30 pm at the Hollywood.

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The Light and Shadows cinematography dives further into obscurity with the Lazlo Kovaks-lensed, Peter Bogdanovich-directed oddity Targets, in which Boris Karloff plays a horror legend taking on a serial-killing sniper. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 29.

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