CBC David Lynch Interview, 1990
How would you describe Wild At Heart?
Its a love story in the middle of a violent, twisted, modern world.
What attracted you to the story?
I read Barry Gifford's book Wild At Heart and fell in love with the title, with Sailor and Lula, and the world that seemed so real in the book. I loved Giffords way of seeing things, and it started triggering lots of things within me. Pretty soon, I was hooked and on the way.
The things that are triggered inside you are usually dark and menacing. How much of that is David Lynch the person?
We have many things inside us, and I like to have contrast in a film. We worry about dark, menacing themes a lot in life. They make us sit forward in our seats. Dark, menacing themes are like bass notes; they prepare us for the high beautiful strings.
Was the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz an important part of the script you wrote?
No. I wrote two scripts. The first one was pretty much devoid of any happiness. And many of the people who read it were in a position to make it said they wouldn't. They really wanted to work with me, but they rejected that particular script. I ended up in Samuel Goldwyn Jr.'s office, and he said, "David, I hate this ending. Why do you want to do this?" and my only answer was that it was true to the book. I told him I also hated the ending because, as well as being so depressing, it didn't ring true to the characters. I found myself in the position where if I gave it a happy ending, it would look like I had completely sold out and taken the commercial route. And I hope that I did it because honestly and truly the material was screaming to be that way.
What was that first ending?
The book ends with Sailor walking away from Lula and that's it. But it just didn't ring true.
What does the author, Barry Gifford, think of your film?
The author really digs the movie. He told me way up front I could do anything I wanted. Because I told him that I love the book and wanted to be true to the essence of it, which is Sailor and Lula and their characters, and the title, which conjures up a wild world.
You wrote the first script in just six days didn't you?
I didn't mean to, but I have an assistant named Debby Trutnik to whom I was dictating the script, and she just wouldn't go home. It flowed out. But as I said, that script didn't exactly set the world on fire.
Do you dictate and act the parts out loud?
I dictate the parts, but I don't act.
What particular images in the book inspired you?
Images like, "He poured kerosene all over himself and set himself on fire." That sentence real bothered me; I wondered why he did it. I didn't believe the explanation in the book that he did it because of lead poisoning.
What else inspires ideas in you? Music, for example?
Music does it. But sugar is the main one, and caffeine. For a long time, I liked sitting comfortably in Bob's Big Boy [a fast-food restaurant in Hollywood], drinking coffee with sugar. Then I'd have a chocolate shake, and a kind of happiness would come over me.
What used to happen in Bob's Big Boy?
It was almost like a small office. I just had to bring my pen, and for less than a dollar, I got a chocolate shake and several cups of coffee, and there was a napkin dispenser so I could write down any ideas that happened to come along.
You always keep your shirt buttoned to the top. Why?
I'm sensitive about my collarbone, but I don't know why.
Is that part of the dark side of your own personality?
No. If my collarbone gets wind on it, it feels strange. Also, I'm very insecure, and it makes me feel better to have something around my neck.
What does the Wizard of Oz mean to you?
Just a beautiful, emotional, fantastic dream.
And how did it get into this film?
It just crept in, little by little. It started, actually, in Blue Velvet. Dorothy was a name in Blue Velvet, and we also realized that Dennis Hopper is from Kansas. And I love the red shoes that Dorothy wears. In Wild At Heart it crept in in a few places, and was there in a big way for the ending.
Was Nick Cage the first one you thought of for Sailor?
Yeah. And Lula was always Laura Dern. When we read a book, we all attach a face to a character, and honestly and truly, the faces that attached themselves for me were Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern.
How did you know that Laura Dern has a wild side?
Since Blue Velvet we've become friends, and I've learned, quite pleasantly, that she is Lula. She's a hepcat.
When did you first realize this?
[Laughs] Well, that's a whole story. We all have our different sides. I knew she did a great southern accent, and I could see she was sexy. I also knew that she was very intelligent and could understand Lula's character and make it right. I've seen her in real life do a southern ditsy thing. So we experimented, and she caught the character of Lula through saying lines while chewing bubble gum. We got a long way toward rehearsals, but it was bubble gum that turned the corner. It makes the pacing just right when she has the gum in her mouth; its a strange thing.
Nicholas Cage sings two Elvis songs in the movie. Where did that come from?
That came another strange way. Somewhere during rehearsals we started talking about Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. So I got a copy of Elvis's Golden Hits and took it home and listened to it. I got an idea, and called Nicholas, and told him he had to sing. We went to the studio and he sang those songs, and he did a beautiful job. Then he called me one day and asked me if he could wear a snakeskin jacket. It thought it was perfect, so I wrote that into the script, too. For me, the joy of film-making is that many people tune in to something, one thing leads to another, and you're off on a fantastic trip.
Nicholas has a reputation for being somewhat wild himself. Was he hard to direct?
No. He was fantastic. He loves ideas and trying things. I call him the jazz musician of actors. He's a jazz actor. He's just totally into abstractions, and strange angles on human emotions, and combining things. He likes to come up with ideas, and he has a way of making it work and making it real. Every good actor has that to a point, but Nick is a hair more fascinated with the abnormal than a lot of actors.
Your work is also concerned with the abnormal. What do you think of the public's perception of you?
You and the rest of the media help to form that perception, so I think the emphasis is a little off balance if you think its predominately strange. There are other things going on as well. I like absurd worlds, but I also try to make sure they're based on human behavior. As we know human behavior is on a wide road.
But on the surface you're so normal looking. Are you laughing on the inside about the contradiction in yourself?
No, I'm not. Its one of the things you really can't control. The dangerous thing is that, if you have successes or failures, they enter into the machinery and effect it. You always have to remember to pay attention to the material, to fall in love with that and be true to that, regardless of what else is happening.
So you're not trying to live up to your image?
Its so hard to separate yourself from the outer self.
You've been called the Sultan of Strange, Jimmy Stewart from Mars, a psychopathic Norman Rockwell. Do you have a better description of yourself?
NO, I don't have a better one. But I like Jimmy Stewart from Mars because Mel Brooks said that, and I like Mel, and he said it with a lot of love.
To what extent do you edit your impulses when you make a film?
Certain things I wouldn't do. There are times when I get a little too near the electric fence, and I censor myself.
Could you give an example?
Yeah. I got burned a little bit on Wild at Heart. In the first test screening, 80 people walked out at one point. But I didn't want to change the film. I thought that maybe that group was too weak. So I tried it again on a second test screening, and 100 people got up and left during the same scene.
What scene was that?
It involved the torture of Johnny Farragut. We all finally agreed that the scene was really killing the film, so we spent a long time working on it. At one point I almost chopped it completely, just to save the film. Then it grew back. Its uncanny, but the people in a test audience of 300 all seem to feel the same things, even though they're from different parts of the country. The scene we ended up with is very powerful, but it didn't break the spell, and they stayed with it. So I learned on this film to overcome the fear of going in front of a test audience, sitting through it, and feeling what they're feeling. A lot of times I can trick myself into believing that a scene works and is the way I really want it. But if 300 people in an audience don't like it, then it doesn't work and I have to fix it.
What was the original scene that the audience didn't like?
It was longer, and it reached a point where the violence was just too much. The audience had already had it, and we were entering a zone that was too ridiculous. They didn't want to suffer through any more. And when the film entered that zone, I could feel them turning on it.
Why didn't you feel that when you were making it?
I don't know, other than to say that a group of 300 is different that just one or two people watching a film. That's why I think video is interesting, because there's never 300 people in the room - unless you have a big house like Aaron Spelling. If the film were just made for video, I would probably have changed a few things.
What do you feel when you have 15 or 20 million people watching?
I can never feel it. Maybe I could if you got them all together in one place, but that would be so weird.
Do you like to manipulate people's minds with a show like Twin Peaks?
No sir. I'm very afraid, because I don't want people to get the idea that if you like Twin Peaks, you're going to like Wild at Heart. It would be a horror story if the film were sold to the public that way. Its a much tougher film, and its not for everybody. For example, I've told my mother not to go anywhere near this picture.
But the television trailer says, "From the director of Twin Peaks."
Did she see Blue Velvet?
Yes, she did. She had open heart surgery right afterwards [laughter].
What did she think when you won the Golden Palm Award at Cannes?
She was very happy. And my dad was happy.
Which medium to do prefer, film or TV?
Television provides the opportunity for an ongoing story--the opportunity to meld the cast and the characters and a world, and to spend more time there. I really like the mood and the people in Twin Peaks. Films are another world--which I also totally love. So I guess the answer is both.
Do you get perverse pleasure out of playing with the minds of TV audiences?
No. I'm not playing with them like that. I love the world of Twin Peaks. It has its own rules, and its mood, and its way of being. To me, being on he outside thinking about manipulating or playing with people is the wrong way to think about anything. Twin Peaks is about entering a world, falling in love with it, working within it, and letting it talk to you. To me, if it doesn't have honesty, and you don't obey those rules, then it won't work, it won't feel good, and the audience won't stay with it. That's also true of painting, or any movie.
When do we find out who killed Laura Palmer?
I don't know.
Are we going to find out this year?
Do you know who killed Laura Palmer?
Well, I have to be careful because you might be a mind reader or a psychic, so I can't even think about it.
It was a drifter who killed her in the European version, wasn't it?
The killer wasn't actually a drifter; it was a person.
Does it matter who killed Laura Palmer?
It does, and eventually it has to be solved, and solved properly.
Is Laura Palmer really dead?
Umm... [13 second pause] I'm pretty sure. But eventually it has to be solved.
Why do you think audiences are so attracted to Twin Peaks?
I don't know. What's special about it to me is that its a bit of a dream. Its a warm and tender dream, a place you can go to. I love the mood of the place--its based a little bit on the B-Movie.
What do you think of the acclaim the general public has given you, now that your film has won at Cannes and you have 14 Emmy nominations for Twin Peaks?
Its awfully strange, but its not twisted. Its just time that America faced itself and realized that we're happy, strange people and we dig abstractions just like the Europeans, and we understand them just like they do. We have our own brand. But we have been told all this time that we're not that hip when it comes to surrealism or certain abstract thing. But we know we are.
Is that the way you see America in real life?
The way I see it we're human beings with a tradition we all understand. There's a lot of humor in it, and here's also a lot of very strange things in it that we really appreciate but are perhaps a little afraid to celebrate.
Would you ever make a nice, normal, middle-of-the-road picture?
What happened to your projects that were tied up when the Dino De Laurentiis studio went bankrupt?
I finally got them back, but I don't know when I'm going to make them. I know I want to make Ronnie Rocket, and it may even be my next picture.
What is Ronnie Rocket about?
Its not really a violent film, but in some ways its completely abstract, like Eraserhead, I need to work with people on it who are not looking for a tremendous commercial return.
Why is the Angriest Dog in the World so angry?
That's a mystery. Certain clues come from the world around him.
How much time have you spent on that strip in total?
A long time. I've been doing it every week for seven or eight years. Every Monday is Dog day because I have to come up with a dog, and occasionally I've gone as late as Wednesday, but there's still time to get it in the paper.
Are you directing commercials as well?
I have directed them, I just finished some.
I'd rather not say, because that would give them free publicity.
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© Mike Hartmann