For several years, Lynch has been living in Los Angeles. In the same way that he established a setting for his films, he seems to have established a setting for his own working and living conditions: 'Two-thirty is Bob's time [Big Boy Bob's has been a popular restaurant chain since the 50s. Translator]. I can think there and draw on the napkins and have my shake. Sometimes I have a cup of coffee and sometimes I have a small Coke. They both go great with shakes.'18
We know how important it is for Lynch to sit down, and not just anywhere, in order to think, his eyes wandering over the surface of a table. The setting required for the production of ideas is not at all a matter of indifference, as demonstrated by his first film painting, Six Figures
, which presented a screen, a flat surface, on which heads appeared in relief. When he describes his favourite coffee-shops and restaurants, Lynch is also describing the world of banal comforts and familiar, easily located markers which he seems to need in order to plunge into the realms of darkness: 'I like diners. I don't like dark places. I like light places with formica and metal and nice shiny silver, metal mugs, a good Coca-Cola machine.'18
That is the kind of revelation Lynch likes to make in press interviews, or that journalists like to highlight. In any case, such revelations form a barrier before his deeper intentions, about which he long ago adopted a particular philosophy: 'What I would be able to tell you about my intentions in my films is irrelevant. It's like digging up someone who died four hundred years ago and asking him to tell you about his book.'16
In contrast, he has often returned to the subject, as if it held a general lesson for everybody, of how he lets his ideas arise and take hold: 'You should always pay attention to the way you feel on a day-to-day basis';40
ideas 'are just allowed to kind of swim. You're not subject to people judging them or anything. They just swim, and you don't really worry about what they mean. It's all feelings: it feels right and you know intuitively what it's doing, and you work from that level. It somehow turns out being an honest thing if you stay on that level, and just let those ideas swim around, down where you capture them.'1
These ideas are neither verbal nor abstract, but concrete: 'You don't have to worry about expressing them in words. The important thing is to translate them into the language of film. Translate them by a little "plop"
on the soundtrack and a little shot in a sequence. Find the feeling that corresponds to the idea you had. The script ends up killing a lot of films that could have been more abstract and different.'12
Every idea is a small bomb or a battery, a reservoir of power: 'When an idea first comes to you, it has an intrinsic power. You have to try to remember the way you felt when the idea first came to you and to remain faithful to that.'12
According to Lynch, ideas do not belong to the night but to the day, to something better expressed with the notion of 'daydream': 'Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I'm quietly sitting in a chair, gently letting my mind wander.'25
Starting from a number of ideas clustering around a theme, a project can begin to take shape: 'Most of my ideas are totally spontaneous. Then I roughly sort them out to see how one idea follows from another and combines with it. The same goes for scenes. How do they connect? What is their logic? Ideas combine among themselves and you begin to glimpse something which can generate lots of other ideas, but once a certain number of ideas have been linked up, the mould has been set and all the other ideas have to fit in with that.'16
This leads to the author's conception of the cinema as a sort of sieve which remains open and available to ideas, including ideas introduced by others: 'The director is like a filter. Everything passes through me. Everybody has input and has ideas and, so, the movie has a great momentum going for it. Some things pass right through the filter and some things don't.'3
Even during shooting, Lynch does not hesitate to incorporate ideas suggested by some prop on the set or by the situation itself: 'I use a script and storyboards like blueprints; they give me a solid structure on which to build. Nothing's fixed until the film is done.'18
All this helps to explain why he casts actors on the basis of their personality, intuitively, without making them do a screen test, and why he works with them repeatedly, combining them with others, like a matchmaker. He approaches his work on sound in the same manner: 'For me, film is a very strong desire to marry images and sounds. When I achieve this, I get a real thrill. In fact, I'm not sure I'm looking for anything more than just that thrill.'
After the failure of Dune, Blue Velvet
restored Lynch's reputation as a director and restored his confidence to return to the formal boldness of his earlier work. The result was two unusual, agitated films, Wild at Heart
and Fire Walk with Me
, films which can be criticised as arrogant and loud, but for those who look more carefully they are also a return to the baroque style of his beginnings. With these films, Lynch seems to extend his search for a non-psychological cinema which combines textures and themes, a cinema with a more ample, epic tone and free, unpredictable constructions. The genre he was aiming for can be called 'a cine-symphony',
characterised by traits such as the use of more powerful contrasts than he previously allowed himself; the revelation rather than the concealment of the use of discontinuity in the overall structure; a broad application of Dolby sound exploiting its resources to obtain contrast, space and power in the sound; and a bolder mixture of tones and atmospheres. Of course, there was still the challenge of forming an expressive whole which is organised around elements displaying their disparateness. Wild at Heart
, a film which divided the critics even more than did Blue Velvet
, was the first of these efforts.
The origins of the work are straightforward and well known. Lynch's producer and director friend Monty Montgomery had purchased the rights to a number of novels, including those of Barry Gifford. In 1989, Gifford presented a new, as yet unpublished novel to Montgomery, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. Montgomery read the manuscript and took an option on it. At first, he intended to direct the film himself with Lynch as producer. However, Lynch began to get involved and Montgomery accepted that, in this case, Lynch would do the directing.
As shown by his numerous productions in this period – advertising spots, video clips, painting exhibitions, a record album and a musical spectacle with Badalamenti – Lynch was in a prolific phase. He had suffered badly during his inactivity between
1984 and 1987, and jumped at the Wild at Heart
project with a sense of urgency. At the time, he was working on a script based on a 40s detective novel for Propaganda Films, a firm run by Steve Golin and the Icelander Sigurjon Sighvatsson. They had come out of video and wished to extend their activities into features. Lynch was permitted to drop the work in progress to devote himself to Wild at Heart
, provided he began the film at once. The production schedule was laid out, with work to begin two months after the rights had been obtained. Lynch managed to write a first version of the script in the record time of one week. Four months later, on 9 August 1989, shooting started. Wild at Heart
is a summer film, whereas Fire Walk with Me
is essentially autumnal. Natural locations were chosen near Los Angeles, especially in the desert half an hour's drive from the city. Another part of the film was shot in New Orleans's French Quarter and in the city's vicinity. The budget was considerably higher than for Blue Velvet
, $9 million, but still far below that of the major American films of the day. The crew of the previous film was reunited. Fred Elmes directed the photography; Patricia Norris was in charge of production design; Duwayne Dunham was the editor and the cast once again included Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern.
Gifford reacted to the adaptation of his novel by saying that Lynch had taken everything that was dark in the novel and made it much more perverse. Lynch, however, said he had contented himself with making 'everything that was bright a little brighter and everything black a little blacker', showing his familiar taste for contrast. As the novel is an interesting work in its own right, it may be useful to know something of its nuances, especially since Lynch went on to make some changes which reveal his personal vision even more than he did in Dune, where he was impeded by subject matter already known to millions.
Gifford's book is a road novel, a romantic and strange tale of two young people. Sailor loves Lula and Lula loves Sailor. Sailor is not really a bad fellow but he has fits of violence. He killed a crook named Bobby Ray Lemon in self-defence. When the film opens, he is just out on parole after two years of prison. Lula and he are still in love. They reunite and make love in hotel rooms. Then Sailor breaks parole by going to another state, California. Marietta Pace, Lula's mother, is outraged to see her little girl in the hands of a 'killer' and asks her lover, detective Johnnie Farragut, to kill Sailor. Farragut refuses though he does agree to track down the couple and try to bring Lula to her senses. Marietta then considers involving a hired killer whom she knows, Santos, but does not go through with the threat. From conversations between Lula and Sailor we learn that Sailor lost his parents at an early age and that Lula's father died by pouring petrol on himself after suffering from mental problems caused by lead fumes.
On the way to California, Sailor and Lula stop in New Orleans where Johnnie picks up their trail. Having no money, the couple stop in a small Texas town with the absurd name of Big Tuna, and Sailor tries to find a job as a mechanic. They make the acquaintance of a former marine and ex- convict, Bobby Peru, who is suspected of having taken part in massacres of civilians in Vietnam. Lula becomes depressed at the thought of having to stay in this godforsaken hole, especially when she discovers that she is pregnant: as a young girl, she had been traumatised by an abortion following rape. Peru proposes that Sailor take part in a hold-up, which he guarantees will be without violence, but the hold-up goes wrong, Bobby is killed and Sailor is arrested. Marietta and Johnnie recover Lula who gives birth to a boy. Several years later, this time with a calmer Marietta's consent, Lula is reunited with Sailor when he is freed from prison. Although she still loves him, Sailor finds it best to leave Lula who can get by without him. She lets him go.
Gifford does not treat the story as a suspense plot, more like a destructured ballad where (and this may have seduced Lynch) the action is reduced to a minimum and progresses nonchalantly if at all. The film consists essentially of dialogue scenes in which Sailor and Lula, two fanatical talkers ('Talkin's good,' says Lula, 'long as you got the other. I'm a big believer in talkin"), say whatever comes into their minds as they drive along, between rounds of sex in clammy hotel rooms, or while drinking in bars. They give their immediate impressions of the places and people they meet, idiotic facts from sensationalist newspapers, personal memories, stories that happened to them or that they heard someone tell. Everything is worth communicating between them, and this is always lively, funny, unusual or refreshing.
This aspect of the novel is reflected in the book's layout, which strings together many, often short chapters which are separated from one another but not numbered. Instead, they have titles suggesting individual scenes, such as 'Girl Talk', 'Heat Wave', 'Mosquitoes'. The novel's poetic quality lies in these dialogues and in the accumulation of strange meetings and odd facts. Gifford's Sailor and Lula are unconsciously eccentric and at the same time peaceful characters. This is the meaning of Lula's sentence in the opening pages of the book and which inspires its title: 'The world is really wild at heart and weird on top.' Human beings in an abnormal, sordid world: this idea which inverts the Bonnie and Clyde structure pleased Lynch, and he respected it when adapting the book for the screen.
In other respects, however, Lynch took considerable liberties, filling out or even interpreting and overstepping what the novel had left readers free to imagine. He makes Marietta, the mother, guilty of a crime, and invents a plot around Sailor which requires the complicity of several characters who are independent of each other in the novel. This paranoid structure occurs in Dune
as well, but here it has the advantage of fitting
the concentrated form of the film. Thus Marietta killed Lula's father in a fire with the help of Santos who, in the book, is no more than a name. Lynch also imagines that Marietta calls on Santos to kill Sailor and that Santos, who is in love with her, announces his intention of eliminating his rival, Farragut, at the same time. She protests strongly and goes to warn Farragut, but when the latter has been kidnapped and murdered on Santos's orders, she pretends to believe that he has simply run off. Like a forgetful, obedient child, she allows Santos to become her new companion.
Lynch also adds a new character, Mr Reindeer, a sort of 'light opera godfather' in the words of one critic, who runs a brothel in New Orleans and unites the scattered threads of the plot by centralising the contracts for the murder of Farragut and Sailor. He steers Bobby Peru to Sailor. The hold-up is invented as a trap for Sailor.
Lastly, Lynch implies that Marietta wants to kill Sailor because he refused her advances. Lynch makes Marietta into an excessive character. Whereas in the novel she is merely rather agitated, in the film she vomits, screams and covers her face with lipstick to the sound of thundering music. In Diane Ladd's acting and Lynch's conception, this Clytemnestra crossed with Phaedra and a witch also seems a woman-child of disconcerting naïvety.
On the other hand, Lynch did not bother to rework the psychology of his two young heroes in order to bring them into line with his murder plot. When Lula learns of her father's murder, she does not become an Electra. The idea of vengeance does not even seem to occur to her. The result is a pervasive sense of impotence and absurdity. The plot is, as it were, sketched in in pencil, proceeding in fits and starts. In this respect, Pascal Pernod was right to say that 'the film's visual and sound leitmotivs and its system of alternating plots delays the emergence of something substantial so far that it never arrives'.5
However, one may also feel that the subject of the film (and of the novel, for that matter) lies precisely in the chasm which is opened up by that very delaying mechanism.
Lynch makes his modifications at Farragut's expense for, after Sailor and Lula, he is the novel's most important character, an unusual figure who writes screenplays and short stories. His existence in the film is limited, rather movingly, to being Marietta's lover, victim and faithful servant. His murder in a voodoo ritual with sexual undertones is Lynch's morbid invention.
The novel also includes many narratives and bizarre details which Lynch uses quite literally, centring them on Sailor and Lula, keeping or displacing the ones in which he is interested, adding others of his own making, while aiming at the same meaning as Gifford: the world's head and heart are in bad shape. For example, the harsh love scene between Perdita Durango, a beautiful Mexican who becomes the central character in the sequel Gifford later wrote, and Bobby Peru becomes, in the film, the infamous sequence of verbal rape between Peru and Lula, the latter being coerced, disgusted and aroused all at the same time.
In the book, the heroes are told of a horrible accident. In the film, they actually come upon the accident by night, but they are too late to do more than look on helplessly as a young woman dies without even knowing that she is injured. Unaware of the fact that her parents are lying at her side, she panics at having lost her handbag ('My purse is gone!'). The scene, often singled out by viewers, is both terrifying and poeti...