Like a campy version of Romeo and Juliet, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart came roaring into theaters in 1990. Starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, the film—based on Barry Gifford’s novel—was yet another high point for Lynch in what turned out to be a very good year for the cult director.
Just one month after Twin Peaks premiered on ABC, Wild at Heart made its debut at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. But the film was hardly met with unanimous acclaim; when the film claimed Cannes’ top prize, it was met with “great cheers and many boos, some of the latter from me,” Roger Ebert recalled. Yet a quarter-century later, we’re still talking about it. Here are 16 things you might not have known about Lynch’s divisive neo-noir.
1. David Lynch wasn't supposed to direct Wild at Heart.
Lynch read Barry Gifford’s novel, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, at the behest of his friend, Monty Montgomery. “Monty wanted me to help him write the script so he could direct it himself,” Lynch shared in a 1990 interview. “I asked him jokingly: ‘OK, but what happens if I like it so much that I want to direct it myself?’ He said that in that case, I could direct it. So what started as a joke was exactly what happened.” Montgomery served as one of the film’s producers.
2. LYNCH WROTE THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE SCRIPT IN LESS THAN A WEEK.
It was six days, to be exact. “I didn't mean to,” he admitted in an interview with CBC. “But I [had] an assistant named Debby Trutnik to whom I was dictating the script, and she just wouldn't go home. It flowed out. But … that script didn't exactly set the world on fire.”
3. LYNCH WROTE TWO SCRIPTS FOR THE FILM.
The first version of the script may have flowed, but even Lynch wasn’t happy with the final result. “The first [script] was pretty much devoid of any happiness,” according to Lynch. “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.”
4. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS THE MAIN PROBLEM.
In Gifford’s book, there is no happily ever after for Sailor and Lula. Which wasn’t the way that Lynch would have written it, but he wanted to respect his source material. Eventually, Lynch “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,” recalled Lynch. “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.”
5. NICOLAS CAGE AND LAURA DERN WERE LYNCH’S FIRST CHOICES FOR THE LEADS.
“When we read a book, we all attach a face to a character,” explained Lynch, “and honestly and truly, the faces that attached themselves for me were Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern … Since Blue Velvet [Laura and I have] become friends, and I've learned, quite pleasantly, that she is Lula. She's a hepcat.”
6. LAURA DERN BROKE HER “NO NUDITY” RULE FOR THE FILM.
Dern had fun exploring the hyper-sexualized world in which Wild at Heart exists, and was surprised by the shocked reactions of some critics. “I'd never done nudity in a movie,” Dern recalled to Interview Magazine. “I've never sort of condoned it for myself, but David wanted it, and I was completely comfortable with it because that love story was so protected. There's never a moment where you feel anything is exploited. I'm interested to see what the American reviewers talk about comparing to the Europeans, who really didn't question it that much.”
7. SAILOR’S SNAKESKIN JACKET WAS CAGE'S SNAKESKIN JACKET.
Throughout the film, Sailor tells anyone who will listen (willingly or otherwise) that his beloved snakeskin jacket is a symbol of his “individuality” and “belief in personal freedom.” Which was at least half true, as the jacket did indeed belong to Cage. The actor called Lynch “one day and asked me if he could wear a snakeskin jacket. I thought it was perfect, so I wrote that into the script.” That songbird of a voice you hear also belongs to Cage; he did his own singing for the film.
8. PLAYING SAILOR HELPED CAGE MOVE AWAY FROM METHOD ACTING.
In a 2005 interview with Total Film, Cage explained that Wild at Heart came along at a time when “I was starting to come out of that whole style of Method acting … By then, I was learning to have a sort of mischievous sense of fun while playing parts. It was David Lynch who made it clear to me that if you’re not having fun then the audience isn’t going to either. That movie was very playful and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about things on the set because David would come in with new monologues on the day and actually trying to memorize any of it was just absurd. You couldn’t over-analyze, you just jumped in and did it.”
9. CAGE’S MOM LIKENS THE FILM TO A MODERN DANCE PERFORMANCE.
In 2013, Cage told The Guardian about how excited his mom (a dancer and choreographer) gets when one of his movies comes on television. And she was a fan of Wild at Heart. “ never studied dance, but if you look at Wild at Heart, my mother saw that movie and said, ‘You are a dancer. Look at how you're moving: all that strange energy is like modern dance.’”
10. DIANE LADD HAD A TENDENCY TO IMPROVISE.
Lynch remembered that, in her first scene, Diane Ladd (Dern's mom in the film and in real life, too) “was miles away from the text that I’d written. She got the spirit of the scene perfectly, but she didn’t recreate a single word. So I took her aside and after that we worked very well together. She was bad at sticking to the dialogue, but she really loved to be seized by an emotion and to be carried away by it. It was quite something to contain all that energy.”
11. WILLEM DAFOE FOUND HIS CHARACTER THROUGH HIS TEETH.
Watching Willem Dafoe come to life as the sinister Bobby Peru was “a terrific experience,” according to Lynch. “He is so controlled, so precise, there’s not a single wasted emotion … I think that the false teeth helped him with his conception of the character. From the moment he puts those teeth in, he talks a little differently, he discovers a certain kind of smile.”
Lynch shared that J.E. Freeman, who plays mobster Marcellus Santos, “was chosen for the role … the day before shooting his first scene, and he fits perfectly into the world of the film.”
13. BASED ON TEST SCREENINGS, THE MOVIE SEEMED DOOMED TO FAIL.
The audience response to Wild at Heart was mixed, to be sure. Lynch recalled that, “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. It involved the torture of Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton). We all finally agreed that the scene was really killing the film, so we spent a long time working on it.”
14. THE FILM MARKED LYNCH’S FIRST COLLABORATION WITH HARRY DEAN STANTON.
Lynch has been vocal in his admiration of Stanton’s work and talents, remarking that “he has no pretenses” and “is so natural, it’s unbelievable.” Though Wild at Heart was their first collaboration, in the years since Wild at Heart, Lynch and Stanton have re-teamed on a number of projects, including Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Straight Story, and Inland Empire.
15. THE FILM WAS COMPLETED ONE DAY BEFORE ITS CANNES PREMIERE.
Lynch continued tinkering with the film up until the very last minute possible, at which point the director packed it up as a piece of carry-on luggage and set off for the French Riviera. “We were right up [to] the wire,” Lynch told Empire Magazine. But even then, it almost didn’t make it: “The gentleman at Swiss Air was very upset but finally he let it happen because it did fit under the seats.”
16. LYNCH WAS THREATENED WITH AN X RATING.
“Amazingly, they were offended more by the violence than by the sex scenes,” Lynch told Cinema 9 of the MPAA’s reasons for wanting to slap the dreaded rating on Wild at Heart. (NC-17 didn't come into play until October of that year, with Philip Kaufman's Henry & June.) “Usually, it’s the other way around. They complained about the brutal murder immediately at the beginning and the bloodbath at the end. They didn't like a particular sex scene with Lula and Sailor either, which they called ‘penetration from behind.’”