Road Sign Language

Lost Highway Screenwriter Barry Gifford

Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway

Barry Gifford is on a roll. The movie Lost Highway, which Gifford and co-screenwriter/director David Lynch describe as a "21st-century noir horror film" opens today throughout the country. Furthermore, Grove Press has recently published a paperback edition of Sailor's Holiday: The Wild Life of Sailor & Lula. Another movie, Perdita Durango, based on a novella within Sailor's Holiday, has recently wrapped. Perdita Durango is also available as a graphic novel by Neon Lit.

Gifford's movie career began when David Lynch put Gifford's then unpublished novel, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor & Lula, on the screen. Following that, Gifford's teleplay, Hotel Room Trilogy, another Lynch collaboration, appeared on HBO.

Gifford's fictional world is filled with brief yet captivating descriptions, unflinchingly noirish snapshots of the American demimonde that often smack of the surreal. An example of the classic Gifford touch: A deceased, black leather-clad biker is supinely entrenched in an open casket with a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes in his left hand.

Gifford played a major part in launching the current vogue for noir author Jim Thompson. After discovering French translations of Thompson's novels on a trip to Paris in 1983, he purchased the rights to several titles and set up Black Lizard Press in order to publish them. Black Lizard Press has since been sold to Vintage Books.

Among his multifaceted projects, he's published The Devil Thumbs a Ride, a collection of his critiques of various film noir works, and edited two studies of Beat personalities: Jack's Book: An Oral Biography, about Jack Kerouac and As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady. Some other post-Wild at Heart novels include Night People, Arise and Walk, and Baby Cat-Face. A new novel, The Phantom Father, is due to be published in May by Harcourt Brace.

The conceptual vortex of Lost Highway is the seemingly inexplicable transformation of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist convicted and jailed for murdering his wife -- although he has no memory of the event -- into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), an auto mechanic with memory lapses of his own. Patricia Arquette's portrayal of two different characters (Madison's wife and Dayton's gangster-moll girlfriend), who may or may not actually be the same person, is the olive floating in this cinematic cocktail.

The Austin Chronicle spoke by telephone with Barry Gifford on the eve of the national release of Lost Highway.


Austin Chronicle: How would you describe Lost Highway?

Barry Gifford: What would happen if one day you woke up and you were an entirely different person? That you weren't Sid Moody. You perhaps had some inkling of Sid Moody, but you didn't know who Sid Moody was. In fact, you were an entirely different person. What I mean by that is you looked entirely different. But yet you were in Sid Moody's bed, and there were Sid Moody's pictures on the wall, and you were in Sid Moody's house, and Sid Moody's mother and father were in the kitchen eating breakfast. Now, beginning with that kind of a premise, how would you therefore tell a story? Based on these kind of circumstances, or circumstances similar to these, how would you explain it? There's an entirely plausible clinically psychological explanation for what transpires in Lost Highway.

AC: Are you talking about psychogenic fugue?

BG: Yes. I like to think about the fugue state in terms of its psychological implications, which means that somebody -- this is a common situation -- somebody will flee. In other words, Sid Moody, for whatever reason, winds up in Seattle with a totally different name and an entirely new identity, abandoning the Sid Moody identity from Austin, Texas. A lot of people do this, some people consciously, some people unconsciously. But that's what a fugue state is, it means flight. So a fugue state then takes place entirely within a person's brain. And in the case of Lost Highway, that's what you see, somebody who's experienced psychogenic fugue. But then there are some twists. This has never really been done before, and certainly not in film.

AC: Are you saying that these characters are more than just characters? Are they Jungian archetypes battling with each other?

BG: It's a battle raging inside one man's head. He's unable to control his life situation in real life, in real terms, and goes into an inner world, a fantasy world. He doesn't have any more success controlling the demons, or battling the demons in that fantasy world than he did in the real world. In other words, you can't escape from yourself.

AC: When you were working on the script were you thinking in terms of teleportation?

BG: No.

AC: What about the scene where the "Mystery Man" played by Robert Blake makes a telephone call to himself on the other end of the line?

BG: The mystery man is a kind of alter ego. It's a situation where nobody else can see this person. It's quite clear that he's only visible to one person and there's a very clear reason why.

AC: That sounds like Fire Walk With Me. In that movie, certain characters walked into the Twin Peaks police station and nobody could see them except Agent Cooper.

BG: Well, you can ask David about that. I had nothing to do with Fire Walk With Me.

AC: I understand that the title Lost Highway is a phrase from Night People.

BG: Big Betty says to Cutie Early, "...we just a couple of Apaches ridin' wild on the lost highway." It's also the old Hank Williams tune. David had originally optioned the film rights of Night People and that sentence stuck in his head. And then we had to determine what Lost Highway meant to us in a separate context.

AC: Are you familiar with Julian Jayne's Theory of the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?

BG: No.

AC: Well, I was thinking that Lost Highway was like some lost part of the brain, some part of our collective consciousness that's been lost.

BG: That's possible. I think there will be some very, very interesting things written, and people will come up with all sorts of explanations. And I'm sure 90% of them are things we never thought about, and that's fine. It's like when T. S. Eliot was lecturing somewhere and was asked for explanations of The Wasteland. People got up and gave their interpretations and Eliot said, "Well that's very plausible. I can see how you come to those conclusions, but those were not my intentions, necessarily." We did a lot of research. I talked at length with a clinical psychiatrist from Stanford. Of course, we made evasions and twists, but I feel we're on very firm ground here, psychiatrically speaking, psychologically speaking. Lost Highway is very firmly planted in reality.

AC: When you and Lynch were working on the script for Lost Highway did you have any specific film noir movie in mind as an inspiration?

Barry Gifford

BG: Not really. The only thing we were thinking about was keeping it straight. We wanted the film to be devoid of a certain kind of jokiness, which, of course, you've seen before in Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart. This is a very straightforward kind of picture. We avoided the humor entirely so that everything that happens here is on a very straightforward realistic basis. Now, it's not that there aren't things in there that you might find humorous, but it's all done entirely with a straight face.

AC: When you were writing the Sailor and Lula stories you actually heard their voices popping out and speaking to you. Did that happen for you while you were writing Lost Highway?

BG: No, not in the same way, and especially since David and I were collaborating on this, the voices were really coming through the both of us.

AC: Many of your stories take place in central Texas. For example, Perdita Durango begins in the San Antonio airport. I was wondering what attracts you to this part of the country?

BG: I don't know. I just got back from a long trip across the border. I did a book called Bordertown. I guess I was always interested in a kind of Latin sensibility. I was always attracted to the Tex-Mex world. Not that I grew up with it, I didn't. But the character of Perdita Durango, when she popped up, was really kind of an id-driven character. And so maybe the explanation is all in there.

AC: I read somewhere that Francis Ford Copolla asked you to do an adaptation of On the Road.

BG: I did. I wrote a screenplay for him, but that project has been abandoned. That was done with Gus Van Sant as the director and with Francis producing. And then Francis changed his mind and decided to not have Gus direct the movie. Probably not to use my script, though they own it. He gave it to his son Roman, who wrote a script, and he was supposed to direct it. I don't know if it's ever going to be done or not. But I did write a screenplay for On the Road and I was really honored to have been asked by Francis to do it and he seemed very pleased with what I did. The movie business is full of vagaries and things change all the time. It's certainly out of my control. Francis has owned that property for 25 years and he hasn't made the movie yet.

AC: Are you influenced by the Beats at all in your writing?

BG: Well, certainly Ginsberg and Kerouac were great influences on my generation. I think Tom McGuane said it best in an essay, that Kerouac inspired people to get up out of Dipstick, Ohio -- or wherever they were stuck -- and get out on the road and experience life. And I've had countless people repeat the same thing to me. And so I think it's more of an inspiration than anything else. And not the Beats per se. Jack Kerouac, yes, who I felt was the one enduring writer to come out of that so-called Beat era. William Burroughs too, but Burroughs I never considered to be a Beat writer per se. Ginsberg's early poetry was certainly wonderful and inspiring and quite liberating. But Kerouac influenced me more as an inspiration. I mean, obviously our writing styles are not the same, so it isn't in that sense. And not even in terms of a so-called road novel. People bring that up a lot. Sailor and Lula went on the road. Isn't that a direct influence of Kerouac's On the Road? But what about Cervantes? What about Don Quixote? That was the first road novel. What about Henry Fielding and Tom Jones? Or Joseph Andrews? The tradition of the road novel and the road movie goes back a very long way and people have very short memories.

AC: Should we look for an uncredited Barry Gifford cameo in Lost Highway?

BG: (laughs) No, actually my cameo was offscreen. So no, you won't see me onscreen.

AC: David Lynch's movies seem to be very shamanistic to me. Do you see yourself as a shaman?

BG: I have no claim on any sort of shamanistic influence. All we're doing is creating a situation which is provocative, emotionally and mentally. Not to say that we don't have some meaning in our own minds about what's going on in Lost Highway, or even what went on in Wild at Heart, or in Hotel Room, which I think is a great lost work, the Hotel Room plays. It's really for people to draw their own conclusions. It's not violent, per se. I mean, a couple of people do get killed in the movie, one you only see later, you don't see the actual murder. But it's really more terrifying in terms of emotions. It's a terrifying film. And it's a serious film. I think it needs more than one viewing to appreciate it. It's like Sailor and Lula meet Kafka as told from the perspective of the cockroach. David liked that explanation, so I think it still fits.

AC: What other projects are you working on?

BG: Well, I'm writing a movie right now with Matt Dillon. And the film takes place in Thailand and Cambodia, primarily. I'm supposed to make a trip there soon.

AC: Is there anything else you'd like to say about Lost Highway?

BG: This is a movie where we really pulled out all the stops and took a big chance. It's not Sleepless in Seattle. You could call it a noir Sleepless in L.A. People are falling all over themselves to make gentle comedies, you know, romantic comedies. And I love those movies. But Lost Highway is kind of an antidote. Whether the public wants it or not, or is ready for it is another matter entirely.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle