Drawing Inspiration Out of the Past

Writer Barry Gifford, still 'Wild at Heart'

Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford, writer, screenwriter, and occasional filmmaker, crafts gut-punchingly cinematic dialogue like nobody's business. Most famously the author of a septet of novellas featuring the neo-gothic wanderings of Sailor Ripley and his truest of loves, Lula Pace Fortune, Gifford writes prose that is lean, mean, and memorable, like a cocksure bantamweight KO'ing the champ in round one or a stiletto jab to the solar plexus. It sings and stings simultaneously, cutting close to the bone and even closer to the heart.

The first of these novels, Wild at Heart, was adapted for the screen, unforgettably, by Gifford's longtime compatriot David Lynch and immediately won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. Combining Lynch's fluid and dreamlike direction with Gifford's trademark flair for crafting noirish dialogue that sounds as though it had crawled up from a damp New Orleans gutter without bothering to spit-shine itself first, Wild at Heart is the closest approximation of Gifford's style yet captured on screen.

Not that it's the only one, though. Celebrated Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia's 1997 take on Gifford's direct sequel to Wild at Heart, Perdita Durango, was a cordite and crimson masterpiece of sultry sin and salvation. And then there are Gifford's scripts for Matt Dillon's hauntingly lyrical City of Ghosts and Lynch's paranoid fever dream of a film, Lost Highway, as well as Gifford's masterful nonfiction dissection of his favored film genre, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir.

Clearly, the man knows the lonely darkness common to writing both for the page and in thrall to the shadow-flickering screen. And there's a reason for that.

"Basically," explains Gifford, "I grew up in hotels and on the road with my mother and sometimes my father, who was involved in organized crime. I was born in a hotel in Chicago, the Seneca Hotel, which an old Chicago con man, Eddie 'Kingfish' Stevens, once described as containing the 'lobby of the men with no last names.' So I spent my childhood in places like the Casuarina in Florida, the Hotel Nacional in Cuba, the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and on and on. So I was left alone a lot, and when you're a kid like that, what do you do? You watch the Million Dollar Movie on television. I developed a real awareness of narration and narrative by watching movies in hotel rooms."

Gifford's characters voice a razored, street-level argot that speaks – or mumbles or shrieks – volumes about those peripatetic early years, but, in a classic case of one art form melting into another, his hours not spent watching Robert Mitchum duke it out from the past with Kirk Douglas by way of Jacques Tourneur found the future author nestled, alone in a nameless hotel, in a book.

"Of course, I was also a big reader," he says. "I'd go check out the library wherever I happened to be, because the people in my household, they didn't really read very much. Books just weren't discussed. But the combination of staying up all night, alone, watching movies and then reading books during the day is what first got me interested in this whole business of storytelling – how to tell a story and how to structure a story sort of by osmosis.

"Living in this kind of fictional, somewhat cinematic world was natural to me," explains Gifford, "and being around hotel lobbies all the time, meeting people from all over the world, and hearing their stories was ... really the best possible university for an incipient writer. Because of that I've been writing stories since I was 11. What do you do when you're a kid in the world of men? You keep your mouth shut, and you listen not only to the words that are being said, but the symbology, the symbolic language. You have to try to figure: What's the real story behind the story they're telling? What's the truth of the words, of the conversation, and what's the lie? That's pretty good training for a writer."

Barry Gifford will present a screening of Wild at Heart at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 7pm. See www.originalalamo.com for ticket info.

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Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart, Sailor & Lula, Perdido Durango, David Lynch, Sailor Ripley, Lula Pace Fortune

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