Adaptable: Barry Gifford's books (two in circulation are pictured here) have proven highly friendly to filmmakers.

Berkeley-based writer Barry Gifford's wild screen-rides

Sura Wood July 19, 2009

A peripatetic childhood laid fertile ground for the heated imagination of Berkeley-based author Barry Gifford. His father was in the rackets and Gifford grew up in hotels, rarely attending school, while traveling through the South with his mother. The characters he met during his formative years may not have been as lurid as those who populate his fiction, but his early experiences no doubt shaped his sensibility. A prolific novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright, Gifford may be best known for his fruitful collaborations with David Lynch. The pair met in 1989 when Lynch decided to adapt Gifford’s Wild at Heart, one of the Sailor and Lula novels. The relationship continued with Hotel Room, a movie Gifford wrote and Lynch directed for HBO (1993) as well as Lost Highway, a film they wrote as a team. Since then, Gifford has traveled extensively and, to some extent, lived out the Kerouac myth while continuing to turn out screenplays, fiction and short stories that are irresistible to filmmakers. The Hughes Brothers (The Book of Eli) have committed to The Old Days, based on Gifford’s short story. Gifford co-wrote the script for The Phantom Father, a film adapted from a memoir about his father, slated to make the rounds of the festival circuit early next year. The Imagination of the Heart, the seventh and final installment of the Sailor and Lula books, was published in May and a compendium of the entire series is due out next spring. More info on all of it at Gifford’s own site. I got a chance to catch up with him for last week.

SF360: How much has your childhood informed your writing?

Barry Gifford: Jack Kerouac once said that nobody can be a good novelist unless they’ve had a tragic father. I spent half my time in Chicago and the other half in the Deep South. I grew up in hotels so I was always around strangers, listening to their stories, making up my own and listening to the way people spoke. When I was very young, I traveled with my father and was in this world of men who were speaking in different dialects and speaking symbolically. I had to figure out the meaning behind the words. But, mostly, hearing the stories was the greatest possible university for an incipient writer. I didn’t know it at the time but I was always interested in narrative. Even as a little kid, I spent a lot of time alone at night watching old movies on TV and absorbing stories. I began writing when I was eleven.

SF360: Do you like going back and forth between writing fiction and screenplays? Do the forms feed each other?

Gifford: Working on movies is often very interesting for me. After spending 30 years alone in a room, it’s kind of fun to be around 100 people, going to war and making a movie, especially if it’s a film based on your own work and you have a proprietary interest. But the writing of fiction and the writing of screenplays have almost nothing in common except they both necessitate the use of words. They’re very different disciplines. It took me years for me to learn how to write a screenplay. Lynch calls it a blueprint and, to some degree, he’s right.

SF360: Do you prefer to have a writing partner?

Gifford: Collaborating on a screenplay, which I’ve done several times, is something that I enjoy. It’s terrific to bounce ideas off one another. Sometimes, you really spark the other person or one person brings an aspect to it the other does not but there are no rules about movies. Matt Dillon and I wrote City of Ghosts (1993) together every minute. Billy Wilder always wrote his scripts in collaboration. When David and I wrote Lost Highway, we sat in a room. I walked around and dictated it and then we brought in someone to use the computer because neither David nor I use the computer.

SF360: Do still write everything in longhand?

Gifford: I write in longhand, make my revisions on a manual typewriter, make another copy and now, things being as they are, I give it to someone to put on disk. I never even used an electric typewriter because I didn’t like the hum. I didn’t like the insistence or having to be plugged into the wall in order to write. One of things I loved about being a writer and moving around the world is that I could just have a notebook and a pencil in my pocket. It was portable. It wasn’t like having to haul around a canvas or a piano around or even a laptop. If all the electricity goes out, I can light a candle and I can sit there and write. I don’t need a computer or a battery and I don’t need electricity. I want it to be as close as it can possibly be to what’s formulating in my head. And I like to take my time.

SF360: Unlike playwrights, whose words are sacrosanct in the theater, screenwriters are often marginalized once a film starts shooting and persona non grata on the set. Has that happened to you?

Gifford: It depends on your relationship with the director. Lynch told me I was the first writer he ever allowed on set. During Lost Highway, I was there virtually every day of shooting and he insisted I sit in the chair next to him throughout filming. I was writing new dialogue as the film went on. I was there for Wild at Heart as well. Writers think their words are holier than thou and that they’re irreplaceable but that’s absolutely not my attitude. And, with David being a great director, I learned very quickly that what I wrote for the page would be bumped up another notch when it was actually filmed. It’s the most liberating experience for a screenwriter because it’s going to get that extra kick. So, I was spoiled quickly.

SF360: What made the collaboration work?

Gifford: At least for a while there, we saw the world similarly. We definitely shared a cinematic vision in that we thought of entering a movie theater as an act of surrender on the part of the viewer; the audience enters a dream state. Years ago, somebody said that the reason David and I get along so well is that he takes the ordinary and makes it seem extraordinary and I take extraordinary occurrences and make them seem like everyday business. I don’t think either of us necessarily thinks that’s true but, we were on the same wave length and it worked beautifully. I went off in my direction and he has gone off in his but we respect and admire and like each other enormously. The last time I saw him was when he brought Inland Empire here.

SF360: What’s been your experience with the film industry?

Gifford: In general, the only thing that ever disappointed me was when I wrote the screenplay for On the Road for Francis Coppola. He was going to direct and then, in 1995, Gus Van Sant was going to direct and Francis was going to produce but, due to circumstances having nothing to do with me, that film never got made. I saw what the vagaries of the studio system could bring. Up until that time, anything that I had written for the screen had been made and made immediately, unless I was involved with people who weren’t really serious. It’s a tough business.

SF360: What is it about your work that has been so compelling to filmmakers?

Gifford: Initially, producers and directors said they loved my dialogue—that it rang true.

SF360: Now that you’re older, has mortality filtered into your work?

Gifford: Do I feel my own mortality? In a strange way, I can say that I’ve always felt it. It was always very close to me. My father died when I was 12. My grandfather, who was also my greatest friend when I was a child, died when I was very young. I began thinking about this process very young, though in recent years, it has become more familiar with each passing day

SF360: My impression is that you have lived out the Kerouac myth but, what often goes along with the cult of the writer is drinking and taking drugs. Is it important to you to write with a clear head?

Gifford: Let’s call it the Don Quixote myth. I’ve never been much of a drinker. Though it wasn’t excessive, I took drugs in the 1960s, until I realized they weren’t getting me any further and, in about 1969, I recognized they were affecting my memory. A carpenter isn’t going to leave his tools out in the rain to rust so why should I damage my memory when that’s my primary tool as a writer? So, I just stopped. Drinking and taking drugs have nothing to do with writing. I never bought into that one. I never bought into mind control. I never bought into systems. I’ve fought vigorously to retain my individuality.

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