The Bizarre Improvised Nicolas Cage Song That Was Cut From Wild At Heart

Director David Lynch has gained a reputation for following his creative muse when making a feature film, often shooting hours of material that ultimately end up on the cutting room floor. While his 1990 adaptation of Barry Gifford's noir lovers-on-the-run novel, "Wild at Heart," would be no exception, Lynch's creativity was particularly in overdrive while filming the movie.

When star Nicolas Cage — who plays Sailor Ripley, the Elvis-idolizing criminal and lover of Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) — recalled asking Lynch if it was "okay if I have fun while making this movie," Lynch's response was "it's not only okay, it's necessary!" Lynch wasn't kidding; while he dutifully wrote a script that adapted nearly every scene of Gifford's book, he kept adding new scenes and ideas during production, at one point including characters (or allusions to characters, at least) from "The Wizard of Oz."

With all this rampant creativity going on, the cast was encouraged to go with the flow, and Cage is an actor who clearly has no problem doing that if his career is any indication. However, one scene filmed for "Wild at Heart" that was later deleted took even Cage aback, which is no mean feat.

Sailor sings the cotton ball opera

In "Wild at Heart," Sailor is a mega-Elvis Presley fan who often stops everything around him in order to break into song with one of the King's hits. A major plot point of the film involves Sailor insisting he'll only sing "Love Me Tender" to the woman he's going to marry, indicating just how important Elvis and his music are to him.

While it stands to reason that David Lynch may have filmed several other scenes of Sailor communicating his feelings through music, it was one particular scene that changed the style of song from rock 'n roll to opera, and the subject of the song from Lula to, well, cotton balls. As Nicolas Cage recalled during a 2020 screening of the film in NYC, the scene was "the most bizarre choice David asked me to do," with Lynch describing to Cage that the scene was "gonna have two cotton balls, and I want you to sing an opera about cotton balls." There was little to no rehearsal for this moment, as Cage remembered that "right on the spot I had to make up this opera song with Laura [Dern] right there." Cage did so, dutifully adhering to the improvisational, surrealistic mood that Lynch had created for the film.

Wild at Heart and weird on top

Even though a scene involving an opera about cotton balls taken by itself seems laughably ridiculous, there are some important keys to its possible meaning that can be found within one surviving deleted scene as well as other David Lynch films.

"Wild at Heart" contains numerous digressions within its two-hour runtime, whether it's the story of Lula's cousin, Dell (Crispin Glover), or the tragedy of an unnamed girl who dies in a car accident (Sherilyn Fenn). Structured as a road movie, the film uses such "stops" along the narrative to illustrate the darker, more dangerous, and less romantically idealized world that Sailor and Lula are forced into. One deleted scene sees Sailor suffering from a nightmare following a number of these encounters, a nightmare in which black smoke pours out of him while Lula tells him to "please leave, the smoke is scaring me." That phrase is sung by Nicolas Cage in the scene and accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti's orchestral score as if it were part of an opera. At the end of the scene, Sailor is scared that "in my dream, there was a cotton ball under the bed" that he couldn't find but knows is there, and the scene closes by revealing a cotton ball under Sailor and Lula's bed.

It's likely that the "opera about cotton balls" scene was to follow this moment either immediately or later in the film, unless Cage mistakenly recalled this scene and its one sung phrase as the opera by itself.

David Lynch and communicating danger

In either case, it's an instance of David Lynch using unexplained, semi-benign details or events to denote an ominous premonition of darkness or danger. These moments can be found all throughout his work, whether it be the severed ear in "Blue Velvet," the date of 10:10 AM on February 16th in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," the news that "Dick Laurent is dead" in "Lost Highway," and the feeling that Dan has that something lurks behind the Winkie's in "Mulholland Dr."

In most of those examples, characters either did have or will have a dream about those objects, places, and events, and all of them relate to a danger that is approaching or surrounding them. In this context, Sailor's cotton ball opera becomes not just a quirky and bizarre amusing aside, but a way for Lynch to communicate the weight of the danger Sailor and Lula have found themselves in. While the scenes were deleted from the movie, Lynch nonetheless found other ways to portray this sense of danger in the film, such as a moment when Lula sees her devious mother as the Wicked Witch. For his part, Nicolas Cage is "very happy with the way the movie holds up," and while we may never get to see the full cotton ball opera, there are still a number of delightfully bizarre moments in "Wild at Heart" to get lost in.