Author Barry Gifford mines Romanian culture for "The Phantom Father"

Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford

(CBSNews) CHICAGO - Barry Gifford is not an author whose books are available  in airports or on supermarket shelves, but both cult followers and film directors seem to have no trouble finding him.

Two of Gifford's stories have been turned into films by director David Lynch. He and Gifford co-wrote the screenplays of "Lost Highway" and "Wild At Heart" with the latter winning the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990.

Now, Gifford and Romanian director Lucian Georgescu will be showing the latest film based on his work, "The Phantom Father," in Chicago this weekend as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's 15th Annual European Union Film Festival.

Gifford talked to CBSNews.com about connecting with his characters' voices, his collaboration with directors, and why Romanian films should not be ignored.

The Phantom Father and Romanian Filmmaking

Gifford wrote "The Phantom Father", which tells the story of a Stanford University professor who goes to Eastern Europe to find the origins of a dead writer. The film was shot overseas in the Balkans and uses both the culture and the landscape as a backdrop for what Gifford calls an "everything-is-not-as-it-seems" story that takes a surrealist turn into the underworld of Ukrainian organized crime.

"It's really an old fashioned kind of Romanian picture," said Gifford. "I had the time of my life actually, after being involved with films all over the place -- from Hollywood to New York to France to Italy. Making this film in Romania - these people are wonderful craftsmen and they make do with so little, comparatively speaking, and their budgets are so much lower. But they really so much care; it's like the old days of film making."

"They're not dealing with special effects over there; they have to make everything happen themselves," he explained. "So if you want to make a room a certain hue, they've got these great techniques of using powder in the air and different things - I'd never seen before."

"The thing about Romania is that they have every possible type of landscape. They filmed 'Cold Mountain' there, so you could think of it as the mountains of Tennessee or the Carolinas or the Sierras. Everything exists there in terms of the geography."

"It's a beautiful country, but it's also mysterious and...how can I describe this? It's eerie. When you are in a country moving around among gypsies and the Hungarian population and isolated villages ... that's another essential part of this movie. So you see the different levels of society -- you see people who are still driving carts led by horses."

Gifford was excited and impressed by where director Georgescu took the story on-screen.

"I think he was inspired my years of working with David Lynch and various other directors who had this imagination that could take a story like this and take off into another realm entirely."

The Writing Process

Gifford says he never writes the ending to a story first and goes backwards. When he takes on a new story, he uses the mind of each character as a compass for how the plot unfolds.

"The point is to identify with the characters," explains Gifford. "I don't teach and I'm not an academic in that sense, whenever anyone has asked me, 'Well how do you write? How does one write?', I always just say, you write how you talk. And what I really mean is that you talk how the characters talk. You have to be loyal to the character and invest yourself that way in that you know the way they might go. And it's the same way for creating characters for film. I mean, you have to follow them in a way and be willing to let go and be so deeply involved with them and the way that they think."

"(The Phantom Father) is a story of discovery. For this man at the heart of our story, he's really looking for a way for himself, a way to continue himself...everybody has a purpose and you have to find that purpose, and that's what 'The Phantom' is all about."

The author also has little problem with directors taking his stories and characters to places he never thought they would go. He says people often ask him after seeing a film version of his novels or short stories, "What did they do your book?"

"They didn't do anything! The book is still there," he says, laughing. "It's a different language. There are different forms. You have the book and the film and there are requirements for both and there very different forms. So what could be better than to have your work examined and performed and exploited by somebody else that is using that work to create something new? And especially if you're involved in not re-creating it but evolving it - that's the greatest thrill."

Gifford says he understands that like his writing, the film 'The Phantom Father', once offered to the public, is out of the control of his intentions. "It's no longer yours," says Gifford. "It belongs to whomever."

Author Barry Gifford and Director Lucian Georgescu will show the film "The Phantom Father" and take questions on March 23 and 24 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.