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Twin Peaks revisited by David Lynch, Kyle MacLachlan, Mark Frost and Ray Wise

Twin Peaks revisited by David Lynch, Kyle MacLachlan, Mark Frost and Ray Wise

A new Blu-ray package, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, is released next week – here, in this feature from our April 2010 issue (Take 155), the show’s creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, and actors including Kyle MacLachlan, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie revisit one of the strangest and most enthralling TV shows of all time. “I was still in love with that whole world,” says Lynch. Words: Marc Spitz

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“I had zero interest in doing a TV show. I have never really been into TV. I initially thought it was a terrible idea,” says David Lynch, 64, but still somehow blessed with a pinched, boyish voice. “I had an agent who was more of a TV agent, and he started talking to me about doing a show.”

In spring 1986, Lynch’s agent, Tony Krantz, might not have been alone in thinking his client needed a change of direction. Following the cult success of 1977’s Eraserhead, and an Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man in 1980, Lynch’s Hollywood career had stumbled. He’d turned down a chance to helm Return Of The Jedi for George Lucas, then attempted to start his own sci-fi franchise with Dune, only for the film to be one of the biggest bombs of the 1980s. Now, he’d returned to more personal work with the small-scale movie, Blue Velvet, which had just been sent out to film festivals, and was by no means a guaranteed hit. Consequently, Krantz suggested a sit-down with another of his clients, writer Mark Frost, a veteran of cop show Hill Street Blues. Over a series of meetings in vintage LA coffee shop Dupars, Frost and Lynch developed a genuine friendship.

“We both loved cherry and blueberry pie,” Frost recalls. “Maybe that’s where the pie and coffee mythology started.”

First, the pair discussed an adaptation of Goddess, Anthony Summers’ biography of Marilyn Monroe which exposed the actress’ involvement with the Kennedys and the underworld. Next, they completed an original screenplay entitled One Saliva Bubble. The latter was just about to go into production, with Steve Martin and Martin Short as its stars, when producer Dino De Laurentiis’ company lost financing.

“It was a ridiculous comedy, set in a small town in Kansas,” says Frost. “A doomsday machine bathes a community in a strange form of radiation that causes every one to switch identities. We had a great time writing it, which probably led us to say, ‘Let’s try this other thing…’”

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The “other thing” had one or two aspects in common with Goddess, not least a doomed blonde fated to die at the hands of duplicitous characters. But even though its central figure Special Agent Dale Cooper would exclaim early on, “What was really going on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, and who pulled the trigger on JFK?”, Twin Peaks’ web of conspiracies and mysteries had a strange pull all of its own.

Twenty years ago this spring, Twin Peaks made its debut and changed the rhythm of television forever. Its odd tempo, black humour, brutal violence, pastoral beauty and nightmarish imagery inspired an adventurous new kind of TV serial – from The X Files, to The Sopranos, to Lost – and even recalibrated the way Hollywood nurtured and marketed indie films like Donnie Darko or Memento. Twin Peaks was both a cult obsession and, for a season and a half at least, a mainstream success, spawning pie and coffee parties and riveting tens of millions of viewers each week by asking, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

“It was the first time I’d had the experience of being totally speechless while watching a television show,” says writer/director Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood. “That really influenced me. There’d be no Six Feet Under or True Blood without it, I would say. And the fact that they got it onto major network – it’s still an amazing feat.”

Initially, though, Lynch and Frost had few expectations of “the other thing”, a pilot script entitled Northwest Passage. “Mark printed out a copy and I drove home with it,” Lynch says. “I sat down and read it and said, ‘Jeez, this is kind of good.’ It seemed to hold a promise. It was a world that I felt real good about.”

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Lynch had spent time in Washington State, where Twin Peaks was set. “Things seep in and get reinterpreted somewhere,” he says. “I know that area but I wasn’t thinking directly about it. Twin Peaks became its own area.”

Frost, meanwhile, drew on a ghost story his grandmother told him, a local legend from upstate New York where the body of a young girl is found by the lakeside.

“It haunted me for years, that story,” Frost says of the event which inspired the fate of Twin Peaks’ homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. The impact of the murder on a small town might, they decided, be something that could be sustained over the course of a full season of network television. Not a standard soap or whodunnit, but a sort of macabre, paranormal updating of Peyton Place.

“I don’t like getting stuck into someone’s definition of what you can or can’t do with a story,” says Frost. “Narrative is my primary interest – that was the alchemy of our partnership. David brought the bewitching quality to the look and feel and sound of the show, and together we tried to create a persuasive and complex universe. We didn’t think this was going to get picked up, certainly not by a network. It was the end of the Reagan era in America. Cable had not taken root. HBO was in its infancy as far as original programming. We were really out on a limb.”

Amazingly, ABC commissioned a pilot in 1988, but Lynch and Frost were careful to shoot it as a possible theatrical release, expecting the putative series would be rejected by the network. The production in Bellevue, Washington was fronted by Dune and Blue Velvet star Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper, while another Lynch regular, Eraserhead’s Jack Nance, uttered the show’s now immortal first line, “She’s dead... wrapped in plastic.” Experienced character actors like Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie (as Laura’s parents) were teamed up with a host of hot young talent: Lara Flynn Boyle, Madchen Amick, Sherilyn Fenn and Sheryl Lee as Laura herself. Lynch was so enamoured with Lee she was revived in flashbacks, dream sequences and in the guise of a lookalike (but brunette) cousin, Maddy. “Sheryl was gonna be a dead girl on the beach,” he says, “But there’s a quality to her that’s just like an explosion. She just married to Laura Palmer – that face, those eyes, that smile, it was incredible.”

A crucial part of Lynch’s vision was that Twin Peaks, for all its absurdities, should be played with no hint of irony. Even the Log Lady kept a straight face. When Leland Palmer (Wise) throws himself onto Laura’s casket at her funeral, the melodrama was extreme, but far from camp. “I’d seen things like that happen at funerals,” explains Ray Wise. “It seemed very real, not at all outrageous or untoward, but a natural outgrowth of what he was feeling. That’s how I felt about all the unusual things Leland did in some of the scenes, like dancing.”

“David pushed me, over and over, to something that I might have to describe as ‘Hyper Straight and Sincere’,” says Grace Zabriskie. “That’s why some people cry at that scene, some people laugh, some crying people get angry at the people who are laughing, and some people laugh and cry at the same time.”

“One of the great moments is the long slow pan down the phone cord when Grace is wailing in the background [after she learns of Laura’s death],” remembers Kyle MacLachlan. “You run the gamut from, ‘Oh my God, this a horrible thing,’ to ‘Wait a minute, this is kind of comic.’ David plays with emotions that way. Ultimately he gets a kick out of it. You’re not sure where you’re supposed to go with it.”

“It wasn’t even a choice to play it less than straight,” Lynch insists. “To me you wanna make a world that’s real. You don’t want to break that.”

The director’s attention to detail was meticulous. He hired Angelo Badalamenti – another Blue Velvet veteran – to provide the score, and lovingly recreated an Edward Hopper-indebted diner culture which immediately charmed preview audiences in the US. At the heart of the action, he placed MacLachlan as Dale Cooper, sent to investigate Palmer’s murder. A stranger in a strange land, rhapsodising about the towering Douglas Fir trees and the quality black coffee from the first minute he rolls onto the case.

“That kind of boyishness was right there from the beginning,” says MacLachlan. “I borrowed from David. He has that same enthusiasm for aspects of the world that some others might just walk past. Cooper’s a grounding for an audience. I felt that way with Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, that I was the eyes and ears of the audience in this highly unusual environment.”

“Cooper is unique,” Lynch says, “and it just kind of flowered out. He’s that way and people understand that. That’s what’s great. They’re with him, from the first time you see him.”

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ABC, then one of the big three American networks, unexpectedly loved the pilot. They ordered seven more episodes, eventually screened in the US after the pilot in April and May 1990, and – better still – extended autonomy to the team. “They left us totally alone,” Lynch says. “The first season, especially, we had a very beautiful relationship with ABC.”

“Twin Peaks is different,” the local sheriff warns Cooper when he arrives in town, “it’s a long way from the world.” But the world came to Twin Peaks in droves. Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune, “Falling”, became a Top 10 hit in the UK. “Damn fine coffee” T-shirts proliferated. Lynch’s daughter Jennifer published a lucrative spin-off book, The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer. Each week, millions were baffled by the accumulating complexities of the murder case; charmed by Cooper’s esoteric methods of crimefighting; and, occasionally, terrified. The nightmarish Bob – a demon responsible, on some level, for Laura’s death – was played by Frank Silva, the show’s set director, after Lynch had caught his grimacing reflection in a mirror. “He’s actually the sweetest guy in the world,” Frost insists.

Far from being alienated by Lynch’s surreal turns, the fans lapped them up. In Episode Three, a dream sequence found Cooper, draped with a dusty gossamer that made him seem 20 years older, sat in a hotel lobby with a living Laura Palmer and a nattily dressed dwarf. The camera speed stuttered and the soundtrack was slowed. There were subtitles (“Let’s rock!”) when the dwarf (actor Michael Anderson) spoke. Laura whispered the name of her killer into Cooper’s ear. When he woke up, Cooper had forgotten the name.

By the end of the first season, however, the network was bending towards public demand that Lynch and Frost spill the beans.

“Life didn’t change,” Lynch says today of the mass popularity that followed season one. He appeared on the cover of Time, and his next feature film, 1991’s Wild At Heart, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. “What changed was the solving of the murder of Laura Palmer. That killed Twin Peaks. Totally dead. Over. Finished. I didn’t want that to happen. No way. Everybody wanted it revealed. There was so much pressure. People getting crazy to find out who did it. It was the goose that laid the golden egg and they wanted us to kill it.”

Twenty years have not healed Lynch’s grievance. He still won’t acknowledge that Leland Palmer, as possessed by Bob (who may or may not have been a manifestation of Leland’s mental illness), was the killer.

“I don’t wanna talk about that,” he says, icily. “It could have been anybody. I never really went there mentally.”

Frost was left in the middle, determined to give the network – and, ostensibly, the people – what they wanted, without offending Lynch or sapping the show’s inventiveness.

“They actually wanted it resolved at the end of the first season. I was advocating something in the middle, halfway through the second year,” Frost says. He drew up three scenarios: three possible culprits in the Palmer murder, all of which he keeps under wraps to this day. “It’s not the Log Lady,” he replies, when pressed to reveal the alternative killers. The cast were kept in the dark, the script guarded like launch codes. Ray Wise was not told that Leland was the killer until the day the critical scenes were filmed. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” remembers Frost.

“Yeah, it’s true,” admits Wise. “When I was told by Mark and David, I’m sure my face registered all those emotions. Surprise. Shock. Discomfort. It was something I dreaded. I had my own daughter. The idea that my character could possibly be the one to have killed his own daughter was something I was very uncomfortable with.”

Lynch’s reluctance to reveal the killer, however, proved prescient. While the second series – 22 episodes running between September 1990 and June ’91 – continued to have an endearing oddness running through it (notably David Duchovny, pre-X Files, as Cooper’s cross-dressing colleague), much of the air was sucked out of the final episodes.

“It’s hard for me to accept that Leland would be the perpetrator, because once it came to earth the mystery evaporated for me,” says MacLachlan. “But there wasn’t anything they could do. They created this giant beast and they needed to solve the mystery. The power of the show was the continuation of that mystery. Maybe today, because people are a lot smarter, it would have continued and been like a Lost. It would expand upon itself.”

A second murder mystery, as epic as “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, was planned. But first, Frost wanted a short period of grace to pass, so as not to appear tacky. “We were going to bring up Cooper’s past,” he says, “the whole Windom Earle story [involving Cooper’s former mentor, now deranged]. In hindsight, I wish I’d accelerated it.”

Television coverage of the first Gulf War pre-empted the show and, at the end of season two, it was cancelled due to poor ratings. Meanwhile, Lynch revisited the story in a 1992 cinema prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the subtitle coming from a poem recited by Bob.

“I was still in love with that whole world,” he says. Featuring cameos from David Bowie and Chris Isaak, the film was a critical and commercial failure. “I honestly stayed away from the prequel,” Frost says. “My argument was, they cut us off when the story was very pregnant. We could move forward and wrap things up. But he [Lynch] moved backwards instead, filling in things that already seemed somewhat resolved in my mind.”

Still, with the second series of Twin Peaks about to make its belated DVD debut, there’s no trace of lingering bad blood between Lynch and Frost, and the cast seem to view the show as a genuine calling card; a point of pride that the vicissitudes of fame cannot touch.

“It was bigger than me and Mark,” Lynch says. “It was something that just happened. No rhyme or reason to it. I always say every element is crucial: you can have beautiful music and the story sucks, or the characters are no good. But with Twin Peaks, all the stars aligned. The show came out at the right time. You couldn’t plan it, couldn’t figure it again – it was just the strangest thing.

“It caught on, not just in America, but everywhere it went. It was just a moment in time. There’s no way to explain it.”

Visit our dedicated features section, with plenty of our best long pieces archived there. You can find it here.

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