Theme No. 5 – Cult
The experts gave us fair warning. As the millennium nears, they intoned, expect a surge in cult activity. Fine, we said, so what’s a few extra midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? That was before the invasion of wry robot movie critics and idiosyncratic FBI agents, before Laura Palmer and the Log Lady gave birth to a world of singing newsboys and purple dinosaurs. By the time Phish got their own ice cream flavor, it was clear: Cult wasn’t just cult anymore–it was bona fide religion.
In 1990, director DAVID LYNCH took a twisted look at cherry-pie America with Twin Peaks–and television has never been the same
CAN A PRIME-TIME NETWORK DRAMA–A show that made one of the noisiest debuts in TV history–be said to constitute a cult show? Sure–if it is wickedly revolutionary. If it addresses, in the words of its leading man, “the darker nature of man”; if it opens TV to such far-out fare as WILD PALMS, NORTHERN EXPOSURE, and THE X-FILES; if it unfolds in a hermetic universe populated by bizarro characters seemingly paroled from the deepest subconscious–a cross-dressing federal agent, an otherworldly dancing midget, a gnomic Log Lady: and if it ultimately proves so contrary to a mass audience’s expectations that it’s off the air in 14 months. • Innovative, transgressive, and
wholly subversive in its fusion of midnight-movie lunacy and soap opera sentimentality, TWIN PEAKS, which debuted April 8, 1990, with an estimated 35 million Americans tuned in, was addictive to boot. The show sprang from the minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost. Lynch was then a 44-year-old artist and movie director with four films to his credit: the creep-out classic ERASERHEAD (1978), the John Merrick parable THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), the bloated sci-fi adaptation DUNE (1984), and BLUE VELVET (1986), your basic coming-of-age film noir about drugs, torture, and sadomasochism. Frost was a 36-year-old writer with three years of experience on HILL STREET BLUES and an abiding interest in theosophy, mythology, and the paranormal.
The very pairing of these talents would seem to yield enough material for a cult phenomenon worthy of the name. Thing is, TWIN PEAKS developed into such a perplexing wonder through a byzantine combination of art, commerce, intuition, and chance. As the memories of people behind the show demonstrate, its pleasurable madness is inseparable from its peculiar method.
DAVID LYNCH: My agent at the time, Tony Krantz, was pushing me to do a TV show.
TONY KRANTZ: (then of Creative Artists Agency) It wasn’t a business move at all. It was a move of passion. David was my favorite director…. I approached him, and he said, ‘What if I were to do something with my pal Mark Frost?”
LYNCH: Mark and I first met over a project concerning the life of Marilyn Monroe, based on a book called GODDESS…but that project didn’t go anywhere. And then we started working on this project ONE SALIVA BUBBLE. We were laughing for, like, 30 days working on this script. It fell through, but that cemented our working together.
KRANTZ: I took David to Nibblers restaurant in L.A. And I said to him, looking at the people who were just there eating, “You should do a show about real life in America–your vision of America the same way you demonstrated it in BLUE VELVET.”
LYNCH: The idea of a small-town thing, Tony got all hopped up about that. I was sort of lukewarm, and so was Mark, but we just decided to humor him.
MARK FROST: We started to kick around the idea of telling the story of a whole town. I wanted to tell a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually. It’s a classic staple of television.
KRANTZ: We rented a screening room in Beverly Hills, and we screened the original movie PEYTON PLACE on this kinda s—-y 16 mm projector. It was off of that screening that they came up with this world that was originally called NORTHWEST PASSAGE.
LYNCH: A continuing story is a beautiful thing to me, and mystery is a beautiful thing to me, so if you have a continuing mystery, it’s so beautiful. And you can go deeper and deeper into a story and discover so many things.
FROST: This notion that the girl next door was leading a rather desperate double life that was going to end in murder came center stage. As we figured out who she was and realized that she was dead, everything flowed from there.
KRANTZ: We ended up pitching NORTHWEST PASSAGE to Chad Hoffman, who was then the guy who ran drama for ABC.
CHAD HOFFMAN: (former VP for dramatic series at ABC) I figured, What the hell? You’ve got to take a chance on something like this.
FROST: Fortunately, we walked into a situation at ABC where they were looking to do something different.
HOFFMAN: We had a subsequent meeting where we talked about characters, and they began to outline the story. I remember walking back to my office, thinking, This is either going to be an incredibly terrific success or it will be very cool and no one will get it. But it will not be boring.
LYNCH: I think we wrote [the pilot] in two weeks.
And with the pilot script complete, Lynch and Frost were on the hunt for the physical incarnation of an imaginary place they’d already drawn a map of–Twin Peaks. They were also looking for just the right face of Laura Palmer, the murdered homecoming queen whose secret history was connected to the rot behind that hamlet’s picturesque facade.
LYNCH: The lay of the land influences many things, and so a lot of things are abstractions until you get very close to shooting.
FROST: We’d gone up [to Washington State] on a location scout to try and find this place we’d written. A friend had recommended this little town of Snoqualmie Falls, so we drove out there and literally found the place that we’d written already existing. There was a little diner right across from the railroad station. There was the sawmill right in town. There was what looked like, in our minds, the Great Northern Hotel on the hill overlooking the town perched next to a waterfall. It was a really weird moment of synchronicity.
KYLE MacLACHLAN: (Special Agent Dale Cooper) That geography was a huge part of it–it could be both beautiful and threatening.
SHERYL LEE: (Laura Palmer) The whole thing was really out of left field for me. I just got a call one day that [Lynch] was casting something secretive.
LYNCH: I sort of fell in love with her face from a resume picture. When we met, I told her I wanted to dip her in gray dye and have her be dead.
LEE: It was a long, wet, cold day. It was a very interesting focus exercise because I literally was wrapped in plastic. If I had to get tea or use the rest room or anything, they had to carry me from the beach up to the lodge, unwrap me, and then wrap me back up again and carry me back down.
FROST: She was supposed to be a stiff. We hadn’t even written a role–just a couple of flashbacks.
LYNCH: It became apparent what a presence she had in a little tiny video–it was in the pilot–that was shot by someone at a picnic. It’s just a little bit of stuff, but when she comes up to the camera and kisses the lens, it’s pretty staggering.
LEE: After we shot the pilot, I stayed in Seattle and kept doing theater. I thought that was it. Then David called me months later and said, “How would you feel about moving to Los Angeles? I want to bring you back on the show.” I was thrilled but said, “As what?
I’m dead.” He said, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.”
FROST: Then the character of her cousin Madeleine, which of course is an homage to VERTIGO, came into play.
The show was dense with this sort of homage, the kind of compulsive referencing that kept viewers both puzzled and entranced. The mysterious ’70s skyjacker D.B. Cooper (who one day parachuted from a plane over Washington State, never to be found) lent his name to the FBI agent called in on the case. MacLachlan, the young actor who played him, had already earned a rep as Lynch’s on-screen alter ego by starring as the interstellar hero Paul Atreides in DUNE and the sleuthing naif Jeffrey Beaumont in BLUE VELVET. Reliant on both Zen intuition and traditional deduction, this gent of a G-man possessed dashing bravery, Eagle Scout manners, and an odd appetite.
MacLACHLAN: Someone said to me that they thought that Dale Cooper was Jeffrey Beaumont grown up.
FROST: I think Cooper was kind of a hybrid of David and myself. David’s famously eccentric. I’m kind of less famously so, but share his kind of attention to details and fascination with puns and strange philosophies.
MacLACHLAN: He wasn’t a character that was burdened with protocol, which made it also sort of fun–to make it up as we went along. His methodology was his own.
FROST: It’s impossible to remember who wrote what or who did what, but David liked coffee and I liked pie, I know that much.
LYNCH: I loved doughnuts, but doughnuts make you fat. We went to the max with Cooper. He ate a lot of doughnuts. And he ate a lot of cherry pie. Cherry pie and doughnuts and coffee. I stopped eating sugar, but sugar fires a person up–you want to have ideas and have them stream fast. Cooper, I think, is a guy that understood that.
MacLACHLAN: There was a lot of sexual imagery that was caught by some people. You can take cherry pie any number of different ways. And Cooper’s abundant feeling for food.
But before Coop could even begin to discover Laura’s murderer, the creators had to solve the crime themselves. And solve it before they’d fully conceptualized the series.
FROST: We’d made a separate deal with our distributor: They wanted a two-hour closed-end version [of the pilot] for European TV and possible theatrical release.
LYNCH: Somewhere along there, Tony told me, “David, you have to do an alternate ending.” I didn’t really believe what he said. It just seemed kind of absurd to tack an ending on.
FROST: Very hastily, we put together a scene that had all flowed from the idea of the demon Bob. Bob was in fact [set dresser] Frank Silva, who we’d seen in the mirror in Laura’s bedroom that day quite by accident. He was hiding while we were doing a take and didn’t show up until dailies.
RAY WISE: (Leland Palmer, Laura’s father) TWIN PEAKS was a series of little accidents. David encourages that. When we got to the set every morning we would just sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and just talk free-form about what we were going to do that day. And ideas would sometimes pop up that we would try out during that day’s shooting.
LYNCH: It was during editing [the pilot] that this thing popped into my head about the Red Room. [Laura tells Cooper who killed her in this scene–a dream sequence composed, to eerie effect, of reversed footage of the actors playing the scene from end to beginning.] And shooting that was about the most fun I’ve ever had on a set, because we shot it totally and completely backwards.
LEE: That is really a lesson in suspended mental intrusion. We didn’t have to just speak backwards; like if you say cat, you think cat backwards is tac. It wasn’t that simple. It was backwards phonetically. It’s almost like the muscles in your mouth have to also move backwards.
LYNCH: It led to another layer of what would be TWIN PEAKS. Having to do a closed ending opened up a [creative path] that would have never happened. Sometimes being forced into a corner is not a bad thing.
The exported video edition of the pilot wound up containing 18 minutes of footage that wrapped up the murder mystery. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the open-ended pilot was a mammoth hit, and, in the spring of 1990, ABC went on to air six more episodes shaped by the creators’ turn toward the supernatural. With Laura’s death still unsolved, media hype at a fever pitch, and TWIN PEAKS fodder for watercooler conversation everywhere, the network ordered a second season. Says Frost, “It was sort of our
clever little design: They’ll pick us up for six, but we won’t tell them who killed Laura, then they’ll have to pick us up for a second season.” But as the second season progressed, ratings declined, weirdness increased, and dramatic tension mounted–then went slack.
LYNCH: When we wrote TWIN PEAKS, we never intended the murder of Laura Palmer to be solved…. Maybe in the last episode.
FROST: I know David was always enamored of that notion, but I felt we had an obligation to the audience to give them some resolution. That was a bit of a tension between him and me…. It took us about 17 episodes to finally reveal it, and by then people were getting a little antsy.
LYNCH: I was in an airport one time, going through the baggage claim area, and a woman was talking to her friends. And I just heard as I went by, “I just hope they solve that murder soon. I’m getting sick of waiting.” And it was TWIN PEAKS. I think a lot of people put pressure on ABC to get it solved because they felt they were being strung along…. All I know is, I just felt it–that once that was solved, the murder of Laura Palmer, it was over. It was over.
FROST: We didn’t have an event of similar impact to start the second cycle, and that was to the detriment of the show.
DAVID DUCHOVNY: (DEA agent Dennis/Denise Bryson) I was just a SAG-minimum actor…. I was like, I’m working on TWIN PEAKS–yes! Now when I think back on it, I’m a little disappointed for two reasons–that they didn’t see what a great character it was, and it really could have been a great arc. But they were losing control of the show at that point.
MacLACHLAN: I take some responsibility for trying to take off some of the edges of my character, but I also felt like I was not really supported by the material…. I’d have long paragraphs of dialogue about what was happening, and what had happened, and what was going to happen.
WISE: It was a little too convoluted…. I felt TWIN PEAKS was something that was never meant to last very long.
It was going to burn white-hot and then flame out quickly. Maybe it flamed out a little later than it should have.
ABC canceled the show. Its 3Oth and final episode–a two-hour Lynch-directed shocker that concluded with Cooper’s seeming demonic possession–aired on June lO, l991. In August 1992, an equally confounding prequel–TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME–appeared in theaters, meeting the disapprobation of critics and the fascination of cultists. Lynch is now putting together a DVD edition of that prequel. And, in his mind, he’s working toward a kind of conclusion, too.
LYNCH: There is no ending. It’s part of a continuing story. The problem is the continuing story is in my head and in Mark’s head…. I visit it in my mind, TWIN PEAKS. It’s frustrating in a way because there are many clues and many threads that have yet to be followed. But it’s kind of nice having them out there, because they have not been solved, and because there’s threads to dream on.
Entertainment Weekly Special Edition, 1990