USC Twin Peaks Retrospective: Feb. 10

Courtenay Blog IconThe Feb. 10 USC Twin Peaks Retrospective was a hit with hardcore fans and audience members. The panel, comprised mostly of actors from the series and also the writer/producer Robert Engels, provided some excellent behind-the-scenes stories. Up first, USC Visions and Voices screened the last episodes of season 1, which included episode 1.4 (“Rest in Pain”), episode 1.5 (“The One-armed Man”), episode 1.6 (“Cooper’s Dreams”), episode 1.7 (“Realization Time”) and the finale of season 1 – episode 1.8 (“The Last Evening”). The last half of season 1 is action packed. Dale Cooper encounters a huffy llama. Andy saves Harry Truman. Lucy is pregnant. Dr. Jacoby is assaulted. Shelly and Catherine are caught in the burning mill. Leo is shot. Nadine swallows pills. Audrey uses her tongue to tie a cherry stem in a knot and almost sleeps with her father. Yikes! Oh, and there’s that cliffhanger thing that happens to Cooper. It’s no wonder that a soap opera like “Invitation to Love” – with all the passion, betrayal and murder – mirrors the universe of Twin Peaks.

After a break of coffee and donuts – alas, no cherry pie this time – we finished up season 1, and the panel entered the stage. The moderator, Alessandro Ago, told everyone that there were a lot of people to fly out, so the cherry pie would not be returning until the finale. However, he said he would continue to serve donuts and David Lynch Signature coffee during the breaks. Thank goodness! He told the panel to tell David that he is funding his coffee business so he should come to the retrospective. Seriously, Mr. Lynch, please come.

Buy or Rent A Voyage To Twin Peaks at Amazon. It is the documentary Scott directed about the 25th Twin Peaks Festival. See the actors, the set locations and interviews with the fans.

The moderator also announced that Sherilyn Fenn is confirmed to attend the April 14 panel, and a screening of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” is scheduled for May 5.

The panel for the Feb. 10 retrospective series was comprised of some core actors and a major writer, including the following:

1)      RUSS TAMBLYN (Actor, "Dr. Lawrence Jacoby")

2)      MÄDCHEN AMICK (Actor, "Shelly Johnson")

2)      DANA ASHBROOK (Actor, "Bobby Briggs")

3)      GARY HERSHBERGER (Actor, "Mike Nelson")

4)      CHARLOTTE STEWART (Actor, "Betty Briggs")

5)      ROBERT ENGELS (Co-Producer, Executive Story Editor, Writer: Episodes 1.5, 2.3, 2.4, 2.6, 2.9, 2.12, 2.15, 2.18, 2.20, 2.22, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”)

6)      JILL ROGOSHESKE ENGELS (Actor, "Trudy Chelgren")

From left to right: Mädchen Amick (Actor, "Shelly Johnson"), me, my husband, and Dana Ashbrook (Actor, "Bobby Briggs")

When the panel entered the stage, they greeted each other with hugs and kisses. Several of them told the audience that they hadn’t seen one another in years and this retrospective was a reunion of sorts. I have to say that the actors looked amazing. Mädchen Amick is gorgeous. I loved her dark hair – she has dyed her hair black for a role in a new series on Lifetime called “Witches of East End.” Dana Ashbrook is still tall, thin and the coolest man in town. Russ Tamblyn looks the same as he did 23 years ago with his pepper beard and relaxed attitude. Charlotte Stewart still has the sweetness of Betty Briggs and the loving face of Miss Beadle from “Little House on the Prairie.” Jill Engels, the actor who portrayed the Great Northern Hotel waitress Trudy, looked very modern sans the coffee pot and beehive hairdo. Finally, Gary Hershberger appeared less mean and a lot leaner than his character, Mike Nelson.

Unfortunately, Johanna Ray (Casting Director) and Peggy Lipton (Actor, “Norma Jennings”) couldn’t make it to the Feb. 10 panel and have rescheduled for later dates in the series.

After the meet and greet, the panel discussed how they were cast, what it was like to work with David Lynch, and the legacy of the cult TV show “Twin Peaks.”

Russ Tamblyn (Actor, "Dr. Lawrence Jacoby")

Russ Tamblyn put on his iconic red and blue Dr. Jacoby glasses before the discussion began. (I had the distinct honor, along with several other über fans, to wear his glasses during a photo op!) He told the audience that the red mutes everything and the world appears in 3D. “It’s like you’re on acid.” Tamblyn said he got the glasses at the boardwalk in Venice Beach, California. While searching for unusual sunglasses for Dr. Jacoby to wear, he narrowed the choice down to a blue pair and a red pair. As he was standing in front of a mirror, he put the blue pair over one eye and the red pair over the other and thought, “Wow, that’s it!” The dual colored sunglasses of Dr. J were born in a groovy enclave of Venice. For Tamblyn, the red eyepiece would cover the “academic” side of the brain to add passion, and the blue eyepiece would “cool down” Jacoby’s overdeveloped creative side. When he explained this to David Lynch, Lynch said, “Great, Russ. I love it! But, let’s not tell anyone why you’re wearing them.” Oh, Lynch. He’s filled with secrets …

Russ Tamblyn was already a legendary actor and dancer (known for his roles in “Westside Story,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Peyton Place”) at the time “Twin Peaks” was getting off the ground. Tamblyn described his entry into the “Twin Peaks” world this way: He was living with Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper in Laurel Canyon, and Hopper held a birthday party for David Lynch. The party was comprised of mostly people from “Blue Velvet.” Lynch showed Russ a birthday card with a guy surrounded by naked women, and asked Tamblyn if he’d like to be that guy. Tamblyn told Lynch, “What I’d really like is to work for you sometime.” Ergo, Lynch’s next project was “Twin Peaks," and he offered the role of Dr. Lawrence Jacoby to Tamblyn. Lynch sent Tamblyn the script, but Tamblyn couldn’t find Dr. Jacoby in it anywhere. His agent spoke with Lynch and then told Russ, “David forgot to write you in.” This oversight was rectified quickly.

Although Frost and Lynch wrote the character of Dr. Jacoby, Tamblyn created some of Jacoby’s quirks and motivations. Tamblyn believed Jacoby would wear earplugs because he’s always listening to his patients, so when he’s not on the clock, Jacoby would want to block out the noise of people’s conversations. Initially, Tamblyn was confused about Jacoby’s intentions toward Laura Palmer. Did he have a sexual affair with Laura? Did he really love her? The motivation of his character was unclear at first. But, Tamblyn eventually discovered that Jacoby “was someone who really cared for her.”

Tamblyn said he enjoyed working with Lynch. He described a scene involving Dr. Jacoby lying in a hospital bed. The scene called for Jacoby to be very “out-of-it.” David Lynch’s directorial note was, “Just think about ghosts.” Tamblyn said a good director is like a traffic cop – he or she points you in the right direction but allows you freedom of movement. Lynch gave him freedom to perform but always set the bar high, too. After a good take, Lynch would say to him, “Russ, that was perfect. Let’s do one more.” There was perfection, and then there was Lynchian perfection.

In contrast to Tamblyn’s years of acting experience, Mädchen Amick was pretty green when she read for “Twin Peaks.” Amick said she left home at the age of 16 to come to Hollywood. After some modeling and acting work, the casting director Johanna Ray brought her to David Lynch’s attention for “Twin Peaks.” Ray told Amick she wanted her to read for a TV role, saying, “it’s very special but you can’t talk about it.” Amick was filming the pilot for “Baywatch” the night she auditioned for “Twin Peaks.” She read for the role of Donna Hayward, which ultimately went to Lara Flynn Boyle. But Lynch told Amick, “I really want you to do this show.” She didn’t find out until the 20th anniversary of “Twin Peaks” that Frost and Lynch wrote the part of Shelly Johnson just for her.

Lynch and Amick had a special relationship from the beginning, but David constantly mispronounced her name. Lynch kept calling her “Madgkin.” After completing several episodes, Amick finally conjured up the courage to tell Lynch her actual name was Mädchen. Lynch said, “I know, Madgkin!” He knew but didn’t care. He preferred his own nickname for her. There is something very endearing about that.

Robert Engels (Co-Producer, Executive Story Editor, and Writer)

Robert Engels said that David Lynch would do anything for the girls, especially Amick. Amick talked about how incredible Lynch is as a director. She described performing a scene in the diner in which she had to be very emotional. She couldn’t quite get there. Lynch approached her, gently touched her on the shoulder and said, “You know. You know.” Amick did know. She got there.

In addition to Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook also came to Lynch’s attention via Johanna Ray. Lynch saw a photo of Ashbrook in a stack of Ray’s pile of actors' headshots. Lynch was struck by Dana's look. Ashbrook embodied Bobby Briggs and the essence of high school coolness. When “Twin Peaks” began filming, Ashbrook was supposed to wear a traditional letterman’s jacket since he was the captain of the football team. However, the day of the shoot, he remembered a guy he knew in high school who had worn his varsity letter sewn onto a black leather jacket. Football jock meets badass. He pushed the idea, and Lynch approved. Bobby Briggs’ leather varsity jacket was born. Briggs was cool, but I believe Dana Ashbrook was (and is) cooler. The subject matter of Ashbrook’s tattoo came up when Robert Engels said writer Harley Peyton was trying to draw a peace sign and couldn’t remember the design. Ashbrook overheard Harley’s frustration, so Dana pulled up his sleeve and revealed his peace sign tattoo. Harley looked at Engels and said, “We’ll never be as cool as any of these people.”

Gary Hershberger (Actor, "Mike Nelson")

Speaking of cool, Gary Hershberger doesn’t at all resemble the character he played. Hershberger is cooler than Mike because he’s so humble, and gracious. He said he never really auditioned for the role of Mike Nelson. Instead, David Lynch simply talked to him about this character “Snake.” “Snake” was a football player, a cool dude, and Bobby Briggs’ best friend. Hershberger understood Nelson’s role to be the “brooding bulk” for Bobby Briggs. “I was basically going to be Bobby’s backup,” he said, which he couldn’t believe. As Lynch talked to him about the part, Gary just kept listening. Hershberger tried to use the physicality of the part to make himself look bigger and tougher. He said, “I didn’t say anything. I kept putting on my angry eyes.” Apparently, those “angry eyes” worked because Lynch cast him.

Hershberger said David Lynch couldn’t have been nicer. He remembered Lynch wore the same outfit to the set everyday: khaki pants, a white button-down shirt and a blue blazer. Hershberger never knew what was going to happen on set day-to-day. In episode 1.2 (“Traces to Nowhere”) Mike and Bobby are in jail and “bark” at James Hurley as he walks by. David Lynch came up with the idea for them to bark. Lynch explained to Ashbrook and Hershberger, “You know when you go to the zoo, and you hear the monkeys make that noise?” Hershberger didn’t know what the heck Lynch was talking about, but he followed his lead and barked along with Dana.

At one point during the panel discussion, the moderator brought up the subject of Mike Nelson’s relationship with an “older lady” – trying to avoid any direct references since many people in the audience were viewing “Twin Peaks” for the first time. When he discovered who he was supposed to date, Hershberger said he kept asking the writers, “I’m sorry. Why?” However, as strange as things got, Hershberger was not afraid to follow Lynch’s direction because David Lynch always made an actor feel safe.

Charlotte Stewart (Actor, "Betty Briggs")

Charlotte Stewart, who played Betty Briggs, met David Lynch when Lynch was a film student at AFI. David Lynch approached her to play a role in his first feature film, “Eraserhead.” Lynch came to Stewart’s house for dinner with the script and a sack of wheat seed. That's right. Wheat seed. She said most people bring flowers, but David brought wheat seed. She said it was because she lived in Topanga. (Topanga is known for its hippie, nature-loving community.) Many years later, when Lynch and Frost were developing “Twin Peaks,” Lynch asked Jack Nance (Pete Martell) to talk to Stewart about being in the show. Eventually, Stewart signed on to play Betty Briggs, the mother of Bobby Briggs and Major Briggs’ wife. Stewart said that Bobby’s “dad is military. His mom is Catholic. He is screwed!” Stewart described Betty Briggs as the ultimate optimist. As a joke, she put the happy face pin on her jacket during the episode with Laura Palmer’s funeral. “I kept waiting for someone to ask me to take it off, but they never did.”

Robert Engels, the only writer on the panel, explained that the structure of “Twin Peaks” is simple – much like a soap opera. “You’d come up with four things that had to happen in an episode.  Then you’d write four scenes for each of those things,” he said. The writers would outline an episode’s story together, before passing it to an individual writer to write the screenplay. But, Frost always did a final pass of the script before filming began. Engels said that episode 1.4 (“Rest in Pain”) was the first television show he ever wrote. Engels said the structure of the first season was very tight because of Mark Frost’s attention to narrative. The second season was much looser, and there was more freedom for the individual writers to play. However, the final minutes of season 2 belonged to David Lynch. Engels said Lynch completely made up the last 25 minutes in the finale of “Twin Peaks.” Engels wrote stuff for that slot, but David kept saying, “Not happening, Bobbers, not happening.” The moderator said those last 25 minutes had to be “the most whacked out TV ever aired.” Engels said he went to the set one day and saw a huge white horse in the Palmer living room. Engels approached Lynch and said, “David, there’s a white horse in the Palmer living room.” Lynch smiled and said, “Pretty cool, huh?”

Jill Engels (Actor, "Trudy Chelgren")

Engels revealed he wrote the poem that Deputy Hawk recites in episode 1.4 – “One woman can make you fly like an eagle, another can give you the strength of a lion, but only one in the cycle of life can fill your heart with wonder and the wisdom that you have known a singular joy.” He intended for the poem to be a joke, but over the years, fans have told him that they have incorporated the poem in their weddings! Engels also confirmed that it was his idea to use the “Mairzy Doats” song in “Twin Peaks.” (Now, if I can only get that dang song out of my head … “Mairzy Doats and doazy doats and liddle lamzy divey.”)

The cast talked about the popularity and legacy of “Twin Peaks,” expressing gratitude toward the fans. Amick told the audience, “I’m so glad you are watching this. ‘Twin Peaks’ was HBO before it is today. The networks didn’t know what to do with it. It was the viewers who embraced it. It was an underground cult, and it still is.” Russ Tamblyn lamented how “Twin Peaks” was overlooked during the Emmys. He thought that, at the very least, Angelo Badalamenti’s music would win. “You know what won Best Drama that year?” Dana Ashbrook asked the crowd. No one could answer. “Equal Justice,” he deadpanned.

While “Twin Peaks” was on air, Russ Tamblyn took a national tour and talked to hundreds of college students who were fans of the show. He said none of those young people counted on the Nielsen ratings. Since the ratings were low, the network canceled the show. Robert Engels said what really killed the show was the solving of Laura Palmer’s murder in season 2. He said the network pressured them into solving the murder even the show’s creators never wanted to solve it. Engels said the minute the writers solved Laura Palmer’s death, “it took the bottom out of it.” He said so much of “Twin Peaks” hinged on the guilt the characters felt over Laura’s murder. Once that was resolved, the characters lost their problems.

The moderator asked if there was any discussion of season 3’s storyline during the making of the show. Engels said there was naturally a discussion at the end of Season 2, but there was never any real plan. He said another writer, Harley Peyton, had the best idea for Season 3. The problems of season 2 would be solved during the first 20 minutes of the first episode. Then, the screen would fade to black and go to commercial break. After the break, the scene would remain black for a moment. Then, the screen would read, “10 Years Later,” and all the people would be in different places in their lives, working at different jobs. Essentially, Engels said, “We would start over.” If they ever do a season 3, I could see a similar opening, with Special Agent Dale Cooper escaping the Red Room 25 years later to a modern day Twin Peaks where everyone has new jobs and new lives. The TV audience would be in Cooper’s shoes as he visited and explored the town, and many of the old characters are re-introduced in interesting ways. As long as David Lynch and Mark Frost are involved in the entire process of a “Twin Peaks” renewal, I am in.

PANEL hugsWhile watching the second half of season 1, I was struck by how the filmmakers created scenes in which both comedy and tragedy co-existed. Laura Palmer’s funeral scene is comical when Leland Palmer leaps upon her coffin and rises up and down, but the desperation of Sara Palmer’s cries and her disappointment in her husband leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The situation is just so damn sad. And, strangely, funny. It’s brilliant storytelling and the kind of TV only Lynch and Frost could write.

Which brings me to the final question from the Q&A session. An audience member asked the panel why they thought “Twin Peaks” resonates in our culture. Charlotte Stewart simply replied, “David Lynch.” The panel agreed. Enough said.

Stay tuned for my next blog about the Feb. 17 USC Twin Peaks Retrospective, featuring Greg Fienberg (Producer), Richard Hoover (Production Designer), Philip D. Segal (ABC Programming Executive during the production of “Twin Peaks,” Current CEO & Executive Producer of Original Productions), Paul K. Shimatsu-U (Unit Publicist and Assistant to Mark Frost), Carel Struycken (Actor, “The Giant”), and Lenny von Dohlen (Actor, “Harold Smith”). Until then, I’ll see you in my dreams, my friends.

 

Read Courtenay's first blog about the USC Twin Peaks Retrospective with Mark Frost

Read the March 3rd event.

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