USC Twin Peaks Retrospective: Feb. 17

Courtenay Blog IconDale Cooper is shot. The Giant appears. Enter season 2 of “Twin Peaks” at your own risk. In season 1, the Red Room scene hooked me. In season 2, the appearance of “the Giant” solidified my love of all things “Twin Peaks.” Carel Struycken (actor, “the Giant”) described his character as “a psychiatrist from outer space.” There is something so strangely comforting about the cadence of his voice when he famously tells Cooper, “I will tell you three things. If I tell them to you, and they come true, then will you believe me? Think of me as a friend … The first thing I will tell you is – there is a man in a smiling bag. The second thing is – the owls are not what they seem. The third thing is – without chemicals, he points. This is all I’m permitted to say.” Slowly, the initial episodes of season 2 reveal just what these clues mean.

The Feb. 17 USC Twin Peaks Retrospective introduced the audience to season 2 with a screening of episode 2.1 (“May the Giant Be with You”), episode 2.2 (“Coma”); episode 2.3 (“The Man Behind Glass”); episode 2.4 (“Laura Palmer’s Diary”); and episode 2.5 (“The Orchid’s Curse”). A lot is happening, but we still don’t know the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer. Cooper meets the Giant. The Giant steals his ring. Catherine Martell is dead (allegedly). Donna meets the shut-in Harold Smith. Donna encounters a mysterious old woman and a boy magician (who looks and talks suspiciously like David Lynch). More Garmonbozia, please! Cooper and Truman (and Hawk!) rescue Audrey from One-Eyed Jack’s. All is right with the world … well, not exactly. But the beginning of season 2 is damn exciting.

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.

Before the screening, Moderator and Director of Programming and Projects for the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Alessandro Ago, introduced the audience to the viral video take on the “Harlem Shake” – the “Harlem Shake: Twin Peaks Edition featuring Kyle MacLachlan.” Click the link (if you dare)! I’m not sure which is more disturbing – the overzealous dancing Log Lady or the twitching Laura Palmer look-alike wrapped and writhing in plastic.

After the screening of the first five episodes of season 2 and another delicious break involving loads of luscious donuts and coffee, the panel entered the stage.

USC Twin Peaks Feb. 17 panel entering the stage.

The panel for the Feb. 17 retrospective series was comprised of the following:

1)      ROBERT BAUER (Actor, "Johnny Horne")

2)      GREGG FIENBERG (Producer)

2)      RICHARD HOOVER (Production Designer)

3)      PHILIP D. SEGAL (ABC Programming Executive during the production of "Twin Peaks," Current CEO & Executive Producer: Original Productions)

4)      PAULA K. SHIMATSU-U (Unit Publicist, Assistant to Mark Frost)

5)      CAREL STRUCYKEN (Actor, "The Giant")

6)      LENNY VON DOHLEN (Actor, "Harold Smith")

The Feb. 17 panel discussed some great behind-the-scenes business of “Twin Peaks,” particularly the often-contentious relationship between the writers and ABC network. Although I detected some tension on the stage among several of the key players, everybody was cordial. At any rate, speaking as a fan and curious observer, I was delighted that, despite the uneasy relationship between the show’s creators and the network, an ABC executive was willing to attend the retrospective, answer questions and engage the crowd.

Paula Shimatsu-u (Unit Publicist, Assistant to Mark Frost)

Philip Segal, Programming Executive of ABC at the time, said “Twin Peaks” was put on the air because the climate was just right. It was another transitional period for television. ABC was moving away from the comedy business, and they had made a decision to reach a fresh audience. Segal said TV at the time of the late 1980s and early 1990s was “very fractured” and “Twin Peaks” became a “noble experiment” in providing something new.  ABC thought it was the right time to provide a “mystery” to the television audience. For “Twin Peaks,” the network wanted to reach an audience of both men and women between the ages of 25 and 54. They also wanted an affluent audience – to attract those who made $75,000 a year or more. He said that network TV is not in the creative business. It’s in the advertising business. However, the two-hour pilot was not a hit with the brass of the network. They ended up running the pilot during the summer (not a prime season for new TV) and, to everyone’s surprise, it was a big hit. Segal said, “the brass didn’t know what to do – the audience was given the opportunity to see something, and they liked it. That’s why we narrowcast today – we don’t broadcast.” Narrowcasting is a means of targeting a specific, niche market, instead of trying to appeal to a mass audience. What the ABC brass found was that “Twin Peaks” didn’t fit into the mold of a big broadcast hit, but was a very successful narrowcast hit.

Segal said “Twin Peaks” did not fit the television formula during the time – a show had to “grab” the audience within the first 3 ½ minutes. The audience had to be able to turn on the show during the quarter hour and know where they were in the show. According to Segal, people came to “Twin Peaks” because they loved the world it created. It wasn’t about the plot points in the story, but about the atmosphere – the milieu.

Segal revealed there was a lot of confusion surrounding the show and what it was about, which affected the marketing of the series in particular. The network did not know how to promote the show because “they never gave us scripts [in advance], so we never knew what was happening.” However, the network apparently had a clandestine way to get copies of scripts, so that they could locate key story points for the purpose of marketing. In publicizing the show, the network took a “filmic push” by presenting the young actors as if they were 1950s movie stars. Segal said he was under a tremendous amount of pressure to promote a show that was so illusory and magical. In keeping with the mystery aspect of the series, the marketing campaign of the show eventually centered on “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” That single question spurred one of the most sought after answers of 1990. Thus, ABC pushed the writers in season 2 to reward the viewers’ interest and solve Laura Palmer’s murder. The marketing of the mystery “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” echoed that 1980s soap mystery, “Who Killed J.R.?”

Producer Gregg Fienberg said “ultimately, it was network paranoia. They felt the audience couldn’t hold on so long [without getting answers].” Segal agreed. He said the network thought there was a plan, but, in reality, the creators never planned to solve Laura’s murder. Segal explained, “They didn’t care who killed Laura Palmer. They weren’t interested in that.” Fienberg said that, in the end, “Twin Peaks” was “about a young girl who was killed and her friends who had guilt over it.” He said, “To me, it was the first great HBO show.” When the network put pressure on Fienberg and Segal to make sure the murder was solved, Fienberg said, “let’s force them [Frost and Lynch] to go the network,” so they’ll nail down the revelation of the killer in the script. When Lynch walked into the meeting room at ABC, they asked him who killed Laura Palmer. Lynch replied, “Have you ever eaten a blowfish?” Lynch then dove into a copious description of the Japanese process of preparing, cooking and eating the potentially deadly blowfish. Then, he glanced down at his watch and said, “Wow, I’ve got to go!” and left. At the end of the story, the audience erupted into cheers for David Lynch. This type of Jedi mind trick is one of many reasons he has fans like myself. I would love to pull this type of misdirection in a meeting. This story also reminds me of that scene in "Mulholland Drive" when Director Adam Kesher is bullied into casting a specific woman during a meeting with mobster execs. I wonder how much of Lynch's biography is interspersed into his storytelling.

Although the network pressured the writers to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer, Fienberg said that was the only portion of the script the network tried to control. However, once the murderer was revealed and the mystery solved, the storyline became problematic because there was no central conflict or mystery to unite all of the characters in the town of Twin Peaks. The introduction of so many new characters in season 2 added to the confusion and a lack of focus. According to Fienberg, there were 52-57 cast members at the end of season 2. Fienberg said that by the end of season 2, “We knew we were canceled. We were an independent film. We had no money.” Segal agreed. He said during the screening of one of the final scenes, he and Fienberg sat in the back of the screening room while the network brass watched. Fienberg leaned toward Segal and said, “This is the last episode of ‘Twin Peaks.’” He was correct.

Mark Frost’s assistant, Paula Shimatsu-u, spoke of how frustrated Gregg Fienberg was with her, asking her “how do I control you? I don’t even know what you do.” At the time, she told him, “If you don’t know what I do by now, it doesn’t matter.” But, she admitted that her job was broadly defined. Even Mark Frost and David Lynch were not always aware of everything she was doing on the show, which was a lot. Shimatsu-u was a working member of the show from the beginning, and her work involved some of the following: research for the show, helping create characters like Josie and Maddy, publicizing the show and events, photo shoots, organizing coffee and pie party events with the cast, answering fan mail, creating a recycling program for the show, etc.

It was Shimatsu-u’s idea to create the character Maddy Ferguson, Laura Palmer’s cousin who is also played by Sheryl Lee. She told Mark Frost to write a part for Sheryl Lee. According to Paula, he was taken aback at first, but he then wrote the part of Maddy. She said, “They used to let us collaborate like that.” Besides, a look-alike cousin really fit in with the thematic use of “twins” and “doubles” in the series. Shimatsu-u said she had the advantage of working with Frost and Lynch from the beginning. She said the experience taught her so much about starting a production company, and she expressed admiration for the creative writing team of the show.

Shimatsu-u described working with Piper Laurie (actor, "Catherine Martell") when she was disguised as Japanese businessman Fumio Yamaguchi (aka Tojamura) following Catherine Martell’s alleged death as a result of the fire in the Packard saw mill. Laurie’s stint in drag as a serious Japanese businessman is one of the more surprising moments in the show. Alessandro Ago said Piper Laurie specifically wanted to come to the USC retrospective after the Japanese businessman was introduced on the show.

Production Designer Richard Hoover, a soft-spoken and intelligent man who wore jeans with speckles of paint/remnants of his craft, said he built the sets on a stage during the time period we know as “right at the beginning of Starbucks” anno domini. He created the look of the set by starting to “riff on the Northwest.” The sets, which were located in warehouses in Van Nuys, California, were “both a challenge of imagination and space.” Hoover constantly looked for pine trees and locations in Southern California that could double for the Northwest. They shot quite a bit at Malibou Lake – a location north of Los Angeles.

In addition to an ABC executive, a producer, a publicist/assistant and a set designer, there were three actors on the panel who discussed their most unusual roles.

Carel Struycken (actor, "the Giant")

Carel Struycken (actor, “the Giant”) said when he first met David Lynch, Lynch told him not to worry and that “everything is just going to be peachy keen.” Struycken, who was born in the Netherlands and grew up in the Caribbean, had never heard that phrase before, and said it sounded like something from the 1950s. Struycken said that everyone on set was overworked because that is what David Lynch was used to – he “creates an overpowering atmosphere. Everything falls into place.” In describing the Red Room scenes, Struycken said, “you didn’t have any sense that there was a script. The crew did not know what was happening.” Struycken said it was Mike Anderson (actor, “The Man From Another Place”) who knew how to speak backward – “he was our guide.”  Because the series was so improvisational – specifically the Red Room shots – the filming could be incredibly creative but also confusing. On the set of the Red Room, there was a serious gentleman with a wooden case filled with colored contact lenses. He would look the actors intently in the eye, and then look inside the case. Apparently, the contacts were never used (at least not with the Giant), but they were there in case of an emergency burst of inspiration.

Lenny von Dohlen (actor, "Harold Smith")

In researching his role as the anxious shut-in Harold Smith, Lenny von Dohlen said Mark Frost and Harley Peyton put him in touch with the Homebound Society, which was very helpful for his understanding of people with agoraphobia. Laura Palmer befriended Smith because he was a stop on her Meals-On-Wheels route. Dohlen said Frost and Lynch encouraged him to come up with a backstory for the character. He said it was great to “find that benediction.” Dohlen said the writers encouraged inventiveness, which is “very liberating.” He loved working with Sheryl Lee, who he described as “so brave” – especially in the film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Fienberg agreed. He said the process of shooting the movie was so intense for Lee that “we literally had to shut down filming for awhile. She was so exhausted.”

Robert Bauer (actor, “Johnny Horne”) came to David Lynch’s attention via the casting agent Johanna Ray. Bauer said he spent some time preparing the character of Johnny Horne. During Laura Palmer’s funeral scene, he brought an original copy of the book of Peter Pan. Dana Ashbrook looked at him skeptically and said, “What’s that?” Bauer replied, “It’s a book for my character.” Ashbrook said, “Oh…” and became quiet. Bauer laughed and said that Ashbrook’s reply was a little unsettling. Bauer said working with David Lynch provided a lot of room for creating your character – almost too much room. He and Lynch would go back and forth in deciding what his character should do in a scene. Lynch gave little information and mostly left it for Bauer to decide, which could be both frustrating and liberating.

The best moments of the panel were the stories told about David Lynch. Segal described a shoot in which David Lynch drove to the set and saw the numbers “666” on the license plate of a car. Lynch would not return unless the numbers were removed and replaced.  Fienberg recalled an occasion in which Lynch called him over the Walkie-Talkie. Lynch said, “Gregg, I’m going to need a baby pig’s fetus. I’m not going to need it today, but I’m going to need it.” Fienberg said his staff found a college in the Midwest that had them. They asked Fienberg if he required a red or a pink fetus. When Fienberg asked Lynch which one he preferred, Lynch replied, “Send them both!” I wonder if the gentleman with the case full of contacts also had a case of baby pigs’ fetuses. Um, gross.

Another great David Lynch story involved Segal and Lynch watching a cut of the episode that revealed Laura Palmer’s killer. During the screening, David Lynch showed Segal a project he was working on – a coffee table book about the history of spark plugs. (You heard me -- spark plugs.) When Segal turned to the center of the book, he saw the only color photo in the book revealing a strange sight: a line of ants parading along the sill of an open kitchen window, marching toward a lone potato. When Segal asked Lynch about this unusual picture in the middle of his coffee book table about spark plugs, Lynch replied, “I figure – a book about spark plugs is boring. This is a kind of intermission.”

My favorite story, which did not involve David Lynch, came from Carel Struycken. He said he was in Romania a few years after “Twin Peaks” aired. It was also a few years after the overthrow of the notorious and brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Struycken said the country was very isolated from the rest of the world, but “Twin Peaks” was one of the first “outside” shows to air in Romania. And, it was a huge hit. Struycken asked the Romanians why they loved the show, and they replied, “This was our life. This is how it was.” It may seem bizarre for Romanians to equate their way of life under a brutal dictator to the show “Twin Peaks,” but Romanians were identifying with a town that sported a cheerful veneer of normalcy but that also masked a whole lot of nastiness underneath.

The USC Twin Peaks Retrospective is on a break next week, but I’ll be blogging about the special screening of “Blue Velvet” at the Hollywood Arclight. The March 3 retrospective panel includes Frank Byers (Director of Photography); Tim Hunter (Director: Episodes 1.5, 2.9 & 2.21); Piper Laurie (Actor: "Catherine Martell"); Al Strobel (Actor: "Philip Michael Gerard/One-Armed Man"); Mary Sweeney (Editor: Episode 2.7 & “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”); Paul Trejo (Editor: Episodes 1.5, 1.8, 2.3, 2.6, 2.9, 2.12, 2.15, 2.18, 2.21); and Ray Wise (Actor, "Leland Palmer").

And so the red curtains closed on another USC Twin Peaks retrospective, bringing us one step closer to the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer (which happens at the next screening)! Stay tuned, my friends. Stay tuned.