On February 24th 2009, it’s twenty years since the body of Laura Palmer was found in a plastic shroud on a lonely lakeshore. Dwarves, tight angora sweaters, cherry pie, one-armed men and talking logs… Welcome To Twin Peaks: Population 51,201. Wonderland revisits the best TV series ever made.
Marc Almond and Gene Pitney have knocked Jason and Kylie off the top of the UK charts. Reagan has just left the White House. The last Soviet tanks are rolling out of Afghanistan. Madonna is filing for divorce from Sean Penn. Ayatollah Khomeini has slapped a $3million bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head. The poll tax that will bring down Margaret Thatcher is a month away from being introduced.
Oblivious to these international convulsions, a small grey-brown wren, native to Washington State, cocks its head. A sawmill belches smoke. Machines whirr, giant rusty cogs spin, sparks spray. A forlorn town sign, crudely painted with two mountaintops, stands against a background of Douglas Firs. Music swells. Water falls.
Lumberjack Pete Martell says goodbye to his indifferent wife and steps outside their lakeside lodge into the crisp North Western morning. “The lonesome foghorn blows,” he murmurs to himself. On the shore, next to a massive fallen tree bleached to concrete by the elements, Martell sees a white bundle. He edges closer. The package has come unstuck like some vile, abandoned birthday present. It’s a human parcel, tied with string round the torso and at the knees. A golden spray of hair tumbles from the nearest end. Martell begins to shake uncontrollably. He calls the sheriff’s office, trying to figure this thing, this terrible thing, but can’t find the words. “She’s //de-e-ead//,” he cries in a wavering voice. “Wra-a-a-apped in pla-a-stic…”
So begins the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. The director is David Lynch. The girl is Laura Palmer. And, as of the show’s debut on ABC in April 1990, not only is she Homecoming Queen of the local high school and the apple of her father’s eye, she’s the most famous corpse in television history. Each week, millions will tune in to watch FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) find her killer…
Lynch and screenwriter Mark Frost were struggling. For three years the pair had been working on a film adaptation of Goddess, the best-selling biography of Marilyn Monroe. After a trio of dark, challenging outings (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet) Lynch was keen to edge towards something a little more mainstream – and Goddess fitted the bill. But it just wasn’t gelling. “I loved the story of this woman in trouble,” says Lynch, “but I didn’t know if I liked it being a real story.”
When the studio refused their script, the duo’s agent, Tony Krantz, had an idea. Frost had been involved with the hit cop series Hill Street Blues, and Krantz suggested they collaborate instead on a TV project. At the back of Krantz’s mind was Peyton Place – the torrid 60s soap juggernaut in which illicit passions, insanity, murder and secrets ran amok. Lynch and Frost loved the idea of a soap opera with bite, and came up with a new idea they called Northwest Passage, which they took to ABC in 1988. “We just described a murder-mystery loosely set in a small town in the Pacific north-west,” says Frost. “And that was about all we had at that point. We said we wanted it to have the feel of a lush 50s melodrama; David made some strange motions with his hand as he described the wind. And they seemed to like that.”
Six months later, ABC greenlit the pilot. And in a booth at DuPar’s coffee shop on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevard in downtown LA, Lynch and Frost came up with the newly christened Twin Peaks’ most enduring image: a girl’s body bound in plastic sheeting. “We developed the town before the people,” explains Frost. “We drew a map. We knew it had a lake and a lumber mill, but the specifics we weren’t sure of.” Lynch continues: “We knew where everything was, and it helped us decide what mood each place had, and what could happen there. Then the characters just introduced themselves to us and walked into the story.” Frost admits that it took them a while to solve the murder: “We had to know the town before we could make up a list of suspects. Only after we knew most of its people was the killer revealed to us.”
Though its roots were in the soaps of the past, the action would take place just one year before Twin Peaks aired; in this fictional world, Laura Palmer drew her last breath in the early hours of 24th February 1989. “We always felt it should be in the present,” says Frost, “but that it should have a kind of timeless feel, as small towns in America often do. This is a place where time has stood still for a while.” Having grown up in a succession of Montanan small towns, Lynch was only too familiar with the atmosphere it needed. “I love a small town,” he smiles. “But it has to be a certain size. It can’t be too small. It has to be big enough so that you don’t know everybody and yet there’s these pleasant places and then strange secrets and sickness there as well.”
The crime-solving elements came from Frost, a longtime fan of Arthur Conan Doyle. Thanks to him, the series’ hero emerged as Agent Cooper, Sherlock Holmes with Bryl-cremed black hair and a biscuit-coloured macintosh. “When you come down to it,” ponders Frost, “the art of the detective is pretty basic. Whatever period you’re in it’s ratiocination, deductive and inductive reasoning, and then a smattering – sometimes mysterious – of intuition. Though I think we pumped intuition a little bit more than people were used to seeing!” Cooper’s unorthodox methods of investigation involved mystical Tibetan and Native American shamanism, and visions in his bedroom of a helpful giant in a bow-tie.
The Twin Peaks pilot was written in just nine days and shot in 23. Lynch embraced the chaos of such a fast turnaround. Mistakes ended up in the show – like a flickering fluorescent light that distracted one extra so much that when McLachlan asked him to leave the room he inexplicably answered, “Jim”, his real name. Lynch loved that. But not as much as he loved a scene in which Laura Palmer’s mother Sarah (a skull-faced Grace Zabriskie) looked into her daughter’s bedroom. Set-dresser and sometime actor Frank Silva had been moving furniture, and Lynch shot some footage of him crouched at the foot of Laura’s bed. At this point, Lynch had no idea what he’d be doing with it. Later, he shot a scene in which Sarah Palmer wakes up screaming. It was ruined because a crewmember was visible in a nearby mirror. The crewmember was Silva; and the film’s supernatural villain, Bob, was born.
Lynch always planned Twin Peaks to be the soap to end them all; a show so twisted that even its own soap-within-a-soap, Invitation To Love, was eventually phased out because it exhausted the writers. “I really like soap operas,” he explains. “I got hooked when I was printing engravings at art school. This lady I was printing with was so completely addicted to two particular soaps – Another World and The Edge Of Night – that I got hooked as well. I dug them. But the frustrating thing about them is that they draw the smallest torments out forever. It works, but it’s frustrating.”
For Twin Peaks, Lynch didn’t want drawn-out torments. He wanted detail. And lots of it. He daydreamed about a mysterious red curtained room, which he put into the show. There, Agent Cooper encounters the Man From Another Place, a dwarf dressed in a red three-piece suit and brown cowboy boots, who dances a funny little jive, feeding Cooper lines like “When you see me again, it won’t be me” and “That gum you like is coming back in style”. To achieve the strange-sounding dialogue, diminutive actor Michael J Anderson had to say his lines backwards for them to be flipped around in the edit. For most performers it would have been a Herculean task but, bizarrely, Anderson had actually used backward-speak as a secret language with his school friends. What Anderson did have a problem with, however, were last-minute scenes that he believed had “no context”. He even claims to have heard Lynch in the edit suite whooping, “I’ll betcha that’s what I meant by that!”
McLachlan, who had previously starred in Dune and Blue Velvet, knew Lynch better than anyone. “Whenever David would come in and do an episode,” he remembers, “the script would just end up being destroyed. He would take out pages, we’d rearrange scenes, we’d change dialogue. I mean, we’d just completely bastardise what we had. And that was fun. It really felt like the inmates were taking over the asylum for a week, which he enjoyed as well. But it was always with a purpose.”
When it came to the Twin Peaks score, Lynch was just as purposeful. He brought in composer Angelo Badalamenti – Isabella Rossellini’s music coach from Blue Velvet – and together they created a nightmarish wall of sound, alternately mournful and playful, with 50s fingerclicks, Roy Orbison guitar licks and snare-drum shuffles. “David would say that the music should begin very dark and slow,” recalls Badalamenti. “He said, ‘Imagine you’re alone in the woods at night and you hear only the sound of wind, and possibly the soft cry of an animal.’ I’d start playing and David would say, ‘That’s it, that’s it! Now keep playing for a minute, but get ready for a change because now you see a beautiful girl. She’s coming out from behind a tree, she’s all alone and troubled, so now go into a beautiful melody that climbs ever so slowly until it reaches a climax. Let it tear your heart out…’” Not a single note was ever changed.
When it debuted in April 1990, facing off against Cheers in a Thursday-night slot that had been tough to Dynasty and killed off The Colbys, the pilot took a third of the available viewing audience. This show had everything; deliberately steeped in teenage sex, it made instant pin-ups of the sultry Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), the demure Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and the moody bad-boy Bobby (Dana Ashbrook). At its height it was watched by 35 million Americans. “We were in exact the right place, at the right network, at the right time,” believes Frost.
Inevitably, though, the moment couldn’t last. Frost and Lynch had resisted constant network pressure to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer, ensuring that Twin Peaks was commissioned for a second season. And then – in episode 16 of series two – they caved in. “The question of what happened to Laura Palmer was the goose that laid the golden egg,” Lynch says. “Then ABC asked us to snip the goose’s head off, and it killed the goose. And there went everything.
“The murder of Laura Palmer was the centre of the story,” he continues, “the thing around which all the show’s other elements revolved, like a sun in a little solar system. It was not supposed to get solved. The idea was for it to recede a bit into the background, and the foreground would be that week’s show. But the mystery of the death of Laura Palmer would stay alive. And it’s true: as soon as that was over, it was basically the end. There were a couple of moments later when a wind of that mystery, a wind from that other world, would come blowing back in, but it just wasn’t the same.”
Lynch’s hunch was right. With the murder solved, the audience lost interest. And so did ABC, who finally put it on “indefinite hiatus” in February 1991. Bowing to massive fan demand, the network agreed to six more shows, including a brilliantly baffling final episode in June 1991, directed by Lynch. It was both too much and not enough. Lynch being Lynch just walked away. “I left it because you can’t do everything,” he shrugs. “I have misgivings about the way it went but I still – and always will – love that world.”
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009