He directed Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, but it was the dark and quirky TV series Twin Peaks that made his name. Now, 25 years later, he is back. Just don’t try to predict the outcome
Last year, the celebrated American film maker David Lynch expressed the view that “television is way more interesting than cinema now… it seems art house has gone to cable”. Just last week it was announced that Lynch, the one-time prince of the art house, is heading the same way.
He and Mark Frost are to reprise their hit 1990 TV series Twin Peaks for the cable company Showtime. Almost a quarter of a century ago, Lynch effectively told television viewers to wake up and smell the “damn fine coffee”.
When Twin Peaks first aired, American TV was a creative wasteland where only the most unbending formats thrived. No one was quite sure what to make of this new series about the killing of a teenage girl in a small northwestern community. Was it a soap opera, a whodunnit or a supernatural thriller?
In fact, it was a surreal mixture of them all, at once as familiar as cherry pie and as unsettling as a bad dream. More than that, it was appointment television that, out of nowhere, radically expanded the possibilities of the small screen.
In the intervening years, American television has grown much bolder and more ambitious, creating such powerful and complex series as The Sopranos and The Wire, while Lynch has slipped back into the experimental margins from which he emerged.
But Lynch left his mark. Series such as the recent True Detective positively hum with Lynchian foreboding and without his distinctive take on the everyday macabre, it’s hard to imagine that Six Feet Under would have been made. Nor, perhaps, an open-ended mystery such as Lost, although we shouldn’t hold that against him.
So the return to TV seems like poetic justice. Not just because Lynch did so much to revive a moribund medium, but also because first time round control was wrested from his grasp and, like countless other film-makers before him, he fell victim to the pressures and machinations of network television.
The original two series focused on the murder of Laura Palmer in the fictional Washington town of Twin Peaks. The investigation was led by special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) who had a thing for a “damn fine cup of coffee”. At first, it was utterly beguiling and then a little infuriating, at which point ABC insisted that the identity of the murderer be revealed half way through the second series.
As a result, the show stumbled unhappily and increasingly unwatched towards cancellation. This time round things will be different. There are only nine episodes, written by Frost and Lynch, set in the present day, and Lynch will direct all of them, which are due to be broadcast in 2016. There is also a promise from Showtime that outstanding questions from over 20 years ago will finally be answered.
This isn’t the first time a Lynch TV comeback has been mooted. Apart from three short-lived shows he developed with Frost in the early 90s, at the turn of the century Lynch also got the go-ahead to make a pilot for a TV drama about the murkier side of Hollywood entitled Mulholland Drive.
But he fell out with the network – ABC again – and the pilot was made into a feature film with Naomi Watts. Although critically well received, it was sufficiently indifferent to conventions such as linear narrative and character motivation to explain ABC’s reticence. Looking back on that experience raises the question of just how weird the new Twin Peaksmight be.
That’s the thing about Lynch: he is one of the few longstanding auteurs who is impossible to second guess. There is no more rhyme or reason in his career than there is in his most surreal works.
A psychologist would doubtless attribute the unpredictability to the peripatetic childhood he led. The child of a research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture, Lynch moved all over little-town America with his family. What he seemed to retain from his travels was something solidly American, the sort of simple, down-home attitudes that led him at one time to admire Ronald Reagan.
By his own account, he made friends easily and was filled with wonder by the environments he encountered. “I found the world completely and totally fantastic,” he later recalled, though he found school “a crime against young people”. Yet he was hardly a born rebel; he was in the scouts until he was 15.
He dropped out of art school in Boston with the intention of moving to Europe for three years. He returned to America after two weeks.
Even at this stage elements of his character that would later inform his work can be readily identified. There is the almost naive sense of awe allied to disjointed and thwarted ambitions. It’s this unlikely mix of the unworldly and the bohemian that have been at the centre of his vision. All that was missing was the dark underbelly that would become a recurring motif in his films. And he found that in Philadelphia.
Enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, he lived in a crime-ridden area called Fairmount with his newly acquired wife – fellow student Peggy Reavey – and their baby daughter, Jennifer. Lynch later described a mental condition of intense fear that ran riot in a neighbourhood in which people were shot, his house was attacked and twice burgled and his car stolen. “There was violence and hate and filth,” he said. “But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city.” It was in Philadelphia that he made his first short films that featured scenes of vomiting, blood and crying babies. But it was his move to Los Angeles in 1971 that provided the means of making his first feature film.
He studied film-making at the AFI Conservatory and set about filming in black and white a story about a young man in a bleak industrial city whose girlfriend gives birth to an inhuman-looking baby. Eraserhead was one of the most original and discomfiting debuts in American cinema. It went on to become a massive cult hit at late-night cinema and marked the beginning of an oeuvre as baffling as it is inspired.
His two most conventional films followed: The Elephant Man, with John Hurt as John Merrick, the Victorian freak show attraction, and Dune, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel. The first was a huge hit, the second an even larger disaster.
But perhaps not as large as what might have had occurred had Lynch taken up George Lucas’s offer to direct the third Star Wars instalment, Return of the Jedi – a prospect so improbable that it practically confirms the existence of a parallel universe..
It was his fourth film that stands as his masterpiece. Released in 1986,Blue Velvet brought together Lynch’s perception of suburban innocence and the dark menace that lies beyond in an exhilarating exploration of sexual obsession. The film also marked Dennis Hopper’s official comeback. He played the foul-mouthed Frank Booth, the very incarnation of pitiless violence.
Lynch’s direction of Hopper in the use of the F-word reveals his quaintly delicate sensibility. Hopper once recalled: “David never said that word. He would just say: ‘Please say that word there.’ He seemed able to write ‘fuck’ but not say it.”
With its visual richness and haunting soundtrack, the film seemed to penetrate right to the heart of the collective subconscious, though for some feminist critics it was simply an old tale of misogyny dressed up in new velvet clothes.
By then, Lynch was on his second marriage, which didn’t survive his affair with the star of the film, Isabella Rossellini. He went on to cast her in Wild at Heart, but the couple split in 1991. Since then he has married twice more, the second time to his current wife, the actress Emily Stofle.
Many of the themes in Blue Velvet prefigured Twin Peaks, not least the unnerving sense that evil lurks just out of view. The question is: will the man whom Mel Brooks once called “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” be able to recreate that almost wholesomely disquieting atmosphere?
He’ll be 69 next year when filming gets under way. Has he lost his touch or can he still peel back the surface of America as if it were a ring-pull lid? Like Dale Cooper, we have no idea where Lynch will lead us. Let’s hope, to quote the special agent, it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
THE LYNCH FILE
Born David Keith Lynch, 20 January 1946 in Missoula, Montana, to Donald, an agricultural research scientist, and Edwina, an English language tutor. The family moved around America throughout Lynch’s childhood.
Best of times Although his debut, Eraserhead, was a big cult success, mainstream recognition arrived with The Elephant Man, which garnered eight Oscar nominations, including two for Lynch: best director and best adapted screenplay.
Worst of times The debacle that was Dune was a setback, as was the cancellation of the original Twin Peaks. But the last decade has been his leanest time as a film-maker, a period in which he has often spoken of a lack of inspiration.
What he says “I can’t live without coffee, transcendental meditation, American Spirit cigarettes, a freedom to create ideas that flow and my sweet wife, Emily.”
What others say “He can be very soulful and poetic. It is not all darkness and confusion.” Mary Sweeney, his third wife, whom he married and divorced in 2006.
'Twin Peaks': David Lynch reaps the benefits of a trend he started
As he returns to TV with a new 'Twin Peaks,' David Lynch is the latest arrival to a trend he helped start
For years — through his forays into painting and interview digressions into Transcendental Meditation and odd self-reflexive documentary projects and pop-up appearances on "Louie" — fans and freaks have asked: When will David Lynch return? After a quarter century making nearly a dozen of the most interesting/original/weird movies in Christendom (beginning with “Eraserhead” in 1977 and ending with “Mulholland Drive” in 2001), he had made only one movie, and that was the Polish puzzler “Inland Empire” in 2006.
On Monday we had our answer. Lynch was not only returning — he was returning to one of his most famous creations. Showtime came out with a surprise announcement that it would back and air a reprisal of “Twin Peaks.” Lynch and Mark Frost, collaborators on the original, would write and produce a nine-episode limited series, and Lynch would direct every one of the episodes, shooting next year and airing in 2016. After such a long hiatus, one might have imagined Lynch dipping his toe back in slowly. This was a full plunge.
How the new show picks up the story of small-town machinations and the death of Laura Palmer nearly a quarter century since the last check-in, the 1992 film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” and the series' 1991 cliffhanger will be one of the big narrative questions. So will the returning cast. A statement from Showtime said that the new go-round will be “set in the present day” and “continue the lore of the original series, providing long-awaited answers for the series’ passionate fan base.”
But equally interesting from a Hollywood perspective is what the return means for, and says about, Lynch. The film director, after all, was a pioneer in ways that went beyond the twisted cool of the show itself. Long before dark shows on television, long before cable originals, long before “The Killing” (whose creator admits she borrowed from “Twin Peaks”), and long before most movie directors thought of long-form storytelling or any of the other current TV vogues, there was Lynch. He was just a few years removed from “Blue Velvet” and an Oscar directing nomination, but he was doing the unheard-of — making a show for broadcast prime time.
It didn’t exactly go smoothly, of course. Then-ABC executive Bob Iger famously had to battle executives to get it on the air, and Lynch skirmished heavily with the network over the killer's reveal in the second season (Lynch wanted to delay it, among other things.) But in the show being there, on TV, for millions of people to watch every week, Lynch set the stage for so much great television to follow.
Many creators of dark cable dramas directly pay homage to Lynch. And those who don’t probably owe him a muffin basket anyway, because he was showing decades ago that mainstream Americans would invite dark and weird characters into their homes if you just made those characters compelling enough. (It's telling that he also will direct every episode of the new "Twin Peaks" himself, a tactic used to great effect earlier this year by the feature director Cary Fukunaga on "True Detective" — yet another series that owes a creative debt to Lynch.)
Showtime’s willingness to give Lynch an apparently large amount of freedom is a sign of how far things have come since Lynch began all of this. Though tension is always possible when art and corporations collide, don’t expect anything close to the battles or constraints he fought then. “What more can I say — TWIN PEAKS with David Lynch and Mark Frost on SHOWTIME in 2016!” network topper David Nevins said in the statement, giddy. “To quote Agent Cooper, ‘I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.’”
That all leaves the question of how Lynch will approach the return to the thing he started. The director has long been shattering barriers and conventions, but those are a lot more elastic since he first began hammering away at them on TV more than two decades ago. If you put the original “Twin Peaks” on TV now, it would feel less iconoclastic than it would part of the mainstream zeitgeist. How far Lynch tries to push beyond that will be part of the fun of the new “Twin Peaks.”
Lynch has said he hadn’t decided to actively take a directing hiatus. He just wasn’t feeling motivated to do anything that would end it. “I haven’t gotten the big idea,” he said when I interviewed him two years ago. “I’ve got some fragments that are coming, but not the big idea. If I got an idea that I fell in love with, I’d go to work tomorrow. I just haven’t.”
That’s another bit of iconoclasm since in Hollywood the mantra is to keep working and take any opportunity one can. But Lynch has long shattered the mold. One hopes he’s returning to pick up the pieces, so he can break them all over again.
Showtime made many fans of "Twin Peaks" very happy on Monday when it announced it was reviving the cult favorite as a limited series to air in 2016, set in the modern day.
The delightfully weird drama, which centered on a murder mystery in the small town of Twin Peaks, Wash., and starred Kyle MacLachlan as cherry pie aficionado/FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, aired for two seasons on ABC before its eventual cancellation in 1991.
The Times spoke to writer and producer Mark Frost, who co-created the series with filmmaker David Lynch, about the rebooted "Twin Peaks," what happened to [character's name redacted] after the series finale and the original's enduring legacy.
People have been hoping for a revival for a long time now. How'd you finally decide to do it?
Every once in a while we’d get together and think about it. It was really about three years ago when we were at lunch at Musso & Frank. We started talking and it kinda lit a spark between us. So we sat with it and we kindled it and we fanned the flames until we knew it was taking us somewhere where we really wanted to go. And we've kind of been working on it ever since.
What was that initial conversation about?
It was kind of a global conversation about the world of "Twin Peaks" and the effect that it still seemed to hold for people, the attraction they felt to this place and these people and we suddenly saw a way to move forward and just ran with it.
And why do you think it still has so many fans, especially at a time when there are a lot of weird, dark, unusual shows on television?
I know. It’s to me part of the mystery of the show. Why has this show been so enduringly attractive to people? I honestly don’t know the answer. You really have to talk to all the people who feel as strongly as they do and ask them because their answers will be just as valid as mine. One of the things we did notice as we've been thinking about it is people seem to remember it even better than we do. It’s kind of an important thing for a lot of people in their lives. And we feel a sense of responsibility about that and we want to do everything we can to honor it.
Is there any trepidation or anxiety about the revival? It's safe to say expectations will be high.
Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that people would be hoping for a lot and we feel that there is a pressure to not just do what we did before but improve on it or top it. That’s going to be our intention every step of the way.
"Twin Peaks" aired on network TV, but there are now many outlets for television that's more experimental and groundbreaking. Do you think the show might have lasted longer had it been introduced in such an environment?
All I can do is speculate. There are so many great, powerful shows now, I guess we'll see how this one does when it comes back as a benchmark. We’re very flattered whenever people talk about this as a show that helped them think that maybe there was a way for them to do what they did. We were very happy to kick down that door for people if that is in fact what we did. Hopefully we’ll get to kick down the door ourselves.
There hasn't been any information yet about casting but I'm wondering how you go about reviving without a cast set. Do you see who's available and build the story from there? Or just proceed as if everyone from the original is willing to participate?
I don’t know if I can speak to that without giving stuff away. The main way to think about is that we’re going to write the show exactly as we see fit and hopefully we’ll find the circumstances to make it happen.
Have you written it yet?
We’re in the process right now.
What can you tell us about the narrative?
What I can tell you is there will be a very strong central storyline. And there will be lots of other places that we’ll go as well. That’s really all I can say.
As fans know, the series ended with one of the most devastating cliffhangers in TV history. Do you yourself know how that story ended, and will the new series provide any resolution in that regard?
We have very clear idea as to what happened and it’s not going to be something that will seem ambiguous when you see it.
Creatively, this is going to be different from the network series in that you and David Lynch will write all nine episodes, and he'll direct the whole run. How do you think that will affect the series?
We just had a feeling that this was something we created together and the only way we really we could see going back to it was if we did it ourselves. We’re really excited that that’s how it turned out because I think that's the right way to to do it. It’s going to rise or fall on our efforts, and our efforts alone and that's how it should be judged.
How did you decide to take it to Showtime?
It was earlier this year; we had a great meeting with them. It turned out perhaps not by chance that Gary Levine, who developed the show at ABC 25 years ago, is now the executive vice president of original programming at Showtime, and that just felt right. We felt very comfortable with Gary, who is a good friend. But I've known David Nevins for quite a while. The two Davids really hit it off, so off we went.
Did you have to go to any extra effort to keep this under wraps?
I would guess that not even the NSA knew about this.