Lynching Television (again) – a conversation with Sabrina Sutherland about Twin Peaks: The Return By Andreas Halskov

By Andreas Halskov

”How much impact [can] a TV show make if virtually no one is watching?” This question was posed by Indiewire’s Ben Travers in reference to the new Twin Peaks (Showtime, 2017). The new season of Twin Peaks has already been heavily debated in many papers and magazines, it has been the basis of two issues in the acclaimed film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, and it has been described by film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz as “the best show on TV.” At the same time, though, Twin Peaks: The Return has had lackluster ratings (in terms of flow-TV) and some underwhelming streaming numbers, leaving many critics and skeptics to pose the seemingly unavoidable question: “Was Twin Peaks a success?”

This question in itself, however, conjures up a number of questions about the current mediascape – questions that are much more interesting when wanting to understand Twin Peaks as a phenomenon, as well as changes in the TV industry and film and TV production in the new millennium.

What does the word “success” mean, for example, in a modern TV-landscape where the mass audience has been replaced by a fragmented group of different niche audiences, and how would Showtime, Lynch and Frost describe Twin Peaks? How do they define success, respectively, and how was it even possible for a show/film like Twin Peaks to be produced at a time where numerous different platforms and series compete for the same viewers? How could something like Twin Peaks ­– with its unconventional plot, its slow pace and abstract nature – even be born in an era dominated by binge-watching, short attention spans and immediate gratification?

 andreasThe interviewer and the producer (Sabrina Sutherland) at the Twin Peaks UK Fest in London.

 

Auteurism and Creative Control

I asked Sabrina Sutherland about these different aspects concerning Twin Peaks and the TV industry, upon meeting her at this year’s Twin Peaks Festival in London. Sutherland, who is a long-standing member of the “Lynch Mob,” has worked as a producer, production coordinator and production assistant on many Lynch productions, including the second season of Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), the much maligned yet heavily underrated sitcom On the Air (ABC, 1992), the miniseries Hotel Room (HBO, 1993) and the films Lost Highway (1997) and Inland Empire (2006).

 

According to Sutherland, Twin Peaks has been an artistic success, and she argues that the heavy focus on ratings is both dubious and old-fashioned.

 

“It’s the old way of defining success, and I am thinking that TV now is starting to change from that. I really do. Remember, television is antiquated. And even the cinema, unfortunately, is struggling. The arthouses are almost gone. You’ll go for these tent-pole things or you’ll have very indie-indie things, but for the most part things are moving toward the Internet and towards a new way of doing things, and so I think this helps bridge that. You’ll look at it and think, maybe we don’t have to do that traditional thing anymore,” says Sutherland.

“And I think with Showtime wanting to have a streaming service, which is something new, more people watch Twin Peaks on the streaming service and you’re watching it multiple times, so it’s not just one show and that’s it. You want to see it over and over because you want to understand it, and because it’s so long and because it’s a film you kind of have to go back and rewatch some things because we didn’t do recaps. David didn’t want to do recaps, he wanted every show to be a surprise. That’s why there was so much secrecy in terms of the scripts, the non-disclosure agreement and the promos that didn’t give anything away. He wants everyone – which I love – to experience it for themselves. He wants you to allow yourself to go in a dark room, have great sound and great picture and to just watch it and have your own emotional response and interpretation of it. You may not understand it, but it should generate something in you, hopefully, like art does. So I’m hoping it was a success for Showtime. I think to some degree it was definitely a success. If you look traditionally maybe not, but I think we are moving away from that traditional and limited understanding of success.

 

 

Twin Peaks: The Return may have had lackluster ratings in terms of flow-TV, but in Scandinavia it have great streaming numbers on HBO Nordic (they will not divulge the specifics, though), and the number of original subscribers to Showtime’s streaming services (Showtime On Demand and Showtime Anytime) has been overwhelming. In that sense, Twin Peaks has been a good example of a modern, niche-oriented TV show in an era and a mediascape that care less about the amount of viewers than about monetizing the right viewers. As such, Twin Peaks has been a great work of art, but also an effective example of high-end television, and, through different promos and teasers, Showtime have been good at framing the new Twin Peaks as an exclusive show and a potential game-changer (cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlECLI34eCg). But what about the makers of the new Twin Peaks: Did they know that this was a potential game-changer? Did they know how alternative and potentially groundbreaking this production would be?

 

“No, actually, because David had told me the story, so I always had an idea of what it was going to be, and then, when I read the script, I could sort of visualize everything, so it almost seemed to be a part of me. I never felt like it was going be groundbreaking or surreal,” says Sutherland.

“I didn’t have any expectations about it, and it never felt surreal to me. It just felt right. I understood it, so it felt like a part of me. Even though I didn’t write it, I still feel like I was a part of it, so it felt very natural to me and not unusual at all. I can say that in my mind I completely understand the whole thing. When I say I understand it, I mean that I understand it in my being. It’s not like I could explain the film analytically, but I understood it in an emotional way.”

“There are some ideas that David wants to get across through the pictures and the sound. Without saying what those ideas are, he will say what he wants on the screen, and if I can help facilitate that or make that happen, I do what I can. Remember, I am more a concrete knots-and-bolts person, so I have to translate his vision into something concrete. It takes time to figure out what’s up here and understand it. He’ll explain to me exactly what he’ll like to see, and then I will try to get that through and to have the different department heads create that image or audio for him. I try to understand and translate his vision, while thinking about the budget. “Well, we can’t do or afford this, but he wants something like this. What can you do?”

Essentially, I am a kind of translator for him, just making sure that whatever he wants is there. I am not looking the bigger picture (what he wants to say), but everything we get on the screen (what he wants to show). We’re not trying to theorize or make sense of it. We’re just trying to get his vision on the screen.”

 

”David’s film from start to finish”

The slow pacing and the abstract, non-linear plot in Twin Peaks: The Return might be out of tune with the time. But those elements could also be said to resonate with some new alternative tendencies within film and television.

When Netflix started producing original shows, it was quickly seen as a major representative of quality television. Now, however, the concept of binge-watching, which is directly connected to Netflix and modern streaming platforms, has been compared to fast food and empty calories. Suddenly, critics and fans are saying that good shows are unbingeable, and we are beginning to see a new – alternative – trend in the TV-landscape. This trend has been dubbed savor-watching, and when launching the new Twin Peaks, David Lynch, himself, said that it would be unhealthy or potentially dangerous to binge Twin Peaks. Some shows require attention, reflection and processing, as it were, and the best shows are unbingeable.

broomThe slow pacing of the new Twin Peaks is illustrated in this uncut shot of a man sweeping the floor at The Roadhouse for two whole minutes.

 

And if you ask Sabrina Sutherland, there is no use mincing words. The new Twin Peaks is a David Lynch production from start to finish. Mark Frost and David Lynch wrote the script together of course – often using Skype to communicate – and in that sense it is the product of a close collaboration. After the script was written, however, Frost left Twin Peaks to write his book (The Secret History of Twin Peaks, 2016), leaving Lynch to his own devices. Lynch was allowed to visualize the script in whatever way he wanted, and during the production phase Lynch would revise the script, change scenes and include new ones, using the shooting phase a last chance to re-write. And even during the postproduction phase Lynch would stay in the editing room and guide the editors and mixers, using the camera and the pro-tools as an author would use his pen and a painter his paintbrush.

 

The linguistic connection between author and authority goes back to the Middle Ages, and the idea of the artist as a genius goes back, at least, to the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. “True art is only possible as a product of genius,” as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1790. In cinematic terms, this idea is often connected to the French New Way and essays by Alexandre Astruc and François Truffaut who wrote about directors (auteurs) that would be able to transcend the Fordistic production system and make deeply personal films. In today’s mediascape, no one fits this nomenclature better than David Lynch – a director who often writes his own scripts, based on stories from his own life, who often operates the camera and who often functions as a co-editor and sound designer on his different productions.

On the new Twin Peaks, for example, he would continue editing long after the rest of the crew had left the production, and he, himself, would choose the different shots and scenes that would be sampled and remixed in the new series.

 

“I think David had it all in his head as he was writing, and I remember – we’re back at the time when he were doing the deleted scenes for the Blu-ray box – and we were going through and looking at the original series and at Fire Walk with Me, so he had all of the scenes fresh in his head as he met up with Mark and started writing.

I think, because he was working with it and creating the deleted scenes and looking back at that, at the time when he was writing the new season, that’s how it was interwoven. It wasn’t thought of later. It wasn’t put in there for some stupid reason. He actually had ideas that grew out of that, so he was able to meld in some of the old stuff and to make it work. He’d say exactly what he wanted. He knew the scenes he wanted to be in there, so it was just a matter of going back and finding that old material, to look through the old material and find the clips he wanted, and then to find out exactly how he could use them. Some clips were altered, some were not, but he wanted to put them into the script he had written. We knew up front, before we even started pre-production, that these clips were going to be necessary, so we had two years to work those in. And it took us two years,” says Sabrina Sutherland.

bob

bob2A shot from Episode 16 (dir. Tim Hunter) which was cleverly sampled in the new Twin Peaks.

 

 “It was all David. As he described the story to me and what he envisioned, he had all of that in his head and knew what he wanted, and it was all about translating that vision and getting it onto the screen. Taking that video material, sometimes having to use visual effects, was necessary in order to create the world he had envisioned. We had to figure out how to do it, so it was a challenge, but David knew exactly what he wanted.

In terms of editing, for example, Duwayne Dunham and the other editors assembled the material in the order that they saw it, and then David went through it and looked at everything, and he would change things or edit things on his own after those guys left. David continued editing for six months after the whole editing team left. So he was there, working on everything together with a couple of assistants who were very integral to the process, to help David get his vision. But it’s all David’s idea, it’s all his vision, it’s all him looking at every frame. I’m not kidding, every frame, and making sure that every shot, every sound and every visual effect – that all of it works. So everything that is there, everything you see is his work. He checked everything both with picture and with sound. Dean and Ron worked and got all of the things, and David would go through every mix and listen to everything, and he’d instruct them too, saying I want this, this, this and this, and he would go through all of it at the end and make sure that everything was there or create them himself or have Ron and Dean create what he wanted, and then he would place it in wherever he wanted it or say specifically where he wanted it. Everything was done according to David’s instructions, and everything was checked and approved by David at the end, so, seriously, it is David’s film from start to finish.”

There is an element of boldness and courage to the new Twin Peaks, but David Lynch has always been known an unflinching and uncompromising auteur. That Lynch and Frost had the courage to go against the grain and make an alternative piece of art is hardly surprising, in that sense, but what about Showtime? What made Showtime produce a series as abstract, slow-paced and potentially alienating as Twin Peaks: The Return?

 

“I think it all goes back to giving the respect and the creative control to David,” says Sutherland, “and when Showtime understood that this was going to be a film, and we didn’t know how long it was going to be – it was just going to be a journey and David’s vision – and they accepted that, they were behind it 100 %. So even like Duwayne with editing, he would have things cut short. He had cut some of the scenes in a somewhat normal way where you cut out images of people walking, for example, but David wanted to include that. ‘No. That’s what I want,’ he would say. He wants that pace. It’s all part of his vision. He wants to explore and to experiment, and that was the pace he had set, and he wanted to see that through. And he’s like, ‘I can do what I want to do. I’m happy with it, and that’s the aim.’ And whatever comes out of it, if it fails, that is okay, and if it is successful, that is okay. He just wants to make sure that whatever he does is what he wants. He doesn’t want to be constricted or to compromise in any way, and my job is to work within the boundaries that are set – the monetary boundaries and whatever rules Showtime have set up – and to get David’s vision within those boundaries. Each part, for example, could be 52 to 58.30 minutes, or something like that, and it was my job to try to make sure that each part would fit within that time frame. I think we had two that were a little bit off, but for the most part we tried to condense them. That was how we edited them, and my job is to try to get David’s vision on screen. To have the audio the way he wants it, the picture the way he wants it, and have him be happy.

That’s probably why he likes to work with me because, as a producer, usually you’re not really the director’s person. I am the director’s person. And, thankfully, Showtime was so wonderful. After I explained to them that this is what David wants, and if you want it to be David’s Twin Peaks, this is what he needs, they were 100 % on board. That allowed the creativity and the artistic intent to be there, and that Showtime were willing to take that leap of faith and invest in something so different makes them stand out.

Maybe HBO gets all these things, but Showtime are willing to take a chance on something, and you have to give them credit for that, and I hope that in the future maybe more artistic, auteur-driving productions can get through. I hope, in that sense, that we are able to move forward, and to not have those usual things be done over and over and over again. So many times with TV nowadays, they don’t even give it a chance. They’ll have like one show, and that’s it. It’s gone.  They’re so strung up on numbers, and thankfully with Showtime it’s not so much about the ratings, but about the subscriptions and hopefully the notoriety. These are the things that make it a positive for them, and I’m hoping that it was an equal thing: They were positive towards us, and hopefully we brought something that was positive for them.”

 

From Broadcast Television to the Art of Cable

It is a fairly well-known and well-documented fact that David Lynch left Twin Peaks during the second season to work on other projects. In May 1990, during the first season of Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart premiered at Cannes, but David Lynch and Mark Frost functioned as a sort of dual showrunners on the first season. The second season was longer and more uneven, and Lynch would leave it up to Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels to run the show. As the ratings declined, the show was moved from Thursday to Saturday, and the network began to push for an answer to the main question: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Everyone, it seems, wanted a solution to the mystery, and even Gorbachev contacted President Bush to get an answer to the pivotal question. The impatience became too much for the ABC’s executives, including Bob Iger, and they inevitably chose to place the show on “indefinite hiatus” on the same day in May 1991 as two other prominent shows were cancelled: Thirtysomething (ABC, 1987-1991) and China Beach (ABC, 1988-1991).

Before Twin Peaks was placed on “indefinite hiatus,” however, different writers and directors came on board, and in different ways they tried to imitate what David Lynch had done, hoping to replicate the things that had made the show so immediately successful and critically acclaimed. According to Sabrina Sutherland and re-recording mixer Dean Hurley, that was also the reason for the wall-to-wall music, which was used in the original series: In an almost Wagnerian or Korngoldian fashion, the iconic music by Angelo Badalamenti became a short-hand for the different directors when wanting to make the show peaksy or even Lynchian.

audrey

David Lynch might have been less involved in the second season of Twin Peaks, but when he was involved, his involvement was very evident.

 

Sutherland became a part of Twin Peaks during the second season, and I asked her about the interesting paradox that David Lynch was less involved in the second season, but that the episodes that he directed during that season were more radically Lynchian than the more ‘conventional’ episodes from the first season. From the pilot episode, which establishes characters and different storylines, through Episode 2 with the iconic dream sequence  and the surreal opening and closing of the second season, we can see a gradually more radical and unconventional style in David Lynch’s episodes. The degree of surrealism and improvisation is gradually more outspoken, the lighting becomes darker, the pacing becomes noticeably slower, and the angles become more extreme and at times even stagy. Was this, perhaps, Lynch’s way of re-instilling his trademark on a show that he was gradually losing touch with or control over?

 

“Exactly! And so when he wasn’t there, those episodes were either trying to emulate what he had done with Twin Peaks or the ideas that Mark and Harley and Bob had of the way to go with Twin Peaks, and when David directed his shows, he would go back to what Twin Peaks was in his head. Personally, I don’t know this, but I have the idea that people working in the second season of Twin Peaks weren’t in the same vein as David, so you can see that his episodes are different because that is how he views Twin Peaks, and the other ones are how other people view Twin Peaks. That is why the new Twin Peaks so interesting to me because he directed all of them and was able to put his spin or creative vision on the whole thing, and that, to me, is what makes Twin Peaks Twin Peaks.

Like a good director, David has a clear vision, and that to me is what art is. And from the very beginning of his career, when he first went into filmmaking, that was exactly what he wanted to do: make moving pictures. Art.”

 lynch2.pngDavid Lynch has been given full creative control on the new Twin Peaks.

 

Return or Swan Song?

The new Twin Peaks has been described in many different ways, and it came as a surprise to many fans and critics that the dvd and Blu-ray release (which comes out later this year) is not called Twin Peaks: The Return, but simply Season 3.

 

I asked Sutherland what the actual title is, and why we have seen these different names and descriptions connected to the new series.

 

“The title of the show is Twin Peaks. It is not The Return. The Return has nothing to do with anything. The only reason there was The Return was that Showtime wanted something that differentiated it from the original series in the TV Guide. So it’s not Twin Peaks: The Return. The Return is something that people will say, but it has nothing to do with the title of the show. It’s like calling the new Westworld Westworld: Part 2 or Westworld: The Return, but really it is just called Westworld. So this is just called Twin Peaks period. There is no Return.”

 

The last line was particularly interesting to me, inasmuch as the new series does seem to deal with the impossibility of returning without changing things or getting stuck in the loop. It may well have been an unofficial title, but Twin Peaks: The Return seems to resonate with the themes of nostalgia, repetition and transformation that we see in the actual show/film.

The confusion regarding the title, however, also illustrates the general myths and mysteries that surround – and have always surrounded – Twin Peaks. In a Danish article, I described the new Twin Peaks as David Lynch’s magnum opus, without implying that this was necessarily his best or his final production, but other critics have speculated that this might well be his swan song. At the Q&A session, however, Sutherland readily denounced that theory, saying that “David Lynch is not done directing. Whether it is a new film, more Twin Peaks, or something else, he is not done. Somebody said this was his swan song, but it’s not.”

This only left one unanswered question, a question that has already garnered heavy attention and speculation among fans and critics. Will there be a fourth season of Twin Peaks?

“The only people whom I’ve heard talking about it are the fans. We’re not discussing it, Showtime are not discussing it. Seriously, we’re still working on season three because I’m still trying to get together the Blu-ray/dvd that is coming out and the free-TV versions, so there are still things to do, working on this, and David is painting. He wants to relax. This has been part of his life for more than four years, so he wants to get away, and I think everyone just wants to breathe a little bit, to understand what’s going on, before we even talk about that. The only people I’ve heard anything from are fans.”

 

Literature

Dukes, Brad (2014), Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks. Short/Tall Press.

 

Halskov, Andreas (2015), TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark.

 

Halskov, Andreas (2017), “Dette er David Lynchs hovedværk,” Politiken, August 31, pp. 10-12.

 

Hodsdon, Barrett (2017), The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema. McFarland & Co.

 

Kant, Immanuel (1995 [1790]), Kritikk af dømmekraften. Overs. af Espen Hammer. Oslo: Pax.

 

Mejia, Paula (2017), “The Vast and Unsettling Musical Universe of Twin Peaks,Vulture, July 27. Online: http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/the-vast-and-unsettling-musical-universe-of-twin-peaks.html.

Seitz, Matt Zoller (2017), “The Best Show on TV is Twin Peaks: The Return,” Vulture, July 6. Online: http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/vulture-tv-awards-best-show-twin-peaks-the-return.html.

Travers, Ben (2017), ‘Twin Peaks’: New Ratings, Facing Off with ‘Game of Thrones,’ and What It All Means For the Future of TV,” Indiewire, July 12. Online: http://www.indiewire.com/2017/07/twin-peaks-ratings-2017-season-4-game-of-thrones-1201853930/.

 

 

5 Replies to “Lynching Television (again) – a conversation with Sabrina Sutherland about Twin Peaks: The Return By Andreas Halskov”

  1. Hey, I’m really digging this interview but your use of the term “lynching” is…awful? Offensive? Shortsighted? I understand how the author may have gotten there etymologically but can’t believe it got as far as being posted.

    Liked by 1 person

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