I recently had the pleasure to speak with filmmaker Duwayne Dunham about his long, illustrious career in film. Duwayne had a lot of great stories to tell about working with David Lynch & George Lucas, the many projects he’s worked on and a little bit of information about his upcoming film, The Happy Worker. This is a really fun conversation that I hope you enjoy!
AG: I wanted to ask you about both about your editorial and directorial work, so perhaps chronologically might be the way to go. The George Lucas, Blue Velvet era of your life seemed both extremely busy and extremely exciting.
DD: I wish that kind of good fortunate on everybody. I was really blessed to be in the right place at the right time and catch a lot of very fortunate breaks and evidently have the goods to back it up. The funny part of the story is before Star Wars came out, right before, I got a phone call from someone. I had went to film school in San Francisco and it’s a very small film community up there. I got a call one day and it was this woman claiming to be the assistant to George Lucas and she said he wanted to talk to me. I of course didn’t believe her and asked her who put her up to this. She said no, just hang on and then this guy gets on the phone and says “Hello, this is George, I want you to come work for me”. I said, “Maybe you ought to meet me first”. George said “Ok, great. When can you be here?” So that began a very interesting, productive, wonderful time that lasted 7 or 8 years. I remember standing in front of him and he was offering me this position to be his personal editorial assistant and live there at the studio and kind of keep an eye on things. I said, “Fine but George, I really want to make my own movies”. He said to me and this was sage advice, “There’s 3 ways you do that. 1, by going out and getting any work you can find. 2, you learn to direct by writing. You write a good enough script and control it and you can demand that you direct it. The 3rd way is to learn directing through editing”. I took about 5 minutes and thought about all of that and said ok, let’s go. Let’s do it.
That lead to Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Black Stallion, Raiders of the Lost Arc, the sequel – just a bunch of stuff. More American Graffiti was in there so it was not only back to back to back but also overlapping all the time. It was really terrific. Sitting with George on all those projects, as close as we were, was a real education. After Return of the Jedi, George said he was not going to make movies for a while. I was the 4th person he had hired in his company and he told me I could stay if I wanted. I told him I was going to go out and get more work and we would get together again someday and I’ll be that much more valuable and knowledgeable. Believe it or not, not too long after, the phone rang and this man says “Hi, it’s David Lynch. I want you to come work for me”. I said the same thing to him that I said to George, “Maybe you ought meet me first”. He told me he was in L.A. and I told him I’ll come tomorrow.
I flew to L.A. to meet David and he’s a great guy. We shared a couple of “ah shucks” and “gee whizzes” and he gave me the script to Blue Velvet to read on the plane ride home. It frightened me to death when I read it. I called him and thanked him for meeting me and letting me read this script but I told him that I don’t know if this is my cup of tea. He asked what I meant and I said “I’m kind of a Disney guy. I’ve come out of the Lucas camp, Star Wars and this is some pretty rough material here”. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I told him I’d think about it and obviously it was an honor just to be considered. When I was in London on Empire Strikes Back, it was Stanley Kubrick who introduced George and I to Eraserhead and the world of David Lynch. To sit in a theatre on a Friday night in London in the middle of winter with George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick watching Eraserhead, that’s something to write home about.
I did agree to do Blue Velvet with David and it was a great experience. Not only was he the nicest guy but super talented and a true visionary. We sat down in Berkley one night at Fantasy Films and watched the 3 hour and 57 minute cut of Blue Velvet. David didn’t come in and look at scenes or anything like that when he was shooting. I had just been putting the thing together. I remember he sat there for a minute and he shook his head and said, “You know what? I really like it. I just have one problem. For me to have final cut it has to be less than 2 hours in length”. So that meant we had to cut this thing in half. We did that and I was doing other projects during this time, always with my eye towards directing. I did a few commercials with David where he was directing and I was cutting. Traveled all over the place to do that. The next thing was Twin Peaks. He called me one night and said “ABC is giving us 4 or 5 million dollars to make this little movie. They’re never going to air it but let’s go have some fun and make a movie. Will you cut it?” I told him sure and we went off and made the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Never ever thinking that ABC was going to release this thing. It tested really poorly. This is around the time this guy Monty Montgomery told us about this book written by Barry Gifford called Wild at Heart. Monty’s plan was to direct this story. He was a part of Propaganda Films and they were part of the Twin Peaks pilot episode original family there. ABC told David that they weren’t likely to air the pilot but if they did it would have to have a closed ending, that it couldn’t end on a cliffhanger. David thought of an ending and we shot it and put it together. Just as I was finishing it, I asked David “Are you going to do anything after this?” He said “No, I’m taking a break” so I told him I was going to go out and get myself another job and that we’ll see each other down the road. Literally, a few days to a week later, David walks back in with Monty and says “Hey, I’m going to direct this movie Wild at Heart and I want you to cut it”. I said, “I thought Monty was going to do it” and David says, “No, he gave it to me. I’m going to do it”. I asked when they were going to start and he told me a couple of months. I asked if he had a script and David said no but it wouldn’t be hard to get it going. “I’m so sorry David, I’d like nothing more than to work with you but I took another editing job and I can’t trade one editing job for another”. David just looked at me for a minute and said, “Well what would it take for you to cut Wild at Heart?” I said, “David, I’ve always wanted to direct. That’s always been my goal and that’s why I do what I do. If I got the opportunity to direct something, everyone would understand, including the studio”. He said, “Ok, fine. We just got picked up for 7 episodes of Twin Peaks and you can do the first one. Now will you cut Wild at Heart for me?”
Now, this was wild. He started shooting, sets were being built and I started cutting. Then I left the cutting room on Wild at Heart to go prep and shoot the first episode of Twin Peaks. I finished shooting that first episode the same day that he finished shooting Wild at Heart. He came back and we met at the cutting room with a feature and a first episode and then left to go direct the second episode of Twin Peaks. Then when he came back, we had the feature and now two episodes of Twin Peaks and then subsequently every episode of the first season. It was a very, very busy, wonderful time. One day, David asked me if we could have Wild at Heart ready for Cannes. I told him that if we kept making decisions and moving forwards without moving backwards or changing our minds at all, yes, we’ll make it but barely. This is unbelievable but we wound up on the last night of the Cannes Film Festival and we had never seen that movie. We finished the mix and got a first print out of the lab and had never seen that mix with that trick with that picture. We had no idea if there were dropouts or bad things in the picture. It was pretty wild. Then we won! Shortly after is when I was offered Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. I had always told Lynch and Lucas that for me, they were the two guys that if they ever called I would drop what I was doing and go help them if that’s what they wanted. It turned out that the dream came true. I stayed close with David. I went back and worked with George on Clone Wars, directing some of those episodes. It was great sort of going home again. Then just 3 years ago, David calls me and says, “Come up to the studio for a chat and a cup of coffee”. I thought we were going to talk about this movie that I’m doing now, The Happy Worker but he said that he was going to do Twin Peaks. I said, “What for?” and he told me that it was a different one. I asked how different and he kinda told me some broad strokes and we started talking about when it would start and such and he asked if I would cut it for him. I said, “Oh boy” but eventually I said yes, absolutely.
AG: I wanted to ask about directing the first episode of Twin Peaks once it got picked up. You’re a new director and the cast and crew has been away from the project for a while, between filming the pilot and the first episode after it was picked up. You’re kind of a constant. Besides Lynch and Frost, you’re the one that knew the material probably the best as the pilot’s editor. What was that like for you as not only a new director but also being tasked with getting everybody back into their roles and this world?
DD: Well you know, obviously it was a lot of pressure and it wouldn’t matter if it was my first or hundredth, you feel that pressure. I actually was the logical choice because I was literally a month away from having finished the cut on the pilot episode. And you’re right, I knew the characters better than they knew their characters. So, for me, I had to kind of help everybody get back into that groove you know. Mark was there and he was very valuable with those discussions. It was great. It was really it was nice to see those people again. The pilot episode plus those first seven episodes, for me that’s the real Twin Peaks family. That’s the one that I think to this day everybody would drop anything they were doing and go help any of us that were on that together. That is the situation that was created by David and Mark. Yes they were the studio but they didn’t act like the studio. It was very free and creative and everybody loved each other. We had such a good time.
AG: How does that compare to the second season, where you would go onto direct two more episodes?
DD: When the series first started out, it was “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and it went quite a long way. I forget exactly how long but you know I could argue that you might want to end after seven or nine episodes (laughs) but it was no different. At that time I’m just learning my way around the set and how to interpret the script and translate it into images and then stay in the world of Twin Peaks. For me it was a great, great opportunity. I’ll forever be thankful to David for that.
AG: You’ve been directing for a long time since the original Twin Peaks aired. Now with the new series, what was it like for you to not only revisit the world of Twin Peaks and go back to working with David after 20 plus years but also to put on your editors hat again?
DD: Well I never really took that hat off. I consider myself an editor first and foremost. I shoot around the movie where a guy like Spielberg shoots the movie. I shoot around it and find it in the cutting room, to borrow an expression from Lucas. Everything that I’ve directed, I’ve also edited and I always have an editor on board but I’m always in the room just like George would be. We’re always very physically hands on. With David and this particular schedule, the reality was that we did 9, 2 hour movies. We did 9 feature length films in 13 months. When he started shooting, we basically had a year to deliver a fine cut. David never once saw one single scene in the nine months he was shooting. I cut every frame of that thing and that could only happen with a tremendous amount of trust between the two of us and my understanding and knowing his material as well as I did. When he sat down to watch it one week after he shut the cameras down, he sat down and watched a 14 hour movie took. To sit and watch 14 hours, that’s a lot of stuff. There would be no time to go back and fix it. I just had to the best I could, you know believe I had it right. With David’s stuff it’s not so hard to do that because it’s so specific.
AG: David has called this an 18 hour film and that’s essentially what you referred to it as well and not television. There’s a lot of people who have debated that. How would you define that to somebody who asks whether it’s a television show or a film?
DD: Well television per say, it’s just the medium, Showtime. The product itself, the movie is an 18 hour movie and if you cut the titles off in-between episodes and just started with Parts 1 and 2, which came out as the pilot and you put them all together, you would not miss a thing. That’s how it was constructed. When people say television, television network scripts are constructed for commercial breaks and you have a certain number – I think it’s seven, so that in a 60 minute program there’s 42 or 43 minutes of material. The rest is commercials so you build and go to commercial breaks at certain moments. You want the audience to come back. Same thing with an episode, you generally end an episode with some kind of cliffhanger. We didn’t pay any attention to any of that. It was okay, what’s the next logical progression? It truly is a film and anybody who would even venture to say otherwise, they’re mistaken. It wasn’t constructed or wasn’t written in that way (as television), it wasn’t shot that way and it wasn’t cut that way. It was cut to be continuous. It started at 9 hours and grew to be 18. Nobody expected 18. When David told me it was 9 hours, I laughed and this was way before shooting began, I laughed and said “well David, your 9 hours is really 10, 11 or 12 hours”. That’s how it went and it was just amazing.
I use index cards. Writers use them and I use them in the cutting room because editing is like writing and you know the room was surrounded by these index cards that had all these scenes, segregated in Parts. We didn’t call them episodes, we called them Parts. It was challenging to keep track of this story over 18 hours but we treated it like one big story.
AG: Something that I noticed as a viewer was that there was no A, B and C plot each week, the way a television show would have. It never felt structured like a television show to me.
DD: Exactly. The other thing is that it might just be Cooper and someone else riding along a lonely highway in a car in the opening scene one week. Nobody opens like that. You usually have an active opening and a super active ending but that’s what I’m saying. They were never constructed to be anything other than a continuous narrative. The interesting thing with sub plots, we used to say this all the time, that it’s really interesting because this scene right here in reel 4 or wherever, we don’t come back to that for another 12 hours. Will people even remember the connection? Important plot points. We just said “I don’t know but we’re going to find out”. I still to this day haven’t sat down in a continuous length and just watched the 18 hour movie. I’ve always wanted to, one day just sit down and watch a gigantic 18 hour movie.
AG: That really had not been done in television or film. It’s truly revolutionary to have an 18 hour film split up week to week the way that you guys did.
DD: I personally would like to think that this is the way and it is going this way, where not so much the networks because they’re locked into the commercial breaks and all that. That’s one of the reasons why the material on network television in my opinion isn’t that exciting. The streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Showtime, HBO and Starz and all the rest of them, you know they’re getting into this one director shooting 6, 8 or 10 episodes. It makes perfect sense and I hope the trend continues.
AG: Those streaming channels are certainly a lot more artist friendly and they seem to be a lot more open to creativity and hopefully it is something that continues. I wanted to ask about your recollections or your memories of cutting Part 8.
DD: Well there’s two things about Part 8. It’s total Lynch and I didn’t do anything in the explosion. I put a few things in but that was David’s baby. When he came back I said, “David I’m going to keep cutting and I’ll implement whatever notes you have. I’ve got to keep moving forward and then you come along behind me and you do these sections like the atomic explosion that only you know what’s in your mind, so you may as well do it yourself”. I remember he showed me something early on and I thought about it for a minute and then I answered and I’m so happy that I answered in this way. He knows I’m always the one that is saying come on David we’re spending too much time on this shot, etc. I saw a really long explosion mind trip thing and I answered something along the lines “David as long as each of these images remains interesting, this is going to be great”. And he knew exactly what it was. I was hoping it wasn’t too long (laughs).
It was never planned but it kinda became our style to have the Roadhouse scenes at the very end. When you’re watching it, you know if you go to the Roadhouse, the credits are probably going to roll pretty quick. In Part 8, it went in the middle.There was no time to try a bunch of stuff but I remember when Nine Inch Nails did that song, to me it was evil Cooper. When I was working on all that stuff and he got shot out in the field, I just thought you know what? Cooper gets shot now let’s go see Nine Inch Nails do this kind of almost demonic rendition of whatever they were singing. Then on that crescendo at the end, that’s where Cooper wakes up to it and it works. David is there and you know it was a total experiment but that’s how the whole movie kind of went. David knew, he had it in his head. He and Mark wrote that script and David shot every frame of it. For the most part its put together the way it was written and conceived. We always considered Part 8 an anomaly. It was an island unto itself. The series would exist without it and it was just another part in the middle of this crazy mess. Then the woodsman, you know the whites of the eyes and all of that stuff and the radio station and the moth, that was total Lynch. My only regret with that one now, I think Part 8 does open with Cooper and Ray just driving along the road forever. A very, very, very slow opening and that’s not how normal TV would ever open.
AG: You mentioned the driving. In the show’s final hour, there was the scene where Cooper and Laura are driving in their car and going on and on forever. In a typical television show’s finale you’re expecting fast pace and resolution the entire time and we get this. It seems like nearly a ten minute driving scene.
DD: I remember saying, “Now David are we doing this in real time? Driving from Odessa to Washington”? (laughs)
AG: The night of the finale I was mesmerized but also thinking that we were rapidly running out of time. That’s just Lynch though I suppose.
DD: He’s earned the right. I think his whole career is not really completely understood. His vision, as it was being put together and even when it was presented to an audience, some people don’t get it. He’s met that kind of adversity his entire career. This was one where as along as he delivered the series on time in that one year period, the studio couldn’t touch it. That’s why it was important, we gotta get this done. Don’t let anybody come in and tamper with it.
AG: You mentioned Blue Velvet being nearly 4 hours in the first cut and then Wild at Heart being significantly longer as well. Was that the case with Season 3 of Twin Peaks? Was a lot left on the editing floor or was almost everything used in the finished product?
DD: Almost everything that was shot is in there. We didn’t have time constraints. I don’t know the contract but they were expecting 9 hours and they got 18. It’s not like they’re not going to take it. That’s the great thing about cable and streaming channels, they need content. A movie theater you know, it all depends on how many showings they can have in a day. It depends on the running time of the movie and it doesn’t have anything to do with this particular story or what’s the optimum interest point or how long can you remain interested. It simply has to do with how many screenings can you get in a day. You know television started soap operas with the soap companies who decided the best advertising they could do is they’ll present, they’ll finance entertainment and we’ll put it on this new thing called the television. Do you know why it’s a 30 minute episode? That brain trust got together and said “Well the normal housewives can certainly afford 30 minutes so she can sit down and have a sandwich at lunch and watch some of our programming and we’ll sell her soap”. Kids movies, they’re typically shorter. I think 74 or 76 minutes something like that. Somebody said a kid’s butt is programmed for 75 minutes and they gotta get up. We do very few things where we sit down and concentrate on something for that period of time last night. It’s hard. Every time I know the running time is three hours I cringe and then I remember seeing Titanic and feeling sad because I knew I’d been there over two hours and I knew it was going to end soon and I didn’t want it to end.
AG: Thank you so much for agreeing to take the time to talk to me. I know your schedule is pretty hectic right now preparing to begin filming your upcoming film, The Happy Worker. In conclusion, is there anything you can tell us about the film?
DD: It’s my pleasure. By the time this interview comes out we will be filming. I’ve been in and out of town – we’ll be filming in Utah. My good friend David Lynch gave me the script many years ago and we developed it and found the financing and now it’s time to shoot it. It’s a modern-day fairy tale, an allegorical tale and it’s way out there. Lynchian, I guess you could say but I’m not going to try to do Lynch. I’ll leave that to him.
If you enjoyed this interview, please be sure to check out some of our others!