I recently had the opportunity to speak with Twin Peaks writer/producer as well as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me co-writer Bob Engels. Bob was incredibly gracious with his time and we spoke for just over an hour. We covered a lot of ground that hopefully Twin Peaks fans will enjoy reading. As always, let us know what you think!
AG: You joined the series after the pilot had been filmed correct?
BE: Yes, the pilot had been filmed but not yet aired. Some of the dates and times you might remember better than me though (laughs). If I remember correctly, there was no break in between airing the pilot and the episodes that followed; we were on the air. I wrote episode 4 of the first season. Mark Frost and I were friends, which is how I came on board.
AG: In the second season you were promoted, becoming a producer for the show. The second season has become much talked about over the years, with stories of Mark and David’s involvement or lack of involvement varying and other stories referring to you and Harley Peyton essentially running the show during parts of the second season. I wanted to ask, what are your memories of Season 2 and what can you say about the various stories regarding everyone’s involvement?
BE: It’s funny with television shows. Once you know what you’re doing, you’re on a roll. Mark and David certainly had other projects and attendance wise, Harley and I were getting A+’s. I didn’t ever feel like we were abandoned though, it wasn’t like they ever just weren’t around. It didn’t work that way. We knew where Season 2 was going before they started working on their other projects. We’d had enough sessions to map it out, and we certainly got notes from both Mark and David all the time about stuff. In my case, because I had directed and produced plays, it was a pretty easy transition for me to know how to do the production. It was pretty easy and I was more than qualified to do that. I think that probably put everyone at ease. I know that certainly was the case with my rise at ABC, they said, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing.” Day to day stuff, I knew how to do that.
We hired such great directors too, so there weren’t production problems unless there was, for example, rain on a day where we shot outside – regular stuff not any dissension or anything like that. Once it was a hit show, it got a little crazy, which they always do. For example, and these weren’t big problems, but Kyle hosted Saturday Night Live. That’s a week he’s gone, Tuesday through Saturday. Then the ladies were gone for three days to shoot the Rolling Stone cover. We just had to figure out what else we could shoot while they were gone because that was all great publicity. There was always logistic kinda stuff which is natural for a hit show. But no, everyone was always around, and Harley and I were always there.
AG: Obviously, the big story of Season 2 was ABC forcing the resolution to the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” mystery. How far in advance did you guys know that you were going to have to solve that mystery?
BE: ABC wanted to solve the murder, and those were marching orders that came with the Season 2 renewal, to reveal the killer in the first half of Season 2. Our idea was never to solve it. For me, and I think the other guys would agree with this, a lot of it was about guilt. Nobody knew who did it, and they all felt guilty that she died. That was a great way to write scenes. A scene could be about buying gum and still be about guilt. I don’t think we even shot someone going to her grave until the second season. We had so much stuff to do that we didn’t have to go to that, which was a clique thing to do, for ten or so episodes. So yeah, it was ABC’s request to solve the murder, and that did change things. It was something that we didn’t want to do. We sat down at the beginning of the second season and figured out how to do it. The fun for a long time was that it was just us that knew who did it, the four writers. The cast was going crazy (laughs). I can remember when we told Ray Wise it was him he was cool about it. He was worried that he was fired and we told him, “No, we’ll keep going, don’t worry about it. We’ll keep going. It’s you though, just so you know.” We were under marching orders to do that though like I said. The idea was that if there was a third season, Harley and I wanted to jump ahead ten years. We didn’t get very far on that idea though. When we were done, we were done.
AG: Jump ahead ten years after the murder was resolved?
BE: Or twenty. The idea Harley and I had was that Season 3 would start with the opening credits and then a graphic on the screen saying “20 years later.” This was really Harley’s idea, but it was great. Everyone would have a different life. I thought that was really fun, but of course, we never got there, the pickup never came, so we never got too serious about it. It was pretty obvious after the second season that we were done. It certainly would have been unique though.
AG: At the very end of the second season, the tone seemed to change a little bit. The narrative picked up, and the supernatural elements of the show really became more dominant in the narrative. Fans that had been a little disheartened after the killer was revealed, all of a sudden were completely reinvested. What do you recall about that time period and that part of the narrative?
BE: I think once we knew we had to, you know, solve the murder, that’s where the whole idea of Windom Earle came from. It did become more supernatural. We had the Red Room came back. We hadn’t seen much before of that. In the end, the grove that he went to was very Sherlock Holmes-like. Sherlock Holmes that was supernatural and I mean we kind of went there because we hadn’t been there. In a weird way, we had to start over because the series was designed not to solve the murder and suddenly it’s solved. So now, what do we do? From that era, it’s not unlike “Who shot J.R.?” They had the same problem. They solved it differently, but it was the same thing. If you were to talk to those writers, I’m sure they’d say “Yeah we didn’t know what to do” (laughs). They were a soap opera so in one sense they were in better shape because they could go somewhere else. But in some senses, Twin Peaks was a soap opera. I mean it was very much in the formula of a soap opera in the sense that how you would outline an episode the same. There are four scenes between commercials, and one scene has these guys in it, and you just follow that. We tried to follow that and we had to concentrate on Windom Earle because that was the big thing after the murder was solved.
AG: Windom Earle and then that the creation of the Annie Blackburn character were both important to the end of Season 2. Was Annie designed to be a damsel in distress, or was she designed to be a bigger player perhaps had the show continued?
BE: I don’t remember much about the character, but yeah I’m sure that it was a way to get back to our strength, the heroine in trouble — no question about that. But I don’t really recall. Like I said, we knew we weren’t going to get to a third season by that point. Pretty soon after the second season ended, we got the official word we were canceled. You know I always joke about the fact had we been on cable we’d still be on television. We’d be on Season 30 or whatever it would be (laughs). There were three networks when we started, and Fox made it four while we were on the air, but now, we’d be on Season 30 by now. You could tell that just by how the fans would react to any little bit of news.
AG: In the final few episodes of Season 2, the story really started to pick up again. You have Windom Earle, Annie and this race to the Black Lodge. The final episode of Season 2 is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, hour of the series. There have been numerous tales of how much the script changed once Lynch came into direct that final hour. What can you tell us about the script changed prior to and during filming?
BE: I’ve written lots of stuff with David and he’s truly an auteur. He will do what he wants to do. There were some changes that he did, but it’s closer than you think. We were all credited on that one (Lynch, Frost, Engels, and Peyton) but if my memory serves correct, by that time David and I would write stuff and then Mark and Harley would write stuff then David would put it all together. I would have to look at that last episode and the script again. I think a lot of it was what David wanted to do, but that was always the deal. If you look at other episodes that he directed, he pretty much did whatever he wanted to do. It wasn’t the kind of thing where he would say “No, I don’t want to shoot in this location, let’s go here,” he changed how things happened. That’s why he’s such a great director — adding things like the white horse, which was a surprise. I can remember cutting through the sound stage to get to the offices, and there was a big white horse in the living room. I got up to the office, and I said, “Dave, there’s a white horse downstairs,” and he said, “Pretty cool Bobbers” (laughs). So that was a surprise. It wasn’t like we hadn’t talked about stuff like that though. It wasn’t like “What the hell, there’s a horse here!” It was more like, “Oh, that’s the horse we talked about.” The thing about this show was that we had so many really strong directors and they all brought ideas you hadn’t thought of before. You would see stuff in the dailies that made you say, “What the hell?” but it was pretty cool!
AG: To circle back to the script for the final episode for the moment, it seems like the biggest changes between the script and the televised episode involved the Black Lodge. For example, in the script, there was a scene where BOB was dressed as a dentist with Cooper in peril and Laura saved Cooper.
BE: The funny thing with scripts in any television show; you could re-write it the night before. Someone could have an idea or something, but they were scripted. I don’t look at this stuff much, but I’ve noticed from other stuff I’ve worked on when people say, “Well that was never in the script” and I would find that script and show them it was. There could be 12 drafts of a script, and any one of them could be the one that winds up getting filmed. It happens a lot. This is a little off topic, but you’ve seen the film The Fugitive, right? The scene right before Harrison Ford jumps out of the cave into the water, he has this long, wonderful speech about what he stands for and in the shooting script, Tommy Lee Jones, whose standing there, has a speech back to him that’s also about a page long. They shot Harrison Ford first because they had to get the daylight behind him and Tommy Lee Jones is watching what Harrison Ford is doing. They turn the cameras around and tell Tommy it’s his turn and he says, “I’m not going to say my speech.” They asked him what he was going to say instead, and he told them, “I’m going to say, I don’t care.” It’s a great line in the movie, but he invented that. I talked to the guy who directed that and he told me it was brilliant and was exactly what should happen in that scene. My point is, when you look at the published script, it was Tommy Lee Jones saying, “I don’t care,” which was never written prior. Not just with Twin Peaks but with any show, that kinda thing happens all the time.
AG: When Season 2 ended, was there ever a formal discussion about plans for a potential third Season?
BE: You can’t help but talk about because it was fun and a great show to work on. I mentioned Harley’s idea about 10 or 20 years later but the four of us never sat in a room like we did before Season 2 and talk about what we wanted to do if we got another season. It felt like we were done. We weren’t getting the support and you’re instincts kick in and tell you it isn’t going to happen.
AG: When did the idea for Fire Walk With Me come up?
BE: David and I started to write more together and became friends during production of the show. After the show stopped, David and I began to work on a couple of different scripts. I’d go up to his house and we’d meet up in the afternoons, and we actually wrote the whole script for The Dream of the Bovine, and we had a couple of others we started and were fiddling with. One day I got to his house, about three months after the show had ended and David wasn’t home yet, so I was sitting there waiting for him. He came walking in, and he said, “Bobbers, we’re going to make a movie. We’re going to make a movie of Twin Peaks.” I think he got the idea of speaking to Mr. Bouygues of Ciby2000 who helped produce the film, who told David he would love to help make a Twin Peaks film. They had that discussion over lunch, and we started writing that same afternoon! A big shift of gears and we just started.
Nobody ever thinks of Fire Walk With Me this way, but it’s both a prequel and a sequel. That was always the idea. We would do stuff before, and then we would show what happened after. I always joke about this, but I think the first draft was like 180 pages. We were having too much fun. What the hell – we can do this, we can do that. Slowly we pared it down, but we were thinking maybe we could put an intermission in this (laughs). We did land on the prequel and sequel right away though. We wanted to show how Laura got there and what happened after. That was our concept, to do both ends.
AG: It is truly fascinating how the film plays with time. Granted David and Mark (Frost) would do much more of that in Season 3 but Fire Walk With Me really introduced the element of time and the fluidity of time to the Twin Peaks narrative.
BE: I agree with you. The healthiest way to look at it is that it’s all a dream. When you have a dream, time is almost irrelevant. It bounces all over. It was all dreamlike and you can bounce around so easily because that’s how the series was designed. You know, with the Red Room, where’s time with the Red Room? That’s a big part of it.
AG: A lot of people are going back and looking at Fire Walk With Me through a new perspective after seeing Season 3. Have you seen Season 3?
BE: No, I haven’t. It’s not out of bitterness or anything from not being involved. I’ve been busy, but I have heard that Fire Walk With Me is referenced a lot which is cool.
AG: It definitely was. Without going too much into the new material, scenes like David Bowie’s scene from Fire Walk With Me, for example, have been the focus of a lot of discussions. That scene in the FBI headquarters, it almost appears to be two Agent Coopers, where one Cooper almost seemed to be behind the other one. That has had a lot of people speculating if you were exploring the two halves of Cooper, in the way that the end of Season 2 setup.
BE: Yeah, kind of. It was more what we were talking about before. The two Agent Coopers are much more about messing with time. If I remember correctly, David Bowie appears right after that. It was more about the time element but certainly that there would be a dark side to Agent Cooper. That was always there. That’s just natural in any series. You think, if this guy is the good guy, it would be really great to show some huge flaws of his. That would be my guess as to how the two Coopers came about. It’s a natural thing.
AG: For years, Twin Peaks fans have been speculating about who Judy was. In an abstract way, the new series answers that.
BE: My wife’s sister is named Judy, which is where the name came from (laughs). You always try to say hi to people out in TV land. There were lots of those in Twin Peaks. When we were writing Fire Walk With Me at David’s house, his assistant at the time would be in the other room, and she would come in to give David a phone message or something. She would hear what we were talking about, and she would always jokingly say, “As played by David Bowie.” We’d always laugh. When we got done with the script, David said, “I think we should get David Bowie” (laughs). That’s what that comes from. Of course, David being David, he can just call him up. It was pretty funny.
AG: Back to Judy for a moment; people speculated for years that she might have been Josie’s sister, there’s a famous theory that it was Laura, there was another theory that Judy was the equivalent to Laura Palmer on a case Phillip was working, and it was a question that truly had people speculating for the better part of 25 years.
BE: I don’t know what the answer to that is. The cool thing about our show was that you had lots of options. Judy could have been anyone, and that’s what we were thinking about it. Until we have to answer that, why should we answer that? There were tons of characters who were designed to be multi-faceted. They could be good or bad. That was always the great fun of that. We could turn around and reveal that two characters were brothers, and the audience would say, “Excellent.” We were built like a soap opera, but in some senses, we were satirizing soap operas. The speculation at that time, we certainly endorsed that, it was great.
AG: A few years ago, The Missing Pieces were finally released. There was a scene where Annie Blackburn is in the hospital, and the nurse takes the ring and puts it on. That appears to be the furthest scene out chronologically in the Twin Peaks narrative, prior to the new season. Longtime fans of the show like myself, our jaws dropped when we saw that scene. The series moved forward yet Fire Walk With Me didn’t show us that scene. What do you remember about that scene and why didn’t it make the final cut of the film?
BE: It wasn’t so much the content of the scene. We just had to take so much out. It wasn’t artistic as much as David had a time limit. Now we’d probably be on Netflix or something, but in those days they had to be able to show that movie three times from 5:00 on in the theaters. It wasn’t an artistic call but rather making sure the movie hit its time limit. Things just got cut. We spent a day shooting the scenes in Argentina, and those didn’t make the film either. New Line told us the film was too long. There’s not much mystery there. I’m sure we had ideas and a plan for that scene, but I can’t remember what it was.
AG: In the more primitive days of the internet, there were all of these rumors about how the plan was for Fire Walk With Me to be the first of a multi-film series. Was there any truth to that, or was it always just designed to be the one film?
BE: I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a movie where someone doesn’t say, “Here’s a great idea for a sequel!” (laughs). That’s just natural. We were in a unique spot to where we could have gone anywhere with the story, and we talked about it, but we never worked on a second idea. It’s just natural that you think about that stuff though. I mean, we opened at Cannes Film Festival and of course, thought it would be big. There was never an offer to do another film and I’m not sure if David would’ve been up for it anyway. By the time we went to Cannes, I was doing another series and we both had kinda moved on. One of the shows I worked on when I was first starting out was a really great detective show called Wiseguy. It started the arcs that are so popular on TV today. The detective would have one case he’d work on for 12 episodes and then he’d move onto the next case. David Burke, who created it and is still a good friend of mine, I called him about a month ago and just jokingly said, “You know, I’m thinking we should start working on Wiseguy Returns.” He laughed and said, “I got a call about that yesterday” (laughs). We barely survived our run originally and now someone wants to bring it back. My point is that its really natural. You like the crew; you’ve been working together for years, everyone’s having a good time. You want to keep going.
AG: You brought up the Cannes Film Festival. Fire Walk With Me had its infamous reaction there yet over the years, the reaction to the film has changed so drastically to the point where it even has a Criterion release now. What’s that like for you to see such a public shifting of opinion on the film?
BE: The stories about the film at Cannes are bullshit, complete bullshit. There were no boos. I was there. There were no boos. There might have been a lukewarm reaction, but people weren’t pissed off. That’s just complete bullshit. I don’t know where that started or who claims that’s what happened but I didn’t hear that. David didn’t hear that. Mary Sweeney didn’t hear that. It’s kind of a weird thing that started a year or so after the festival. I remember saying to my wife, “I don’t think that happened.” It wasn’t a really adverse reaction. I don’t know where that comes from except maybe people who resented that we opened the festival. I didn’t have the feeling at all that people were pissed off. I’d pass a lie detector test on that.
AG: One more Fire Walk With Me related question. It’s long been said that you and Lynch had considered having BOB and The Little Man From Another Place come from a planet made of creamed corn. I believe the story also went back to 1954.
BE: (Laughs) Yes. Eisenhower’s inauguration. (Laughs again) That’s all part of the writing process. I have drafts where somehow we were back in 1954, and it was Eisenhower’s inauguration, and we were going to shoot under a Formica table. If my memory serves me right, I could be wrong about this. We went off on lots of tangents while we were writing this film. Every writer does that, writes something and then looks at it two days later and says, “No, not a good idea.” I can remember a point where we were thinking that they would try to get BOB back to his portal and everything would have to go backwards. We thought about a scene where Sheriff Truman drove his Jeep backwards for about a mile and he would be speaking backwards. That was a great idea but would have been impossible to shoot. That’s like four days right there. So you always have these ideas, and some just don’t fit what you’re doing, or you just can’t do for other reasons. Maybe they’d make a great episode if the show ever comes back on television but it won’t work for the film.
AG: Had a question about the original series I wanted to circle back to, about the books that came out during the show’s run. How much did the show’s writers and producers have to do with the three books?
BE: It wasn’t so much discussed in the writer’s room, but we knew it was happening. Scott Frost, Mark’s brother, wrote one of the books. We knew they were happening and the thought was, why not do this since the show was so popular? The Access Guide I remember more because we (the writers) had to figure out where things actually were in the town. The books were ideas of Mark and David and then passed off to other people though. We didn’t have time to do them.
AG: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, Bob. In conclusion, I just wanted to ask about some of your fondest memories from your entire Twin Peaks experience.
BE: I have nothing but fond memories. It was a big change in my life because of how big the show was. I owe that to Mark Frost. I wasn’t anything. I think I’ve talked about this in other interviews before but you know how you get these Christmas cards with pictures and a letter in it? You barely know these people, and they’re telling you how their year was. They’re telling you things like “Well, Jim’s out of prison now,” and you’re asking yourself who the fuck these people are while you’re reading it. For years, I would do a funny version of that kinda thing and send it to my friends. In this particular year, my wife worked at the American Film Institute. We took a picture with Tony Curtis and he stood between us and he knew we were goofing around. I sent out this letter with the picture that year for Christmas saying this guy has been living with us for a year now and claims he’s a movie star. He’s eating us out of house and home, and if you could send us $5 so we can feed him. I sent that out, and Mark Frost was a friend of mine, and he got it. About two weeks later, he called me up and said, “I’m doing this series with David Lynch, and you’re fucked up enough to write for this.” So that was my spec script (laughs). That’s my memory of it all. Mark is a good guy, David’s a good guy, Harley’s a good guy, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
If you enjoyed this interview, please be sure to check out some of our others!