Anyone who’s interviewed David Lynch knows he doesn’t like to talk about what his work means. In one-on-one conversations, the writer-director (and sculptor, painter, musician, and occasional weatherman) behind the singular movie masterpieces Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Dr. comes across as affable, even gregarious. He’ll share memories from his past, and happily talk about some of the practical aspects of movie-making, like sound design or running a set. But he stops short of saying anything truly revealing.
David Lynch doesn’t like to talk about what his work means
If nothing else, Lynch’s reticence gets other people talking. From May to September 2017, cinephiles and telephiles tuned into Showtime to watch Twin Peaks: The Return, the sequel to the groundbreaking ABC drama Lynch and writer Mark Frost created back in 1990. Like the original series, the new Twin Peaks tells a convoluted, often opaque story about horrific crimes, illicit romances, lovable kooks, and the supernatural origins of human evil. And just like back in the early ’90s, fans of the show spent the days between episodes swapping theories about what the heck was actually happening on their TV screens.
A new Blu-ray set titled Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series contains all 18 hours of the 2017 series, plus nearly eight hours of bonus features. Unlike some past Lynch projects, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray doesn’t add any deleted scenes. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched the series, which was filled with the kind of material other directors leave on the cutting-room floor. It does, however, have Lynch’s weird promos for the show, some fairly conventional cast interviews (including the full hourlong panel from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, moderated by Lost / The Leftovers writer-producer Damon Lindelof), and plenty of behind-the-scenes footage.
The filmmakers’ fans — and even some of his skeptics — should be most interested in the set’s eighth disc, which contains Impressions: A Journey Behind the Scenes of Twin Peaks, 10 half-hour documentaries directed by Lynch’s friend and archivist Jason S. At no point during these mini-docs does Lynch look into the camera and say, “By the way Jason, here’s what actually happened to Cooper and Laura at the end of episode 18.” But watching an artist at work does provide some insights into his art.
Watching Lynch at work makes some things a little clearer about his art
Jason S. mostly films the Twin Peaks prep: the set-building, the crew conferences, and the rehearsals. About 80 percent of the time, he holds his camera steady on Lynch’s reactions. Sometimes, the director gets frustrated and even explosively angry, because there’s too much noise, too many people hovering around with questions, or because the process of setting up a shot is dragging on too long. More often, he seems as content as a weekend craftsman, tinkering in his garage.
In one of the Jason S. shorts, called The Number of Completion, Lynch putters between soundstages, checking on the progress of some of the series’s strangest scenes. He drops by a retro radio station, where a character known as “the Woodsman” will soon broadcast a creepy speech. He marvels at the grandeur of an old theater, where another extra-dimensional entity called “the Fireman” will reside. He stops in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office, where he contemplates a hole in the floor where otherworldly jets of fire are about to erupt. He calls to an assistant, “Bring me a dozen eggs and some creamed corn.” Then he gets down on his knees by the hole, and starts smearing it with yellowish goo.
In another Jason S. film A Bloody Finger in Your Mouth, Lynch is working with actor Laura Dern. First, he guides her exaggerated facial expressions from behind his monitor. Then he stands right next to her with a handful of raw bread dough, molding it around her face. This is Lynch the filmmaker working just like Lynch the sculptor: shaping the image he wants with his actual hands.
Why does this matter? Because thinking about Twin Peaks just as a TV show — or even as an 18-hour movie — doesn’t really explain what Lynch does. He works more like a graphic artist or a poet, intuitively fussing and fiddling and erasing and re-drawing, until he achieves something that was hard to articulate before he started working to bring it into the world.
Lynch works more like a graphic artist or a poet than like a director
Let’s be clear: saying “Twin Peaks isn’t just television” doesn’t mean it’s better… only that it’s different. And in some significant ways, it isn’t that different. In the original 1990–91 ABC series, Lynch and Frost borrowed elements from serialized TV, like daytime soaps and police procedurals, and classic Hollywood, like film noir and lurid melodramas. They just used them more for their visual and emotional textures than as a blueprint. The Showtime Twin Peaks takes advantage of the freedom of premium cable to make the violence bloodier and the sexual perversions more explicit. But Lynch and Frost are still chasing a feeling, not hatching a plot.
The Blu-ray featurettes clarify some of what that feeling is. There are moments in the Impressions collection where Lynch’s intensity is downright scary. When he’s advising the actor Christophe Zajac-Denek on how his character Ike “the Spike” should wield his icepick, he snarls and shouts, “Slam that thing in there!” When he’s coaching child actors to make noises as though they’re in pain, he keeps stopping them because they look “too happy.” There’s clearly something angry and ugly within Lynch, which he needed to include in Twin Peaks.
But there’s a sweetness, too. A lot of what’s so fascinating about the Jason S. films is how Lynch can turn on a dime from furious to generous. He snaps that the tight production schedule is robbing him of his chance to experiment (or, as he calls it, “get dreamy”). But when he gets the shot he wants, he’s effusive with praise for his crew.
He’s even kinder to his cast. Before one scene with Grace Zabriskie, he tells her, “I love you so much” right before yelling, “Action!” He inconveniences the entire production to accommodate the few days that Miguel Ferrer is available. He frequently gathers the crew around to give the actors a round of applause on their last day of shooting. All this lends credence to one of the more “meta” critical readings of Twin Peaks: The Return, which is that it’s partly about countering all the meanness in the world by spending time in the company of the people who matter, before everything changes for the worse.
Lynch can be both kind and cruel to his actors
Some of the funniest moments in the Twin Peaks featurettes see both Lynch veterans like Sherilyn Fenn and newcomers like Jim Belushi admitting that they have no idea why he’s asking them to do what they’re doing. Fenn starts to request some clarification on the meaning of one her lines, then stops herself, saying, “I won’t ask you. You won’t tell me.” And when Lynch directs Belushi to pretend that he has no clue what’s going on in a scene, he laughs, “Like real life!” (Laura Dern, on the other hand, immediately realizes that the time on a digital clock in one of her scenes is 2:53 because 2 + 5 + 3 = 10, which is “the number of completion”… and then proudly declares that she knows this because, “I work for David Lynch.”)
In lieu of explanations, Lynch tweaks his actors’ performances right down to the inflections on a single word. He walks them through every broad move and odd gesture, sounding at times like he’s asking them to re-create a dream he had last night.
Watching Lynch making Twin Peaks may irritate viewers who think both he and his show are pretentious and pointless. But it will at least clarify that he’s being true to a vision. At one point, while marveling at the wonder of a set that his team has created, he urges his cinematographer Peter Deming to keep the lighting low, because even though the space is amazing, “The less you see, the better.” For anyone who wants to know what Twin Peaks is about, there’s an answer. It’s about crafting something deliberately, and then obscuring it in shadow.