(Twin Peaks, Season 2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
Today, Lynch looks back at Twin Peaks with frustration and regret over “the many clues and threads that we never got to follow.”Frost is more calmly philosophical about the show’s demise. “That three-year period was great from start to finish. It would have been much better to see Twin Peaks continue for another year or two. But sometimes the best experiences aren’t the longest running, and in a way that makes them sweeter. As the years go by I think of the show with great fondness. It was a very happy experience, something really special and meaningful in all our lives and in our work—a very rare combination.”
Twin Peaks is a glowing memory for Frost: He ranks it at the top of his list of distinguished creative accomplishments. But he also honorably takes responsibility for production decisions that caused the show’s downfall:
I left to make Storyville during the second half of the second season, after we finished the storyline of Leland Palmer being his daughter’s killer. I regret my decision to not be there. That’s where we dropped the ball. Once the central Laura Palmer–Leland Palmer story was resolved, we were at a deficit in coming up with a story that was as compelling. And frankly, we didn’t. The Windom Earle thread took too long to develop, it didn’t start off with a bang. Selecting that story and allowing it to get too leisurely paced really hurt us.
Mark Frost and writer-producer Harley Peyton assumed that the show would follow the stunning death of Leland Palmer with a radiance of love. The smoldering longings of Audrey and Cooper for each other would flame into overt romance: The series’ two most charismatic surviving characters would share their hearts and bodies, and because we cared about them so much, they’d be prime candidates for exciting plot lines that would put them in jeopardy.
Stacks of letters from eager viewers reinforced Frost and Peyton’s conviction that the Cooper-Audrey union would bring robust life to postLeland Palmer Twin Peaks. But Cooper, rather than offering Audrey an invitation, was an impediment to love. As Frost recalls, “even though we made a point of stressing that Audrey was eighteen, Kyle MacLachlan felt strongly that Cooper, with his steadfast moral and ethical compass, would never engage in that relationship. He may well have been right.” Frost half-seriously jokes that “we should have revealed that Audrey had flunked high school for three years and was actually twenty-one—that might have satisfied Kyle.” So since Cooper and Audrey couldn’t face love and danger together, “we introduced the Annie Blackburn character for him, which was too little too late. And the Windom Earle storyline got pushed to the launching pad before it was ready to go, which was a big problem.”
Everyone from Harley Peyton to directors Tina Rathborne and Lesli Linka Glatter to actors Kyle MacLachlan, Catherine Coulson, Kimmy Robertson, and Jack Nance felt that the show had lost its focus and initial high level of inspiration: The quality of the material just wasn’t up to the rarified level to which they’d become accustomed. Some of the actors entreated Lynch to step in and somehow make things like they used to be when the series was fresh and magical. But Frost was jumping at the chance, made possible by the notoriety of Twin Peaks, to go and direct a film, and Lynch felt stymied and frustrated by his other collaborators doing “not what you would do.” His heart wasn’t absolutely devoted to the show any more; it was no longer the center of his Art Life: “you don’t have enough time to get in there and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Aside from a unified Lynch-Frost energy not being engaged with the latter stages of Twin Peaks, the ABC executives made what Frost calls “the bonehead move” of shifting the show to the TV graveyard of Saturday at 10 p.m. And President Bush the first was culpable. Frost stresses that “the Gulf War was an under-appreciated element in the show not making it over the hump. We were pre-empted for six out of eight weeks, and we didn’t have a chance to come back from that. Too much time had gone by when we resumed. Viewers couldn’t sustain their concentration over the gap. We’d laid out so many threads that it was very difficult for even dedicated fans to keep track of them.”
Frost had some definite threads in mind for season 3, a series of episodes which he felt would far surpass the second year in quality. Audrey and Pete would survive the bomb blast at the bank, Ben Horne would be back, the good Cooper would be trapped in the Black Lodge for a long time, while the bad Cooper menaced Annie and other townsfolk. Frost recalls that during the second season, Joan Chen, who played Josie, asked to leave the series to make a film. To accommodate her, the writers stuck Josie in a wooden drawer pull for safe keeping, so that she could be retrieved for a comeback. But there would be no season 3, so Twin Peaks fans were left with the mystery of flesh melded with wood grain, and the sorry spectacle of an evil, cackling Cooper loosed on an unsuspecting world.
Because the script for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me mentions creamed corn, and since the film’s co-writer Robert Engels has spoken a number of times of a cosmology in which one-armed Mike, BOB, and the Man From Another Place all come from a “place of corn,”31 many people assumed that Engels originated the corn concept. Actually, it’s another of Lynch’s spontaneous inspirations, which struck two years earlier during the first third of the TV series’ production. In 2003, Mark Frost told me that “David always loved the process of discovery, of finding something in a scene or a performance or in life that would take things in a completely unexpected turnaround. He had the confidence to see and sense that something was happening, and to make the most of it, to not rely completely on Plan A.” Frost always insisted on discussing changes before they were shot, so one of Lynch’s alterations of Plan A “threw me for a loop.” Looking at the rushes of the day’s shooting, Frost watched a scene in episode 10 in which Donna brings a Meals-on-Wheels to the bed-ridden old Mrs. Tremond. There was no creamed corn mentioned in Harley Peyton’s script, but here was Mrs. Tremond stressing that she didn’t like the stuff, and then Frost saw the corn on her plate vanish, only to materialize across the room in the cupped hand’s of David Lynch’s son. Young Austin, playing Tremond’s magician grandson, and dressed and groomed to look just like his dad, held the golden corn in his hands, then made it vanish into thin air. After viewing the footage, Frost tracked down Lynch and asked him what the deal was. Lynch replied, “I was eating creamed corn at lunch; it looked so fantastic, I just had to do something with it.” So the corn component of the Twin Peaks mythos was born because David Lynch had lunch at the ABC commissary on a certain day.
The folks watching the final episode at the Mar T Café in Washington State may have had divided opinions on the series’ conclusion, but they voiced a unanimous sentiment as they stepped into the rainy June night to go home: “I hear they might make a Twin Peaks movie—wouldn’t that be great!”
Twelve hundred miles to the south, David Lynch shared their sentiment. “At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move, and talk. I was in love with that world and I hadn’t finished with it.”36 Rather than brood over the loss of the TV series, Lynch poured his creative energy into writing a feature film screenplay with the series’ head creative script consultant Robert Engels. There would be no UFO references, no Miss Twin Peaks Contest or Civil War reenactments, no doublecrossing business schemes, no arch and clever Windom Earle, and no plaid shirts for Agent Cooper. Series co-creator Mark Frost amicably declined to be part of the film project, citing his belief that the audience hungered for the story to move forward and tie up loose ends. Whereas Lynch wanted to return to the broken heart and endangered soul of Twin Peaks: the final seven days of Laura’s life, so that “we could actually see things we had only heard about”37 on the TV show from those who had survived the town’s favorite daughter. And Lynch would conduct his mission to reclaim the authentic essence of Twin Peaks up north where he’d shot the pilot episode, where “a certain wind” blows through the woods and small towns of Washington State.
Lynch chose cinematographer Ron Garcia, who’d shot the pilot episode in the sunless, overcast February of 1989, to lens the feature film, which would be called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Assuming they would again be working with a palette of chilly grays and earthen browns, Garcia and Lynch were shocked to find Seattle and the Snoqualmie valley bathed in eighty-five-degree Indian summer sunshine in September 1991. Rather than being thrown off course aesthetically by the unexpected weather, the pair decided to, according to Garcia, “exploit the contrast, with these golds and greens and blue skies against which these horrible things were happening to Laura Palmer.” Once again, Lynch let happenstance help determine the “correct” form of his art.
It was chance that let me witness some of Lynch’s art-making process. Being the director of the Seattle Art Museum’s film program, I often work late and don’t watch the local eleven o’clock news. But one night I saw that Lynch and company had arrived to begin filming at a dilapidated Snoqualmie trailer park. By early afternoon the next day, I was on the case. Lynch, who loves to delve into hidden secrets in his work, wanted the plot details of his film to remain a mystery until it hit the screen, so the news cameraman had only been allowed to catch a glimpse of the closed trailer park set through a knot hole in a cedar fence. Lynch wanted absolutely no media coverage of the production, and I later learned that a friend of mine who wrote for Entertainment Weekly magazine out of New York was told to “not even think about catching a plane to Washington State.” I didn’t want to photograph or write about the production or have fire walk with me, but I did want to see. I was fascinated by the way that Lynch’s fictional neighborhood intersected with the touchstones of my own physical and imaginative life. My Swedish-immigrant father had been a young pre-chainsaw lumberjack in the woods just outside Twin Peaks, I’d gotten my first driver’s license a stone’s throw from the Double R Diner and graduated from high school in a nearby salmon-hatchery town, and as a boy the surrounding rivers, forests, and mountains had been the dwelling places of Huckleberry Finn and Rip van Winkle. And at night the deep black sky and its sparkling stars, at full force so far from city lights, held the promise of stories and possibilities without end.
As I approached the trailer park near Meadowbroook Street in Snoqualmie, I was stopped by a roadblock that was backed up with numerous police cars and local law enforcement officers. Parking a few blocks away, I approached the police blockade on foot, trying to look purposeful and busy, like the movie crew members who swarmed back and forth within the cordoned-off area. Expecting to be challenged at any second, I strode past the policemen, picked up my pace, rounded a corner, and almost smacked right into Dale Cooper. What an arresting sensation, suddenly sharing three feet of sidewalk with a fictional character, his double-breasted overcoat, monumental ivory chin, and slicked-back black patent-leather hair as perfect as they were on my TV at home. The illusion passed in a second, as Kyle MacLachlan’s natural, looserthan-Cooper body posture and grinning demeanor asserted themselves, and I marveled at the transformative power of the actor’s art.
I found the fence that the TV news crew had peeked through, and an unexpected gap through which the crew was moving equipment, so I slipped into the film’s Fat Trout Trailer Park. And, right behind me, stepped David Lynch. He was wearing baggy tan khakis, a white shirt with its collar button closed, a rumpled black blazer with holes at the elbows, and a charcoal, long-billed cap. A toothpick, like a little splinter of divining rod, jutted from his lips. The furrow between his eyebrows gave him an earnest, concerned look that opened easily into amusement and amazement. For eight years (in Dune, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks), MacLachlan had tracked clues and read dreams as Lynch’s truth-questing alter-ego, and the two men—who both spent their early years in Washington State—began work on their new collaboration with a firm handshake.
First up is a scene in the town of Deer Meadow, where young Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) has been found murdered and wrapped in plastic. FBI boss Gordon Cole (David Lynch) has sent agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) to investigate, and Desmond has mysteriously disappeared. This is one of Cole’s “blue rose cases,” referring to the botanical impossibility of a blue rose and thus coding the mystery as one that violates the borders of rational scientific investigation and delves into paranormal dimensions. This is Cooper’s territory, so Cole sends him out to see where Desmond went one year before. Once in the field, Cooper hears about a place called Twin Peaks and a girl named Laura. The last place Desmond had been seen was the Fat Trout Trailer Park, and I watch Lynch set up scenes in which Cooper talks to scruffy, haggard park manager Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) and they look around the lot. Rodd points Cooper toward a certain trailer and then, exasperated, sees the agent, who seems almost in a trance of aroused intuition, wander off in another direction. For a number of rehearsals and takes I savor Stanton bellowing, “Why the hell are you going up that way?” Lynch speaks only a few quiet words of direction, but on one take says “Okay, Harry Dean, let’s get that anger up there” before calling “Action!” through his amplified megaphone. As the Gordon Cole–volume twang of his voice cuts the still Snoqualmie air over the course of the afternoon, I notice that he calls actors by their real names, but refers to MacLachlan as “Cooper.”
With the scenes involving Stanton and MacLachlan in the can, Lynch thanks them for their “doggone good job.” A teenage girl crosses the shooting area and joins two friends near me. One asks, “Could you see a lot over there?” The girl looks wistfully at MacLachlan and sighs, “All I know is, there he is.” But in a blink, he isn’t there anymore, nor are Lynch and Stanton.
I follow a dirt path arcing left through the trailers to the lazy Snoqualmie River. On the grassy banks, kids skip stones across the green water that flows from here to the double smokestacks of the Weyerhaeuser sawmill (the Packard Mill in the series’ opening credits), on to the Salish Lodge (the Great Northern Hotel), and over the 217-foot Snoqualmie Falls (Whitetail Falls) that local Native Americans still worship. Hearing an occasional soft murmur of voices, I look over my shoulder and see Lynch and his two actors sitting on the narrow porch of Stanton’s character’s trailer. After taking a silent pause to gaze at the river, Lynch gets up and spends a lot of time playing with a hose and some dirt. His fascination with the interface between industrial and organic textures is fully evident as he alternately floats dust and mists water onto the weathered steel of a 1970s car. Finally, the car looks like it hasn’t been driven or touched in months—except that it’s got “Let’s rock” written across its windshield in hot pink.
Speaking of rock, this evening the MTV Music Awards are being handed out three hours ahead in New York, and they’ve sent a crew here to beam a live message to the viewers from popular singer-actor Chris Isaak. Wearing his Chet Desmond FBI overcoat, he sits down with the river in the background for a short on-camera interview. While Isaak is earnestly answering questions, Kyle MacLachlan exhibits an un-Cooperesque sense of mischief. Grabbing a small tray and a cup of coffee, and wearing his own FBI overcoat, he intrudes on the interview. Like a butler, he holds out the tray, saying, “Your coffee, sir.” Isaak throws him a curve: “I didn’t order any coffee,” to which MacLachlan responds with BOB-like intensity “You must take this coffee!”
As the afternoon spends itself in golden splendor, a little group of production-watchers gathers. The cast and crew cheerfully mingle with trailer park residents, town locals, and tourists from New York, England, and Sugarland, Texas. There’s a feeling that we’re all Twin Peaks dwellers in spirit, and it seems perfectly natural that when Lynch has to stop a take around 4:30 p.m. (“We’ve got a bad siren”), a Snoqualmie resident calls out, “That’s the Packard Mill changing shifts.”
As twilight adds an eerie aura to the meandering rows of ramshackle old trailers, Lynch sets up a shot in which Isaak will walk between them looking for clues. The director reveals his eagle eye, and part of his conception of Twin Peaks, when he spots a 1990 trailer license tab the size of a postage stamp in the far corner of his camera frame. A production assistant, responding to Lynch’s “We gotta lose that ninety,” covers it with tape, thus keeping the director’s fictional world running on expansive dreamtime rather than constrictive calendar chronology.
Lynch and his work bespeak his feeling of kinship with those who are physically and socially outside the consumer-culture-imaged mainstream. The director next readies for a scene in which Isaak and Stanton are interrupted by an old woman with a sunken chin and permanently stiff arms ending in curled hands. “Where’s my goddam hot water? Where’s my goddam hot water? Where is my goddam hot water?,” she importunes Stanton. The woman, a local, speaks at the wrong moment. This is the last natural-light shot of the day and there are precious few minutes left to get it. Lynch stops the take and patiently tells the woman how he wants her to enter the action. They take the shot three times, and she demands a lot of hot water in perfect form. After the final “Cut!” he walks straight past Isaak and Stanton and puts his long arm around the woman’s stooped shoulders: “That was very, very good, Margaret.”
Night gathers around the trailer park, which is illuminated into hyper-reality by all the movie lights, and a sense of camaraderie and happily shared experience bathes the scene. Lynch, with his hand on an electrical switch, experiments with various ways to get a flash of bright light to flood through the window of a trailer when someone opens its door. He calls this “a beautiful day,” and grins when Mar T Café owner Pat Cokewell arrives with a steaming bowl of special-order chili for Harry Dean. Chris Isaak signs autographs and Keifer Sutherland, who plays his FBI cohort Sam Stanley, shows up with a bag of burgers from the 1950s-vintage Burgermaster drive-in. He’s accompanied by two large, loving golden dogs that have traveled with him from L.A. And if you think that anyone’s going to mention the fact that the Pretty Woman, the Runaway Bride herself, Julia Roberts, just called off her and Sutherland’s romance and wedding a few days ago, you’ve been out in the woods too long.
Watching the production at work was an addictive experience, so as the strangely unshrouded Northwest sun beat down on a balmy September and October, I tracked the filmmakers all over the territory. Since they adamantly did not want any plot details leaking out, I realized that my anonymous sixfoot-two presence could be challenged at any moment. Sure enough, as I stood at Lynch’s elbow while he watched a scene rehearsal of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) walking to school, assistant director Bill Jennings gently pulled me aside and asked, “Are you with us?” If I said yes, he would want to know in what capacity, so, reluctantly, I replied “Not really” and retreated to a respectful distance. Over the weeks Bill’s gatekeeper stance relaxed, and I huddled with him in the deep night woods watching moths flame out as they batted into hot movie lights, while I listened to this African American who so wanted to be in the film industry speak movingly of his mentorship with independent director John Korty (Crazy Quilt, 1966). The crew got used to seeing me around, and I developed a chatting relationship with Lynch assistant/publicist Gaye Pope and location scout Julie Duvic, started using actor’s trailers for bathroom breaks, and heard Dana Ashbrook’s (bad-boy Bobby Briggs) enthusiastic rendition of a dirty joke involving a hunter who enjoyed getting blowjobs from a grizzly bear. Still, no matter how at-home I felt with the production, I knew that Lynch could instantly eject me, so I diligently tried to avoid catching his eye.
In this film all eyes would be on Sheryl Lee, the young Seattle actress who became world famous playing the corpse of Laura palmer in the Twin Peaks pilot, and did a solid job of portraying Laura’s unworldly cousin Maddy. For Fire Walk with Me she would have to carry the full, harrowing emotional weight of Laura’s tormented existence but, like Lynch, she was eager to return to the character: “Laura always had a tremendous amount of life, because for two seasons everybody talked about her—yet I didn’t get to do those things and be her.”41 But being Laura was an emotionally draining ordeal, in which Lee felt she was “living a lifetime in just two short months.”42 Desperation, fear, pain, and weeping were her constant companions, and above all, “Everyday I felt an incredible loneliness that was very hard to bear.” We know that Lynch and his protagonists love the thrill of pursuing and revealing dark, hidden secrets. But in Fire Walk With Me the director is exploring the “horror of secrets”: the torturous burden that the one keeping the secrets must bear. Lee had to inhabit the terrible truth that though Laura’s community sees her as its golden girl, she’s actually whoring and drug-sniffing her way through life. And, at the root of everything, there’s BOB, the scary entity with long gray hair who’s been forcing sex on her for years and who is also, somehow, her father Leland. And there’s BOB’s voice hissing from the ceiling fan that he wants to be her or he’ll kill her. Believing that she’s contaminated by some virulent spiritual contagion and is beyond saving, she doesn’t reach out to those who might help her, but rather strives to contain her “disease” and not infect those who love her. Lee felt all the isolation and psychic tension of Laura’s double life: “There were days when I didn’t know how I was going to go another minute.” Lynch fully understood and appreciated the anguish Lee was experiencing for the sake of his art, and he tenderly guided her through Laura’s journey. “Thank God for David. I had to go to a deep place to play Laura, a place I didn’t think I could reach, but he helped me get there and survive it all.”
I first witnessed Sheryl Lee’s awe-inspiring incarnation of Laura as Lynch filmed a traffic-jam scene in which Leland and daughter are accosted by one-armed Mike (Al Strobel), BOB’s former familiar in malevolence who’s now out to stop his partner’s evil. While Laura and Leland are stuck in traffic, Mike raves at them, concluding, “It’s your father,” meaning that Leland is BOB’s incest-committing host. While Mike yells, Leland simultaneously holds one foot on the brakes and races the engine with the other, a motif that Lynch employs in his unproduced screenplay of One Saliva Bubble and the 1999 film The Straight Story. In the context of Fire Walk With Me, this gesture mirrors the conflicting impulses warring within Leland, who is both Laura’s loving, protective father (brakes) and her slavering, BOB-inspired molester (accelerator).
Mike drives off and Leland roars the Palmer convertible into a gas station, where he and Laura have an intensely emotional scene while sitting in the car. Mixed feelings boil in close-up shots. Even though Leland isn’t consciously aware that BOB sometimes uses his body to do bad things, the BOB-part of his psyche is severely disturbed by the threat Mike poses, leaving the surface Leland confused and angry. Intercut with this scene in the finished film will be footage detailing Leland’s extramarital sex with Teresa Banks (who “looks just like my Laura”) and the time Teresa lined up an extra girl to party with, who turned out to be his daughter (unbeknownst to Laura, he fled when he realized it was her). So, back in the car, there’s a component of BOB-inflamed suspicion and sexual jealousy to Leland’s inner turmoil (So, my girl is ready to screw an anonymous man for money!).
Filming Leland’s subtly shifting, distraught face without any dialogue, crouching just outside camera range, Lynch calls for “absolute silence” and, as he and Ray Wise focus intently, the director intones: “Look at her ... now back forward . . . change slightly, settle into it . . . steal a look . . . a little more devious, more frightening . . . and cut. That was beautiful Ray.”
In this scene, Laura’s emotional storm has to even exceed Leland’s. She has to react to Mike’s raging, denouncing words, her father’s extreme reaction to Mike, and his weird stomping on the accelerator while they’re stopped, plus, in the midst of her fear and trembling, she must project an accusatory, angry tone toward Leland as she speaks of the day she first realized he and BOB may be one and the same. In order to reach the emotional heights she needs, Lee surprises us all by screaming loudly a few times just before the first take rolls. Lynch seems thrilled by her heartfelt participation in his project. He began his odyssey with her by carefully arranging sand grains on her forehead as she lay wrapped in plastic on a freezing Washington beach. And now, almost two years later, he speaks softly to her between takes and gives her a little kiss on her blond bangs. Her arduous day over, Lee strolls toward her trailer, smiling down at the waist-high Snoqualmie kids who encircle her and say, “Goodbye, Laura, goodbye.”
A few nights later Lynch demonstrated both his affectionate bond with his leading lady and his embrace of spontaneous happenings. The film production was occupying a large section of land in the center of the town of Fall City, just downriver from Snoqualmie Falls. This huge set encompassed the parking lot and exterior of the Roadhouse and the exterior of the Log Lady’s (Catherine Couslon) cabin. So on a Friday night, lots of unusual lights and activity were evident right next to the town’s only bridge across the Snoqualmie River, and a crowd of hundreds had gathered to watch the moviemakers. Dana Ashbrook was there just to hang out, and Coulson arrived cradling her log and wearing her hiking boots, long tweed coat, and glasses for the upcoming scene. As Lynch talked camera moves with Ron Garcia, Sheryl Lee arrived dressed in Laura’s all-black, short-skirted nightprowling ensemble, her long blonde locks pulled up away from her face by large pink hairpins. The director stepped over to her end and, as they put their arms around each other’s waists and he kissed her on the cheek, the segment of the watching crowd nearest to them went “Awhhh.”
In the scene, Laura, with her hair down, will drive her yellow ’56 Buick into the dirt lot, park, and walk to the Roadhouse entrance, where the Log Lady will intercept her and give her some words of advice. Everything goes fine in rehearsal, and Lynch gets ready to roll his camera. During the preparation period, the crowd has been in a festive mood, eating snacks, drinking beer, keeping track of their children, and shooing away a big white dog that’s been cruising for handouts and occasionally trying to hump the backs of various crowd members who are sitting on the ground. Just to be safe, assistant director Bill Jennings grabs the canine and plants it firmly on the sidelines, where it is content to sit.
Lynch calls “Action!” through his megaphone, and Lee pulls up, stops her car, gets out, and starts across the puddled parking lot. At this point the dog stands up and strides straight into the shot, almost clipping Lee as she walks, and then keeps right on going off into the night at a diagonal angle from Lee’s trajectory. Lee completes her walk, meeting the Log Lady, and Lynch yells “Cut!”—and then for all our benefit, “Perfect!” He’s got a grin on his face, and his crew and the watching hundreds erupt in laughter, cheers, and applause.
On another night, without spectators, the director and his crew shot what would have been the largest-scale scene in the film, but it didn’t make the final cut. At a forested place appropriately called Ravendale, we see on the right a ramshackle low building that will be the truckstop bar where Laura and Donna spend a debauched evening with lustful loggers Buck (Victor Rivers) and Tommy (Chris Pedersen). Left of the structure is a long dirt lot with a tall metal post supporting a sign that says, with Special Agent resonance, “Cooper Tires.” Lynch positions his camera near the bar looking back into the lot, with the paved forest road beyond. To round out his composition, the director has placed a long line of parked logging trucks on the paved road that will dwindle to the vanishing point in the background of the shot, and behind the trucks, in the woods, he’s put an atmospheric light source that shines spectrally through the trees. In the midst of all these hectic preparations, which take hours, property master Daniel Kuttner brings over a tarnished old silver metal ice chest with a red Coca-Cola logo on it for Lynch to approve. The director’s ability to disengage from the commotion around him and focus on the object was positively Dale Cooper–like. He silently stared at the chest for what seemed like two minutes, and simply concluded, “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Around 10 p.m. everyone’s ready to realize on film these few lines from the script: “EXTERIOR, BORDER TRUCK STOP—NIGHT. Establish. Tommy takes the car like a rocket into the parking lot and does a complete three-sixty before rocking to a stop.” The scene will not use stunt people. Chris Pedersen will be driving, with Moira Kelly at his side and Sheryl Lee and Victor Rivers in the back seat, and they’ll all be grasping beer bottles. They rehearse the action at half-speed and then, after workers sweep the dirt lot smooth, they’re ready for what everyone hopes will be a one-take shot.
With the camera rolling, the car’s headlights appear way down the road and quickly grow larger as the vehicle roars along the line of logging trucks. Without slacking its speed, the car veers off the pavement into the truckstop lot, heading straight toward the camera. If it kept coming for a second or two more it would wipe out Lynch and many of his crew, but Pedersen expertly jerks the steering wheel, sending the car into a perfect donut spin around the Cooper Tires signpost. Almost up on its two inside wheels, the sliding car spews dust and sprays a wave of gravel in its wake. The car skids to a stop after circling the signpost, and the driver and his three passengers climb out on wobbly legs as the camera cuts. All eyes but two are on the intrepid riders as Lynch and his crew crowd in with cheers and congratulations. I notice that the bill of Lynch’s cap is pointing straight up and follow his gaze in time to see a round beige cloud of dust rising into a twinkling star field. I am sure that if he could have grabbed a camera fast enough he would have tried to film this poetic exhalation of his car-action scene.
I spent my final night watching the production miles above North Bend’s Mar T Café in the lower Cascade Mountains. I turned off the highway, drove down a secondary road, parked, and trekked in to the encampment. Up here, night is night, and in a sweeping, murky panorama of forest, mountains, and black sky, the only light and heat emanated from the moviemakers’ electrical generators.
There was definitely enough illumination for the prop men to see what they were doing as they stuffed the head of a mannequin that resembled actor Rick Aiello (Deputy Sheriff Cliff Howard) with raw hamburger and explosive blood packs: it looks like Cliff isn’t going to make it through the night. Like drivers who can’t resist looking at a car crash, a group of crew workers and actors eating dinner from paper plates gathered to watch the gory head-shot preparations, knowing their stomachs were going to turn flip-flops. But at least they got to emote in histrionic disgust, “Oooooh, yuk!,” and one wag added, “Hey, spoon some of that onto my plate.”
After eating, the crew, using flashlights to see with, carries the mannequin and all the necessary equipment a half-mile down a narrow dirt path deep into the evergreen forest. Setting up camp at the base of a huge oldgrowth cedar tree trunk, Lynch takes hours to film the sequence in which Laura and Bobby, high on cocaine, meet with Deputy Cliff Howard to score more of the drug. Laura and Bobby arrive before Cliff, and Lynch illuminates their scenes with just their flashlights, which play only on their faces and a few spooky trees, so that the darkness truly envelops them.
Laura, giddy and goofy with cocaine, gigglingly points out some of the natural attractions to her escort (“Bobby, I found a leaf; Bobby, I found a twig”) in a drug-induced perversion of Lynch and Cooper’s wonderstruck way of seeing the world. In the next scene, when Cliff shows up with the snow, he pulls out a gun and looks as though he’s going to plug Bobby, so Bobby shoots first. Even though Dana Ashbrook’s gun is loaded with blanks, a concussion and some black powder will still shoot out of the barrel, so the actor does some test firings against a white sheet to gauge the safe distance he should stand from Rick Aiello. With a very high percentage of assurance that he will be safe, Aiello takes his “bullets” like a man and dies a good movie death. Still, I am on edge watching this scene. We’ve all seen thousands of gun killings on the screen, but to witness firsthand someone pulling out a revolver and shooting a person a few feet away from them is a viscerally shocking experience. In a few seconds the illusion of violence is committed to film and vanishes from our world, with Ashbrook and Aiello both laughing as the killer helps his victim to his feet. My composure is just returning to normal when, out of the corner of my eye in the dim light, I realize that the man standing next to me has a long narrow face and shoulder-length gray hair brushing his black leather jacket. It is BOB himself, standing in the middle of the night woods, and I have to concentrate to transform his grinning face into that of the friendly, jocular Frank Silva. It’s slightly reassuring to realize that I’m a bit taller than one of the creepiest essences of evil ever put on film, the fiend who has haunted some of my friends’ dreams and attics. Lynch concludes the first stage of this evening’s work by splattering the Cliff Howard mannequin’s meaty brains and blood across the forest’s green vegetation. And he lingers on the incongruously smiling face of Laura, who feels her own life is so devalued that she reflexively laughs and laughs above the lawman’s steaming corpse. She gets the joke of just how close her own death is to her.
This evening’s stage two begins around ten o’clock as Lynch and company penetrate still deeper into the woods and set up their camera on the narrow path looking back in the direction they’ve come from. And in the scene they’re preparing, Laura and biker James (James Marshall), her truest love, pause on the metaphorical abyss-edge of Laura’s coming dive into death and poignantly sum up their relationship. This will be one of those visually uncluttered, emotionally complex two-person scenes that Lynch does so well.
As Lynch’s characters often do, Laura and James emerge out of darkness, the tiny far-off flicker of his Harley’s headlight growing larger and larger as James, with Laura clinging to his waist, rumbles up the forest path and stops in front of the camera. Lynch wants to make the lighting even more atmospheric, so he has his crew rig a translucent window shade over a big light, and they practice the new setup a few times. As the motorcycle couple rides up near the camera, Lynch hand-signals “Now!,” and two crew members raise the windowshade, seamlessly bathing James and Laura in extra illumination, so that her golden hair and ivory skin glow against the rich, deep, forest black.
Sheryl Lee and James Marshall rehearse their most intense moments together in the film, as she does a bravura job of inhabiting Laura’s sadly fluctuating feelings. No single way of being brings her peace, so she wavers desperately between emotions, alternately kissing him with lust, mocking him with words and a slap, declaring her love and saying “Let’s get lost together,” then coolly withdrawing and telling him to take her home. Laura was drugging and boozing before he picked her up so, in addition to portraying Laura’s fragmented emotions with breathtaking conviction in her forest scene with James, Lee makes a wonderfully subtle transition from a woozy, sexy, slurred manner to a chilly, alienated lucidity.
Because the dense woods comes right down to the narrow path Laura and James are on, Lynch and about ten of us are just outside the camera’s frameline as Sheryl Lee slaps James Marshall and they whisper and weep and cling to each other for dear life. If I tripped and fell forward I’d be in the shot so, standing on a spongy carpet of fallen twigs and leaves, I try to freeze my muscles and scarcely breath during the long-duration takes. Lynch is very subdued and soft-spoken with Lee and Marshall, and during filming only he and a few of the crew look directly at them. These are actors pretending to be other people, and yet when they share their intimate moments, most of us can’t bear to intrude with our eyes, so we look down at the ground.
By now, it’s after midnight, and I’ve got to be at work later this morning. So when everyone takes a breather before finishing the scene, a couple of crewmembers head back down the path toward the filmmakers’ main encampment, and I go with them. It takes a while for me to walk all the way back out to my car in the total darkness, but my key finds the lock and I look back toward the production area. In the horizon-to-horizon blackness, a bright spot of light emanates from the trees, giving the stone bases of the surrounding mountains an eerie sheen. Lynch is beginning the shots in which Laura gets an unexpected jolt of terror and seems to see something in the woods beyond James’ shoulder—but nothing’s there. Suddenly, far off, yet weirdly close in the still air, I can hear Laura scream.
Back in Los Angeles, she most certainly screamed again on Halloween night, when Lynch finished shooting the film with the train-car-interior scene of her murder by the BOB-possessed Leland. Out of respect for the arduous emotional journey Sheryl Lee was taking with Laura’s life cycle, the director chose to have her enact the death scene in sequence at the end of the production process. Even though BOB was wielding the power in the scene, the night was disturbing and “scary” for Frank Silva, and it gave Sheryl Lee nightmares. But the dark, death-of-Laura vibrations generated on that October 31 were somewhat mitigated by the fact that after shooting the harrowing scene everyone celebrated Frank’s Halloween birthday.
Lynch told his old friend Catherine Coulson (The Log Lady) that on Fire Walk With Me “he’s never been happier shooting a movie,”49 but the May 1992 Cannes Film Festival did not help him sustain a well-pleased mood. The film was poorly received by the audience and Lynch, reacting to all the “hostility, upset, and anger”50 in the air, fell ill during the night and had to call a doctor to his hotel room. When he walked into his press conference, “feeling like I was made of broken glass,”51 some critics actually hissed and booed. Surrounded by a cadre of friends (composer Angelo Badalamenti, co-writer Robert Engels, actor Michael Anderson, producer Jean-Claude Fleury), Lynch kept his cool and politely fielded many questions. He maintained his familiar positions, saying that just because his films contain drug use and savage violence it doesn’t mean that he condones such activities, and emphasizing that his works have definite meanings for him, but that he doesn’t want to color the viewer’s personal interpretation by talking about his own private conception. Lynch summed up his remarks by restating the core of his worldview: that studying the details of a phenomenon like the life and death of Laura Palmer, and receiving some answers from it, will not dissipate its essential mystery.
From the international media’s point of view, Lynch himself was a walking mystery as he strolled the sun-bleached promenades of Cannes, for two years earlier he had kissed Isabella Rossellini on the lips before a mass of flashing cameras, and now he was holding hands with an anonymous, and very pregnant, woman in black. England’s The Daily Mail, after interviewing Rossellini, reported that she had, in the paper’s words, “severed all romantic ties”52 with Lynch, having found his “individualism, eccentricity, and whacky idiosyncracies tiresome and irksome.”53 But later Rossellini said, “I had thought David had finally relaxed and had believed after so many years that we could finally, officially, be a couple.” Lynch doesn’t like to talk about his romantic relationships, but Jennifer Lynch told me that “there was a time near the end of his five years with Isabella when she wanted more than he felt he could safely give. What man doesn’t want to be everything for a woman like that? But he realized you can be everything you are and still not be everything the woman is looking for. Things end in relationships for him for what may at the time seem really brutal or sad reasons, but they all seem appropriate.” Rossellini must have felt like the Heartbroken Woman in Lynch’s Industrial Symphony No. 1, but like that suffering character who found a glimmer of hope in a shower of sparkling space dust, Rossellini, as Lynch does, believed that “there is always some light in every situation.” After some time passed she achieved a state of equanimity in which she spoke of Lynch’s talent with warm respect, said that she would love to work with him again, and declared that of all the men she has had relationships with, including Martin Scorsese, Lynch was the most supportive of her creative endeavors. In 2004, Jennifer Lynch added that “my father and Isabella are very close to this day.”
The media covering the 1992 Cannes Film Festival learned that the pregnant woman accompanying Lynch was his new “girlfriend,” as he said in his 1950s-adolescent way. Mary Sweeney, a graduate of the prestigious New York University cinema studies program, was a painter and film editor who had helped Lynch piece together Blue Velvet, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Wild at Heart, and part of Twin Peaks. Lynch had been drawn to the black-haired, sweet, laughing woman who sat with him in Los Angeles and put as much energy and care into poring over every frame of his films as he did. She was already sharing the rhythms of his work, and Lynch found it natural and wonderful to embrace her into the flow of his life. What a perfect situation for an artist, to have one’s professional collaborator and romantic partner be the same person. Lynch felt so at home with Mary that he allowed her to move into his artist-bachelor’s Hollywood Hills lair and fill the architectural work of art with cooking smells. Leaving their disappointing Twin Peaks: Fire walk With Me experience behind them in the South of France, Lynch and Sweeney stopped off in Paris on their way back to Los Angeles. Lynch has spoken of how, when you look in the mirror, one becomes two. And now, in the City of Light, two became three as Sweeney gave birth to Riley, Lynch’s third child and second son.
Greg Olson/ David Lynch/ Beautiful Dark