Caleb Deschanel

Caleb Deschanel

An experienced and renowned cinematographer and director, Caleb Deschanel (b. 1944) became a part of the first class of AFI, together with David Lynch. While he is still working as a director and cinematographer, Deschanel has received an ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, and he also received an ASC Award for The Patriot [2000] and two ASC nominations (for The Passion of the Christ and Fly Away Home [1996]). Deschanel’s list of achievements is impressive, and it includes films like Being There (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984) and National Treasure (2004). Also, Deschanel has directed three episodes of Twin Peaks, and he is a part of a celebrated ‘Hollywood family’. Caleb Deschanel is married to Mary Jo Weir (who played Eileen Hayward in Twin Peaks), and his two daughters, Emily and Zooey, are both famous actors and producers.


AH: How would you describe Twin Peaks, and how did it differ from most network shows at the time?

CD: Twin Peaks was about an unsolved murder. The open ended story was unusual on television where stories were wrapped up by the end of each show. David and Mark pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on network TV by being extremely subtle and clever.  A lot of innuendo and visual metaphors. The strangeness of the situations in the most ordinary of places was key to the story. There were characters with secrets that made them more interesting than what they seemed at first.

AH: You directed three episodes. The first one of these is episode 1.7 (“Realization Time”). This episode contains a number of interesting scenes and sequences, including a scene where Catherine talks with an insurance agent called Mr. Neff and a sequence where Maddy, Donna and James are attempting to get Dr. Jacoby to meet them at the gazebo. These look like intentional references to Double Indemnity and Vertigo, and the bird Waldo – seen in another scene from this episode – looks like a reference to Otto Preminger’s Laura. Did you talk about those references, and what was the idea with all of these small hints and allusions (often to classic noir-films from the 40s)?

CD: For sure those references are everywhere, in the names of characters and the names of places. In the nature of the dramatic situations.  It’s a real giant puzzle of homages to the great movies of Hollywood, actually all movies. You could have a fun time trying to tie all of them together. Look up all the names and cross reference them.. You will find lots of interesting parallels. I remember talking to Mark about these connections – these homages – but not David.

AH: Episodes 1.7 and 2.8 both start with an eerie nighttime image – the first one a shot of the moon at night, the other one of the Palmer house at night underscored by a scream. Could you say a few words on how you worked with ‘setting the tone’ and ‘establishing mood’?

CD: Twin Peaks was in part about mood. There is a melancholy to the whole show that is in part created by the sounds and the music. The opening credits bring you to this place as a start. It sets the mood as a jumping off point for each episode. What you describe here is not much different from a lot of average horror movies, but Twin Peaks played with genre and altered it, but never really made fun of anything. There is a sincerity to the stories and respect for the characters and the situations they find themselves in. The characters are odd and different than we are used to seeing, but they are never looked down upon.

AH: In episode 2.8 (“Drive with a Dead Girl”), we see Leland playing golf inside the house, and later we see him at The Great Northern Hotel, switching between a happy dancer and an insane man, and then in his car where he sings “The Surrey with a Fringe on Top.” These are all very interesting and unsettling. It seems that you worked a lot with contrasts and mood. Could you say a few words on that? In other words: Which function does it serve that Leland sings “The Surrey with a Fringe on Top” and that he plays golf in his living room?

CD: In the movie The Shining, Stanley Kubrick has Jack Torrance writing his novel non-stop throughout the beginning of the film. Later in the film his wife Wendy goes and peeks at what he has been writing – hundreds of pages of the same thing – neatly typed over and over. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  It’s a visual representation of his madness and a shock to Wendy and the audience. Leland is not putting golf balls in his living room; he’s driving golf balls into the furniture and the walls. When Donna and James show up they see evidence of what Leland has been doing (golf balls everywhere, broken glass), they find it amusing, not insane.  Leland is friendly and cordial. At the Great Northern, we see Leland behaving normally, but then he rounds the corner and reveals to the audience what is going on in his mind. “The Surrey with a Fringe on Top” is from Oklahoma! – Rodgers and Hammerstein – and that’s about as middle America as you can get.

AH: In episode 2.12 (“The Black Widow”), there are some more outrageously absurd and slapsticky scenes (e.g. when Nadine throws Mike), and in the end of the episode Major Briggs comes back after having been away (as if it were a science fiction story). Does Twin Peaks change in terms of genre during the second season? It seems that it would be difficult to pigeonhole Twin Peaks, especially in terms of genre.

CD: I definitely feel that the later shows began to stray from the more subtle story telling of the first year. I sensed a different sensibility in some of the later scripts.

AH: The ratings dropped during the second season (from 34 million viewers in the pilot to 7.2 million viewers late in the second season). Why do you think that the ratings started to drop?

CD: David and Mark were less involved in the show later on. I don’t know for sure why, but I think running a TV show as a showrunner is really hard work with long hours, and maybe David never expected the show to run that long. David has a great imagination and maybe wanted to move on with other ideas. I also heard that ABC might have been putting pressure on them to solve the murder, which may not have been David’s intention. I do know that it became more rigid to work on the show in the second year.

AH: How can we see the influence of Twin Peaks on today’s so-called quality-TV shows in the US and abroad, and which series are, in your view, most clearly inspired and influenced by Twin Peaks?

CD: I think the kind of off-center drama and humor, which is more subtle and much more sophisticated than most drama and humor on TV, was launched by Twin Peaks and is its legacy! I don’t think the networks trusted their audiences to be sophisticated enough to appreciate the density and subtlety of Twin Peaks humor. There are layers and layers of subtle references to all sorts of cultural events and characters throughout the show. I don’t think you could have shows like Big Bang Theory or Modern Family or many others without Twin Peaks opening the path.

AH: What do you think about the upcoming third season, and what difference does it make, in your estimation, that the show is being revived on a premium cable network like Showtime, not a broadcast channel like ABC?

CD: It’s hard to duplicate what was done in the original. The boundaries that were pushed by the original series are now the norm, particularly on cable TV. So I think we will have to see where David takes us in the new incarnation of the show. I really am looking forward to it.


This scene from the popular musical Oklahoma! was referenced in a contrapuntal and somewhat morbid scene from Twin Peaks, a scene which was featured in one of the three episodes directed by Caled Deschanel: