After finishing his Ph.D. on 17th century British literature, David J. Latt went into television. In the 1980s, Latt became a producer on shows like V (NBC, 1984-1985) and Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-1987), and after meeting Mark Frost on Hill Street Blues, Latt was invited to produce the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. After Twin Peaks, Latt has worked on different series, e.g. EZ Street (CBS, 1996-1997), and he is currently looking to Scandinavian television drama, trying to find shows that could be interesting to American networks. I talked with David J. Latt about television history in general and about Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks in particular, and we debated the current states of the film and television industries. An extremely knowledgeable man, Latt also mused about the Scandinavian sensibility of Twin Peaks, displaying a surprising knowledge and understanding of Scandinavian films, television and literature.
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Do you think that Twin Peaks has had any real impact on modern television drama, and, if so, how has it influenced modern-day television?
DJL: I actually think Twin Peaks changed storytelling standards as well as aesthetic standards. Now, before Twin Peaks, I was on Hill Street Blue, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of two shows that could reasonably be seen as the ancestors of today’s golden age of television. Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks were both groundbreaking, albeit in different ways. Hill Street Blues pioneered the use of ensembles to drive the stories which were often open-ended and often included the death of a good and sympathetic characters. Twin Peaks was visually and musically innovative, and it dealt with despair in the human spirit in a way that was quite different from traditional television. The one thing in Twin Peaks that still remains unique, however, is David’s sense of humor and the off-kilter characters, e.g. The Log Lady. That sort of black comedy in the midst of great motion drama is still a rare phenomenon, and it was David and Mark’s collaboration which made it happen. That collaboration made Twin Peaks a seminal show, and if it lost its edge during the second season, it was probably because David Lynch wasn’t there to do the balancing act.
AH: You say that Twin Peaks was innovative, both aesthetically and in terms of storytelling. Could you elaborate on that?
DJL: Twin Peaks had an ongoing story, initiated by a single event, and the event expanded beyond the episodic boundary until the show was eventually more about the people and the setting. That type of TV storytelling was new, I think, but so were the visual and musical sides of the show. What David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti did visually and musically was entirely new, and the combination of Badalamenti’s music and the aesthetic long takes created a unique mood. Part of David Lynch’s uniqueness is the long takes which are unsettling because of what happens in the frame, but also because we simply don’t cut away from the uncomfortable stuff.
What David and Mark did with Twin Peaks can be compared with independent movies. We all know the average mainstream film which will have explosions, car chases etc. Those films are often like a rollercoaster ride, but you, as a viewer, are never at risk. It’s the exact opposite with independent films. Here you don’t know what will happen in the end, and you don’t always know what to feel. The same could be said of Twin Peaks. What is so unique about Twin Peaks and many of the films by David Lynch is that drama is created on screen, in the characters and in the audience. You never know if you are safe.
I should perhaps tell you that I have a Ph.D. in 17th century British literature, and when I saw Twin Peaks, I got the sense that there are parts here that are bigger that what you would naturally see on television.
AH: You mention Twin Peaks and Hill Street Blues as two game changers in television history. Could you say a few words on the two shows, comparatively, and could you try to explain the historical and industrial contexts of the two shows?
DJL: Hill Street Blues, in its own way, was very similar to Twin Peaks. The cop shows at the time were very traditional, but Hill Street Blues changed the game. The thing that is important to know about both these shows is that they both came at times of crisis. Hill Street Blues came on NBC at a time when NBC was not doing well. Kozoll and Bochco wanted to do something different, using a cinema vérité-like style. They made a pilot, but nobody believed in it. Grant Tinker, however, said that NBC should give it a chance with 12 episodes. It was really the writer’s strike that made Hill Street Blues happen. It was a risk that could be taken because there was no content.
The same essentially happened at ABC when Twin Peaks came along. You might say that whenever a network is successful, they micromanage into the middle.
I have also done a different show, called EZ Street, created by Paul Haggis. Les Moonves was a great fan of Paul Haggis because of a Canadian show he had done, and wanted CBS to take it. In style and tone it was similar to Hill Street Blues, and it was about an undercover cop who was kicked off the force so he could come close to an Irish mob boss. The special thing about the show was that it was extremely funny. The funny part was that the mob boss would be hilariously devious, for example cutting off the hands of his victims. Now, CBS, in terms of sheer numbers, are more successful than the other broadcast networks, but their viewers are old and not in the desired demographic (17-49 year old). CBS, therefore, took on EZ Street to cater to a younger demographic, and, mind you, this was years before The Sopranos. The show, however, performed the worst ever in the history of CBS, but Les Moonves, as it turns out, wanted it to continue anyway. That was a rare story in a TV landscape where the networks are often struggling to be mass product marketers, while cable networks cater to niche audiences.
AH: As you say, you worked on both Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks, and you have illustrated some of the similarities between the two shows. Could you say a few words on the differences between the two shows?
DJL: One of the aesthetical differences between Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks was the tempo. The pilot of Hill Street Blues consisted of very short scenes and sequences, and on the show we couldn’t afford to build sets. Out of a seven-day schedule we were on a three-five day location shoot. As a location manager, I, therefore, had a lot to do, especially because of the super-short scenes. The challenge for me creatively was to find locations that required a small amount of set dressing. I came on the show because of Greg Hoblit, who was line-producer and whose career really took off afterwards. I had gotten to be friends with him, and he got me on board to do the location design, before I got into line-producing. Then I was doing other shows, and Mark Frost called me and said that they were doing a show which at the time was called Northwest Passage. Now, it turned out that they weren’t allowed to call it “Northwest Passage because a film had the same title, so they changed it to Twin Peaks. But Mark called me and said that he wanted me to produce the pilot of this new show. David usually gets angry at his producers and has a certain problem with authorities, I was told, but Mark was sure that David would like me. When I came on the show, I adviced ABC to let David do everything he wanted, and we basically did an output deal with one of Aaron Spelling’s companies. Twin Peaks was unique. It has an audiovisual signature – it looked different, it sounded different.
AH: In Brad Dukes’ book, Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, you talk of “David [Lynch’s] willingness to hold on to the awkwardness of the moment.” Could you explain what you mean by that, or perhaps elaborate a bit on that point?
DJL: I mean if you go through the pilot, especially the episodes where David Lynch is in charge creatively, it’s just so unsettling and unusual to watch. In the closet scene in Blue Velvet, the long takes create an unsettling effect, as if you are caught there, as if you are caught in the skin of that character. The same can be said of the long takes in Twin Peaks, but also of the graphic violence – today shows are much more graphic, but often in a different way – to make you confront the uncomfortable. Quentin Tarantino also uses long takes to make us uncomfortable, but whereas Tarantino does it in a funny way, David style is more melodramatic. He is not being ironic; he is saying that the banal and uncomfortable are also a part of the world. David is comfortable making us uncomfortable, whereas Quentin takes delight in it, he tortures us.
AH: You have continually described Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks as game-changing shows. How, specifically, can we see the influence of Twin Peaks on today’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ of television drama, and which shows are most clearly influenced by Twin Peaks, as you see it?
DJL: You see people moving into television rapidly, because independent cinema isn’t doing so great in America. People don’t want to see everyday drama in the cinema, but they want it on TV, and technology has facilitated that.
Twin Peaks has definitely had an impact, but maybe not on a show like The Sopranos. Twin Peaks has influenced shows that have a moodiness. As unconventional as The Sopranos is, in a way it’s much more conventional. A character like The Log Lady, for example, would never be seen on The Sopranos. To be true, the shows that are most directly influenced by Twin Peaks are not from America, but from Scandinavia and other parts of the world.
Twin Peaks is more Scandinavian than American by pondering the big questions, by displaying a willingness to look at the dark side, by having an Ingmar Bergman-like sensibility and a very recognizable aesthetic. The shows that come ironically from Denmark back to The US, e.g. The Bridge, or the New Zealand show Top of the Lake, seem to be inspired by Twin Peaks and share its sensibility. And the same could be said of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which shares the Lynchian look at the absurdity of human behavior. Twin Peaks is morbid, it’s strange and it’s sort of funny.
It makes sense that the box set of Twin Peaks sells well. There’s a big fanbase, and historically Twin Peaks is now wildly appropriate in this period of multiple platforms.
According to David J. Latt, Twin Peaks was groundbreaking, in part, by making the audience confront the uncomfortable: