When people think about Twin Peaks, they often remember the actors – Richard Beymer, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan – and they think about the co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. Some of the most innovative and interesting parts of Twin Peaks, however, were created by other crew members, people that are often described, rather reductively, as ‘technicians’. One such person, Douglas Murray, is an experienced sound designer, sound editor and re-recording mixer, and he is now a central part of Skywalker Sound. Murray has worked on such films as Salute of the Jugger (1989), Contact (1997), Cloverfield (2008) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), apart from having been a crucial part of the pilot to Twin Peaks and the much maligned, yet aurally impressive, prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Being a huge sound buff, myself, I went into a lengthy conversation with Douglas Murray about Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, and sound design in television and films on a more general level. Elsewhere, I have made a video-essay focusing on the use of noise in David Lynch’s films, delving in to some of the scenes and sequences which are mentioned in the interview below.
AH: You were the sound designer on the pilot episode of Twin Peaks and supervising sound editor on Fire Walk with Me. How did you get involved with the pilot of Twin Peaks, and how would you generally describe Twin Peaks in terms of sound?
DM: Mark Berger mixed Blue Velvet. He had worked with Alan Splet and David Lynch before. Alan had already accepted to do another job when Lynch asked him to do the pilot, and Alan told me about it and asked me whether I would like to do it. He knew that I was a Lynch fan, so he recommended me to David, and David then hired me. Because music played such a large part of Twin Peaks, we had Richard Beggs come on, but tragically Richard’s daughter had just been killed in a car crash, so he was still in mourning. He was mixing until the scene in the hallway where the camera pulls up and shows the photo of Laura, so he asked to be excused. He couldn’t work on a show that was so close to home. Consequently, Lynch took over and did the music mixing (with Lori Eschler Frystak), and he has the done the music mixing on all of his films since then.
AH: In the pilot of Twin Peaks, there are some very interesting shots of objects that narratively seem to be somewhat irrelevant, but all of which serve a function in terms of mood and in terms of creating the eerie sense of tension. Two examples are the ceiling fan and the trees. The ceiling fan in particular is seen in a close-up, as Sarah Palmer descends the stairs, and is heart clearly. How did you do that in terms of sound and what was your intention? Was it just a sound of a ceiling fan, or was it Foley sound?
DM: Mood is huge in Twin Peaks, and sound contributes to the mood. If you just had the ceiling fan shot without that really eerie motor sound, it wouldn’t have the same eerie effect on the audience. That sound was something that we came up with – me and Donny Blank. Donny came up with that really cool sound and Lynch loved it. I had come up with some other sound, and Donny added some elements to it. It’s kind of a throbbing sound, almost like a living organism – a heartbeat – and that was the thing that made it so great, because it had an organic quality to it. It’s so creepy. If you had that in your stairwell, you would rip it out. We had come up with some different things in the pilot that ended up being used in the rest of the series and afterwards in the film. We had a lot of great sound from the locations – the vehicles, the saw mill etc. – but it was really slim pickings, so we had to create a lot of sound. TV is done on a really tight budget, and maybe that is the reason that many of our sounds were used later in the show. The pilot for Twin Peaks ended up costing, for television, quite a lot of money because it was shot on location. We had a great sound crew, but we only had a week to mix it. We were all used to working on feature films, so we were used to a great use of sound. TV at that time was more workman-like, and sound would rarely play as big a role as it does in Twin Peaks. At the time, most TV shows were shot either in the studio, or they would have a few shots outdoors that were very controlled. Twin Peaks has had a great impact on shows that have been shot on location and shows that have a more filmic pacing and which use an actual sound design.
When we were working on the pilot, ABC hadn’t approved anything. They had approved the casting, and then Lynch and Frost just did their thing. They screened it later, and the executives of ABC just approved it and said, “Yes, that could be great,” and that was so brave. Lynch had to toe the line in the beginning, before he got the green light, and then he could be less conventional later on. Lynch is so good to do the conventional elements, if he has to do those kinds of things, and the conventional elements pave the way for the more dreamy and surreal parts. Just like in Blue Velvet.
AH: Could you compare the style and sound of the pilot to other parts of Twin Peaks and other films by David Lynch?
DM: I think the pilot is less dreamy than the rest of the show. He got very dreamy in Fire Walk with Me, and some of the episodes were really out there. The pilot, I think, was more conservative. David Lynch had to establish all of the characters because it’s basically a melodrama, not unlike a show like Peyton Place. That is the fundamental model that Twin Peaks was structured on, but then it goes beyond that. It becomes more dream-like.
Lynch is really aware of mood altering sounds that take the viewer into an almost dream-like mood, so the events don’t have to be rational. He goes places where you would never go. Those close-ups of fingernails, of pulling things out from beneath the fingernails. The audience is trying to get away from it.
AH: One sequence in particular in the pilot is staggering in terms of sound, and that is the sequence where Laura’s death is announced at school. Here we cut between James, Donna, Laura’s empty chair and the teacher, and the sound changes from almost absolute silence to the sound of Donna crying, underscored by a somewhat airy sound, and later some intensified sounds of James’ pencil breaking and the girl screaming outside. Was the airy sound meant to suggest emptiness (somewhat like the echo on the principal’s voice, as we hear his announcement in the halls), as if we were in a setting where the lack of people is underscored by the slight sound of wind blowing through tumbleweed or something like that? And what was the general idea of this sequence?
DM: Everybody knows that something has happened. The realization is dawning on everyone in the room, and to capture that feeling of recognition as to what has happened – it’s an inner thing – was what we were trying to do. The sound of the wind is very interesting. We had a wind sound there, and Lynch didn’t like it. He wanted a hollow wind sound, so he made a sound with his mouth to illustrate for us what he wanted. David Lynch made that sound with his mouth, and Mark Berger said, “Wait a minute, we can just record that sound and loop it”. He had a piece of equipment which was rather new at the time, a Lexicon 480L, which was a reverb machine, and it had a feature which was a sampler that would allow you to record a very short sequence of sound and then loop it. So he recorded David making that whistling wind sound for a second – because he couldn’t sustain it for that long – and then we looped that sound and stored it in the RAM. It was very cool, and it gave David the idea that we could do almost anything he wanted. My job was to capture a good pencil snap sound to capture the tension, and the scream, again, was in the production. David got some great screams from the actors – especially in Fire Walk with Me – and I can’t really take credit for it. The pencil snap captures a tremendous amount of tension. The snap is the release. It conveys the amount of unconscious tension. The audience is not privy to it, but the characters are full of tension, and that was what we were trying to convey. That scene is stark and effective – certainly unlike anything you’d see on TV – and sound plays a great role.
I was just reading a biography by John Cage, and it said how he wanted to illustrate silence. So he went into a sound proof chamber, and the only sounds he could hear was his heart beat etc. – all of these sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.
AH: The sequence from the pilot reminded me of M by Fritz Lang, a film that also uses quiet passages to illustrate a mother’s loss of her daughter. Does that comparison make sense?
DM: There is a scene in Twin Peaks where Sarah is waiting for Laura at the table, and, yes, that is pretty similar to Fritz Lang’s M. I’m sure Lynch must have been thinking about that.
AH: The airy sound in the aforementioned scene is similar, as I hear it, to a sound which is used in Fire Walk with Me when Laura describes the feeling of falling in space. Was that the same sound?
DM: I loved the sound he made with his mouth, and I saved it in my library. I had it when we did Fire Walk with Me. I can’t remember whether it was done in that scene, but I was looking for possibilities to use that sound.
AH: I have heard that the sound of Fire Walk with Me, which is very expressive, was originally even more intense, had it not been for the boss at the Cannes Festival. Could you tell me that story?
DM: Gilles Jacob was the chief of the film festival at Cannes for many years, and we were working on the film, we were mixing it, and we were getting it ready for the festival. They had accepted the film on principle for competition, but he hadn’t seen it. So he came to visit us, and he objected to the film. He thought it was too long, but the main thing is the scene where Leland kills Laura. We had done an amazing sound treatment on that. We had thunderblasts, when you see the lights, and we had voices, and we had lots of sounds of the boxcar and the stabbing going into her heart repeatedly [N.B.: Here Douglas Murray refers to the stabbing sound, which they had done. Laura is not actually killed by a knife]. It was very intense. Gilles Jacob thought that it was too much, and he convinced David Lynch that it should be more poetic, so David went away from that scene somewhat rattled, and so he took it to heart and made adjustments accordingly. The scene in the boxcar ended up being all music. I was so disappointed that all of our work was not used, but the scene is very strong. It was a very powerful and experimental thing we had done, but in the wrong way. It was powerfully horrific, but in the end it becomes a kind of release for Laura. Riccardo Muti’s music, which they were lucky to be allowed to use, changed the whole scene. The music was so celestial, and the ending ended up being so beautiful.
The other thing he complained about was all of the subplots, and many of them got taken out.
AH: Fire Walk with Me has been criticized – perhaps because of its darker tone – but I absolutely love the film. Two scenes in particular are interesting in terms of sound, I think, and they are The Pink Room scene and the traffic jam scene. In both of these scenes, the mix seems somewhat untraditional, and the dialogue is at times almost inaudible. That, for me, however, gives the two scenes a sense of heightened realism and underscores the claustrophobic sense of the film. Also, the loss of dialogue intelligibility could naturally mirror the fact that Laura is trying to repress the fact that “It is him. It is [her] father.” What did you and David Lynch strive for in these two particular scenes?
DM: She is putting her hands over her ears, so it’s kind of mirroring what she is going through, and that’s why Leland is honking the horn. That whole sequence is so great. The One-Armed Man is driving this little camper-like thing. Those kinds of vehicles are for people who want to go camping, but who are on a budget. It’s the opposite of a threatening vehicle. We recorded all of those car revs – and they are some violent revs – and it’s just such a great cacophony. Leland realizes what is happening, and he is just looking insane, and Laura is going through such a horrific time in her life, which we wanted to illustrate. No one would have even paid attention to Twin Peaks, had it not been for her bizarre and tormented life.
Fire Walk with Me had a very different tone than the series or at least the pilot. The Pink room scene in Fire Walk with Me, for me, is the best scene in terms of realism. When you are in a night club, the music is so loud that you can barely hear what people are saying. This scene was done in Dolby Stereo, so it had a fairly low headroom. The louder a sound is, the more room it takes up. Low-frequency sounds take up more room than high-frequency sounds, so the music in the scene is pretty low, but because of its frequency it takes up a lot of room. The way you would normally mix that scene is to say, “Well, we have to hear the dialogue, and then you arrange the music and the other sounds accordingly.” David Parker was the mixer of that film, and he did that, and David Lynch said, “No, no, no, it’s not gonna work. The music has to be louder,” and then he said, “Is that as loud as it can go?” He turned it up as loud as possible, and then he said, “That’s great.” David Parker, who was asking the obvious question, said, “Well, you can’t hear what they’re saying,” and Lynch just said, “We’ll just have subtitles.” So we left it like that, and I think it’s just a great scene.
A crucial sequence from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, flaunting Douglas Murray’s and David Lynch’s use of sound: