Duwayne Dunham is seen on the far right. The other people in the shot are Brian Berdan, David Lynch and Mary Sweeney. Photo: Courtesy of Duwayne Dunham.
Part of the so-called “Lynch mob,” Duwayne Dunham has edited Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990) and two episodes of Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), apart from being the editor of such renowned films as Return of the Jedi (1983). Dunham also worked as an episode director on Twin Peaks, and after editing the pilot, he went on to direct three episodes of the show. I talked with Dunham, and our discussion topics came to include Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, the principles of editing and the current wave of quality television series. We began our conversation talking about Dunham’s work as an editor and his collaboration with David Lynch in general. Afterwards we went on to talk about specific episodes of Twin Peaks, before debating modern television drama as a broad phenomenon.
AH: How did you get to work on Twin Peaks, and did you get the part as editor and director on Twin Peaks because of your work on Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart?
DD: When David came to me and asked me to edit Wild at Heart, I said that I couldn’t because I had just signed a deal to edit another production. Then David asked me what it would take for me to edit Wild at Heart instead of the other production, and I said, “Well, I have always wanted to direct, and if I were asked to direct, I wouldn’t have a problem calling the studio and changing the plans.” David, then, said, “Okay, we just got picked up for seven episodes, and I’ll let you direct the first episode of the show and maybe a few more. Now will you edit Wild at Heart? That’s how that happened.
AH: You have edited Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and two episodes of Twin Peaks (the pilot and the first episode of season 2), so you are part of a sort of signature style, which is often attributed to David Lynch. In Wild at Heart you use a lot of cross-dissolves between matches, cigarettes, fire and the two main characters making love in a heated, passionate way. And in Blue Velvet there are a number of interesting transitions – e.g. from the line “looks like it was cut off with scissors” to the sign “Do Not Cross Police Lines,” and there are a number of cross-dissolves in that movie too. Finally, in Twin Peaks, there is a similar sense of slow or gradual transitions. Partly because we have a relatively slow tempo, and partly because the shots often dissolve into other shots. For me, that tempo and that use of cross-dissolves fit the themes and mood of the different productions perfectly, and in Twin Peaks it seems to fit the fact that there is a fluent boundary between different elements, also between good and evil. Also, it helps produce the mood of the show, which in itself is not readily definable. Does that make sense? How would you describe your editing style on these productions?
DD: As an editor, one thing I’m doing is that I’m following the director’s lead, and I’m putting together the things that were already there. It’s interesting that you mention the kind of fluid sense of Twin Peaks. Only once did we screen the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. That was at The Director’s Guild, and my impression was that we were looking at liquid gold. Partly because of the tone and partly because of the way it was put together. Just think of the first sequence. The shriek of Sarah Palmer is just spellbinding. If you just showed that, without setting it up properly, it would be way over the top. Here it works. Just the pacing of it and the camera going down the telephone cord. It sets up the shriek perfectly, and nobody laughs at it. In Twin Peaks, David was in his game. He was on a limited budget, but he did a great job. David is a brilliant filmmaker and an interesting human being.
Twin Peaks is hyper-real. It’s as real as it gets. It’s what makes people anxious and some people chuckle, because it’s so deadly serious and so real. When you take a character like Nadine a change her, so suddenly she’s no longer real, then you lose the essence. The essence of Twin Peaks is so hyper-real.
AH: In Twin Peaks, there are some shots that you would perhaps normally describe as narratively insignificant, e.g. of the ceiling fan, of the trees blowing in the air and of the traffic light at Sparkwood and 21. All of these shots, however, contribute to a certain mood. Would it be fair to argue that Twin Peaks is different from most traditional TV shows partly because it introduces shots and elements that are not meant to push forward the narrative or plot, but which are meant to give a certain mood or tonality?
DD: The ceiling fan, if I gotta be honest with you, is the one shot where I shake my head, but that’s a kind of David Lynch signature shot. For me, movies get their pacing from what was shot. Twin Peaks did take on a very lingering, slow pacing which fits Angelo Badalamenti’s score. We didn’t know what the title sequence was going to be. There was a bunch of stuff shot, and it was pretty late in the process. The only thing David Lynch said was, “A log and some wood.” Later, it took on a lingering, meandering sense, and so we put in a lot of dissolves, and when finally we got Angelo’s music, I made a few minor adjustments. They were only small adjustments, a few frames being changed around. Angelo had created the same kind of flow, the same kind of lingering mood. The shot of the Twin Peaks sign, though, was stolen from a shot in the series. There were only a couple of frames with the Twin Peaks sign where Cooper’s car was not in the picture, so we took those few frames and we extended them optically. The title sequence had its own rhythm, and the rhythm is so essential to Twin Peaks. I call out the first sequence of the pilot, when you are introduced to a lot of people. To me you are riveted, and the movie doesn’t let up. It just keeps you riveted.
The other thing is the line where Cooper and Harry are sitting in the car, and where Harry says, “Why are you whittling?” and Cooper replies, “That’s what you do in a town where yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.” There is so much truth to that line, and that describes the tempo of this town, but also the pacing of the show.
Wild at Heart was a different thing, as was Blue Velvet. Both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart were more than three hours in the first versions, so they are solid edits. When David Lynch saw the first 3 hours and 30 minutes of Blue Velvet, he said, “I love it. I only have one problem: For me to have final cut, it has to be less than two hours.” So we kept whittling it down to get it down to less than two hours.” Wild at Heart was different. It was so scattered. If you look at the scene order, it would read like a bingo card. When we saw Wild at Heart and we saw its length, we knew that we needed to bring it down and to infuse an editorial style. There are many scenes that are combined of different shots from different scenes. And all credit to David: He’s very open, and eventually Wild at Heart took on a very different visual style with the fire, the crystal ball and the witch.
AH: Could you explain how the tempo and pacing of Twin Peaks came about? How would you describe Twin Peaks?
DD: It was like making a movie, and there’s something else which was interesting about the writing. Television, you know, is very exact. When you deliver, you have to deliver to the second. I was finishing the editing of the pilot episode. We were pretty much done, but we were working on the alternate ending, when David Lynch went on to shoot Wild at Heart. What was going on at the time is that we were finishing the pilot of Twin Peaks, and David had gone on to shoot Wild at Heart, while I was prepping the first episode. I started shooting the first episode of Twin Peaks the same day that David had started shooting Wild at Heart. David was scheduled to shoot the second episode of Twin Peaks, while I was editing Wild at Heart, so David and I were working on those three things simultaneously.
The page count of my first episode, I think, was 78 pages, and that was way too much. We had to whittle it down to less than half of the original script. Generally speaking, one page of script equals one minute of screen time, but in Twin Peaks it was way less. It didn’t even come close. 34 pages, we found, was the ideal length for a Twin Peaks script that equaled a one-hour show of 43 minutes of screen time. And usually it’s 1:1. In that sense, Twin Peaks was very unusual. It had a totally different pacing.
After discussing Dunham’s work as an editor on Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks, we turned our attention to specific episodes of Twin Peaks, focusing primarily on characterization, pacing and the use of humor.
AH: Judging from your episodes of Twin Peaks, you seem to have a keen sense of humor. There are some incredibly funny scenes and sequences in all of your episodes. “Traces to Nowhere,” for example, starts with a very interesting shot where the camera pans and tilts, eventually revealing Dale Cooper hanging from the ceiling. Could you describe that shot for me? It seems that that particular shot is very interesting in many ways: First of all, it seems much more inventive and cinematic than what you would usually see on television, and second of all it underscores the quirky humor of the show and helps build the character of Dale Cooper. What were your thoughts here?
DD: I don’t really remember. It was not scripted that way. It was never written that Cooper was hanging from the ceiling. … What kind of image could you play inside that room that creates a mood – stays within the Twin Peaks mood – and plays Cooper’s dialogue? I remember talking to Kyle, “What if you were exercising or hanging from the ceiling,” and Kyle was game for it. Nobody remembers what he is saying, apart from the last line, but it builds his character and establishes a certain mood. That’s not on story, that’s on character. That’s the difference between Twin Peaks and traditional television shows. Television, usually, is very fast cutting. Nobody stops, nobody takes a rest, nobody takes time to create mood or character. Twin Peaks, on the other hand, is very much about the characters and the mood. Cooper, for one, is such an interesting character. He is such a dead serious character, but he is also very interesting and quirky. (It was a mistake to me when he left his dark suit and started dressing like the locals.)
But there were many interesting characters in Twin Peaks. I remember getting the original script. I said to David, “I love it, but I need a cheat-sheet. There are so many characters.” That was also different from what you’d usually see: There were so many characters, and none of them was extraneous.
AH: In episode 2.11 (“Masked Ball”), we are introduced to a number of new characters (e.g. Evelyn Marsh, Dennis/Denise Bryson and Andrew Packard) and plot arcs, and the entire episode ends with a cliffhanger, as Andrew appears not to have died, saying that “everything is going exactly like we planned” and that now they are going to bring Thomas Eckhart back into the mix. Would it be fair to say that, in the second season, Twin Peaks gets a bit more soap operatic and, at times, more character-driving, trying to reinvent or revitalize itself by bringing in new characters and character arcs?
DD: There were too many new characters – not just too many new characters, but all of the characters had something peculiar about them. And that too went against the tone of Twin Peaks. Sheriff Truman, for example, is as straight as you get. There is nothing quirky or peculiar about him. When you introduce new characters and all of them have something quirky about them, then it becomes a freak show. In Twin Peaks, you get invested in certain characters and scenes. Even Agent Cooper changes. Suddenly, he is wearing lumber-jack clothing, and everything changed.
AH: How about Dennis/Denise Bryson? How would you describe that character and the way s/he is introduced?
DD: Look at the way David played that: Very serious. There is no kind of winking at the camera. In he walks. He is peculiar, but everyone plays it dead serious, he plays it absolutely straight, and a lot of what you’re talking about is in the construction of the writing, when you are having a serious discussion of The Black Lodge, and then suddenly a transvestite enters the scene. Twin Peaks – at least the best part of it – is very real. You could compare it to Blue Velvet. That, too, is real. When Laura’s character sits in the car and says, “Why are there people like Frank?”, and I have heard people laughing at that. I know that bothered David, because he is so honest and sincere.
AH: Apart from the example mentioned above, one could also mention the “fish in the percolator” scene. That scene for me is very iconic and is part of what makes Twin Peaks stand out from traditional TV shows. It doesn’t seem to be driven by an urge to push forward the narrative, but in a funny way it kind of suspends the action and introduces a sort of slice of life-humor to the show which also helps build the characters. What is your thought on that matter?
DD: It very much is a slice of life-scene. What it came from was very real. At that time, I had two young children. My wife and I were going on a trip, and we took along a thermos of coffee. We were travelling in the middle of the night, out in the dessert, and I asked my wife to pour me a cup of coffee. She poured me a cup, but as I started drinking the coffee, something strange hit my lip, and I asked, “What is wrong with this coffee? It doesn’t taste right.” Evidently, what had happened was that one of my kids had been eating a hotdog and had dropped a piece of hotdog in the thermos. So that scene in Twin Peaks is a real slice of life-scene, and of course it had to be a fish because Pete loved to fish. That scene helps build Pete’s character. It’s good character stuff.
Finally, we debated the state of modern-day television drama and how – and to what degree – Twin Peaks has helped influence modern television series.
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Do you think that it helped change television, and, if so, how did it change the standards of TV?
DD: I don’t know that it necessarily changed the standards of TV, but I think that it did open some eyes to a different way of storytelling. Twin Peaks was originally conceived and written as a whodunit, and how long can you keep that going? And it was originally written and shot as an open-ended story. That was the thrust of the entire story: Who killed Laura Palmer? It wasn’t until the end of the shooting that ABC asked for – or demanded – a closed ending. If they didn’t air it as a show, they needed a closed ending. What they were, in fact, saying was that they were not going to air something which did not have a close ending.
That is just it: It’s the oddness of it, and that’s what David Lynch does. He takes something which is very familiar, and he looks at it, puts it under a microscope, and it becomes stranger and infinitely more interesting. Twin Peaks was so unusual. The characters were unusual, the situation was unusual. The characters and the situations were familiar, yet infinitely more interesting than what you would usually see on television. I think it opened the minds of a lot of people. Television at that time – and until recently – has been very by-the-book. And today the television landscape is very different – in particular cable television – and I think many modern cable shows are more like Twin Peaks. Would the networks themselves put out another Twin Peaks”? I doubt it. A show like Northern Exposure was inspired by Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was the predecessor to Northern Exposure, but Northern Exposure was much more traditional than Twin Peaks.
AH: What do you think about the revival of Twin Peaks, and do you think that it makes a difference that it is now going to be a cable show, aired on Showtime?
DD: Absolutely. It makes a big difference. What will David do with it? I can tell you honestly: Nobody thought that they would air Twin Peaks, not even David Lynch. And the testing was horrible. As I recall, it was Bob Iger who was the champion. I thought that they would show the alternate version of the pilot episode, the one with the alternate ending. I’d put the original Twin Peaks up against any television show as a very solid piece of work. What he [David Lynch] is going to do with the new Twin Peaks, I don’t know, but if you have more of The Red Room and The Giant, I would love it. The only way they would get David to venture back into television would be if he could control it, if he had unlimited freedom and control to do whatever he wants.
A scene which in a very original way introduced and fleshed out the character of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. This episode was directed by Duwayne Dunham: