Photo by Doug Hyun. Courtesy of Gregg Fienberg.
Having worked with Robert Redford, the television and film producer Gregg Fienberg (b. 1960) was asked to join the Twin Peaks roster in 1990. Fienberg produced the entire first season, apart from the pilot episode, and he was an executive producer on the second season, before going on to produce such renowned HBO series as Carnivàle (2003-2005), Deadwood (2004-2006), Big Love (2006-2011) and True Blood (2008-2014). Fienberg received a Directors Guild of America Award and two Emmy Awards for his work on Deadwood, and he continues to work as a film and television producer, mostly connected to HBO. I talked with Gregg Fienberg about Twin Peaks and modern-day television drama, and we debated the industry and the difficult transformation of a television series from one kind of show (e.g. a whodunit) to something else (e.g. a mythical show or a soap opera).
AH: How did you get involved with Twin Peaks?
GF: On the first season I was a producer of the whole season, and in the second season I was called a supervising producer, which, at the time, was supposedly a better credit. It’s really a writer’s credit.
I got involved because I was working with Propaganda Films, and I had done a lot of projects there. I had worked on a Robert Redford film, and I was the guy with all the experience. They told me that they had this cool thing for me to do, and that is how I got involved with Twin Peaks.
AH: Television, especially network television, is usually a rather restricted medium, dominated by to the principle called “least objectionable programming.” How did Mark Frost and David Lynch manage to get the artistic freedom needed to do Twin Peaks? It seems staggering to me that they could do that show on ABC in 1990.
GF: At the time, Tony Krantz was the agent for both David Lynch and Mark Frost, and he said that he had an idea to bring David Lynch to television. Mark Frost had already done Hill Street Blues, and he was a well-known TV creator. But getting David Lynch to do television was a scoop, and allowing them to do Twin Peaks was a brave choice. Somebody at ABC took a chance.
After Twin Peaks, I ended up partnering up with the executive who was on TV at ABC, Phil Segal, and he and I tried to manage the network and keeping them from freaking out. They had this strange new baby, this three-headed monster of a TV show, and they didn’t know exactly what to do with it. The biggest mistake that the network forced upon David and Mark was to reveal the murderer of Laura Palmer. Looking at it now, you would say, “Why”? Today I would say that we should reveal it at the last episode – maybe – but that’s not really what the show was about. Unfortunately, the network didn’t really understand what they had on their hands, but it was really innovative.
AH: TV is often said to be a writer’s medium, yet many people refer to Twin Peaks as David Lynch’s show (even if Harley Peyton, Robert Engels and Mark Frost did most of the writing). Did ABC try actively to sell it as ‘a David Lynch show,’ and why do you think that many film directors and writers these days migrate from film to television? What has changed since 1990-1991?
GF: I felt at the beginning of the show that there was this hyper-realism. As unique and as quirky as the characters were, I could relate to them, and you were sucked in. After the murderer was revealed, it became strange, and I don’t believe you could relate to it anymore. It wasn’t deeply relatable anymore. You know, “Was that just strange to be strange?” The murderer was revealed, and it just got weirder and weirder and weirder.
Michael J. Anderson, the iconic actor from Twin Peaks, also starred in Carnivàle (HBO, 2003-2005). Both shows were produced by Gregg Fienberg.
GF: I would say that Carnivàle was cancelled for similar sorts of reasons. I worked on Carnivàle, I was brought in between the pilot of Deadwood and after the pilot of Carnivàle. On that show, the writers had no idea what they were trying to do. It is a mythical show, and there are things that are strange and things that don’t seem to go with other parts of the show. It happened on Twin Peaks in the second season, and it happened on Carnivàle during the first season. I was like, “You are doing this whole series, and you don’t know what it’s about?” It looks good, but ultimately the audience is too smart. They will sniff it out, if you are bullshitting. You will always have some people or fans who don’t care about that and who just like the style of the show. The kind of fans who say, “Bring back the show,” but [they are] not enough for a network show. You need more viewers, and the ratings dropped drastically on both Twin Peaks and Carnivàle. Like Twin Peaks, Carnivàle transformed into a different show, and rarely does a show transform from one thing to another without becoming worse or losing its audience. Homeland did a pretty good job this season of transforming the show into something different, but that kind of successful transformation of a show is rare.
Filmmakers in general have had a hard time transitioning to television. Most of the really strong TV shows have people, who have experience in TV, running them, because it’s a totally different beast. Nowadays things are different, and many film directors have begun working in television, but, still, some film directors find it difficult to work in television because it’s so different from film in terms of storytelling.
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 had any real impact on modern-day television drama? If so, how do you think that it changed television as we know it?
GF: Having been in TV, Twin Peaks being the first television show I did, and having been a part of the transition into the new golden age of television, I think Twin Peaks unequivocally paved the way. Looking back, there was nothing remotely like it, not even close. Looking at TV now, there are so many different ways of telling stories, so many genres, so many formats, and Twin Peaks paved the way for that. The number of time I have been in meetings where people have mentioned Twin Peaks or said, “Let’s do a show like Twin Peaks,” is almost countless. Twin Peaks, from what I can tell, was the reference point for almost everybody.
What happened along the way, when people said, “Well, let’s do a show like Twin Peaks,” was that they started looking to the people who did “Twin Peaks”. That’s how this industry works.
AH: You have been involved with a few of the so-called quality-TV shows of the cable-era, e.g. Carnivàle, Deadwood and True Blood. How can we see the influence of Twin Peaks on today’s so-called quality-TV shows in the US and abroad, and would it make sense to describe Twin Peaks as a sort of cable-TV show before cable?
GF: It’s not about the specific look of the show or the pacing of the specific show. My belief is that it’s about the storytelling. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost created a story that was so brave and so truly serialized. I think that’s the real turn that Twin Peaks took us all on. That was the bravest part in how it was written: The format itself, and the way they treated it as one big movie in a way. There really was nothing like it at the time, and now it’s the norm.
The best shows, the shows that catch lightning in a bottle or the zeitgeist, they are often very unique. Today, it’s rather difficult to come up with unfamiliar stories. Every story deserves its own style, its own pacing, its own cinematic look.
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?
Sex as art. Frame grab from Wild at Heart (1990).
GF: Here is what I think Twin Peaks was back then: I don’t think that there had been a show to deal with the raw emotion of people dealing with the death of a young girl ever before. This hyper-real emotion was something you hadn’t seen before, and which is still pretty rare. The hyper-reality that was then wrapped up in a beautiful package of beautiful people, a creepy town, beautiful music and David Lynch’s incredible style of directing. David is one of the best and most innovative directors. He is so funny, and you marvel at what he is able to get from actors and actresses.
The only real difference that I would see is that I’m presuming that there will be a little more sexual content. Maybe there is a little bit more blood too and coarse language, but all of that will only be added if it’s appropriate to the subject. They would never do it gratuitously, but perhaps to give it that hyper-real quality. If you watch Lynch’s movies – look at Wild at Heart and the way he handled sex there – and then imagine that they did some sex scenes like that in the new season of Twin Peaks. Something like that brought to Twin Peaks would be very interesting.
A short excerpt from the slightly weirder and uneven second season of Twin Peaks, as mentioned by Gregg Fienberg: