To many moviegoers and ‘serial monogamists’ out there, the name Harley Peyton might not ring a bell, yet in the world of Twin Peaks-fandom he is something of a celebrity. Peyton is credited as producer of the British-American horror series Dracula (NBC/Sky Living, 2013-2014) and writer-producer of the dramedy Wedding Band (TBS, 2012-2013), but he is mostly known for having written thirteen episodes of Twin Peaks, at times functioning as something of a showrunner on the popular series. I asked Peyton a number of questions on Twin Peaks and television drama, and he turned out to be just as great at talking about television drama, as he is at writing it.
AH: How did the collaboration between you, David Lynch and Mark Frost start, and how did you experience working with them?
HP: Mark Frost was a friend of mine. He asked me if I wanted to see the TV pilot he wrote and produced with David Lynch. I jumped at the chance and was as amazed as anyone in the audience that night. Afterwards, I told Mark that while I had never written for television before, I’d be thrilled to help out in any way possible. Mark was kind enough to give me a script to write and was very happy with the results. That led to another script — and then my position as writer/producer on the second season. Twin Peaks came directly, and equally, from Mark and David. They had a wonderful kind of alchemy based on the melding of their personalities and creativity. My job was to help execute their ideas and add a few of my own along the way. David was usually elsewhere — he directed Wild at Heart during the production of the first season — so I spent far more time working with Mark. It was both a great creative collaboration and learning experience for me.
AH: In the US, people today talk of TV auteurs or showrunners. In Denmark, we talk of conceptualizing authors, but also of a “common or shared vision.” Would it be fair to define Twin Peaks as auteur TV or should we, in fact, define it more as a “common or shared vision”? I mean, many have described Mark Frost as something of an unsung hero.
HP: Twin Peaks is a kind of exception, I think. I certainly agree regarding auteur TV and its importance. But Peaks was truly a shared vision between Mark and David. The show simply would not have worked without one or the other. (And, in truth, the weaknesses in Fire Walk with Me are largely due to Mark’s absence.) That kind of partnership is very rare — the Coen brothers in movies, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld in TV — but the results speak for themselves. Again, it is a kind of alchemy.
AH: Could we even go as far as to say that television par excellence is a collaborative medium, and what are the major differences between film and television (in that sense)?
HP: There is collaboration in both mediums. In truth, there is probably more in the movies — screenwriters, directors, cinematographers — than in TV. TV lends itself to auteurism in that it has become, in some cases, a kind of creative vehicle for many writer/producers. For me the trick has always been to reduce the distance between what you imagine and how it is ultimately realized. TV offers a shorter distance. That’s why so many movie directors, particularly those with very specific visions, are now making TV. Steven Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, David Gordon Green. They can tell stories with greater freedom, not to mention narrative space (10 hours as opposed to 2). It’s why my focus is almost wholly on television now.
AH: I have read that you, Mark Frost and David Lynch had some disagreements. It that true, and, if so, what was the nature of your disagreements?
HP: The alchemy they had together, the distinctive and unusual partnership, was also very delicate. David has a very strong creative personality and was not used to the rigors of weekly television. Mark’s earliest training came in TV and he was much more familiar with the requirements of the genre — requirements that even a show like Twin Peaks could not completely ignore. Movies are a sprint, TV is a marathon. I suspect whatever disagreements they had — and I did not witness many — were the result of that difference and the way each man approached it.
AH: You worked as both a producer and a writer on the show, and you even received an Emmy award for your writing (ep. 3). How would you define your double-role on the show, and did you feel that you had some liberal boundaries within which to work? In other words, how would you describe the creative process on the show?
HP: Writers in television are usually dubbed ‘producers’ — but the job remains primarily about words put to the page. The double-role comes into play during the casting of new roles, and in some cases in post-production (editing, music, etc.). But my role on Twin Peaks was almost exclusively that of a storyteller. The creative process was fairly simple. Mark and David laid out the long term narrative between them. Then Mark would sit down with each scriptwriter in turn and walk them through the episode’s outline, scene by scene. Writers were given complete freedom when it came to the execution of those scenes, and were welcome to add elements appropriate to the particular narrative moment. Mark would then revise those scripts as needed. I found the process liberating and never felt constrained when it came to any idea I had or wanted to add to an episode.
AH: Episode 3, which was written by you and directed by Tina Rathborne, includes an interesting exchange of opinions between Harry and Albert and a subplot concerning The Bookhouse Boys. What were your main thoughts and areas of concern for this episode, and would you agree with me that your episode primarily blends a strong suspense and mystery plot and some elements of comic relief?
HP: It was my first and favorite episode I wrote for the show. Part of that was due to the narrative requirements of the episode — Laura Palmer’s funeral gave the episode a larger framework to write within particularly when it came to characters talking about Laura’s passing and death generally. Comic relief was always important to us, and I especially enjoyed writing Albert — his insults/dialogue became a specialty of mine moving forward. The episode gave me the opportunity to write suspense and emotion — but also comedic moments. I loved every minute of it. And Tina did a great job getting all of those qualities on screen.
AH: You mention that Albert was a character that you had a chance to develop. He is one of my favorite characters, and I love his sharp and witty monologues. How much was that a common choice among the different writers and creators of Twin Peaks – to let characters go off on tangents and do quirky and lengthy monologues – and how do you strike that balance between quirkiness and authenticity within a character? Something that I think you have managed with both Albert and Cooper, for example?
HP: That was the challenge for both characters, and others as well. We were always given the freedom to explore tangents and monologues — more than most television shows or movies, for that matter. Albert’s monologues were primarily comical. Cooper’s were more difficult — one had to be very careful to stay clear of parody when it came to all the now-familiar tropes (coffee, etc.). But that balance — between the quirky and the authentic — was one we always worked to find. And when we didn’t? Mark was there to revise and make sure the correct balance was achieved.
AH: In my view, there were some strange, complex and transgressive elements in the original series, and it didn’t seem tailor-made to commercial broadcast TV which often abides by the principle called “least objectionable programming.” To which degree and in which ways do you feel that Twin Peaks pushed the envelope?
HP: Twin Peaks pushed the envelope in manifold ways. And it’s to ABC’s credit that they let us do exactly what we wanted without interference or influence of any kind — the sort of freedom that simply does not exist in broadcast television today, and freedom that led directly to what makes the show so memorable. The mystical elements, the extremity of emotion, and the role that violence played in the narrative were all game-changing when it came commercial broadcast TV. We take much of that for granted now. But I doubt a show like Hannibal — which I love — would exist in quite the same way without Twin Peaks’ larger influence on the medium.
AH: Why do you think that many people (including critics and fans) didn’t like Fire Walk with Me, and why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped during the second season?
HP: Fire Walk with Me was written and produced without Mark Frost’s participation. Lacking the alchemy I’ve referred to, the movie suffered. It’s a fascinating document. But it also seems separate from, rather than part of, the Twin Peaks ethos. I’m not sure why the ratings dropped during the second season. The show got a little insular, a little too jokey in my opinion — and I share the blame for that — and it might have been harder for audience members to follow. But over time, I’ve come to have a much greater appreciation for the work we did in the second season.
Apart from discussing specific elements and episodes from Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, Peyton and I also discussed the role that Twin Peaks has had on Peyton’s own career and on modern-day television drama as a larger, international phenomenon. In that context, we came to discuss network and cable-based television, American traditions and Scandinavia television drama.
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 changed the standards of TV, and, if so, how? And which other shows would you point to as influential?
HP: Network television is impervious to change, for the most part. Advances are incremental at best. But Twin Peaks was still able to influence a generation of young writers if only in the way it suggested a more cinematic approach to storytelling on the small screen, an approach that involved more risk and experimentation than previously imagined. (And this happened at a time when HBO was running old movies exclusively, when there were no bloggers, no internet.) That approach was echoed — and watered down — by some subsequent television shows (Northern Exposure comes to mind) but it was also inspirational in a less literal manner in other more successful iterations. The X-Files, The Sopranos, Lost — all of these shows are examples of television shows that simply would not exist in the same way without the influence of Twin Peaks. And they have influenced many other young writers just like Twin Peaks did — and the shows they created.
AH: How can the 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? And why?
HP: Twin Peaks had a larger impact when it comes to the way we think about TV and what we can accomplish. It broke the mold in so many different ways — and many, many shows were influenced by that, some less obviously than others. The X-Files comes to mind, of course, and Lost. Utopia — a British show that is one of my favorite shows of the last several years — was also greatly influenced by it both in the way stories are told and the way they are shot. And let’s not forget Forbrydelsen — not to mention the far less successful American version, The Killing.
AH: You mention Forbrydelsen, which was and still is a huge phenomenon in Denmark, and Søren Sveistrup (the writer) has said that he was evidently and intentionally inspired by Twin Peaks. He will also be interviewed for the book. Have you seen some of the new Danish TV series, and are you familiar with the concept of Nordic Noir – a style of TV shows that are often evidently influenced by Twin Peaks? And why do you think that Twin Peaks travelled and still travels so well? It is hugely popular in Scandinavia, for example.
HP: My familiarity with Nordic Noir started with various novelists — Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell — and then, later, with The Killing and The Bridge. There are many stylistic and narrative echoes of Twin Peaks, I think — even more than in some of the American television shows influenced by it. David’s visual sensibility has always seemed more European, and much of the storytelling in Twin Peaks has similar affinities. I’m not surprised at all that it has travelled so well.
AH: The series plays on a number of humorous references to Scandinavians (Norwegians and Icelanders). Why do you think that is, and is there a certain connection to the melancholy and ofte darkly humoristic tone seen in Scandinavia? Could that be considered a link?
HP: The mixture of melancholy and dark humor is an intrinsic part of Twin Peaks, and something obviously shared with Nordic Noir/Scandinavia. So yes, there is definitely a link.
AH: Which role has Twin Peaks had for your career, and why do you think that it continues to attract new audiences and cult-followers year after year?
HP: Twin Peaks remains the best experience I’ve had in any medium. It was instrumental in much of the work I did after. As for the new audience and cult-followers — they’re simply reacting to what I reacted to the first time I saw the pilot. A perfectly realized world unlike any I’d seen on TV before.
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?
HP: I can hardly wait until 2015, if only to see what Mark and David create. It’s a second chance for both of them to tap into the very special magic that led to the first two seasons. I’m fully confident the third will be every bit as worthwhile. Showtime will allow for far greater freedom — and watching them work without limits will be half the fun when approaching Season Three.
A famous scene from Episode 3 of Twin Peaks: