If you do not recognize the name Lesli Linka Glatter, there is a fair chance that you have not watched television the last couple of decades. Lesli Linka Glatter (b. 1953) is an experienced film and television director who came from Kabuki theatre and dance before venturing into film and television. After directing the short film Tales of Meeting and Parting (1984), which was nominated for an Academy Award, Glatter was asked to be a part of Twin Peaks, ultimately directing four episodes (only topped by David Lynch who directed six episodes of the original show). Twin Peaks became a catalyst for Glatter who would eventually go on to direct episodes of such important and renowned TV shows as E.R. (NBC, 1994-2009), Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000), The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006), Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014), The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-), Justified (FX, 2010-2014), The Leftovers (HBO, 2010-), Boss (Starz, 2011-2012) and Homeland (Showtime, 2011-present).”Lesli Linka Glatter’s list of credits,” as the American journalist Jessica Rose puts it, “is almost identical to every critic’s listicle ranking the best dramas from the past two decades.” I asked Glatter a few questions, and the interview evolved into an insightful and deeply inspirational conversation about the film and television industries, about women in film and TV and about modern television drama.
AH: You have directed four episodes of Twin Peaks. Could you say a few words on the experience of working on Twin Peaks in general, and could you perhaps say a few words on the playful use of compositions and lighting as seen in your episodes?
LLG: I remember a couple of amazing things that happened with David Lynch that had a huge impact on me as a director, one being a scene with Michael Ontkean and Kyle MacLachlan going to the bank. In the scene there was a moose head on the table, and I asked David, “How did you come up with the idea of having a moose head on the table?” And he said, “There was a moose head on the table when I came in. A set-dresser was going to remove it, but I asked her to leave it on the table.” In that way, David Lynch is really open to what’s around.
I remember we were shooting something in One Eyed Jack’s, and there was a set-dresser, Jula, who was vacuuming the floor. She was vacuuming the floor, and it was an old and pretty big vacuum cleaner. And David Lynch goes, “Jula, go put on a cowgirl outfit and vacuum the room in the next scene.”
AH: Having seen your episodes of Twin Peaks, I have noticed that you often use some innovative compositions where seemingly unimportant characters or objects in the frame create an interesting and noticeable kind of shot. These kinds of compositions seem to be ‘signature shots’ of yours. Could you say a few words on these kinds of compositions in your episodes of Twin Peaks?
LLG: I remember doing some big wide shots, wanting to be sure that you got a sense of the environment. We were outside of Los Angeles. One of the things we always used was the big lumber truck, and the land there was Western looking, so it looked as if it was in the Northwest.
There was one specific shot I remember, which is where we are in the cabin in the woods, where the music is playing. In this shoot, we see the needle going into the groove of the record. It was a six second shot, and it was one of the few scenes that David Lynch asked med to change. He wanted it to be stretched out, to be longer. Normally, you are being rushed. Here, we were encouraged to tell the story visually, not how to do it.
Also, we had some different conventions in Twin Peaks [i.e. where different groups of people meet at The Great Northern], and I remember that I thought, “Let’s have another convention at The Great Northern. In the first episode I did, I decided that there would be an American Indian Movement convention in the background. I didn’t know whether people would notice it, and it wasn’t made to be specifically noticeable. I didn’t ever ask for it, I just did it, and then other directors continued that idea. We were encouraged to do it, and it was incredibly creative. David Lynch allowed us a lot of freedom doing what we wanted to do, not being afraid of it not having a formula. He encouraged us to bring our A-game.
AH: You mention that you were inspired by David Lynch’s “cinematic” approach to television. You also directed David Lynch, yourself. What was that like?
LLG: I directed David Lynch when he was playing this hard of hearing character, Gordon Cole, and we were laughing hysterically on set whenever he was yelling something. When we were shooting this, I honestly thought that it was never going to air. I never thought ABC would allow this to be aired.
AH: TV-wise you have been part of the entire transition from a three-network era (by directing episodes of Twin Peaks, E.R. and West Wing – all of which are considered influential and pivotal network shows) to the golden age of cable television that we are seeing right now (True Blood, The Leftovers, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Homeland etc.). How would you describe this transition in American television, and how is it different to work on premium cable-shows like Homeland and True Blood as opposed to network television?
LLG: It’s needless to say that we’re in a golden age of cable television, an age which has made it possible to tell stories in a far more visual and cinematic way. And I actually think that it started with Twin Peaks. I’ve been to many meetings and talked with many people about Twin Peaks and what it did for television. What Twin Peaks did was that it assumed that a normal audience was intelligent, that you did not have to explain everything, that it could be more visual.
AH: Could you elaborate on that? How was Twin Peaks different or more “visual”?
LLG: As I remember the scripts were very short, 34 or 36 pages, and you could spend a lot of time just seeing the needle of a record player going into the groove. So much of the scripts were the descriptions of how it should be done visually. Not a lot of dialogue. And I was new to directing at the time, so I thought: “Wow, is this what television is like? This is really cinematic.” And I was surprised, or rather disappointed, to find out that this was not how television was usually done. This was something unique. Twin Peaks was also a TV series which was run by another director, not a writer. I work with amazing writers now, don’t get me wrong, but David and Mark were very visual.
The shows now don’t fit into any one niche or any one genre, and that could also be said of Twin Peaks. There was a level of absurdity to Twin Peaks, but absurdity which happens in real life.
Like Twin Peaks, West Wing would never be on network television, if it was made now. West Wing assumed a political intelligence of the audience. Now, network television is dumbing down the viewing audience.
After discussing Twin Peaks and its position in television history, we turned our attention to the broader industrial and systemic shifts and changes happening in film and television. We talked about the representation of women, about watching movies and television series on iPads, and about the so-called ‘Golden Age’ in cable television.
AH: Being an experienced director and producer in both film and television, you know quite a lot about the film and television industries. How would you describe the industrial and systemic changes that we have seen, and how have the industrial shifts affected the way television series are actually told?
LLG: When the film business changed so drastically – you almost only have big blockbuster movies and very small movies, and the mid-budget movie doesn’t get made because it is as expensive to market it, as it is to produce – so all of those writers, directors and actors went to television.Where television has matured is where all of these interesting, complex characters that we used to see in the mid-budget movies – movies that are no longer being made – are now being seen on TV.
I think that we’re so used to see stories that, once, you would only see in theatres on our TV screens and iPads. Look at Game of Thrones. It has the same production value as any blockbuster movie. I think, quite honestly, when I’m shooting an episode, I try not to think of it as either film or TV. I’d like a certain scale, and I’ve tried never to think which delivery system people would see it on.
AH: I have heard you say that we are currently witnessing a different shift in the film and television industries, where women directors, producers, actors and protagonists are becoming a more visible part of an otherwise male-dominated business. Could you say a few words on that?
LLG: Four of the most prominent awards [at the DGAs] were all given to women directors. I got the award for Homeland, Jill Soloway, who is amazing, got the award for best comedy series with Transparent, Lisa Cholodenko got the award for best miniseries with Olive Kitteridge, and Laura Poitras got the award for best documentary with Citizenfour. It was pretty remarkable.
There have always been competent women in front of and behind the camera, bit I think what is happing is that women are doing such a good job that they are getting the awards. What happened at the DGA awards is significant, but, sadly, there is still a shortage of women directors. In film school, it is close to 50/50, but something happens along the way. Statistically, women make up only 13 or 14 percent of the directors in TV…
Having a complex, multi-layered female character – that will often come from women. But it’s not gender-specific. Homeland was created by two men, and that features a complex female character. I’m an executive producer on Homeland, and we have amazing directors coming on to the show, and I want them to bring their own ideas. Like David did on Twin Peaks.
Different kinds of conventions and business junkets are held at The Great Northern Hotel. Those kinds of (strange) conventions were created by Lesli Linka Glatter, and they became something of a visual trademark for the show: