Credited as sound editor on Twin Peaks, Patrick McCormick (b. 1955) might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of the popular television show. Nevertheless, McCormick is an avid and insightful sound editor, and having worked on 20 episodes of Twin Peaks, he has contributed to the – arguably – most innovative part of the series: The sound design. Apart from working on Twin Peaks, McCormick is mostly known as the dialogue editor on Scent of a Woman (1992) and Benny & Joon (1993). He also worked on the often forgotten and underappreciated sitcom On the Air (ABC, 1992), which was created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. I interviewed Pat McCormick, and he gave me a number of insights into the work of a sound editor, apart from speaking more generally about Twin Peaks, television sound and modern-day TV drama.
AH: You were a sound editor on the second season of Twin Peaks. Could you say a few words on what a sound editor does – more specifically – and how you got to be a sound editor on Twin Peaks?
PM: As far as dialogue editing goes, the different shots or angles that comprise a filmed conversation do not occur in real time as the illusion of the edited final product suggests. A close up shot of one character delivering his lines is intercut with a close up of the other responding and performing his lines. Both close ups of each character delivering their side of the entire conversation were shot separately and at different times. Intercutting the two shots together gives the illusion of a real time interaction only if the picture and dialogue editors can create a natural looking and sounding flow. Dialogue editors will also steal words and sometimes syllables from other takes and insert them into the chosen take in order to adjust the actor’s inflection or mask a problem that occurred during the recording of the line on set. Every edit must flow naturally, invisibly.
AH: You say that every edit must flow “naturally, invisibly.” Walter Murch has argued that editing – and sound editing in particular – is often an unnoticed or invisible art. What is your philosophy as a sound editor, and how much of what you do as a sound editor is dictated by the general narrative and style of the given movie/TV series (and its director)?
PM: Dialogue editing must be invisible. There are many exceptions to this rule where obvious editing is a stylistic choice. Natural Born Killers is a perfect example of this. Sometimes audio is purposely absent to intensify a mood. In episode 2.7 for example, after Leland/Bob kills Maddy we return to the busy tavern. All background sound is conspicuously absent. We see Donna crying but we don’t hear her. All we hear is Julee Cruise singing on the stage. This stylistic choice by the director makes the scene far more powerful than it would’ve been otherwise. Effective use of audio can guide the emotional direction of a scene.
AH: You mention the ending of a particularly haunting sequence from episode 2.7 (“Lonely Souls”), which, in my view, is one of the best episodes of the entire series. Before we cut back to The Roadhouse, though, the murder itself is pretty interesting in terms of sound. Could you say what your general ideas were here? What was the idea behind mixing slow-motion and real-time? Did you strive toward creating a very eerie effect by having the record player making a small background noise throughout the scene, and was the slow-motion effect meant to give Leland/Bob a sort of animalistic character (he seems to be growling almost like an animal)?
PM: If I recall the scene correctly, picture and sound were slowed whenever we saw Bob struggling with Maddy. Yes, the slowed audio definitely suggested the animalistic nature of Bob. This was a stylistic choice made by the director as was the repetitive needle bump sound from the record player.
AH: Could you say a few words on the sound work in relation to the final episode of the series? In the final episode we have many interesting elements in terms of sound, e.g. Windom Earle’s voice heard through Sarah Palmer, the characters talking backwards in The Black Lodge, etc.
PM: Michael J. Anderson, the actor who played The Man From Another Place in the Black Lodge, had an uncanny ability to speak backwards. He could look at a line of printed dialogue and phonetically speak the words in reverse. He performed his lines this way in the Black Lodge sequence of the final episode. When audio and picture were played in reverse, the backwards reading of his lines was now understandable… yet otherworldly. He coached the other actors as well.
AH: How, in terms of sound, was Twin Peaks different from your average TV show?
PM: The production team was aware of just how powerful a tool the soundtrack could be. This was a television series broadcast on a commercial network, yet the audio was designed and utilized as if it were a feature film. Artistic choices were made regarding the tracks all the time. We’ve discussed a few examples already. The sound editors would have what we called ‘spotting sessions’ with each director of each episode once that episode’s picture had been cut. We would all watch it together in an edit bay and discuss the best way to handle the audio that would influence key scenes. We had all worked on episodics before but never had the access to the director’s input like we did with Peaks. The music, more than any other show I had worked on, played a very important role in Twin Peaks. Not just background music. It was a character. Often I felt the music was making a sarcastic comment about what was happening in the scene. Jazzy, finger snapping ‘50s cool. Quite unique. Especially for TV. Angelo Badalamenti.
On a side note, David Lynch would attend the spotting sessions for the episodes he directed. I don’t mind telling you how thrilling that was for a young man who saw Lynch as a filmmaking god. Very nice man. Interested and involved.
AH: Lori Eschler Frystak has told me that technological innovations in terms of surround sound made way for a more cinematic use of sound in Twin Peaks. Could you say a few words on sound technology in relation to Twin Peaks?
PM: Glen Glenn Sound had introduced a new audio editing technology called P.A.P. which stood for Post Audio Processing. Instead of editing sound on 35 mm magnetic film with splicing blocks and razor blades, the P.A.P. system allowed editing to be done with faders similar to those one would use on a mixing board. The guide audio was delivered on a 2” 24 track time coded tape. This gave the sound editor 22 empty tracks to use for separating lines of dialogue, add alternate readings from different takes, room tone fill to help with smoothing and dovetailing the sound from one angle to another, etc. Picture was delivered on ¾” video cassettes with matching time code so that both the 24 track audio tape and the video could be played together in sync. This is how the dialogue, effects and music were edited on Twin Peaks.
After conversing about sound editing and sound design, we turned our attention to Twin Peaks in general, focusing on the differences between season one and season two, on the genre hybridity of Twin Peaks, and on the impact that Twin Peaks has had on modern-day television drama.
AH: The ratings dropped during the second season (from 34 million viewers in the pilot to 7.2 million viewers late in the second season). Why do you think that the ratings started to drop?
PM: My guess is that audiences dwindled after the primary story arc had been resolved. Episode 9 had definitively answered the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Further revelations involving the Black Lodge were yet to follow, but I think the casual viewers of the show were only interested in the murder mystery.
AH: How can we 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?
PM: Without naming names, I feel that any show which is willing to stray from the standard formula and surprise the viewer with creative flights of fancy, owes a little something to Peaks.
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?
PM: I’m excited about the third season. I can’t wait to see what Lynch has up his sleeve. I’m also very happy that it will air on premium cable without commercials.
The famous ‘It is happening again’-sequence from Twin Peaks. In this version, a revealing part has been cut out, but we are still able to hear the needle bump sound, and we see Donna crying, as mentioned by Patrick McCormick: