Photo: Ben Horne’s office. Courtesy of Richard Hoover.
An “unsung hero” par excellence, the production designer plays a huge part of a film or television show, but s/he is hardly ever acknowledged. Indeed, most people do not even know what production design is. When talking about Twin Peaks, though, it is virtually impossible to overlook the production design, and its crucial importance to the world of Twin Peaks should not be underestimated or underemphasized. Apart from the late Patricia Norris, all the sets were created or designed by Richard Hoover, an experienced art director and production designer who did the production design on 29 out of 30 episodes of Twin Peaks. Apart from that, Hoover has worked on television shows like Enlightened (HBO, 2011-2013) and The Newsroom (HBO, 2012-2014), and he is known in Denmark for having worked with Ole Bornedal – one of the most renowned film and TV directors in the country. I talked with Hoover about production design in general and about Twin Peaks in particular, and we debated the differences between studio recordings and location shooting, between network television and cable-based ‘quality’ TV.
AH: How did you get to be production designer on Twin Peaks?
RH: I knew Mark Frost’s family, and I had done some theatre with his father [Warren Frost]. So, after having seen the pilot, I called him up and said that I loved it. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I was looking for work. That’s how I got to do the production design on Twin Peaks. Originally, I was supposed to do the production design for the first season, but I ended up being a production designer on all of the remaining 29 episodes.
AH: Could you say a few words on the concept of ‘production design’? What, specifically, does a production designer do?
RH: The role of the production designer can be described as a visual partnership with the director. You have read a script, and the script outlines the action and the characters and at least inherently tells you something about the sets, the mood and the tonality of the piece. As a production designer your job is to install, exhume, find or even build sets that reflect the feel of the piece in both an objective and subjective way, knowing full well that the framing is up to the cinematographer. The production designer interprets screenplays and stories and hopes to mirror the feeling, the temperature and the tonality of the piece. Film and television are a visual medium, mind you, so the mood and general tone should be shown in the images, and in Twin Peaks” the production design and cinematography did part of the work, while Angelo Badalamenti’s music sort of fulfilled it. Production design, in other words, is a partnership with the director to orchestrate the machinery of the story, keeping in mind the key imagery and the most iconic visuals.
Good production design is about finding and setting the mood and the tonality of the given film or TV show, and, to me, Se7en is a good example of strong production design. It’s a mood piece.
AH: Twin Peaks, in my view, has a very iconic look. In terms of cinematography, sound and music there are some recurring and very noticeable trademarks, and throughout the 30 episodes – even despite different authors and episode directors – there seems to be a signature style in Twin Peaks. Part of the iconic look comes from the production design, I’m sure, and when I think about Twin Peaks, I immediately think of the warm woody sets (The Lumber Room in the Great Northern, The Sheriff’s Station and The Roadhouse), the Fifties-like RR Diner and the foggy, windy nature settings (like the waterfalls and the railroad tracks where we first see Ronette Pulaski). As a production designer, what were your main ideas and concerns when working on Twin Peaks?
RH: Compared with other TV shows at the time, Twin Peaks was unusual, inasmuch as it used wide-angle shots to show off the rooms and the locations. Twin Peaks didn’t just focus on people looking at each other, but on people interacting with rooms. The locations and the design are a visual background, but they set the tone and mirror certain qualities in the characters. Part of the feeling of Twin Peaks is created by the locations of The Northwest, which include tropical pine forest, but also dark and rainy woods and more mundane places. There are hints of classical Americana in Twin Peaks – just think of the diner and the different family houses – but also a sense that something is lurking inside this seemingly cozy and all-American world.
Twin Peaks was also funny, a parody on a soap opera in a way, but it had a slow pace, and it used both sets which were built and location shots, which weren’t that typical at the time.
The production design of Twin Peaks focuses on wood, the organic, and that which is lurking in the forest. It mixes the mundane with extraordinary and mysterious elements, and there is a sense of latent evilness. There are truck drivers beating up their wives, murder and other dark elements. That combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, of innocence and deviousness, is central to Twin Peaks, and is mirrored in the production design.
AH: There are some strangely surreal rooms in Twin Peaks (e.g. The Red Room), and there is a sense that the architecture is often unstable, where walls are made out of plastic (e.g. Leo and Shelly’s house) or red drapes. Could you say a few words on that?
RH: We often worked with interiors that could make you imagine certain things. You can stare at a room and get scares. The human mind makes up things, and that feeling is produced in The Red Room or at Leo’s house which isn’t even fully done. Middle America comes out in the different sets (e.g. The RR Diner), but there’s a madness, something is seeping underneath, and we wanted to create the visual sense of a world which is erupting.
You understand a lot about the mood and about the different characters from watching the sets and locations, but we tried to make it intuitive. In Captain America we exude the characters of the story and development of the background to underline the thematic. In Twin Peaks, the sets also say something about the characters. We’re doing background, but in Twin Peaks the background is often foregrounded, although it isn’t like Iron Man. Just look at the title sequence. There are no people. It’s all environment.
AH: Which of the different sets and locations in Twin Peaks are most iconic to you, and why?
RH: The diner, the truck driver’s house and some of the family houses are very iconic. Also, the Sheriff’s office. It’s not an urban environment. It’s a rural environment where you have to get the sense that nothing much is happening. Until now.
AH: The ratings started to drop during the second season. Why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped, and why do you think that many people (including critics and fans) didn’t like Fire Walk with Me?
RH: These are questions of how to elicit a story arc. You pull a pin out of it when the mystery is solved, and then some of the drive is reduced. It’s hard to sustain a mystery for so many episodes, but they shouldn’t change it, when they do the third season. It may have lost some viewers, but it had other qualities.
AH: Which of the different episodes is your favorite?
RH: The last one of the first season, directed by Mark Frost, is my favorite.
AH: Is there any chance of you coming back when they show returns in 2016 or 2017?
RH: They haven’t called me, but I would love to be a part of it. I left a message for David, but I don’t know anything yet.
After debating the production design in Twin Peaks, we broadened our perspective, looking at the conventions of network television, the use of studio recordings vs. location shooting, and different views on set design and lighting.
AH: When I think of traditional network television, I think of studio recordings. Sometimes the viewer can even see that a given show has been shot in a studio with a ‘three-headed camera’-style and studio lighting. Twin Peaks, to me, looks like a “fully-furnished world,” so to speak. Twin Peaks may be a fictional town, but it feels as if it is a real town that you, as a viewer, walk into. What did you do to make that happen?
RH: The networks were trying things, beginning to explore storytelling in different ways. Hill Street Blues was important in that sense, using location shots, and Mark Frost was a writer on that show. Later, cable and different outlets brought competition, and that further encouraged experimentation. Now television shows are often shot on location – at least in part – and many TV shows are as expensive as movies. Twin Peaks was shot on film, but most of it was shot as if on location. I’ve never understood why everything should be lit from above on a TV show, and Twin Peaks was often shot and lit differently. Many of the traditional TV principles came out of TV-makers who were essentially engineers, not storytellers. I’ve always been more interested in visual storytelling. We were relying on practicals, so we lit many of the scenes from the floor, instead of using traditional lighting principals. The lighting on Twin Peaks is not exactly film noir, but it’s moody lighting. You might say that it’s noir with a twist, using wide-shots and two-shots to make it slightly more theatrical.
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?
RH: I think Twin Peaks has been influential to many modern shows, but it was hard to see back then, and none of us knew at the time. Later, though, it became important. Twin Peaks was very visual and groundbreaking, and it formed a certain synergy with the growth of cable and different outlets, which created a competition and changed TV as we know it. The commitment has become more visual. True Detective, for example, has a great echo of Twin Peaks. It is an amazing show combining some of the elements we know from Twin Peaks – a murder mystery and a dysfunctional environment. I also like Homeland – and House of Cards which is slightly more sweaty in its look.
AH: Are you aware of the popularity of Twin Peaks in Scandinavia, and do you know of such Danish shows as Forbrydelsen (remade as The Killing) and Bron/Broen (remade as The Bridge and The Tunnel)?
RH: Ole Bornedal [a Danish film and television director] has introduced me to the demented Danish mind. On Nightwatch we built things and created a world that was strange, but they probably shouldn’t have made the American remake. The Danish version is better.
When I say Ole, I went to a play with him. Naturally, I didn’t understand a word of it, but we did it anyway, and I do think that there is a certain link between the Scandinavian sensibility and Twin Peaks. I am aware of the Swedish world as seen in films like Män som hatar kvinnor and Let the Right One In. There is a dark mood in those films. I think it’s in the water, in the surroundings up there. And, yes, it probably is the same. There is an affinity, in any case, in the mood, the darkness and the deadpan humor.
As mentioned by Richard Hoover, the title sequence from Twin Peaks is a testament to the show’s focus on sets and environments: