After working on Wiseguy (CBS, 1987), the writer-producer Robert (Bob) Engels became a part of Twin Peaks where he was credited as writer on 10 episodes. Together with David Lynch, Engels also co-wrote the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and he was a part of the crazy, short-lived sitcom On the Air (ABC, 1992). Afterwards, Engels has become a showrunner in his own right, and he has been a part of shows like SeaQuest DSV (NBC, 1993-1994) and Andromeda (Global/Sci-Fi Channel, 2000-2005). Over a couple of days, I talked with Bob Engels about Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me and the concept of writing for network television.
AH: As an experienced television writer and showrunner, perhaps you could say a few words on Twin Peaks and modern television drama. Would you say that Twin Peaks has had an impact on modern television drama, and how has television changed during the last 25 years?
RE: Twin Peaks has probably been most significant in terms how the stories were told and how it sort of broke the mold. There was nothing that came before that was told in that manner. It had a different mood or pace than your average television show. In some ways, it was a simple soap opera, but in some ways it was loaded with things you hadn’t seen before. It was sort of a simple soap opera set-up, but it was so strange. Maybe it was the pace. It was so, maybe not slow, but it had a different rhythm to it. If you pay attention to it, there is a different kind of musicality to it. It had a different mood and a different pace than most televisions series. If people say about a pilot episode to a new show, “Boy, that was a great pilot?” I usually say, “Well, look at what Mark and David did.”
Twin Peaks is of an era where film directors were starting to come to television or began doing television. Steven Spielberg and David Lynch were only two of them.
Had there been cable television, it would have lasted for several seasons, I think. The difference now, in terms of how big your audience has to be in order to stay on the air, is huge. Today, there are some cable outlets where a show gets a million viewers, and that’s considered successful. That could even be their number one show. We had about 20 million viewers, and we were still discontinued. It was definitely a different era.
AH: You co-wrote the final episode of Twin Peaks, and that is still the strangest of all TV episodes I have ever seen. Do you think that you pushed the envelope, and how much of the final episode was actually planned? And could you say a few words, in general, about the process of writing on Twin Peaks?
RE: I think a lot of it was in the script. David is such a genius, so there are always things that happen that are uniquely him. The trick with the final episode of a show is that they are so hard to do. I think I’ve written four final episodes for different shows. They are really hard because your instinct is to wrap it up, and you really can’t. If you give an ending, there is no repeat value. The final episode of Twin Peaks wasn’t meant to wrap everything up.
The four of us wrote it together: Harley, myself, David and Mark. When you’re writing with a director, the director always gets the final say. In the film industry, at least, the director often has the final say, and it was like that on Twin Peaks. Mark was really the showrunner. I have since then become a showrunner. I learned from Mark.
What would happen was that there would be an idea – “Okay, this is what has to happen for this episode.” We would break it down to acts – I think on Twin Peaks it was four acts – and then, very much like a soap opera, we would decide that each of the regulars would get five or six scenes in each episode. We would write scenes and character stuff for every one of the regulars. In part Twin Peaks was a detective story, but in many ways it followed a soap opera structure.
It was really pretty simple in terms of how it got plotted out. We could pitch different ideas, and then Mark would say what he liked and what he didn’t liked. Mark would go through it. Someone on every show has to have a last say.
AH: How would you describe the role of an episode writer?
RE: When you are starting out in television, your job is to write exactly like the showrunner, so it’s all of a piece. Even down to the spelling errors, you learn to write like the showrunner, so it all seems to have been made by one person. Everything should seem to be organic, part of the same vision.
AH: I have noticed that Twin Peaks seems to work around the different commercial breaks in a very neat way. Often when we go to commercials or come back from commercials, we see an iconic and noisy shot of the waterfall or the sawmill. How much did you think about the commercial breaks when writing the show, and did they have any impact on the way Twin Peaks was written?
RE: As I said, I think it was a four-act structure. The acts would have to have what is called and act-out – a strong ending – and in classical television you do an act-out by going out on the lead actor. In a show like The Rockford Files most acts would have a build-up and before you went to commercials, you would go to a shot on James Garner. There is something of that in Twin Peaks. Every ten page you would have something strong happening.
AH: Twin Peaks mixes different genres and different moods, and it can go from serious to melodramatic, scary and funny within a few minutes. How would you describe the shifting moods of Twin Peaks, and would it be fair to argue that Twin Peaks became somewhat uneven during the second season due to the different episode directors employing each their own style and having each their own preferences?
RE: A lot was done by the virtue of the different directors, and between the four of us, everyone had pretty good humor. And the different actors were very funny – Russ is funny, Miguel is funny – so many of those things were organic. That gave us a way to do something which is weird or ironic, and, as I said, we had different directors who would want to give different flavors to it.
AH: When thinking about network television at the time, you seem to have had a surprising amount of freedom on Twin Peaks. David Lynch, himself, has said that many time. How could that be?
RE: There are two elements that come to mind, both on the executive side. One is that Bob Iger, who was the President of ABC, loved David. The second is that Phil Segal, who was our exec, got the show completely. He was our go-between, and he loved the show. In that sense, we had two people on the executive side who really loved and got the show. That helped us a lot and gave us a lot of artistic freedom.
Twin Peaks probably changed the paradigm in terms of how shows were made at the time. It had a signature style, and David and Mark really had the final say. Also, we had many directors on the show who were feature directors and who were not used to having people tell them what to do: Diane Keaton, Jamey Foley, Caleb Deschanel and Lesli Linka Glatter.
AH: Aside from being a huge part of Twin Peaks, you was also central to the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Why do you think that many people (including critics and fans) didn’t like the prequel, and why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped during the second season?
RE: When we had to solve the murder, that really made a big change, and that came from ABC. But to me, a lot of the series was about guilt – not just about who did it. Everybody was connected to Laura and felt guilty, so once we solved that, a lot of it went away, and that had a lot to do with the mood change in the series.
After the series had been cancelled, there was kind of a residue or a reaction, but as time passes, the movie really grows in stature.
AH: In the beginning of Fire Walk with Me, we open on a television screen, and as the camera zooms out, the television set is destroyed. This could be seen as a reference to the fact that you did not have to adhere to the restrictions related to network television? What was your idea with that scene?
RE: I don’t think that it was ever talked about explicitly. But the good thing about David’s movies is that it is whatever you think it is. If you think that’s what it is, then that’s what it is, and that’s a beautiful thing. You could look at it as “we get to go beyond television,” or you could see it as a nod or an homage to the original television show.
I think, in the movie, that one of the last things was to add the traffic lights. People would attach a lot to those lights, and that goes back to David and the idea that you could read whatever you want into that traffic light.
When we did Fire Walk with Me, we certainly weren’t bound by TV. Making a movie, we certainly didn’t have to think about all the things that are restricted on network television: nudity, foul language and things like that.
AH: There were plans of a third season, when you were doing Twin Peaks. How much had you actually talked about season three, and what were your plans?
RE: Had there been a third season, it would have been on the same network. Here is how I would put it: When you do a show, you always talk about the next season, whether it is serious or not. You never get truly serious about it, however, before it’s ordered, but it was never more than casual conversation.
AH: Twin Peaks is now said to return on Showtime in 2016 or 2017. What difference, if any, will it make that Twin Peaks is going to be a premium cable-show?
RE: First came HBO, and then now, even on basic cable, there’s foul language and nudity. Had there been cable or off-channel shows back then, Twin Peaks would have lasted much longer.
I think it will make a difference that Twin Peaks is being moved to Showtime, in the sense that the landscape has changed so much. My guess is that there won’t be any notes of network television. House of Cards, which is on Netflix, is not restricted in any way. The new episodes of Twin Peaks certainly won’t have any of the restrictions connected to network television, and there won’t be any commercial breaks. My guess is that Mark and David will do something very cool. You want to like it as much as you liked it, when you first saw it.
The television set is destroyed in the opening of Fire Walk with Me: