García’s photo from Fire Walk with Me, signed by Sheryl Lee: “To Ron with lots of love.”
Having directed some relatively unknown films in the 1970s, e.g. The Toy Box (1971) and Inside Amy (1975), Ronald Victor García is mostly known as a cinematographer. After working as an independent filmmaker and dabbling in the fine arts, Ron García was hired as a cinematographer on the pilot episode of Twin Peaks and the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. He began as a photographer, painter and director, making cheap horror movies and exploitation films, and after Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me he turned his attention to sculpting. I talked with García about Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, film and fine arts, and his insights into the use of lighting, colors and lenses were every bit as interesting as he is friendly and generous.
AH: Twin Peaks has a very distinct audiovisual style that sets it apart from many television shows. Its use of lighting and colors does not look like standard television drama, nor does its use of lenses and long takes. As a director of photography, how would you describe the visual style of Twin Peaks?
RG: I abandoned the traditional style of lighting known from TV the day I became a cinematographer. I couldn’t afford all those lights. The way I lit Twin Peaks was how the universe lights things. I just tried in all of my cinematography to understand the story. I didn’t want to run around a do a lot of unnatural lighting. I wanted it to seem naturally lit, as if you were in the environment. I didn’t want backlight because I would always think, “Where did that light come from?” The studio lighting of the black and white days was overlit, and all of that seemed unnatural to me.
AH: Did you and David Lynch ever disagree in terms of lighting?
DL: The only conflict I had with David was in the forest scene of Fire Walk with Me where Laura and Bobby are going to do this drug deal. David wanted to do this scene with Xenon Flashlights. I said, “I don’t want the actors to be gaffers. If you want it to be dark, we can do that. If you want it to be black, that will happen.” It had been a long day, and David kept saying, “It’s too bright, Ron,” and I tried the old line that cinematographers use, “Hate me now, love me later.” But that didn’t work. David kept looking at the light itself, not the actors, and he said, “That’s too bright.” Finally, he said to me, “Ron, where is that light coming from?”
AH: In the beginning of Twin Peaks, there is a very aesthetic shot of Josie who looks at herself in the mirror which gives her a femme fatale-like quality, while hinting at the show’s theme of doppelgängers and duality. Could you say a few words on that shot?
RG: The shot of Josie is also one of my favorite shots because her skin is yellow against the beautiful jet hair. Somebody said that I couldn’t use yellow on her because she was Chinese, but I asked, “Does it look beautiful or not?” Of course you can use yellow on a Chinese person.
It was just the lamp itself that was lighting her and the ceramic figurine. The lamp was doing exactly what you saw on film. That was just a little 500 watts Tungsten light to light her face. I was actually operating that shot.
I had very little light to work with, and I felt very European because their films in the 1960s had a realism to them. If there was light, you had to see that the light was coming from somewhere real. Then you could believe it. I was a kind of purist when it came to lighting…
AH: How did you work with colors in that scene and on Twin Peaks in general, and how would you describe your approach to color and filters in film and television?
RG: In the warm color I want a yellow – I love yellow and how it blends with other hues, especially greens – and so David said, “Well, just use two 85 filters.” So, there was a filter at the time, which was called an LLD. This was a color correction filter. The combination of the LLD, which was really clear, and the 85, which was yellow and orange, gave it that specific look. Because of that combination of filters, I think, your brain can’t really compute which time of day it is. I showed it to David, and he said, “Perfect.” That’s how it came about.
I had a lot of blue and green and modern look in my films, and David asked me, “Do you have anything in your demo reel which is warm?” That’s all he said. I had made this film called Nightbreaker, which was a period piece set in the dessert, and I said, “Well, I have that. Let me go and get it,” and he said, “Okay”. And he said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
It is romantic. Most cinematographers know this, I think, but I fell in love with the psychology of colors. In the 1970s I was very involved with the psychology of colors because I wanted to be involved in fine arts, painting, but before I got involved in oil painting, I started working with cameras. Colors have always fascinated me – their hues – and so I have always studies colors. The colors of Rembrandt or Van Gogh.
People saw Twin Peaks, and they would be used to the blues and the greens, but to make it comfortable we would take the inside blues and change them into warm greys, and that gave it a different kind of mood.
Frame pair from Nightbreaker (1989) and the pilot episode of Twin Peaks (1990).
AH: Something which is visually striking in terms of Twin Peaks, if you ask me, is the way that the camera often lingers on something, and, also, the use of different shots of seemingly irrelevant objects that contribute to the mood and general symbolism of the show (e.g. the ceiling fan, the traffic light at Sparkwood and 21). Was this something that you discussed with David Lynch or was it intuitive?
RG: Those shots came from me. I started off as a filmmaker. I started off producing my own films, and I always loved details of things that were around me visually. When I saw things, I would indistinctly turn my camera to capture it, kind of like a still photographer
Talking about the traffic light shots, I remember we were shooting at night and David said to me, “Why don’t you leave Sean,” who was an amazing cinematographer in his own right. He said, “We’ll leave Sean, and we can let him shoot a few images of the traffic light.” Sean, being very meticulous, sat there and shot that all the way. He was a very intuitive. He knew David’s fondness for darkness, so he decided that he would wait until all you could see the traffic light, and then he would shoot it. It was down to that traffic light, and I don’t think you can see the whole traffic light, and David chose the darkest one. I think David conveyed his mood, feelings and textures to all of us.
As for the shots of the pine trees, I remember we were outside, and the wind was blowing in the pine trees. I liked it. It just set the mood for what David was doing, so I said to Sean, “Just pan through it,” and David loved it.
Even though we shot it, I think that all came from David. David’s ability to make us go inside ourselves as see the mood. Like he does with the actors. I was starting to succumb to formula, and David got me back in tune.
AH: How would you describe David Lynch as a director and collaborator?
RG: David is a kind of artist who believes in the universe. He meditates a lot. He’s a transcendentalist. He takes things as they come. If something happens, he takes it as a hint. That maybe he should take I as a hint from the universe, and that’s how I work with my sculpting. I sculpt. If you are open to your subconscious, that opens you up, that encourages you to be aware… The deer head in the pilot, for instance, was a fluke. It fell off the wall, and the set dresser panicked, and David said, “No, no, just leave it. We’ll use that in the shot.” There are three people standing in that shot with a deer head in the middle, and the shot is just perfect. Serendipity, synchronicity.
AH: In the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, there are some really staggering scenes and sequences which illustrate to us that Laura Palmer has died, while showing the sense of despair of the whole town, trying to come to terms with their loss. Two examples are particularly staggering: (1) the telephone conversation where the camera tilts down, following the telephone cord, and (2) the sequence where the class mates hear of Laura’s death, which is beautifully underscored by an airy sound on the soundtrack and a visual sense of absence (the empty chair, the empty hallway etc.). Could you say a few words on these two scenes/sequences?
RG: As a cinematographer those aren’t exactly difficult to do. The only think I really remember in doing shots like that was having David Lynch slow me down because I had just come from television with Michael Mann, and it was very different. Michael Mann was very different, using long lenses and making cop shows. I had been on that series for a year, and the next project was with David. Working with Micahel Mann is like working on a bullet train, and working with David Lynch is like being in a canoe on a slow moving river.
One of my favorite shots was one shot in the pilot episode where the camera ends up panning and tilting up to the mill in Snoqualmie. I took a lens and started filming. He said slower, a little slower, so I slowed down. He, then, said slower. So I tried the slowest I could, and then he said, “No, Ron, think under water.” He put that image in my head.I wasn’t quite in tune with him on the pilot until day four of shooting.
Frame pair: L.A. Takedown (1989, dir. Michael Mann) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991).
AH: Was the scene in the classroom inspired by Fritz Lang’s movie M (where the mother learns about Elsie’s death, and where it is illustrated through shots of an empty chair at the dinner table etc.)?
RG: Yes, I think it was… It is a stronger image when you’re used to seeing something or someone, as when you are cutting to an empty seat. In many American films, you would do a flashback there, but I remember David saying, “Ron, you can’t spoon-feed the public.” Doing a shot of that empty chair instead of spelling everything out for the audience by doing a flashback is the difference between the European and the American sensibility.
AH: In an issue of American Cinematographer you have been quoted for saying that you were doing a long lens-shot and that you were rushing because of the fact that there are commercials in a TV series. In this case, however, David Lynch told you to go “slow.” Could you say something about the pacing of Twin Peaks, and the how working with David Lynch differs from other TV productions (also within commercial network television)?
RG: I think you have to listen first of all to David Lynch’s music. Angelo Badalamenti’s music is very haunting, and the series is about this town which is in mourning. What David wanted to tell with that slow camera movement, panning down, was his particular shadow side, to quote a Jungian phrase.
When I was done shooting the pilot, I thought it would be Peyton Place in the woods. I didn’t get it because I was in Michael Mann world. In television back then young people never stopped for a breath. David opted for a slower tempo, similar to the old movies that he liked.
AH: The ending of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is extremely beautiful. As Laura Palmer is killed, we see her face in some close-ups where the deep red color of blood on her face is contrasted beautifully by the delicate whiteness/paleness of her skin. At the same time we hear “Requiem.” What did you (and David Lynch) do to create this sense of duality – that something can be forever gruesome and aesthetically beautiful at the same time?
RG: I think I shot the whole thing with two Xenon Flashlights – as if it were her dad’s flashlight – and there wasn’t a lot of light because David liked the dark. The density of the flashlights was big, and you could augment it a little big, make it bigger so we could see a little bit more.
I had to wait two years or more before I was able to view Blue Velvet. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t finish Blue Velvet. I couldn’t look at the reality of it. The same thing with Fire Walk with Me. When we shot that, Sheryl Lee had put so much of her intensity into it, and she had gone so deep within her psyche to get where she wanted to be, and it was taxing for her. We were worried for her, but she got through it, and when I saw the film, I was so impressed with it.
Frame pair: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento).
AH: There is also another very interesting and aesthetic scene in that film. I am thinking of the scene with Lil. Here we have a very beautiful use of color contrasts. Could you say a few words on that scene?
RG: The yellow plane and the blue rose against the red dress – all of that is in the production design by Patricia Norris. Being a production designer and a costume designer, she was totally responsible for the visual construction of the set – the colors and the textures. The colors were so strong for me from Patty’s design and David’s influence, so I just augmented it. I played with color contrast.
Lil (Kimberly Anne Cole) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Do you think that Twin Peaks has had an impact on modern-day television drama?
RG: There were a lot of European films from the ’60s and ’70s that took the time to breathe, to study the actor’s face and their acting. Those things would usually be cut out. Twin Peaks did the same for television. It took the time to breathe. David, being an artist, fought for what he wanted to do, so David and Mark got what they collaborated for. He came in with a lot of ideas that he picked up from old films, for example using wide shots in a way that looked like films of the ’40s when they weren’t cutting all the time. Mind you, there are shots in Twin Peaks where you see eleven characters in the same shot.
Eventually, as the tools became better, different artists began paying attention to a different art form, and some of these artists started forcing the networks to challenge themselves and to do something else than the run-of-the mill comedies and variety shows.
To me, network television today has become cookie cutters, somewhat like many of the studios during the studio system. There was a time when the technicians were artists, whereas the producers were just there to entertain and to sell. Now you are seeing the competition from all of these cable companies – HBO and FX – and they’ve given breath back to television. David wouldn’t go back to Twin Peaks, if he didn’t have the freedom to do it the way he wants. Showtime, HBO – all of those cable companies that grew and that valued the artists – have made it possible for artists to make interesting television shows.
It’s hard of me to fathom, even today, how many fans there are of Twin Peaks. I’m really proud of having been a part of it, and I’m proud of having worked with David who is a true artist.
The opening from the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, including the shot of Josie, as mentioned by Ron García: