Stephen Gyllenhaal (b. 1943) is a writer, poet and film director, and he is the father of two other popular Hollywood stars: Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal. The Gyllenhaals are a celebrated Hollywood family, and Stephen Gyllenhaal is a renowned film maker. He has directed episodes of television series like Twin Peaks and Rectify (SundanceTV, 2013-present), and he has directed some relatively unknown films that often exist in the periphery of Hollywood cinema (e.g. Certain Fury  and Grassroots ). I had a brief talk with Stephen Gyllenhaal about his one – incredible – episode of Twin Peaks and about American television and society in a broader perspective.
AH: How would you describe Twin Peaks, and would you say that it has been an influential show? If so, how?
SG: I think the problem with Twin Peaks in the US was that it was ahead of its time. Underneath the surface of the crime story, Twin Peaks is an exploration of the unconscious. At a deeper level, the show reflects the unconscious level of the corruption in the US and, by extension, the entire Western world. We have lived in an era which has been dominated by materialism and rationalism – and where rationalism has eschewed the unconscious.
Twin Peaks hasn’t had as much of an influence as it may have now. A show like The Sopranos has certain similarities with Twin Peaks, at least when he loses his mind. There we get some great sequences that seem to be inspired by Twin Peaks. Other shows like Forbrydelsen and True Detective might also be similar to Twin Peaks, but they still take place in the rational world.
Ironically, some of the modern action and superhero movies portray the darkness of the unconscious, albeit in a much safer way. A superhero movie like The Dark Knight Rises is dark and explores the unconscious, but it isn’t ambiguous like Twin Peaks.
AH: You have directed one episode of Twin Peaks, and your episode, in my view, is one of the best from the second season. There are some visually stunning and ominous elements in your episode, and three of these should be discussed: (1) Cooper’s hand starts to shake, as he looks through the Venetian blinds; (2) As Cooper and Annie kiss at The RR Diner, they spill some coffee, and this is shown in slow-motion underscored by ominous music; (3) At the end of the episode, the red curtains appear at Glastonbury Grove, and Bob’s hand suddenly appears. What do these elements mean to you?
SG: I have a big smile on my face now. It was a wonderful script, and there are moments where I said to David that I wanted the hands of some of the characters to shake at certain points in the episode. For me it represented the unconscious coming up to take over the conscious world, and when I said that to him, I remember him saying, “Stephen, I’m so happy you have your thinking cap strapped on properly.”
There is something genuinely childlike and very deep about David Lynch – both at the same time – and I think that you should be deep, yet naïve like a child in a way, if you want to make interesting films. When I did those scenes with the shaking hands, I was just riffing off of the general themes in the show, and to me the show is ultimately about the unconscious bleeding in to the conscious world.
When one participates in a project that has a life of its own, as Twin Peaks does, it doesn’t matter what you think it meant as a director. It becomes the watcher who tries to find his or her own meaning. None of us owns it. …
AH: Why do you think that many people (including critics and fans) didn’t like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped during the second season?
SG: I think it got a little confusion during the second season. The narrative, at times, got a little too confusing, and that can easily happen if you go into the unconscious.
The pilot is a great episode, though, about the murder of the innocent girl. And, if anything, that image has been influential. That image of the dead girl has affected virtually all cop shows, and many newer cop shows focus – albeit in a more perverse way – on the killing of innocent girls. Twin Peaks was about the killing of innocence.
AH: Which role has Twin Peaks had for your career, and why do you think that it continues to attract new audiences and cult-followers year after year?
SG: In terms of my career, it was certainly helpful. But in terms of the experience itself, that was much more important to me. I loved being part of the world of Twin Peaks, and I actually asked whether I could shoot some more stuff, while I was there. So, I got to shoot some other scenes, scenes that were used later on in Fire Walk with Me or something else. I just loved the process. People love it because it goes to this deeper place.
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?
SG: For shows to work, it’s a very fragile alchemy. It’s difficult, and you have to strike a certain balance. I don’t know if that will happen when Twin Peaks is rebooted in 2016, but I hope so. Anyway. I’d love to do some more. I’d love to dance in that circus again.
At the end of season two, they knew that they were going to be taken off the network, and in a way I think that liberated them and made them do exactly what they wanted to do. That may have been the reason why the show found its legs again during the final part of the second season. One thing that cable networks seem to have understood is that, if you want people to watch the show, you have to lead the way. I still think that the networks haven’t truly realized that. Sadly.
A great and ominous scene from Stephen Gyllenhaal’s episode of Twin Peaks: