Having directed three episodes of the show, including the episode in which Leland Palmer dies, Tim Hunter (b. 1947) is recognized by many fans of Twin Peaks as one of the best episode directors apart from David Lynch. Hunter began his career in independent film, and his film River’s Edge (1986) was his great breakthrough. Today, Hunter is a renowned television director, known for his use of low-key lighting, Sam Peckinpah-like wide-angle shots and his use of the Dutch tilt. Apart from Twin Peaks, Hunter has directed episodes of such critical successes as Eerie Indiana (NBC, 1991-1992), Carnivàle (HBO, 2003-2005), Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2008), Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013), Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013), Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008-2014), Pretty Little Liars (ABC, 2010-present) and American Horror Story (FX, 2011-present). Taking time off from his busy schedule, Tim Hunter agreed to talk with me about Twin Peaks, the unevenness of the second season, and the changes in the television industry during the last 25 years.
AH: You have directed three episodes of Twin Peaks, and in at least two of them (“The One-Armed Man” and “Arbitrary Law”) you use Dutch tilt quite a lot in a way that is reminiscent of film noir. In “The One-Armed Man” (1.5) the Dutch angle is used in the end of the episode when we see Josie, and in “Arbitrary Law” (2.9) the same technique is used in the opening, where we see Albert, Sheriff Truman and Dale Cooper discussing who Bob is or might be. Was this technique meant to give the episodes a film noir-like feel? Certainly, your episodes from the second season also use low-key lighting, and in Twin Peaks there are many references or allusions to noir-films such as Laura and Double Indemnity.
TH: Whenever I have a shot of a group of people walking like that, I always think about the The Wild Bunch, but I am a huge film buff and I come from feature films, so of course I was inspired by film noir. I was thinking film noir, without placating any specific noir-film, and I was thinking of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli and the kind of Technicolor melodrama look.
The show gave you the freedom to do those kinds of angle shots. Today it would be rare for anybody to get that kind of freedom.
Two of Tim Hunter’s trademark shots in Twin Peaks, alluding to Peckinpah and film noir.
AH: “Arbitrary Law” is considered by many – at least many of the fans – to be one of the best episodes from the second season. In a way, it concludes the murder mystery, and it is memorable for its style, but also for Ray Wise’s performance. Could you say a few words on Ray Wise’s performance in that episode?
TH: What works about that episode is the emotional aspect of it because what Leland has done is so fiendish in a way, but you can still sympathize with him. The thing I feel is that I should always be an advocate for the characters.
David and Mark often used me to pick up after David or to set something up for David.
I wanted to make BOB fiendish, but it was a mistake on my part to make him so fiendish. That shot where we see BOB laugh was over the top, and I kind of regret that now. Then in David’s episode we have one short shot of BOB laughing, but here it is very short and subtle. You can’t outdo David on his own game. You can’t do it like David, although you can certainly conform to the parameters which were set already in the pilot episode. Aside from that one element, I like that episode, I must say.
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?
TH: As David and Mark drifted away from the series and into feature film projects, the show became more uneven, and the ratings dropped. I suppose you could call the Windom Earle-part the ‘third season’ in a way, and it was sad how cynical the people on the show had become, since the show had been canceled, and since David and Mark had gone onto other projects. By the end of the ‘third’ season, the camera man had become so slow that literally one couldn’t do the number of shots that were needed. I was told, when I got in, that I would be limited to 16 set-ups, and that is outrageous. Routinely on television, you have 30-40 set-ups, so on that episode I couldn’t do the kind of noir– or Hitchcock-montage style that I like. I remember watching Ozu’s Tokyo Story and using that as an inspiration to do a more minimalistic episode. Ozu always shoots from a seated position, and I would look to his style for inspiration.
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 had an impact on modern television drama, and, if so, how did it change television drama?
TH: I think that Twin Peaks added a dimension of surrealism and also a dimension of broad humor to the police procedural and the melodrama genre. And that became very influential.
I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me about other shows that they have been influenced by Twin Peaks, that they have been “Twin Peaksy.” That usually refers to this tongue-in-cheek, quirky style. Clearly, Twin Peaks has been influential.
AH: You have directed episodes from a number of popular TV shows from the so-called golden age of (cable) television, including Dexter, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, American Horror Story and Carnivàle, and you have also directed episodes of Eerie Indiana and Wayward Pines. Many of these shows have been compared to Twin Peaks – specifically Hannibal, American Horror Story, Carnivàle, Wayward Pines and Eerie Indiana. How influential would you say that Twin Peaks has been on any of these shows, and does it make sense when I think of Twin Peaks as “cable TV before cable”?
TM: Wayward Pines certainly seemed, initially, to be inspired by Twin Peaks, but later it evolved into a type of sci-fi-horror show.
I did episodes of all those shows, and they all have their own style. Those shows you mention tend to be the product of very smart writer-producer-showrunners who can really put their style on the series. It was wonderful to direct a number of episodes of Mad Men because Matthew Weiner had such a distinct style, but they didn’t bring me back after season two, and I was told that it was because my style was too cinematic.
On Breaking Bad, Dexter and American Horror Story, you hope that you draw a good episode. If the style of the show permits it, one can add a stylistic flavor to it. Television is always about making choices, because the schedule is so brutal. If you’re experienced, you may be allowed to do some interesting angle-shots, instead of the more rudimentary matters and close-ups that we often seen on television.
One thing that has happened to television since Twin Peaks is that even in the best of circumstances, the director is under a lot of pressure to shoot the show. On Twin Peaks we were afforded a great amount of freedom, so David and Mark didn’t kill us if we had to go over to get a great scene. So, I remember Twin Peaks as giving the director a lot of freedom to shoot the episode pretty creatively.
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?
TH: ABC never liked it that much. The fact that it got so much critical acclaim forced them to sustain it, but it didn’t get enough viewers in terms of network television standards.
A classic scene from one of the most celebrated episodes in Twin Peaks, an episode which was directed by Tim Hunter: