How Twin Peaks influenced Bryan Fuller of Hannibal and American Gods
'It was a religious experience'
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Everything leads us to believe that there exists a spot in the mind/From which life and death/The real and the imaginary/The Past and the future/The high and the low/The communicable and the incommunicable/Will cease to appear contradictory…
Sorry. Just ate a brownie.
Actually, that was an excerpt from the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, written by Andre Breton in 1929. It could also be the manifesto for the TV trend toward uncanny characters, unreliable narrators, and storytelling that blurs the objective and subjective to describe our experience of the world and ourselves in topsy-turvy times. The Twilight Zone helped break the ground over 50 years ago. Twin Peaks helped refine and seed it in the early nineties. Over the past decade, trippy TV has been shooting up everywhere. True Detective, Hannibal, The Leftovers, Mr. Robot, Legion, and American Gods to name just a few. These shows have given us formally audacious storytelling that stretches the medium in dynamic ways, carrying forward a revolution in creativity. And often, they're entertaining, too. (Not everyone is always amused by being confused.)
The new small screen surrealism seeks to express the national psyche, or certain states of mind, from very personal, often political point of view. Call it: This American Psychotic Break. The Leftovers exudes Job-ish grief and fury of people flooded by so much catastrophe and loss, unable to trust traditional sources of meaning, like religion, for comfort. Mr. Robot presents an anti-establishment hero who can't be trusted, a split personality anarchist with competing agendas whose petulant "F— society" rhetoric is stoked by his enmeshment with high anxiety digital culture. Legion – whose sorta-kinda like Mr. Robot except he can inflict his reality distorting solipsism on others with superpowers — premiered earlier this year as our president and his surrogates were provoking epistemological panic by thundering on about "fake news" and "alternative facts." TV critic James Poniewozik of The New York Times wrote: "Much like dada and surrealist art developed in reaction to the horrors of the 20th century, today's surreality TV is suited to a moment when shared objective truth is under attack. … So all this illusion, subjectivity, layers of virtual filters between us and a reality we may never see clearly — it's fiction, but it rings oddly familiar."
On Sunday night, so-called Surreal TV will swell by one more program when Twin Peaks returns. We have no idea what to expect, and there's reason to suspect the show will be some meta-mad psychedelic thrill-ride into the crazy clown time inland empire of its co-creator, David Lynch. After all, the Mulholland Drive helmer is directing all 18 installments, and most of his post-Twin Peaks work has been non-linear noodle-cookers that have sought to portray the frazzled, scattered, unraveling minds of their protagonists. His work often tries to capture and reflect the cultural mood. Blue Velvet spoke back to the Reagan-era. Wild At Heart romanticized alt-culture rebelliousness. Lost Highway — a tale of guilt and denial, truth-blurring, and truth-avoidance – was inspired, in part, by the O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Might the new Twin Peaks meet and mirror our chaotic moment? Kyle MacLachlan thinks so. "There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty [right now]," he says. "It's kind of perfect for Twin Peaks and David Lynch." <iframe src="https://art19.com/shows/e744e1c0-95b7-4c13-a6b0-30d09dab7a32/episodes/fe7f43ae-6c21-4350-9188-5c4a7d7c8bc6/embed" width="300" height="150" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>
As critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes, the original Twin Peaks was about many things, including a portrait of a town suffering from grief stemming from profound injustice, the killing of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Yet if Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost didn't see a broader allegory in the theme of a community's grief, it's very likely they do now. One of the few things we know about the new show is that it will take place in multiple cities across the country. This continues an expansion of the show's world that began in Lynch's 1992 prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which turned a town in Oregon into a Bizarro-world version of Twin Peaks and suggested even further-afield flashpoints of story via a teleporting FBI agent played by the late David Bowie. Frost's tie-in book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, sucks in chunks of American history and bits of occult lore, transmogrifying Twin Peaks into the black hole epicenter of some sapping, warping evil, and transforming the fiction of Twin Peaks into a tale of po-mo Lovecraftian cosmic horror.
And while spoiler sensitivities prevent him from elaborating, MacLachlan frames the larger, franchise arc for his character, FBI agent Dale Cooper, spanning from the original series to now, as a heroic quest with greater stakes than just solving a murder. "Whether you're talking about Twin Peaks or the world or the country or state — however you probably want to draw the geography of the show — that had been a significant shift, a tear in the fabric of what you define as that community, and what was happening that needed to be corrected," he says. "I felt that was Cooper's mission — to stitch the fabric, to restore the balance between the good and evil, because right now evil has gotten a leg up in this world."
Twin Peaks promises to make Sunday nights more strange than they already are. The Showtime series is planting its freak flag on turf already claimed by HBO's The Leftovers and Starz's American Gods, two Surreal TV shows that owe a creative debt to Twin Peaks. In an earlier Q&A, Damon Lindelof, co-creator of The Leftovers and Lost, discussed his appreciation of Twin Peaks. Today, we bring you a chat with Bryan Fuller, who developed American Gods with Michael Green. Last week, the dark fantasy produced a breakout pop culture moment with an extraordinary sex scene between two men that melded erotic sensualism, fantastical surrealism, and layers of meaning. This, on the same night The Leftovers finally gave HBO a wild and weird orgy it can be proud of. Mr. Lynch, the bar for high strange kink has been raised. Your move.
Watch the cast discuss the show's odd universe and the upcoming revival in the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) special EW Reunites: Twin Peaks here, or download the app on your favorite mobile and streaming devices.
I love American Gods. You can find my review here, which (in all due respect to last week's triumph) singles out this Sunday's episode as the best yet. Adapted from the novel by Neil Gaiman, the show turns American history and culture into a mythic allegory that critiques both, imagining a war between older gods brought to this country by explorers, conquerors, settlers, slaves, and immigrants, and new gods representing idolatries of contemporary culture, like technology, money, and media. Fuller – whose previous work includes Pushing Daisies and Hannibal — brings his unique style and personal perspective to the show. "I think Lynch and Twin Peaks influences everything I do," says Fuller, 47. "I think the big influence on American Gods is this: once again, it's a TV show that's giving you a totally consistent view of a world that has gone a bit queer." Like Lindelof, Fuller has a very personal tale of Twin Peaks fandom, and he says he can't wait to see where Lynch and Frost take their story next. "I'm ready to see Agent Cooper step out of the Black Lodge, I want Laura Palmer's doppelganger to fall on into the real world," says Fuller. "There's so many things that I want, want, want, want, want with the Twin Peaks story now that we are in this era of the revival. Yes, Twin Peaks is at the very top of my list for revivals that I need to put in my eye-holes."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first David Lynch experience and when did you fall in love with David Lynch stuff?
BRYAN FULLER: The first David Lynch movie I saw was Eraserhead. It was so surreal, so odd, so captivating. When you watch a Lynch film, it's immediately clear he knows how to build a world. Everything that he is doing makes some sort of sense, whether he understands it at the time or in retrospect. He'll give himself permission to understand it later if he doesn't understand it in the moment; he's just following instincts. That was so apparent in the first few images that I saw of Eraserhead. It's so bizarre and takes you to such a strange place. And yet, immediately, I felt like I was in good hands because there's such confidence in the image-making. I wasn't put off. It was like, well, "This is interesting bathwater that I'm sinking into."
The other thing about my early regard for Lynch is this: I grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest where there was a serial killer on the loose when I was going through puberty. So it felt like his material spoke to me a very specific, personal way. The ear in the field that Kyle MacLachlan finds in Blue Velvet was reminiscent of the body parts that were tossed off of a local bridge that were found wrapped in bags. It was an interesting artistic reflection of a life that I could deeply relate to.
What serial killer was that?
The serial killer was never caught. There is a fantastic documentary about it called Confluence. It takes its name from the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, where I grew up.
We had somewhat similar experiences. I grew up in Seattle. I was a teenager in the eighties during the time of the Green River Killer.
Well, that's who they thought this guy was. But it wasn't, and it's fascinating because there are so many theories about who this killer was, or is… This is all to say, the worlds of Blue Velvet and its small town specificity — the Pacific Northwest specifically — really resonated with me, personally. And even more so with Twin Peaks, which, of course, is set in the Pacific Northwest.
So you were into Twin Peaks.
Oh, absolutely. It was a religious experience. And it felt like all of his films. Once again, he's such a master of sustaining tone, with the absurd clashing with emotional sincerity, yet still remaining authentic to the characters in the world that he created. It's such a tight wire act. And that first episode of Twin Peaks was so masterful in tone. I was laughing, I was crying. It was the critic's cliché of a response to a very strange world that I hadn't seen before, yet was familiar enough for me to be comfortable in it, but with this whole, queer gravy spread over it, in huge dollops, that made it so unique.
Was there a character in Twin Peaks that that really resonated with you and meant something to you?
Well, there was something about Donna's experience that spoke to me. Somebody who was close to danger, frequently in danger, and yet was still the odd girl out, because she wasn't in Laura's world, but wanted to be. She could see it from where she was but had completely no understanding of the depths in which her friend had lost so much dignity and humanity.
And there are characters that I love that I don't necessarily relate to. I know exactly where I was the night Maddy got killed. That was probably my first traumatic experience as a television viewer, in terms of how attached I was to that character, how traumatic and ugly her death was on network television. I remember seeing the episode by myself and running as fast as I could to meet friends and screaming "Maddy!" the moment I walked through the door. And they all screamed back: "Maddy!" It was this fantastic communal experience that is so rare now with how people watch television because nobody is watching at the same time anymore. The communal experience in a strange way has shifted to the binging experience, which is private, and then you catch up and you share your opinions. But there was nothing like that moment on a Saturday night watching poor cousin Maddy be beaten to death. That resonated with me.
The only other time I have experienced that sort of connectivity as an audience member… was being in London for the changing of the Doctor, when David Tennant stepped down as Doctor Who, and watching the first episode with Matt Smith, and feeling the cultural buzz that was permeating the city in anticipation. Everybody loved David Tennant's Doctor so much and they were excited about Matt Smith and what he was going to bring, but it was everywhere. It was in the air.
Did you grieve the end of Twin Peaks the way you grieved Maddy?
You know, the ending of Twin Peaks was such an interesting experience because it had gotten so strange. I mean, Joan Chen got turned into a doorknob! It still maintained the consistency of the world, but the audience was the frog in the boiling water going, "Oh, shit, this got crazy all of a sudden!" We were used to the incremental crazy that had been leading up to this moment – the finale — for two years. So it wasn't so much a grieving process when Twin Peaks ended its first run. It was like, you had this friend that you loved dearly, and you went out for this wonderful night on the town in all sorts of altered states, and now you both need time to sober up before you can dive back into the relationship.
Wow. That is very specific, Bryan.
Yes. So it wasn't so much grieving as much as it was, "Oh my God, I love you, let's get clean and I'll see you in a couple of years."
Did you spend the intervening years ever kind of wondering what happened to that town and wanting to see more story?
I think there's a whole generation of filmmakers, storytellers, and television makers that are so heavily influenced by Twin Peaks, that in some respects, each of us have been doing different versions of our own Lynchian world. When I first sat down to do Hannibal, I thought, "What would David Lynch do with Hannibal?" That was my guiding light.
So I feel like I wasn't so much going like, "Where is Agent Cooper?" for the past 25 years. It wasn't until the recent wave of sentimental re-addressments of popular franchises over the past 10 years where I was like, "I'm ready to go back to Twin Peaks." I'm ready to see Agent Cooper step out of the Black Lodge, I want Laura Palmer's doppelganger to fall on into the real world. There's so many things that I want, want, want, want, want with the Twin Peaks story now that we are in this era of the revival. Yes, Twin Peaks is at the very top of my list for revivals that I need to put in my eye-holes.
How has Lynch and Twin Peaks influenced your work specifically?
Whenever I do a sound mix, the person that we talk about most is David Lynch. Those tones, those unsettling vibrations, those psychological moods are so vital to the Lynch experience because he is transforming you and transporting you into the psychology of his protagonist who has a skewed perception of the world. So many lessons from Lynch were applied in the sound design of Hannibal and Brian Reitzell's score. We talked constantly about how Lynch scores psychologically and musically, which is such an interesting balance of instincts. He weaves many different things into his sound design to maximize your ability to empathize with a broken character and a broken world.
I think in Dead Like Me, that was a Pacific Northwestern town where a girl was having a very clear experience, and I could see George crossing paths with Laura Palmer in some special episode of Dead Like Me. That would have been a funny dream. So yes, I think Lynch and Twin Peaks influences everything I do. I think the big influence on American Gods is this: once again, it's a TV show that's giving you a totally consistent view of a world that has gone a bit queer.