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‘Twin Peaks’: Mark Frost Takes Us Inside the Four-Year Process of Writing a 500-Page Script Over Skype With David Lynch

From the initial inspiration to the conclusion of Agent Cooper's Odyssey, a look at the novel-like writing collaboration that became "Twin Peaks: The Return."

David Lynch

Courtesy of the David Lynch Foundation


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More than perhaps any other show, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” would seem like the sharpest ice pick chipping away at the concept that TV, by its very nature, is a writer’s medium. Beyond the director’s distinct visual approach and masterful sound design being responsible for delivering so much of the emotion, dread, and atmosphere of “Twin Peaks,” the narrative itself can, at times, feel obtuse as it doesn’t easily piece together in the way we’ve become accustomed to with serialized TV.

Yet it’s a mistake to assume that Lynch and co-writer/co-creator Mark Frost’s 500-plus-page script for the third season was simply the canvas on which Lynch painted. For four-and-a-half years the two longtime collaborators painstakingly wrote 18 new episodes that balance the continuation of all the old characters’ storylines, while exploring a vast and layered world that flowed from the first two seasons and at the same time made sure the new material folds into the same cosmology of the old. Frost and Lynch dug into the mythology of evil that permeates their story world, while delivering complex ideas in a novel-like script that is actually highly structured.

IndieWire interviewed Frost back in October when he took part in the writers’ conference at the Austin Film Festival. Quotes for this piece are from that interview, as well as a Q&A Frost took part in at the conference.

The Starting Point

Kyle MacLachlan, "Twin Peaks"

Kyle MacLachlan, “Twin Peaks”

Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

“The anchor [for ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’] and starting point came from the moment we revisited the last episode of the original show,” said Frost. “Cooper’s dilemma of when Good Cooper trapped Bad Cooper [both played by Kyle MacLachlan] out and that weirdly prescient line of the spirit of Laura’s whispering to Cooper, ‘I will see you again in 25 years.’ That was the springboard to the story and that is where I saw the opening to bring us back and that is what I proposed to David when we got back together in 2012 and said this is where we can pick up the thread.”

Frost instinctively thought the story would need to go beyond the town of Twin Peaks and would require new locations, people, and storylines. The world of the first two seasons and how the characters had evolved in 25 years would need a larger context. While the first two seasons dealt with the theme of evil, the original show was conceived in what Frost calls a far more innocent time.

“A lot of things that informed the discussion for the first year was the global meltdown of 2008-2009,” said Frost. “The reason Vegas came to mind for me was all these images of vast tracked housing developments that had been built in the anticipation of this endless boom and were then abandoned. They were like ghost towns, but three-year-old ghost towns. I’d never seen that on screen up to that point and I thought, ‘There’s an image to work with.'”

Themes surrounding materialism and the danger of what happens when the money runs out started to open the door to new characters. The fact that Frost, Lynch, and the characters were all 25 years older also meant the two writers were naturally dealing with themes of time and mortality.

“Really the baseline of human experience is that we aren’t going to be here forever, so for me, it put me in mind themes of mortality, friendship over time, and what really matters,” said Frost. “And then we had the opportunity to go back and look at this very large set of characters and see what had happened to them and what their lives had done to, or for them, and then wrap it all in a larger context. That was really my big objective. I said, ‘We’ve got to get out of the town. We’ve got to enlarge the scope of the canvas and we’ve got to make this about more than just this sleepy, creepy little hamlet. We want to make it a little bit more about contemporary life.'”

Tennis Volley Over Skype

Twin Peaks Season 3 Part 16 Episode 16 David Lynch

“Twin Peaks: The Return”

Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

In the first year that Lynch and Frost worked on Season 3, they never wrote a word, but rather would talk regularly trying to flesh out new storylines. Since the original two seasons, Frost had become a novelist, which combined with the fact that Lynch insisted he would direct the entire season, led both co-creators to decide they should write the entire thing together as one long novel-like script, rather than put together a writers’ room like they had for Seasons 1 and 2.

“My words to David at the beginning were, ‘I don’t necessarily think this is a TV show or a movie. We’re going to be filming every page of a novel, and novels have the luxury of beginning more slowly,'” said Frost. “It is not, ‘You have to grab the audience by the throat in the first 35 seconds or you’ve lost them, it’s, ‘Let’s take our time.’ It’s a value that has been almost lost in our culture. Good stories take time.”

Frost also knew that while they had notes of various story arcs that needed to be completed and characters to introduce, he didn’t want to work from a strict outline. Part of his experience with writing novels was to let intuition play a larger role and leave room to discover material along the way. He compares himself and Lynch to the explorers Lewis and Clark exploring the Missouri River and detouring into various tributaries not knowing where they would lead.

In 1987 when Frost and Lynch wrote the original “Twin Peaks” pilot the two collaborators were in different cities, but Frost hooked his new state-of-the-art Apple computer into one of the first consumer modems so he could dial up Lynch’s computer and the two could be looking at the same screen while they wrote. For Season 3, the two collaborators relied on an easier modern equivalent.

“This time because I moved slightly away from Los Angeles, it was mostly written over Skype,” said Frost. According to Frost, the face-to-face aspect of video chat was important to the way two play off each other. “[Writing with David] is like playing tennis, it’s returning serve, it’s having a good volley that ends up in a good scene. We are very different styles, very different players, but there was something in the creative tension – I don’t mean tension in a bad way – when you are both on your game something great comes from that back and forth.”

Writing Toward the ‘Lynchian’

“Twin Peaks”

Frost knows his collaborator is a master of creating mood visually and aurally. While in the midst of their back-and-forth over skype he would often notice a look come over Lynch’s face and he could tell his co-writer was visualizing the scene.  Frost would encourage him to describe what he was seeing and write down the basic descriptions.

“He works in a very intuitive way,” said Frost. “I’ve known him long enough, and worked with him frequently enough, along with being an avid moviegoer, that I have a good pretty sense of what he’s going to do when starts musing like that.”

Frost points to Episode 8 as an example of how this aspect of their collaboration worked. Frost had been advocating the need for an origin story for the evil they had been depicting in the world of “Twin Peaks.” The discussion turned toward the testing of the first atomic bomb in White Sands, New Mexico, and it was clear something larger and even more profound was happening in Lynch’s head.

“I had mentioned White Sands and what if something like this happened, and again it’s all metaphorical, but what if something ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and opened Pandora’s Box and things unanticipated and strange came out of the box, just like in the myth,” said Frost. “As we were writing those pages and he was visualizing what we’re going to see in those explosions, I think it helps for him to articulate for himself what kind of imagery he’s seeing because once you get past the narrative part of it, it’s all about the imagery.”

The half-page of description of what Lynch saw in the explosions turned into 10-plus minutes of screen time, and the entire episode itself was based on just 12 to 15 pages of script.

“The creature we saw being born and crawling into the mouth of that young girl is the origin of the evil we’ve been dealing with for 27 years,” said Frost. “All those images are described, but the way in which he brings them to life is rather sublime. It’s an extraordinary hour of television in which David really stepped it up to give this incredible gravitas that you can’t write.”

Cooper’s Odyssey

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee, "Twin Peaks"

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee, “Twin Peaks”

Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

The major thread that Frost and Lynch wanted stringing Season 3 together was built around the desire to delve more into the character of Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and his journey. Frost started to go back and look at Greek mythology like “The Odyssey” and the character’s journey to get back to who and what he was. Cooper at the beginning of Season 3 is like Odysseus cast on some foreign shore having lost a sense of himself.

“We all feel that to some degree or another at various times of our life and how do we deal with it and in his case how does he reunite himself, how does he put himself back together,” said Frost. “If you want to talk more thematically, you are stripping a character down to the nub, you are making him a baby again and he has to learn a whole new way of being. From a psychological standpoint, you can say this is a guy who never integrated his ‘shadow self’ – I’m a Jungian, I believe in that stuff. David’s not psychological, he doesn’t even want to hear about it, but to me that’s what the story about. And Dougie [Cooper’s shadow self] just cracked us up. It was so much fun to write Dougie.”

That Cooper’s journey was the major thread tying Season 3 together, MacLachlan, according to Frost, was the only cast member allowed to read the entire script and not just the scenes in which he appeared. Frost also admits that figuring out how Cooper’s odyssey would end was not something he and Lynch discovered until very late in their four-year writing process.

Kyle MacLachlan, "Twin Peaks"

Kyle MacLachlan, “Twin Peaks”

Showtime

“The idea for that last episode came in very late,” said Frost. “The natural rounding off point would have been Cooper braving, and you might even say tempting fate, and trying to go back and erase the original sin of the death of Laura and then you realize there’s a certain amount of hubris involved in an act like that. But when you add in that theme that was so important to the Greeks, ‘Hey buddy don’t presume that you can mess in the gods’ playground.’ You are tempting fate. There are untold consequences that attend every act of hubris, and that’s where we ended up with our ending.”

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