When it comes to the look of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” David Lynch and long-time cinematographer Peter Deming didn’t talk much. Over the last two decades, Deming learned to get a sense of what Lynch wanted by reading his detailed scripts, watching him block and rehearse the actors, and, most importantly, taking his cues from the production design.
“The set you are being presented with is also David’s creation and he’s very well aware of that,” said Deming. “You can sort of tell with what’s present – David is extremely detailed about everything that is in frame, having picked it himself — as to whether [the scene is] dark or rich [with color] and the mood itself.”
To help bring his renewed vision of “Twin Peaks” to life, Lynch first turned to his longtime collaborator, legendary production designer Jack Fisk. Their relationship dates back to childhood, but as collaborators they followed similar paths of falling in love with painting before even considering becoming filmmakers. When Fisk couldn’t join “Twin Peaks: The Return” due to commitments on “The Revenant,” he recommended his protege Ruth De Jong.
De Jong was a talented young painter on her way to fine art grad school when Fisk convinced her to work on “There Will Be Blood.” That was the start of an unparalleled film education, working with Fisk on the sets of Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick films, and eventually designing films like “Manchester By the Sea” herself. De Jong, who was the production designer for all 18 episodes of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” said this background was crucial to working with Lynch.
“I think the set for him is a virtual painting — that’s my words, not his, but that’s my interpretation of his film work compared to his fine art work that he still does,” said De Jong. “Both having come from a fine arts background, and I also came up under Jack Fisk, and just having that sort of common thread and language and articulation about how to get somewhere.”
De Jong described her collaboration with Lynch as different in the sense that choices didn’t necessarily respond to what was on the script page or the dramatic situation. The concept of there being a “style” or color palette of “Twin Peaks” is not something that’s even considered, rather it’s a process that involved extensive conversations with Lynch getting at the underlying intention in ways he has loathed to do in public, or even with collaborators. That made De Jong an unusual below-the-line interview; while she’s exceedingly articulate, she often stopped to ask the publicist what she could say as she tiptoed around topics like shooting on location versus building a set.
“I don’t know how to talk about it without disclosing things I probably can’t disclose, you know? Just keeping that sacred,” said De Jong. “I just don’t know how to … I think ‘Twin Peaks’ is very true and innate to David Lynch, and so choices are made in that vein.”
The legend of David Lynch has him responsible for picking every piece of fabric and the placement of every chair, as no detail is too small. According to De Jong, there’s some truth to that. She marveled at his ability to close his eyes and see an entire room. How to translate what is in his head, however, was a process that required far more trial and error.
“There was never one solution ever, which I loved about [David], and that was the artist in him,” said De Jong. “It was a lot of experimenting, [which] is always very exciting, especially with him.”
This also left more creative freedom for the design team than you might imagine. Lynch’s approach of there being “99 ways to skin a cat” (a favorite expression), often meant the first step was finding the right location.
“We scouted the heck out of this because he did have an innate, guttural sense of what he wanted, but it wasn’t as specific as it has to be ‘X,’” said De Jong. “It could’ve been in any version of three or four different locations. So it was a process of finding it and exploring it.”
That said, location-scout photographs don’t work for Lynch. Instead, he would travel extensively to see the most promising locations, needing to be in the space to let his innate sense of color, texture, and design take over. It became clear to De Jong how much Lynch creates in terms of space, in particular the actual size of a room or location.
“It was so exciting to just have a filmmaker who had this entire story living in his head dimensionally,” said De Jong. “He had an incredible sense of the sizes he wanted the sets, which was very cool. And just knowing the space he wanted in there, both for the actors, himself, the camera.”
Once at a location, Lynch could react instinctively, talking about what would and would not work, and kicking off a new element of the design process. Lynch did not see his fictional world aging the way it did in real life.
“The diner, for instance, we completely rebuilt back to the original diner,” said De Jong. “We were at the same location, but it had been completely remodeled, and David was like, ‘Oh no! This can’t be.’ So we rebuilt that completely, the roadhouse, the police station we rebuilt, both in LA and on location.”
De Jong said that given “Twin Peaks,” she usually would account for technology advances and rearrange the decor. However, Lynch had a nostalgia for the original sets and a concept that the town didn’t really change in 25 years, so they needed to rebuild everything right down to the furniture.
One of the most remarkable things about “Twin Peaks: The Return” is it delivers the level of craft and detail expected in a Lynch feature across an 18-episode series. As with the sound design, Lynch didn’t let that aspect of collaboration become compressed by the rush of making 18 hours of television.
At the same time, in the aftermath of Lynch shooting “Inland Empire” himself on an inexpensive digital camera, the filmmaker increasingly puts a premium on working with a smaller production footprint. Dean Hurley, who manages Lynch’s sound studio and served as the series’ re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, limited who came into the creative inner sanctum and outsourced technical aspects that could be done elsewhere. Even Lynch’s decision to forego a writers’ room, leaving it to himself and Mark Frost to spend four years writing the entire script with Lynch directing every episode, speaks to how his approach has evolved.
For a show at this scale of design, locations, and sets, De Jong couldn’t be quite so DIY. In terms of who worked creatively with Lynch, she kept the core design team to an art director, set decorator, and herself. However, she also had the resources to beef up the teams responsible for construction, painting, building sets, and converting locations.
None of this would have been possible, De Jong said, without all of the scripts in hand when she began work. “Twin Peaks: The Return” adapted a block shooting schedule — meaning production could completely shoot out a location to maximize efficiency, versus shooting episode to episode. Equally important, Lynch and the production gave De Jong the flexibility to often dictate that schedule.
“[Production design], unlike any of the other departments, was the biggest time-sensitive department”, said De Jong. “So we did these massive calendars on what can be ready when … and David was very flexible. If I was like, ‘I can’t have that ready,’ “No problem. We’re gonna pull this up or push that back.’”