Perhaps right along with Agent Dale Cooper, The Log Lady of Twin Peaks may perhaps be the most memorable character of the entire series. Who could ever forget the site of a mystical woman carrying around a small log which supposedly contains the spirit of her deceased lumberjack husband? As the popularity of Twin Peaks initially exploded, The Log Lady drew national attention which led to depictions of the character on Saturday Night Live as well as Sesame Street! She is simply an unforgettable character, delightfully portrayed by today’s guest Catherine Coulson. We recently chatted via telephone about the character’s beginnings from Eraserhead as well as all about her time on Twin Peaks and the origins of the log itself! And yes, she’s still the log’s caretaker to this day…
BD: So the origins of The Log Lady reach all the way back to the days of filming Eraserhead. Can you fill in the blanks of the 15 years between that and Twin Peaks?
CC: We were shooting late at night on Eraserhead; we always shot at night at the stables of the Doheny Mansion where the American Film Institute was housed in Beverly Hills. I would wear my glasses late at night when we were working and he (David Lynch) was always very fond of wood because his father was a research botanist (I think that was his title) for the U.S. Forest Service. So we’re shooting that scene where they’re making pencil erasers – I think that’s when it happened – but somehow we started talking about a t.v. show. At the time David thought about doing a mini series, and among film students at the time that wasn’t the really cool thing to do, but he was interested in that format. David got this idea for a t.v. series that would be called “I’ll Test My Log With Every Branch of Knowledge”. He said I would be a girl who would carry a log with her; it would be Ponderosa Pine because that’s what his dad did his thesis on, and she would carry the log from expert to expert, and that expert would talk about the wood and we would then learn about the wood and learn about what those people knew. So the idea was, for example: I would go to a dentist, and we’d put a little blue towel on the log and the dentist would probe the rings and talk about dentistry as well as the wood. There would be a different expert every week and that was the idea for the series. It was one of those ideas that he floated in the middle of the night. Once in awhile we would revisit the idea. Since I sometimes wore pleated plaid skirts and sweaters, David thought The Log Girl would wear clothes like that. It was one of those things we talked about, it wasn’t an obsession, just something fun to talk about.
So time passed and David and Mark got the pilot, and David called me up and said, “Are you ready to do The Log Girl for this pilot?” and I said, “Yeah, I’d really like to – it would be fun but I don’t think she’s a Log Girl anymore!” (laughing ) In fact I think it was fourteen or fifteen years later after Eraserhead when he called, so we decided we’d call her The Log Lady. He wanted to put me in the pilot but we wouldn’t exactly spell it out in the script or tell the network because it was a concept that they might not embrace. I got flown up there to Snoqualmie and got the clothes we talked about – the plaid skirt and the logging boots and he put me in the pilot flipping that light switch. I think that character was well received or popular so they just kept writing in places for The Log Lady to appear. We made up alot of the backstory for her, and figured out alot about her husband and the fire, and put a picture on the mantle of her husband and the story grew and David and Mark kept writing and the rest is history! I remember thinking this is great to work with my old friend David again but we had no idea how popular it would become. Then it was like, “whoa”.
BD: What was it like when the series really blew up, being one of the more recognizable characters from the show?
I remember going to a big hotel in Beverly Hills, maybe it was the Beverly Hilton – it was some big affiliate’s convention for ABC. When they first bring out a show you go and do the “meet and greet” and the network entertains the people who buy time for their t.v. stations. People come from stations all over the country and meet the casts of the shows. I think (Beverly Hills) 90210 was one of them and I think Roseanne was on. So my husband and I showed up in our old Volvo and we pulled in front of the hotel, and all these flash bulbs started going off and my husband said, “I think this is for you!” I thought, “we should have washed the car!” (laughing) We got out of the car and Roseanne (Barr) was walking across the parking lot and I remember she screamed, “IT’S THE LOG LADY!!” I thought, “Wow, this is really amazing”. I mean, I’ve been working as an actor for most of my life and suddenly it was this different phenomenon where I was being treated differently as a result of playing a character. It got to the point where the show was really popular and they wouldn’t give us the whole script because of the need to keep the plot secret. We would only get the pages for our scenes and it was just an amazing thing that happened and people really reacted to the show extremely well. I think people cared about The Log Lady because she was really the only sane person in town. It was a wonderful time in our lives and who knew it would keep going for so long. It’s really astonishing how long this has gone on and I think it’s because it was really good television.
above: The Log Lady delivering a message to Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman
BD: Well I agree! Twin Peaks had a relatively short life which ranged from a cultural phenomenon to nearly being cancelled in the middle of its second season. How did you feel by the time the series finale and Fire Walk With Me came around?
CC: I was still really grateful. I thought it changed the face of television. I think what they did with it was remarkable. I felt like I had the opportunity to contribute to a new way of looking at television. To this day people will send me pieces of pie at restaurants. I still do get recognized and I have eaten an awful lot of pie, especially cherry pie. In fact I would say it’s not my favorite food anymore (laughing) but I’m grateful for every piece that was sent to me!
BD: I’m curious, have you seen the series in its entirety, and what did you think of the show as a viewer?
CC: I thought it was wonderful. I don’t know if I’ve seen it all in its entirety. I watched the show at the time when it was on, but I had a three-year-old and sometimes it would be bed time, you know? Actually a year later we did the introductions for Bravo in one day very quickly and I remember trying to look at it all then. I actually haven’t watched the series in a while although I do have the box set. People would ask me questions about aspects of the show and I didn’t always know the answers. For awhile I think I did a column for some paper called “Ask the Log” and people would ask me about creamed corn and other significant things. It was very hard to remember what happened because I was sleep deprived at the time. I do recall David designing a tattoo for my leg, this little Twin Peaks thing – I think for when I got abducted by aliens. He drew it and they put it on my leg for filming that day. (Later) I went to a festival and saw the same tattoo on the back of someone’s neck. I thought, “Wow, this has really had an impact”. I actually have a Polaroid (shown below) of that when we were shooting the scene. I’ve done alot of work since then and I must say that Twin Peaks had the biggest impact on our culture. It’s because it was a good story and people cared about who lived in Twin Peaks - the people and the log!
above photo courtesy of Catherine Coulson
BD: As The Log Lady, you got to work with a wide array of talented actors throughout the series. Who did you enjoy working with the most?
CC: Oh Gosh, I’m going to blank out on some names, but Kyle (MacLachlan) and Mike Ontkean and Sheryl Lee (did I have scenes with her?) We were always friendly. And Madchen Amick I really enjoyed and of course Charlotte (Stewart) and I go all the way back to Eraserhead, but I don’t know if we had scenes together. I can’t remember exactly who I had scenes with and who I was friends with on the set. I loved Sherilyn Fenn, Piper Laurie and Jack Nance, of course. We all got along really well. Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn and I became friends and over the years I see people at various Twin Peaks events. I just did an autograph signing thing in Hollywood last year, that was really fun to see everybody. I really liked the actor who sadly is no longer with us who played Major Briggs – Don Davis.
above: Catherine with Don Davis as Major Garland Briggs at the Double R Diner
BD: What are some of your favorite memories from filming the series?
CC: A lot of life has happened in between, but I remember a scene in the diner where I was chewing pitch gum and I could spit really far and the crew applauded because I could spit so far! (laughing) It was a talent I didn’t know I had and suddenly there I was spitting gum across the room and I had to chew a lot because it’s pitch gum; it comes off the tree and you have to make a big wad of it to get it to sail like that.
There are moments I really remember. I remember being at the funeral outside and alot of scenes from the very beginning, and then of course the movie. I remember a scene that’s not in Fire Walk With Me. We shot all night long and I had to cry and cry and howl at the moon. I was a little sad when it didn’t make it into the movie, I thought it was a really good scene. In fact I think I’m barely in Fire Walk With Me, but that’s OK. I got to work on it and it was fun. A lot of people didn’t get to do it at all because they ran out of time.
above: The Log Lady chewing pitch gum at the Double R Diner
BD: Yes, hopefully that will come out one day, it’s kind of the last little bit of Twin Peaks left. When we last spoke at the Twin Peaks cast reunion, I noticed you took exceptionally good care of the log.
CC: Yes of course.
BD: Taking care of anything for 20 years is a challenge, so where do you keep the log for safe keeping?
CC: I’m sorry, I can’t reveal that Brad. It’s in a secure location with a humidifier going 24/7. It is kind of dried up and I have to keep it moist at all times. I’m sorry I won’t be able to reveal that.
BD: That is incredible. Who picked out the log? Where did it come from?
CC: It was from a stand of Ponderosa Pines. Where we were shooting in Carnation near Snoqualmie, Washington, there were not a lot of Ponderosa around, so the prop man who went to procure it had to drive quite a way to find the right log. When we were on the set where I flip the switch before shooting, they brought a number of different logs for David to check. The one he chose for me had these two little branches. I always say, “no tree’s lives were lost”; they just severed one branch. It was very, very heavy because it was newly cut and it was oozing sap which made me feel a little bad. But when we made the little trading cards for StarPics, Mark Frost said we could write our own bios on the back. So for “Greatest Strengths”, I said “my forearms” because I got really strong holding the log. It’s a lot lighter now, as am I! It came from the State of Washington and I’m not sure of the exact location. It’s kind of like famous people’s graves – you don’t want to tell them where it came from, or even the stand of trees – you never know who might try and go get another branch.
I remember some Japanese company wanted to buy it at one time, because the show was very popular in Japan. I wisely said, “No, the log is not for sale” but my daughter just graduated from college and I thought, “Oh Gosh we could really have used that money” (laughing) but I could never sell the log. I brought it down for that autograph show and actually had to FedEx it and it made me incredibly nervous because I just don’t let it go off on its own. I went to the Federal Express office and they asked me what its value was, and I said probably about $275,000.00. I have been told that number at one time. They said it would cost at least $800.00 to insure it so I just did the regular $50.00 insurance. They were really puzzled by what the heck is in this box, but I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to take a chance it would disappear.
above: publicity photo courtesy of Catherine Coulson
BD: What is it like traveling with the log?
Before 9/11, I was able to put it in the overhead compartment and I remember the flight attendants saying, “Oh we love your work, can we have your autograph?” and when I told them what was in the overhead compartment they would go crazy: “I can’t believe we’ve got the log on the plane!”. You can’t take it on board anymore because I was told by TSA that it could be used as a bludgeon. So I can’t fly with it now anyway because I would never check it. I think that appearance at the convention (last year) was one of the last appearances, unless it’s local and I can drive.
above: myself, Catherine Coulson and the log at the Twin Peaks cast reunion
BD: Were you able to keep any other props other than the log?
CC: Somewhere I have the little pin log I wore, a carved wooden cherry pin and the glasses; those were actually mine. And I think I still have my boots too somewhere, and many generic plaid skirts and sweaters! But David said, “you should have the log”. That was a nice gesture; I’m glad to have the log.
BD: My co-worker Christy is actually a Scripps College graduate like yourself. She specifically asked me to ask you how your time at Scripps shaped your future in the arts?
CC: Oh, Scripps College was a great place to go to school. Did she like it?
BD: Oh yes, definitely.
CC: I think a liberal arts education really prepared me for The Log Lady, and I think it all led up to that in some ways, because she had a vast amount of knowledge about everything. Scripps graduates have the benefit of a broad spectrum of knowledge of the liberal arts, so I think I learned a lot that prepared me for life, including the role of The Log Lady. Although I didn’t study the natural sciences alot, (I was an art history major) but I developed an appreciation for trees, because the campus was gorgeous. I’m also fond of pine trees as the campus was close to the mountains where there are many pine trees. I don’t know if they are Ponderosa, but at the time I didn’t specialize in Ponderosa the way I do now.
BD: Were you intrested in pursuing acting as a career while you were a student?
CC: I did a lot of plays when I was at Scripps, but my parents said they really wanted me to study other things other than theatre and acting, and they were right. I always tell young people that when they ask for advice: get a good liberal arts education. I thought I would probably continue my acting when I graduated, and I did go on to grad school and worked in theatre and film in San Francisco after that. I don’t think I really knew at the time that I would pursue acting full time, but I knew that I would stay in the arts, because my mother was a dancer and my father was in public relations for Disney. I grew up in the business really and it was a natural progression for me.
BD: Going back to Eraserhead, what were your first impressions of David Lynch when you met him?
CC: Well he wore three ties, and this old straw Panama hat and had really thick long hair below his ears. I thought he was a really nice guy and really handsome, and very earnest – real serious but with a good sense of humor. He asked me to come to read some scenes as I was going to be the nurse who gave the baby to Mary and Henry. I was married to Jack Nance who was interviewing to play Henry. David never auditioned anyone really; he just has you talk to him and he still does to this day, I really like that actually. It’s much easier on an actor not to have to read lines.
above: clockwise, from bottom right – Catherine Coulson, Doreen Small, Charlotte Stewart, David Lynch, and Herb Cardwell on the set of Eraserhead
BD: So with all the time it took to film Eraserhead, what were you tasked with during production?
CC: When we first met we timed this scene to see how long it would be. When I think about that its kind of amusing. I think the scene we timed was when Mary tells Henry that he better take good care of things while she was gone. So David asked me if I would come and hold the stop watch. Later I also helped push the dolly and held the boom for sound. It took us a long time to shoot the film. I would cook the food for the cast and crew and do Jack’s hair (David designed it). The barber would cut it and I would match the hair each time we shot. It took four years or so to shoot, so I then I continued cutting Jack’s hair. We spent years working on the film and I got to do a lot of tasks. I learned how to do alot of great jobs in film: how to be a camera assistant and I operated the second camera a couple of times for Fred Elmes who took over from Herb Cardwell. I made a lot of egg salad and grilled cheese sandwiches for David and we all had different odd jobs to earn extra money. We would fold David’s papers for his paper route which he did to buy more film. It is important to note that David always paid us even if it was less than $25 a week. David did a really nice interview about the shooting of the film. Did you see the box set that came out awhile back for Eraserhead?
BD: I did, but it has been a couple of years.
CC: Yeah, there’s a whole part where David does an interview with me where he’s on camera and I’m on the phone. I was here in Oregon. We talked for about an hour and he talks about our association on Eraserhead. It was a wonderful experience in our young lives, I think about it now and I was the age my child is now; it was really a formative time in my life. I can still estimate how many packages of pudding it takes to fill a drawer – things that have come in handy. I’m really grateful. My parents were really alarmed that I was doing this but I think it was really a good thing to do.
BD: After 5 years of filming, how did it finally feel to see Eraserhead on the big screen?
CC: Oh I thought it was a fantastic movie. I wish we had filmed the part I was going to play. I’m sorry we didn’t do that now. We did shoot a scene where I was tied to a bed and this guy came at me with battery cables, but that didn’t make it in the final cut. I wish we had done the nurse scene. By that time I was helping raise money to finish the film and it seemed like we didnt really need that scene. So I’m a little sad, but at the time it just seemed wasteful.
BD: Hopefully there’s some lost Eraserhead footage waiting to be found!
CC: I think it might be in a dump! It is too bad, it would be nice to see that stuff again.
And that’s that! A huge debt of gratitude goes out to Catherine Coulson for her time! Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!