Today’s special guest on braddstudios.com is Robert “Bob” Engels, producer and screenwriter of the Twin Peaks series on ABC, as well as the co-writer of the feature film Fire Walk With Me. These days, Bob is a professor at Cal State Fullerton and was kind enough to chat with me and reflect on Twin Peaks, as well as the feature film Fire Walk With Me twenty years later.
BD: Hi Bob! How are you?
RE: I’m fine, you’re calling from where again?
BD: Nashville, TN
RE: And you grew up there?
BD: Oh yes, I did. I actually saw Twin Peaks as a ten year old on its original run on ABC, until BOB killed Maddy.
RE: Wow, wow. You must have had nice parents to let you do that? (laughs) That pushed it over the top right? That’s funny! That’s cool! It certainly seems to just keep going, doesn’t it? It’s quite remarkable.
BD: Yes, did you happen to hear about the Fire Walk With Me 20th anniversary art exhibit?
RE: Yes, I have a real close friend of mine who is friends with the gallery owner. It apparently was quite the do! Did you go?
BD: I wasn’t able to make it, but I was able to go to the Twin Peaks cast reunion.
RE: Oh wow that’s great, did a lot of folks show up?
BD: Yeah, I would say there around 15 or so cast members? It was an autograph show in Burbank. Ray Wise and Sheryl Lee were there, Peggy Lipton and Jen Lynch, many many others.
RE: Great, excellent! Yeah, I haven’t seen…I can’t even remember the last time I saw any of those guys. I usually bump into them.
BD: Are you still friends with anyone from the Twin Peaks universe?
RE: Oh sure, it’s all pretty friendly if I see them. I don’t work very hard at staying in touch with those guys. Chris Mulkey, I see all the time. We’ve been friends since sophomore year of college. My wife and his wife all went to the University of Minnesota together.
BD: Oh really? So I guess you brought him on board for Twin Peaks?
RE: Yeah. I look back on that stuff and there certainly was a Minnesota contingent to that. I’m not sure who decided it, but it’s always nice in any show when you can use a friend who’s really good! It’s like a double whammy. I’m sure Mark knew him too. It wasn’t a situation where you had to lobby. And Ken Welsh was another suggestion of mine. He was at the Guthrie Theatre when Warren Frost and I were there. He’s such a huge deal in Canada. That was an easy one. It was real natural.
BD: So where are you from and how did you ultimately get into screenwriting?
RE: I grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. I was a sophomore in college and wanted to play baseball. I don’t have a big theatrical background. I was in a couple of plays at the end of my college years and got a Bush fellowship to the Guthrie Theatre, it was like a full ride. I started as an actor and became a stage director and from there became a writer. I always tell people who are looking for advice that I’m the last one they should talk to. I’m not a role model for that!
BD: So how did you enter the world of Twin Peaks?
RE: Well, I was friends with Mark (Frost) – still friends with him – and he said, “I’m doing this series with Lynch and I think you’d be perfect to write one of the episodes”. I hadn’t seen the pilot, but I was on board to do the first 6 or 7 episodes. I had just met David briefly. I had never written a television show, so I got sort of a crash course from Frost on how to do that. He’s the master, the best. A very lucky break, where most guys would start writing Saved by the Bell…actually I like Saved by the Bell! That’s a bad one to pick. (laughs) The first thing I wrote was Twin Peaks!
BD: So when did you find out who the killer was?
RE: We all knew, from episode 1. I would say, the people that knew… you may have to confirm this, but I think it was Mark, David, Harley, myself, Mary Sweeney, I think that’s it.
BD: Wow, really? I had always heard that only Mark and David knew until season two.
RE: You bet!
BD: So once that plot device was gone and the killer was revealed, how did it change your approach to writing the show?
RE: Well, that’s always the hardest part, because it was – to my memory – it was built to never reveal that. So that became, (pause) we kind of had to re-think how all of that stuff worked then because it was like, to my way of thinking – the fun of it was all about how everybody felt about her being dead and that there was a killer loose, but it was really about guilt, remorse, and (the town thinking) “could we have done more?”. So once you take that out, it really changes how things are going to be. I’m not quite sure where Windom Earle came from, but that was clearly the second half of the story. Thinking back, it was also a lot about getting Mike and BOB back to their planet.
BD: I am curious – many have said that after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed that Mark and David were focused on other projects. Was that true to any extent, and did you get to create any characters of your own?
RE: You know, a lot of people say that, but everybody was around. I don’t have a recollection of them being “gone” but by that point we all did the characters together. Someone would have an idea. It’s kind of like a writer’s room – Mark and David had things they wanted to do, and we would do adjustments to them. Mark always did the last pass through the scripts, always. For the most part, it was wonderfully collaborative. Four really distinct personalities. You’re thinking of ideas, someone’s got an idea from 6 months before, and you can’t really remember by then. Then someone might have an idea of an actress they want to use, and it’s just a mutation of the character.
BD: What were the original scripts of Fire Walk With Me like, compared to what made it to the screen?
RE: The big thing was that Kyle didn’t want to do it at first. So, it was written for Chris Isaak. Kyle came back and that obviously changed things. The original script was in the 150 (page) range and what’s on the screen is 100 pages of that. We shot some stuff that was supposed to be in Argentina (laughs), or somewhere we didn’t use. There were lots of things we started out fiddling with, lots of things David and I talked about that we wanted to put in. We would change it all the time. There was lots of stuff we wanted to do and it just became the practicality of how much time and money you have to shoot, so that condensed it. The original script was pretty long. We even talked about an intermission at one point. You always do that writing! A lot of it is just wonderful. Pretty incredible stuff. It was long, as all scripts are.
There was enough shot that didn’t make it, just to keep it under a certain time. There were things that were shot, and I think they don’t exist.
BD: Over the years there’s been a lot of rumors on line as to whether they survived, or if they’ll ever be released.
RE: Yeah, David would know, but to my knowledge they’re gone. I think he would be content to say the movie stands as what it is. That’s that, you know?
BD: Do you ever wish you’d had the opportunity in Fire Walk With Me to continue the story and bring some kind of closure to all the loose ends?
RE: No. No. It was a prequel and that was the whole idea. We didn’t think about jumping forward again, that was never part of the discussion. It’s just kind of a dream. There were too many things we all talked about that would’ve really made it go longer! It was the opposite of closure, rather than tie it up in a neat bow.
BD: I have always heard chatter over the years that if Fire Walk With Me had been successful, a sequel movie would have happened. Did you ever do any work on that?
RE: None, as far as I know unless David did some. From Fire Walk With Me, we went to another script called In Heaven, and Dream of the Bovine. There was never a plan to go back.
BD: As far as Season 3 goes, were there any stories you thought about continuing?
RE: Yeah, you always do that on any show, you’re thinking, “If we get to another season we’ve gotta get Cooper out of the lodge and Josie out of the doorknob.” Those things percolate along, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Somewhere I’ve probably got notebooks. What would the town be like? Do we pick it up right away or push it ahead two years? You always talk about that stuff and it’s fun, but it’s really preliminary. It takes months to figure out! Akin to killing a major character in a story. We certainly didn’t have much interference from the network.
BD: Were there any characters you wished could have continued?
RE: No, I don’t think so. I liked David’s character alot, Agent Cole, right? He was terrific. Not particularly. We did the series, did the movie and David and I kept doing other stuff. Eventually I went to another television show, David went off and it started to achieve that status of “100 Best shows” or whatever and we thought it best to just leave it alone. David and Mark were great, Kyle was great. And of course, Trudy was Jill, my wife! I always looked for a scene for her.
BD: Was she actually playing the piano in that scene?
RE: Yeah! She’s a wonderful singer too! That was born of Minnesota, it’s full of Icelanders. They’re such a wonderful bunch. I think that’s where it came from?! (laughs) I would always put a scene in the Great Northern for Trudy and they would take it out!
BD: Do you have any favorite memories from Twin Peaks, whether it be during filming or the creative process?
RE: Everybody got along so well and that’s such a rarity in a television series. It was pretty cool. The creative process was great with David. It was such a wonderful experience, such free form. Mr. Eddy I think was going to be in one of the scripts.
BD: Oh wow, was Mr. Eddy possibly ever in Twin Peaks?
RE: He was David’s creation, but I think Mr. Eddy was around before Twin Peaks! It was this guy obsessed with traffic safety and the seatbelts that are like for a jet pilot! (laughs) Mr. Eddy was around a long time. The same with the idea of getting a call – I think! – you’d have to check with David – (in Lost Highway) that character from Robert Blake when he calls you, but he’s standing right next to you… that was around for awhile.
Somewhere in all of that is the O.J. trial which was going on, it was always on television. That clicks in my mind and I can’t remember what that was. It was a constant while we were writing a script. It was such a marvelous experience. David’s never had a boss, it’s kind of remarkable. A dream come true to watch that genius at work. I was walking through a set one day and there’s a big white stallion on one of the sets, I thought “That’s incredible, what is that now??”.
BD: Did you spend much time on the set for Fire Walk With Me?
RE: I think I was there for the first week, maybe and then up in Snoqualmie and when they came back here (to Los Angeles) I was there. I think that’s right.
BD: You are credited as a Producer through the second season, what was that like, day-to-day on the set?
RE: As I recall, we took turns with episodes. Someone would be shepherding one through. You’re shooting one and you’re prepping one. We had such wonderful directors. I think I had Stephen Gyllenhaal and I showed him how to do stuff and talk about what he’s planning to do. Diane Keaton was great. They would come in a few weeks before, they’d get the script – if they have problems – I’d go to David or Mark but there wasn’t much of that. Directors would bring their own vision to it as long as it didn’t mess with the concept of the series.
At one point we were really down to hour long scripts at 40 pages, which is kind of unheard of but now it’s more common. That was your task, to shepherd an episode through and deal with the networks. We tried to deal with the network so they didn’t bug Mark and David. The great thing with those guys, whether it be a David Lynch, Steven Spielberg or Richard Donner – when the network calls – you can say, “Do you really want me to sit down with Steven Spielberg and say the network doesn’t like an actor or something?” and they’ll say” Oh God, no!” You end up taking a lot of grief.
BD: I have often heard that ABC was incredibly difficult and not supportive of Twin Peaks. Would you agree with that sentiment?
RE: No. Other than saying, “You have to show who murdered Laura Palmer” they were pretty benevolent that David and Mark were going to do what they were going to do. The executives, especially Phil Siegel – he was great. We’re still friends! He loved it. I did another series with ABC, after both On the Air and Twin Peaks were gone. I didn’t have any sense of them interfering. They were worried about network stuff like the broadcast code and censors, but nothing out of the ordinary.
BD: So you previously mentioned BOB and Mike were from another planet. Is it safe to say they are definitely aliens?
RE: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if we could call them “aliens”. I can’t imagine using that term, but they were looking for a portal to get back to their planet, I can safely say that. Somewhere in that, the garmonbozia and creamed corn has a lot to do with it.
BD: Did the writers ever sit down and define the Lodge and its rules? Or was it just organized chaos, writing those scenes?
RE: Well the lodges, that’s all Mark and David – that’s all their creation how that worked, the Red Room and how that worked. I think! Mark would know how much input he had there. Glastonberry and Windom Earle are from Sherlock Holmes, that’s from Mark. The lodges were receptacles of something, I think. But for what they actually stood for…I don’t know!
BD: One of these days you will have to join us for the Twin Peaks Festival!
RE: Yeah! I get invited each year! I used to talk to the Wrapped in Plastic guys and they’d always invite me, but I just don’t do much of that stuff.
BD: Yes, I think your interview with them was some of the only information that’s ever been mentioned about a third season of Twin Peaks.
RE: Oh yeah? Cool! I’d like to see what I said, I’d probably be a better interview and know what the hell I’m talking about! It’s great to see a whole new generation discover it. I think it’s on Netflix? It’s remarkable. It will never grow old and it will never die.
A huge thanks goes out to Bob for his time and insight! Have a great day, everybody.