Today’s special interview guest is Harley Peyton, producer and credited screenwriter of nearly half the entire series of Twin Peaks. Harley was generous enough to talk with me at length about the creative process behind the scenes of Twin Peaks and share some incredibly interesting and frank accounts of his time on the show. Without further ado, let’s rock!
BD: Hey Harley, thanks for your time today. How are you doing?
HP: I’m quite well, thank you! I like your site a lot by the way! It’s very well done.
BD: Thank you! I watched Twin Peaks as a 9 year old on ABC and it’s been a blast doing all this research on the show for the site. The show made an impression.
HP: It’s so funny, I got to introduce it to my 17 year old goth/punk stepdaughter who loved it, it was so much fun. I haven’t seen it in years and I got to watch it with her through her eyes, it was great.
BD: Well I hope she has gotten to read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, as well!
HP: Yes, we’ve got that in the house!
BD: So to kick things off, what set you down the path of screenwriting?
HP: It’s funny because I took a rather circuitous path to it. I remember when I was little I wrote my first story in 6th grade and I was taking reality and conforming it to what I wanted it to be like. I never really thought about being a writer much after that. When I went to college I was going to be a lawyer, and then I was going to be a disc jockey which my parents were not thrilled about and so I was focusing on that. Anyway, this was a very long time ago and I was at Harvard. I spent all my time at the campus radio station because I was the rock music director and WHRV had 10,000 watts so it was sort of a big deal for a college radio station; and there was a guy there who reviewed movies and I became sort of his sidekick and I would get to review the bad movies. They would have a screening for something like The Godfather Pt. 2 and it would be Kevin White from the Boston Globe who was a famous old film critic and then it would be us, just because of the name Harvard which would open doors.
One day I came down to the radio station and he said, “Well, I’m actually leaving school for a year, I’m going to work on a movie”. And I know this sounds ridiculous but it was really as if someone had said to me before “I’m going to be an astronaut” and it just…this is 1973…or ‘74, and for someone growing up in Spokane, WA – It just didn’t seem like a job you could have and a light bulb went off and I just thought, “That’s what I want to do!” and I began a rather long path of college at Stanford and Cal Arts and finally coming to Los Angeles and basically sort of stumbled my way toward writing which is what I sort of always wanted to do. I was actually a reader of scripts for quite some time before I started writing.
BD: So how did you meet Mark Frost and eventually end up working on Twin Peaks?
HP: Well, I was working and doing primarily movies in development. I had adapted Less Than Zero so that was my first screen credit and I knew Mark Frost through a fantasy baseball league and he and Bob Engels were a team. They were the Minnesota…I can’t remember the name but something from Minnesota since they’re both from there and they were like great friends and I knew Mark sort of socially through that and that was pretty much it. We had some interests in common and I knew what he did, but not that much about it.
One day he called me up and said, “Look, I did this pilot with David Lynch and we’re going to screen it at the Director’s Guild” and I knew nothing about it. It was such a great way to see it. I didn’t have a clue what it was about. I was obviously a big David Lynch fan and thought, “Wow, how awesome David Lynch would even do television”, particularly back then when there was a huge wall between the feature world and the television world. So I go to the Director’s Guild screening and sit down, and like everyone else in that room I spent 90 minutes going, “Oh my God, this is the best movie I’ve seen all year-forget that it’s good television.” In the lobby I marched up to Mark like everyone was doing and said “This is so great, congratulations, you must be so proud; if there’s any way you need someone to write an episode, I’d love to do it.”
So three or four months later – and again, I don’t think anything like this would ever happen today – because networks are so focused on the writing staffs and there’s overall deals with studios and putting a writing staff together now is a much different thing, whereas back then it was a far more ad-hoc thing. Even in the second season we had a very small staff and used only freelancers! That is unheard of now.
Mark called me up and he walked me through the outline of the episode as we would do very many times in the future. I wrote the episode and I remember my phone rang at midnight (laughs). I thought, “Who the hell is calling me at midnight?!” and it was Mark who had just finished the script and he was thrilled and asked me to write a second one on the spot.
I only knew later when I was running a television show the way he was feeling – in that I barely have to re-write it and I’m reading something that can work and that was pretty much it. In that first season – what was it? Seven episodes? It wasn’t like an up and running television show in the beginning seven episodes or whatever it was. In that, A) David Lynch was working on a feature and he wasn’t around at all and B) Mark was running it day-to-day but there wasn’t like a staff in offices where people assigned scripts to 5 or 6 people and there were all these great directors coming in. The second season was more like an up and running television show. That first season was amazing and being able to write 2 of the 7 episodes was of course an honor.
above: (l-r) Harry Goaz, Harley Peyton, Ray Wise, and Russ Tamblyn back in the day (photo courtesy of Harry Goaz)
BD: I was actually reading your first Twin Peaks script last night and was really blown away with that particular episode. Particularly Albert Rosenfield! How did you approach writing that character?
HP: That was one of the things I got to do because he was introduced then and I remember later my wife had found a website dedicated to his insults, so it’s just something that comes natural to me as a writer. Obviously Mark had very specific ideas about who the guy was, and I said, “Awesome!” and he reacted to that very favorably, so for me there are characters that are really easy to write because it comes naturally and some that are very hard. Cooper was easy for me and so was Rosenfield. I really had fun, and Mark and I wrote most of the scripts to a certain extent, so some of those lines are his but it was really fun to write that guy and write with that attitude. It was not one that I was unfamiliar with since I was from the Northwest and I came from a small town there and had a good approach to how that character would react.
BD: So when did you find out who killed Laura Palmer during the writing process, and how did that change your approach to writing the show from then on?
HP: When did I know? Oh boy. I really didn’t bother asking that much, I mean we’re getting into the sands of time here! Maybe Mark and David knew who it was in the first season. If a gun was put to my head, I don’t think they did. But I certainly didn’t know until Ray Wise was brought into David’s office, in the second season we had offices above the stages and the sets, and Ray (Wise) was brought in and was told – that’s when I knew. I had no clue otherwise. I knew it was going to be revealed but there were other things that I was far more focused on. That was it for me, I had no – and Mark and I became very close and ate lunch together every day but we never really talked about that so I never really had the urge or the opportunity to find out, I suppose.
BD: So as you were working on the first season, which in my opinion is an example of absolutely perfect television – did you have any idea the show was going to take a major supernatural turn in the second season?
HP: Umm… I don’t know. In fact, not at all. The second season wasn’t something I was thinking about a lot. I hoped there would be a second season but I had never worked on a television show so it was all new to me! Then the second season came along and they made me a producer which thrilled me and spoiled me forever.
I mean, you read the stuff about Dan Harmon and Community lately and I think that’s probably the other show that I would say is an accurate a reflection of the creator’s ability and vision. We never got a “no” from ABC. They were unbelievable. You can be sad the show was cancelled but you certainly can’t be angry. It’s not like they were saying, “Please, do something else!” There were discussions about when the killer would be revealed but I wasn’t privy to that. That was fairly easy, but I didn’t know that was coming. You’ve obviously got to sense it right away in the second season, obviously, but the supernatural element was not something that I knew was coming.
BD: So after the killer was revealed you and Bob Engels were writing most of the scripts. Do you remember any characters you created along the way?
HP: I think it probably depends on the script. A lot of those I don’t remember that well. There was James’s sort of noir detour so of course you would create those characters like that. I came up with the name for Windom Earle but I certainly didn’t create the character (laughs) because the name Windom Earle is a mash-up of an old actor named William Windom and the character “Mad Dog Roy Earle” that Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra. So that’s where Windom Earle came from. So that suggests I wrote the first episode he is mentioned in, I guess if I named him. But I wouldn’t say I created that character.
As a writer it was sometimes problematic because we were going away from the main characters and I’ve always told people that Twin Peaks accelerated the usual process. It usually takes shows 5 years to get to a point where there are intra-show squabbles and actors aren’t happy with what they’re doing and you’re leaning more on guest stars more than you used to. Twin Peaks ran through that process in 18 months.
It was like hanging onto a meteor and I don’t think there will ever be another show like it, quite frankly I mean there were certain things before the second season where we would pitch various ideas – some with better results than others. For example, what’s her name (Nadine) waking up thinking she was in high school, that was my idea (laughs). You can argue whether or not that worked, so my contribution may be more along those lines.
I forget the names – the character who never left the house – Harold! The actor was so great too. I invented that character and he was based on a series of books called The Inman Diaries. There was a man named Harold Inman, I think he was from Boston and this guy Harold never left his house, he just kept these copious diaries about the world and the life he wasn’t living. So I took that real thing and made up this character. So that was certainly a character I created. It was based on those books. Obviously your hope is to just write the major characters on a week-to-week basis.
BD: So after the first season, Twin Peaks was just this gigantic pop-art phenomenon. Just how crazy of a feeling was it to be involved in the middle of it?
HP: It’s funny, that was just one of those things, where after the first season a lot of crazy things happened, like me and Mark sitting at Steven Spielberg’s house convincing him to do the opener for the second season. That was all ready to go.
BD: Wow! Are you serious?
HP: Yeah, this is a long story, but my first wife is and was Kate Capshaw’s best friend so I knew Steven pretty well and he was a huge fan of the show – watched it every week, I mean a huge fan. Because we were friendly we talked about it a lot and he said to me in passing how fun it would be to direct an episode so I went to Mark over the summer and said, “This probably is not a bad way to kick off the second season, right?” So we sat down with him and had this very long meeting about the second season and Steven just said “I want it to be as weird as possible, it’ll be so much fun” so whether or not he would have even done it – we’ll never really know, but when Mark told David he didn’t even hesitate saying, “No, no, I think I’ll direct the first one. Maybe he can direct later in the season” – which he obviously didn’t.
Obviously he and Mark created that world and so much of it came from David, it’s not hard to see that; but you know, he wasn’t around a lot in the first season. In the second season he was on the cover of Time Magazine that August, back when it really meant something. I don’t want to psychoanalyze anyone, but I think David really wanted to get in there. He wasn’t doing a movie then and now he really wanted to be in the day-to-day of it and that was a big part of it.