“Blue Velvet Meets Peyton Place”: “Twin Peaks” Premiered 25 Years Ago Today!

By on April 8, 2015

25 years ago today, April 8, 1990, the pilot episode of a brand new ABC TV series aired on a Sunday night, in place of the “ABC Sunday Night Movie.” The show was Twin Peaks, a kind of “Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place,” and television would never be the same again.

We thought we’d take a look back at the 2-hour episode that ended up becoming the highest-rated TV movie for the 1989–1990 prime-time television season, viewed by 34.6 million people.

The pilot episode of Twin Peaks was written by series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, and it was directed by Lynch, 44-years old at that time and already known for his films The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986). A few years after Blue Velvet, after achieving some success with the film, Lynch had been trying to get a new project going with the three-film deal he had with Dino De Laurentiis’s CIBY 2000 (or C.B. deux mille, pronounced like celebrated filmmaker “C.B. Demille”) — a French film production and distribution company founded in 1990 — but his projects had stalled, due to CIBY 2000’s financial woes, and their reluctance to back some of his ideas, including his screenplay for Ronnie Rocket, the story of Ronald d’Arte, a teenage dwarf, who suffers a surgical mishap which leaves him dependent on being plugged into an electrical supply at regular intervals; this dependence grants him an affinity over electricity which he can use to produce music or cause destruction.

During some of his down time, he had been hired to write a screenplay adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, which had introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lynch worked on it for awhile, but he wasn’t enjoying it and said during one interview that it was “real, real violent. And completely degenerate. One of those things: No Redeeming Qualities.” The movie based on Red Dragon, directed by Michael Mann, was released to theaters in 1986, as Manhunter, but it bombed at the box office (a sequel made from Harris’s next novel to feature Lecter, Silence of the Lambs, would do much better, winning a Best Picture Oscar, in addition to an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay).

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David Lynch and Mark Frost

Lynch’s agent, Tony Krantz of CAA, who had been a TV literary agent before becoming a TV packaging agent, had been focusing on getting CAA’s film clients — who viewed working in TV with skepticism — to think about doing a series, and he was determined to get his client (his favorite director at the time) to write a TV script, and maybe even direct or executive produce. He turned his attention towards partnering his client Lynch with another writer friend of his, Mark Frost, a TV writer who also been producing The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8) and Hill Street Blues (1981-7).

Lynch was not surprisingly reluctant, at first, but since he hadn’t been able to make a film since Blue Velvet, he was open to the idea of working on a TV show with Mark Frost.

Krantz had a different project in mind for both of them. The Warner Bros. film studio had acquired the rights for The Goddess written by Anthony Summers, centered around the last few months in Marilyn Monroe’s life. Due to legal issues, Marilyn’s name had to be changed for the project, to Rosilyn Ramsay, and Lynch was also forced to change the name of her supposed killer — Bobby Kennedy, brother of JFK — to Phillip Malloy. Lynch grew weary of working on a bio-pic where he couldn’t use real names, and began to lose interest. “I got cold on it,” he told David Breskin, in 1990. “And when we put in the script who we thought did her in, the studio bailed out real quick.”

Lynch and Frost liked working together, though, and turned their attention to a new film project, an original screenplay called One Saliva Bubble. The title came from a funny accident that had caused a satellite to go off, causing comedic havor in the small town of Newtonville, Kansas: the personalities of the townsfolk shifted from one person into the body of another: a mental institution escapee was now inhabiting a rocket scientist, a tough gangster was dwelling within a hen-pecked husband, and Texans were living inside the bodies of Chinese acrobats, and so on. Lynch has subsequently called it a “wacko dumb comedy” but Martin Short and Steve Martin were attached to star and we think it sounds like it would have been awesome. Unfortunately, it stalled too.

For their next project, Lynch and Frost were drawn back to TV, and began writing a complicated comedy for NBC about two detectives tracking down the descendents of a race of aliens, The Lemurians, who had come from a continent that had sunk even before Atlantis had risen. There was also something about Jacques Cousteau moving a rock and leaking their essence from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and…well, nuff said: NBC passed.

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Lynch and Frost continued to talk about developing a new TV show, and struck up on the idea of doing a “small town thing.” Frost wanted to tell a “sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go one perpetually.” He was also interested with theosophy, mythology and paranormal.

Lynch, meanwhile, enjoyed stories about the ugly underbelly that lay just beneath the surface in small towns, as he’d revealed in Blue Velvet, a kind of hazy dream life which Norman Mailer similarly described as “a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely, and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence that is the dream life of the nation.”

Lynch now says he was sitting with Frost in a booth at Du Par’s diner, at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura, and all of a sudden they began talking about an image of a young woman’s dead body, wrapped in plastic, washing up on the shore of a freezing lake.

Lynch may have been unconsciously inspired by a piece by Marcel Duchamp, his last major work, which was created for and installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Lynch used to live right next door, and visited often). Titled Given 1) The Waterfall 2) The Illuminating Gas, it was a tableau, visible only through a pair of peep holes (one for each eye) in a wooden door, where you can see what appears to be a naked dead woman, lying on her back, and off to the right side there is an amazing waterfall.

Could this have been an early inspiration for Twin Peaks?:

Frost — who, as a child with his family, had summered in upstate New York, where locals talked of secret love affairs, political intrigues and ghostly women lurking in the trees — liked the idea of starting with a dead woman in a small town, and they began working on it in earnest.

It soon was evident that they were coming up with something similar in spirit to the 1957 movie Peyton Place, which had explored the emotional life and hidden secrets of a small idyllic New England town, so Frost, Kranzt and Lynch rented a screening room in Beverly Hills and screened the movie.

Frost and Lynch decided that their story would be set in the American heartland, and settled on North Dakota, giving it a working title of Northwest Passage, which would be the name of their fictional town.

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The began shaping the town and its characters, drenching everything in a moody downpour of grief, desire, and metaphysical dread after starting off in the pilot episode with the discovery of a popular dead woman. They wanted everything would be slightly skewed, off-center from reality, but so many ideas that they developing were coming straight from Peyton Place’s plot and setting.

For instance, they decided that a major employer in their town would be a lumber mill, and there would also be a diner where regulars gathered to enjoy a slice of pie and a cup of coffee while talking about the tragic death a popular blonde high-school girl who was being sexually abused by her stepfather, all of which takes place in Peyton Place.

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Frost and Lynch came up with the idea of having their dead woman be a teenage high school student, and a homecoming queen too, named Laura Palmer. They envisioned her as a girl next door type, but we soon learn that she also has a secret, desperate double life, with more than a casual interest in cocaine and rough sex, both which lead to her murder.

A lot of the characters, in fact, would be her friends in high school, some who knew of the double-life, and some who found out after she had died. Laura would haunt the show like a ghost, and we would come to know everything about her through the eyes of those who knew and loved her, and those who hated her, and those who used her, and finally, those that contributed to her death.

And so, there would be two Laura’s, providing competing iconic visual images for the viewer at home: one being the sadly tragic but beautifully preserved corpse, wrapped in plastic like a bouquet of flowers, and the other, the wholesome and innocent homecoming queen, her photo sitting on the mantle above heer parent’s fireplace, smiling at us but also taunting the viewer with the secrets she’s taken to her grave.

At some point Lynch and Frost discovered there was actually a real town called Northwest Passage, and that factoid prompted a revision in their script, and for inspiration, Lynch dipped back into the past. They decided at some point that the name of the town — and the show itself — would be Twin Peaks. The New York Times would later reveal that the title is actually “a male joke about women’s breasts. The Western landscape does, after all, prominently feature the Grand Tetons.”

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Lynch, who was born in Missoula, Montana, had spent his childhood throughout the Pacific Northwest — in Spokane, and Boise, and on the east coast too, in Durham, North Carolina, too, depending on where his father’s job as a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture took him. In fact, Blue Velvet‘s fictional town Lumberton was supposed to have been a logging town, but the film ended up being mostly shot in Durham, so Lynch returned to the idea of seeing fully loaded logging trucks rumbling through the quiet streets of Twin Peaks, and decided for this new story, it should be set somewhere in northern Washington, just north of Spokane, near the Canadian border, in the eastern half of the state (it’s also where actor Kyle MacLachlan had grown up).

During location scouting they found perfect locations in Snoqualmie, and North Bend, where the forests just outside of these towns were deep and primeval, a cold wind stirring in fir trees with a sense of dread. They saw snowy mountains in the distance, plunging waterfalls, and even found a grand, rustic hotel — The Snoqualmie Falls Lodge — to stand in for the exterior of what would be their “Great Northern Lodge.” They drew up a map of Twin Peaks, and started filling in the details, and during one interview Lynch recalled, “We knew where everything was located and that helped us determine the prevailing atmosphere and what might happen there.”

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You can really get a sense f the kinds of images Lynch found in Snoqualmie by watching the show’s opening credits, which play out for a full two and a half minutes over a series of unassuming images: a city limits sign, a sawmill at work, a chirrupy robin greeting the morning (a joke about the last scene in Blue Velvet perhaps?), a waterfall tumbling down into a river. These images are underlaid with the synthesizer-heavy Angelo Badalamenti theme song, an instrumental version of “Falling” by Julee Cruise (a longtime Lynch and Badalamenti collaborator, who appears in a later episode singing sweetly to the patrons of roadside biker bar).

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Krantz set up a quick meeting at ABC, where they pitched their idea during a ten-minute meeting with the network’s drama head, Chad Hoffman, with nothing more than the image of a dead homecoming queen and a rough concept of the town and its people.

Lynch and Frost wanted to mix an FBI and police procedural-type investigation with a soap opera, and knew that Laura Palmer’s death would haunt the town, and part of the appeal of the show for some would be finding out who killed her, but they also realized that the murder mystery, which initially would be in the foreground, would serve to set in motion the rest of the story before it could gradually recede from the focus as viewers got to know the other townsfolk and their various problems and love entanglements. It didn’t even really matter who killed Laura Palmer, and felt the show could continue even after it was revealed.

ABC liked the idea, and ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stockard ordered the two-hour pilot. Lynch and Frost would produce the show independently, and own it, and planned to push the boundaries of what constituted accepable, profit-motivated TV fare. The network had only one request, asking that the town’s population — 5,120 — be increased to 51,201, because they felt the town’s size was too small and unrelatable for most of their viewers. Lynch and Frost agreed to make the change, and this was to be one of the very few changes that the network made regarding the original pilot.

They began writing, beginning with the first scene and the discovery of Laura’s naked, plastic-wrapped body, by a local mill worker Pete Martell (and casted Jack Nance, star of Lynch’s Eraserhead, for the role), on a Friday morning — February 24, 1989 — with Frost taking on the task of creating the more verbal characters for the series (thirty eight inter-related characters all total). David Lynch, meanwhile, was solely responsible for some of the quirkier characters, some of whom might appear just once. His great contribution, though, was the creation of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, who he later recalled this way: “He says a lot of the things I say.”

COOPER: “Diane, 7:30 am, February twenty-fourth. Entering town of Twin Peaks. Five miles south of the Canadian border, twelve miles west of the state line. Never seen so many trees in my life. As W.C. Fields would say, I’d rather be here than Philadelphia. It’s fifty-four degrees on a slightly overcast day. Weatherman said rain. If you could get paid that kind of money for being wrong sixty percent of the time it’d beat working. Mileage is 79,345, gauge is on reserve, I’m riding on fumes here, I’ve got to tank up when I get into town. Remind me to tell you how much that is. Lunch was $6.31 at the Lamplighter Inn. That’s on Highway Two near Lewis Fork. That was a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat, a slice of cherry pie and a cup of coffee. Damn good food. Diane, if you ever get up this way, that cherry pie is worth a stop.

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This dynamic, then, would serve as a structure of the show — Lynch’s doppleganger Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) would come to town to investigate her murder, along with local police, Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), and his deputies Andy and Hawk (Harry Goaz and Michael Horse). Like those of us watching at home, along the way Cooper would meet a cluster of quirky characters from Twin Peaks and discover their secret lives and their hidden motivations. In addition to setting the tone for the show, the pilot episode would set up several character and story arcs and mark the appearance of several recurring characters.

For instance, in the pilot episode, we find out that Sheriff Truman is secretly dating mill owner Jocelyn “Josie” Packard (Joan Chen, although the character was originally written as an Italian woman named Giovanna Pasquialini Packard, with Isabella Rossellini slated for the role). We also find out that Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Laura’s boyfriend, has been cheating on the foxy/dead high school homecoming queen on her with local waitress Shelley Johnson (Madchen Amick), who works at the Double R Diner, but Shelley is actually married to sleazy trucker Leo (Eric Da Re).

Meanwhile, Shelley’s boss Norma (Peggy Lipton) is having a relationship with Big Ed (Everett McGill), the owner of the local gas station, who happens to be the uncle of sullen biker James (James Marshall), who was actually Laura’s secret boyfriend. We find out that James was also secretly carrying a torch for Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura’s BFF, who is also schoolmates with the sultry Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), the daughter of local hotel owner Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the boss of Laura’s father Leland (Ray Wise) who is carrying on an affair with Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) who is the husband of Pete, who discovered Laura’s body way back at the beginning. Oh, and Grace Zabriskie plays Laura’s mom, (Sarah Palmer), and she has visions of killers and horses and all kinds of incredible stuff.

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When Agent Cooper gathers these characters together at a town meeting to explain to them that Laura’s murder has connections to another murder case that occurred a year earlier, opening the door to the idea that there’s a serial killer among them, we’re introduced to even more quirky characters, including The Log Lady, played by Catherine Coulson, who had been a camera assistant on Lynch’s Eraserhead in 1972. In fact, there’s an interesting aside here: Coulson has said that Lynch looked at her one day on the set of Eraserhead and said something like “I see a log in your arms. One day I’ll do a series and you’ll be the Log Lady,” although Lynch later said that the idea came from an idea for a TV show he wanted to call “I’ll Test My Log With Every Branch Of Knowledge.” In that show, he imagined Coulson as a woman whose husband had died in a fire, and she would go around to various experts in fields of science, where she carry a log with her that would be experimented on by experts, and treated as if it were an absurd character and not just a prop carried by an actress. A dentist, for instance, would x-ray the log and say “Let’s say the log had a cavity. First I’d give it novocaine,” and so on.

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Lynch and Frost wrote the pilot episode that they’d been discussing for three months in just nine days.

Production began in March 1989, on location in Washington and at City Studios in Los Angeles. A young Seattle-based actress named Sheryl Lee was hired to strip off her clothes — in February, mind you — and get wrapped up in clear plastic, portraying the cold corpse of the dead girl found lying dead on the shore. The lake scene was filmed at the Kiana Lodge on Agate Pass in Puget Sound. It was originally just a small part, but Lee was indeed beautiful, lying there on the beach, the camera focusing in on her pale blue face, framed by water-darkened blonde hair, pushing closer to show her slightly purplish lips, and glittering sprinkles of sand glistening on her forehead, looking like a religious icon, an effigy, the death of innocence.

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At several points during the filming of the pilot episode, David Lynch improvised by incorporating on-set accidents into the story, the most notable of these occurred when set decorator Frank Silva was accidentally filmed in a mirror during Sarah Palmer’s vision, which happens at the very end. When Lynch saw Silva’s face, he liked it so much he kept it in the show, and cast Silva as Killer Bob, the mysterious tormentor of Laura Palmer. Another odd accident happened during an autopsy scene, when fluorescent lights above a body being examined began flickering, but Lynch felt it helped the scene so chose not to replace the lighting. During that same scene, an actor playing a coroner’s assistant misheard one of MacLachlan’s actual lines, thinking that he was being asked his name, and so he told Agent Cooper his real name, Jim, instead of what it said in the script. Lynch loved it, and kept it in.

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It’s curious now to look back and realize how elements from many of Lynch’s previous ideas, going all the way back to Red Dragon, were recycled for the Twin Peaks pilot, and for the series that came after: a serial killer on the loose (Harris’s Red Dragon); a worshipped blonde “goddess” who may have been killed by someone she knew intimately (The Goddess); a town of shapeshifting oddball personalities where no one acts like you expect them to act (One Saliva Bubble); a storyline idealizing 1950s culture, industrial design, midgets, and physical deformity in general (Ronnie Rocket, even Elephant Man), and two cerebral detectives who are tracking what happened to an alien race that existed under the ocean (The Lemurians). Okay, maybe not so much that last one.

The two-hour pilot movie was brought in on deadline and on budget, $3.8 million.

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me

Lynch had negotiated with ABC that their filming would include an additional alternate “ending” to it so that it could be sold directly to video in Europe as a self-contained feature film if the TV show was not picked up by ABC. The idea was, the Twin Peaks movie would have to reveal Laura’s killer, something that Frost and Lynch both knew the answer to at the time of writing the pilot episode, but would not be revealed to U.S. TV viewers until the second season of the show.

This European version also included a curious scene which jumped ahead twenty-five years; in the scene, a dream sequence, Cooper finds himself in a red room with Laura Palmer and a curious little dancing midget speaking in a strangely elongated dialect (actually, the actor, Michael Anderson, was recorded speaking the lines forward, then learned how they sounded phonetically backwards, and then spoke the lines again as they sounded being spoken backward, but the film was reversed, playing the audio backwards again). The idea for this scene came to Lynch done afternoon during the filming of the pilot, after leaning against a hot car that had been sitting out in the sun — he put his hands on the car’s roof and jumped back, because the metal was hot. Lynch says in that moment the image of the Red Room had leapt into Lynch’s mind. He saw “Little Mike” and he was speaking backwards.

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Even though ABC’s Bob Iger, president of ABC’s entertainment division, liked the pilot Lynch and Frost presented to him, he had a tough time persuading the rest of the network brass that it would make a good TV series. Iger suggested showing it to a more diverse, younger group, which they did — the younger demographic liked it, and the executive subsequently was able to convince his higher-ups at ABC to buy seven episodes at $1.1 million apiece. Some of those executives figured that the show would never get on the air, believing it would meet with negative reviews from viewers and critics alike. However, Iger planned to schedule it for the following spring, scheduling it for early April. The final showdown occurred during a bi-coastal conference call between Iger and a room full of New York executives; Iger won, and Twin Peaks was on the air.

The 2-hour movie of Twin Peaks had its actual premiere on the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado in September 1989. Then, before ABC broadcast the pilot, it was shown on February 10, 1990 as part of the Miami Film Festival. In April, a screening was also held at the Museum of Broadcasting in Hollywood.

TV critics began raving and writing about what they’d seen, even saying the pilot was “the movie that will change TV history,” according to Diana White from the Boston Globe. Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly was strongly positive about the episode, giving it a A+. While liking the story, he remained somewhat skeptical that viewers at home would feel the same, calling Lynch’s directing beautiful, but writing “[there is] not a chance in hell” the show could become a ratings hit, because of its “unsettling” story. David Zurawik from The Baltimore Sun compared the pilot to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. He also said its cinematography was “about as close as prime-time television gets to art.” Another critic said “the series may lay an egg on television because of it drawn-out and deliberate pacing, brutality, sex with violence and a hint of something else … something deadly, yet unseen and probably repulsive.” About the pacing, cinematographer Ron Garcia once said about Lynch, “David’s camera style is like drifting down a slow stream in a canoe.”

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On April 8, 1990, David Lynch watched the pilot of Twin Peaks on a TV in his New York City hotel room, and says he was depressed at the poor quality — “the gigantic, huge loss of quality” that happens when images are compressed down to fit the formatting for television — but did he enjoy the commercials, which he says “were sort of thrilling.”

According to the L.A. Times, Twin Peaks became the seventh most-watched show of the week, earning 29% of viewers that Sunday night (twenty-five years later, no one is talking about the number one show that aired that same night, Married… With Children, which had gathered 34% of viewers).

There are some reports dating back to that era of some TV viewers being offended by the show’s sexual overtones, but curiously there were also complaints from viewers who didn’t like watching two brothers taking unseemly pleasure in eating sandwiches brought fresh from Paris. “We’ve had a couple of calls from people who were offended with some of the sexual overtones or the eating sequence,” said Larry J. Chase, the general manager of Boise, Idaho TV-station KIVI.

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The next episode dropped in viewership to 26.2 million, and thus Twin Peaks continued to struggle to gain an audience while it grew with “cult show” status, a label that Twin Peaks has worn all its life for the last twenty five years.

For the 42nd Primetime Emmy Awards, the pilot episode was nominated six times, including “Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for David Lynch, “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper, and “Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for Mark Frost and Lynch. The pilot won two awards, with frequent Lynch collaborator Patricia Norris winning for “Outstanding Costume Design for a Series” and Duwayne Dunham winning the “Outstanding Editing for a Series – Single Camera Production”. The pilot also received a Peabody Award in 1990.


The Missing Pieces

David Lynch was recently in the news, confirming that he will not be participating in the Showtime reboot of Twin Peaks, as we told you here, but suggests Showtime could go on without him. And given all the contracts and negotiations over the last year, the cable network is probably within their legal rights to do so. Lynch only ever directed five episodes of the original Twin Peaks series, which ran two seasons long and was canceled in the summer of 1991.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.