Two key writer/producers from the original run of 'Twin Peaks', Harley Peyton and Bob Engels, reflect on their time working on the ground-breaking show, and the evolution of 'Twin Peaks' from cult series to the feature film 'Fire Walk With Me' and the long-awaited third season, 'The Return'.
It’s an entree into the world of television that most writers would kill for.
Before they entered the strange and mysterious world of ‘Twin Peaks’, Harley Peyton and Bob Engels had two things in common - neither of them had written for TV before, and both of them had a long-standing friendship with writer Mark Frost (best known at the time for his work on the police drama ‘Hill Street Blues’). That friendship scored Harley Peyton an invite to a special screening of the pilot for Frost’s new show - a drama that he’d co-created with auteur David Lynch called ‘Twin Peaks’. At the time, Peyton only had one produced film and television credit to his name - an adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel 'Less Than Zero'.
And while Peyton had never heard of the Lynch/Frost collaboration, he accepted the invite, and was blown away by what he saw.
“It was so weird and so different,” he recalls.
“I got it… it was the kind of cousin to David’s movies, like 'Blue Velvet'… it was a strange, weird outlier.
“I walked up to him (Frost) and said ‘Look, I’ve never done TV. But I would love to write an episode if you need any help’.”
Engels, who had known Frost for most of his life (Frost's father was a professor at the University of Minnesota, and had taught Engels) had a Christmas joke involving Hollywood icon Tony Curtis to thank for landing a gig with the show.
"You know how you get these letters at Christmas describing how their year went, and you read it and I think 'I have no idea who the fuck this is'?" he said.
"My wife worked in publicity at the American Film Institute and Tony Curtis had posed for a picture with us.
"So I sent that picture out at Christmas with a letter saying 'This guy has moved in with us and he says he was a movie star and he's eating us out of house and home... can everybody send us five bucks to help us?'
"About three weeks later Mark called and said something like 'Lynch and I are doing this series that's really fucked up, and you'd be perfect for it.'
"So that Christmas letter was my spec script."
Frost's willingness to go with writers who'd never worked in television before proved to be a great entry point for both Peyton and Engels. Engels ended up writing one episode in the first season, and writing or co-writing nine more episodes in the second season. By the time Season Two rolled around, he'd also been given expanded duties - initially taking on the role of Executive Story Editor before being elevated to Co-Producer. Peyton would write two episodes in the first season and write or co-write nearly a dozen more for season two. As the show entered into its second year, Peyton was also elevated to producer - effectively taking on the duties of a showrunner for the second season.
For someone who’d never written a word of television before ‘Twin Peaks’, Peyton certainly left an indelible mark on the show’s initial run - creating both moments and characters considered iconic by many fans.
He was responsible for Audrey Horne’s gift for cherry stem manipulation, he wrote the funeral of Laura Palmer and came up with some memorably acerbic dialogue for Miguel Ferrer’s no-nosense FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld.
Among his proudest achievements in season two, Peyton also gave life to Harold Smith - the tortured, agoraphobic horticulturalist who strikes up a friendship with Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) as she and her friends conduct their own investigation into the death of beloved homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).
“That was one of my favourite storylines,” Peyton said.
“He (Smith) was based on this wealthy scion of a Boston family who never left his house, and kept these diaries.
“He would pay people to come and talk to him to get a sense of the outside world.
“He was rather unsavoury… you’d go through these books and he had a lot of racist theories and other bullshit.
“But the notion of someone living their life like that just fascinated me.”
Engels took great delight in leaning into the show's more postmodern qualities - developing moments and in jokes that would play to those viewers with an awareness of the cast's extensive careers.
In one case, he conspired to get Russ Tamblyn (playing the town's eccentric psychiatrist, Lawrence Jacoby) and Richard Beymer (who played conniving local bigwig Ben Horne) to sing onscreen together - marking the first time the duo would've sung together onscreen since the classic 1961 musical 'West Side Story'.
"I was in my office and they were shooting on the set and I was told they (Beymer and Tamblyn) wanted to see me," he said.
"I came down there and they said 'We're not doing this... we know what you're doing.'
"They said they weren't going to do it, but they did... and they certainly caught what I was doing. I was guilty as charged."
An attempt to host a 'Mod Squad' reunion in 'Twin Peaks' fell short by one cast member - Peggy Lipton (who played Norma Jennings, the owner of the RR Diner in 'Twin Peaks') was Julie in 'The Mod Squad', one of three juvenile delinquents enlisted by the police to fight crime in the popular show from the late 60s/early 70s.
In one 'Twin Peaks' episode, she was joined by Clarence Williams III (Linc on 'Mod Squad'), who took on a guest role as an FBI agent investigating Special Agent Dale Cooper when he'd been framed for drug trafficking by the villainous Jean Renault (played with gusto, verve and a Pepe Le Pew-esque accent by legendary character actor Michael Parks). Sadly, no-one could get the third 'Squad' member, Michael Cole, across the line.
On the more serious side, a recurring theme throughout the show that appealed to Engels was the small town's collective guilt over the death of Laura Palmer.
"Whenever you got stuck for an idea you could bring her back up - they all thought they were guilty... some felt guilty, others were guilty," he said.
"That was a great throughline that you could always go back to."
Engels says the network-enforced decision to reveal Laura Palmer's killer early in the show's second season meant the writers could no longer tap into that resource - contributing to perceptions that the show's quality lessened considerably once the killer was unmasked.
"There was no reason to solve the crime," he said
"ABC made us solve the mystery.... it was damaging.
"Our plan was for it to just go on, and it'd just be this unsolved thing.
"Once we solved it, we had to go in this other direction."
Peyton acknowledges that the second season “lost its way” (joking that he isn't sure if he should apologise for a subplot where Wendy Robie's eyepatch-clad Nadine gains superhuman strength after a failed suicide attempt), but maintains the second year is better than its reputation suggests.
“I had the chance to go to a retrospective at USC a couple of years ago, and we were each given three episodes to watch as part of a panel discussion,” he said.
“Mine were 13, 14 and 15 of season two.
“I went ‘Oh crap, I’ve got the bad ones’ - but I watched them and then I went to watch them with a crowd.
“Obviously they were fans, but I was thinking ’This is pretty damned good’.
“The criticisms weren’t necessarily unfair, but it was nice to see those episodes and recognise the good things in there.”
One subplot he won’t defend, however, is biker James Hurley’s descent into film noir territory.
“I don’t think there’s a single person on the planet who likes that story.”
In part, he says, the challenges faced in the second season were due to the desire to “change things up”.
“In any television show, there’s a certain dynamic tension,” he said.
“Over time - usually around season three or four or five - actors are tired of playing the parts they’re playing, the writers are a little tired of the things they’re writing and there’s this drive where we’ve got to make things different.
“In ‘Twin Peaks’, that happened after seven episodes.
“Suddenly, Lara Flynn Boyle wanted to wear sunglasses and smoke cigarettes, Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) wanted to be more like Katherine Hepburn.
“We were doing a lot of juggling to keep everybody happy.”
One thing Peyton does dispute is the long-held belief among fans that the series’ co-creator, David Lynch, was absent for much of the second season.
“David wasn’t really around in the first season… there’s this weird urban myth that it was the other way around,” he said.
“They (Frost and Lynch) were partners, but Mark was hiring the directors, and was on set every day. David just wasn’t there.”
As a result of Lynch’s absence, Frost and Peyton began looking further afield for people to helm the opening episode for season two.
“It sounds kind of ludicrous now,” Peyton said.
“But Mark and I sat down with Steven Spielberg, who was very eager to direct the first episode of season two.
“The only reason we’d considered doing that was because David wasn’t really part of the process in a day-to-day way.”
Ultimately, Lynch did get more involved, helming four episodes of the second season - including the much lauded season finale, which Peyton describes as one of the best hours of television he’d ever seen… but an hour that was borne out of chaos.
“We had written the script, we had all this stuff put together,” he said.
“Then we were going to the set, and hearing ‘David’s rewriting… he’s throwing things out’.
“At the time, I was like ‘How dare he!’.
“Then I saw the episode and was like ‘Oh, I get it. This is unbelievable.
“That’s David at his best.”
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