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‘Twin Peaks’ Producer Sabrina S. Sutherland on Bringing David Lynch’s Monumental Vision to Life

Written by on November 27, 2017 

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Hear the words “Twin Peaks” and a few names immediately come to mind: David Lynch, Mark Frost, Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Cera, etc. Less mentioned is executive producer Sabrina S. Sutherland, a longtime Lynch associate whose presence and input was no less an absolute necessity in the series’ conception, creation, completion, and, now, home-video release. Charting the show’s production — inasmuch as one can get access to what, even after its completion, remains a secretive process — will make clear that, when all’s said and done, she’s perhaps second only to the beloved auteur as an authority.

It was thus my great pleasure to speak with her at this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, where I also managed to see the two-hour premiere and attend an hour-long Q & A with Lynch. (Needless to say, their extended history with the man has paid off splendidly.) I think most interviews, being a chance to learn something first-hand and all, are an opportunity to be selfish, and this takes that to a whole other endpoint: if I wanted to know something about Twin Peaks‘ mysterious creation — while understanding full well that certain things won’t be answered, so don’t bother — I asked the question. What resulted is the following.

The Film Stage: Where was the show this time last year?

Sabrina S. Sutherland: So this is 2017; in 2016, in November, we were in post-production. We finished shooting in April. By this time, David was by himself in editing. Duwayne Dunham left already. He was there for a few months in post, and once everything was assembled and broken-up, David went through by himself. So that’s where we were.

What is your contact with him while he’s by himself?

Well, he’s not “by himself.” He’s working with people and I’m there as well, because I was lucky enough to be able to oversee everything. I suppose I was there, I don’t know… November, he’d be mixing and editing, and we started the color-timing. So he and I would go to color-timing together and he’d be editing with Noriko Miyakawa, his assistant, and some other people and working with Dean Hurley on music. I’d see him every day, we’d talk every day, and he’d show me some things. It’s a nice atmosphere.

Dunham did an interview with photos of the editing suites, with postcards. I’d get a slight panic looking at that, but the impression he gave was one of assurance — yes, it’s a lot, but they organized it neatly.

sabrina-sutherlandYeah. Duwayne is very visual and likes the tactile, old-school way of doing editorial, which is great. David had the entire film in his head, and I can tell you: he knows every single thing — where everything is, how it should be. There are scenes Duwayne didn’t even address; it was just left for David to look through. It’s overwhelming for me. David, I don’t know what’s in his head, but he had everything. So, in production, David with the costume-designing: he would say he wants his kind of outfit — this shirt and skirt and this kind of zipper, low here and cut there. He had a specific angle on it. When he talked to the production designer, he’d say, “Okay, I want a machine. I want it to look like this. I want this kind of bolt that has six sides — not four, not eight, but six.” Very specific about everything. So I don’t know what was going on in his head, but he had everything in his head.

There was a back-and-forth in the news about whether it would be shot on film and digital. I’d like some insight into those conversations, how you all weighed the pros and cons in your decision-making.

Well, to be honest with you, there was never a debate about it being film; it was always going to be digital. I think that was something that fans thought because of, maybe, the original Twin Peaks was film, and we had just finished doing the deleted scenes and David had stated how beautiful it was, how beautiful it looked on film — which is true. It has such a rich feeling, and I think film is a look of its own that is just unmatched, digitally, at this point, although it’s obviously getting better. What we tried to do with this film was make it as film-like as possible — but it’s different, and David is very specific, of course, with the looks.

But there was never a question that it would be shot on film. Obviously budgetarily, because it’s hard to even find film anymore, and the processing… everything about the post part of it is such a challenge. Then, production-wise, the crew, and just the way David wanted to move. David wanted to work quickly. He wanted to shoot stuff. Those cameras are giant, so we wanted to be as small and nimble as possible. We went with the AMIRA, to be as close to a kind of 4K — 3.2k — while having a small camera, but making it as close to film as possible. And, of course, the Mini, which we used pretty much every day with Steadicam.

Were many cameras in contention?

There were camera tests that Peter oversaw, testing all those things, and everything was screened for David and Peter to look at and figure out which one worked the best, and it was definitely unanimous — just to get exactly the quality. Plus, the possibilities in post to be able to work with it. Because sometimes you shoot things and, when it comes to post, you really don’t have that dynamic range to be able to adjust things. As much as we had a great process in production… we had a DIT who worked with us, which is, in television, not usual. FotoKem worked with us. We had nextLAB. I don’t know if you’re familiar.

Explain that a bit.

nextLAB is wonderful. We were able to do the dailies on set. And you can also play with it on set, so you pretty much have your post-color on set with you, if you’d like to play with it. There’s a lot of options you can do, so you have a lot to work with in production; then when you get to post and color-timing, you see what you have and what has been decided on the set. “Here is where we are; here are the settings.” But then, when you’re in post, David would go through and say he wanted a different look, so we would change that. Sometimes it would be set; sometimes it wouldn’t. It just depended. It really worked out, but it was definitely a process.

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There was a story about Showtime concocting some marketing ideas that Lynch shot down, feeling they were too revealing. What we got, preview-wise, was fairly enigmatic. How was the material therein decided upon?

David. David edited those little trailers, the ones that have the kind of black-to-image with the little sounds. That’s David figuring out what he felt was not revealing and something that could go out, and the way he liked to have the mood and tone of Twin Peaks — what is dark and more of an experience and not traditional television. Because it’s not traditional television. Certainly one of the things that we all agreed upon was: we didn’t want to give any information out, because once people know things, they know it. Nowadays, you just brush it off. “What’s next?” And it’s kind of a letdown.

If you look at trailers for films nowadays, I hate them because they give you the whole film. It’s like, what’s the point? I’ve just seen the mini-movie, so I don’t need to go see the movie. But in television you’ll see an actress… for example: if you had seen Diane, Laura Dern, you’d say, “Oh!” And then when you see her in the show, it’s kind of a letdown. It’s, “Oh, I’ve seen that.” So I don’t know that people understand that, but hopefully they appreciated being able to have this revealed to them.

That was definitely my experience with it. I’d watch it at a friend’s apartment, and the current in the air was one of a specific anticipation. Because we just didn’t know — even twelve, thirteen weeks in. So it was appreciated.

Oh, that’s so good. Because it was kind of… at first, for Showtime marketing to wrap their heads around that was difficult because it’s not the usual. They went along with it; they were happy to try and go with it. That was great. Showtime was wonderful to us, and they did a lot of things that they… don’t do. So it was great.

In a Reddit AMA, you said — as you’ve said here — that Lynch had the project down to a sort of science. But I wonder about cases where improvisations and switch-ups, even just down to set-ups on a scene, happen.

David loves to experiment, so there are times where he wanted time to either be able to add things or… not necessarily change things, because he did have an idea of how things would look. So I don’t know necessarily. I think, maybe, Peter Deming might have said, “It’s going to be better to be here because we can’t get the camera in this location to do this, so what if we did this instead.” For David, of course… he always says, “There’s 100 ways to skin a cat.” He will find a different way of doing what he wants that still gets that vision, that message, that tone, but changes. I think, for David, it’s more the experimentation of new things than it is changing what is already in his head as a vision. But adding to it or having something new — like a new scene — and having to change things. And we had to do that several times with, maybe, actors’ availability or location issue. So how do we get around that? He comes up with something new, so it was more like that than, you know, a very specific scene that he had in his head that he would change. Most of those things, that’s what he would want.

Phillip Jeffries’ role is one of the things somebody on the outside could identify — him going from David Bowie to some sort of machine that Lynch insists is not a tea kettle.

It’s not. It’s a machine.

I like that some things will never really be known.

That’s how it should be. There shouldn’t be answers. The way the film — to me, “the film” — ended is, at this point, the final word of that portion. I don’t know if there’s going to be anything in the future that would add to it, but just from this season, I think that’s really kind of an end. And it should be left open. There are unanswered things. Who is this? What does that mean? What is the frog-moth? Who are those people? Those should all be unanswered questions because it’s something left to the viewer to experience and to question, and it loses something if you’re told, “Well, this is what it’s supposed to be.”

It’s like on my AMA, where people were comparing 17 and 18 and insisting that David made it so that they were supposed to be overlapped together, and my response to that was, “Well, no, that wasn’t ever done in the editing room. David didn’t privately, somewhere, put these two together and edit them so that they matched.” But it’s a great coincidence and it’s really interesting that they do work together. So it’s perfectly valid to say, “Wow, let’s watch it like that and maybe that can give me an answer.” It’s not specifically meant or done to do that, but if it happens that way, that’s great. I think people got mad because I said that wasn’t the intent. They’re supposed to be watching 17 and then watch 18, and they got very angry at me that I said that. And I realize… that’s the same to me of saying, “Well, what does this mean?” I don’t want that answered. You don’t want to have answers.

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I was here for the screening on Tuesday, and it was pretty amazing.

Right? On the big screen.

Lynch was fairly open about his, let’s say, ambivalence with how people would experience it. He wanted people to be close to the screen, lights off, headphones on — but, of course, that’s not the easiest configuration. And let’s be honest: even if you’re watching on a good set-up, the video quality just doesn’t match up with a theatrical environment.

No.

What are the last steps of preparing for television? Are you undergoing certain compression processes? Are you reviewing materials on a television set to get a picture?

Yeah. That’s for sure. You do your best, both with the audio and picture, because we also, for the screening, did a DCP, so we did a theatrical color and we did a theatrical audio for the DCP, so you had that rich experience. But because it is compressed — because it is for television — we did it with monitors at FotoKem, and you do it for their… everything’s calibrated, and you do it for that. But when you go to each person’s home, not everybody’s television is calibrate the same, obviously, and not everybody’s going to have the same sound, so you do the best you can to make it the standard. Then, of course once Showtime gets it and other distributors get it, they have a whole other range of broadcast compressions and specs that they have to follow, and it reduces it. That’s unfortunate, but you can only do so much.

So we did it at the quality that we could, and once it gets to the distributor, we had asked that it try to maintain as much as possible. But I think, depending on where and how it’s broadcast, it loses a lot, obviously, because that’s the medium; it’s television. So I really hope, one day, that we can screen the whole thing in theaters as a feature film. Even though I like that, each week, you had a different part to watch, and you could rewatch it and think about it, I think, too, it would be really great to see it as one big thing so that you understand… you can kind of go through the story. It’s 18 hours, so maybe over a few days.

Do DCPs of other episodes exist?

I mean, even if they don’t, we can certainly make DCPs. So I would hope that, eventually, we can do something — but, again, it’s constricted because it was made for television, so there’s all of the regulations, licensing, things like that. It’s all geared for television, not theatrical.

Have there been discussions?

No. I’m still just working on the show and the DVD and all that, so we haven’t talked anything about future — be it a new season or theatrical or anything like that. But, of course, it would be great to do. I’d be 100% behind it.

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Did you first see the show divide into episodes, or was it a more continuous stream?

When it was edited, we knew that we had to put it in parts and we had specific times. So I saw scenes — some scenes. And I love David for this: he wanted me to see it at a point when it got broken up into parts — like, all together. Once it was the first rough-cut show that he felt was good enough for him to then sit and look at what was done. So I waited until that point. What Duwayne and the editors did while we were shooting was assemble everything, and they put it in as, kind of, a film, but you also have certain constraints in terms of time. So they knew — Duwayne knew, the editors knew — upfront that they could be 52 minutes or 58.5, whatever it was. So they already kind of put them in chunks. It wasn’t like a feature film, all strung together; it was already kind of pulled. But, then again, it was the first assembly, and not necessarily in the way it ended up being onscreen. So the first episode maybe didn’t have the same scenes; it was the timing.

When David finished shooting, he came back, sat down, and, that first week, would see, I don’t know, four hours. They were broken up into hours and he’d just watch the hours to see what was there, and worked from there. They worked for a few months, and once they had, they felt, it put together, that’s when Duwayne was done. That’s the first time I saw it. That was, like, around August or September of 2016. And I was so happy that David wanted to see it, so he and I would watch the whole show together. Each night we watched, I don’t know, two or three of the shows, and that’s the first time I saw it. It wasn’t even a rough cut; it was the cuts of the final, where it is. Still rough, but not like the very first. I got to experience that with him, so it was all pre-everything — no effects, no music, the sound wasn’t done. It was pretty much just what the picture might be.

When was the project completed?

In May. Everything was done, again, not like a television show, so it’s not like I could pull one episode and start doing the delivery of part one because everything was done as a group. So everything edited, the effects done, mixing — everything — then doing the color-timing, then doing the delivery. So they were done in big blocks, so I couldn’t even pull out, if it was done mixing, part one and say, “Okay, let’s start doing the color-timing. Let’s deliver it.” We had to wait until everything was done before I could start delivery. So delivery started around then.

Did Lynch watch it as it aired on Showtime?

He did.

I got a good laugh at the start of the series: there’s such a mystery as to who will even show up when, and it goes from the opening title to the casting credit. There’s the sense of holding back until the very last second; and then there’s the now-iconic Kyle MacLachlan credit, followed by everyone else, at each hour’s end. When was this system decided upon?

The very beginning. David wanted that from the beginning. He didn’t want anything revealed; he wants you to experience it. So a lot of times you see somebody’s name and you’re anticipating that person, and he didn’t want that — just like with the trailers. So that was from the very beginning, and that was a change for Showtime because, usually, you have your cast upfront and crew credits at the end. Plus, David didn’t want to have any credits over picture. That’s a common thing as well: if you have actors, you’ll have your series regulars that might be in the titles every week; then, as the new show starts, you’ll have whoever those people are, and those credits will be for the first couple minutes. David didn’t want any credits over the show.

You worked on Lynch and Frost’s greatest creation, On the Air. Frost told me that there are some plans to put it on home video.

No, it hasn’t been discussed; I don’t know if that’s the case. I think it’s wishful. It would be nice, but there are no discussions about it right now.

That about covers it.

I answered everything? Unlike my AMA.

I liked that aspect of it.

It was “ask me anything,” but I’m not going to tell you everything.

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series arrives on Blu-ray on December 5.


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