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Author Scott Ryan Unpacks David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ with New Book

Twin Peaks, co-created by television veteran Mark Frost and auteur filmmaker David Lynch, was a trailblazing work which influenced not only countless other TV shows and future creators, but the trajectory of the medium itself.

A bright-burning mélange of soapy melodrama, murder mystery, offbeat humor, psychological horror, and the supernatural, the show debuted as a mid-season replacement in April 1990, and became an instant zeitgeist hit. With its singular, uncanny tone, the series (and especially its eight-episode first season run) is arguably more responsible for smuggling surrealism and associative storytelling into the cultural mainstream than any other piece of art of the past 50 years.

After Frost and Lynch were forced by executives of host network ABC to resolve its central mystery the show’s ratings cratered. When it concluded its second season run in 1991, it was not renewed. Lynch, however, would immediately return to the series — and the last week in the life of murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer — with a big screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, released in 1992. Savaged by critics and largely commercially ignored at the time, the film has in subsequent years come to enjoy a reappraisal and is now widely regarded as equally ahead of its time, and one of Lynch’s many masterpieces.


In his new book Fire Walk With Me: Your Laura Disappeared, author Scott Ryan, a devotee of the film from its initial release, attempts to unpack its challenging darkness through a series of essays, personal reminiscences, and new interviews with Sheryl Lee, editor Mary Sweeney, cowriter Bob Engels, and others.

Ryan, whose additional long-form work includes Moonlighting: An Oral History (2021) and The Last Days of Letterman: The Final Six Weeks (2018), recently joined the HFPA for a conversation from his home in Sarasota, Florida. Excerpts of the interview are included below.

As you were talking to people for the book, were you surprised by any changes in perspective from 30 years distance?

If I had written it in 1992 or ’93, my feelings would’ve been the same, but I truly believe everyone involved with it would’ve been completely different because it was so maligned by fans, critics, everyone. Everyone hated this movie, and I think it took 30 years for people to come around to it. Sheryl Lee, who plays Laura Palmer in the film, wouldn’t have been able to speak of it. I really feel she went through a lot of turmoil to make this film. And honestly, she wouldn’t talk about some of the scenes 30 years later — she says she’s still not ready. We have set up an interview for 25 years from now, when she says maybe she’ll be ready to talk about it. I don’t know if I’ll still be around, but I’m going to hold her to it. So, I think it really would’ve been completely different, because people weren’t ready to hear this story in the ’90s.

Why is the work of David Lynch important to you?

It’s very simple for me what about David Lynch that I love — it’s the space in between that he leaves in his art for you to put yourself in it. There was a new show this year, a cop show, and in the first five minutes this cop says, “Well, I’m the kind of cop who doesn’t…” But let me figure out what kind of cop you are, instead of the character telling me. And with David Lynch, his characters do not explain things. He leaves space in between for you to think about it. And I like thinking about things. So that to me is the difference between David Lynch and many other artists. He’s not giving you an answer.

In your book, you quite candidly touch on your own battle with depression, and the debilitating effects of having to put up a façade. And of course, that’s a big part of what Laura Palmer does, for a lot darker reasons. In your research and time within this world of super fandom, did you find that to be a particular point of shared entry amongst a lot of devotees of the series, and Fire Walk With Me?

I think there are two kinds of fans. There are what I call the coffee-and-donut fans, and they just really want to stay with the fun part. And there is a lot of fun in Twin Peaks, there is a lot of comedy. But then there is the darker side. If you really follow Laura Palmer’s story, it is extremely tragic and probably the darkest story that you can tell. I don’t relate to Laura that way.

But I always wanted to be a writer. Life didn’t work out that way for me, though. I had to get a job and you have kids and you’re taking care of them. And I was out in the town where Twin Peaks is filmed at a Twin Peaks event, and the actress, Catherine Coulson, who plays the Log Lady, was in the hotel and I met her. I just bumped into her, and she spent some time with me and she asked me to take a picture of her with a log, because she wanted to show her kids that she had done something with her life. So, I took a picture, I talked to her, I go back home, I go back to work, I’m in my cubicle, and six weeks later she’s dead — she died of cancer. She was dying that day. And I thought, “What am I doing with my life? I have been pretending to be someone that I’m not all this time.” And I started The Blue Rose magazine one month later, which covers Twin Peaks. And then I started my Letterman book, and I just said, “I’m going to try.” And so Twin Peaks has really influenced me — that five, six or seven minutes with the Log Lady really changed my life.


What was the biggest surprise with this book?

For me, it was the interview with Gregg Feinberg. He went on to produce Deadwood and Big Little Lies and many other things. Well, he was a producer on Twin Peaks, and I don’t think he’s ever given a Twin Peaks interview before. I think he was surprised when I reached out to talk about it. And I learned that he was the reason for Fire Walk with Me, it was his idea. And I had never heard this story before. He said the day that ABC canceled Twin Peaks back in May ’91, he said he was really depressed and was thinking about all the great things they could do for season three. And it just hit him, “Why don’t we do season three as a movie?” So, he called up David and Mark’s agent and pitched it to them. At 7:00am, he called their agent, and he said by noon it was a green-lit film. That’s how quick it happened. The day Twin Peaks was canceled, Fire Walk with Me was green-lit. I had never heard that story before, and many people who’ve read the book said, “What?” Gregg’s been sitting on that. So, to me, that was shocking because I was one of those people who were devastated when it was canceled, thinking I was never going to see anything like this again.

In the original series, Sheryl Lee is cast to play a dead body, and in Fire Walk With Me she is the peg on which the entire film hangs. I can’t think of another example that speaks quite as strongly to David Lynch’s sense of intuition with regards to both casting and knowing he can elicit the performance he’s seeking from actors. Did you discuss that with Sheryl Lee while interviewing her for the book?

Yeah. I mean, the one thing I will say about interviewing any actor or actress who’s worked with David is they’re going to pile all of the goodness onto David Lynch. Sheryl Lee will take no credit for a scene, a shot, an emotion in Fire Walk with Me. I have been blessed to interview her four different times over the last five years and I keep pushing it because it almost seems like there must be some special recipe that we can get to. But I don’t think there is, I think it is just David Lynch. I mean, Ray Wise gave almost the exact same answer that Sheryl Lee did, even though of course their type of performances is completely different. They just say, “David knows exactly what to say to you right before the take happens.” And it’s never a note about that scene. He doesn’t say to cry, or look at the camera this way, or move your hair — he just tells you something. He just says something to you, and it unlocks your inner ability. Now, I love David Lynch, but I’m telling you, it’s also Sheryl Lee that shines. She won’t take (the compliment), but I think no matter what she is the talent. She should be so much bigger than she is in my opinion.

Both this and the other books you’ve written have tended to focus on the late 1980s and early ’90s, a golden era of television. How would you describe your fascination with that time period?

Well, I think there are two answers to that. I mean, part of it is I was just the right age. I was in late high school and college during Twin Peaks and it expanded my mind in a way. I think you can only consume art that totally you feel passionate about when you are that age. You’re so excited about everything. So that’s on the personal side. But they were also making grown-up television then. And I don’t think superheroes, for me anyway, are as grown-up. I mean, can we really get to the bottom of why a spider bit a guy? I just don’t know that we’re going to get into all the intricacies of that.

Moonlighting was so much about (the idea of whether) can you fall in love with someone who’s not the same as you. And Twin Peaks is about so many things — who even knows where you can start? I think they were grappling with grown-up issues. And I’m not saying that no TV does that now, but back then, those shows were getting 60 million viewers. The shows that do that now might get 500,000 viewers. And everyone was watching them at once. So, there were these little moments in pop culture that I like to have us look back on and remember that television can inspire us as writers and people.

Is it being a fan of these particular shows or a broader curiosity that has led you to write all your books?

Every book I have started comes from a question. The Letterman book really started because in his last show, they did a live montage from all his years and the Foo Fighters played live onstage to a video that matched the song. And I thought, “Wait a minute, you can’t do that live. How did they do that?” So, I hounded Barbara Gaines, who is Dave’s executive producer, for two years until she gave me an interview to just answer that question, and then that led to other things which led to the book. With Moonlighting, I never understood why another show wasn’t as creative, where every week it was different. And I wanted to know that answer, so I went after Glenn Gordon Caron. It is my curiosity, and it always comes back to a question. With Fire Walk With Me, I wanted to know how did a movie that’s that hated become loved 30 years later? That doesn’t normally happen to a movie.

What did you discover when you wrote The Last Days of Letterman that surprised you about David Letterman?

First and foremost is that I guess the thought about Letterman from the outside is that he’s grumpy, angry, and not nice guy. But not one person I interviewed had any stories like that. Every person I interviewed would say, “Oh, when my mom got cancer, he picked up the bill. He helped this person go back to college. I had this tragedy — he gave me time off.” And so, I thought, “I think he’s just private.” And I think in Hollywood, those are not the people that usually get to his level. So that’s what I learned the most that I think was surprising — that all the good deeds he did for those people, he never talked about them, and he didn’t want them to talk about them either, really. He just didn’t want it to come out because I think he’s very private.

Your Moonlighting book came out last year, and I assume your interviews might have given you a window into the health struggles Bruce Willis was experiencing. Were you surprised when news broke regarding his aphasia diagnosis?

Well, to be honest, now I feel like I can say I knew the news before it broke. I had set up something like seven interviews with Bruce and it kept getting moved around and pushed and canceled. And Glenn Gordon Caron, the executive producer of Moonlighting, was helping me. We were working on this together and it just felt like something was wrong. And at that point, when I was working on the book, I don’t think Bruce could have answered questions, [but] I don’t think they wanted to say no. Because I think he did love Moonlighting and he wanted to be a part of the book, but I think with his health, he just couldn’t.