“The tortoise was very responsive to strawberry juice.” John Carroll Lynch ‘Lucky’ Interview (THN)

Out today is Lucky, a very personal comedy-drama about a man at the end of his years coming to terms with life in a remote part of America. Playing the title character is the man who inspired it, the late great Harry Dean Stanton, in his final starring role.

Actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch was tasked with bringing Lucky’s story to the screen. Lynch is well known as Norm Gunderson from the Coen BrothersFargo, as well as Twisty the Clown in American Horror Story. He’s worked with the best in the industry for decades, from Michael Keaton (The Founder) to Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino). We sat down with John to talk about this ambitious directorial debut and what it was like working with Harry Dean, as well as supporting actor and namesake David Lynch

THN: What brought you to Lucky’s door?

John Carroll Lynch: My friend Drago (Sumonja) was one of the writers, I had known Logan (Sparks, co-writer) as well and the two of them approached me as an actor to play one of the roles in the film as they were trying to put it together. Then a couple of months later, because Drago knew I had wanted to direct for quite a while, they came back to me and asked if I would direct the film. I really loved the script, I thought it was really good and Harry was already attached to play Lucky, which is not surprising because they based it on him. It didn’t take me long to say yes.

You’ve worked with many great directors over the years. For your directorial debut, you had Harry Dean Stanton, who’s worked with everyone, and David Lynch on top of that… you must have been very confident or very nervous, or both! What was it like…?

The opportunity to work with great people has always been attractive to me, and it’s been true since I started out as an actor. Great people, being great at their jobs make you better, in terms of how they come to the set or the stage to work, but they also teach you about how you could do that too. All of that was attractive to me, not distracting.

The film was shot at a rapid pace of eighteen days. When you’re doing your directorial debut, try to find an actor as good as Harry Dean Stanton to play your lead… do that first! See if that doesn’t cover a lot of your problems. That being said, I knew I had a leg up, once the cast came together and once David said yes I turned to Ira Steven Behr one of the producers and said: “Now I’m the only person who can f*ck this up!”

Gratefully it came out the way it did and people have responded…so many people get an opportunity to do their first film and they’re very good but nobody sees them. And with this one, it’s played all over the world, particularly in Europe because of Harry and David’s fan association there. In terms of how the movie unfolds, it’s a very European film.

Let’s talk about David Lynch… he’s known as an actor but in his own projects. What was it like directing him outside of his own universe?

Well, he loved Harry, he was one of his best friends. They had met when Harry was doing a film… interestingly enough Terrence Malick was in the first class at the American Film Institute and David Lynch was in the second. Terrence Malick had gotten more notes than Harry Dean Stanton to do his student film, which is shocking, the idea of that makes me laugh. They met when David came to observe one of Terrence’s shooting days, so they’d known each other since 1970. He had been in, I think, seven of his projects, and that’s the reason he’s in the film. We had been looking for somebody to play Howard and it was Harry who suggested him.

When he came to the set we were barely able to get him for any amount of time. But he agreed to it, he came to the set and it was the first time I had spoken to him directly. He came so well prepared and so steeped in the material. He had done a bit of adjusting to make it easier for him to read and it was a beautiful adjustment he had made. I know I should have been more worried, more intimidated, but he made it easy not to be. And also because it was close to the end of the picture and my focus was on Harry he really made it so simple. He came, and he made a Howard who was so disarming and innocent, which I thought was surprising given the rest of his work! (Laughs)

In the opening shot, a tortoise has to crawl across the frame. I was thinking that must have been either quite easy or extremely difficult to shoot. What’s it like to direct a tortoise?

The tortoise was very responsive to strawberry juice. (Laughs) So we tried to bribe the tortoise by putting strawberry juice on various rocks that it would smell and move towards. It didn’t always do that, so we have a lot of extra material where we’re resetting the tortoise and resetting the tortoise and resetting the tortoise! That choice of shot is important because it teaches the audience how to watch the movie. Almost all first shots in movies teach you how to watch them, and that was no exception.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

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Twin Peaks: A Lynching Part Two (Strange Skins Digital)

Time has no meaning in Twin Peaks, so the second part of this review concerns the whopping prospect of Parts Five to Eighteen. By the fifth instalment my initial shock at having the series back in the first place had worn off and I’d acclimatized to what I was watching. Most of what I witnessed will have me scratching the old noggin till my dying day but that’s alright – the show is above all a mystery. While David Lynch and Mark Frost were kind enough to throw some answers in our general direction, the overall impression was one of profound frustration. Just like getting to the end of the previous run in fact. That’s the way it’s always been and it made sense that’s what happened this time round.

The best way to analyze fourteen hours or so of Lynch-infused weirdness is to look at the broad sweep, so here goes. When initially announced, The Return was going to be nine episodes. After what appeared to be some behind the scenes wrangling, with the director leaving for a while following arguments over the budget, that number doubled. This creative bump in the road appears to have been responsible for the season’s main weakness: it’s padded heavier than a wall in a busy asylum.

Many of the new characters have arcs that go precisely nowhere, notably the “history repeating itself” narrative of Becky (Amanda Seyfried) and her abusive, drug-crazed beau Steven (Caleb Landry Jones). We’d watched Becky’s mother Shelley (Mädchen Amick) suffer at the hands of the infamous Leo Johnson in the previous century. Then when it was revealed Shelley’s former lover Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) was Becky’s father it seemed an intriguing plotline could be on the cards. Aside from histrionics, it transpired nothing much happened and Steven killed himself in the woods, as if to polish matters off in anticipation of the finale. Even Amick’s association with mystical gangster Red (Balthazar Getty) didn’t get more than a cursory mention. Still, at least we got the unexpected sight of Bobby being a trusted member of the Twin Peaks police force, a distinct contrast to the wayward young man we left in the Nineties. The Return’s juiciest subplot, that of Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) being stuck in a hallucinatory haze, ended abruptly with no further explanation, though in fairness this was the moment that best evoked the Peaks of old.

These seemingly random elements were what marked the third season apart from its predecessors. Whereas previously Twin Peaks was a conventional soap opera with an artisan approach, it’s since evolved into a Lynchian video installation. There appeared to be little of Frost’s personality in the mix (for that read his novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks). Yet despite this break from the established format, the creators expected viewers to remember things that happened twenty-five years ago. The resolution of the love triangle between Big Ed (Everett McGill), Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Nadine (Wendy Robie) had been a major part of the classic series. In this version we see Ed and Nadine separately and it’s never shown that they’re married until she walks up to him and announces he’s free to marry Norma. A great release for the fans but also a resolution with no build up, and surely one that would leave non-aficionados wondering what the fuss was about.

Lynch is also overly-preoccupied with sensation, inserting at least one thing a week to do with bodily fluids. The protracted appearances of Jay Aaseng’s drooling prisoner, who repeats everyone’s words back to them, was a prime example of this. A repetition of extremes, from vomiting to characters being subjected to cruel ordeals, became almost par for the course and these moments lost their impact as a result.

I mentioned in my previous piece how the mythology of the Black Lodge had been expanded upon in Season 3 and this is one area where the production truly soared. Frost and Lynch introduced the concept of “tulpas” with egg-like skin who took the place of human beings and in Part Eight gave us an atomic-powered look at how Killer Bob came to be and the conception of Laura Palmer to apparently counter this evil presence. The spectacle of this particular episode, which began with Evil Coop being revived by blackened lumberjacks and ended with an amphibious moth crawling into a little girl’s mouth was quite simply one of the most jaw-dropping episodes of TV in years. The writers cleverly gave fans what they wanted with one hand, while adding a whole other layer of ambiguity with the other.

Another aspect I welcomed was the focus on Kyle MacLachlan’s journey from one dimension to the next. Lynch amply provided his friend with not one but three roles to sink his teeth into and former pretty boy MacLachlan rose to the challenge. The “Dougie Jones” plot definitely filled the hours rather than being anything rewarding but Naomi Watts’ excellent performance as Janey-E made it worth the slog. Also introduced in this section were the Mitchum Brothers (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi). I didn’t see the point in the bimbo-flanked crime bosses at first – the narrative was awash with the underworld anyway. But gradually I warmed to them and they took their place among the ranks of memorable Peaks personalities.

I was surprised that I didn’t refer to Angelo Badalamenti’s music in the first part of this review. However I realized it wasn’t an essential piece of the puzzle in the way it was before. Badalamenti provided a richly-textured muzak for the soap incarnation of the show. Here he scored a different beast. He had his moments, Part Eight being a standout in its mix of the ominous and divine. On the whole his work was overshadowed by the musical showcases at the Roadhouse, which were properly eclectic. Original singer Julee Cruise got short shrift but Chromatics best floated my boat with their electronic dreamscapes.

The finale annoyed me at first. Part Seventeen delivered a reasonably satisfying reunion between Cooper and the gang, by way of a Cockney wearing a gardening glove. Jake Wardle played that difficult role and while he gave it his all I couldn’t quite get my head around this plot device in human form. As for Part Eighteen, well when the credits rolled I felt cheated. Then I started thinking about what I’d seen. By the time I’d mulled it over I kind of loved it. Lynch directed an abstract retread of the Season Two denouement, only this time with our Special Agent being seriously displaced. The low key yet chilling final moments saw him and an alternate Laura trapped not only in another dimension but one not far removed from our own, and all the more dangerous for it.

Twin Peaks: The Return was simultaneously a non event and also the biggest event of the streaming generation. It disappointed and stirred in equal measure. Its audacious visuals and cerebral savagery will perhaps never be replicated. I’d love to have a Season Four, but if this is the last we see of the town I grew to love so much, then so be it. It’s a bonus I never anticipated and I thank Lynch and Frost for making the titanic effort to revisit this extraordinary terrain.

 

This article first appeared in Strange Skins Digital

Twin Peaks: A Lynching Part One (Strange Skins Digital)

The return of Twin Peaks should not be underestimated. Other offerings from the Nineties are back in force, like faded pop stars cashing in with a reunion tour. Peaks was always different. It was network programming with an art house sensibility, cunningly clad in the wardrobe of a Fifties soap opera. Co-created by David Lynch, it brought cinematic production values to the small screen and set a benchmark for the future direction of showrunner-led drama. It certainly lost the plot during its second season, yet remained a different kettle of fish throughout. Or more appropriately a piscine-infused percolator.                                                                                                                                                                                                         I got into the series during my turbulent teens, where its angst-ridden weirdness and distinctive characters struck a deep chord. Many of us assumed we’d never see the “place both wonderful and strange” again. Our hero Special Agent Dale Cooper was trapped in the upholstered netherworld of the Black Lodge and he would seemingly be there forever. Lynch vetoed all attempts to revive the concept. His parting shot,  prequel film Fire Walk With Me, famously opened with a TV set being smashed to fragments. Then came the news no-one ever thought they’d hear: Lynch and writer Mark Frost had re-teamed and the show was opening its portals to viewers a quarter of a century later.

In 1990 I was ready for Twin Peaks, I just hadn’t realized it at that precise moment. The saga quickly gained an inexorable hold on my melting pot of a mind. One of the cleverest things about the show was its deceptive air of cosy familiarity, despite frequent punctuations of shocking content. I looked back fondly at that period and thought I knew what to expect from my favourite programme. Boy was I ever wrong!

To date I’ve watched the first four episodes, cannily released in as big a chunk as Lynch would allow. My reaction to the first hour or so of the double-length opener was one of vague disappointment. It appeared to be a new Lynch project with elements of Peaks in the background. However the deliberately slow pace, combined with a constant undercurrent of menace, kept me interested. If you’ve seen the director’s Lost Highway or Inland Empire then this belated third season gives viewers something similar. The icy and detached atmosphere felt far removed from the little town we know and love. Much of the action takes place elsewhere, in big, anonymous spaces like New York and Las Vegas.

What I and no doubt many others were waiting for was to welcome Agent Cooper back into our lives. Lynch and Frost wisely include him early on in a cryptic sequence featuring the Giant (Carel Struycken, who is a bit shrunken these days) but he disappears after this to be replaced by new characters. These additions – featuring in disparate, Mulholland Drive-style plot strands – are fine, albeit there to act as chess pieces in the grand scheme. Unlike the original series the acting is rather stilted in places. This works well in terms of unsettling the audience but makes it tough to get invested.

As it transpires a few of them are soon out of the picture, most notably Sam (Ben Rosenfield) and Tracey (Madeline Zima), who are pretty much there to strip off and make out in front of a mysterious glass box he’s supposed to be observing. What happens to them is the revival’s first big scare and it certainly delivers. It’s worth mentioning here that Twin Peaks: The Return is much grislier than its predecessor, a quality Lynch blends with the abstract to striking effect.

Episode two gives us a proper reunion with Cooper in the red-curtained realm and promptly aces our expectations, via an absolutely extraordinary chain of bizarre and eerie events. The most surprising thing about this resurrection for me so far is the way Lynch and Frost seek to explain early on aspects that have been the source of rampant speculation for twenty-five years. Peaks was never heavy on exposition, in fact there was virtually none. But I guess they’ve made fans wait long enough – bold moves indicate fresh and exciting directions for the mythology of the Black Lodge.

Put simply, the creators do not mess about. The arrival of a tree with what appears to be a talking brain for a head takes Lynchians firmly back to the days of Eraserhead and its rubberized ghouls. The story then begins to tie in with the journey of Cooper’s doppelgänger, who replaced his likeness in the real world and has been roaming the land causing mayhem since the previous run ended.

There’s a rewarding sense of the strands coming together, which becomes increasingly apparent across episodes three and four. The writers have taken the  intelligent decision to show how the strange goings-on in Twin Peaks affected the country as a whole, before slowly drawing us back to the town for what is presumably going to be a hell of a showdown between the two Coops.

We’ve never known quite what to expect with this show. It’s gotten broader and wilder since we last saw it. The curveballs really do curve. Hopefully the fuller emphasis on arthouse will reap the benefits and Showtime will be happy with their investment. They surely expected it to be challenging, but maybe not this challenging. Still, like the various people who’ve tried to access the Black Lodge over the years, they wanted to get in. And once you’re in, getting out is a whole other matter.

 

This article first appeared in Strange Skins Digital.