Mark Frost began his career writing teleplays for The Six Million Dollar Man in the mid-70's. But his climb to prominence actually happened with the 29 episodes of Hill Street Blues that he penned. From that springboard he teamed up with David Lynch and co-created one of the most iconoclastic series of the 1990s - Twin Peaks. It only ran two seasons but its approach to story-telling changed television forever. Mark sat down with me in Dark Delicacies and talked about Twin Peaks and television in general.
With it being so different from anything else on television how did you know Twin Peaks would work?
What made Twin Peaks work was that we never thought it would work. We never had the slightest expectation that they would ever want it. So we just told the executives going in, because they had called us and said they wanted the show, was that they could not touch it or tell us what to do. We weren't going to take notes from them. They bought it much to our surprise.
Obviously they never did touch it.
They tried. I said "uh, uh, uh." That's how it happened. Then we kept saying we'll go one more step. We'll make the pilot. Our connection was a guy named Chad Hoffman, who's actually a pretty smart guy. He ended up becoming a professor at a university in Boston. He got out of television altogether years later. Then Bob Eiger came in because Cap Cities had bought ABC. Bob changed things up. He put the kibosh to it in its second year. Cap Cities was a very conservative company and the show made them intensely uncomfortable. They didn't want anything to upset them. Implied sex and death, let's not do that. We'll scare off the advertisers. So that was the end of that.
Of course by the end of the second season none of the viewers were sure where anything was going anyway.
Neither was I. But we came back and we were ready to do a really cool third season. But we had some problems. The Gulf War happened in the middle of the second year and we got pre-empted seven out of nine weeks. This was a hard show to follow in the best of times. People didn't know how to work their VCRs. So if they lost a thread of a story, and there was period in there in the second half of the second season where we lost the thread. So those two things happened simultaneously and they kind of put the end to it. But we made a strong come back, I thought, at the end of that year. David directed that last episode.
Are you on DVD now?
Oh yeah we did a big box set about 5 years ago. That was a huge hit because we owned the show. We owned it outright.
So now looking back at Twin Peaks and that entire experience in that light how do you feel?
David and I always had this feeling of ourselves as outsiders. Even though I'd done three years on Hill Street Blues and had worked in kind of main street television during that period I never felt like I had ever been embraced by the main stream. I wasn't too interested in that. I was trained as a playwright. I came from a family that was in the theater. I thought of the show as subversive and radical. I was trying to subvert the whole format of the nighttime soap. We were trying to undermine the falsities that those things relied upon, melodrama and ridiculous emotional scenes. They didn't get to the truth of anything.
For instance, our main story is about incest inside of a family that results in murder. Nothing that dark had ever really been on television for a sustained period of time. But we approached it from a mythic kind of storytelling. We didn't want to tell it like an after school special would. Here's a social problem and here's a solution. We wanted to approach from the angle of life is deep and dark and mysterious and sometimes terrible, dreadful unspeakable things happen. I think the show succeeded in doing that. Even though some people thought the show was violent, when there was violence it was for real. It wasn't like fake violence. It was terrifying violence. Because real violence, if you've been near it, is terrifying.
The horror genre has always been great at serving as a kind of catharsis for that, particularly for younger kids. I know I was attracted to horror because I didn't want to think about death. I didn't want to think about disease. I didn't want to think about aging and dying. You need to be kind of inoculated with those ideas and horror is a way to have that happen in a safe environment because the stories are a little outlandish and they're outside of what we think of as reality. The best writers in that genre have always let that have a real underpinning.
When writing, where does your self-censorship sit?
It's funny. If you do this for a really long time, like I have, you are able to forget about craft because it has been assimilated. You're not thinking about it. It's like watching a really good carpenter make a cabinet. He's not thinking about measurements so much anymore, he's thinking about the finished product in his head and he's making something resemble it in reality. That's what the job is at this point in my life.
You're beyond the fundamentals?
I hope so because at this point I've been studying it for so long. I can now say I'm not an apprentice anymore. I was lucky because I found an outlet for creativity very early and knew that I didn't want to do anything else and I haven't since the age of fifteen. I was very fortunate. To really do the deep work of bringing your self out into the open, you can't just accomplish through your writing. We all know how many miserable, broken, drunken artists there are. Doing that, by itself, isn't enough.
How did you start?
My first gig was writing for The Six Million-Dollar Man when I was nineteen. So I've been at this a long time. The Mark of Seven was my first book.
At the time you wrote that did you blow off media?
Kind of. I mean my plan was I wanted to write books and I wanted to get movies made of the books. I thought that was a nice business to be in. So of the nine books I think I've sold six of them to the movies and we've made one.
I see myself continuing along the same path. This has to do with a philosophical attitude toward life that we're primarily on a spiritual journey. That what we're after is some kind of enlightenment. I'm lucky in that the work that I do can help you in that quest. I'm not just doing a job that is unrelated to that. It's a job that involves self-discovery. I have no interest in not working in that regard. I want to be involved with other people's lives. I've thought about wanting to do some teaching about writing but using writing as a gateway to talking about bigger stuff. I'm a big Joseph Campbell fan. I think Joseph Campbell is the great illuminated age of the twentieth century in American letters.
You reach a point where you say "Ok. I'm one of the elders of the tribe now. It's our job, whether they want to hear it or not, to dispense what we know."
Do you think children did that to you?
Yeah, that definitely helped me cross the threshold. This was a really different book for me. It forced me to go deeper into myself. Not just in biographical detail but in asking yourself some of the biggest questions. When you can kind of break off whatever shackles your early life put on you, if you can kind of cast those off, you're more free to be an authentic person more of the time.
So at the end of the day everybody has their tombstone. What would yours say?
I would like it to say...I'll make it a pun...He left his Mark.
Read part one of the interview here.
Del Howison is a journalist, writer and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. He is also the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies “The Home of Horror” in Burbank, CA. He can be reached at Del@darkdel.com.