October 8, 2015 ianblyth

Three Things Twin Peaks Taught Me About Work

On Oct. 3, 2014, surrealist, artist, and film and television director David Lynch published an inside reference via various social media channels that set a tiny fire in a select few, interested still more, and confused many others.

The announcement was a seemingly vague but not unexpected message from the 69-year-old director of surrealist, strange movies.

For those who haven’t seen the show, either during its two-season run in the 90’s or on Netflix, DVD, or other source, it is pretty meaningless.

But for those who know, it was something pretty significant. It was something a long time in coming.

To be clear, Lynch was making an inside reference to announce that after 25 years, Twin Peaks, one of television’s most fearless, groundbreaking, shows, was returning for more.

Twin Peaks was a murder-mystery that involved the killing of a high school homecoming queen in a small town in Washington state. The show created a die-hard fan base not dissimilar to the throngs of fans who follow Star Trek or Dr. Who. The difference is that, despite producing no new content in the Twin Peaks universe in over two decades, fans still discuss and debate the show in online forums and live events.

Even now, it’s hard to imagine how Twin Peaks and other shows that pushed the limits before it like All in the Family and MASH ever got on the air. TV is seemingly so filled with shows that follow procedural storylines and predictable patterns, it seems that’s the norm and what’s expected.

But all of these shows that have had such a huge impact on us culturally have done so in large part because the people behind them choose to take risks. They choose to be fearless in the pursuit of their art and not to dismiss ideas simply because they sounded out of bounds.

There’s a lot we can learn from this in how we approach creativity in our daily lives and especially in our work lives. We can learn to give ideas an honest attempt at living and then pushing the bounds of creativity past our comfort zones.

Lynch, and perhaps the network that hired him, got something so right with the show. Twin Peaks was a huge success in the early 90’s and one of the things that made it such a hit was Lynch’s unwavering dedication to his art.

Lynch’s style of storytelling is often described as surreal, which only scratches the surface of the director’s approach. He’s often seen as an artist first and filmmaker second, creating moving paintings made of actors, dialogue, and scenery. The scenes often make enough or as little sense realistically as needed – whatever will better serve the director’s vision better.

These active paintings can be tied together into something that resembles a plot that can be tied quite loosely together but still evoke some pretty powerful emotions nonetheless.

When ABC signed Lynch to an initial eight-episode deal in 1991, they did so with a clear understanding of all of this. They knew who Lynch was.

After all, he was the art-house filmmaker turned Hollywood icon that broke onto the scene in 1976 with the dystopian classic Eraserhead. Lynch’s first full-length feature gained an incredible cult following and counted Mel Brooks, director of Blazing Saddles, of all people as huge fan. Lynch was also the guy who tackled the tough material like The Elephant Man and walked away with eight Academy Award nominations for this efforts.

To be clear, Lynch was the guy who turned down George Lucas when offered the director’s seat for The Return of the Jedi, the final in the original Star Wars trilogy.

That’s right, Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi. Imagine for a second what the world would’ve been like if the guy who brought us Lost Highway had directed Episode Six.

Regardless, Lynch was also the man who wrote and directed Blue Velvet, a visceral, violent film that pulled back the drapes on small town America, with its beautiful houses with the white picket fences, to reveal a shocking, incredibly abusive world. Lynch found a twisted beauty in the things that happen behind closed doors, which ended up serving him well in the world of Twin Peaks.

But it wasn’t like the director had a grand plan for his television show. In fact, it started and was pitched mainly as an idea – one that won over a network.

Don’t Kill Ideas – That’s Where Great Things Come From

You might think that TV shows or movies get rolling after months of planning or from weeks spent hashing out a script in a dark room and for the most part, that’s pretty true. People work awful hard to get their dreams realized on the screen, whether big or small.

But it’s also true that on rare occasions, it comes from a single image so powerful and compelling, it literally conveys a million words.

That’s pretty much how Twin Peaks started.

Armed with an image – the now iconic body washing ashore wrapped in plastic — and a back-of-the-napkin, murder-in-a-small-town concept, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost held a 10-minute meeting with ABC and convinced the network to fund a script.

David Lynch, left, at the 1990’s Emmys. Attribution below.

Ten days later Lynch and Frost delivered the script and ABC ordered a two-hour pilot, industry speak for a test-episode, be filmed. And the rest is history.

Stop and think about that for a second, and not just that these two guys won over a network with a 10-minute meeting, which in itself is salesmanship on an expert level.

Think about how powerful the simple image and idea must have been to get Lynch and Frost to walk into a network executive’s office and pitch the idea.

Conversely, think about what a loss it would’ve been had either let the idea die without following through with it.

We so often generate ideas for projects, stories, campaigns and pieces of art that we either forget about because we’re so busy or dismiss outright because we feel they aren’t worth the time.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ideas are powerful – they’re the place where amazing things come from. Every journey starts with a single step and every project is borne of a single idea.

As artists, marketers, writers, and anyone who is creative in their jobs, which should be all of us, it’s important to learn how to embrace ideas fully and allow ourselves to realize them, no matter how absurd they may seem.

Sometimes ideas hit you like a tidal wave all at once and other times they are fleeting and need to be fostered, but more often than not, they start small, like a slow leak escaping from a tiny sliver in a dam. It’s our duty to chip away at the crack and see what pours out. When you see it before you, you’ll be amazed at the thing you’ve created.

Imagine the ideas you’ve killed because you’ve said the worst thing imaginable:

“That idea is stupid.” 

This is the worst kind of negativity – it kills the idea before it’s explored. Even if the idea gets worked out and is sketched, white boarded or brainstormed, you’re bound to at least come up with three or four more ideas from the original.

And sure, not every idea is going to result in a classic project. But following through with ideas and fleshing them out will give you practice in your craft and let you learn a few things about your process.

That flash across your mind – whether it’s a combination of words, trick of light and color, or a form wrapped in plastic floating down the river – could flourish into a pop culture phenomenon.

Be Fearless in Your Pursuit of Your Art

On Thursday, April 19, 1990, over 19 million households across the country tuned in to ABC to watch the third episode of Twin Peaks entitled “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”.

While the previous two episodes of the show offered up some of Lynch’s signature style, the ensuing 47-minute story included the brunt of it. The show culminated in a jarring, disturbing, surrealist dream sequence unlike anything that ever aired on television until then.

The dream sequence involved the show’s protagonist, FBI Agent Dale Cooper, a three-foot tall-man dressed in cardinal red suit known as the Man from Another Place, and Laura Palmer, the young girl whose murder was at the center of the show’s plot.

Both the Man from Another Place and Laura Palmer spoke in a halted, unnatural, unnerving manner. The “dream speak” effect was achieved by having the actors learn and then perform their lines in backwards, then recording the scenes, and playing them in reverse as well. The “backwards” scenes were then chained together with Cooper’s normal parts, creating an eerie, otherworldly that was not unlike the dream it was attempting to emulate.

This unorthodox recording technique, coupled with the absurd, seemingly ludicrous dialogue, and random imagery, created the strangest six minutes of television ever aired.

The move was an obvious risk. Turning a television drama into an art form in such a jarring manner was a bold move to say the least. But the boldness paid off handsomely.

Critics praised the episode as groundbreaking. Still today, it’s regarded as an inspiration for the way it gave shows like Lost and The Sopranos the permission to take risks with their audiences. And the show only got more popular with fans for the move. Members of its loyal fan base started huddling around water coolers following every episode in an attempt to piece together the fragments and dissect the show’s symbolism.

Even the Simpsons parodied the scene, which is a clear sign that it had made a significant impact on American culture.

There’s a lot we can take away from the move. Lynch was utterly fearless in the pursuit of his art and let nothing interfere with his vision. It obvious from the end product that he held nothing back from the experience and worked to realize it as fully as possible.

What if we approached every project the same way? What if we worked to be as creative as possible and approach each endeavor without fear of ridicule or failure?

How far could we go?

Having a Lynchian level of fearlessness in the pursuit of expression certainly doesn’t come easy. And of course we don’t all have the same level of leeway he had when he was behind the camera. Our projects on a day-to-day level and our audience are certainly not in the millions.

But we can all step outside our comfort zone when it comes to creativity and add some much needed color to our normally bland routine.

It’s much more simple to work to create something and hold back when you feel like your going out of bounds. It’s the easiest thing in the world to color within the lines with respect to work and forgo creativity in an effort to get the job done and move on.

The thing that holds us back more than anything is fear of the ways others will judge us. Lynch could’ve thought the same thing and ditched the idea.

But he didn’t. He worked to realize his dream – regardless of how irregular or outside the norm it was. And the result was a piece of television history that is still referenced for its beauty today.

Find Ways to Reward Yourself on a Daily Basis

There’s two sides to the show’s protagonist, FBI Agent Dale Cooper. On one hand, there’s by-the-book, strict lawman that handles tense situations and criminals with calculated measures and a stoic tone.

Then there’s the jubilant and animated Agent Cooper who finds delight in the simple charm of a small town like Twin Peaks. Though it’s a story and he’s playing it big for the camera, there’s something great about seeing someone who enjoys being alive as much as Cooper does.

He so intensely wrings every moment of joy out of the day’s minor pleasures like a warm cup of coffee or a piece of cherry pie that you can’t help but smile along with him. I think we can learn a lot from how someone works incredibly hard and still finds in life the ability to enjoy simple pleasures with immense satisfaction.

Every day, once a day, give yourself a present – Cooper

We all have unique skills. Even if we’re part of a team in a role-position, we probably have things we do that put our personal stamp on our daily tasks. It’s important to take a moment and appreciate the work you do.

Far too often we’re so dialed-in and goal-driven that we’re constantly moving at such a lightning pace. Deadlines come and go and we forget to celebrate our success as the next project’s kickoff meeting abuts the previous endeavor’s wrap-up.

We so often focus not on what we have but what we want and what we need to achieve. (Thanks Jeff Haden).

It’s true that being driven to succeed is an admirable trait but it’s equally true that having such a laser focus on success can make you lose sight of the important things – like your own self worth or the importance of friends and family.

Take a moment each day and reward yourself in someway. Reflect on the great things you’ve done and congratulate yourself. Get away from your desk for a few minutes and take a walk during lunch. Have a good conversation with a friend or call your mom and rehash a good story.

Whatever the activity, reward yourself by stopping and enjoying life.

Tweed’s Diner: https://flic.kr/p/ayjCWF
L
ynch in Tux: https://flic.kr/p/4b1os9
Red Room Decor: https://flic.kr/p/c4uf33
Damn Fine Coffee: http://katukoira.deviantart.com/art/A-damn-fine-cup-of-coffee-444509321