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Editor Duwayne Dunham on Collaborating with David Lynch on Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks: The Return

Five years after the Music Box Theatre’s previous David Lynch retrospective coincided with the television premiere of the highly anticipated Twin Peaks: The Return, the Chicago-based arthouse now presents David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective – The Return, a week-long celebration of Lynch’s work that also pays tribute to his many collaborators, friends and, in one particular instance, offspring. Running through April 14th, the retrospective also includes several in-person appearances, one being from Duwayne Dunham, Lynch’s editor on Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Return

An industry veteran who has continued to work extensively for both Lynch and George Lucas, Dunham was recently in Chicago to partake in a Q&A for Blue Velvet last Thursday. A few days before the screening, I phoned Dunham to discuss his initial impression of working with Lynch, how he was able to negotiate directing several episodes of Twin Peaks at the height of its popularity (Dunham’s directorial debut, seen by over 15 million viewers, aired 32 years ago today), and, after a “Laura Palmer-sized” 25-year gap, returning to work with Lynch on Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return. As you’ll read below, Dunham and Lynch share many things in common beyond each having a directorial effort currently available on Disney+.    

Filmmaker: I wanted to begin our conversation by asking about your initial encounter with David Lynch. I believe he called you one day out of the blue to gauge your interest in working on Blue Velvet, so you flew out to meet him in Los Angeles. At the time, you had been working for George Lucas quite a bit in the editorial departments on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which, ironically enough, was a film David Lynch had at one point been in talks to direct. Did you know David before then?

Dunham: I didn’t know David personally, but I knew of his work, of course. I was living up in the Bay Area, having attended the film program at San Francisco State University and then [getting work] on George Lucas’s films. The work pool in the Bay Area is very small, not like L.A. or New York where there are so many people. There are only a few bonafide film editors in the Bay Area, and David had specifically wanted to do post-production on Blue Velvet in Berkeley, California for two reasons: he didn’t want to be around the film studios in L.A. (he wanted to be away from all of that pressure), and David’s good friend, the excellent sound designer Alan Splet, lived in Berkeley. Alan was legally blind, so travel for him was difficult.

I was pretty fresh off Return of the Jedi and finishing up a picture for Orion, Phillip Borsos’s The Mean Season [starring] Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway. One day, David’s secretary called to connect me with him, and David  told me, “I’m doing this picture and I’d like you to cut it.” I responded, “Well, maybe you ought to meet me first.” I flew down to LA., where David’s office was, over at, I believe, Raleigh Studios, right by Paramount [Studios], and met with him very quickly. We shared a couple of “aw shucks” and “gee whizzes” in the meeting and it quickly became clear that we were speaking the same language. David gave me the script and said, “Read this and let me know what you think.” I went to the airport to take a flight back to Marin County and began reading the script on the plane. I remember having made arrangements to meet some friends to go see a movie [that night] and arrived early and sat in the parking lot as I finished reading the script. The screenplay was as impactful as the [finished] film turned out to be, all right there on the page. Once I finished reading, I didn’t want to talk to anyone else and I didn’t even go to the screening with my friends! I just turned around and drove home in silence.

Filmmaker: Had the film commenced principal photography by this point? Or was David trying to assemble his post-production team beforehand? 

Dunham: Beforehand. He was in Los Angeles and had received the greenlight to get to hiring his crew. He wanted me to travel to North Carolina to shoot at [producer] Dino De Laurentiis’s studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time, I had a few different employment options on the table and kept asking for more time [to make my decision]. I knew that in a week David would be leaving for Wilmington and needed an answer, as he wanted his editor to be [on location] with him. He called again and again, and I said, “I still don’t know.” He responded, “Look, I really need to know because I’m leaving soon.” I did a quick calculation in my mind of the different opportunities in front of me, of who I could learn the most from, and the answer was simple: it was David Lynch.

Filmmaker: What was that experience like? Were you parked in North Carolina for the duration of the Blue Velvet shoot? 

Dunham: Oh yeah, I was there for the length of shooting, and played a lot of tennis while I was there! As an editor, I don’t ever want to be on set. I don’t want to know what the geography of the set is or what problems the production may be facing. The reason for this is that I don’t want those things to influence me once I get into the cutting room. In the cutting room, you just have the images themselves, right? You’re looking at the film and the film is guiding you, it’s telling you what it is. 

I’ll give you an example. One day on Blue Velvet, David was directing a scene that I later ran for him in the editing room. It was one of the very few [edited] scenes he actually looked at while we were shooting. David said, “Wait, no, that guy just walked into the room [from over there], but he couldn’t have. There’s no door over there. The door is on the other side of the room.” I responded, “Well, David, I don’t know where that door is. Do you see a door in any of these frames here?” “No,” David admitted, “but on the set itself, the door is over there.” I responded, “I think the door can be wherever we say it is. You don’t see a door in any of the frames, so that’s [our decision to make]. We’ll just include the sound of a door.” “Well, why did you do that? “It just seemed like a long way for the guy to walk [laughs]. The internal timing of the scene was going well and I wanted the guy to be right there to deliver his line. I didn’t want there to be so much dead time as we wait for the guy to walk through the door.” Anyway, that’s what I’m trying to say, that the film itself will always tell you what it wants to be.

Filmmaker: I believe the first cut of Blue Velvet ran three hour and 57 minutes and Lynch needed to get it down to two hours to retain final cut. How long after production wrapped did you really get to work and attack it head on?

Dunham: It’s commonplace for the editor to be on location [during principal photography] if the budget permits. There are a lot of advantages to that, as the director can pop into the cutting room and you can run material for them and have conversations about different things. There’s a convenience to it. But typically for all directors, once they finish shooting a film, they’re completely wiped out. They’re like a racecar at the end of a race that’s been pushed to its limit and needs a recharge. After shooting, it’s typical for a director to take a week or two off to decompress before going into the cutting room. There’s not a lot that they can get their hands on in the cutting room [beforehand].  

After the shoot, I think David first went home to L.A. before coming up to the cutting room in Berkley. We were in post-production for about five months and, as this was my first go-round with Lynch, I did my best to cut every scene the best I could. When David arrived in Berkeley, we sat in the screening room at Fantasy Studios one night and ran my rough cut, the first assembly—and yes, it ran for three hours and 57 minutes—and we sat there in silence. There was only David, myself, and my assistant in the room, only a few people, and after the screening, David sat quietly for a minute before turning to me and saying, “You know what? I really like it. I like it a lot…I just have one problem.” At this point I’m thinking to myself, “He liked it? Phew, I still have a job, and now the pressure is off me. Whatever it is has to be an easy [fix].” David said, “the film has to be less than two hours in length for me to retain final cut.” I responded, “Oops, that means we’ll have to cut it in half.”

That began another editorial journey. How do you take something that’s almost four hours and get it down to two? There are always moments you know you can trim around, but how do you keep the essence of something four hours long and distill it down without losing anything? How can you cut it in half? We made a couple of big omissions straight off the bat, but as the weeks rolled on, I would give David daily reports on where we were [in running time]. We got within about two hours and eight minutes and the film just didn’t wouldn’t budge anymore. We took to removing a frame here, a frame there, etc., just to cut it down further. The issue became a matter of just eleven seconds! But just to be safe, I eventually got it down to, I believe, two frames less than exactly two hours in length in case the negative cutter made a mistake.

Filmmaker: Was Blue Velvet also your first time working with Mary Sweeney as an assistant editor?

Dunham: It was.

Filmmaker: After Blue Velvet, she would work for you again on Wild at Heart, then move further up the ladder [Sweeney would go on to edit the television cut of Blue Velvet, as well as becoming head editor on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire]. How did you and Mary meet?

Dunham: I think it was on that picture I mentioned earlier, The Mean Season, because we cut that film in the old Star Wars cutting rooms in San Rafael and Mary was an assistant music editor on the picture. Although we didn’t have much contact, she impressed me with how intelligent, charming and enthusiastic she was. When I was staying in North Carolina, I had my assistant editor [Jonathan Shaw] with me, because we had shot and edited The Mean Season in Miami, so I called to ask if he would drive up from Miami to North Carolina [for Blue Velvet]. When we were coming back [to California], I knew I would need a second assistant editor, so I contacted Mary and offered her the job. 

Filmmaker: You would then work with David again a few years later, receiving an Emmy nomination for editing the pilot of Twin Peaks. You went on to direct the first episode (that followed the pilot), which I believe was your directorial debut, then cut David’s next feature, Wild at Heart. Is my timeline of events accurate or were all of these projects happening simultaneously? Maybe it’s best to start with Twin Peaks.

Dunham: In the time between Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David was doing a lot of writing and even directed a few commercials in New York and Paris, which I cut for him. One night, David called me and said, “Hey, ABC’s going to give us”—I think it was three, four or five million dollars—“to make a movie [for television]. They’re never going to air it, but let’s just go have some fun.” I told him,”I’m ready, let’s go.” The script was a great script, and the only thing I told David was, “We’re going to need a catalog [index] of every character’s name, because there are a lot of characters here.”

Filmmaker: So at that point Twin Peaks was just expected to be a one night, standalone event? Or was it undecided?

Dunham: It was never mentioned in my company that it was going to be a series. However, we were making a pilot episode, in the sense that it was going to be for ABC Television and presumably they would figure out if they [wanted to move forward with more]. A very small percentage of pilots actually get made, and [even fewer] go to series. ABC was sending our early cuts to [focus groups] via Nielsen Media Research and they were awful. It was just unfortunate. People can be mean and stupid in the sense that…David has a unique point of view, yes, but he has a point of view, unlike most people, and you really have to reserve judgment [on his work] until the end. But the feedback was awful, and the same thing happened to us on Blue Velvet. It might have even been the same people! [Then head of ABC Entertainment] Bob Iger turned out to be a savior of sorts, though. He was a champion of the project and kept it alive. 

Very late in the shooting schedule (I believe it was a 23- or 24-day schedule and David may had even wrapped in 21), David told me, “We’re going to have to shoot a ‘closed ending.’” I asked him what that was and he explained that, with the whole premise of Twin Peaks revolving around “who killed Laura Palmer?,” ABC wasn’t sure how long that mystery could be sustained, and once you reveal the murderer, the series is over! However, in the event that ABC did not pick up Twin Peaks and did not order additional episodes [after the pilot], the company didn’t want to release a so-called “open-ended story.” [The pilot] ends with a kind of cliffhanger, with someone pulling the necklace out of the dirt in the forest. “Well, who’s that?” ABC [asked us]. Sometimes [television networks] don’t give viewers enough credit. Nonetheless, David came up with a really interesting, crazy “closed ending” but one that didn’t really wrap anything up either. [Once additional episodes of Twin Peaks were ordered by ABC, this longer, “closed ending” version of the pilot was shelved domestically and sold to international broadcasters, becoming known amongst fans as the European Cut.] 

As we were finishing up that closed ending in the cutting room, I asked David if he was planning on shooting another movie right away. He told me that he was actually planning to take some time off. With that confirmed, I told David that while I’d love to work with him [on whatever he does next], I was going to say yes to another job. Orion Pictures had called and offered me a job and I thought, “Great, I get to finish this extended pilot and in two or three weeks I’ll start my next gig.” Shortly thereafter, David walked into the cutting room with our friend, [the producer] Monty Montgomery. I knew that Monty had [optioned] a Barry Gifford novel called Wild at Heart and wanted to direct it. David informed me, “I’m going to direct a movie and want you to cut it for me.” I said, “What are you talking about? You told me this wasn’t going to happen.” “I changed my mind.” I looked at Monty and Monty shrugged his shoulders—thinking back, I’m sure that was his plan [for David Lynch to direct the project] all along. I asked, “David, do you have a script yet?,” to which he responded, “No, but that’s no problem.” I asked when he intended to begin shooting and he informed me that they were planning to start in five or six weeks! 

I told David that while I would’ve loved to work on the film, I couldn’t in good conscience trade one editing job for another after I’d already accepted another offer. It was all very unfortunate. That’s when David asked, “Well, what would it take to get you to cut Wild at Heart?” “I’ve always wanted to direct,” I told him honestly, “and that’s why I’m in the business. Someday I hope to get that opportunity, and I know everybody would understand that, if I had an opportunity to direct something, nothing would stand in the way of that.” David then said to me, “OK, good. We just got picked up for seven episodes. You can direct the first one and a couple more down the line.”  

Filmmaker: So you directed episode one [“Traces to Nowhere”] and then cut Wild at Heart?

Dunham: I finished up editing [the pilot of] Twin Peaks and we shut that editing room down. David then went to work writing, casting, and location scouting Wild at Heart while [my team] was building sets over in Van Nuys, California [at Occidental Studios, formerly known as City Studios] for the newly ordered episodes of Twin Peaks. David went off and started shooting Wild at Heart and I set up a cutting room in Hollywood to edit that feature. 

David began filming Wild at Heart in the summer of 1989 and I was cutting it as the sets for Twin Peaks were being built. I then took a time out from working on Wild at Heart to direct the first episode of Twin Peaks. It took seven days to shoot the episode and, on the seventh day, David also finished shooting Wild at Heart. We then wound up back in the cutting room together. Now we had two separate cutting rooms set up, one for Twin Peaks and one for Wild at Heart. The rooms were right next to each other and we were editing both projects simultaneously! 

David then took his own time out to go and direct episode two of Twin Peaks. Once he came back to the editing room with me, it was a very crazy time, in a good way. The first cut of Wild at Heart was over four hours, so we had to work on that while new episodes of Twin Peaks were moving forward. David was being tugged in a lot of different directions back then…

Filmmaker: Did having that close working relationship with him help calm your nerves as you took over the director’s chair for the first time?  

Dunham: Regardless of how many movies or series you’ve previously directed, when you begin a new project, you’re nervous. You feel that you’re not prepared and need more time—that’s the nature of the beast. Sure, I was nervous, because I was getting this opportunity and it was an important show [run by] David Lynch, Mark Frost, and ABC. I assume that I was allowed to direct the first episode due to—outside of David or Mark—my knowing these characters better than anyone else. I had helped shape those performances. Thinking back, it makes sense when you go and see the thematic nature of that first episode. It’s essentially  a reintroduction of each of these characters [from the pilot], reestablishing who they are and how they’ll fit into the story. 

Filmmaker: Then you returned to the Pacific Northwest for your feature directorial debut [Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey], which I believe was shot in Oregon? 

Dunham: Yes, that’s right. 

Filmmaker: That Disney film was my introduction to your work, with the filmography of David Lynch arriving on my radar years later [laughs]. 

After Wild at Heart and the original run of Twin Peaks concluded [Dunham would direct two additional episodes of the series in its second season], I believe it would be 25 years until you would work again with David, agreeing to edit all 18 hours of Twin Peaks: The Return for Showtime in 2017. By this point, both David and yourself had grown quite a bit as artists, so I was curious how The Return was brought to you. Was there any hesitation on your part?

Dunham: It’s important to note that David and I became very good friends through our working relationship after Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart and a few commercials, and very much stayed in contact. In the interim, I was doing my own thing and he was doing his own thing and made some really interesting movies. David had given me a screenplay many years ago (I think it was right after we finished Blue Velvet) called The Happy Worker, based on a stage play by S.E. Feinberg. I then started trying to develop it into a film [that I would direct] and was in contact with David every now and again. It became a long, 30-year process trying to get that movie made. 

One day David and I were talking about The Happy Worker (I had gotten commitments from some actors [to be in the film]) and David brought up Twin Peaks: The Return, which was something he intended to write, direct and edit himself. As it was going to be a huge undertaking, David asked if I would be interested in cutting it. Once again it was one of those, “well, when are you planning to start and how long will it be?” conversations. David answered, “We’re contracted for nine hours.” He didn’t call them “episodes,” just that he was contracted for nine hours. It was to be one big, giant movie! I laughed and said, “Your nine hours are going to turn into ten or eleven or twelve,” and David chimed in: “or thirteen or fourteen.” That’s just how he works [laughs]. I thought it’d be wonderful to work on The Return, so I agreed to do it. David then asked what my plans were for The Happy Worker and I told him, “If it’s already taken this long, we’ll just put it on the shelf for a little while longer.”

Twin Peaks: The Return was done on what I’d call a small scale. A studio would’ve had a whole team of editors and army of assistants working on that production, but for a really long while, it was just me and my assistant, Mathias Hilger. When David started shooting The Return, I began cutting it, and very quickly we had six hours of film on the shelf and were nowhere near even halfway done with the shoot. David had begun shooting in September of 2015 and had to deliver the locked “movie”/episodes by the following September. Somewhere around just after Christmas [of 2015], we had a heart-to-heart and agreed that the series wasn’t going to turn out being just [nine hours]. We just didn’t see it happening. The thing kept growing. We got to a point where we had to take a look at the hard schedule and I asked, “David, is that [delivery] date locked in stone?” to which he responded, “It’s carved in granite. There’s no getting around it.” That’s when I recommended that we add some folks to our team, [because] David finished shooting The Return in mid-April and we had to turn the locked cut over to Showtime by September 1st. 

After filming wrapped, David took a week off so that he could recover from the admittedly very grueling shoot. When he came back, I had nineteen hours of film cut and ready to go. There was no way I could have taken the time to screen with him [during the shoot], so I had to keep editing so that I would always be ahead of him. I figured he’d watch, at most, maybe two or three hours a day, meaning it would take at least a week for him to view the entire thing. I was cutting away and David would go into the screening room, then come out and talk to me for a little bit and ask, “do you have another one?” “Yep,” I’d respond, handing over more edited footage, “Here you go,” and that routine went on for about a week. Now it’s around May 1st and we’re all working with David on everything: visual effects, sound effects, ADR, music. We had just four months to lock nine two-hour movies.

Filmmaker: Was Showtime okay with you delivering an extended length of eighteen hours?  Or was that approved somewhere along the line during production?

Dunham: I don’t know, as I wasn’t privy to any of those conversations, how they worked that out. I assume the production got compensated for the additional hours in some way and that they were happy to have the extra [work] as long as the finished version held up. It was never an issue of us worrying about having to cut it down or cut it in half. We were going to utilize all of the material we had shot and that’s exactly what we did.

Filmmaker: And while Twin Peaks: The Return was created for television exhibition, it would go on to screen in some theaters on some special occasions and be considered one giant movie to some critics. What’s it like revisiting some of these projects on the rare occasion they’re put (back) on the big screen? Do you take the opportunity to ever go back and see these works in a theater, years removed from when they premiered?

Dunham: It’s a vastly different experience watching something on a big screen with an audience, of course, but watching something in the privacy of your own home (where hopefully you’ve got a great monitor and sound system) is also a much different, specific experience. You just can’t replicate the theatrical experience in the privacy of your own home. 

I typically don’t watch movies that I’ve worked on after [I’ve worked on them]. I lived Blue Velvet for over one year—I basically watched it in various pieces for a year straight. I think this is true of most people, but years later when you try to watch something that you’ve worked on, it’s hard to put on a hat of objectivity. Your brain can’t help it! It’s full of stories and ideas and anecdotes and memories. The experience is a bit like listening to music, where something will somehow trigger a memory of where you were when you first heard it. Film is the same way for me, where revisiting something will trigger those memories. I mean, I haven’t seen Blue Velvet in years…

Filmmaker: So on Thursday night when you attend the 35mm screening of Blue Velvet at the Music Box for a Q&A, will you arrive early to rewatch the film or will you skip it?

Dunham: No no, I’ll be there to see the movie, and if anybody wants to ask me any questions about it, they can. I would have preferred to be present at the Wild at Heart screening though, only because I think there are more interesting stories to tell that go along with the making of that film. It wasn’t easy.

Filmmaker: But they’re great stories at least, and I’m appreciative of you sharing some of those with me. Like I said earlier, some of your directorial work reached my eyes when I was very young, and it’s been fun researching those projects and seeing who else you had on your team behind the camera. For instance, I never realized that your second feature, Little Giants, was shot by [Academy Award-winning cinematographer] Janusz Kamiński.

Dunham: Oh yes. Janusz had just finished shooting Stephen Sommers’s film, The Adventures of Huck Finn, for Disney, and, as I was doing a lot of work with Disney in those days, I contacted Janusz soon after. I loved the look he had created for that film, so we met one day and hit it off. However, as Little Giants was about to go into about a year’s worth of rewrites, Janusz went off and shot Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List. By the time we were ready to shoot Little Giants, Janusz had returned, having just won the Academy Award [for Best Cinematography] for Schindler’s List.

Filmmaker: And now he just wrapped Spielberg’s new film, The Fabelmans, which features a supporting role played by…David Lynch. It all comes full circle, doesn’t it?

Dunham: It’s a very small community and the Bay Area is even smaller! The film business really is a small, small community of people.

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