Prior to becoming an Executive Producer on the second series of Twin Peaks, Sabrina S. Sutherland had already collaborated with auteur filmmaker David Lynch on an array of projects, including commercials, shorts, features and numerous other works ultimately left unrealised.
Having worked closely with Lynch over a period now spanning some thirty years, she has acted as a main driving force across his oeuvre, often as the pragmatist essential in ensuring the auteur’s vision was successful in the transition to screen.
Catching up with Samuel Elliott in the lead-up to touring Australia and New Zealand as part of the Twin Peaks: Conversations With The Stars event, Sutherland discussed working on such an inimitable show and what it’s like collaborating with such a staggeringly prolific filmmaker as David Lynch.
Can you give us a little bit of history as to how you became an EP for Twin Peaks?
We did work on commercials together for a number of years. I just knew how he liked to work and I think we became more comfortable with each other and the way we worked, as time wore on. It just became a creative alignment of working together and understanding what each needed.
Then I worked briefly on the original season of Twin Peaks, as a production coordinator on the Pilot. But beyond my minor involvement with that first season, I was watching it and loving it. When the second season came around, I was lucky enough to get the job. I started working closely with Deepak Nayar, who became one of David’s main producers, but I also continued working on commercials and other films with David. Not feature films, but videos, because David did, and does, like to do different things.
Then, in around 2008, I was asked by David to come and work with him full-time with his company [Asymmetrical Productions], so I was there doing a myriad of things, including starting on a film that ultimately didn’t get off the ground, but then the new season of Twin Peaks happened.
When you started your EP work on Twin Peaks, had you any notion that it would amass such a perpetual cult-following? What, in your opinion, has made the show so enduringly popular?
Well, I think it was ground-breaking at the time and I still think it is. The series has totally withstood the test of time. That’s why I liked the show, that’s what drew me to it and made me want to work on it. Watching the first season, I was so hooked, I found it so innovative, it caught me and wouldn’t let me go. There’s just something about the series that made it stand out. It wasn’t like anything else on television at the time. I think that might translate to other fans, that’s certainly what hooked me. It has been the fans, that huge, constantly-growing fanbase that has kept it going all these years, that has enabled us to do the new season, this second come-around. Without their support, I really don’t think that could’ve happened.
You haven’t just worked on Twin Peaks with David. Have the other projects you’ve collaborated on been a different experience?
Well, working with David is an experience in and of itself. [Laughs]
He has a vision and my job has always been to make that vision come alive and I loved to try and do that. That’s my mission in life, to make his vision become reality. Even with the Duran Duran documentary [Duran Duran: Unplugged] we made together, he had a very specific idea of what he wanted. I am the bad policeman and sometimes I have had to enforce certain constraints. I’ll say when we don’t have the budget for this or have to come up with ideas to fix that.
I’m the bad cop who has to say: ‘We will have to create something different.’ That all falls on me. I think with all the other things I’ve worked with David on outside of Twin Peaks, they’ve been small enough and we’ve been able to manoeuvre around and do a lot of different creative things, compromising when we had to.
With Twin Peaks, it had its own set of rules. And it is massive and it has its own constraints, budget-wise, and time-wise, and we had to basically make nine feature films in the period of time that you would normally make one.
Touching on from that, it sounds like you were more of the person in charge of determining how to make it all work, as to how best to create, or realise, David’s vision – is that fair to say?
Yeah, absolutely. But, I guess I might be a bad producer. [Laughs]. Just in terms of what you think of a producer’s role is. I want what the director wants, what David specifically wants. I’m not there just to protect the interests of the investors. It’s always a bit of a tightrope, because I have to work in not only making Showtime [production company] happy, but my goal is to also make David happy, so I have to make both parties happy and that can be difficult, sometimes it can seem even impossible.
But usually a producer will just be on the money-side, doing whatever needs to be done to curtail the director and I don’t, and have never worked like that.
How do you feel that you’ve changed within your role and your approach to your role? Do you think that you’ve become bolder in your decisions, or more reserved? Have you changed at all?
I suppose I have. Just because of the confidence David has given me and the respect he has shown me. He trusts me and that has helped me make decisions and not question or second-guess them, or worry so much about how that’s going to affect him. It does, but I feel like I can come to him and say ‘Look, David, I don’t think this is going to work’. Whereas, maybe back in the beginning of our working together, I really tried to do everything to make it happen for him. I think now I still try and do that, but if it isn’t possible, I’m not as afraid to tell him that it won’t work out.
Because I know that there’s a way in which he’ll come up with something, some work around, or I’ll come up with something or somebody else will come up with a way to do it the way he wants.
Nothing’s been impossible so far.
What is working with David like? What’s your experience been like?
I absolutely love working with David. He’s spoiled me throughout all our projects together and I think a lot of people feel that way. With Twin Peaks for example, a lot of the crew were people that we’ve worked with over the years. If you work with David, you really want to work with him again and I think that really says a lot about the man.
To me, he’s not only pleasant to work with, but he knows what he wants. Which, you’d think would be natural, sort of a prerequisite, but I’ve worked with plenty of directors who really don’t know. David knows what he wants and asks for things in a way that’s not yelling, or debasing in any way, he respects everybody, he makes you feel like you’re worth something and that you’re appreciated.
I think that’s true with the actors he works with and the crew and for me.
You mentioned that the shooting of Twin Peaks was like the equivalent of trying to make nine films in the schedule of one. So, can you give a bit of an overview of how that worked?
Usually on a TV series, you’re kind of prepping a show, shooting a show and then editing a show, all at the same time. Whereas with Twin Peaks, we did treat it like a feature film. So, we had a few months of prep ahead of time, for the entire show, we then shot, straight through, all in all there was something like 142 days of shooting. We edited everything and then once it was edited, it was mixed and then during this time we did the visual effects and then, once everything was done we did the final colour grading. After that, and only then, we could start dividing them up into what would become each episode.
Each process was done and completed before we started delivering, which is, very unusual.
Still sounds like a mammoth amount of work to get through and a nightmare for the organisational aspect. [Laughs] Yeah, it was pretty tough. It was very tight. We did not know how many episodes there was going to be. We didn’t know there was going to be 18 hours’ worth, we just knew that there were going to be more than 9. We weren’t sure though, during the shooting and early stages of post, we just had a schedule in place that we could alter if we had more and then allowed it all to take its own course.
You mentioned the balance, or duality of your role, where you were half looking after David’s interests and half looking after the financier’s. Did that involve you going back and forth from on-set to Showtime’s HQ and showing them rushes etc?
Showtime was great, once we got over the hurdles early on, where there was kind of a little hiccup with the vision of the project. They saw it as a conventional TV show, whereas we saw it as a movie.
As soon as we got over that though, they were very generous and just left us alone and let David do what he needed to do and me what I needed to do. They were hands off enough to just trust us to bring the show to them at the end. I didn’t have to constantly get approval for things, we were autonomous, and just did it on our own.
Do you feel that Twin Peaks has defined your career?
At this point, that is definitely the biggest thing I have ever done and I’m very proud of it and that we were able to do it and that ultimately it was so successful. Whether or not people acknowledge it, it doesn’t matter, I knew that we did the best that we could do and that the final version achieved what I set out to do, which was to get David’s thoughts, his vision, on the screen. That was a huge accomplishment, in my book, for me. Everybody, the entire crew worked so hard to make this happen and I’m very proud of it.
If you could impart some advice to a young Sabrina, prior to her undertaking EP duties for Twin Peaks, what would it be?
I suppose something like: ‘You can work out any problem, there is a solution out there – you can do it!’
Do you think streaming sites like Netflix have been instrumental in bringing forth a new wave of decidedly weird shows like Twin Peaks?
I do, I think pay TV and the different platforms, the different streaming services are absolutely essential in the survival or movies, they have been so important for new shows like Twin Peaks.
Right now, in theatres, independent film isn’t really out there, you can’t really make money or get funding, no one wants to help you for theatrical releases. They either have to be blockbuster movies with super huge budgets, or films with no budget at all. Anything in the middle of that, has gone. Independent movies in theatres has sort of gone.
David has always said, and it’s true, that arthouses are gone and TV and streaming services are the new arthouses. They allow the director, the filmmaker, to be creative, they allow them to make what they like to make.
I just saw a speaker talk about the show Godless, it was a feature film that they couldn’t get the money for as a feature, so they went to Netflix and were able to sell it as a series. So, I do think streaming sites are giving filmmakers these sorts of opportunities to be creative and innovative, by giving them the ability to get their works out there.
If there was any filmmaker, living or dead, that you could work with, who would it be or why? Or is there any particular show that you would’ve loved to have worked on?
Well, I am working with the filmmaker of my dreams. [Laughs]. There isn’t anybody other than David Lynch that I would want to work with. That’s the truth. As far as potential shows go, I don’t speculate on that because I think that, had I worked on those, they might not be the same show that I found so amazing.
And, television is great, but I love film. I love going into a theatre and it breaks my heart that movies aren’t being made as much anymore. I wish there was a way to reverse what is happening, but I don’t think it’s possible.
Lastly, with food being such an important and recurring element throughout Twin Peaks and Lynch’s other works, I just wanted to know if you yourself loved coffee and donuts as much as he obviously does? [Laughs] That’s a great question.
I actually do not drink coffee. I’m a tea drinker. But David Lynch is a huge coffee drinker, he has his own coffee even and I have learned the technique of making all kinds of coffee, but I personally do not drink coffee. A very long time ago I did. But it’s not my thing. I’m really into my herbal teas. I’ll leave the coffee to David – he can drink enough for both of us.
Sabrina S. Sutherland will be appearing, alongside several cast members of Twin Peaks at the upcoming Twin Peaks: Conversations With The Stars show, touring throughout Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more information and buy tickets by clicking here.
Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based reviewer and writer. For more of his upcoming work, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, like the page.