Mark Frost is a hard man to get ahold of. I wanted to do a feature on the man, so I did what all enterprising journalists do to snag that big interview: I tweeted at him. No answer. He ignored me completely. But I needed the interview because I respect Frost; he co-created Twin Peaks with David Lynch and he wrote for one of our great police dramas, Hill Street Blues. He would be interesting to talk to. That night I went to bed dejected.
I awoke in a strange room with red curtains; I was sitting in an easy chair. There was a beautiful woman there, she looked familiar. A midget danced across the room before approaching me, and whispering into my ear “Check Wikpedia.”
I awoke again, in my own bed. It had only been a dream.
Wikpedia? I searched Mark Frost’s name, found his Wikpedia entry, perused the page, looking for a clue. Apparently he had a childhood, and most of his work was in genres, but nothing that would help me —
Bingo. I found just what I needed.
I tweeted him again: “Hi Mark, would love to do a profile on you for, do you think I could have an interview? Unrelated: we have the same birthday.”
One day later: “Yes. Sometime over the holidays would be good.”
And several days after that my phone rang, my ringtone “Dance of the Dream Man,” not set for the occasion, but my usual ringtone, because I’m a huge nerd. It had begun.
We spoke of recent memory, before delving into his past…
Portable: You worked on the Fantastic Four movies. What’s it like working with someone else’s characters and a pre-established story and adding your own story to that?
Mark Frost: The first movie was a lot fun because I’d collected Fantastic Four as a kid and had a lot of affections for, so they were stories I was very familiar with. The studio had tried to develop the thing for about ten years and it had fallen flat and gone in all sorts of different directions. I kind of steered them back to the original conceptions, the original ideas, the point. In a way it was like working with old friends, these were characters I’d known for 40 years. It was a little different than working with an adaptation that was brand new to me, with characters I didn’t know.
The second movie never really had much of a chance, it had kind of an ass-backwards development where they had named a release date but they didn’t have a movie to go out on that day. The second movie is a bit less effective than the first one, but that was a little different than a straight adaptation. These characters have been around for so long that they’re almost in our collective unconscious of pop culture, so it wasn’t that difficult.
P: Did you feel like you were adding your own voice to a modern myth? The collective unconscious made me think of Jung and Joseph Campbell.
Mark Frost: You’re trying to speak to those characters in the way they spoke to you, bring them up as the archetypes they were originally assigned to be.
P: So to fill the hole they filled back then, while considering the differences in culture?
Mark Frost: Right. I think our infatuation with superhero movies in the last 15 years speaks to that very thing, that interest in trying to form a mythology for a culture, particularly one as diverse and fast-moving as ours. It’s pretty difficult. As the 21st century came on us this set of characters from those books — characters many people first encountered as kids — have suddenly assumed this place of primacy in our collective storytelling. In some ways its a little alarming — they’re not the most mature characters you’ll come across, but at the same time they do address things collectively that are under the surface. These are issues that many people deal with like, identity, and anxiety and “what’s my ultimate role” and “is there such a thing as salvation?” All these things are in these books, these comic books.
P: Did comics and superhero stories help formulate your views of storytelling?
Mark Frost: I was a big Marvel character as a kid, I read a few DC books as well, but they were kinda like the Democrat and Republican party of comics: we didn’t have all the great indie labels that have sprung up since then. Marvel in the way was the upstart, DC had been around for a couple of decades before. I identify pretty strongly with the Marvel brand, and identify with their whole stable of characters.
P: You also wrote about our real life heros: tell me a little about your nonfiction sports writing.
Mark Frost: I had done a lot of work in documentaries, and I was really taken with nonfiction storytelling. It’s almost like fictional storytelling in reverse. In nonfiction you collect all your information first, then you create a narrative out of what you found, in fiction you invent the whole thing from scratch.
P: So what brought you to sportswriting specifically, with The Greatest Game Ever Played?
Mark Frost: I had an interest in a couple of sports that I thought had been underserved, specifically golf, and I ended up telling the story of golf in America through an 8 year trilogy that filled a void that no one had addressed for a while. There are some great stories on American themes and mythology in there, and I was lucky enough to be the first one to get into them.
P: So its about finding the story within the story, and determining the most interesting narrative?
Mark Frost: What’s true of any story, fiction to nonfiction, sport to superheroes, is that there is something in there that speaks to humanity’s collective yearning to be taken for a storytelling journey, so that you can experience what the character’s experience, and see how that reflects your own experience. It’s universal. It’s the center of storytelling as a form. As I’ve gotten older that’s the place I’m completely trying to work from. You’re appealing to people’s sense of mythology, which means their DNA is woven into it at some fundamental level. It has to do with the purpose that storytelling fills in all our lives: to deal with things going on with ourselves through the medium of stories about other people.
P: That theory of stories being built into our minds brings us back to Joseph Campbell.
Mark Frost: Campbell, in my way of thinking, is one of the great American sages. He unfortunately got this kind of Hollywood treatment in the 80s: a few wise guys who were working in the offices decided “Well I can distill Campbell to a couple of pages and use him in all our storytelling and make a bunch of money.” That does a disservice to Campbell,and even more of a disservice to storytelling.
P: Right, I mean what executive would turn down the idea of a story that humans are preternaturally destined to like. Do you think the commercialization comes from The Power of Myth and the whole George Lucas angle?
Mark Frost: Absolutely. When Lucas came forward and said he had patterned a lot of Star Wars on Campbell, that sort of got that in the open and everyone was all over Campbell, “Let’s turn him into Cliff’s Notes and make him easier for everyone to use!” And that kind of devalued what he had to offer. Campbell’s contribution to our way of thinking and being is way greater than that.
P: If you go further than The Power of Myth into his writings, you can plainly see that he had a lot going on, he was probably one of the great American philosophers of the 20th century but —
[Here I omit my personal speculation that Campbell may have been an anti-semite contrasted with Frost’s “maybe, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t.”]
Mark Frost: But with regard to Star Wars, have you ever seen Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress? It’s actually a much greater influence on the original story of Star Wars than Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s a bit hard to find: I believe Lucas may have bought it to keep it out of circulation because vast parts of the [Star Wars] story and characters are derived pretty directly from that movie. There was a Criterion print but I think it’s out of print.
P: No movie is hard to find anymore, but we’ll get to that later. I guess a good transition here is that if you’re thinking about stories that are compelling on a basic level but also introduce their own ideas, the first thing that comes to mind is Twin Peaks. How did you and David Lynch get involved?
Mark Frost: We were prompted to give it a try by our mutual agent. We’d known each other for about 4 years and written a couple of projects together, and we were good friends. It was sort of a lark, and because it wasn’t something we didn’t need to do, we put a lot of conditions on our participating that really limited anybody else having much to say about it creatively. If we’re gonna go through with this — I’d just come off Hill Street Blues for 3 years, which was kind of a Cadillac experience for a network — I said there’s no need for us to be treated like another show.
We were lucky enough to find a network that was kind of at the bottom at the time, ABC, and they agreed to everything. We had free run to do whatever we wanted. It’s really great when you have that freedom and you can come up with the things we were able to create. It’s impossible to imagine that in network TV today, even though it’s obviously in cable. At the time and place, that kind of creative latitude was very unique.
P: So most television storytelling today has too many fingers on the keyboard, you think?
Mark Frost: I saw a poster for a movie the other day: there were 17 different producers. They may have come in for different reasons, but that’s absurd. There can’t be that many creative voices and still end up with a useful or viable story. It’s just not gonna happen. You can get a decent product, but not a really powerful piece of storytelling.
Portable: You and David took this from step one ‘til the end, you had complete control over everything?
Mark Frost: Look, they leaned on us very heavily to solve the Laura mystery, and afterwards we regretted doing it so quickly. If the show had a problem it’s in the little interim between the end of the Laura story and the ramping up of the story that took us to the end of season 2. If we had to do differently we probably would. But the fact that people are talking about the show over 20 years after it aired says something about what we were able to do in that period.
P: I’m a great example: I was 3 when it came out and I just finished the series a few weeks ago. I actually watched it on Netflix, which didn’t exist when the show aired, obviously, and I watched it episode after episode, in a row, no weeklong break between shows. How do you feel about someone absorbing your story in a different way than it was intended?
Mark Frost: Well it might’ve actually cast more of a spell on you, no commercial interruptions, no waiting for the next one. In those situations you can kind of create your own marathon. I think that it probably has a greater hold on you if you can see more of it in a single sitting without waiting a week. Obviously at the time it created — that terrible TV phrase — water cooler moments. That was one dimension of the show that made it very fun for people, the social thing, viewing parties. It was one of the first shows people talked about in chat rooms and web forums, too.
P: And the internet discussion changes the medium, no? Do writers see this speculation?
Mark Frost: From my understanding the guys on Lost got ideas from people writing on forums. There is definitely a place for that in long form storytelling.
P: What are your major influences in storytelling?
Mark Frost: The easy answer is everything that ever happened to me before I did it.
P: Right, any piece of art is the cumulation of your prior experience.
Mark Frost: Right. But the experience on Hill Street taught me about multiple story arcs on a broad network scale thing. The Prisoner was very formative for me as a kid, it gave me the courage to go in different directions from a narrative standpoint. I was hooked on Dark Shadows as a kid.
P: Your remark on courage struck me. Does it take courage to make something truly different when so much money and career is on the line?
Mark Frost: That was our promise to each other when it started. We [David Lynch and I] knew where we were headed [with Twin Peaks] but nobody else did. So we had to have the courage of our convictions and “stay true to our school,” which is one of David’s favorite phrases, and never deviate from that. We never tried to make a show that’d last forever and make a pile of money, we did it because the work was compelling and fun.
A lot of — as I’m sure you can tell — storytelling now is very cynical and exploitative and its there for one purpose: to separate you from your time, money, or both. My belief in storytelling is that its something that should enrich you as a person and consumer of stories. If you really wanna be true to what’s best about storytelling as an artform then those are things that you need to pay attention to, not what the network thinks the third guy on the left’s hairstyle should be.
P: And that enrichment brings us back to Joseph Campbell again, the modern myth. Myths are meant to enrich, says Campbell.
Mark Frost: Thats what people have forgotten. They think this stuff is supposed to occupy your mind when you’re not doing anything else, when in fact the act of deeply engaging with good storytelling is a spiritual experience. It was done as a shamanistic exercise by tribal societies. For me Lincoln is a great example of this. That’s a spiritually enriching experience, or at least it was for me.
I’ve got a new book out called The Paladin Prophecy [currently being adapted for the screen;] it’s the first in a young adult trilogy. That shamanistic enrichment was very much my intention with that story. It was my first time addressing the young adult audience, and I wanted to try and give them something that speaks to this idea of storytelling as something that is spiritually nourishing, and gives you something to think about and feel, and means to identify with, and help you with whatever your own struggles are in life.
Every day you have to sit down with that as your intention, to be true to the tradition of storytelling that’s what you have to have in your mind when you write. And if you do it just for money, then that moves further down the list of priorities.
P: Do you think you can reach a balance between the popular appeal of a money grab and this type of enrichment? Something that reaches that balance is like any great myth through history, no? Popular and enriching?
Mark Frost: Well I think Twin Peaks is like that, you know? And sure, there’re plenty of examples, high culture or middle culture. There are dozens. The Sopranos, to me, embodies that, a show that spoke to deep seated issues about the penalties of living a materialistic life. Mythologically, that’s something that as a culture we really struggle with. Underneath the cool story about mobsters in Jersey, the transcendent appeal is to look and see, “What am I doing in my life that resonates with this, and what should I do with this?” It doesn’t tell you what to do, but it helps you ask the right questions of yourself.
P: In writing a story do you think its more important to ask questions than give answers?
Mark Frost: I think its most important to prompt your reader or viewer to ask those questions themselves!
P: Was it difficult to switch to storytelling for younger people? Did you have to leave themes you were used to working with?
Mark Frost: It does have some similarities to what we were working on in Twin Peaks, I do tend to get drawn back to a lot of the same themes. It was a real challenge writing for such a wide audience, for people ten up til… onward. I like challenges in storytelling. To try a different genre and audience was a lot of fun.
P: I personally always kind of didn’t give Young Adult novels a chance, but recently I’ve realized that was unfair, the genre was spoiled by some vampiric bad eggs.
Mark Frost: There are some cheap examples in the genre, but it’s a pretty vast genre.
P: I feel like Young Adult doesn’t mean anything, like how ‘independent film’ barely means anything today.
Mark Frost: It’s a publishing slogan. It’s so publishers can put labels on things.
P: Can we go back to Twin Peaks quickly? I imagine you get asked your favorite episode a lot, what’s your favorite single moment?
Mark Frost: One of the things the show did that was very rare in television at that time was the central idea of what was going on with the Laura story: domestic violence and a terible crime that was going on inside a family. We didn’t flinch away from that. And the violence on screen is the furthest thing from gratuitous but is actually quite horrifying when you actually experience it. And I felt that we were very true to something that meant a lot to a lot of people.
I didn’t have a sense of this at the time, but over the years people that have been through that kind of experience have come forward and told me how powerful of an experience it was to see this in a way that felt truthful to their experience of it and it was very liberating to see it come out of the darkness, and we talked about it. We were dealing with a tough subject and we wanted to focus on it and clarify it for our films, and sometimes when you reveal something monstrous, you can find a kind of grace for people that helps them cathartically deal with an experience like that.
P: Wow, having that effect on people must be great. What do you think is on television right now that accomplishes what Twin Peaks accomplishes?
Mark Frost: My favorite show at the moment is Boardwalk Empire. They take a lot of risks creatively. I’m also a big fan of historical fiction, and they’ve done something pretty extraordinary bringing that era back to life. I think as a creative enterprise from top to bottom that’s my favorite at the moment. I can only watch one show at a time, that’s all I’ve got space for in my mind. Curb Your Enthusiasm is maybe the funniest show I’ve ever seen.
P: Oh, my aunt is on that: Susie Essman, she plays Susie Greene.
Mark Frost: Oh fantastic, she’s great. She’s an amazing character. I just really hope they do another one, because I think thats transcendently funny.
P: I don’t think Susie even knows if they’re doing another one. But that’s how I watch TV too: I have one drama and one comedy that I follow at a time, usually.
Mark Frost: Yeah it’s a lot easier to have a greater access to material now, than during Twin Peaks and there are so many things I don’t have time to watch now.
P: It hasn’t been that much time — I mean it’s been my entire life, sure — but it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Mark Frost: I’m old enough to remember watching black and white TV with rabbit ears. The changes in my lifetime are all fantastic and I’m really grateful. I’ve certainly seen storytelling evolve over time in a radical way.
P: Thanks Mark.