Writer-Producer-Novelist Mark Frost
I meet writer-producer-novelist Mark Frost (born in 1953), who wears braces on his teeth, at a deli in Bel Air on July 18, 2002.
Billionaire Steve Bing jogs up. He moves like an 18-year old jock. He wears shorts and a Taj Mahal T-shirt. He yells at a friend like a high school student and they slide into the deli.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys sits with his back to us.
Luke: "Tell me about your transition to writing novels."
Mark: "Everything is on a smaller scale. The money is less. Those are the conditions of working in publishing."
Luke: "Tell me about your upbringing."
Mark: "I grew up in New York. We moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid. My father [Warren Frost] was a stage manager of Philco Playhouse of Playhouse 90 [TV fame] when they were doing live shows weekly. That dried up by 1960. My father wanted to be an actor and he thought LA was the place for that. With three young kids, I was the oldest, he wasn't able to make a go of it.
"After seven years, he decided to get his Ph.D. in theater. He joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where I went to the university high school. It was a radical shift in reality after being brought up on both coasts. I worked as an intern at the Guthrie Theater. I wrote plays. Guthrie produced one of my plays (Between Looks) as a high school tour show.
"I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a playwright. For about 30 years, it was the preeminent theatrical conservatory along with Julliard. A vast network of alumni came into this business. When I was ready to leave after my Junior year, I met Steve Bochco, who'd graduated ten years before. It was 1974 and Steve was the story editor of McMillen and Wife.
"Steve introduced me around Universal and I had a job within three weeks. I wrote for The Six Million Dollar Man. My college gave me credit for working in Hollywood and I graduated while making a living. When that year was over, I wasn't ready to commit to working in television. So I went back to the Guthrie and worked there for three years as a literary associate and a playwright. While taking a vow of poverty for several years, I had plays done all over the mid West.
"I began making documentaries for the local PBS station. One got national exposure - a portrait of my friend Jim Beattie, a former heavyweight boxer. A big white guy, 6'8" and 240 pounds, he'd been recruited by a consortium out of New York. Sonny Liston was the champ then and he was a poster boy for bad behavior.
"To make a long sad story short, he realized that the guys paying the freight were Frank Costello and the mob. He tried to get out of his contract. They tried to kill him. They drugged his water bottle in a fight at Madison Square Garden. It ruined him. He was almost killed in the ring. His life fell apart. He moved back to Minnesota. He was cast as the Great White Hope in the movie The Great White Hope. He's the guy who beats up James Earl Jones.
"Jim pulled himself back together. He started a halfway house for young felons. He started boxing again. He eventually won the heavyweight championship of Minnesota.
"It was 1983. I came out to Los Angeles to write for the third season of Bochco's Hill Street Blues. I worked on the show for three years. That put me on the map. I was the youngest guy on the staff.
"Then I wrote and associate produced a movie with John Schlesinger, The Believers. I took the job because I wanted a master course in filmmaking. Schlesinger, a generous guy, took me on. I was involved from the first story meeting to the last preview. I did some second-unit directing. I sat in the editing room with him for four months. Then I met David Lynch. One of our mutual agents at CAA thought it would be interesting to put us together and see what happened.
"I wrote a script for a movie that David was going to produce, an adaptation of a book by Anthony Summers about Marilyn Monroe, Goddess, for United Artists (1988). The movie was never made but David and I hit it off.
"We both had an outsiders mentality. I had never embraced the industry as a way of life. I saw it as a way to make a living. I had many interests beyond film and television. David was the same way. We both had some wild ideas about how to shake things up.
"We had this opportunity to create a show for ABC, then the third place network. We demanded and received complete creative control. Twin Peaks came out of that. Twin Peaks was the not the product of a network clusterfu--. It was two guys going off, creating their own studio, owning their own show..."
Mark gets a chicken tostada. He drinks a coke. It's Tishu B'Av, a Jewish fast, so I can't eat or drink.
Mark: "David and I worked together for about five years. In 1992, I wrote and published my first novel, The List of 7, which had great success. That was a turn in the road for me though I've sporadically gone back to television. Buddy Faro [1998 TV show] was a fun show that had a disappointing experience with the network [canceled before it had a chance to establish an audience]. The landscape had changed drastically with the elimination of rules forbidding networks from owning their own shows to the detriment of the creativity of the product involved."
Luke: "What went wrong with Twin Peaks in the second season. The conventional wisdom is that it got too weird."
Mark: "David and I were getting pulled in different directions. Because of the success of the first season, we had numerous opportunities. It was a rocket ride. The network was not helpful. They changed its schedule to Saturday nights, a blow to the solar plexus of the audience. And in the middle of the season, the Gulf War started and we were preempted nine out of ten weeks. And the show depended on your ability to see it on a regular basis and stay up with its story lines.
"We honestly began the show with no thoughts of it turning into Falcon Crest [another nighttime soap opera]. We were trying to do the anti-Falcon Crest.
"By the end of the second season, we were gearing up. We wanted to put back on the body armor and ramp the thing up one more time. And if there had been a third season, it might've been good. Our interest had been rekindled."
Luke: "That must be a heady feeling to have the most talked-about TV show?"
Mark: "It was bizarre. For this industry, that's as good as it gets. And then the wheel turns and you have to move on."
Luke: "Did you make any deals while your stock was hot?"
Mark: "Perversely, I didn't. I went out and made a small independent movie [Storyville], and write a novel. I didn't want to capitalize on Twin Peaks fame because I'd already done everything I wanted to do in television.
"A weekly TV show has a crushing pace.
"I was most disappointed about the adaptation of my novel List of Seven. I was eager to make it as a film. It came within a hair breadth on two different occasions with Jim Cameron producing."
Luke: "How did you come to work for Aaron Spelling on 1998's Buddy Faro?"
Mark: "He was eager to broaden the profile of the kind of shows he was known for. At this time, the networks began to own their own shows because of the FCC ruling. That's the line of demarcation between the industry that was and the industry that is now. It's been a disaster creatively. It's created a monopolistic situation where there is no creative tension between producer and network anymore. The network calls all the shots and as a result the shows are increasingly watered down, copycat and timid. The appeal is to the lowest common denominator.
"Network television as we have known it for the last 40 years is over. The competition for the average viewers free time that is now offered by cable, DVD, internet, a 100 channels on satellite, is overwhelming. And the networks are still behaving as if they the cultural hegemony they had in the 1960s. I can't think of a single show now that I would go out of my way to watch."
Mark: "It is now blatantly what it has always been surreptitiously - an advertising medium. The programming is a viral cover for the real message - advertising."
Luke: "Who watches commercials now there's TIVO?"
Mark: "I don't. I taped the British Open this morning and I watched six hours in 90 minutes. Commercials go by like one of those sequences in Shop of Horrors."
Luke: "Did you understand what David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was all about?"
Mark: "It started as a conversation David and I were having about a sequel to Twin Peaks. We wanted to take the Audrey Horn character, played by Cheryl, to Hollywood. I proposed Mulholland Drive, which I lived on, as a title. He sold it as a pilot to ABC and then convinced the French that if he shot 45 more minutes, he could make something out of it. I haven't seen it. I heard it was a mess. I knew that the pilot was a mess.
"David's strength and weakness is that he is often able to transcend story because he's such a master creating mood. His failing is that he's not a strong storyteller. He doesn't have a lot of interest in telling a story. He's not as interested in character as fragments of personality. He's a surrealist."
Luke: "He's got a great eye for hot looking women."
Mark smiles: "That was always one of his strengths. The mistake that people make about David is that they assume he's an ironist [saying the opposite of what he means]. He's not. He's a sincere simple guy. He doesn't work things out. He's not that good in logic. When people spend a lot of energy trying to figure out exactly what he meant by Mulholland Drive, I can assure you that he didn't know.
"I exchanged emails with [critic] Roger Ebert at one point. He was conducting an online seminar about the meaning of Mulholland Drive. David works like a painter. He throws a canvas up there and you interpret it any way you want. He doesn't have a strong point of view. It's about sensation and feeling and arousing emotions."
Luke: "Are you married?"
Mark: "For eight years. My second marriage. The first was from 1984-90. My wife has a Ph.D. in Psychology and she's working on a book. It's important to find somebody who understands the creative process. She supports my switch to novels. For ten years, I hardly drew a breath that wasn't related to making a television show. I've learned to dial that back and I've become happier and healthier for it.
"I write every morning first thing. I'm usually at work from 8AM to noon. I take a break for lunch and then come back for an hour afterwards.
"I usually spend three months a year at my summer home in New York. It's where I grew up. It's where my family's from. It's seven acres on a lake in the middle of country. It's people I've known all my life. It's two hours from New York if you want the stimulation of the big city. It's completely different from the feeling you get from being in LA in a one-industry town.
"I write on a computer. I bought the first MacIntosh in 1984. I started working on screenplay programming before there was even one out.
"Books last longer than a television show. You feel like you're creating more of a legacy than writing episodic TV."
Luke: "You're not an angry bitter man."
Mark: "Right. I've largely lived my life apart from the business. I don't read the trades. My fortunes don't rise and fall with today's phone calls or how someone is feeling about me. I've made enough money to give me a cushion."
Luke: "Where do you think your creative impulse comes from?"
Mark: "Curiosity. It comes from a desire to understand reality and people. It began with an unsatisfied to know more deeply what was going on, not only out there but within me."
Luke: "Are you an only child?"
Mark: "I have a younger brother and sister. My family has supported my journey. My father, having been in the industry, understood the pressures and pain of it. I cast him in Twin Peaks and he then went on to have a wonderful late-life career. My brother Scott is a screenwriter. My sister Lindsay Frost [born 6/4/62] is a successful actress."
Luke: "Why does Hollywood not take religion seriously? For instance, in the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks is marooned on a desert island for four years. And he develops a relationship, not with God, but with a volleyball."
Mark: "If he doesn't have God in his background, it doesn't make sense. America is becoming a secular country. It was founded as a secular country with a specific division between church and state.
"There's been a growing dissatisfaction with religion as the place to get answers to the questions that trouble people. Faith has become less of a given. People are more questioning. In the 1960s, Time magazine declared that God was dead. In America, people think of religion as a private issue. It's a country suspicious of any attempt to proselytize.
"I'm supportive of religion in people's lives. I have big questions about how the Catholic Church has operated for a 1000 years. But the tenets of Judaism and pure Christianity, almost impossible to find now, are obviously great moral compasses for conducting a life. They don't make for great drama unless there's some kind of tension, like A Man For All Seasons, where you pit somebody's religious principles against the complicated world they're living in. It's hard to find stories where religion can play a central role.
"The people in this business are well educated if not over educated, affluent if not with too much money, and completely disconnected from the concerns of people who live in small towns. The shows reflect the people who make them. The lack of moral accountability in so many movies and TV shows is appalling.
"A lot of the people in this business are godless and corrupt. That's without dispute. And it's been that way for 80 years, going back to Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond. Creativity often creates unbalanced people. When you take an unstable personality and add fame and wealth and freedom of movement, you're going to get amorality. It's certainly not going to create moral rectitude. It's what Martin Amis called, 'the moronic inferno side of show business.' And it's unavoidable. It's part of human nature that weak personalities, given those temptations, will succumb to them."
Luke: "I'm sitting here watching [billionaire and movie writer and producer] Steve Bing in the parking lot. I'm thinking about the perpetual teenagehood of many men in this industry."
Mark: "The industry encourages childishness. It doesn't reward adult behavior. It responds to success."
Luke: "Steve Bing moves like an 18-year old. He's a 37-year old jock wearing T-shirts and shorts."
Mark: "The California culture is casual. Many of those guys from the surfer generation never grew up. They're still smoking dope and watching sunsets. The process of moving through life and recognizing the stages of life, and what each stage demands of you, does not prepare you for a long career in Hollywood. They prefer to keep you in adolescence because that's the consciousness they feed on. They want to get 16-year old kids seeing the movie three times. The industry tends to freeze and suspend maturity at a certain age."
Luke: "I've found in my 100 interviews with producers, that the event in their life that has changed them the most is parenthood. They want to make product that they can show to their kids. They become more socially responsible."
Mark: "One of the documentaries I worked on years ago was about the poet Robert Bly. He said about people stuck in that adolescent rut that they were in 'the moon palace.' They were still seeing the world by moonlight, which is dominated by magical thinking and adolescent desire. And he said that the only sure cure for getting somebody out of the moon palace was changing diapers because that grounds you in the reality of every day life."
Luke, his head swiveling: "They are so many beautiful women walking around here. I'm one of those perpetual adolescents we're talking about. I can fall in love in five seconds.
"What are your favorite parts of your producing role?"
Mark: "One was the excitement of gathering a troup of people together to work on something. It's like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint his fence. But it wasn't so that you could sit back and watch. It was so you all could pitch in and feel like you had a common hand in something worth doing. Two was the satisfaction of seeing something you've written come to life. Three was seeing how people reacted to what you've made."
Luke: "I've found out that some people became producers through the route of procuring bodies to satisfy the sexual urges of stars or directors or producers."
Mark: "It's a time-honored path to the top throughout history. Hollywood is like a medieval courtiers system. There are fiefdoms of power that are like principalities where money and power get concentrated. Those people behave like the Medicis, usually with the same lack of moral acuity. They are city-states. That's human nature."
Luke: "See the corruption inherent in the system.
"The people who go to synagogue to pray three times a day are not going to make movies."
Mark: "They are the pillars secretly holding up the world that the Satanists in the business are trying to tear down."
Luke: "I know from my own religious community, that if you were ever to do anything truly creative, your community would throw you out."
Mark: "That's the tradeoff. I think of myself first as a writer. It's a writer's job to illuminate the human condition, not to judge the human condition. And to illuminate the human condition, you have to straddle many different communities and worlds. A producer's job is to make money for everybody around him, primarily himself. So writers and producers are often at odds with each other. I became a producer purely as a defensive gesture, to protect my property. The writer in Hollywood might as well have a sign in his back that says, 'Kick me.' The industry, in its heart of hearts, doesn't trust or respect writers. It sees them as a necessary evil."
Luke: "Did you have women throwing themselves at you during the height of Twin Peaks?"
Mark: "Yes but they're the kind of women who don't value themselves, so what value can they bring to you?"
Luke: "How have you kept your moral compass on due north?"
Mark: "I have a strong family that is grounded in reality and morality. My mother is religious. She was raised Presbyterian and she still goes to Unitarian church. I did go to Sunday School as a kid. I grew up in a house where right and wrong were clearly delineated. My father grew up hating organized religion."
Luke: "I thought it was required to have at least one Jewish parent to enter this industry?"
Mark: "No. I'm the last of goyim. That will be the title for my autobiography."
Luke: "Judd Bernard gave me a title for my book on producers. Profiles in Discouragement."
Mark: "It's a good title."
Luke: "But you're not a good candidate."
Mark: "Because I've endeavored to build a life outside of this business. I saw my father's disappointment early on. I realized this was a terrible way to make a wonderful living. And if you became wholly invested in it as a lifestyle as well as a career, then discouragement and disappointment were bound to be daily companions."
Luke: "I've found as a writer that my best characters are bad guys. And you?"
Mark: "I've got a book coming out about a good guy."
From Hyperion's summary of Frost's new book, The Greatest Game Ever Played:
This thrilling narrative chronicles the birth of the modern game of golf, as told through the stories of once and future champions Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet.
Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon came from different worlds and different generations, but their passion for golf set them on parallel paths that would collide in the greatest match their sport had ever known. A young Massachusetts native, Francis was only three years removed from his youthful career as a lowly caddie. Harry was twice his age, the greatest British champion in history, and innovator of the modern grip and swing. Through exacting hard work, perseverance, and determination, Vardon had escaped a hopeless life of poverty; the unknown Ouimet dared to dream of following in his hero's footsteps. When the two men finally came together in their legendary battle at the 1913 U.S. Open, its heartstopping climax gave rise to the sport of golf as we know it today.
Weaving the stories of Ouimet and Vardon as his narrative, Mark Frost creates a uniquely involving, intimate epic; equal parts sports biography, sweeping social history, and emotional human drama. Including historical photographs, The Greatest Game Ever Played is sure to be a must-read for millions of sports and history fans, and all who have ever dared to reach for their dreams.
Mark: "This guy led such an exemplary life. He promised his father he'd try to become a businessman. Francis had an exemplary career and raised a wonderful family, and started a college fund for caddies that's now the largest endowment of its kind in the world. They give a million dollars a year. They've helped over 5000 kids go to college.
"He's a wonderful subject for a book because he's so good. Dickens was a genius at creating good characters and throwing them into an evil universe and seeing them get crushed and then rise back to the top. That was his own experience. That was the book he wrote over and over. Name the last movie written for the screen like that?"
Luke: "I can't."
Mark: "Part of the problem is that often good people don't have the kind of conflicts that make for interesting drama."
Luke: "Do you have any reaction to Mike Ovitz's burnout?"
Mark: "He used to represent me. He was a great agent. The tragedy, not many people would call it a tragedy, was that he didn't learn ever how to create the win-win situation. Mike had to win and the other guy had to lose. And whatever demons were driving him to make that kind of deal with himself in life, he's now paying the price. It's a classic morality tale. It's the kind of story that makes Hollywood feel good about itself. 'Oh, we've weeded out the bad guy.' It's not so simple. Everything he did in this business, he did with the complicity of many other people. What he did wasn't anymore rotten than what you find in other cut throat businesses at the highest levels.
"Mike had the hubris to believe that his success as a representative would transfer to other arenas, without having the education, grounding and experience to be successful in them. So naturally he failed. He only knew how to do one thing. He was a kind of idiot savant. The degree of self pity in that [Vanity Fair] article was startling and indicative of the huge disconnect inside of him between who he thought he was and the effect he was having on other people around him. He hurt a lot of people and he pissed a lot of people off and he refused to take responsibility for it. Eventually, the chickens came home to roost."
Mark Frost's New Book Gets Thumb Up From NY Times
David Owen writes 12/8/02: Frost -- who has written three novels and was a co-creator of the television series ''Twin Peaks'' -- tells this story at the perfect pace, and provides just enough biographical context to enable a reader to make sense of the characters and their significance. I have only two hesitations in recommending his book. The first is that Frost often seems capable of writing only in cliches: time stands still, sportswriters spill ink, self-assurance springs a leak and takes on water, and struggling players go down in flames despite their efforts to stop the bleeding and claw their way back. Occasionally, Frost's prose becomes so contorted that it nearly overwhelms the cliches: ''That his dreadful short putting scratched a ragged flaw across the face of such a paragon only increased their affection when they saw him deal with his Achilles' heel so gracefully.''
My second hesitation is that Frost has chosen to recreate dialogue and even mental activity for which there is no historical record. This isn't necessarily a terrible idea; burying his research in this way enables him to keep the narrative flowing, and he had plenty of solid sources from which to extrapolate. (The 1913 Open was extensively documented by its main participants and by several reliable reporters -- among them the great British golf writer Bernard Darwin, who marked Ouimet's scorecard during the playoff.) But because Frost doesn't explain where he's taken liberties and where he hasn't, a reader can never be sure how far to trust the cornball conversations he presents.