What You Don’t Know About Catherine Coulson, the Log Lady
A conversation with the Magician from ‘Mulholland Drive’ about the Log Lady from ‘Twin Peaks.’
“The stars turn and a time presents itself.”
Few fictional characters are as memorable or as beloved—or have inspired such cult-like devotion—as Margaret Lanterman, better known as the Log Lady from David Lynch’s surreal mystery-crime drama series Twin Peaks. Over the course of two seasons in 1990 and 1991, viewers became enchanted with the Log Lady — so named for her constant companion, a sizeable bit of timber — and her cryptic mysticism, which seemed to encapsulate the deep, dark otherworld lurking beneath the quaint logging town of Twin Peaks, Washington.
With the documentary I Know Catherine, the Log Lady, director Richard Green (who Lynch fans might recognize as the Magician from Mulholland Drive) wants to tell the remarkable life story of Catherine Coulson: prolific film, stage, and television actress, passionate advocate for the arts and the environment, spiritual leader, and lifelong friend to Lynch, with whom she reprised the role of the Log Lady for Twin Peaks: The Return in the final weeks of her life.
Read on to learn more about Catherine Coulson’s life and work, her relationship with Lynch, and the indissoluble legacy of the Log Lady.
— Rebecca Hiscott
Kickstarter: You’re making a documentary about Catherine Coulson, a.k.a. the Log Lady. Why did you want to make a documentary about her, and why now?
Richard Green: When I heard that Catherine had passed away four days after shooting the Log Lady sequences for Twin Peaks: The Return and that there were non-disclosure agreements signed and nobody was allowed to talk about what had happened [during the filming], I thought, “There’s an interesting story here.” Then, when I started finding out how Catherine lived and how separated her lives were from each other, I became seriously fascinated.
First, there’s her life as a stage actress — that’s how I met Catherine, through her work in experimental theater in San Francisco, and then later through her 22 seasons performing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. There’s also her work behind the camera, which many people in Ashland have no idea about. Catherine forged her own way in a male-dominated field. There were no camera assistants or focus-pullers who were women in Hollywood at that time [when she started out as an assistant director on David Lynch’s Eraserhead].
Then she became a television icon with the character of Log Lady. And it wasn’t like she just did it 25 years ago and then 25 years later she came back and did it again. She went to Twin Peaks fan festivals every year. She engaged with fans all the time. You talk to fans and they say, “Catherine’s my friend.” She had this incredible presence.
She also had a spiritual life. She married a rabbi, converted [to Judaism] from Catholicism, and became the rebbetzin [a religious leader] in Oregon.
All of this was swirling around and I thought, “This is a movie that really needs to get made. I need to get this movie made.”
What were your first steps toward making this documentary?
I sat down with David Lynch for over an hour and he talked about Catherine so intimately — who she was, who they were to each other, how they worked, why Log Lady was so important, the origins of Log Lady, their spiritual side. It was one of the most delightful experiences of my career. The most delightful was working with him on Mulholland Drive.
Both David and Catherine practiced TM [transcendental meditation]. They went together to their first TM meetings. Catherine called David once a year, every year, to thank him for saving her life through TM. I’ll save [the rest of] that story for the film.
Once I had that interview with David, I said, “This woman is an unsung American hero.” This is what everybody — certainly every actor — strives for, to be able to have a career on the stage and a career on television and a life, a real life. And also to step behind the camera, produce a movie, work with some of the top producers in Hollywood. It was extraordinary.
David Lynch and Catherine Coulson had a long and very close friendship. What moments from your interview with Lynch most resonated with you?
Two-thirds of the way through our interview, I asked him, “David, did you ever see Catherine perform at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or in any other theater?” And he said, “Oh, no. I tried to avoid that as best I could.” I was shocked. He must have seen it in my face — I was like, what? He sat for a second, looked me in the eye, and he said, “Sometimes you create a character with an actor, and you never want to see them do anything else.”
Catherine never played another role, besides Log Lady, in all of the films that he ever did. She played the amputee in his first film [The Amputee], but once they did Log Lady he never cast her in anything else. And I understood, and was moved.
Towards the end of the interview, after we had talked a lot about Catherine’s last few days and his shooting with her and what that felt like, I said, “David, I’m not sensing a great deal of sadness or loss when you talk about Catherine. Do you not feel it?” And he said, “Well, she’s still here. I don’t think anything ever really disappears. She’s still around, just not physically.”
“Sometimes you create a character with an actor, and you never want to see them do anything else.”
What did you learn about the process of filming Twin Peaks: The Return, when Catherine was terminally ill? How did the character of the Log Lady change to adapt to her situation?
The notion that the show must go on is certainly a central premise in Catherine’s life. I was so fascinated by what it was like for David and Catherine to shoot the final sequences of Twin Peaks, knowing that Catherine was playing a character who was dying and Catherine was dying. There was a great deal of dissension among her doctors and some family members about whether she should [perform in Twin Peaks] at all. But her closest friends will tell you nobody had a choice. She was going to do this.
I have some wonderful interviews with four of her closest friends, who were there for two weeks prior to the shooting of this scene. They came up to help Catherine stay alive long enough to do this. David didn’t know [just how ill she was]. She was performing Guys and Dolls at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival up until a week or two before she died.
We shot the interviews on the two-year anniversary of her death, in her living room where the Twin Peaks scene was shot. I brought all of the crew back in. Later we came back with those four friends, had a meal at a kitchen table, opened a scrapbook, even opened the box that had the log in it. It was extraordinarily powerful and so emotional.
There are very few characters like the Log Lady, who are so beloved and have such a cult following. Yet it would be so easy for this character to seem one-dimensional or fall flat. What, to you, made this character, and Catherine’s portrayal of her, so lasting and iconic?
I believe there’s something fundamental within the nature of Catherine that gave rise to the Log Lady. It’s not just a character that David created and that she inhabited and it took off.
I watched all of the Log Lady introductions from the Bravo version of Twin Peaks. It was key for me in understanding how to approach this film. I believe that the entire philosophy of David Lynch is in those 26 Log Lady intros. Because it’s just him and her — him writing, her responding to it and bringing it to life. They’re funny and moving and poignant and insightful, and they suggest a larger view of reality than the one we all generally live with.
Catherine had a much longer and more influential career in film and theater than many people realize. But do you get the sense that playing the Log Lady had a special impact on her life?
I think so, absolutely. She did two seasons of Log Lady and she loved it. And it wasn’t just that she loved being a TV star. It was Log Lady she loved. It was this character that had this depth and this philosophy and secrets, things you can’t express.
You have some great rewards for backing the Kickstarter campaign. My personal favorite is the Answer Log [a custom-built Magic 8 Ball of sorts inside an actual log]. What are some of your favorites?
I love the Answer Log. I was absolutely convinced that David would never let us do this. But [campaign art and content strategist] Pieter Dom loved the idea, so I thought, “Well, let’s make one and see what it looks like, and then we’ll ask David.” David said, “You can do the Answer Log, but I want to approve the answers.”
There are 20 answers inside the Answer Log. We submitted 30 and David chose 17 and wrote three. We’re going to make a little contest out of it at some point to see if you can figure out which ones are David’s. We’re also going to do a Facebook Live video with the Magician from Mulholland Drive asking backers’ questions to the Answer Log.
Another reward I really like is the Editorial Consultant credit, which allows somebody to see an early cut of the film and give their input. I think that input is going to be really valuable for us, and I think it’s going to be a great experience for the people who take up this challenge as a reward. They’re going to see something take shape. You’ll get to see the film early and be part of the discussion about what’s working, why we made certain choices. You can sit in on two editing sessions — one early on [in the production process] and one later on — and give your opinion, and maybe see your opinion have an impact on the finished product.
The documentary ‘I Know Catherine, the Log Lady’ is live on Kickstarter until June 16, 2018 — help bring it to life.