TJ Williams – Steadicam Operator

Interview with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Steadicam Operator TJ Williams
Conducted February 15th, 2008
Copyright ©2008

Dugpa: How did you get involved with the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?

TJ Williams: I’m a Steadicam operator in, Seattle and when they came up here to shoot the film, they were looking to hire a local Steadicam operator and they hired me.

Dugpa: What were some of the challenges of working on this film?

TJ Williams: Well, it was certainly different than other films that I had worked on. David Lynch is a very unusual kind of person, and he doesn’t seem to me, to approach, filmmaking like other directors do. Most directors are very linear, things are usually planned out. Sometimes they are even storyboarded, and most directors, can just take it from this scene to that scene bingo bango!!.With David Lynch, it is in more like a process of discovery. So we shot an awful lot of things that did not show up in the movie.

Dugpa: What do you remember of some of those scenes that you shot?

TJ Williams: It was a long time ago, but there was a sequence between two of the characters where they get into a duel of strength and bend metal bars competitively. No part of that went into the film.

Then there was another thing that we got involved with when we were in the trailer park set and he wanted shots of moving around tangles of telephone wires. I was recently working in Bangladesh where the electric and phone wires are completely crazy and they never take old wires down. They keep adding on. So it’s like a spider web of wires running down the street and sometimes the wires were hanging down so low that a pedestrian could reach out and touch them. I saw that and it reminded me of working on Twin Peaks. I think David would have liked those wires! We went all around the trailer park, looking at telephone pole wires with the Steadicam. We worked with longer lenses, walking around under the telephone poles and shooting shots of various wires. Maybe one of those shots got in but I don’t think that most of that had gotten in either…

Dugpa: What was your take on these shots?

TJ Williams: It seems to me, David Lynch has this internal vision of his own and isn’t the type of person that is explaining things to people or for that matter asking people what they think he should do. I thought he was interesting and fun to work for.

Dugpa: Did you ever work from any sketches or storyboards?

TJ Williams: No. I never saw much evidence of that kind of planning. His method involved shooting an amazing amount of film. I feel the intention was always to build the movie in post. It was a different kind of way of approaching the thing than the conventional way, it was more a voyage of discovery, sometimes almost documentary like. The production shot an awful lot of film and a lot of things that I believe never showed up in the film. In fact, when they went back to LA, I heard that they did some re-shooting to make the story hang together. In fact, I never did feel that anyone knew how the film was actually going to end.

Dugpa: Were there ever any issues with getting any of the shots?

TJ Williams: Mostly the Steadicam was used to track actors from one section of dialog to another, they we’d shoot coverage. So technically the show was not very demanding. I do remember one day, we were tracking a bunch of people from one trailer to another. At the end of the scene, they all have a scene inside the second trailer. The Steadicam move was between these two trailers and tracked across the street leading the group, and then the Steadi. hinges back away to the side as they pass me, so they don’t pass me that close like they do on a dolly. And I come back in and follow them to the gate where they walk through the gate and a picket fence and up onto the porch of this other trailer, as I follow them through the gate, then everyone else goes inside except the trailer park manager who stands outside on the porch and smokes a cigarette. I dolly in and reframe tighter as they all leave. The transmitter wasn’t working so well and they were getting breakup, to David’s hand held, wireless tap monitor. After the first take, David turns to me and asks if I felt that I had got it. And I said I thought it was real nice except that at the end of it, I came up on the picket fence which was an actual object and was not a set piece or a break away or anything. There was no way for me to go through the picket fence except through the gate. I said when I do that, they all stack up from behind. So David says oh… and he humms…. for a second, says let me see now…and kinda just stood there looking bemused and rubbing his chin. Finally the DP walked over to the sidewalk, where the actors were standing, and started directing the actors to start staggering themselves, left and right as they walked up the sidewalk, which is a pretty standard way to deal with that. David then puts up his hand and he says No! No. He hummed and hummed as we sat there awkwardly, and then he came over to me and almost whispered into my ear. And he said “What I want is for you is to hinge around like you did before.” He pauses moves right up against my ear “Then sort of hang back… and then very slowly… very mysteriously… dolly in…. and reveal their little secrets.”


TJ Williams: Really, I have to admit, I was bright on both cheeks. Because it was funny and odd, and I didn’t have the vaguest idea what that direction meant. I mean, what could you say? You can’t exactly turn back to the man and say I don’t know what the hell you are talking about. So I said to myself, OK, this means hold back, go in later, and go in real slow. So I do the move again, and they go through the picket fence, and they weren’t cut off at the side of the gate so it looked really good and then I went * slowly * as I possibly could, back towards the gate and up through the walk, and by the time I got through the gate and up to the walk, everybody had gathered on the porch and so that was still a nice frame, and then as we moved slowly, slowly forward, everyone moved into the trailer and I ended up on the man smoking a cigarette. And the shot to my mind worked very very well. And I thought, this actually was what he was directing, and David was very pleased with it. It was the strangest direction that I had ever received as a camera operator.

Thanks TJ for the great interview!