David Lynch loves women. They are at the center of nearly all his films—from Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive—and his groundbreaking TV series, Twin Peaks, which premiered in 1990 and is set to return on Showtime on May 21, with 18 new episodes, all directed by Lynch.

“Who killed Laura Palmer?” provided the motivating plotline for Twin Peaks, but the investigation into the mysterious disappearance of the beautiful high school student really served as an entrée into a dark and fascinating Lynchian reality. The world according to David Lynch is vaguely retro (his women often dress like 1950s starlets); consistently eerie (there is strangeness lurking around every corner); and oddly wholesome (coffee and pie are always present). He is the master of the juxtaposition of the creepy and the sweet, the sexual and the chaste. And at the heart of this tense, intriguing friction, you will always find Lynch’s women.

Interestingly, the director doesn’t seem to believe in auditions. Instead of hearing an actress read a part, he will simply review photographs of her and then decide whether or not he wants to meet her for a chat. “David will look at three or four, or maybe five, different pictures and say, ‘Okay, I’ll see those girls,’ ” recalled Naomi Watts, who was cast by Lynch for his 2001 neo-noir mystery, Mulholland Drive—the film that made her a star. “If you’re the third person on the list and he’s had a great meeting, he doesn’t meet girl number four or five. So my getting the part felt like fate.”

It’s often only after he casts an actress that he allows her to see the script. Sometimes, he merely describes the character she’ll be playing. “You usually have to read the script in the office,” said Laura Dern, who, having starred in four Lynch projects, including Wild at Heart (1990) and Inland Empire (2006), seems to have achieved muse status. “I’m always excited and surprised by what he asks me to play. Even in the beginning, I signed on because of David. He inspires that trust.”

Lynch’s heroines tend to have distinct, dual personalities (twin peaks, if you will): They are possessed of a prim, decorous side and an extreme sexuality that often attracts bizarre male suitors. “The sex in his films is emotional,” Watts said. “It is not gratuitous. You feel that he is getting at something primal.”

While directing the more intense scenes, Lynch can be uncommonly present. “Wild at Heart was such an intimate movie that he was usually sitting on the bed while we were doing our love scenes,” Dern recalled. “We would get the giggles, and he’d pinch our feet to get us to stop laughing. He was always right there. As we were rolling, he would be able to somehow whisper in my ear, and then go back and hide.”

Like a doting parent, Lynch gives his actresses nicknames: Watts is Buttercup; Patricia Arquette, who starred in Lost Highway (1997), is Solid Gold; and Dern has been Tidbit since she was 16, when Lynch cast her in Blue Velvet. Actresses Hailey Gates (who hosts the Viceland TV series States of Undress) and Chrysta Bell (who is also a musician) are both in the reboot of Twin Peaks, and have yet to be rechristened. Their roles—just like the show itself—remain shrouded in secrecy.

“I can’t tell you much,” Dern said. “But I can tell you that Naomi and I went to his house for coffee and he told us he was cooking something up.”

There is no question, however, that the new Twin Peaks will retain the surreal, dreamlike quality that made the original so addictive—something the artist Alex Prager tapped into in creating her homage to Lynch and his incredible coterie of women.

Related: The Tiniest Bit of New Twin Peaks Footage Was Released