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Cinefantastique: David Duchovny on "The Unnatural" and "Hollywood A.D."

David Duchovny on “The Unnatural” and “Hollywood A.D.”
Paula Vitaris

“Written and directed by David Duchovny.” These were the credits for two eagerly anticipated episodes — sixth seaon’s “The Unnatural” and seventh season’s “Hollywood A.D.” — of the popular Fox television series The X-Files. As the show’s wry, deadpan FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, Duchovny had already made a permanent impression not only on the show’s fans, but on popular culture itself, with Mulder and his partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) referenced constantly throughout the ’90s in magazines, newspapers, books, the internet and even other television shows. But Duchovny, whose father is a writer, had always had writing ambitions himself, and wanted to do more than play Agent Mulder; he wanted to participate in the show as a storyteller. With the broadcast of “The Unnatural” and “Hollywood A.D.,” Duchovny revealed himself to be also a writer and director of great promise. “The Unnatural,” a warm, gently humorous and ultimately moving story about baseball and aliens, clearly was the outstanding episode of the sixth season. In “Hollywood A.D.”, Duchovny turned a Hollywood producer loose on a tantalizing mystery investigated by Mulder and Scully, and the resulting “movie” is one of the funniest spoofs yet of the show. Although “The Unnatural” and “Hollywood A.D.” seem like completely different stories, they both share a fascination for exploring characters who live passionate lives, whether they’re playing great baseball or making grade-B movies.

David Duchovny grew up in New York City, the son of playwright and novelist Avram Ducovny and teacher Margaret Ducovny. His father’s work exposed Duchovny to the worlds of theater and literature, leading him to define himself as a budding writer. He envisioned a life spent writing either full-time, or even part-time while working at another profession. In high school he took creative writing classes in poetry and he wrote throughout college, although his formal studies were primarily in literary analysis (Duchovny has a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton and is A.B.D. — All But Dissertation — from Yale). He wrote a novel which he still keeps in a drawer. While at Yale, he began pursuing more seriously his ambitions to become a playwright and began spending time with students and faculty at the university’s famed drama school. He adapted Charles Bukowski’s short story “The Copulating Mermaid of Venice Beach,” for an off-off-Broadway production. He decided as a playwright he needed to learn about the acting process, enrolled in an acting class, and consequently he became so interested that writing — and academia — slipped onto a back burner. He dropped out of Yale to join the ranks of aspiring actors, moved to Los Angeles, and after an initial spell with no work, began to win roles for himself in independent films (Venice/Venice; The Rapture; Kalifornia) and studio movies (Chaplin; Beethoven). He also won the hearts of Twin Peaks fans with his performance as Denise, the cross-dressing DEA agent, during that show’s second season.

But it was his complex performance as the obsessed FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files that catapulted Duchovny into high profile fame. He garnered much acclaim, not only from the show’s fans, but from critics and colleagues, winning a Golden Globe Award and receiving several Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Acting on The X-Files wasn’t enough for Duchovny, though; the writer in him soon resurfaced and he started thinking about writing a script for the show. He had originally become interested in screenwriting about 10 or 15 years ago, and as one of the leads of a prime-time series, he felt he could make a contribution towards the show’s storyline. In the second season, he shared story credit with the show’s creator and executive producer Chris Carter on two episodes, “Colony” and “Anasazi” (on the latter he also participated in the plot break-down). Other episodes for which he received story credit include third season’s “Avatar” and fourth season’s “Talitha Cumi.”

Several seasons went by before he began thinking about actually writing a script of his own. “I didn’t have the surety, the confidence in my mind that I could write a teleplay,” Duchovny said. “Writers and directors like to keep scriptwriting a very arcane enterprise so that dilettantes won’t try to get involved and realize that it is actually just lightning and luck. If you have talent you can do it. Other than that, you can take all the McKee screenwriting courses that you want,but you’re still not going to write a decent screenplay. I was 34, 35, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to get it. I have decent ideas and I’ll just pitch them to the writers.’ It took me to the sixth year of the show to actually sit down and write one of my ideas. Being on The X-Files gave me a great advantage in knowing that I could pick that up really quickly. That’s when I got focused on it. It was really a matter of realizing that I could do it.”

Duchovny’s first “written by” credit was shared with Carter for the seventh-season episode “Amor Fati.” Mulder falls into a coma when stricken by a potentially fatal brain disease, and Duchovny suggested Mulder confront a situation like that faced by Christ in Martin Scorcese’s film version of Kazantakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. Mulder dreams that, instead of having spent his life looking for aliens, paranormal creatures, and his abducted sister Samantha, he has spent it as a family man, married to Diana Fowley (Mimi Rogers). “I really was attached to that idea,” Duchovny said. “The Lamentation of Christ is about how we’re all Christ, about how every single person on this planet has to make this heartbreaking choice between a life in the world and a life of the family. That’s what makes Christ so heartbreaking in that movie and in that book: his struggle is not only godlike, but also profoundly human. People ask, ‘when is Mulder going to get a personal life?’ Well, this is the equation. This is what it’s all about. Mulder is a guy who’s been given the same problem. You either have a life or you sacrifice it all and you become this guy who’s running around chasing aliens and has no life. I wasn’t saying Mulder is Christ; I’m not inflating Mulder. What I’m doing is using the very human model of Christ to make Mulder an everyman.”

Despite eight years of training in literary analysis, Duchovny does not analyze the story during the writing process. “I do that much more as an actor. I think one of the problems with studying great literature at a young age is that it intimidates you and you just go, ‘What’s the use?’ When you’re 17 and reading Shakespeare and you have thoughts of being a writer yourself, it’s like having one week of boxing lessons and going in against Mike Tyson. You say to yourself, ‘I’ll never be a boxer.’ It’s not necessarily true. So there was some of that: “Well, if it’s not Shakespeare, why should I even try?’ ”

By sixth season Duchovny was ready to write his first solo script, and decided he should direct it, too. His episode, “The Natural,” is about an alien who falls in love with baseball so much that he will do anything to play the game. Duchovny wrote the script without input from the X-Files writing staff until he was ready to show them the first draft. “The satisfying thing about it is that I had no help at all,” he said. “The mentoring was done through having five years of well-structured teleplays to guide me through. I wouldn’t have known the teaser, four-act structure. That’s not an intuitive thing to figure out. Above anything else, The X-Files is a really well-structured, story-telling mechanism. So I had that as my mentor. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”

The episode’s teaser opens on a night game in 1947 between a Negro Baseball League team and a white team in Roswell, New Mexico. The players are attacked by hooded horsemen. A player unseats one of the horseman, and when his hood is removed, we see the face of a gray alien. The first act begins one Saturday morning when Mulder, working in his office, spots a familiar name, Arthur Dales (this character first appeared in the episode “Travelers”), in a caption to an old newspaper photograph. Mulder goes to Dales’ apartment and finds not the Dales he expected (who had been played by Darrin McGavin in “Travelers” and subsequently in “Agua Mala”) but his identically-named brother (played by C. Emmet Walsh). Mulder asks about the photograph, and the crotchety Dales finally agrees to tell him its story. The episode then flashes back to 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, where a much younger Dales (Frederic Lane) was a policeman assigned to protect Josh Exley (Jesse Martin), a member of the Negro League team The Roswell Grays from potential racist attacks motivated by major league interest in Exley. Exley and Dales strike up an unlikely friendship, and eventually Dales learns, to his shock, that Exley is actually an alien — a Gray alien, to be precise. Exley has fallen in love with baseball and all he wants to do is play the game. He’s so good that scouts from the major leagues — which have just been integrated — show up. But Exley doesn’t want attention; he shapeshifted himself into the form of an African-American man in order to play in the Negro leagues and avoid mainstream publicity. Exley’s dream of spending his life as a human baseball player takes a tragic turn, though, when an alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson) tracks him down and demands he submit to the ultimate punishment for passing himself off as human.

Duchovny and X-Files executive producer Chris Carter, both devoted baseball fans, had wanted to write an episode about baseball for several years, but had never been able to find the right story. Carter had suggested a story about an Indian burial ground under a baseball stadium, but that idea didn’t pan out. Duchovny, who had reached the point where he felt he was ready to write and direct, and very much wanted to do a baseball story, kept searching for the right idea. One morning he was reading the newspaper — much like Mulder is looking at a newspaper in the beginning of the episode — and spotted an article about a minor-league player named Joe Bauman. (In 1954, Bauman, a gas station owner who had played for the now-defunct Roswell Rockets in the long-forgotten Longhorn League, hit 72 home runs, and drove in 224 runs, for an overall slugging average of .916). “Bauman was like a Bull Durham character,” Duchovny noted. “I don’t think he ever made it to the majors, but I read this article during the McGwire -Sosa home run race, and it mentioned that Bauman had more than 70 home runs in a year in the minor leagues. And he played in Roswell, New Mexico, which I found hysterically funny. So I thought, ‘What if this guy’s an alien? He’s hitting 70 home runs and he’s an alien. There’s my story — we’ve got an alien baseball player.’ I told my wife [actress Tea Leoni] the idea and the next day I woke up and said to her, ‘What if the guy’s black and he’s an alien and the reason he’s black is because he doesn’t want to go to the pros because he doesn’t want to be discovered?’ After that it just all fell into place.”

Exley’s race also dictated the flackback structure of the episode. “Once Exley became black, the story wouldn’t make any sense if it took place after the integration of baseball, because after integration he would be discovered, whether he wanted to or not,” Duchovny said. “I liked the sense of loss that is part of the legacy of black ball players in this country. There were players whose names we don’t know who were every bit as good as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and all the names we do know. Josh Gibson was the prototypical Negro League ballplayer who never got a shot to prove to the world how good he was. So I liked this idea of an invisible history that we don’t know. But this wasn’t something I could do in a story set in the present.” A flashback story also lessened Mulder’s presence in the episode, giving Duchovny time for pre-production and directing.

In Duchovny’s original script, the Arthur Dales who relates the story of Josh Exley is the same Dales The X-Files audience first met in “Travelers,” also a flashback story, this time set in the 1950s. Darrin McGavin had played the current-day Dales, and Frederic Lane (who also appeared in flashback scenes in “Travelers”) his younger encarnation. Duchovny brought back Dales because “it just made sense to me. Rather than have to create a whole new character and introduce him, I thought anytime you can use a character who has a history, you don’t have to waste precious time telling the audience who he is and what he does. You get more time to tell the stuff that matters.”

McGavin agreed to play Dales once again, but three days into the shoot, he fell sick and had to drop out. Duchovny was urged by the writing staff to change Dales into another character entirely and then have the new character tell the story of Dales to Mulder, but Duchovny resisted introducing a third person not directly involved in the situation. His solution was to make the character into the brother of the original Dales — a brother with the same exact name. Veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh came in to take over the role. “It wouldn’t have worked if Dales were telling the story about somebody else. That’s why I couldn’t let that happen and opened myself up to the ridicule of that stupid scene where the guy says he’s got a brother by the same name,” Duchovny said. “Fortunately it went by so quickly. The whole story fails if it’s not this guy’s primary experience. He can’t be telling the story about somebody else, because he has to feel it, not just tell it about somebody else. That one-step removal would have taken away all the emotional immediacy of the piece.”

Walsh’s performance as the grumpy, hermit-like brother moved to tears by 50-year-old memories turned out to be one of the highlights of the episode. “It was intimidating because I was asking him to do so much so quickly,” Duchovny recalled. “He came in the day after he got the script, and he had tons of what I thought would be fun dialogue if you had a couple of weeks with it, but he only had a day. I felt bad for him to come in and make the stuff work, because it was written kind of floridly. It’s very hard to ask an actor to inhabit that way of speaking after a day, but Emmet was great. You somehow believe that he and Darrin McGavin could be brothers. They’re both kind of cantankerous. Emmet made a mistake in the dialogue that I kept in because it was so funny. ‘ I think My Best Friend’s Wedding was in theaters then. He had a line in the script, ‘I was chasing aliens while you were watching My Favorite Martian,’ and he said, ‘You were watching my Best Friend’s Martian.’ That cracked me up.”

One of the episode’s most powerful moments is an overhead shot of young Dales holding Exley as he dies that match dissolves back to the present day of the old Dales, crying, while Mulder sits by him and tries to take in everything he’s heard. This shot of Dales and Mulder was Duchovny’s very first as a director, but Duchovny had to reshoot it when Walsh replaced McGavin. “Darrin did it beautifully, by the way,” Duchovny remarked. “As for the shot itself, I knew exactly what I wanted. It was all about preparation. I told Bill Roe, my director of photgraphy, that I wanted a crane shot and then a little pivot, and then we come down and do a close-up. Basically all that means is that when we got out to the baseball field, we had to match it. Actually, the second shot always is the harder one. I just told Bill the effect I wanted and he went out and did it.”

One of Duchovny’s favorite moments in the episode came in a scene where the Roswell Gray team is traveling on the bus to their next game and begin to sing a spiritual. Duchovny had first written the scene with Exley revealing a terrible singing voice. He had wanted to make a comment, in a humorous way, about the stereotype that all African-Americans can sing, which would be doubly humorous because Josh was really an alien attempting to sing. “It was going to be this anti-stereotyping, racial ha-ha, ‘black man can’t dance’ joke,” Duchovny explained. “But Jesse Martin turned out to have a beautiful singing voice and I decided to put him in there singing. I’m not going to make him sing badly.”

The song was a spiritual chosen by Maggie Jacobson, a former girlfriend, and still good friend, of Duchovny’s. (Jacobson, who is an actress, appeared with Duchovny in his first film, New Year’s Day, and in the first season X-Files episode “Born Again.”) “Maggie is the only Jewish gospel singer in captivity,” Duchovny said. “She teaches gospel workshops. She’s a wonderful singer and has a great love of that music, which I don’t know very well at all. I called her when I had that idea, and I said, ‘Can you find me a song about home?’ I told her the story that I was writing and I said I needed to reflect this issue. And I knew it wouldn’t be hard because most spirituals are about longing for home, or for rest. She sent me a tape of three songs that she thought would be relevant, and I chose “We’ll All Be Together in That Land.” It’s a beautiful song.” The song recurs at the end of the episode when Dales hold Exley as he dies and plays throughout the dissolve back to the present-day, where we see Mulder meeting his partner, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) at a ballfield for some nightime batting lessons. “I wanted at that point to have that feeling bridge us back from the ballfield where Jesse’s dying to Mulder and Scully at the ballfield, and also as a bridge to the scene on the bus. I wanted to bridge the two eras. [Editor] Lynne Willingham and I tweaked the song so that as soon as Mulder puts his arms around Scully, they’re singing, “I got a sister in this land.”

That nighttime scene where Mulder instructs Scully on the finer points of batting is one of the most charming finales in an X-Files episode. On one level, watching Mulder teasing Scully and Scully laughing at their fun together is utterly endearing. But there is another level to the scene, a subtext in the words that they do not say: Mulder’s desire to communicate to Scully what he learned from Dales. The scene also complements beautifully their first scene together at the beginning of the episode’s first act, when Mulder is spending his Saturday researching in the office and an unhappy Scully, brandishing a fat-free tofutti cone, longs for weekend freedom and asks Mulder if he ever wants to get out of the office. (One of the scene’s funniest moments comes when Scully discovers that Mulder isn’t really researching X-Files; he’s got a baseball book hidden among the papers on his desk; he then wrestles Scully for the toffuti cone he had just disdained.) Duchovny saw these Mulder and Scully scenes as his opportunity to write something warm and funny for the two characters, something less formulaic than their usual back and forth style of dialogue. “I was tired of hearing the conversation between Mulder and Scully where Scully would say, ‘Well, I’m a scientist. I believe in science and science tells me this,’ and then Mulder would say, ‘Well, I go with my gut. My gut tells me this.’ I wanted them to have a conversation in which they are actually ‘in’ their dialogue rather than saying who they are, to let the way they speak say who they are, and to let them inhabit themselves than perching outside themselves.”

Although the show’s writing staff had urged Duchovny to end the episode with the dissolve from the ballfield where Dales holds the dying Exley back to Mulder and Dales in present day, Duchovny resisted taking out his epilogue with Mulder and Scully. “It was very important that there be something like an old-fashioned moral. The whole story is about how it affects Mulder and Scully. What did we learn? It was really important to me that Mulder and Scully have communication on this issue, but that it not be literal and that the audience realize Mulder has called Scully up to the ballfield because he’s learned something about life. I wanted him to impart it to Scully without telling her what it is. At first he’s going to tell her, but the last line belongs to Scully, who says, ‘Shut up, I’m playing baseball.’ As usual, Scully gets it, and tells him to shut up. Here’s Mulder, he’s learned this big lesson, he’s going to tell Scully all about it, and she just intuitively grasps it and tells him to shut up because she’s playing. What he’s supposed to have learned is the value of just loving the game.” Mulder, by sharing his knowledge with Scully, is a contrast to Dales, who keeps to his apartment and doesn’t want to let the world in (including

Mulder, who only is granted entrance after passing a baseball pop quiz). However, that kind of contrast doesn’t fascinate Duchovny so much as who the characters are and how they react. “That stuff is not so important to me. I don’t think of Mulder as a character. I think of him as an opportunity to tell a story. I don’t really believe in character — I believe in situations. I believe people’s character comes out of their responses to situations, but I don’t believe that that character exists before the situation exists. As a writer, I think all that stuff about character is bullshit. Screenwriting is storytelling; you put a figure in a story and have him react the way you want to tell your story. When people get outraged and say, ‘Oh, Mulder would never do that!” Well, yeah, he would, it’s written right here. I’ve got it in writing. Look: Mulder wears a dress. Says right here that he would do that. But people don’t get that. Read Mamet on character; he’s very smart on that.”

When Exley realizes that the Bounty Hunter is on his trail, instead of fleeing, he stops and plays one more game. “He knew he was found out and they were going to come and take him away. He wanted to set his record, he wanted his one last chance to be remembered by the game,” Duchovny said. What sets Exley the alien apart from his fellow aliens is his love of humanity, symbolized in the joy of the game of baseball, but also in other human pleasures such as laughter and song. For Duchovny, Exley — who at the end truly becomes human and bleeds red blood, instead of alien green — is a Pinocchio figure. “He lives the fantasy not just of wooden boys, but of all men and women. You want something to make you real — authentic. Exley becomes real. I spared you the dialogue where he could have said, ‘I feel real,’ but you get to see it [when he bleeds]. The beauty of movies is that you can actually show things instead of telling them. You can have a very tidy — as my former teacher Harold Bloom would say — ‘trope’ of humanity: ‘Oh my god! You’ve become a real person out of your love of the game!’ I’m being ironic but this is moving to me and it meant a lot to me. If I were to sit down and look at that hour of television, I would say it has more of me than anything else I’ve ever done.”

As director, Duchovny had first cut of the episode, so for the first time he found himself working in the editing room. His editor for “The Unnatural” was Lynne Willingham. Duchovny found the experience greatly rewarding. “It’s fun if you have enough footage to make your show make sense,” he said. “I think I did pretty well both times in getting footage. We often start to shoot scripts that are still in progress — that’s just the nature of the schedule — but I had my script far in advance because I was only doing one, so I was prepared months before and I knew what I needed. Lynne [who began editing while shooting was still in progress] would call me if I missed anything, so I had the chance to go back and get something. When you’re out there shooting, you really do have an infinite amount of possibility for where you’re going to put the camera. The great thing about the editing room is that for better or for worse, once you’re in it, you only have the shots you took, and you have to make it work from that. There’s less panic in editing, because even though you’re dealing with something diminished, something no longer infinite, at the same time you’re dealing with something concrete, and you’ve got to make it work. It’s kind of like growing up. You’re like, ‘Okay, well, fuck, I’m not going to be an astronaut, let’s just learn how to fly a plane.’ ”

The editing process did not see any major changes from the the final script, although Duchovny remembered one alteration suggested by X-Files writer/producer John Shiban that helped clarify the story. Shiban suggested that Duchovny add a fourth-act recap of the teaser, right before the episode advanced beyond the teaser’s attack on the ballplayers by the horsemen. “I had written it so that you go back just to the point where you left it off, to the unmasking of the alien, and John and some of the producers felt that the audience needed a reminder about what’s going on. I thought that was a really good editorial decision.” Duchovny’s favorite post-production experience was working with X-Files composer Mark Snow, who has composed and performed the music to every episode. “I talked to Mark about the feeling that I wanted, which was this Ry Cooder-guitar, Paris, Texas sound. I just loved the music in the beginning of the epsiode.”

Duchovny’s decision to direct “The Unnatural” grew out of his occasional frustration with the show’s storyline and his lack of control over his character, something he acknowledged an actor “has to give up” in a television series. He saw directing as a way of protecting his script. “Directing is a part of the writing process. It’s the completion of the writing and making sure that your vision gets carried through all the way. I guess I’ve been disappointed in the show’s execution. It’s a little like music. You can tell somebody this is how this should be and this is how it goes, and they nod, and you figure, ‘We’re on the same page, we’re speaking the same language,’ but it never works out that way. It doesn’t. So you just go, ‘For better or for worse, I’m going to be the guy that executes it all the way. I’m not going to leave it up to somebody else.’

Duchovny admitted that as a director, he has his weaknesses, especially in his ability to conceive a shot visually. “I’m spatially backwards. I have no competence at all. I can’t draw. I can’t even conceive on a flat piece of paper in three dimensions. I wish I could. So I was really nervous going in thinking how am I going to move these people through three dimensional space. I also always feel nervous that I’m not always getting enough pieces to cut it together. What I do have is a kind of non-linear sense of how images reveal a story. I guess in ‘The Unnatural” it would be the moment when Exley bleeds red blood, and in ‘Hollywood A.D.’ it’s the final moment when a piece of plastic makes zombies dance on a sound stage. When someone would say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. Why is this here?’ I would say, ‘Because.’ It makes poetic sense and I think that when you tell a story visually you’re telling it poetically. You’re not telling it like a literal narrative. I feel very comfortable creating an image that is poetic. I feel very uncomfortable in those three dimensions. That just comes with experience, that you go, ‘OK, that’s how everything cuts together.’ I think I was more comfortable the second time around with “Hollywood A.D.”

Although “The Unnatural” was his first directing assignment, Duchovny felt he did not receive any help beyond what is usually given any new director on the series. “Traditionally, as a sop, TV producers will let long-time actor on a series direct, but it’s letting a monkey paint,” Duchovny laughed. “The idea is, ‘Oh, we’ve got this mechanism of The X-Files in place and we won’t let you fail,’ which is encouraging, if also condescending. When you actually go through it, you realize both that you can do it, and secondly, that you do need a lot of help. Everybody who comes in to direct gets a lot of help, not just dumb actors who think they can direct. Every director who goes in there has the benefit of a great director of photography, a great script supervisor, and actors who have been doing their roles for years. But I got no more help than anybody else. The illusion is that you have these directors who come in and run the ship, but the ship runs itself and the ship knows where to go. That comes from people like the director of photography, Bill Roe, who’s so important, and the set designer, Corey Kaplan, who’s phenomenal; in “The Unnatural,” which is a period piece, it was just perfect to have that baseball field and that old bus. I don’t know the uniforms, any of those things. I just went, ‘OK, I want to set it in the 1940s,’ and then everybody else helped me out. [Producers/directors] Kim Manners and Rob Bowman helped me a lot. My first assistant director, Barry Thomas, held my hand and sat up till three in the morning making up shot lists with me so I wouldn’t feel naked going in there. Michael Watkins, who is a director and was a producer at the time of ‘The Unnatural,’ was there all the time. So it was really Michael and Kim on the first one and then Rob and Kim on ‘Hollywood A.D.’ I storyboarded everything with Alex Hill, who is fantastic. Then I’d bring my storyboards to Kim and I’d say, “Do you think this is going to work?” and that’s the kind of help I got.”

“The Unnatural” was an instant hit with X-Files fans, some of whom compared the episode’s visual puns and occasionally mocking tone (particularly when Arthur Dales was on screen) with episodes by former X-Files writer Darin Morgan, the show’s self-referential humorist par excellence. Duchovny claimed that Morgan, who wrote “Humbug,’ ‘The Final Repose of Clyde Bruckman,’ ‘War of the Coprophages’ and ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,’ ” wasn’t as big an influence as one might think, although he greatly admires Morgan’s work for the show. “Darin comes much more out of the history of film,” Duchovny commented. “He’s seen everything. I come more out of literature. In that way we’re very different, but I do think we are both kind of hellbent on subverting the seriousness of the show. [Former X-Files writers and producers] Glen Morgan and James Wong opened the door to deflation of the show’s archness, and then Darin kind of destroyed the show from within. I was a real fan of that, so Darin paved the way for this kind of tone.”

The tone in Duchovny’s second episode as writer and director, “Hollywood A.D.,” moved away from the pathos and low-key humor of “The Unnatural” towards something more outrageous and satirical, creating a story with a dual focus — a super-serious case investigated by Mulder and Scully — and a satiric look at Hollywood — that is tied together by an hilariously bad cinematic version of the case and the episode’s final image of dancing zombies.

The teaser of “Hollywood A.D.” takes place at a movie premiere at the 20th Century-Fox lot. Among the glittering group celebrities sits Mulder, Scully, and Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi): the movie is based on one of their cases. What they see so embarrasses Mulder that he bolts the auditorium. The episode proper begins 18 months earlier, when Skinner tells Mulder and Scully that his friend, a movie producer named Wayne Federman (played by actor/comedian Wayne Federman!) has permission to accompany them on their latest investigation in order to research his latest cinematic venture. Skinner, as it turns out, is an old college chum of Federman’s, so he is happy to comply. Mulder and Scully instantly consider Federman — who constantly interrupts them by talking into his tape recorder and making annoying observations — a total nuisance, but they’re stuck with him. Their case concerns a bombing in the crypt of a local Catholic cathedral. Cardinal O’Fallon (Harris Yulin) shows them around the church and tells them he is mystified why anyone would bomb it. While investigating the crypt, Federman wanders off and observes an amazing sight: bones dislodged by the explosion dancing around and trying to put together pottery shards to form a bowl. But before Federman can tell Mulder what he’s just seen, they make a disturbing discovery: a body is under the rubble. The corpse is identified as that of Micha Hoffman, a former campus radical, current-day explosives expert and forger who (Mulder and Scully learn) had sold documents derogatory to Church doctrine to O’Fallon. The Cardinal had hid the documents to avoid the repercussion of their discovery and is utterly dismayed when Mulder tells him they are forgeries. Scully and Mulder puzzle about the broken bowl in the crypt and Scully tells Mulder and Federman about the Lazarus Bowl, which a potter was making just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and recorded his words in the groves of the clay. When Mulder and Scully take the bowl to their scientist pal Chuck Burks (Bill Dow) for analysis, they hear some words that sound very much like Aramaic. Could the bowl be genuine? The case takes a surprising turn when Hoffman (Paul Lieber) turns up alive just as Mulder and Scully are about to arrest O’Fallon for his murder. Skinner is so furious by the misidentification of the corpse that he removes them from the case and put them on suspension. Federman, now back in Hollywood, invites the two agents to California to observe the shoot of his movie, and with nothing much else to do, Mulder and Scully accept his offer. A visit to the set proves that Hollywood is about as bizarre as anything else they’ve ever seen.

The episode returns in the fourth act to the premiere of Federman’s movie. Mulder and Scully watch in horror as they see up on the screen the O’Fallon/Hoffman story turned into an action-packed exploitation film, with a “Cigarette Smoking Pontiff” and his zombies battling it out in a cemetery with “Mulder” (Garry Shandling) and “Scully” (Tea Leoni, Duchovny’s wife). The scene ends with “Mulder” and “Scully” tumbling into a coffin, realizing their love for one another, and kissing passionately, which is enough to make a mortified Mulder bolt the theater. He takes refuge on a still-standing set, where Scully joins him and tells him she just learned O’Fallon killed Hoffman and then committed suicide. (The corpse in the Church’s crypt is never identified.) After some musings, the two depart for a night on the town. “Hollywood A.D.” ends with a movie tie-in Lazarus bowl – mass-manufactured to hold popcorn — coming into contact with a fake branch on the film’s still-standing set. Music issues forth, bring to life the movie’s zombies, who celebrate their brief existence with a tango.

Duchovny’s original idea for a second episode was to write a story centering around Assistant Director Skinner. “I’m always wanting to write Mitch stuff, because I think Mitch is totally underused,” Duchovny said. A few years ago he had pitched a Skinner idea which was used for the episode “Avatar,” but the final version was far from what he had originally proposed. “I had this idea where a spirit, like a lilith, comes to Skinner at night. Basically it’s a wet dream, because she doesn’t exist, but then she falls in love with Skinner and starts to wreak havoc with anybody he gets close to. It was about how spirits don’t understand the living, that they’re threatened by any kind of closeness, and then Scully was going to come into jeopardy because the spirit was going to misinterpret Skinner’s relationship to Scully. This spirit was supposed to be beautiful and sexy.” By the time “Avatar” went before the cameras, Duchovny’s sexy spirit had been rewritten as a wrinkled old woman. “I told Mitch, ‘I apologize. I had an idea it was going to be a succubus and they turned her into a crone!’ Duchovny lamented. “And I don’t know what the story was about after that. So I felt was like I owed Mitch.”

For his second script, Duchovny thought about writing a Midnight RUN-type episode for Mulder, Skinner and the two Arthur Dales brothers. “The old guys want to go on the road one more time. So that’s where I was heading, and then it turned into ‘Hollywood A.D.’ Originally it was supposed to be a show for Mitch, and then as it always seems to be the case for Mitch, it turned into a show about Mulder and Scully. So again, I had to apologize to Mitch for it not being about him in the end.” Even so, Skinner has several stand-out moments in “Hollywood A.D.,” particularly when he and Mulder and Scully all end up in bubble baths in their respective Hollywood hotel rooms and engage in a three-way split screen phone conversation a la Pillow Talk, or when he’s happily grinning with a hot babe on his arm at the movie premiere.

Like “The Unnatural,” “Hollywood A.D.” moved into high gear with another suggestion Duchovny made to wife Tea Leoni one morning. “I woke up — this is how all my ideas start — and I said to my wife, ‘What if Skinner was working with a Hollywood producer on one of Mulder and Scully’s cases to make a movie?’ She said, ‘That’s funny!’ And, all right, here was the one I’m going to do this year.”

Duchovny’s Hollywood producer, Wayne Federman, appears at first blush to be the stereotypical notion of such a creature: slick, fast-talking, unable to view the world as anything but one big movie. Naturally, the super-serious Mulder and Scully wish Federman would go back to where he came from (Mulder asks Skinner if he’s pissed him off “in a way that’s more than normal” to merit Federman’s presence), but they eventually realize that words of wisdom may emerge even from the mouths of Hollywood producers, especially when Federman paradoxically states that Mulder is crazy for believing what he believes and Scully is crazy for not believing what Mulder believes. “The idea was Hollywood satire, but that’s too easy,” Duchovny said. “There are a lot of philistines out here, but there are a lot of smart philistines here, a lot of people who know what people like and have an intuitive grasp of storytelling. They couldn’t tell you why something is good, but they can make it good. And that’s what makes Hollywood a crazy town. Wayne is a little like that. He’s a boor, he’s rude, but he’s got this ability sometimes to cut through the bullshit. That’s real for me out here, even though Wayne’s a caricature and kind of a stock Hollywood character. I wanted to make him insightful, even when he didn’t know he was being insightful.”

Duchovny couldn’t resist naming his prototypical producer Wayne Federman after the actor who played him. “I love that name,” Duchovny laughed. “Wayne’s a friend of mine and Garry Shandling’s. He’s a stand-up comic and he’s got this great voice and this great delivery. I was going to write the script over Christmas and just by chance, Wayne called and said, ‘When are you going to get me on that damned show of yours?’ I said, ‘Let me write you a part,’ and I did. It was like one of those things where you go, ‘This is waaaay too fuckin’ easy.’ So I had Wayne’s voice in my head and I thought, “Well, that voice is so ‘Wayne.’ I’ll call the producer Wayne Federman. I love that name. It’s a great Jewish last name with this really crazy first name Wayne. What Jew is named Wayne?”

Although the episode’s teaser is set at the movie’s premiere, Duchovny didn’t want to bring Mulder and Scully to Hollywood until the fourth act of the episode. He knew he needed a “really good caper” to keep the agents busy in Washington — and viewers intrigued — through the first three acts. “The case had to be good enough to sustain a whole episode, even though I was only going to use it for half or three-quarters of the episode,” Duchovny said. “After I had the idea of Skinner and this Hollywood frame, then it became just a search for the caper, the X-File. When I conceived the episode and wrote the teaser, I had a different caper — I hadn’t come up with the Lazarus Bowl yet. The caper was about the Tetragrammaton, whichh is the name of God — Yahweh. The caper was about this thing that was God, so it was like, ‘Hand over the Tetragrammaton!’

Duchovny added that he took pride in “throwing the case away, because I knew people would want to see the whole story. I like it that it’s so good I’m going to throw it away. Originally I had the news of the death of Hoffman and O’Fallon delivered when Scully comes to Mulder’s apartment in the third act when he’s watching an Ed Wood movie. They take that in and then they go to Hollywood, so that the X-File was wrapped up at the end of act three. The rest of the show would be a lark, until it was hopefully all brought back together by the final image. The producers felt that that ended the show there and they wanted to keep the O’Fallon/Hoffman story open until the very last possible moment. But the news of O’Fallon’s and Hoffman’s death was always going to happen off-screen. There was always going to be a sense, I think, in which people were going to feel cheated because it happened off-screen. I didn’t set out to cheat or confound anybody, it’s like I didn’t know how else to do it and still make the turn into the story I wanted to tell. If I was to rationalize it, I would say, here’s just another example of storytelling getting in the way of what really happened. But to be honest, it was just to be expedient.”

Duchovny drew his caper from the real-life story of historical documents dealer Mark Hoffman, who forged documents detrimental to Mormon Church doctrine and proceeded to sell them to Mormon officials, who then kept the papers from the public eye. Like Cardinal O’Fallon, the Mormon Church officials did not realize that the documents had been forged. (Hofmann was eventually convicted of murdering two business associates.) “That idea has probably been in my head for 15 years,” Duchovny said. “Hoffman was fascinating to me, because he claimed that he could become [Mormon Church founder] Joseph Smith. He certainly could write like him. And he was a very talented forger and murderer. He exploded himself with a bomb in order to make it look like he was the target. So you had all these things.” The Micha Hoffman of “Hollywood A.D.” is also a prankster and former campus radical, which brings to mind another Hoffman: the real-life campus radical and prankster Abbie Hoffman. Duchovny hadn’t initially thought of Abbie Hoffman as a source for his Hoffman, but eventually realized there was a more than a little similarity between Abbie and Micha. “That was like the moment when I realized Jackie Robinson and Roswell were the same summer. It’s like, ‘I’m so smart! The name is the same!,’ ” he laughed. “Sometimes the world helps you out with coincidence. Also, Micha is [former X-Files writer and producer] Howard Gordon’s son’s name and I always liked it.”

Duchovny cast Paul Lieber, who played Hoffman, after he saw him in a short film called Parking, which had been directed by James Morrison (best known to genre fans as Colonel McQueen in Space: Above and Beyond; he also guest starred in the X-Files episode “Theef”). “Jim had seen ‘The Unnatural,’ he knew I was going to do another one, and he wanted to read the script,” Duchovny said. “He also showed me a short film he had done about a guy in a parking lot. Paul Lieber was in that, and I said, ‘That’s the guy I want!’ I called Paul and I explained the character and he said, ‘That’s funny, I just played Abbie Hoffman!’ There’s a noticeable resemblance between Duchovny and Lieber, of which Duchovny is not unaware. “People were saying we both have some Richard Gere thing happening,” he joked. The enigmatic character of Micha Hoffman provokes an unexpectedly strong response in Scully, who is startled by visions of a dead Hoffman rising from the autopsy table to speak with her, and Hoffman crucified on a cross in the cathedral where Cardinal O’Fallon officiates. Could Hoffman have actually transcended death, might he be Christ? The episode does not answer these questions, but these moments leave Scully deeply shaken. “Scully sees visions because the subject matter seemed more personal to her,” Duchovny said. “She’s been established as some kind of active Christian, but her faith has never been anything more than salad dressing on this show. I thought here’s a chance where her faith can be seen as a similar field of magic or delusion to Mulder, who’s constantly seeing things. It made more sense to me and it made the story better to have Scully tested in that way, rather than Mulder, who is hard to test because he always wants to see the vision. Nothing is going to test Mulder because he’s always going to believe in anything; nothing is going to shake him. So this was a way to get to what I felt was the truth of the Micah Hoffman character: that he was legitimately powerful and charismatic religious figure.

Although Harris Yulin as Cardinal O’Fallon has only a few scenes on screen in “Hollywood A.D.,” he makes an indelible impression, in great part thanks to a sense of humor dryer than the Gobi Desert. “I think humor is a real sign of intelligence,” Duchovny said. “If I can give a supposedly serious character an awareness of what is funny, to me it says ‘this is an intelligent person.’ When I was writing Cardinal O’Fallon, I said to myself, ‘Okay, he’s a stock, high religious character, you’ve seen it before. He’s probably done something bad. But what if he has a great cell phone line? What if he’s in the crypt and says, ‘I never get reception down here?’ This shows that he’s not stuck, that he has an idea of what people are expecting him to be, and he’s confident enough to go against it. Harris is a great actor. It doesn’t get any dryer than that. Also, he played that scene so beautifully when he tells the story of why he hates Micha Hoffman. Harris had two scenes to create a character that you have to feel for. The weakness of the episode is that it has so many characters, whereas in ‘The Unnatural,’ you really had two, Arthur Dales and Josh Exley. In ‘Hollywood A.D.’ you have Federman, Hoffman, O’Fallon, you have Shandling as ‘Mulder’ and Leoni as ‘Scully,’ you’ve got a ton of stuff happening. So it’s much less centered. It’s probably more ambitious in that way and therefore prone to failing more.”

The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov served as another inspiration for O’Fallon. The Grand Inquisitor explains in a long monologue that he believes the evil acts he commits are justified because they are the means towards an ultimate good.) Duchovny had brought the character of the Grand Inquisitor to Chris Carter’s attention for the X-FILES episode “Talitha Cumi,” where dialogue for scenes between the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes) was inspired by the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue. “I told Chris I saw The Cigarette Smoking Man as a Grand Inquisitor figure, because he has seen the truth and he is damning himself in order to save people. In his own twisted way, he’s a very moving figure to me: the man who will go to hell so that other people may live more freely. Those scenes in ‘Talitha Cumi’ didn’t work to my satisfaction, so to me O’Fallon is really the Inquisitor. He is a guy who says, ‘I know the truth and the truth is too much for people to bear. So I will destroy the truth and take the heat and save the people.’ In that way, Duchovny added, O’Fallon is related to Federman, because they both share a sense of commitment and passion to their respective professions. “Silly as Federman is, he’s completely committed. And that’s something that I value and that I try to treat with respect. Every character in ‘Hollywood A.D.’ — Hoffman, O’Fallon, Federman – has it.”

Duchovny underscored that theme in the scene where Scully comes to Mulder’s apartment after Skinner has removed them from the case and and finds a discouraged Mulder watching Plan Nine From Outer Space, the “masterpiece” of Ed Wood, often described as the worst director ever. The choice of film on Mulder’s TV is not an arbitrary one by Duchovny; Ed Wood symbolizes the qualities Duchovny admires in characters like Federman, whose enthusiasm for his terrible movie never wavers. “I would never have done that scene had not Tim Burton made his movie Ed Wood,” Duchovny said. “I didn’t know about Ed Wood before that movie and I never would have conceived of Ed Wood as a heroic character without seeing it. I love Burton’s take on that character, which is: who cares about how bad the movies were? This is a guy who believed. He believed in movie-making more than all these people who had the resources and the talent. There’s something beautiful in Ed Wood. To me, passion is a gift. I only discover it every now and then in my life, so when I see people who have that gift, I respond to it. I worship it. To me it’s something genetic, because I don’t have it. It takes a certain lack of self-consciousness which I don’t seem to have, so I love it, even when the product is bad.”

“The Unnatural” and “Hollywood A.D.” share a similar narrative structure; the teaser takes place during the time-frame of each episode’s fourth act, so that their first acts open during an earlier time (in “The Unnatural,” this is even more complicated, since the teaser is part of the story Arthur Dales begins relating in the first act) and the story eventually returns to the events seen in the trailer and then proceeds beyond them. Both end with Mulder and Scully together, sharing information (non-verbally in “The Unnatural;” with dialogue in “Hollywood A.D.”) about what they’ve witnessed and what it means. Duchovny felt that despite the similar structure, each episode’s conclusion showed Mulder and Scully in a different light. “They are two separate stories that dictated to me how they should end,” he said. “They’re slightly different in that ‘Hollywood A.D.’ ends on its own [with the zombie dance] and ‘The Unnatural’ ends with Mulder and Scully. ‘The Unnatural’ is more integrated into the frame of the characters in the show. ‘Hollywood A.D.’ is more of a release and happens behind their backs; they sum up the story in the way they think it was, and then the story sums up itself with the way it is. In ‘The Unnatural,’ it’s Mulder and Scully who sum up the story the way it is. They get it. In ‘Hollywood A.D.’ they think they get it, but then it goes one more step. Mulder and Scully get what they need to get, but they still underestimate the power of Hollywood. Of course, they would, because they don’t really care about it. They get what they need to get, and whoever gets to tell the story wins. They got to tell the story, they got to remain true to their own version of what this life is. ‘We can’t let this bother us, let’s go out and have fun. We know what we do, we know who we are, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.’ ”

The zombies of “Hollywood A.D.,” first seen in Federman’s movie, have the final word after they are brought to life by the inadvertent contact of the plastic Lazarus Bowl and the fake tree on the soundstage that Mulder and Scully have just left. Duchovny likens this dreamlike, illogical coda to similarly illogical scenes in “The Unnatural” — images of Dales’ memories turning out to be pictures on his television set; the same boy both delivering liquor to the older Dales and hanging out at Roswell Grays’ baseball games; the alien Exley bleeding red blood when he should bleed green. “It’s a non-linear sense of how images reveal a story,” he said. “In ‘The Unnatural’ you can see that in the moment when Exley bleeds, and in “Hollywood A.D.’ it’s the final moment when a piece of plastic makes zombies dance on a soundstage. These scenes makes poetic sense. It’s like when you’re talking about a poem and you go, ‘What does this poem mean?’ Well, a poem is. It doesn’t mean. That’s really what I feel like about the best images. The most recent literalization of that would be in American Beauty, where Wes Bentley shows the video of the plastic bag. That’s almost a manifesto of ‘here’s an image, it makes me feel everything — I don’t know why, it’s just a plastic bag floating in the wind’ — and whether or not that works for you. That’s all about movie-making, that moment in American Beauty with the kid who is a filmmaker. To me, they’re all these little plastic bag images and they work or they don’t. I had the feeling for some reason people didn’t get the last image of Hollywood A.D. They just thought it was fun. But to me it was really the whole reversal of the episode. If I were to literalize it, it would be to say, ‘Here we are on this Hollywood soundstage and we have the mass-produced plastic replica of a ceramic bowl that may or may not have the voice of Jesus on it, and this plastic bowl, even this far removed from the source, has the power to raise the dead. And more so, it has the power to raise dead people who aren’t even there and make them dance and show us what life is really all about. Mulder talked about this earlier in the bathtub scene, where he says, “Why is it that dead people are always attacking the living?’ I say, ‘They’re hungry first’ and if we stayed with them longer, they would get drunk and make love and dance. It was an imagistic reversal of the whole show but because it wasn’t literalized, maybe it wasn’t successful. For me it was the big circle of what it’s all about. It’s non-existent dead people laughing, dancing, sexy, making love. I feel very comfortable creating an image that is poetic. I think directing is the same as poetry.”

Duchovny limited his appearances for The X-Files’ eighth season to the second half, choosing instead to spend that fall working on the Ivan Reitman SF comedy Evolution. When the eighth season concluded, he had no more plans to write and direct for the show, or even return to play Mulder. Instead, he worked with director Steven Soderbergh on Full Frontal, and this summer begins shooting My Dark Places, based on crime novelist James Ellroy’s memoir of his mother’s murder and his troubled childhood and young adulthood. But he changed his mind, and returned briefly for the X-Files’ ninth season, directing the episode “William” (for which he received a story credit) and playing Mulder one more time in the two-hour series finale, “The Truth.” He is also amenable to making more X-Files movies. His preference, though, would be to move into directing his own feature scripts. “The great thing about THE X-Files is that I could cut my teeth on what’s about as close to movie-making as you can get on television,” he said. “I don’t know if I have the stamina or the kind of creativity that somebody like Chris Carter has. I don’t have the need to do the same characters in a serial format, probably because I’ve done it as an actor. So I don’t see myself going into television to try to create characters that could sustain seven years’ worth of hour-long shows. I’d love to write and direct two hours at a time. I feel that’s what I should do with my life.”

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3 Responses to “Cinefantastique: David Duchovny on "The Unnatural" and "Hollywood A.D."”

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