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Emmy Magazine: The Chris Carter Workout

Emmy Magazine
The Chris Carter Workout
Barry Garron

Maybe he’d rather be surfing, but since the success of his X-Files, Chris Carter’s idea of hanging ten is keeping both hand on the keyboard. Now with two series on the air. Those long days keep getting longer.

Let’s start with this: Chris Carter says he’s not a workaholic. If you can believe that-and many people have trouble doing so-the rest of the story is going to be fairly easy to swallow.

That’s because the rest of the story is about how Carter, creator and executive producer of The X-Files and, as of March, The Lone Gunmen, crafts his series and his beliefs that (a) TV is a business that’s comfortable with failure and (b) Hollywood is a place that eschews hard work. Sure, those propositions are debatable, but not as much as Carter’s notion about his affinity for work.

Being a workaholic, he says, suggests a compulsion to work. As he speaks, Carter sits in his production office on the 20th Century Fox lot in West L.A., where you can usually find him between six-thirty each morning and evening. “My compulsion is to make something good and right-to be as good as it can be. So I’m a quality-aholic,”

It’s a distinction that probably matters more to Carter than the rest of the world. According to him, if he didn’t have to spend all those hours getting things right-if he wasn’t so afraid of failure-if he didn’t have to thoroughly satisfy himself that the hard work of his production team was going to have a satisfying payoff for viewers-well, he’d be out the door and down at the beach in Santa Barbara, surfboard in hand.

Fat Chance.

“I don’t see anyway around it if you want to make a successful television show,” he says of the long hours. And each award and scrap of praise makes him work all the harder, he adds, if only to live up to the accolades.

Robert Patrick, added to The X-Files cast this season with the reduced presence of David Duchovny, professes amazement “at how easy Chris is to find. All you have to do is call his office. He’s there every hour of the day. That poor guy works his ass off.”

So maybe it’s a lost cause for Carter, forty-four, to deny his addiction to work. If it’s the truth, it’s out there anyway. Besides, this soft-spoken, intense, idealistic, fiercely loyal, often demanding storyteller has no shortage of other thoughts worth considering. For example, about TV: “It’s a business where they dare you to succeed and, if you take that dare, you’re taking the chance of failure. I’m just kind of realistic about that.”

That sounds straight forward enough-until you remember that Carter, despite his oft-confessed fear of failure, refuses to play it safe. Cop shows, medical shows, lawyer shows? Forget it. Carter wants to do shows about FBI agents who investigate the paranormal (The X-Files), about an FBI agent who sees through the eyes of the criminals he pursues (Millennium), about a soldier trapped in a life-and-death world of virtual reality (Harsh Realm), and, now, about a team of bumbling but earnest investigative reporters who uncover amazing crimes and conspiracies (The Lone Gunmen).

The X-Files, for which a ninth season was under discussion at press time, has achieved TV legend status but, like most unconventional shows, selling the premise wasn’t easy. Fox executives had to be persuaded that viewers would rally round a series that capitalized on fear and that Carter’s chosen leads-Duchovny and, particularly, Gillian Anderson-were right for the parts.

“The X-Files is the result of my setting out to do something that wasn’t on TV at the time, which was a good, scary show,” Carter says. “I would say that the idea of the show has always been to scare people.” Not surprisingly, among his favorite shows growing up were Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic mystery anthology series; Night Gallery, the supernatural anthology series with host Rod Serling; and The Night Stalker, the mid-seventies fantasy series in which a reporter stalked a new, mysterious murderer each week.

As X-Files developed, he realized that it also must be about Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the believer and the skeptic who became instant hits with viewers. “I think the show succeeds best when it succeeds with these characters,” he says, “and it succeeds wonderfully when it succeeds in its storytelling and its character development.”

Millennium lasted three seasons and Carter considers it a success, too, though clearly not of X-Files proportions. Harsh Realm is another story, though. Introduced last fall, it lasted only three episodes. Doug Herzog, then Fox president, failed to nurture or promote the show, Carter says, and likely didn’t understand it. The producer concedes that in fulfilling a network request, he may have tried to pack too much background and exposition into those early episodes, asking too much of viewers. “It was a huge disappointment because I think we had done good work and nobody ever knew the show was on.”

He has a different sense about Lone Gunmen, a spinoff of X-Files, though hugely different in tone. “You can feel when a show is working and you can feel when a show is inspired,” he says, “and this feels inspired. The stories make you laugh just hearing the log lines.”

While The X-Files is a drama with comedic elements, Lone Gunmen – starring Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, Stephen Snedden and Zuleikha Robinson-is a comedy with just enough drama to provide the framework for the plot. Viewer exposure was guaranteed by a launch on the popular Sunday-night Fox schedule. “It’s about misdeeds at all levels of society,” Carter says. “But it’s really about the disenfranchised little guy or some injustice that’s overlooked or buried. These guys pick up the cases that no one wants to take.”

Because Carter is not a producer who abandons one creation for another, he found himself doing double duty much of this season, splitting his time between the two shows. “We don’t just write these scripts and hand them to someone to produce them,” he says. “We spend a lot of time talking about what we should see when, where the camera should be, delivery of information.” Let the camera tell as much of the story as possible, Carter maintains, but don’t make it a character. “These shows are very cinematic in their approach,” he explains. “They require a relationship between the crew, the production personnel, the director and the writing producers. It’s a very collaborative and cooperative endeavor.”

Although Carter keeps tabs on every step in the process, most of his time is spent writing, which becomes more challenging with each succeeding episode. But this is where he shines. He has the ability to focus instantly on the material and filter out all distractions. Yes, it’ll take time to get it right, and he tries not to rush the process.

“I always say that we don’t just write the scripts for some future audience,” Carter says. “You’re writing for the crew, you’re writing for the cast. You’ve got to keep them entertained. And if [you do], most likely, you are well on your way to being successful.”

Though there was no way of predicting that Carter would become one of TV’s leading producers-or, for that matter, one of Time’s twenty-five most influential people in America and one of People’s fifty most beautiful people-his propensity for hard work and writing were obvious from an early age. He grew up in the working-class L.A. suburb of Bellflower and graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1979 with a degree in journalism, having taken a semester off to help a carpenter friend build a house from scratch.

A devotee of surfing from age twelve, he took his first job after college as a writer and editor for Surfing magazine. Starting at the keys of an IBM Selectric taught him the discipline of writing. “It’s not necessarily that I learned to be a writer there. I learned that an enormous part of being a writer is keeping your butt on the chair and your fingers at the keyboard.”

His father, a foreman on a construction crew, took pride in being the hardest worker on every job. The lesson wasn’t lost on young Chris and his younger brother, Craig, now a science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The truth is, I work in what I consider to be a very blue-collar business. It’s a very hard-working environment, and if anybody takes on the air of king or prima donna, you’re in big trouble. My management style is always to work as hard or harder than anybody. My forebears were dairy farmers and flower growers. They were up early and working early. And I say to my wife sometimes, ‘I feel like I’m just doing another version of milking the cows.’ I feel that those hours are the hours I’m genetically disposed to keep.”

One can sense a sort of pride in the amount of time he spends at work. But if you ask Carter what he’s really proud of, he’ll say it’s the longevity of The X-Files and the team he’s assembled at Ten Thirteen Productions (named for his birthdate, October 13, and for his lucky numbers). At the same time, he knows that, to some extent, his philosophy makes him an outsider in the industry where he’s been so successful.

“There is an attitude that effort is vulgar,” he says. “I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s a pervasive attitude. Hard work is for those guys, somebody else. If you can’t be a deal-maker, and if you can’t be out there in the trades, you’re just a content producer. And that’s kind of an irritant to me.”

Another irritant is what he calls the “dabblers” in television, the Hollywood hotshots of the feature world who descend from the film equivalent of Mt. Olympus to dip their toes in the TV waters. They have an idea and maybe a script, and maybe they’ll even direct the pilot. Then someone else runs the show.

“This is not a business for dabblers,” Carter says. “I think that’s why there’s a lot of failure, why television gets a bum rap sometimes. If you look at the good television shows, they are not created by dabblers.”

In 1985, Carter signed a development contract with Walt Disney Studios. Later, he moved to NBC, the result of a meeting on the softball field with Brandon Tartikoff, the late president of NBC Entertainment. Carter went back to Disney in 1989 but, three years later, signed an exclusive deal with Peter Roth and Fox to develop new series. His latest deal with Fox, signed in September, 1998, reportedly spans five years and is worth as least $30 million. Industry experts have speculated that, with all profits from TV and film factored in, it could be worth as much as $100 million. Carter has his own perspective, though.

“The truth is, there’s not a whole lot I want in life,” he says. “I’d love to go surfing when I want to go surfing, where I want to go surfing. I’d like to make sure my wife [screen-writer-novelist Dori Peterson] [sic] has everything she wants in life. That’s very important to me. Beyond that, it is just insurance. You’re forced to be motivated by money in Hollywood because they make it about money. The deal is dishonest and everyone knows that. You are working with a [studio] partner and, in success down the line, there’s going to be a problem because this is a business of not just manufacturing, but a business of accounting.”

Hollywood is about more than dollars and cents, Carter says. “Money is a certain form of justice in Hollywood and no one is an idiot. If they said they were lopping off a few million dollars, would I work as hard? Basically, the virtue of being a hard worker is people get to take advantage of that. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for it.”

In 1998 Carter turned The X-Files into a feature film, and a successful one at that. Reportedly, the movie, shot on a budget of $63 million, had a worldwide gross of $185 million. Carter would like to make more movies, including a second film based on the series. He also plans, sometime this summer, to write the first of two novels for Bantam Books.

And then there’s the Carter Foundation, begun last year, which has issued several thousand dollars in scholarships to needy college freshman who intend to pursue a science major. Carter plans to double the amount this year.

“You know where the money’s going in big universities now?” he asks. “Film schools. Everybody wants to be a film-maker, so they’re pumping money into film schools but they’re not doing anything for science programs. I figure that anything I can do to turn the tide on that would be a smart thing.”

Not long ago, Carter was asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers. His answer should come as no surprise. “Work really, really hard,” he said. “A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I want to write.’ And I always say, ‘What’s stopping you?’ It’s a matter of sitting down in front of a computer, a notepad, a typewriter and doing it. You’re about 90 percent of the way there if you can do that.”

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