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Entertainment Weekly: Playing with Fire

Entertainment Weekly
Playing with Fire
Ken Tucker

[Original article here — Published in issue #436 Jun 12, 1998]

Now that The X-Files is a major motion picture, will questions about the cover-ups, conspiracies, and Cancer Man finally be answered? Will Mulder and Scully finally kiss? And will anyone besides the show’s viewers care? The truth is in here.

It’s the last week of shooting the X-Files: Fight The Future, and the soundstage stinks.

It absolutely reeks, right around the chair of Rob Bowman, director of the $60 million-plus feature film based on the Fox TV series. Bowman, 38, who has also directed 25 episodes of the most popular alien-abduction/government-conspiracy/ delayed-sexual-gratification drama in TV history, is battling a bad combination of exhaustion and the flu. He’s wheezing, hacking, and coughing so much, his phlegm could be used to construct a classically disgusting new X-Files enemy for FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Having gone the usual orange-juice-and-echinacea route for the past few days, Bowman has now asked an assistant to bring him some sort of health-foody, homeopathic medicine; when he snaps open a capsule of a vile liquid that looks like glutinous tobacco juice, it emits a smell worse than an average episode of Suddenly Susan.

”Ewww, jeez!” says Duchovny from a few feet away, pulling a sleeve of his shapeless black FBI overcoat over his nose. Duchovny is preparing to do another take of a scene in which he must lean over a very deep hole in some artificial snow to try to rescue his acting-like-she’s-freezing costar. In fact, however, it is a rather hot day in August on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, and so the pungent odor of Bowman’s medicine quickly permeates the warm air.

”Sorry, sorry,” croaks Bowman. ”Let’s just do this and ignore me, okay?” Everyone assumes their places. Bowman peers into the camera viewfinder, framing the shot; Duchovny-as-Mulder gets on his stomach and reaches down into the snowy hole; Anderson in turn reaches up, her face immediately assuming Scully’s typical in-jeopardy expression: helplessly beseeching yet thoroughly annoyed that she needs help. ”I’ve got you!” says Mulder, although he most certainly does not. They stretch their hands toward each other, their fingers almost touching in a sort of arctic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and then…

”Cut! That’s all I want,” says Bowman. ”Anyone want another one?” ”Mmmm, maybe just one more?” says a voice from the shadows. It’s Chris Carter, God of The X-Files — creator, writer, executive producer, and at 41, bearer of a head of curly silver surfer’s hair no mere mortal could possess. God wants another take. One senses a score of groans being suppressed all over the stinking set. The players reassume their places. ”I’ve got you!” says Mulder again. The shot is shot. Bowman sneezes. Carter smiles. Everyone files out blinking into the bright Los Angeles sunshine, where a lunch truck that serves only fancy-schmancy iced-mocha-coffee drinks is waiting to stoke cast and crew with chilled caffeine.

Yesterday, James Cameron and Leonardo DiCaprio visited the set to say hello,” says Duchovny. ”This soundstage is where they filmed a big chunk of Titanic; Cameron calculated that where our snow hole is, there was probably a flooded stateroom a few months ago.” Did Cameron have any words of wisdom for the X-Files project? ”He said, good luck, and that he bet he made Kate Winslet scream a lot more in his film than Gillian does in this one.”

Gillian Anderson giggles when she’s told of Cameron’s remark. ”He’s right,” she says happily. ”Scully may get in a lot of bad fixes in this movie, but she doesn’t lose it–if anything, it’s Fox who goes a little wilder, gets more scared, in this movie.”

Not that she’s going to reveal anything of what the film’s about, of course. The secrecy surrounding Fight the Future is its chief selling point, in the same way that the series has climbed the ratings ladder by diving ever deeper into a murky government cover-up of an alien occupation of America (see sidebar on page 29). Carter addresses the subject in only the biggest, most grandly obfuscatory terms: ”I can’t tell you the plot, I just can’t–that’s my hole card, that element of surprise. But it incorporates all of the elements of the mythology [the TV show’s periodic story lines dealing with the alien/government hugger-mugger] to date. I want the opportunity to give big answers to the big questions that I’ve been posing for the past four or five years. This is a chance to explode the show in a way that when the pieces land, it’ll reenergize the show for year six.”

And besides, as Duchovny puts it with his Princeton-honed wiseass bluntness: ”If we ever revealed the secrets behind all this, the show would be unmasked as the ridiculous little hoax that it is.”

This ridiculous little hoax, a perennial top 20 TV hit, is 20th Century Fox’s chief weapon in the summer box office war of action-adventure films. Deep Impact and Godzilla had huge openings but mediocre reviews and word of mouth; their resonance-free successes suggest the public may be tiring of loud, massive, but hollow summer movies. This could make a well-received Fight the Future–a loud, massive movie of ideas; F/X with an IQ–a satisfying triumph for its studio.

Bill Mechanic, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, is literally banking on having the TV show’s 20 million weekly fans line up for the movie during its June 19 opening weekend, and, if there is a God besides Carter, to return multiple times to mull over the movie’s finer points. The trick will be to get non-Files fans to come see it, too.

”I didn’t watch the show regularly,” says Mechanic. ”And once we started shooting, I studiously stopped watching any episodes at all. I wanted it so when I looked at this movie, I would be coming to it cold, without any fan knowledge. If I could understand it and follow it, anyone could. And that’s what happened; this is not a cult, exclusionary movie.”

Both Carter’s camp and the Fox movie folk now say everything is ducky between them, but it was widely rumored that the studio was worried when Carter announced that the TV show’s May 17 season ender would be a cliff-hanger that led into the movie. A month would have passed from the series’ finale to the movie’s opening date; what if the plot were unclear or too dense to grab summer ticket buyers who wandered into the multiplex for the air-conditioning and a thrill ride?

From what ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has learned, it’s likely that Carter and Bowman have done the job in a way that, as Carter puts it, “will bring new people into our ongoing story but won’t offend the hardcore viewer.” X-Files coproducer Frank Spotnitz, who cooked up the Fight the Future plot with Carter over eight days in Hawaii a year and a half ago, says the film is “an adventure story with political undercurrents, more like The Parallax View”–the 1974 Warren Beatty-Alan J. Pakula conspiracy thriller–than “a monster episode of X-Files.” Hmmm–would maybe Fox rather have a monster-style X-Files than a movie that summons up comparisons to a 24-year-old Beatty flick? Mechanic laughs. “Listen: This is a good, scary movie. Besides, we just put out Bulworth–you think I want Warren Beatty calling me if I knock a Parallax View comparison?”

The future that Mulder and Scully must fight starts in the distant past–about 35,000 B.C. That’s where we’ll get our first glimpse of a creature filled with a substance familiar to X-Files devotees–an oily-black blood. This is the very first invader, one who’ll spawn what Carter calls in a spoken-word bonus cut on the Fight the Future soundtrack album “a population of alien hybrids who would hide in plain sight.”

Getting out the truth about the alien colonists causes lots of trouble for Mulder and Scully, as well as guest stars including Lucas Black (the Sling Blade kid, who stumbles upon the prehistoric, oily ET), Martin Landau (as a fresh variation on an X-Files standby–an info-leaking deep throat), and Blythe Danner, as a tough FBI interrogator. Carter says Danner’s character “represents what Agent Scully might have become had she not been recruited for the X-Files assignment. I hope people will pick up on this.” (Apparently Anderson herself did not pick up on this. Told of Carter’s remarks, she seems genuinely baffled. “Really? Chris said that? Now I’m gonna have to go back and reread the script.”)

Plenty of stuff will happen to keep Internettlesome fans buzzing. In fact, we think a buzzing bee will interrupt a long-awaited Mulder-Scully smooch. We think Mulder, while in a hospital gown, will moon movie audiences. We think Scully will utter the F-word and that Mulder says the S-word. We think the aliens have three fingers, and Duchovny said for a fact that the one time both he and Anderson were just sick of the whole damn thing was the day “we were out in a field, really exhausted, and Gillian got hit in the eye with a sharp cornstalk,” so either there are scenes set on a farm or Fight the Future is really just a big-screen remake of Hee Haw.

A visit to the L.A. movie set enables a desperately curious reporter to walk along a long row of vertical, milky-green tubes–“cryopods,” Carter calls them–filled with milky green, half-human, half-alien beings. “You’re standing in one spoke of a spacecraft,” says Carter, “and that’s all I’m going to tell you.” It is very dark; negotiating the spoke is like walking along a narrow balance beam, and the stage crew setting up the shot looks big, mean, and out of sorts, so no tough follow-up questions are asked. Sue me.

Another professionally curious visitor to the set is parent company News Corp. president Peter Chernin. He places the equivalent of a freshly iced trout in one’s palm as a handshake, smiles blankly (is there a trace of black oil behind his eyeballs?), and takes Carter aside. A few minutes later, Carter returns, folds his arms, looks out at the set, and says quietly out of the side of his mouth, ”He’ll grin and joke with me now, but then he might go back to his office and start yelling about something we’re doing here–it’s all part of the game.”

And Carter, by now, knows how to play the game. ”You get a lot of people who can muck it up–and not maliciously,” he says. ”There are simply a lot of people in Hollywood who create value in their position by being destroyers. That is, they become part of a project by threatening it–by being the guy who acts like he’s going to be the voice of reason, or the voice of power, or the voice of veto, and who ends up draining the originality and creativity out of the process of making a movie or a TV show. There are too many of those people out here.

”That, if anything, is what’s made me, in some people’s minds, ‘a control freak.’ I’m known as a difficult person, because I’m always pushing to make it good, and the truth is, [the studio is] always pushing to make it cheap. I prefer to think of it as just wanting to keep the destroyers at bay.”

If The X-Files is a world Carter has created for himself that just happens to have also attracted the obsessions of millions of others, the show is something less urgent for the actors who’ve been made stars by it. Duchovny likes to downplay the glamour of it all–”It’s pretty workaday, people don’t seem to realize: You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder.” And while the TV series will move production from Vancouver to Los Angeles next season, in large part due to Duchovny’s oft-stated desire to be geographically closer to his wife, Tea Leoni, he doesn’t seem especially psyched about plumbing new depths in Fox Mulder.

”I would’ve liked this past season to be the last,” he says flatly. He’s sitting in his trailer on the Fight the Future set, dressed in T-shirt and shorts. His Nike-sandaled feet rest on copies of Yoga Journal and the Don DeLillo novel Underworld on a coffee table. Ask about the possibility that this movie could turn into a franchise a la Star Trek, and he’s even more blunt: ”I’d much rather be involved in a franchise movie series than do the goddamn TV show every week.”

Duchovny is mildly chastened by the box office failure of last year’s Timothy Hutton-with-peroxide thriller Playing God–”It was shot in five weeks, and from the response it got, it apparently looked it”–but he’s still actively pursuing a non-Files film career. ”I’m talking to Oliver Stone about doing his NFL movie, but it shoots in October, so that would call for some tricky scheduling” around the series.

Anderson is eager to see the response she gets from her upcoming feature The Mighty, in which she has a small but reportedly meaty role as a working-class alcoholic. ”For me, it’s time to level the playing field,” she says, ”to prove that a TV actress can do good film work. I was told that one major player in The Mighty said before I was cast that she’d never work with a TV actress, so I know that prejudice still exists.” Anderson won’t say who the female acting snob was. The film stars Sharon Stone.

If the actors don’t look upon the movie as too much of a technical stretch, the main man behind the camera does. Bowman’s primary challenge is to expand The X-Files for the big screen, mounting elaborate action sequences while also finding a way to introduce faces familiar to fans–such as William B. Davis’ ever-ominous Cigarette Smoking Man, a key link in the government-alien collaboration–to X-innocent moviegoers. “It all has to do with building atmosphere,” says Bowman. “People who wander in with buckets of popcorn may not know how long and hard Mulder and Scully have fought Cigarette Smoking Man, but if I do my job right, they’ll know that this butt-puffing little bastard is an enemy to fear the moment he appears on screen.”

Bowman, like the actors, is looking beyond The X-Files; he’ll be aboard for the next TV season, but he’s also fielding offers for other features. You get the feeling that despite the hard work of everyone involved, the Files remain central only to Carter’s creative life. His way of fighting the future has always been to play out a chancy paradox: Carter is a maker of hugely popular entertainment, yet all of his crucial influences derive from cult or obscure sources. He was a surfer in the ’70s when surfing wasn’t cool, editor of a surfing magazine when being an editor–well, was being an editor ever cool, unless you’re talking Cary Grant in His Girl Friday? Carter did his TV apprenticeship on shows like the hideous ’87-’88 Joseph Bologna sitcom Rags to Riches. And he took much of the original inspiration for The X-Files from Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a mid-’70s TV flop now better known as a Carter icon than for its own highly uneven if instructively seedy charms.

When it is pointed out that what’s great about the TV X-Files is that it is an exact example of what the film critic and painter Manny Farber has called “termite art”–“art that always goes forward eating its own boundaries, [leaving] nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity”–Carter’s normal murmur rises with excitement. “Farber is one of my favorite writers and artists! People could do a lot worse than looking for the roots of the X-Files sensibility in his work.”

And when it is then suggested that the pitfall of an X-Files feature film is that it will inflate to the size of what Farber derisively called “white elephant art,” full of “recognizable details and smarmy compassion…[and] fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film,” Carter grows quiet. “Yes,” he says finally. “But even if that happens, I should at least make sure the elephant steps on the right people.”

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2 Responses to “Entertainment Weekly: Playing with Fire”

  1. […] or not you agree with his politics,” Carter conceded before the start of the fourth season. Towards the end of the fifth season, David Duchovny would admit to talking to Oliver Stone about taking part in Any Given Sunday. As […]

  2. […] In interviews, it seemed almost like Duchovny was hoping that the studio would call his bluff when he demanded the show move to Los Angeles. Like Carter, it seemed like Duchovny had only planned for five seasons of The X-Files. In interviews around the release of the film, he made it clear that he was less than enthused about the prospect of returning for a sixth season: […]