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Fangoria: His Darkest X Files

His Darkest X Files
Sarah Kendzior

Transcribed by pam. All [] are mine; the original article’s brackets are denoted by {}.

X-FILES veteran Kim Manners has directed some of the series’ spookiest — and funniest — entries

[still of Roberts & the well-meaning shrink. Caption]: This year may prove to be X-Files’ last, but director Kim Manners hopes he left viewers “Hungry” for more

[photo of Scully standing in a morgue by a burnt body. Caption]: There were plenty of horrible sights in “Leonard Betts,” but a record number of viewers tuned in to see them.

[behind-the-scenes photo of KM pointing off-camera, with DD looking in the same direction. Caption]: Manners (directing Duchovny in “Theef”) brought two decades of experience with him when he joined the X-Files team.

[photo of Chickenwire!Mulder. Caption]: Best known for his stand-alone episodes, Manners has also guided mythology stories like “Tunguska”

[photo of child holding doll. Caption]: Stephen King’s original “Chinga” script needed some toying with, according to Manners.

[photo of gasping Goopy!Mulder. Caption]: When he went on a “Field Trip,” Manners delivered the sixth season’s best episode. [Keep in mind, this is FANGORIA. ;-]

[photo of writhing-on-the-floor Snake-covered!Mulder. Caption]: “Signs & Wonders” literally had Mulder’s skin crawling.

[body of article]:

His work was the first to receive a parental advisory warning in the history of The X-Files. Opening with a hideously malformed newborn found buried in a shallow grave and featuring the decapitation of a police officer by a clan of murderous inbreeds, the episode, cannily titled “Home,” was also the first to be banned. Following complaints about the episode’s incestuous themes and graphic violence, Fox vowed in 1997 never to replay the program (it was finally repeated for the first time this past season).

“Home” quickly became one of the most controversial and popular entries in the series’ history, and was voted the greatest episode of all time in an FX poll a mere two months after being stripped from network airwaves. For veteran director Kim Manners, who counts “Home” as one of over 30 X-Files credits, the passionate response was hardly surprising.

“When I read the script, I knew that we had a Very Special Episode of The X-Files on our hands,” Manners recalls. “It was the first X-Files script that I thought was truly in the classic horror vein, and I tried to direct it with that in mind. I thought back to the Vincent Price movie The House On Haunted Hill and some of the images in that, and just tried to deliver as much of a horror classic as I could. However, I didn’t have any idea that it would probably prove to be one of the fans’ favorite episodes of all time, and I certainly had no idea that it would see the controversial welcome that it did when it originally aired. I didn’t think I’d offended so many people,” he adds with a laugh. “But there is something to be said in that. At least we got people’s attention, and I’m proud of the episode. I think today it’s one of my best efforts.”

Manners has long grown accustomed to attracting attention. A list of his credits reads like a scorecard of The X-Files’ most memorable and controversial moments: its initial foray into comedy (“Humbug”), its highest-rated episode ever (“Leonard Betts”), its sole Stephen King contribution (“Chinga”). His sharp, visceral style has left its mark on standalones (“Hungry,” “War of the Coprophages”) and sections of the mythology (“Redux II,” “Closure”), and while the director claims his assignments are “strictly luck of the draw,” he does admit his work shares one recurring theme.

“The fans have got me pegged as the king of gore and the king of scary,” the director says. “I like to do scary. I cut my teeth as a kid on horror movies. I loved the Frankenstein series, I loved the Wolf Man series — Lon Chaney Jr. was my hero growing up. I just thought the Wolf Man was the greatest character. And I believe I have a lot of strength in delivering something that’s very scary and riveting on the screen. I don’t know, maybe I have a dark side that I wasn’t aware of.”

Manner’s history with The X-Files began in 1994, when he was first brought to the attention of series creator Chris Carter by seminal X-Files scribes Glen Morgan and James Wong. “I tried very hard to get on The X-Files during the first season, and for a lot of reasons I found it impossible to crack,” he recalls. “And in the second season, {producer} Bob Goodwin and Chris Carter agreed to look at a piece of film I directed that Jim and Glen wrote for 21 Jump Street called ‘2245,’ which was about the execution of a youthful offender on Death Row.”

Manners was soon hired to helm the Morgan and Wong-penned classic “Die Hand Die Verletzt.” “About two weeks after I finished directing it,” he says, “I was in Los Angeles and the phone rang and they made me a producer. I’ve been here ever since.”

The director sees himself as the final component integral to building the original creative team behind the series. “At the time I joined the show, it was just becoming a bona fide hit, and there wasn’t any proprietorship,” he notes. “It wasn’t like a family unit where outsiders weren’t welcome. The series was still in its growing stages. David Nutter was their producer/director in the first season, and then he moved on, and Robbie Bowman did two or three shows. I was the final guy they brought in, and they had their little team. We did a guest director here and a guest director there, but we had our core group of people, and I was the last guy to join that. And from there, the series kind of snowballed because we all felt so comfortable together.”

Less comfortable for Manners was the second-season episode “Humbug,” a tale of circus freaks whose darkly comedic tone was a bold departure for the heretofore stolid series. “As a new member of the producerial staff, I was very, very nervous to be handed the first comedy ever,” he says. “We were all swimming in uncharted waters. It was my second episode ever, and it was Darin Morgan’s first {scripting} effort.”

On the plus side, “Humbug” was also the first Files to prominently feature a body-mutilating contortionist who hammers nails through his nose and his tattoo-covered, insect-swallowing companion. “I had a lot of fun working with Jim Rose,” says Manners, referring to the legendary circus showman who appears in the episode as Dr. Blockhead. “Jimmy was terrific; he and the Enigma were just fabulous. That was a totally crazy set. Jimmy, on several different occasions and without too much prompting, was very readily there to show you his organ origami. It was really quite something.”

The successful “Humbug was not only a turning point for Manners, but for the series itself. “When I saw how well that show was received, I knew that we were suddenly given the license to go anywhere we wanted,” he says. “This is a really exciting series for the fans, because we can do so many different things and go in so many different directions that it’s really boundless. We can get dark, but we also have a tendency to make fun of ourselves — we’ve certainly poked fun at Mulder. But dark humor is like terror or horror itself; there’s something exciting and edgy about it. And that edge is really what is keeping the show on the air.”

By 1996, The X-Files had transformed from mild cult favorite to a full-fledged hit, and Manners, by then an established set presence, found himself the target of the show’s penchant for self-mockery. “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,'” a third-season episode penned by Darin Morgan and directed by Bowman, featured a profanity-spewing character named Detective Manners, a tribute to the director’s distinctive pattern of speech. “Yes, I do have a foul mouth,” Manners laughs. “I try to keep it clean when I’m talking to people I don’t know. But you wouldn’t want to be around me when I’m on the set and things aren’t going well!

“I was actually supposed to play Detective Manners,” he reveals. “I used to be an actor, but I quit when I was 19 years old. I told Robbie I’d do it, but it was toward the end of the season and I was dog-tired. I felt if I got on the set, forgot my lines and buried Rob Bowman in terms of his schedule, I’d feel real bad. So I didn’t play the part. After I saw ‘Jose Chung’ come together, I kicked myself right in the ass because I thought, ‘Man, I could have done such a better job than that guy.’

“I liked the show very much,” Manners hastens to explain. “But even though the actor had to say, ‘Sure enough is a blankety-blank dead alien if I ever seen one,’ he didn’t do it with any attitude. When a man is cussing or swearing, he does it with attitude. I don’t cuss or swear because I’m a mean man or because I’m angry, I cuss or swear because I’ve been on sets since I was 3 years old, and I’ve been raised by grips and electricians, and all they do is cuss and swear.”

The director is the son of Sam Manners, a television producer whose credits include Rin Tin Tin, Wild Wild West and Naked City. His father’s choice of profession resulted in a somewhat unusual upbringing. “I grew up literally on the set,” he recalls. “I started acting when I was 3. In the early ’60s, I traveled with my mom and dad and several other families and their children on a television series called Route 66, and we had a tutor. We had school for three hours, and then we would go to the set and hang out with the crew for the whole day. I was kind of a set rugrat.”

Manners finds it difficult to imagine life outside the industry. “I was born and raised in it. It’s all I know,” confides the director, who has worked on 23 series, including Charlie’s Angels, Simon And Simon and 21 Jump Street. “I’ve been directing a little over 20 years, so I’ve probably done about 260 hours of television. I’ve had a very, very fruitful career, knock wood. But if I wasn’t a successful director, I’d be holding a sign on the corner going ‘Will Work For Food.’ This business is all I know.”

Despite his numerous television credits, Manners remains the only regular X-Files director never to have helmed a motion picture, a fact which confounds many of his avid fans. “I would love to do a feature film,” he explains. “I’ve been reading scripts for the last three years, and I haven’t read a good one yet. There’s a lot of very poor, poor material out there. As I’ve told my agent, ‘If you can bring me a script that’s better than an X-Files script, I’ll consider leaving.’ But until that time, I’m just going to stay here and do good work every week.”

Manners dismisses the idea of attempting to write his own screenplay, claiming, “I can’t write a check, let alone a script! My energy is way beyond the boundaries of being a writer.

I need to be on the set, I need to be up and running.” Although an admitted horror fan, his choice in material extends well beyond the genre. “I’ve always been keen to do a Western,” he says enthusiastically. “Or just a good human interest story. I’d have cut my arm off to be able to direct The Green Mile.

Did you see that movie? Truly amazing. And American Beauty. I would have loved to have done that. Simple stories — those human interest pieces really appeal to me. That’s why I enjoyed doing ‘Milagro,’ because ‘Milagro’ was a character study.”

A sixth-season entry written by Carter, “Milagro” is one of many that Manners cites as his favorite experiences directing the series. “There’s that, and there’s ‘Home,’ certainly,” he says. “We also had a lot of fun doing ‘The Rain King.’ That was a ball. It was such a different episode of The X-Files, strictly a fantasy. I felt like we were telling a fairy tale. I loved ‘Monday,’ I thought ‘Monday’ was just great. On a recent one I did, ‘Signs & Wonders,’ which is about the Church of the Holy Ghost, we had a great actor named Michael Childress who did a fabulous job. If he doesn’t get an Emmy nomination, I’ll be shocked. I also loved ‘Kaddish.’ Gosh, what else did I really love working on … I loved working on them all.”

Well, almost all. “The worst one I ever did was a little thing called ‘Teso dos Bichos,'” he admits. “Best three acts of television I ever directed, and act four came along and everything went to hell in a handbasket. ‘Sanguinarium’ was kind of on the bubble for me, because it was sort of a gratuitous thing. But I’ve been pretty damn happy with my product, by and large. I’ve been very lucky;

I’ve gotten one good script after another.”

One teleplay that proved particularly memorable was “Chinga,” initially written by King but later reworked by Carter. “We read Stephen King’s script, which was terrific, but probably unproduceable for an hour of network television,” Manners recalls. “Chris rewrote it. It was fun to do, and I think it translated well. People either really liked ‘Chinga’ or really hated it. That was another episode where it got a strong response, either positive or negative, but no one walked away and said, ‘Oh, just another episode.'”

Manners views the notoriously vocal X-Files viewership with a mixture of frustration and awe. “Here is a fan base that has an absolute, total and personal investment in a TV series,” he notes. “I used to get on the Internet and look in the chat rooms, but then I got upset, because they think it’s their TV show. And we can’t make everybody happy. But I do think that one day, 10 or 15 years from now, people are going to look back on The X-Files as they would look back on I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone, as one of the more important series that has ever been on TV.”

Essential to the show’s success are stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, with whom Manners has recently been linked in unexpected ways. As the series nears the end of its seventh, and likely final, season, Anderson and Duchovny have become active behind the scenes, each writing and directing an installment to air this spring. It is a situation over which Manners initially expressed concern: “Years ago, I used to feel that if an actor wanted to direct, he should go out and compete with other directors, and not just direct on his own TV series because it does take food out of another director’s mouth.

“But now that I’ve been involved in this series as long as I have, I see what David’s and Gillian’s investment is in this series — their human investment,” he continues. “They have given so much of their own personal lives toward the success of this show that they’ve earned the right to direct. They’ve done Mulder and Scully so long that they’re growing, and part of that growth is wanting to do other things. Since their lives center around this series, the only thing fresh for them to do is direct, so it makes sense.”

While relations with the series’ stars have not always run smooth (“David and I butted heads in the beginning”), Manners expresses nothing but affection for the two actors, and confidence in their ability to work behind the camera. “I was very proud of David,” he says. “He did a bang-up job on his ‘Unnatural,’ and I’m quite certain that Gillian is going to do a great job on her episode. These are both very intelligent people. They pay attention. I have worked on a lot of TV series over the years and I have never, especially in the seventh year of a series, worked with two nicer or sweeter people. They get a little moody now and then, but all and all they’re probably the best star cast members I’ve ever worked with.”

With his sixth year on The X-Files coming to a close, Manners has no plans to depart from its parent company, Ten Thirteen Productions. “Chris is doing a new pilot,” he reveals. “If it sells and gets off the ground, I’ll stay with Chris and do that series. If X-Files goes on, I’ll stay with X-Files. If Chris doesn’t do anything, I’ll be moving on. But I’d bet on Chris Carter any day.” Manners expresses no regret over his time spent with the series, and reserves a special fondness for episodes such as “Home,” whose unconventional approach has ensured The X-Files’ legacy.

“I don’t really look for controversy, but part of The X-Files’ success is that we have done some episodes that have shaken a few trees,” he says. “Not that I’m knocking ER, but when you sit down to watch that, it’s pretty much what you expect to see every week — somebody gets an appendectomy or someone almost dies of cancer. On The X-Files, we have an opportunity every episode to do something totally different than we’ve ever done before, and totally different from what the audience has seen.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m still here, because creatively it’s like a day at Disneyland for me, as a director,” he concludes. “I’ve done 35 episodes now and had 35 different opportunities to do something where the audience turns off the show and says, ‘Wow, that was great.’ For whatever reason. There was a moment or two moments or four moments in that episode the audience will never forget. And that, to me, is special.”

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4 Responses to “Fangoria: His Darkest X Files”

  1. […] Manners had worked with Morgan and Wong on 21 Jump Street, and was brought in on that basis. Manners has suggested that his arrival really cemented the show’s production team, representing the final building block: […]

  2. […] It makes sense that Carter would have had to rewrite the episode. As with Kill Switch, there was an understandable sense that the author (who had primarily worked in prose) was not entirely aware of the production constraints on a prime-time television show filmed in Vancouver. As director Kim Manners explained: […]

  3. […] To be fair to Milagro, it does work reasonably well on its own terms. Asked to cite some of his favourite work on the show, director Kim Manners pointed to Milagro as a story that resonated with him: […]