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If Magazine: X-Files scribe and producer Frank Spotnitz discusses bringing X-spin-off The Lone Gunmen into the light while also talking about the future of Mulder and Scully

If Magazine
X-Files scribe and producer Frank Spotnitz discusses bringing X-spin-off The Lone Gunmen into the light while also talking about the future of Mulder and Scully
Anthony C. Ferrante

Spinning-off characters from a popular show is never an easy task and TV has been littered with miserable failures for decades (After MASH anyone). For X-Files producer/writer Frank Spotnitz, just the idea of coming up with a proper X-character to spin-off was a Herculean task when the network was thinking in that direction after the show became a cultural phenomenon during its third season.

“There weren’t many characters you could even start to discuss a spin-off with,” says Spotnitz. “As great an actor as Mitch Pileggi, [Assistant Director] Skinner is always the man in the middle and you would have a very hard time making his character the lead of his own series. Beyond that most of the other recurring characters in X-Files have been antagonists.”

That is until Season 6 when recurring characters The Lone Gunmen — who have aided Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) when appropriate since Season 1 — were given their own stand-alone episode “3 of the Kind” which found them in a comedic caper through Las Vegas. It was then Spotnitz and fellow writer-producers John Shiban and Vince Gilligan realized that the notion of turning the characters into their own series was quite viable.

“People had talked about doing a spin-off show of the X-Files before but we always said ‘why, and how,’ but to do it with these three guys was an interesting idea,” says Spotnitz. “Mulder and Scully are the right characters for the X-Files and to drive those type of stories. ‘3 of a Kind’ was a caper and they didn’t just do computer stuff, they did Mission: Impossible type stuff. It was funny charming and sweet.”

When Harsh Realm (the other show developed by X-Files creator Chris Carter’s Ten Thirteen Productions) didn’t last long on FOX, The Lone Gunmen idea once again resurfaced.

“When we thought we would be doing Harsh Realm, we thought we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do The Lone Gunmen spin-off but when Harsh Realm had an early death we immediately went back to discussing Lone Gunmen,” says Spotnitz.

For the uninitiated, The Lone Gunmen are a trio of conspiracy-minded misfits who have come together to publish an underground newspaper (called “The Lone Gunmen”) that uncovers the injustices and cover-ups behind the government and the media. The trio consists of suit-wearing Byers (Bruce Harwood), clumsy Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and computer guru Langly (Dean Haglund). Once the notion of avoiding any of the supernatural elements that make up X-Files were laid to rest, Spotnitz ended up co-creating The Lone Gunmen TV show (with Chris Carter, John Shiban and Vince Gillian) to be a sort of Mission: Impossible show engineered in part by a bumbling, but well-meaning, group of outcasts.

With the show on the fast track, FOX initially wanted them to make it a fall show, but it was decided it would be better to make it a Midseason Replacement series so the order would be smaller and the risk of getting lost amongst all the new fall shows much less.

“We also said ‘it would kill us’ since it’s the same guys doing both this show and The X-Files,” says Spotnitz. FOX relented and now the series is getting a prime, prime-time launch in the coveted X-Files 9:00pm time slot for three weeks until it lands in the old X-slot Fridays at 9:00pm.

“We like being on Fridays because you don’t have to have as big an audience to be considered a hit on Fridays,” says Spotnitz. “There’s a smaller viewership pool and it’s going to come down to how big are the numbers. This is really the same question they must have asked themselves when they were looking at renewing Millennium – ‘do we think we can do better if we put something else that space?'”

While X-Files fans have come to love that series’ dark outlook, Spotnitz thinks that The Lone Gunmen have found their own niche – and it’s the comedy that will be coming out more in subsequent episodes of the series.

“It was definitely an exploration of trying to find it,” says Spotnitz who thinks “Eine Kleine Frohike” is one of the season’s highlights where Frohike goes undercover by pretending to be the son of a notorious Nazi Germany female assassin. “I don’t think we fully committed to The Lone Gunmen in the pilot because it had a lot of darkness and many more straight scenes than the series now has. And some weeks, we veered too wacky and goofy but the best episodes we’ve done have a lot of comedy, heart and emotion and they have a great idea behind them.”

One of those great ideas (actually more funny than anything) was the notion of a blind football team in the second episode “Bond, Jimmy Bond” that introduces another new character, the bumbling Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden) who ends up being the Gunmen’s sugar daddy that funds their struggling underground paper. Rounding out the full-time cast is the show’s lovely antagonist Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) who aids the Gunmen when necessary but whose motives are far more cloaked (her name incidentally is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswell). For Spotnitz, this character is where the show’s main mythology will slowly come into play. Unlike the X-Files though which is now firmly steeped in its UFO mythology (particularly this season with the abduction and search for Mulder), Spotnitz and his team have decided to develop Lone Gunmen’s characters and tone before they start to complicate matters with any significant story mythology.

“The seeds of a mythology have been laid in from the first episode but you won’t see it full bore until the final episode of the season,” says Spotnitz. “It will center around Eve – who she really is, why is she living anonymously, what is her agenda and is she a good or bad guy. When you start to answer those questions, you start to answer and explore the larger mythology which will be completely separate from the X-Files mythology. It’s a real ‘world’ idea that speaks to the way the world operates now. Our thinking was let people get to know these characters and care about them first and then ask them to come along with you as you start to create a larger, fictional world for them. X-Files didn’t get into the mythology until the end of the first season in earnest.”

One aspect of the Lone Gunmen that is apparent from the outset is that the show’s three lead actors – Harwood, Braidwood and Haglund are not the pretty faces you usually see populating big prime-time series, but Spotnitz says that’s also part of the show’s charm. The actors are also more willing to make fools of themselves as was evidenced by Braidwood’s hilarious fall in the mud during the show’s pilot episode.

“Tom was totally committed to that fall in a big way and he did it very well,” laughs Spotnitz. “I think that we’re so used to doing dramatic television that you’re always conscious of making your heroes look heroic but here we can relax and yes, he can fall down or stick his hand up a cow’s butt. We don’t worry about it but he will still be a hero doing these things. That was our greatest obstacle though, wrapping our minds around it and then having actors who have been game for anything. These three guys to me have risen to the challenge and more than carry the show. Plus you think about how many actors out there and character actors in particular that no one would think of as leads for television who if the popular mindset were different could be doing great work.”

In fact Spotnitz notes that although The Lone Gunmen did get many favorable reviews on the outset in major markets, he found that some reporters didn’t like the show by having “a knee jerk reaction and confirming the worst thing about television.”

“We read things where they said ‘oh, they’re not good looking enough or they shouldn’t be TV stars’ and we were thinking ‘is that what you want people to be – that people have to buy into one type of person looking a certain way?'” questions Spotnitz. “I don’t think it is but I don’t think it’s giving people enough credit. There’s all kinds of great actors to connect with and they don’t have to be all good looking people.”

While The Lone Gunmen series has its fill of recurring characters with the addition of both Jimmy Bond and Eve, Spotnitz reveals that a few X-Files characters will be popping up on to the Gunmen show including Mitch Pileggi as Skinner and Michael McKean reprising his role as Area 51 head Morris Fletcher from the popular X-Files two-parter “Dreamland.”

And don’t get too worried about the Lone Gunmen disappearing from the X-landscape anytime soon either.

“They will still pop up on X-Files,” affirms Spotnitz. “It makes it all a lot harder to do because we have to somehow get them out of their day job in Vancouver and get them down here. We managed to do it this season and I think we can continue to do it. They serve a very good function on X-Files.”

It also works out well since the goopier, other-worldly nature of the X-Files won’t be dealt with on the Gunmen’s show as much for obvious reasons.

“There’s a limited potential of doing any of that on the Gunmen show,” says Spotnitz. “You see a little of it in the season finale, but in my mind there’s no point in doing TV series about it. X-Files has done it exhaustibly for eight years, and now we’ve got this whole new canvas to explore with Gunmen and there’s no reason to go back to X-Files territory.”

Speaking of The X-Files, as the show winds down its eighth season, Spotnitz is finally stepping into the director’s chair for the currently untitled Episode 19 which will serve as Mulder and Scully’s last stand alone investigation story.

“It’s not a mythology show – it’s a monster show,” hints Spotnitz. “Agent Scully goes on maternity leave and Agent Doggett is paired with a new partner. When they go out on an X-File that becomes life-threatening, Mulder and Scully are pressed into service even though it’s not their assignment anymore.”

Though Spotnitz says there’s a lot of dread about directing, he’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“The truth is my day job as writer-producer is 70 to 80 hours a week and I didn’t know if I could step out of that to direct,” says Spotnitz. “The only reason I could consider it is that it was the end of the year and I might be able to get away from it. It’s proven very difficult to escape my other obligations though. I’ve never directed before – not a thing, so it’s been very surprising and little frightening. I’ve spent a lot of time in the editing room and have a good understanding of how film cuts together. It’s not the same thing as going in and executing it, so we’ll see if I know what I’m doing.”

With the major “search for Mulder” plotline being resolved in the coming months, Spotnitz also reveals that the best is yet to come.

“Wait until you see those episodes,” says Spotnitz. “It’s interesting, TV viewership drops off until February sweeps until the end of the season but I think our best episodes starting April 1 until the end of the season are the best part of this year. Robert Patrick [who plays new agent Doggett who has aided in the search for Mulder] has had great chemistry with Gillian and now Robert has great chemistry with David as well. The show for us has been as interesting as it ever has been.”

For fans though who have lamented the show’s insistence on teasing about Mulder’s reappearance all season in small doses, Spotnitz sees this frustration from fans as a complement.

“Some times I go on to some of the websites and listen to chats and it’s become a sport to complain,” says Spotnitz. “My question is why are you spending all your time watching the show if you mean what you say?”

The show definitely had a lot going against it at the beginning of the season with Duchovny’s contract having him only appearing in half of the season’s episodes this year, yet Spotnitz feels they’ve lucked out with the presence of Patrick who has stepped into the show quite well. In fact, it’s given FOX a renewed hope that the series could continue Mulder-less now if they continue with it for a ninth season.

“Gillian has another year on her contract and I believe they have a hold on Robert Patrick’s services as well,” says Spotnitz. “I don’t think they have Chris Carter or David Duchovny under contract – that’s the tricky part.”

Of course there’s a lot of waiting at this point notes Spotnitz.

“We’re waiting to see how it all works out, seeing who comes back and who the players will be,” says Spotnitz. “I think this is a show whose idea is practically inexhaustible. It’s a great idea for a television series and the fact we’ve maintained it and improved in our ratings since last year despite the loss of David Duchovny for half the episodes is a testament to that. It really is about what resources do we have to tell stories and who is coming back to tell them.” And would the show continue without Duchovny?

“I think that would most likely be the case,” says Spotnitz. “All of us hope he would come back or come back in a limited way because we love the character of Mulder and like working with him. The show is always better with Mulder in it, but I think it can work without him too.”

In fact, Spotnitz reveals the season finale will actually come to a more concrete resolution than they were able to facilitate last year when the question of The X-Files future was awaiting a final decision on Duchovny’s return up until days before the season finale aired.

“Plotting the ending this year was much less difficult than it was last year, because no matter what happens, whether this is the end of the series or whether the series goes on with some character and not others or there’s a movie franchise after this – this will be the end of eight years of the TV show and we’re writing it as such,” explains Spotnitz. “Something is definitely coming to an end. We have a clear idea what to do. Last year, writing it not knowing whether we were coming back or going to movies was a difficult thing and we had to write and shoot that episode still not knowing the answers to any of those questions.”

There’s also the sticky situations that if X-Files and Lone Gunmen get renewed that the Ten Thirteen team will have more work cut out for them – something that proved to be exhausting but it’s nothing new to the team.

“It’s very hard for us to do two shows at the same time – maybe we need to find some other people who tell stories in the same way we do,” muses Spotnitz. “I just think these are relatively ambitious as far as TV shows go. They’re not one storyline with A-B-C plots. There’s a lot of action and visual effects. I know it’s probably bad to worry about such a thing in fact it’s a high class problem to deal with two full orders of a TV show.”

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