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Producer Magazine: Xploring the Paranormal

Producer Magazine
Xploring the Paranormal
Debra Kaufman

Now in its second season, Chris Carter’s X-Files brings viewers into the realm of extreme possibilities – and tries its best to scare the pants off of them.

If you like your television programming on the scary side, chances are you’re already watching “X-Files.” Thousands of self-proclaimed “X-Philes” are already addicted to the Friday night episodic whose main goal is to produce a serious case of the willies.

Produced by Twentieth Television in association with Fox Broadcasting Company, X-Files, now in its second season, chronicles the adventures of two FBI agents – special agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and special agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) – who investigate unsolved cases (X-Files) which lead them into the unknown realms of the paranormal. In each episode, the deep recesses of the human mind and the mysterious worlds of the paranormal interconnect in thrilling and terrifying ways.

“We try to scare the pants off of people,” admits X-Files creator/executive producer Chris Carter. “And we try to do it intelligently, in the realm of extreme possibilities.”

The show’s fearless exploration of paranormal themes is echoed in its storytelling style, which ventures away from the Hollywood television formula. Many of its most memorable episodes explore the characters’ psychological lives and present realistically ambiguous endings.

That modus operandi is visible in “Beyond the Sea,” creator Carter’s favorite episode. In it, agent Scully, whose father has just died, begins to lose her skepticism about the paranormal when confronted with a condemned killer who claims to be able to channel spirits from the past. At the episode’s end, she “gets” a message from her dead father in a way that somehow relates to and transcends her paranormal experiences.

“The ambiguous end is part of the beauty and mystery of the show,” says Carter. “But there were big, big battles about this very issue in the beginning. In our very first episode, I had a rather heated argument about `wrapping the show up.’ The executives wanted complete closure and explanation about what had happened. I argued that we can put things up for speculation, but we cannot draw hard conclusions.”

Carter is happy to report that those very same executives who fought hard for a more traditional TV ending are now behind him “100 percent” when it comes to the show’s more tantalizing semi-closures. Though he stresses that the “give and take” between the creatives and the executives is of vital importance to the show, he’s had to strike a balance between sticking with his instincts and listening to the opposing point of view. In the beginning days of X-Files, Carter faced another incident that tested his mettle as creator/executive producer. Though he’s “often bowed to other people’s tastes” with casting, he knew he wanted the then untried Gillian Anderson for his agent Scully.

“I stood up in a room full of people and said that I wanted this person and nobody else,” remembers Carter. “I thought later that I’d laid my whole career on the line.”

The good news is that Carter’s choice vindicated him. Anderson, though reportedly “very green” during her first days on the pilot, was a quick study – and her chemistry with co-star Duchovny produced a kind of “magic” that’s made everybody on the show happy.

“You’re always developing your instincts in this business,” says Carter about the casting incident. “And this gave me more confidence.”

Carter’s start in Hollywood combined a good measure of instincts and confidence, with a generous dose of Hollywood fairy tale. As a freelance sports journalist and, later, editor of “Surfing” magazine (“I was trying to extend my adolescence,” he notes), he decided to try his hand at scriptwriting. His second script was read by Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg who signed him to a three-picture deal. Once there, the first seven projects he wrote for television got made.

“It was like fishing in a barrel,” he recalls. “But I was writing other people’s idea. And I decided to stake my own claim and not be a writer for hire.”

Carter first created a short-lived series, “Brand New Life,” for NBC Productions which ran on Disney. But when he got a call from someone he knew who had gone to Twentieth Television, Carter signed a deal and came up with the idea for X-Files. The idea for X-Files was chiefly inspired by “Night Stalker,” which mesmerized Carter in high school. Also a fan of “Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and “Night Gallery,” Carter wanted to spook audiences the way he’d been spooked as a teenager.

X-Files is shot in Vancouver, B.C., which Carter dubs “a Hollywood boomtown.” The show’s Canadian location is less the result of that country’s lower production costs than Vancouver’s fabled forests and a bit of serendipity. The X-Files pilot needed a forest location and, though the creative team made a mighty effort to produce it in the Los Angeles area, they couldn’t come up with a forest.

Vancouver proved to be the ticket for the pilot and, since then, tis wealth of locations has proven valuable, since the X-Files agents go someplace different each episode. Two location scouts work on alternate episodes scouting Vancouver, which, says Carter, can double for nearly anywhere in the U.S. Gastown Post & Transfer in Vancouver handles the film processing and telecine transfer. The show is offlined on an Avid Media Composer and onlined at Encore Video in Los Angeles.

With the exception of the writing and producing staff, the entire X-Files crew is Canadian. Over 300 Canadian actors were hired last year for roles on the show; and average of three American actors were used per episode. So far, all the directors have been American. Carter’s “secret weapons” on the show include cinematographer John S. Bartley CSC, whom Carter credits with making X-Files very visually interesting.

“He’s painterly in the way he gives us our mood, and our mood is what the show is about,” Carter asserts.

Co-executive producers/”secret weapons” Glen Morgan and James Wong write episodes as well as produce, as does Carter who, last season, wrote or co-wrote about one-third of the episodes. And this year, just before the show began airing again, Carter took the plunge and gave himself the job of directing and episode.

The episode, “Duane Barry” (which Carter also wrote), is about a man who believes he has been abducted by aliens. Institutionalized, the man is sedated until he escapes and takes a group of people hostage. Agent Mulder is called in and . . . that’s all Carter will say. If last season’s X-Files is any indication, the episode is bound to cause more than a few viewers a nervous night. For Carter, his first directing experience was an invaluable way “to become a better producer and a better editor.”

In addition to taking criticism from executives and learning on the job, Carter and the X-Files creative team also pay attention to what X-Files fans are saying – this season, on the Internet. [ 🙂 🙂 ]

“Every day working in this business, you get smarter,” Carter observes.

It’s a search for knowledge that’s echoed in the show’s mantra – “the truth is out there” – and its raison d’ĂŞtre of exploring the unknown.


Sidebar: “Capturing the X-Files”

Vancouver, B.C. – Cinematographer John S. Bartley CSC uses an Arriflex 35mm camera package to shoot The X-Files. According to Bartley, the show uses three camera bodies: the Arri 535 (“A” camera) with forward and reverse capabilities at constant and variable speed from 4 fps to 50 fps, speed ramping and color video assist. The “B” camera is an Arri BLIV with off-speed capability from 6 fps to 32 fps and B&W video assist. Similarly, the “C”/Steadicam camera is an Arri BLIII with off-speed capability from six fps to 32 fps and B&W video assist.

Bartley uses a range of lenses, including 18mm, 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm and 20mm-100mm (5-1) zoom lens. Heads include the Arrihead with built-in tilt plate, Steadicam, Clairemont Power Pod with Swiss Jib camera crane, O’Conner Fluid Head and Ronford 7 Underslung-type head. -D.K.

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