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Sci Fi Entertainment: The ABCs of 'X'

Sci Fi Entertainment
The ABCs of ‘X’
Melissa J Perenson

[typed by Amy]

Neither of the show’s two main stars have returned yet. David Duchovny, who plays Fox Mulder with a deadpan aplomb, is due to return first, and his Emmy nominated co-star Gillian Anderson, who plays the scientific and pragmatic Dana Scully, returns the following week; both spent the summer hiatus filming feature films (Return To Me and House Of Mirth, respectively). But you can already feel the energy as the crew gears up for a new season.

For the moment filming is limited to a scene in a psychiatrist’s office, an otherwise ordinary looking set with perfectly slanted blinds allowing just the right amount of mood-setting light through. The crew is milling about, setting up the shot for director Kim Manners. The episode being filmed, “Hungry” is actually not the first episode of the season; rather, it’s an episode written by co-executive producer Vince Gilligan that follows an X-File case from the perspective of the monster

Elsewhere on the sound stage–whose elegant art deco facade betrays it’s status as on of the older stages on the lot–are scattered standing sets. Currently, those sets are dark, but they’re just waiting to come to life once more–Mulder and Scully’s apartments, Skinner’s office, the main corridors of FBI headquarters. On the show’s other stage stands Mulder and Scully’s office and corridor; the Lone Gunmen’s command center; and the Navajo hut used in the sixth-season finale, “Biogenesis.”

Breaking an X-File

After five years of working together as a team on The X-Files, the show’s core producers have settled into a comfortable routine that’s solid enough for them to comfortably take on the responsibilities of launching a new Fox series, Harsh Realm. Series creator Chris Carter is pulling double duty shepherding both series, as is X-Files’ executive producer Frank Spotnitz. But Spotnitz is also a key part of the trio of writer-producers who are responsible for the day to day writing for the series. The other two components in the puzzle are Gilligan , and supervising producer John Shiban.

“We all connect in a very natural way”, says Spotnitz. “There’s so much verbal shorthand that the three of understand; our rhythms in story telling are kind of this undeniable thing.”

The synergy between Spotnitz, Gilligan, and Shiban is clear, even as the three sit together for an interview in Spotnitz’s office. As they describe the process of turning concepts and ideas into full fledged X-File episodes, it’s easy to extrapolate and imagine how the three producers play off one another in story meetings.

The producers rely on a process called “boarding”, in which they “break” a story by dividing up the four acts and the teaser into concept nuggets written in block print on 3 by 5 index cards. “It starts with an idea and we all have ideas floating around, and we all kick them around constantly”, explains Shiban. “We’ll often sit down and beat out the story scene by scene on these cards. But sometimes you’ll go through a story you’re trying to beak and it’ll take two or three boards to go through the entire thing and plot it all out. The we’ll pitch it to Chris and if it’s not quite right or we all sense that it needs another element, we take it all apart and rebuild it. All that is done before the first page is written.”

“The first board for [fifth season’s] ‘Unusual Suspects’ was a real…I don’t want to say stink-a-roo, but the whole thing ended up being thrown out,” admits Gilligan of his own Lone Gunmen focused episode. “It happens.”

“The bad ones, the unsuccessful episodes, are the ones where you got to the end of the board and you never quite figured out why you were telling the story or what the central idea was,” explains Spotnitz. “And that’s happened a couple of times, rarely. You just run out of time, and then in the editing room you find yourself trying to fix the problems you never fixed in the script, which is always a losing game.”

At the beginning of the season, there’s perhaps a month, month and a half lead time on an episode. “And as the year progresses the window shrinks,” says Gilligan. “Sometimes you have a script that comes up and you’re struggling to come up with the idea and the thing is due in 15, 14, 13 days.”

“Sometimes we’ll have ideas that have been floating around for as long as a season or two and then finally you get to do that one–the elements are all there,” adds Shiban. “One television, every eight days you’ve got another script due. No matter how much time you have it always seems to be down to the wire.”

No one script is the work of a single writer-regardless of the credits that appear on screen. “We all have different strengths. Vince will often come up with a stunning visual idea or a creepy look,” says Shiban.

“And Frank and John are really strong with plot”, offers Gilligan. Vince loves writing more than anybody I know,” Spotnitz contributes. “Frequently we’ll come up with a scene and he’ll go ‘Oh, that’s going to be fun to write.’ And he does have fun. All the producers try to understand the story so well that if we had to, we could come in and write it ourselves. And often we do, or we re-write somebody else.” For as much as writing is a part of Spotnitz’s job, the process actually takes less time than you’d expect. “I’d say 80-90 percent of my time is not writing. It’s editing or playback or meetings or boarding other people’s stories.”

“The ideas for X-File stories,” says Shiban, come from various sources, including the news, books, magazines, and the Internet. Once of the things that we’re trying to do more and more now that the series has gone on for so many years is find different ways to attack a story, different ways to tell a story. And different types of stories to tell. Which is why we did a number of humorous episodes [in the sixth season]–because it’s a different way to use our characters and to tell a story in the X-Files world.”

The hardest thing about writing for The X-Files–and the most difficult in finding writers for the show–“is the approach,” says Spotnitz. “Just in the way we tell stories. It’s very specific. We try to be very rigorous about the plotting of our stories. We’re more successful sometimes than we are other times, but that’s our method.

The degree of direction the writers put into a script “is amazingly specific,” Gilligan notes. “There are a lot of pages that don’t have any dialogue at all in our scripts. There can be just a page full of scene directions and action lines. I love that because it’s visual. It’s all story telling, but if you’re telling stories through words and what-not, through dialogue, you might as well be writing for theater.”

Achieving the voice of Mulder and Scully is often the biggest obstacle for new writers. “It’s in the approach and the mindset of Mulder and Scully every step of the way,” adds Gilligan. “Mulder and Scully are actively pushing the plot along and there’s always some sort of tension between them, because of their different beliefs as to what’s happening.”

While Gilligan never experienced that particular road block, the character’s voices have plagued many other writers. “It’s the hardest thing to learn on the show that can be learned. I mean it took me a long time to learn it,” admits Shiban. “And a lot of it has to do with the subtlet of their ongoing conflict. In their relationship, they’re very close, but they have these two separate points of view that are very specific and well founded. It’s like you have to learn to first look and the X-File from Mulder’s point of view, and then look at it from Scullys. And then believe it both ways. Those are the best scenes. The best Mulder/Scully banter is when they both have a really strong point. Yet they both have a profound respect for each other. And then there’s also that sexual tension that everybody picks up on.”

“It’s rarely scripted, by the way,” Spotnitz interjects. “It’s just there. You don’t have to address it.”

But the show is slowly starting to address Mulder and Scully’s relationship, anyway. After having brought the simmering tension to a boil in the feature, it was almost impossible for the show to ignore the under currents. “Because of the near kiss in the movie-which to me was significant because clearly there was intent and desire to kiss in that moment-we thought we’d play with the moment, with the attraction,” explains Spotnitz of their tactic for the sixth season. “Which we did a number of times, I thought: Mulder and Scully’s farewell in ‘Dreamland II’, certainly the kiss and [Mulder’s] ‘I love you’ in ‘Triangle’, the winks that there’s an attraction for each other in ‘Rain King.’ But I don’t think any of us wants to get rid of the tension that keeps the relationship interesting…or ruin that relationship. So it’s an evolution. Theirs is very much an organic, continuing relationship.”

And while Anderson and Duchovny may have enough electricity on screen to carry the tone of the relationship, eventually, even Spotnitz recognizes that the status quo cannot be maintained forever. But don’t expect any big developments while the series remains on the air. “If we all know the series is going to come to an end, not only does it allow you to do something really big and important and satisfying with the conclusion of the series, but it allows you to do new things with the relationship in the feature film,” Spotnitz remarks.

All three producers credit the Mulder/Scully dynamic to Anderson and Duchovny’s work on the series. “You can’t even begin to describe how much David and Gillian bring to those scenes with the two of them together,” enthuses Spotnitz. “There’s just so much chemistry. I think it’s incredible because they’re so different as human beings and while they’re friendly to each other, they’re not particularly close off screen. But you turn on the camera and there is something magnetic about the two of them.”

After six years and one feature film, both actors know their characters intimately. “David will add a few lines every now and then. He’ll add some funny lines,” says Gilligan. “I don’t think Gillian ever has added a lone off the top of her head. She’s more formal. He’ll just do it.”

Production Multitasking

As writer-producers, the job doesn’t stop once the story is written and on the page. All three are involved in such production details as casting, budgeting, editing, special effects, music, and sound spotting. “We all do everything,” says Spotnitz. “Twelve hour days are the norm, and weekend crunches are not unheard of, either.”

Each producer has a different strength, and the division of labor has evolved to reflect that. Over the past couple of years, Spotnitz and Shiban have focused on breaking the stories, and Gilligan has helped develop and write the stories from there. Still, all three remain involved in all aspects of the process. “We pretty much oversee most of the creative decisions that have to go on, from breaking the stories to giving notes on a script to the writer,” adds Shiban. “We have a pretty big production meeting where we deal with budgetary concerns and [questions such as] ‘How is this going to be done?’ and ‘Can it look like this?’.

Once shooting begins, the three watch dailies every day and pass on comments to the director as to what’s working and what isn’t. After the episode completes its eight day shoot, the director has a chance to cut footage together before passing the episode off to the producers.

“I’m probably best at just writing,” Gilligan considers. “Frank and John are better at overseeing the big picture, as well as their own episodes. I’m not as good at that; I’m better at just my own episodes.”

Carter encouraged his writers to produce their episodes from the outset, and that X-Files tradition has benefited both the writers and the writing in turn. “I learned so much about writing visually,” says Shiban. “From telling the story on a page to seeing what was shot and trying to piece it together to tell the story I first intended. What’s so great about working on this show is that when I was a staff writer, I had the opportunity to go down [to the set[ and just watch and see how the director planned out the scene. It’s made me a better writer. Being responsible for the other end of[story production] teaches you to write more economically.”

Initially, X-Files’ much-hyped production move from Vancouver to Los Angeles at the start of season 6 proved a “tough adjustment,” according to Spotnitz. “We’ve been so lucky because we’ve found really great people. We sort of had our pick of the town.”

Concerns that the show’s rich, dark cinematography would be irreparably affected by the move faded quickly. “By episode five last year, I didn’t hear that anymore, about whether the show looked the same or not,” recalls Spotnitz. “Even though we do some night shooting, from most of the show, it’s really the way the interiors are lit. And I thought [director of photography] Bill Roe did a superb job of maintaining the atmospheric and cinematic look of the show.”

Fiscal and practical realities have proved the greatest challenges the producers have had to face since relocating. “Here in Los Angeles, it’s harder to get around the city than it was in Vancouver,” notes Shiban. “We do a tech scout, for example, where the department heads and a producer all get into a bus and we drive to every location we’re shooting in, going over what the director is going to do here and where they’ll need a crane over there. We had one [scout] that was 12 hours on a bus, because to find the right look, we had to go 200 miles all around Los Angeles, all the way up to Ventura County. In Vancouver you could have done that in half the time because there’s no traffic, and it’s all [right there].”

“Things are more expensive,” adds Spotnitz. “That’s been the real pressure, the financial. The cost of moving from Vancouver to LA was extremely high, higher than anyone anticipated. So we really were between a rock and a hard place. As producers and writers, we were trying to protect the quality of the show; on the other hand, as employees of the studio, we were trying to be responsible in terms of what the show cost.”

In order to save money, the producers came up with some creative solutions. “We ended up trying to devise stories that could be shot economically using existing sets,” reveals Spotnitz. And that’s a challenge on a show were you are out in different parts of the country every week, investigating completely different [cases].” Relatively self-contained episodes included “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” and “Milagro”.

At the start of season 6, the production took advantage of the fact that Los Angeles locations offered opportunities not available in Vancouver. Desert locations, bright locations, even unique shipboard locations-The Queen Mary ocean liner docked in Long Beach, California-became the norm for the first five episodes or so that it suddenly became a running joke, “so often were they shooting out of Los Angeles,” Spotnitz chuckles. After completing the two part ‘Dreamland,’ the trio made up crew t-shirts bearing the line, “When is The X-Files moving to Los Angeles?”

Once the temptation to film in the desert was satisfied, things settled down considerably. “We’re still doing what we’ve always done,” maintains Shiban about the story locations. “A Virginia story. And Arizona story. We’re all over. I think we’re successful at that.”

There is a catch, though:”The only problem is that there are so many palm trees you’re always shooting with a palm tree just out of range,” laughs Spotnitz.

Having production housed on the same lot as the production facilities has had its benefits, too. “It used to be we’d fly up [to Vancouver] two to three days before a show would begin and we’d prep our own episode. You’d see [the crew] for two days,” Spotnitz remembers. “The nice part about having the show down here is that we’re all together every day. You can walk over to the prop guy and say, ‘Hey, Tommy, what about this? It looks great.’ And we’re in meetings that we would see only the results of. Now, we’re often designing the storyboards or a special effects sequence or something. And we can walk over to the stage and say hello to David and Gillian or Bill Davis. That’s been great.”

Future Watch

At the start of filming in August, no word had come down yet on whether the seventh season would indeed be the last. Anderson and most of the supporting actors are signed for eight seasons; the wrinkle in the equation is Duchovny, whose contract is up at the end of this season. But as he plots the course of the mythology and the resolution of the mythology, Spotnitz is counting on the seventh season being X’s swan song on the small screen. At least until he hears otherwise. “I think it feels right at the end of this season. But there will probably be enormous pressure put on all of us to continue,” he says, adding that he’s already heard rumblings to that effect.

In the event that the plan changes, Spotnitz will have to shift gears–and the mythology–accordingly. “I’m not sure what I would do,” he admits laughing. “We may be in trouble. Right now, we’re plotting out what’s the last thing you will see of Cigarette Smoking Man, the last thing you will see of Krycek, Skinner. We’re trying to find the right place to send off all of our characters, at least on television.”

The highly publicized “Full Disclosure” of the mythology earlier this year in the episode “Two Fathers/One Son” were tied together loose ends and answered many questions about the international government conspiracy that Mulder and Scully have been battling to expose. The season finale, which raised philosophical and religious questions about the role aliens played in the development of Earth, paved avenues for Mulder and Scully to explore in the two part seventh season opener. When we last saw Mulder, he was locked away in a sanitarium due to the mysterious effects of an alien artifact; Scully, meanwhile, was searching for traces of an alien craft off the coast of Africa. “We really opened up a new chapter in the mythology with “Biogenesis,” and that will be the final chapter of the series,” confirms Spotnitz. “The effects of discovery and what has happened to Mulder will drive all of the mythology episodes into the series finale. You can expect to see all the major characters involved in the resolution of the series, and we’ll deal very directly with Mulder’s sister and with the relationship between Mulder and Scully.”

Something else for genre fans to look forward to: novelist William Gibson is doing another X-Files script with his writing partner Tom Maddox. Gibson wrote the popular fifth season virtual reality episode, “Kill Switch.” Plus, there’s a possibility that Duchovny will step behind the scenes again for a repeat performance as writer/director. Duchovny, who was on his way to a PhD in English Literature at Princeton prior to launching his acting career, has contributed several story ideas over the years. Sixth season’s “The Unnatural,” which marked his debut as both writer and director was well received by fans and critics alike. “I hope he will, but I don’t know whether he’s going to,” Spotnitz remarked prior to Duchovny’s return from hiatus. “He certainly has a lot of story ideas involving mythology that we’ve actually been discussing or we’re going to use.”

And, of course, regardless of when the series ends, there’s another X-Files feature destined for the big screen. After all, the first feature, release in the summer of 1998 racked up nearly $185 million in worldwide box office. But the feature won’t materialize until after the series concludes.

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2 Responses to “Sci Fi Entertainment: The ABCs of 'X'”

  1. […] This was a conscious decision to help manage the show’s budget, which had ballooned since the …. […]

  2. […] pretty painless, Gilligan has been quite candid about the teasing difficulties on the first draft. “The first board for Unusual Suspects was a real… I don’t want to say stink-a-roo, but the… he admitted […]