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TV Guide: Chris Carter, X-pert

TV Guide
Chris Carter, X-pert
Matt Roush

The master of shadowy mystery sheds light on The X-Files’ high-risk journey to the big screen

There’s not much time left. It’s early May, two weeks before The X-Files’ fifth-season finale airs and just little more than a month before “The X-Files” opens. The deadlines are fast approaching, but for a man who’s spending every waking minute in editing rooms putting the finishing touches on his TV and movie projects, creator-executive producer Chris Carter shows little sign of wear. Sporting a deep tan magnified by the white T-shirt he wears in his unassuming bungalow office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, Carter admits he was able to sneak away from Los Angeles amid the chaos for a four-day surfing weekend at Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. “I’ve got a ways to go to get back in any kind of respectable surfing shape, but it was really a good balance for me,” says Carter, 41, who was an editor of Surfing magazine before turning his attention to the darker, murkier, conspiracy-riddled waters of The X-Files. Surfing, he says, is “one of the few times I enjoy the fruits of my labors.” A surfboard with the X-Files logo is on display in his office, a symbol of his dual obsessions.

For now, Carter concedes it’s a “nutty job” to juggle movie and TV production. “I’ve been running on adrenaline for the last five years and I continue to. And I rarely get sick, because I think my body is working at a peak level.” A good thing, considering what’s at stake.

TV Guide critic Matt Roush sat down with Carter to talk about this pivotal moment in his series’ history.

TV Guide: Making an X-Files movie during the run of the series could be considered the riskiest thing you’ve ever done.

Chris Carter: I guess the perceived risk is that you can answer too many questions. The X-Files has always been about posing questions, and any time you give an answer, then you pull the rug out from under people. But in a movie, you can’t do that. You have to have a beginning, middle and end, and there has to be a big revelation, there has to be something monumental in the movie. Something has to change for the characters. And of course, this is a movie that is going to be sandwiched between years five and six, so I’ve got to carry on with the television series. What it allowed me to do was explode many of the themes we’ve been playing with and perhaps give some big answers but suggest other big questions at the same time. I think it will be rejuvenating for the series and hopefully will bring more viewers to the show.

TVG: Isn’t there a danger that if you leave questions unanswered, moviegoers might consider this film a big tease?

CC: I think the movie delivers in a big way, in terms of the plot and the characters. I don’t believe it’s going to give anyone the impression we’ve held back or pulled punches.

TVG: Even a fan like Rosie O’Donnell recently complained the show can be so dense and confusing you almost need Cliffs Notes to figure it out. Are you worried that someone who doesn’t know the show will be too intimidated to turn out for the movie?

CC: We brought a lot of people who were not familiar with the show into the theater [for test screenings], and they liked the movie. But that was one of the hurdles in doing it. There are a lot of people who don’t watch The X-Files, and we wanted the movie to appeal to those people as well. But what you never want to do is forsake your hard-core fans, to take them through the tedious process of character exposition — to redefine and reestablish those characters. This required a cleverness that I hope we accomplished in the course of the picture.

TVG: Without getting into the specifics of the movie’s plot, was this a particular story you have wanted to tell from the very start of the series, or did the movie just come along at the right time for you to tell the next chapter on a larger canvas?

CC: It’s kind of a combination of all these things. The series’ mythology really grew organically. It wasn’t something that had been completely mapped out. But I remember saying to [former Fox programming executive] Bob Greenblatt, who bought the show so long ago, “I promise you Mulder won’t see a spaceship on this show for five years.” And although he has seen things that he believes to be spaceships, we have always suggested that they might in fact be military hardware. I have sort of made good on my promise, and that should give you some idea of what happens in the movie.

TVG: There has also been a lot of buzz in the press about a scene in which Mulder and Scully kiss. You’ve often said you wouldn’t play that card, that they will never really take their professional relationship to an intimate, romantic level.

CC: Nor should they. I’m not saying it would never happen, but I think the characters, if they’re being true to themselves, would be careful about finding themselves in that entanglement.

TVG: After this high-profile movie experience, will it be tough to go back to the weekly TV grind?

CC: What I learned in this process is that there are a lot of things you can do on the small screen that you can’t on the big screen. You can have characters talk at length on the small screen, and a scene that could be interesting and complex and dense [on TV] would be deadly on the big screen, which ironically is really a minimalist form in this regard. I’m very interested in going back to small-screen stories.

TVG: But what if the movie takes off and becomes a Star Trek-style franchise? Would the TV series be over at that point?

CC: That’s one of those hypothetical questions that, because there are so many variables in it, it’s very hard to answer. Could the series continue without Mulder and Scully but the movies continue with them? If you were clever enough, I’m sure you could.

TVG: Looking back at last season, it was very interesting to see how you played with issues of religion and faith, especially where Scully was concerned, as she survived cancer and learned she had a daughter who would later die.

CC: We began the season with the loss of Mulder’s belief [in extraterrestrials]. You were stealing something from the character, taking away the foundation for his existence. At the same time, we were playing with Scully’s religious beliefs, so the characters were shifting places. It wasn’t that Scully was believing in the paranormal as much as in the miraculous. As a lapsed Catholic, she had the foundation of religious fundamentals, but as a scientist, she pushed away from that. Now all of a sudden, she’s accepting things that are beyond her ability to see, touch, taste and feel, and that’s a big step for her character. I’ve always thought of this show as extremely religious. When you say, “The Truth Is Out There,” if you substitute God for the truth, it’s really a search for meaning, a search for faith.

TVG: I know you’re especially proud of last season’s black-and-white episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” based on the Frankenstein story, which you wrote and directed. Your version of the monster ends up as a guest on The Jerry Springer Show, months before it took off in the ratings. Did you know something we didn’t?

CC: It’s just a strange coincidence. It’s not like I was prescient. I actually took an interest in Jerry Springer. I came home late at night and turned it on and was just amazed by it. It seemed to me a perfect place for these characters I had rolling in my head to end up. I figured he’d say no, but he said yes. It’s serendipitous.

TVG: What do you think compels people, even yourself, to watch his show?

CC: I think it’s the anything-can-happen aspect for me. I’m just very amused by it.

TVG: Working under such scrutiny now, do you ever long for the early seasons when the show was still something of a well-kept Friday-night secret?

CC: It hasn’t changed that much for me. As the audience and popularity grows, that has certain gravitational aspects, but the work and my life are almost exactly the same. I always eat lunch at my desk, rarely eat dinner anyplace other than my desk. My fine china is Styrofoam. This is our existence. Everybody who works here has never slowed down. The success allows you certain freedoms, because people start not to question what it is you’re doing. The popularity of the show is a good thing, but the ethic and the approach is still the same. It’s still a cult TV show in my mind.

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