Charlie: In 1993, Chris Carter created a television show that quickly turned into a pop culture phenomenon. The X-Files has drawn millions of devoted fans, an intense internet following, and inspired a hit film. The show launched its two stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, to stardom. It also made Chris Carter one of the most powerful television producers in Hollywood.
[clip from XF pilot of Mulder and Scully meeting]
Charlie: Now in its eighth season, The X-Files remains Fox’ highest-rated drama and a linchpin for the network. It has inspired a new Fox spinoff series called The Lone Gunmen. Chris Carter is the creator and executive producer of both shows and I’m pleased to have him here for the very first time. Welcome.
Chris: Thank you.
Charlie: Good to have you here.
Chris: Thank you very much.
Charlie: Why X-Files? Do you know? I mean, why do you think it just connected?
Chris: It, well —
Charlie: I mean, the obvious stuff, like good writing and good acting, and all that.
Chris: Right. That’s the simple and complicated formula.
Chris: I think it was maybe a show that was of its time. It, uh — I think it represented a certain amount of, sort of, growing paranoia. Technology was sort of taking off, the internet was taking off, we were feeling a little alienated, as technology tends to do. And, uh, without those cell phones I don’t think I could have told these shows, actually. So I think it was — I think it was sort of a mood, sort of a pervasive mood in the country that sort of wanted something like this, and there is nothing scary on TV, which is really the reason I even came up with The X-Files.
Charlie: ‘Cause there was nothing scary on TV?
Chris: Nothing scary on television. When I was a kid there was a show on called The Night Stalker — and I’ve told this story now how many times. It starred Darren McGavin and it was great. It was actually written by this man Matheson, who’s so famous for writing great Twilight Zones and so much other great science fiction, and originally written by Jeff Rice, and it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my life and I could have watched it every night of the week. And I was 13 or 14 at the time, and I carried that with me and finally I had a chance after having worked in the industry for a few years to do what I wanted to do, and this was the first thing I — this was the first idea I really got to bring to the screen.
Charlie: So the idea for X-Files comes from The Night Stalker. In a sense, there’s a link.
Chris: Yes. Richard Matheson’s original screenplay about these vampires. There was this character, Carl Kolchak. He would go out — he was a newspaper reporter — no one would believe him. He’d go out and find all these wonderful things. And he was the believer, kind of like Mulder, and I’m sure it was the inspiration for that character.
Charlie: Did you have some sense, I mean, this is what turns you — this is what you like and so therefore this is what you want to make?
Chris: Right. Yes, exactly. These are the kinds of stories I like to watch.
Charlie: Okay. Now, what’s the shared characteristic of the people who like these kinds of things?
Chris: Um, I don’t know… First of all, it’s just good storytelling. It’s good mysteries unraveling in sort of unpredictable ways, but it’s two characters. It’s a point/counterpoint. It’s a believer and a skeptic taking these stories through. And the stories actually are based on a tremendous amount of good, hard science. We’re very careful to make the science good on the show.
Charlie: Where do you get that?
Chris: We have science advisors. We go to various and sundry people. Well, actually, the interesting thing I found out about science is that we’ve been taken to task a few times about the science on the show and what’s interesting is that you’ll find that scientists also have different — science is very subjective about what is accurate, what is not accurate. So science itself has a certain science fiction quality.
Charlie: Now, your role is executive producer and creator.
Charlie: But does that mean — I mean, are you an executive producer in the same way that David Kelley is an executive producer, in that everything — every page, every line, every everything — comes through you?
Chris: Uh, no, but a tremendous amount of it comes from me, for eight years now.
Charlie: Is it as challenging and interesting as it was Day 1?
Chris: It’s actually harder in some ways. When you deal with this subject matter, which is — it sort of skirts or tends to cross several different lines into horror and science fiction and mystery and thriller, you tend to mine the easy ore, if you will, very quickly and the subject matter gets harder to come by. Actually, I think the show gets better but the show does get harder, and you are dealing with essentially two characters until this year and you need to take those characters through personal experiences, so when you get to 180 hours of the show, which is where we are now, that tends to — you’ve mined a lot of the experiences and you’ve developed those characters in pretty complete ways.
Charlie: Someone said to me the other day that they thought the relationship had changed, I mean, that it’s different.
Chris: Oh, it definitely is. Well, what’s happened this year is, for seven years we told these stories with a believer and a skeptic, Mulder and Scully —
Chris: And what’s happened this year is that David Duchovny has opted to stay out of half of the episodes, so we had to create a reason for his absence and make him a kind of absent center.
Charlie: So, she’s the center now.
Chris: She’s the center and she is sort of moved from the skeptic to the believer, a reluctant believer — and these are over-simplifications of the characters — but we’ve brought in a new character who plays the sort of knee-jerk skeptic, played by Robert Patrick.
Charlie: Is that who we just saw?
Chris: That is not. That is actually — those characters were the — that was the Pilot episode, that was the original Mulder and Scully. They look so young there I almost don’t recognize them.
Chris: We were all young then.
Charlie: Now, why is David not here?
Chris: You know, I think he decided —
Charlie: Busy with other things?
Chris: Yeah. To pursue other things. He’s a smart person, he’s a talented person. I don’t blame him for wanting to get on with his life. A TV series is very, very hard work and when you have a two-character show like this it tends to — it becomes your life, and I think that he wants a change of pace.
Charlie: Was it disappointing for you?
Chris: It was different. When he first —
Charlie: Were you hurt?
Chris: Uh … it’s funny, when a television show goes on for this many years and you’re close to the actors, you become a kind of family. And every family has its problems and its — and it becomes — the dysfunctional aspects come out and that’s not to say that they did, but what happens with a television show, the dysfunction is really — the business and the personal cross over and I think that’s what happened, certainly last year, is that those things got very confused.
Charlie: Okay. Roll tape. This is a scene from the new show — well, before I roll tape, let me just talk about it. So, why’d we get The Lone Gunmen? Where did that come from?
Chris: The Lone Gunmen are three computer geeks who have been on the series from the beginning — or the first season. They were comic relief and now we’re trying to give them a comedy show of their own.
Charlie: (laughs) All right, now, let me just get this, Chris. So you had these three geeks and you just … Did they — Was it just a natural or did you look at your hit show and say, “I got to figure out a way to have a spinoff here and this is the best thing I have going, right over here”?
Chris: The last thing I ever want to do is, like, just do something because it seems like a way to make money or an obvious idea. We’re really trying to expand our base of operations here and do something completely different, as we always do. And The Lone Gunmen is a comedy, and we’ve never done comedy in the ten years I’ve been at Fox doing, you know, these kinds of shows. This is a real change for us and it’s really a lot of fun.
Charlie: Do you want to do comedy?
Chris: Yeah, that’s where I began, so, uh …
Charlie: All right. Roll tape. This is a scene from The Lone Gunmen. We’ll talk more about it. Here it is.
[clip from the Pilot of the approach to the World Trade Center, ending prior to the climax]
Charlie: Okay, so what makes this compelling for you as the creator?
Chris: Well, this is a great action sequence, it’s a great special effects sequence, which is what we do so well on television and a lot of shows don’t do. It’s what makes The X-Files different.
Charlie: Right, right, right.
Chris: But it’s these three geeks, these three computer geeks basically foiling terrorists trying to destroy the World Trade Center, and they do it in a funny way and it’s what makes The X-Files good and it’s what is going to make The Lone Gunmen good, which is that the stories are very believable but they’re outrageous.
Charlie: Are you as confident of The Lone Gunmen as you were of The X-Files?
Chris: Well, you know, you’re never that confident because it’s a business of failure. Most things fail, and you have to get people to come watch it, and you’ve got to make sure that it’s working and shows need to develop, they need time to develop. Right now I can tell you that we’re doing all the things right that we do right on The X-Files. It’s really just a matter of the audience investing in these characters and liking what we do and liking the brand of comedy.
Charlie: I think everybody wants to know the answer to this, including me. “Trust No One” came from where?
Chris: From me.
Charlie: From your head?
Chris: Yes. Actually, when you … I came up with it and all of a sudden when you start reading literature, Shakespeare said it in different ways. It is a very common sort of mantra out there, but it seemed to sort of perfectly symbolize the show.
Charlie: And “The Truth Is Out There” came from…?
Chris: That came from me, too.
Charlie: From your head?
Chris: Exactly. Those opening titles really needed a button, and because I’m a writer first, language is always very important to me, and so all the shows that I’ve done really have had that kind of language, that sort of textual approach to the material. Charlie: You’re a writer first?
Charlie: Isn’t that a cry to make a film, a feature film for you?
Chris: It is, but I mean —
Charlie: You have no time.
Chris: At the same time I have no time because I have a television job. Two television jobs now. Uh, it is, and the truth is there are movies out there — The Insider, I loved that movie. I thought it was a great movie and I’d love to make a movie like that. It wasn’t a popular movie. It was a critically-acclaimed movie but not a popular movie. So —
Charlie: Yeah. I’ve actually talked to Mike about that, Michael Mann. I mean, he thinks it may have had — when it was released, the whole series of factors that affected it.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean, he did a beautiful job. I can watch that movie over and over and I think that’s —
Charlie: What is it about that movie that appeals to you?
Chris: I love the character. I love the approach to the material. I love the storytelling.
Charlie: You love the producer character rather than the Wallace character or anybody else?
Chris: No, no. I mean, I love both of those characters. I love the Russell Crowe character, too. It’s a very sympathetic character who sacrifices so much for something he believes in. You know, it’s an American tragedy of sorts, but it’s a cautionary tale at the same time.
Charlie: But why aren’t you making — if you feel that there’s such a void, why aren’t you making — not that television isn’t great. I happen to think that there are more interesting things on television than feature films being made, personally —
Charlie: When you look at the full spectrum of television.
Chris: I think you’re probably right.
Charlie: And more — and real opportunities now because HBO and Showtime, they’re all getting into, in a sense, making films, and I think you and I just saw a young man who just made a film called George Washington, who was on this show. I mean, there’s a young — I mean, he’ll be able to make feature films, I’m sure, but, boy, I’d be thrilled if he were making that kind of film also for television. And there have got to be other kids like him.
Chris: And it’s a matter of commercial success. You only get another chance if you do it well. But that’s true to an extent: I think smart people recognize talent and will take somebody —
Charlie: And not only recognize it, they just relish it, I think. Don’t you?
Chris: Oh, sure. I mean, everybody — it’s so hard to come by. The real good filmmakers are few and far between, I think.
Charlie: Are you doing everything you want to do? You.
Chris: Uhh … no. [chuckles]
Charlie: Tell me what you hunger to do, in terms of a kind of complete life.
Chris: Um … well, it’s funny. I tend to — I look back at my life and I tend to want to master things and I tend to want to — In a way, I’ve mastered the television format, although you never master it really because it’s so hard to keep hold of. But I began as a writer, so I would love to write a novel, and I have one in mind that I’ve wanted to write for so long, so if this writers’ strike happens that’s probably what I will do.
Charlie: So the reason you haven’t written this novel is because you haven’t had time to write it.
Chris: It’s really a matter of time.
Charlie: Now, what does it say to you if I would say, “Chris, you haven’t written the novel because you didn’t want to write the novel bad enough”?
Chris: Uh … You’re probably right. It’s probably some fear.
Charlie: I mean, if it was dying to get out, it would get out, right?
Chris: Um, I think that’s true to an extent, but television schedules are such that you are consumed by them. It is a … I liken it to stoking the fire in a runaway train every day.
Charlie: You gotta keep it up.
Charlie: The casting of X-Files … was that easy for you? Did you have some instinct that these two were just perfect and they would have a kind of Moonlighting chemistry?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I did, but, you know, the chem– the scene that showed, that was the first time I’d ever seen these two people act together and it was the first day of shooting on this show that I’ve been working on for over nine years now. You don’t know that chemistry is — that’s the magic, that’s what you cannot manufacture. And so when these people walk into this room and began acting together, you see something that you can only hope for, which is that thing that will elevate —
Charlie: You had never seen them together?
Chris: I had never seen them act together. They had auditioned separately.
Charlie: Not in rehearsal, not anywhere?
Chris: Not in anything — that’s not true, I’d actually seen them in a room once, but it was really in a very nervous room about, you know, “are we going to go forward with these two people?” And he was a very easy choice and she was a less-easy choice. No one knew of her, she looked much different than she looks now. She was disheveled. She had actually just moved from New York to California. She looked like an urchin. But she had a quality, she had a gravity and a bearing and a seriousness about her as a young woman that could make her believable as this scientist.
Charlie: She could hold her own.
Charlie: Roll tape. Another scene from X-Files.
[clip of the diner scene from “Per Manum”]
Charlie: I’m addicted to dialogue. Are you? I mean, is that sort of what — do you care a lot about it or do you look for the sort of narrative to move your story forward and dialogue just sort of finds its place?
Chris: Well, dialogue is all-important. I think we’re unlike a lot of television shows, popular television shows, some of the best television shows on TV, because action and suspense — and because this is kind of a thriller each week — camera is so important. So you’re storytelling not with just dialogue but the camera helps to tell the story as well. But dialogue, of course. It’s got to sing or it just lays there.
Charlie: At the end of last season, what did you — what were you expectation about what you would do this season?
Chris: I didn’t know we’d be back this season. It looked very iffy. David Duchovny, one of the stars, did not want to come back, and he was in a lawsuit. It looked like the series may end. Seven years, that’s a nice long run. And I was asked if we could do the series without him. I said, no, I don’t want to do the series without him. He relented, he agreed to do eleven episodes and I had to figure out a way to do eleven episodes —
Charlie: Was that because of you? I mean …
Chris: Uh, it was because of — I mean, I could have said no and the series may have ended, but once again, I call myself a majority stockholder in this show. Fox could have done anything they wanted to do. Luckily we all, you know, were on — of one mind, ultimately, and we’re in our eighth year and looking forward to possibly a ninth.
Charlie: How long can it go?
Chris: It can probably go forever with the right elements, if it had the resources. Meaning if it had the good actors, if it had the good storytellers. I’m not sure how much longer I want to do it.
Charlie: You don’t know.
Chris: [chuckles] No.
Charlie: Could somebody reproduce today Twilight Zone, the kind of Rod Serling role?
Chris: I think so. I think this show owes so much to The Twilight Zone, although the stories are completely different. We both deal with the unexplained, but they were parables and allegories. I actually go back and watch The Twilight Zone alot and I think — we did an episode this year that was much like The Twilight Zone. It would be hard. It’s a tremendous amount of work. You have to have a tremendous amount of writing talent. And it’s all about that. It’s about vision. It’s about people who have stories to tell.
Charlie: Did he write all of them or none of them?
Chris: No, he wrote some of them and in fact he left the show after it turned from a half-hour to an hour show. So he had something he wanted to do and they took place in that little half-hour format.
Charlie: The Lone Gunmen is airing for three weeks in The X-Files’ timeslot on Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox. It moves to its regular Friday night, 9 p.m. timeslot on March 16th. The X-Files, as you know, airs Sundays at 9 on Fox. Chris Carter, Executive Producer of The X-Files and Executive Producer of The Lone Gunmen. Thank you.
Chris: Thank you.
Charlie: Pleasure to have you here.
Chris: I appreciate it. Thank you.