Confessions of a Mad Surfer
In which we creep into the head of Chris Carter, Creator and Executive Producer of The X-Files, and crawl behind the scenes.
Q. Did you always have in mind a two-person cast, male and female?
A. The Mulder-Scully idea was there from the start. And I wanted to flip the gender types, so that Mulder, the male, would be the believer, the intuitive one, and Scully the skeptic, which is the more traditional male role. It was also important that Scully be Mulder’s equal in rank, intelligence, and ability–because in real life the FBI is a boy’s club–and I didn’t want her to take a back seat. James Wolcott, writing in The New Yorker, says “Their partnership is achieves a rare parity between the sexes,” so I think we succeeded.
Q. Once you got approval to shoot the Pilot episode, what was the hardest part?
A. I think the invasion of Normandy must have been simpler. The first dilemma was creating the whirling vortex of leaves. We needed real leaves, whipping around in a whirlwind, that we had to merge with digital leaves, and then we needed a special light rig that ended up taking about eight hours to construct. Then there was the weather. It rains all the time in Vancouver. But during the shooting, it never, ever rained when we wanted it to–only when we didn’t need it. The graveyard scene was supposed to be shot in the pouring rain. So we turned on the rain birds, and the actors were having trouble with the lines because it was freezing. They were both so amazingly cold that they couldn’t even speak afterwards and we didn’t know if we’d captured the scene. That same night, we had these empty graves that we’d dug up, and in the pitch black several crew members fell in and had to be carted off to the hospital. So it was like a war of attrition trying to get the scene–which ended up one of the better ones in the pilot.
Q. Where did Deep Throat come from–the character I mean.
A. Watergate was like the ‘big bang’ of my moral universe, I was 15 or 16 when it spilled out on the American consciousness and conscience. So the idea of questioning authority, trusting no one, is part of the fiber of my being. Deep Throat, of course, came from the infamous Watergate figure who may or may not have existed–the guy who told Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money. Our Deep Throat emerges from some shadowy level of the government, and leads Mulder and Scully, carefully and selectively. He helps them when they reach a dead end or take a wrong turn, but never gives them too much and he is not 100% on their side.
Q. What about the space ship in the “Deep Throat” episode, is it a model or was it added in post production?
A. The ship was not really there. There was a concert lighting rig, firing off lights in different colors, and we put them together to create a triangle. So that when we shot these sequences, there was real light raining down on Mulder. But the spaceship itself was digitally illustrated, and I think the effect is at once impactful and subtle, which is a trademark of Mat Beck, our special effects producer.
Q. It’s hard to think of a show that pulls off the quantity and quality of special effects that are seen weekly on The X-Files. How did you get those worms in “Ice” to wriggle under the skin so convincingly?
A. Our special effects make-up person, Toby Lindala, was the genius behind the worm. He made body casts of the actors, incredibly realistic fake skins down to every fold, and strung beads on microfilaments so they could be pulled along and expand and contract beneath the fake skin. The dog was shot very close up–it’s actually a milk bottle tightly wrapped with fur. And there are also digital worms; the one that crawls into the dog’s ear is not real. Where I thought we might get into trouble was with the Standards and Practices folks, who function sort of like censors in telling you when you’re over the top on the sex or violence meter. We were sure that we’d gone too far with this worm, pushed the limits of good taste. And we’d let one scene involving the worm run a little long–about four seconds–thinking for sure they’d cut it down. In the end, they let it all stand. So it’s quite creepy, really.
Q. For me, one of the most chilling moments on The X-Files is that scene in “Conduit” when we’re looking down on the little boy’s scrawls of digits, and it suddenly turns into the image of his missing sister.
A. That was the brain child of the writers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. We had the boy writing down information in binary code that he’s getting off the television, and Alex had this idea of having it add up to a giant puzzle. “Conduit” is interesting for another reason, because the ending was not part of the original story, in which Ruby did not return. In the final version she comes back, experiencing symptoms consistent with having experienced weightlessness, but we don’t force any more closure on it than that. Actually, the issue of closure has been an ongoing dialogue with the network, because we’ve always resisted wrapping up each episode with a neat little bow at the end. You can’t do that with The X-Files, because pretending to explain the unexplainable is ridiculous and our audience is too smart for that. “Conduit” helped us define that X-File stories would not have forced plot resolutions, but would conclude with some emotional resolution–in this case we find Mulder in the church at the end with all of the unresolved feelings about his sister’s abduction brought up to the surface. And Scully has her epiphany that her science may not contain all of the answers and she gains new insights into her partner. It’s a moving moment.
Q. One of my favorite characters from the first season is Max Fenig, the UFO enthusiast in “Fallen Angel.” Who is he?
A. We all know this type of guy. Is he a kook–or a Cassandra? It’s an important leap for Mulder and Scully to realize that he might not be crying “The Sky is Falling,” that he might be on to something. Another important element in “Fallen Angel,” was the invisible alien being. I’ve always believed that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. And we’ve always wanted to avoid the ‘monster of the week’ syndrome. The translucent force field in “Fallen Angel,” is much more malevolent than something that has a fangs or a fur coat or a waggly tail. This episode also contains an important narrative element. When Scully comes to Mulder and says “They’re going to shut us down,” the idea that the X-Files projects can be terminated from above at any time resonates from that moment forward, a critical part of the narrative tension.
Q. One episode that manages to terrify without special effects is “Eve,” the episode that focused on genetic experimentation by the government.
A. Actually, I think this is a very terrifying episode. And it alludes to what we all know, which is that the government has had the power to conduct bizarre experiments and mess with people’s lives and then spend years covering the whole thing up. From the first moment, the teaser where the little girl is hugging her teddy bear out in the street and the joggers come by and find her daddy slumped in the swing set, drained of blood, we’re on edge. It’s one of the episodes that has no particular special effects, but is a supremely creepy idea, rendered very creepily. And because the ending is somewhat ambiguous, I can imagine following up with a sequel episode in the fourth or fifth season. Since that episode, the girls who play the twins have won a certain notoriety–they even appear at conventions! And as you probably know, the names give to the evil twins–Cindy and Teena–are also names of the wives of Glen Morgan and James Wong, two of our writers and producers, which is typical of the way we like to imbed every episode with asides and sick inside jokes!