For Glen Morgan and James Wong, the truth isn’t out there. It’s in their word processors.
They lurk in the shadows, out of sight, silently watching to see if they can scare you, shock you and send you to bed with disturbing dreams. Could it be a case for those pursuers of the paranormal, The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully?
Well, no. The lurkers are two guys from sunny San Diego, California – Glen Morgan and James Wong, scriptwriters and co-executive producers for the Fox Network’s The X-Files, and lying low, says Morgan, is just what he and Wong should be doing. “Writers belong in some dark corner, watching,” he says, paraphrasing novelist Charles Bukowski – a fitting observation for a man who, together with longtime friend and writing partner Wong, concocts spooky stories about killer mutants, extraterrestrials and sinister government agents.
Morgan and Wong’s work has been so well-received in their year and a half with The X-Files that they have emerged from the anonymity in which many television writers exist to find their episodes anxiously awaited by the show’s fans, with their entries consistently winning computer bulletin board popularity polls. “It’s nice and it’s flattering,” Morgan says, but a following, especially an online following, is “a hell of a lot of pressure,” he sighs. Now that he has become acquainted with fans via computer. “It’s harder. It has gone beyond just an audience thing.”
What typifies a Morgan-Wong episode? “They’re gorier,” quips Morgan, the wise-cracking half of the duo to Wong’s straight man. In addition to the occasional rise in body count, one can count on a Morgan-Wong story to combine memorable dialogue for FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully with a gripping plot. But Morgan sees another side to their writing. “Jim and I are more character-oriented,” he says, “Maybe Chris Carter would have a more epic show with spaceships and fire, but we focus on people.” They look to episodes like their favorite, “Beyond the Sea,” which links a personal story about Scully coping with her father’s death to the search for a serial killer, as an example of how to mix character development with an absorbing storyline.
Their sources of ideas are varied. Sometimes the impetus for an episode is comments from their audience on the computer networks or in letters, sometimes it’s a real-world event or interesting science fact described in a book, magazine or newspaper article. Sometimes they just throw out an idea and toss it back and forth until it turns into a story. They do some research, but Wong notes, “We’ll always lean towards whatever will best fit the story and the theme versus what’s the actuality in science. It’s important for us not to be so science-ignorant that we ignore the truth, but we’re not as concerned with the reality of that science as with what’s exciting, what’s scary. We take reality into consideration, but it doesn’t stop us from doing things that are wrong. ”
The writers themselves are not believers. Wong says he knows “there are people who believe,” and Morgan adds, ” I want to believe’ is like, ‘I want to believe in UFOs’. I don’t really. What we’re doing is what Chris likes to do: ‘weird science,’ that edge of science we haven’t figured out yet.”
Morgan and Wong are also responsible for producing the episodes they write. “On this series, it’s very much that whoever writes the episode, produces the episode. ”
“In pre-production, we cast,” Wong adds. “We’re allowed about three or four guest artists from Los Angeles. Then, we go up to Vancouver and approve the local casting. we talk to the director, look at locations and make sure they fit in with how we think the show should look. We approve the props and the wardrobe, and every element of the show, or at least we’re familiar with it. The biggest thing we do in pre-production is to have a tone meeting with the director, where we talk about what we would like and hope to see, and what his feelings are. We’ll either say, ‘That’s a great idea’ and do it that way, and in post-production, if it’s a very well-cut show, we just make minor adjustments. Otherwise we make major changes in reshooting.” Morgan and Wong also work closely with composer Mark Snow in spotting the music cues. “We’ve had the freedom to do the things we want to do,” Wong says. “We haven’t had the bad luck of having an idea we really wanted to do and not being able to do it. So what you see is what we wanted.”
Their first entry for The X-Files was “Squeeze,” the first non-UFO episode, with Mulder and Scully chasing down Eugene Tooms, the liver eating, elastic-limbed mutant from Baltimore. The shoot was a difficult one. “I felt the director had no respect for us or our ideas,” Wong says. “In fact, he had no respect for the script. He didn’t shoot coverage and we didn’t like the dailies that were coming back. Ultimately, we had to go back up and reshoot some coverage, shoot a scene he didn’t shoot, and add a lot of inserts to make it work. I’ll always be disappointed because of what it could have been, but I think it turned out OK.”
Despite these problems, the episode got high marks from fans, and Eugene later returned in “Tooms,” the first season’s only sequel. “We liked him a lot,” Wong notes of the character, who was voted Best Villain by X-Files fans on the American OnLine computer network. He and Morgan felt another Tooms episode would be their chance to do right by him. “The fans liked him and he was scary and we decided to finish him off.” Wong says, “That was the show that David Nutter directed. We thought, ‘What a perfect combination.’ We get Tooms -we like the character and the actor, and we had a great experience with David.”
One scene in “Tooms” raised the vague possibility that someday there might be more between Mulder and Scully than just a working relationship, but Morgan and Wong are opposed to any romance between the two. “We don’t see them having a relationship beyond the professional one,” Wong says.
Another very popular Morgan-Wong episode is ‘Ice,’ set at a science station in storm-swept Alaska. A locked-room, small ensemble piece, unusual for the X-Files, the story about a prehistoric alien worm discovered in ice core samples wound the dramatic tension up to an almost unbearable level, with Mulder and Scully even facing off against each other, guns drawn. Ironically, the excitement stemmed from a very mundane origin. “Our shows were going over budget and we needed to do a show that was more contained,” says Wong. “There was an article in a science magazine that said they were drilling down in Greenland to get to the ice cores. We thought, ‘That’s perfect. What if we do that?’ Because it’s the FBI, we decided to set it in Alaska to get jurisdiction.”
They were quite happy with the episode, and particularly loved the huge set designed by Graeme Murray, who had just joined the production staff. “It was much bigger than we thought,” Morgan says, adding that on film it nonetheless conveyed a sense of claustrophobia. Inevitably, fans have compared “Ice” to the two film versions of The Thing, and although Morgan and Wong admit there are similarities, they tried to avoid comparisons.
“E.B.E.,” one of the first season’s most exciting UFO yarns, shed some murky light onto Mulder’s enigmatic informant Deep Throat and his possible motivations. The inspiration again came from the show’s online fans, who sought more information on the character. The two writers also wanted to know more about Deep Throat, and first wrote the scene where Deep Throat confesses a past crime to Mulder. “The episode is built from that last scene,” Morgan reveals. “Deep Throat says he killed an alien, but you never know whether he’s lying or not. Everyone will ask, ‘Is he lying or not?’ I think that worked.” Morgan and Wong had other ideas for Deep Throat that never developed beyond the talking stage, like Scully investigating Deep Throat in an effort to find a missing Mulder, or a story involving the government’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. Killing Deep Throat in the series’ first-season finale, they say, was Carter’s decision. “That was a tough hole to fill,” Morgan admits. “Jerry Hardin was very good. Hopefully, we’ll come up with somebody or something to fill that.” (A new informant, “Mr. X. ” has emerged during the second season) .
All episodes are not written for what Morgan refers to as “the modern crowd,” nor are they sparked by a story that intrigues him and Wong. “Shadows,” a ghost story, came about at the request of a network executive who wanted to see a poltergeist tale. Morgan doesn’t regard the result with much fondness. “It was a little too ordinary. You’ve seen it before,” Morgan says. Wong notes that their original idea, once they agreed to write the episode, was a bit more shocking than what ended up on screen. “We started thinking about a masseuse in one of those sleazy places,” he confesses, but by the time the script was shot, their haunted masseuse had become a secretary.
Conversely, their favorite episode, “Beyond The Sea,” with a blistering guest performance by Brad Dourif as a psychic death row convict had a tough time getting network approval. “They nixed it twice until Chris marched into the office and said, ‘We’re doing it,'” Morgan recalls. He had recently read a book with some startling statistics about the number of women who see the spirits of husbands and sons soon after their deaths, and around the same time, several fans had written messages criticizing Scully’s character. They decided the fans had a point.
“We thought Gillian Anderson needed to show off her talents more,” Wong says, “And this was a perfect opportunity to dispel those notions that Scully will never believe. It was time for the character to grow, because she was just doing the same kind of thing too often.” The result was a story where Anderson could finally let out all the stops, and bring some humanity to Scully.
Morgan, an admitted “TV kid, ” and Wong, whose parents wouldn’t let him watch television, have been friends since their high school days together in San Diego. They both attended Loyola Marymount University, with Morgan enrolling as a film studies major and Wong as “an engineering major for the first semester, before I realized that Glen was having all the fun” and he switched to film. After college, they went to work as production assistants for Sandy Howard, producer of B-movies like Vice Squad, Meteor, and Angel. When not fetching coffee, they found time to help some friends who were making a rock and roll horror film called Trick or Treat. Morgan, who had done some acting in college, stepped in front of the camera to play the protagonist’s best friend, but his advice to fans who want to search out the video is: “Don’t Watch IT! !”
When they were given the opportunity to take on more responsibility by cutting trailers for Howard’s overseas markets, they felt it was time to make a change. “The career path of a production assistant was really limited, ” Wong says. “We were friends, and we decided to try to write together. After work, we started writing a treatment that we thought Howard would be interested in. We got his attention with our treatment and he allowed us to rewrite an old script.” That script was shot, but the movie, The Boys Next Door, flopped, not to Morgan and Wong’s surprise.
They survived the next four years by writing movie scripts, all unproduced. After the writers’ strike in 1988 their agent suggest they write for television, and they joined the staff of a short-lived crime show called Nightwatch. From there, they went to Stephen Cannell Productions, primarily working on 21 Jump Street and later The Commish, but also contributing to Wiseguy and Booker.
Nearly five years later, Morgan and Wong were anxious to try something different from Cannell’s diet of action and suspense, and they had more or less agreed to join the writing staff of the Columbia Television romance/adventure Moon Over Miami. Then Peter Roth, whom they had known at Cannell and was now president of 20th Century Television, asked them as a favor to watch the pilot of the X-Files.
“We sat down and watched The X-Files and we wanted to hate it,” Morgan remembers. “We kept waiting for it to fall apart, and then when it was over, we looked at each other and said, ‘Uh oh…this is pretty good. Look. We’ll go home, we’ll watch the Moon Over Miami pilot, that will be really good too, and this problem will be behind us.’ We watched the first five minutes of Moon Over Miami, we looked at each other and went ‘Uh oh this is pretty bad.'” The choice was clear; they wanted to write for the X-Files. “Columbia yelled at us a great deal,” Morgan says wryly.
The appeal of the X-Files pilot lay in “the tone of the show and the leads,” says Wong. “David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are great on the screen. They draw your attention, whereas the Moon Over Miami leads didn’t. In television, it’s so important that you like the characters, and that you come back week after week to watch them.”
With the second season underway, there are new stories to tell. The season premiered with ‘Little Green Men,’ a Morgan and Wong script that found the X-Files shut down, and Mulder and Scully separated and reassigned. Originally, the idea had been to send Mulder to Moscow, with Carter writing the script, but that did not pan out. After some discussion, Carter told Morgan and Wong they could write the season opener. “It was a very nice gesture on Chris’ part in boosting our confidence and telling us how much he appreciates us,” Wong says.
The challenge was how to structure the show around Anderson, who was now pregnant. The solution: shut down the X-Files in the first-season finale, which would allow for less screen time for Anderson during the first few second-season segments. That, says Morgan, is “what you would normally do in a third year. In a second season, historically, you take your concept and drive it home. We should deliver what new viewers heard about the first season.”
“This is usually done to invigorate a series,” Wong adds. “Because we’re doing it now, it has given us the challenge of trying to woo new audiences, while at the same time, keep the old. I think we’ve done a good job of not changing that much. In some ways, this has given us a fresh outlook on what the X-Files should or could be.”
Morgan and Wong finally wrote their SETI episode for ‘Little Green Men’ with Mulder traveling to the SETI installation at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, hoping to find evidence of extraterrestrials. “I always wanted to do something with the SETI background,” Morgan says. “I hope that kids at school check out SETI, because it was factual as to what exists.” But the episode was about more than the SETI program. With Mulder undergoing a crisis of self-doubt, wondering if he has been chasing illusions, Morgan says one of the themes he and Wong wanted to convey is “the idea that we all have to fight our own little green men and carry on.”
Their second effort this year was “Blood,” an episode Wong calls “our attempt at portraying how some of these spree killers might have gotten their ideas.” In this case, the ideas were transmitted through the digital displays of machines and household appliances. “As we wrote,” Morgan explains, “we were thinking, what do you have in your house that you’re going to deal with every day that scares you? ‘Blood’ is very visual. Jim and I used the least amount of dialogue possible, because the episode deals with people receiving messages and looking at things. The fourth act is really intense, and William Sanderson, who plays Funsch, did a great job.”
Morgan and Wong wrote two additional episodes for the first half of the second season. “One Breath” resurrected Scully, who supposedly had been killed in an earlier episode. Fortunately for Anderson, who had given birth to daughter Piper the week before shooting began, her scenes were confined to a hospital bed, as Scully was in a coma and surrounded by life support equipment. Morgan says the writers attempted in every way to ‘take it easy’ on Anderson, who he describes as “just about the sweetest person on Earth.”
Morgan hoped “One Breath” would be on the same level. as of “Beyond the Sea.” “We wanted this episode to have something a little more uplifting and positive and spiritual,” he says, noting that this script introduced a sister for Scully played by actress Melinda McGraw, who worked with the team on The Commish. “Jim and I are friends with Melinda. She’s a wonderful actress, and we wanted to write something for her.”
The final Morgan-Wong show for the first half of the season, number 14, would deal with false memories and mass hysteria involving a possible case of devil worship. Morgan notes that computer fans have been asking, “When is Scully going to be right? When is there going to be a hoax? We thought this would be a good time to do it.”
For the moment, Glen Morgan and James Wong are far from the investigative arena examined in the X-Files. They’re now running their own TV show, Space: Above and Beyond. This new SF series chronicles the adventures of a group of young Earth heroes now engaged in intergalactic war. Their future ambitions also include writing features. But whatever they’re working on, they hope to do it together. “Like Scully and Mulder,” Morgan says, “we get something from each other.”