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Archive for January, 1995

Confessions of a Mad Surfer

Confessions of a Mad Surfer

[Date unknown – mentions “first season” so it must come from a date after the show was extended to season 2]

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!

Rolling Stone: Alien Sex Fiends

Rolling Stone
Alien Sex Fiends

Rolling Stone (Australia) 1995 Rock and Roll Yearbook

An Interview with Chris Carter

AD: When the X-files was being developed, was it one of 30 ideas in your top drawer?

CC: It was my top idea actually, something I had wanted to do for a long time. It was inspired by a show that was on when I was a teenager called the Night Stalker. So I had almost 25 years to contemplate that or refresh those memories. I loved the show and wanted to do a show as scary as that one.

AD: Was it the scariness that you were trying to recreate or was it that lurking sense of paranoia?

CC: Both those things. I wanted to scare people first and foremost.

AD: It’s the first mass entertainment show I can think of that is really in this decade. It deals with the culture – like cyberspace, the Net, technology, the Gulf War and stealth bombers.

CC: Yeah, it’s funny, I don’t think we could actually tell these stories without cellular phones. Or without the Internet or the computer connection.

AD: How hard was it to sell the concept? How did you pitch it in the first place.

CC: Well, I was brought to Twentieth Century Fox under an exclusive contract by a man named Peter Roth. We had a nice lunch soon thereafter he said, “What do you want to do?”. I said, “I want to do something like the Night Stalker”. I came up with some ideas about two FBI agents. I had just seen Silence of the Lambs so I’m sure that inspired me. I came up with these things called the X-Files, X standing for the unknown. [Roth] loved it. We pitched it to FOX, and they turned us down.

AD: Really, Why?

CC: They didn’t really get it. Peter was so sure that we were onto a winner, that we arranged another meeting. We pitched our hearts out again, and whether it was because they liked it, or they wanted us off their backs, they bought the idea and I went to write a pilot script.

AD: How did you improve the second pitch?

CC: I think we just added enthusiasm and a little more detail. I had the good fortune to see a friend who was a research psychologist. He gave me a scientific survey on the occurrence of alien abduction and belief in extraterrestrials. It showed if you were to believe it, that three million people, or thereabouts, believe they’ve actually been abducted by aliens in the US.

AD: Wow!

CC: So I thought, well, this is interesting. I took it into them and said, “There are people out there taking this stuff seriously and I think that we can make that the foundation of the show”.

AD: When you first explained Scully and Mulder to FOX, was it a point of sale that this was going to be purely working relationship, no love interest.

CC: I wanted it to be that way from the get-go, although I did want there to be sort of an underlying tension between the two of them because my feeling is when you put two smart people, a man and a woman, in a room, I don’t care whether or not they’re passionate about their life and their work, you’re going to get sexual tension out of that naturally.

AD: Yeah, the sort of Harry-met-Sally-with-brains-scenario. You’ve said, “That’s incredible paranoia out there – that’s what test marketing taught us.” Did you actually go and test market paranoia?

CC: We actually test marketed the show and what I was really surprised to learn was that everyone in the test audience believed that the government was not working in their best interests.

AD: The whole concept of the X-Files strikes me as being a very clever ploy. You’ve got unsolved mysteries which in a way absolve you of the responsibility of actually solving them. That must be nice out sometimes.

CC: Well, it’s not an out. It’s kind of a necessity. We’re dealing with the unexplained and what we would have to do at the end of each episode with closure would be to explain things. And of course we have no explanation.

AD: Some of the scripts are written in less than 72 hours I believe – fairly insane writing sessions. What causes that situation?

CC: This is a grind, and what happens is that you’re always doing many things at once. You are conceiving a show, writing, prepping, shooting, editing, and then putting music and sound into the show. Every day you do those things. So sometimes it all catches up with you and you find yourself in a situation where a good script doesn’t come in. You’re forced to put together something to shoot in a very short time. Seventy-two hours – that’s more a rewrite than an actual concept-to-completion scenario.

AD: What are you knee-deep in at the moment? What’s occupying your mind – are we talking about abductions, horseripping?

CC: We’re shooting an episode, no11 for the third season, It involves Scully and Mulder and what in fact looked like a religious miracle. And it’s currently in its third day of shooting and I’m still sitting here at my computer doing some little tweaks on it as we go.

AD: I’m actually amazed by some of the subjects you get away with on mainstream American TV: voodoo, devil worship, necrophilia. Has the moral Majority got on to you yet?

CC: No, I think we handle these things rather smartly. I’ve got to answer every week to a censorship wing at the network. With the necrophilia episode, as you call it, the word necrophilia is never spoken. He’s called a death fetisher. In the Satanic Cult episode, the word Satan never actually appears.

AD: Even so you’ve got people ripping out human hearts and so on. I mean, there’s not much room for doubt there.

CC: Right. It’s all a lot of fun, of course.

AD: Of course. In fact, you won an award for children’s programming.

CC: Yes. We won an award from a parents association for the quality of our show.

AD: Were you a bit surprised by that?

CC: It’s a family show.

AD: Yeah, the Manson family.

CC: I think it’s smart and I think we scare people by heightening their fear, by making them use their imaginations. We don’t show a whole lot. It’s what we don’t show that is the scariest.

AD: The thing that attracted me to the X-files is how smart it is. You cover a really broad range of scientific and cultural references, from the philosophies of Indians in New Mexico to quantum physics. We don’t normally equate vast intelligence with television.

CC: That’s because people underestimate the audience. If you tell people a good, tight mystery tale, whether it’s highbrow or lowbrow, it’s a good mystery and this one happens to be very smart. It’s about science, so it has to be based on science fact in order for us to create our science fiction. Mulder and Scully are two intelligent characters behaving in an intelligent way – they don’t speak over your head.

AD: What do you define as the X-Files twist?

CC: It’s gotta take something that’s familiar and try to make it unfamiliar, of course. When you have anything that is classic horror or classic genre material, twist it and make it unfamiliar. The X-Files take on vampires was basically a very urban take on the idea: people who live off blood banks and who work in groups. So it’s our own peculiar ideas about the unexplained.

AD: It seems you owe something to Steven Spielberg. I really like the fact that the X-Files is set in very ordinary locations. It’s not glamorous, say New York, where all these things take place. It’s Lake Okobogee, or whatever it’s called. Is that deliberate to put it in the middle of ordinary lives?

CC: Most certainly. We don’t cast many stars on the show. The show’s only as scary as it is believable. I’ve had an opportunity to put big stars on the show and I haven’t because it would be a liability. I happened to grow up in a very Spielberg-like area of Southern California. I think that he’s an amazing film maker and I’d have to say that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the reason I’m even doing what I’m doing. It pretty much reflects my own sensibility and my roots.

AD: That’s interesting because Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is still one of my top ten, is classic comic book entertainment, brilliantly realized.

CC: I just loved it. When I saw that movie, I knew I had to do this.

AD: It’s interesting because the X-Files has evolved the other way. It’s now a comic book. Were Tales from the Crypt and the Twilight Zone an influence to you as a kid?

CC: Certainly, all that stuff. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, anything that Jules Verne wrote, any movies they made from his books were fascinating to me.

AD: So you have always been fiddling on the edges of the dark zone? Have you always been dreaming up stories of what if, what if?

CC: Yeah, I think I’ve got a kind of perverse sensibility.

AD: I like the sound of that. So, for instance, when you find yourself at a dinner party, do you drift off and look at someone and think what if they were actually a werewolf?

CC: No. I usually think what they do look like naked.

AD: I’ve suddenly become very uncomfortable in this interview Chris. The darkness of the show is also very appealing, too – it’s that classic thing of Mulder and Scully walk into a room with just flashlights which nobody in their right mind would ever do. Is the darkness of the show a key element as well.

CC: Certainly. I owe most of that to John Bartley who’s our fantastic director of photography. He’s made the show so beautiful and dark. He knows the X-Files sensibility well. And also, the art director, Graeme Murray, who, each episode, will figure out how to make it a little bit better. And that’s a rarity in this business.

AD: Well, it is one of the things about the show that sets it apart; it’s quite cinemagraphic as opposed to normal TV.

CC: It looks more like a movie; the way it’s cut, the way it’s directed, the way it’s realized, is very theatrical and there’s not a lot of stuff on television like it.

AD: The understated acting style of David and Gillian – is that something they brought to you or was that something you wanted?

CC: Something I wanted. I wrote these characters who were very serious, who were very real. When David came in a few years ago, he was very deadpan, very minimalist in his approach to acting. And so it worked for the character of Fox Mulder. But David’s also one of the funniest people you’ll meet.