Sydney Morning Herald
Chris Carter Interview
How did the episode I visited turn out?
Revelations, it was called. It actually turned out really well. It was one of the favorite episodes this year.
You were locked up writing last week when we were supposed to talk.
I think every week it’s safe to say I’m locked up writing.
How much of the series are you doing?
I have my name on seven of the first 15 for this year. And I do a fair amount of rewriting past that. So I do, I would say, more than the lion’s share.
Is writing the heart of the job for you?
It is. Everything springs from that but there are numerous responsibilities that I have undertaken. I just got out of the playback room, where I reviewed the sound and music for episode 13. I did a final quality control on that.
Is writing where you get the most personal enjoyment?
I think the biggest personal satisfaction for me is in seeing the final product. Everything else is done under such strict deadlines and time pressure that a lot of the enjoyment is just in finishing it.
You’ve given yourself a job where you work 150 hours a week? Couldn’t you pull back?
I don’t think I’ve got the personality to really pull back. If I felt that the show was going to suffer in any way or was not going to be the show I thought it could be, I couldn’t pull back. And right now I feel that this isn’t just obsessing or a neurotic compulsion, it’s really about trying to make the show as good as it can be. I am really determined to never have the quality suffer. I would like to see the show keep getting better and better.
Gillian said that the third series had really found itself, that it has been through its adolescence and has now found its style.
I think she’s right. I think that this is the best year ever. The ratings reflect it. I think the quality of the shows this year has been excellent. And I think that has a lot to do with the directors that we have hired. We’ve hired a series of directors who have rotated. I think that helps a lot, takes a lot of the guesswork out. There’s a communication that is built in in that situation.
Does a TV show need to mature?
I think the first year is a really important maturing process. I think it really finds itself. You find what works, the pacing, the rhythms. But I think that all too often TV shows age rather than mature. And that is not a good thing.
How close to your original vision is what we get?
I have to say that it’s extremely close to what I imagined. Of course, when I was sitting and writing the pilot, I never imagined episode 73, which is where we’ll be this year. Anyone who creates a show, I don’t think, can look that far down the road. But I did, indeed, have an idea about how the Mulder and Scully relationship would progress. And how the stories would work. What is most surprising to me is the kind of stories we have told, the directions the show has gone in, in terms of the variety of stories we’ve told. Other than that, the show is pretty much what I originally conceived of.
So where has it taken you that you haven’t expected?
I don’t know if you guys saw the humbug episode, the freaks episode last year. That’s just an ep that I never imagined. to tell you the truth, when it came in, I thought it was a pretty big departure from what we had done before, but I thought at that time, the 45th episode, that we had earned the right to stretch a little. If I can make a baseball analogy, we had been throwing fast balls and curve balls and this was a knuckleball, something new to our repertoire. In season three, you’re going to get a few more of those kinds of episodes. They’re very comedic episodes and I hadn’t anticipated taking the show in that direction.
Are you getting away with more than expected, taking it further?
In some respects, yes. There were stories they told us we wouldn’t be able to tell, about satanic cults for example. They thought that was viewer-unfriendly, territory they thought was not for television. We’ve gone into that and further. I think we have pushed the limits of standards. But other than that, I think we’re not getting away with anything more than they would ever let us get away with in terms of detail, graphic elements. I think it’s more that subject matter which may have been verboten before is now in play.
Are the episodes gone over with a fine tooth comb?
Oh yeah. Every week there is a negotiation that is waged between the broadcast standards and practice wing, which is the censorship wing really, of the network, and me and the producers on the show, who fight for the things we think are very important to our storytelling.
You’ve talked a lot about the influence of TV shows like Night Stalker. But are you now or were you as a kid a big comic reader?
No, uh-uh, never. Never a big comic book reader. Never a science fiction fan. I just loved scary movies, good scary stories, good mysteries and thrillers. Even in my adolescence things like good political thrillers, Parallax View, All The President’s Men, Three Days Of The Condor, loved those kind of movies.
Scaring is not what it used to be in an age of gratuitous, over the top special effects. What are the rules of doing it now?
Making it seem as if it really could happen. If it could happen to you. If it’s a believable situation. We live in fear every day, we live in a lot of denial as well. If you can find the elements of everyday life that scare us and bring them into play, embellish or find new ways to look at the world, then you have naturally scary situations, which is what the best X-Files have.
The really good shows, rather than a rollercoaster scare, have a profound sense of unease.
Yes that’s what I’m always looking for.
I love that story about there being three million people in America who believe they have been abducted by aliens. Anyone else would say, well, it’s time to move country, but you thought, wow, a target audience.
Not so much a target audience. If I had to go for three million people, I’d be off the air. Three million people is not enough to carry an American TV show. I didn’t see them as the audience as much as I saw it as a quantitative analysis of a syndrome. For me it said that there is a legitimate way to present these people’s cases to a larger public. So I never saw them as my audience as much as fuel for my stories.
You’ve created a believer and a sceptic. Which are you?
I’m a skeptic by nature. I describe myself as a non-religious person looking for a religious experience. So I’m like Mulder, who has that poster “I want to believe” on the wall. I really have a desire, as I believe we all do, to find a reason to believe, to have our skepticism tested, eroded, or our beliefs affirmed.
Is it a search for meaning?
I think it is, but it is indirectly. I didn’t set out to deliver a message at all. And I still don’t want that to be the purpose of any of the shows. I really want to entertain, scare and thrill.
The motto of the show is the truth is out there. But you seem to be saying the truth isn’t, that it’s changeable, manipulable.
I’ve always thought of it as a double entendre. The truth is out there to be found, and then it’s so far out there that we’ll never find it.
How important is the sexual tension between the characters?
I never wanted them to jump in the sack together because it was uninteresting to me. To me, the most sexual relationships are often the ones that are never realized, consummated or even spoken about. So I wanted this to be two smart people who work together, who happen to get along very well. Through their shared passion in their work, there is a natural chemical sexual tension that comes out of that, that doesn’t ever have to be spoken about, but it works.
Like in the Avengers?
I loved the Avengers as a kid. That Steed/Mrs Peel thing was a sort of May/September thing. He definitely was more of a father figure to her.
I like the fact that the X-Files in a non-linear drama.
Kind of. Sometimes its very linear. Sometimes you really tell it in a very straight path.
But it’s drama which often works without resolution.
Oh yes, in that way, there is rarely any kind of perfectly satisfying resolution. You may have an understanding of a situation or something may have been solved, but ultimately we never try to explain the unexplainable.
That’s a pretty radical step for television. There is an assumption that everyone wants a neat package tied up with bows.
They only do if they think there is resolution to be had. But I think in this case people would actually call BS on us if we pretended to explain something or give them all the answers. We are dealing with subject matter beyond explanation a lot of the time. So I think it was the right choice. It’s the natural choice for this kind of storytelling.
It also gives credit to the audience for intelligence and imagination.
It’s been a real zeitgeist show. Did you have any idea it would strike a chord?
You never do. You just hope you get an order for your pilot script, an order for your pilot. You hope the pilot gets picked up for a series and you hope the series gets picked up for another. Along the way, you are, I call it taking the pig to the fair. You want to make it to the final judging, which is ultimately with the viewing public. You want them just to like it. You can never anticipate the kind of response we have had with the X-Files.
Were you surprised at the level of paranoia and weirdness out there?
No, I had anticipated that. But I wasn’t prepared for the prevalence of a basic distrust of authority and the government.
Around the time of the Oklahoma bombing, did you ever think I am making a paranoid anti-government program, and feeding into this?
No, I think there’s no connection. I am not saying overthrow authority. I am saying question it. We’re not suggesting anything revolutionary. These people are obviously very militant.
People talk of the X-Files being like Star Trek, saying it will go on forever. Are you sitting on a 30 year job?
No way. This show will never go for 30 years. There may be a movie now and again. I see it going for five years and anything past that is great. But if it lasted any longer than seven, I would be completely surprised. And it wouldn’t be under my aegis.
Has it made you as rich as Croesus and does this mean you are finally going to get to make that series of docos on the life of the bollweevil or whatever your personal fantasy has been?
I think it will allow me to go surfing where I want to go surfing, when I get to go surfing again. So I’m looking forward to that. When you do this kind of show, certainly the pay cheques fatten and start coming in. Am I rich as Croesus? Hardly.