Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
Chris Carter is the man behind the creepiest shows on TV:
The X-Files and Millennium
Gavin Edwards crawls inside his nightmares.
Chris Carter is picking a murder weapon. He knows a lot about death and its tools, like how Glock handguns are growing more popular with detectives, or how it can be hard to tear off pieces of duct tape when you are trying to suffocate a victim quickly. But when he selects a weapon, he puts all that information aside for one consideration: how it looks. He doesn’t bother to handle the axes or the scythe, doesn’t test their weight, or experiment with how they feel in his right hand. He makes his choices quickly, collecting a pile of hand axes and a gun for good measure, never hesitating or second-guessing himself. After all, it’s not like it’s his first time in a props room.
Chris, the creator and executive producer of The X-Files, is busy launching Millennium, another show designed to turn your REM sleep into nightmares. It’s the story of a retired FBI agent named Frank Black who’s studied serial killers for so long, he’s started sharing their dark visions — a serious advantage on the job, not so much fun at home with the wife and kid. Next week, Chris and his crew will begin filming the third episode, which is why on a Friday morning, accompanied by director Thomas Wright, he’s choosing from the objects presented by prop master Kimberley Regent for an episode about a serial killer who paints his messages on strands of hair. Beer bottles, an Igloo cooler, a tool chest filled with lethal weaponry: all fine. Coffee mugs and a pair of scissors: rejected for looking brand-new.
“Do you want something more Edward Scissorhands?” asks Kimberley.
“Not to the point of Grand Guignol — they should just be well used.”
The killer in this Millennium episode, “Dead Letters,” hacks his victims into pieces, so the conversation turns to how the show will conceal the corpse cutlets. “The nice thing about a white sheet,” observes Chris in a chipper tone, “is that you can have body fluids seeping through.”
Chris’s company, Ten Thirteen Productions, takes its name from his birthday: October 13, 1956. Chris grew up in the L.A. suburb of Bellflower; his childhood was fairly normal, even if Chris’s construction worker father was a little on the strict side. After playing with the girl next door one night when he was eight, Chris came home late for dinner. This was forbidden in the Carter household. To emphasize the point, his father took Chris’s dinner plate out to the street, placed it on a manhole cover, and made his son eat off the pavement. Since the Carters lived on a dead end, Hegel Place, Chris was never in danger. But even when passing cars are going fifteen miles an hour, eating in the street is humiliating.
“My parents never broke rank,” says Chris. “Even when they were wrong, they would back each other up.” Confronted with an unassailable power that he knew was wrong sometimes, Chris lost faith in all authority figures. “Trust no one” is an X-Files slogan; it’s also Chris’s personal philosophy. He doesn’t trust anybody. With a dry chuckle he admits, “This is an issue between my wife and me.”
As a teenager, Chris loved the show Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” which starred Darrin McGavin as a hapless newspaper reporter who, whatever his assignment was, would end up stumbling across a zombie or werewolf and then try to convince the local authorities this wasn’t just any ordinary murder, dammit. The show lasted only twenty episodes, but Chris watched every single one and wished there had been more. Two decades later, financed by 20th Century Fox Television, he’d make his nightmares come true.
Chris’s Millennium office is barren; he hasn’t had time to decorate. The bookshelf holds only three volumes: a dictionary, a Bible (with the Apocrypha), and the Yellow Pages. Chris is sitting in his leather chair, talking on the phone with David Duchovny while watching dailies of The X-Files. On Chris’s TV, David and Gillian Anderson interrogate a suspect, over and over and over again.
Chris hangs up: It’s time for a “tone meeting” for the “Dead Letters” episode of Millennium, attended by director Thomas Wright, writer James Wong, and a couple of producers. The goal is to study the script scene by scene, to ensure that everybody is striving for the same effect. But since this is Thomas’s first time working with Chris, it also becomes a seminar on the Chris Carter Principles of Dramatic Episodic Television.
Chris believes: (1) That point of view is everything in television. He urges Thomas to think of the camera as another character, not just an observer of the scene. (2) That a show can only be as scary as it is believable.(3) That a script should never include a scene where characters are drinking any beverage; it only encourages the actors to take portentous pauses, and makes the editing much harder. (4) That an actor’s posture is vital. When FBI agents have their hands in their pockets, they communicate lack of interest in the crime scene — even if the reason is the cold weather. (5) That stuntmen will always want to stage overly elaborate fight sequences.
Chris eats sushi during the meeting, guarding the pages of his script with a cupped left hand. Scene 9 of “Dead Letters” has a problem. Learning that the serial killer covers his victims with his own feces, Frank Black says, “The only psychological release he could perform was defecation.” The Fox Broadcast Standards department is not happy about this dialogue, and have issued a memo declaring that “the reference to ‘fecal remains’ is unacceptable. We also will not accept references to urine, urination, or masturbation.”
“This is a very well-researched thing about defecation,” fumes writer James Wong. “Thieves burgle your home and leave behind a calling card. I find it unacceptable that they find it unacceptable.”
Chris takes action: He calls up Ken Horton, his co-executive producer in Los Angeles, and advises him to walk over to Broadcast Standards, rather than just fire off a countermemo: The personal visit might help persuade Fox that the scene is not meant to titillate. And as Chris hangs up to resume the tone meeting, he has final words of advice for Ken: “Don’t take any of their shit.”
Chris majored in Journalism at California State University in Long Beach, paying his way by working as a production potter. A typical evening by the kiln: cutting up a hundred four-pound balls of clay, each of which he then shaped into an identical pot. Where some people would find drudgery, Chris saw an opportunity to exercise mastery. He says that there are hundreds of thousands of pots in the world made by his hands. He saw one outside the studio only once, as a planter in a doctor’s office: All Chris could think about was how one day it would break, and how all his pottery would eventually disappear, unremembered.
After college, Chris went to work for Surfing magazine, where he was the greenhorn running through the hallways, colliding with the art director. He profiled surfers, profiled beaches, reviewed new equipment — whatever was needed. By age twenty-six, he had become a senior editor and had nearly drowned in Hawaii’s big surf seven winters in a row. He had also just seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, which made him realize that he wanted to work in the movies. Chris wrote a script about three kids heading off to the Vietnam War. It circulated around Hollywood, generating a buzz wherever it went, and Jeffrey Katzenberg hired him at Disney for a three-picture deal. At the time, Disney was experimenting with putting lots of writers near each other, in the hope that they would stimulate each other’s creativity. As Chris remembers it, everyone did congregate in the hallways — to bitch about deals and executives.
Chris got sidetracked into television when he discovered that the appetite for new scripts that would fill up airtime was so insatiable, he actually has a chance of seeing his words spoken by actors. Having a successful show is not a prerequisite to getting promoted at TV studios — sometimes you don’t even need to make it on the air. So Chris hopped from job to job, with credits like the Sunday-night TV movie Meet the Muncies (“a very funny Beverly Hillbillies kind of idea that would have been terrific, but they didn’t give us enough money or time to make it the right way”), Rags to Riches (a musical-comedy series on NBC about five dancing orphan girls), and the wholesome family sitcom A Brand New Life (“I was kind of manipulated into that project”). By 1992, his Hollywood reputation had grown sufficiently that Fox signed him to an exclusive deal. Remembering Kolchak: The Night Stalker and reasoning that there were no scary programs on the airwaves anymore, Chris managed to convince his bosses of the merits of The X-Files. (“I pitched it once and they didn’t buy it. I pitched it a second time and they bought it, I think, just to get me off their backs.”)
Fox thought they were getting a spooky reality-based program: reenactment of actual alien abductions. But The X-Files quickly became weirder and wittier than that, as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigated everything from cannibals to government conspiracies to cockroach invasions. Once a cult hit, The X-Files is currently the Fox network’s highest-rated show. And with the Pearl Jam-size success of The X-Files, the networks have shifted into Stone Temple Pilots mode. NBC offers three Generation X-Files shows in a row on Saturday night: Dark Skies, The Pretender, and Profiler. UPN has The Sentinel and The Burning Zone. Even Baywatch Nights is supposed to take a paranormal turn this season.
What they seem to be borrowing from The X-Files is what many people focus on: the sense of paranoia, communicated through old genre conventions like vampires and space aliens. What often gets ignored is the sense of religious desire. Mulder repeats the mantra “Trust no one” but he also says “I want to believe,” and “The truth is out there.” It’s a heady notion: that no matter how confusing the modern world may seem, there is a single unifying truth behind all its uncertainty — you just need to look in the right place to uncover the architecture. Mulder often seems less like an FBI agent than a pilgrim en route to Damascus. Always lacking the hard evidence he needs to confirm his theories of abductions, in the end all he has is his faith.
Last year, Fox reminded Chris that despite the epic proportions of X-mania, he still owed them another pilot under the terms of his development deal. (They may well have decided that if other networks were going to copy The X-Files, they should just go right to the source.) Chris remembered Frank Black, a character he’d been carrying around in his head for a long time: not the former Pixies singer, but a retired FBI agent who learns to understand wrongdoing so deeply that he gains quasi-psychic insight into criminals. With Millennium — starring Lance Henriksen as Frank Black and Megan Gallagher as his social-worker wife Catherine — Chris wants not to just xerox The X-Files, but to explore the nature and meaning of evil. Chris hopes the show runs long enough that it becomes an issue whether the millennium begins in 2000 or 2001.
With his broad shoulders and curly blond hair, Chris looks as wholesome as an actor in a soap commercial. But in his head, he sees himself as an outsider, with dyed hair and body piercings. He doesn’t let this side of himself leak out into anything but his scripts, however, and when pressed as to the origins of his black art, he sidesteps the question. He says that he thinks of his series as driven by character, not horror, or that he’s not really interested in showing blood and gore on the screen, or that he simply doesn’t know where his grotesque ideas come from.
All of us have unknown terrors, monsters inside our head. Some of us run away from them; some of us just pretend they don’t exist. Some of us try to conquer them, maybe paying a therapist for a talking cure. Chris copes with them in the way he’s learned best: by dissecting them into structures of four acts (plus a teaser), and then exiling them to your television set. Chris knows that he has good instincts for what scares people. “I think our lives are rather mundane, and we like to be shocked. We like the sensory burst.” It would be easy to peg him as a calculating Hollywood operator who recognized that a modern Twilight Zone would fill a market niche. But like Agent Mulder, he throws himself into his job until it swallows up his life. Unlike Mulder, Chris doesn’t make speeches about why he does what he does before we cut to commercial.
For all the grisly events on The X-Files and Millennium, Chris is surprisingly squeamish. A few years back, he went to a specialist to find out why his hearing had gotten so bad. He learned that he has a condition known as “surfer’s ear.” When you get pounded by big waves day after day, a lot of water enters the ear; to protect itself, the ear forms lumps of bone under the skin of the ear canal which block out the surf. The doctor told him the news and began probing the ear to make a precise diagnosis. Chris fainted. The creator of TV’s scariest shows woke up in the arms of his ear-nose-and-throat man.
Chris steps into the sunshine of a Vancouver parking lot. Both The X-Files and Millennium film up here: It’s accessible to L.A. but cheaper, and the local terrain can mimic just about any part of the United States. (Except for Southwestern deserts: To simulate a New Mexico ravine last year, the crew covered a local quarry with 1,600 gallons of red paint.) Chris has been asked to help with an X-Files casting decision; as he strides the fifty yards that separates his two shows’ buildings, Teamsters unloading a truck smile and wave at their boss.
“They’re casting a mutant,” Chris explains to me. “Well, not a mutant, exactly. More of a freak of nature, a woman with no arms or legs. She lives under somebody’s bed. Her own, I guess.” The director, Kim Manners, and the casting director, Coreen Mayrs, have narrowed their choices for Mrs. Peacock to three actresses. Chris examines the Polaroids of each actress, and then the women are brought in one at a time for their final callback.
Actress No. 1, Karin, turns her chair toward Coreen, who is feeding her lines, and does Mrs. Peacock’s monologue as a slow burn, hands behind her back, eyes bulging. Karin is completely focused on Coreen; I wonder whether she realizes that Chris has the only opinion in the room that really counts right now.
Chris already knows Actress No. 2, Barbara — she played a small part as a hostage in an X-Files episode he directed two years ago. He nicknamed her “my Canadian wife” because she kept bringing him homemade jam. She reads with a Southern accent, building into a scalding fury.
Actress No. 3, Lenore, tells us how she scared the children at the local mall while she was practicing the monologue. When she begins, we see why: She wails at the top of her lungs, rocks violently in the chair, and scatters her script all over the carpet. Chris watches with his hands folded in his lap.
A pause as No. 3 leaves the room. Coreen and Kim look at Chris expectantly. “Well, we have to send really nice cards to two of them,” Chris begins. “They all obviously a lot of work. Barbara did a great acting job, but she’s a little too robust for the part. Karin was doing some creepy stuff with her eyes at the end. Made me really nervous. That’s a good sign.” The decision is made, with no further debate: Karin is whisked off to wardrobe and makeup, to get fitted for clothes and prosthetics.
Chris’ staff have nicknamed him The Phantom because he appears and disappears in the office hallway when they least expect it. He skitters off to his X-Files office, decorated with props from the show and posters of the stage magician Carter the Great (“In Mid-Air, Carter Materializes a Bowl of Water Weighing 150 lbs!”). First he places a phone call to a Fox executive (Chris does most of his own dialing himself, only occasionally asking one of his assistants to get somebody on the line). Talking with the exec, Chris politely but decisively kiboshes a planned tie-in between Millennium and Domino’s Pizza. Now Chris has a chance to demonstrate his sterling-silver etiquette: He writes thank-you notes to the two actresses who weren’t cast as Mrs. Peacock. Most producers, if they thought to do this at all, would just scribble a quick sentence. Chris, however, fills up both cards: As always, compulsively writing.
If Chris Carter were a character on The X-Files, who would he be? Gillian Anderson: “Chris would be the Cigarette-Smoking Man, because he’s at the top, he knows exactly what he wants, and he can snap his fingers and people will obey his whims. I can imagine him standing in a corner with half-light, only he wouldn’t be smoking, he’d be doing something else. Maybe he’d be the Jellybean-Eating Man.” Chris Carter: “Mulder and Scully are equal parts of me. David makes fun of me; he says that means Mulder is only half a character.” David Duchovny: “Actually, Chris already played a character in the second-season finale: one of the FBI agents who was grilling Scully about my whereabouts. He was in the script as Other Agent, so we called him Agent Other Agent. He just had a few lines, but he felt like he was flubbing them. No recurring role.”
Although The X-Files and Millennium shoot in Vancouver, the writers work on the Fox lot back in Los Angeles. So Chris spends a lot of time shuttling between the two cities; he’s on a first-name basis with the Canadian Air flight attendants, baggage handlers and pilots. Canadian Air’s even been known to hold takeoff for a few minutes so Chris can get on the plane.
Aside from overseeing every episode of The X-Files, Chris writes eight episodes a season (and revises most of the other 16): a grueling workload, which he now plans to double. Says David Duchovny, “Chris is driven beyond all common sense, but at his core he’s just a really good, decent man. He’s loyal like a dog — but a little more intelligent.” Chris works until about eleven most nights, typing on his PowerBook, and then drives straight home in his Land Rover.
On the Fox back lot, every single parking space is labeled RESERVED, even the ones nobody ever uses. Ten Thirteen Productions sprawls over many buildings in what was once the Shirley Temple section of the studio. Monday mornings at Ten Thirteen begin with a Millennium meeting. Chris — wearing maroon shorts and a gray T-shirt — joins six writers and co-executive producer Ken Horton around a table piled high with doughnuts and pastries. One writer, Tedd Mann, is chewing a piece of nicotine gum and drinking tea out of a huge Pyrex mixing cup. Chris keeps the meeting moving briskly — except when he feels like he needs to share what’s on his mind, whether that relates to the nature of Bill Murray’s appeal or how Olympic archers eat junk food to speed up their heart rate. Other writers are allowed to derail the conversation in this fashion, but few dare. Each staffer reports on how his script is progressing, and Chris tells them about the “fecal remains” brouhaha.
“Would ‘poop’ be acceptable?” asks one writer.
Ken provides an update: “The guy we’re going to win the argument with is on vacation right now. So we’re going to shoot it, and then we’re also going to shoot a version without it.”
“Don’t tell him we’re doing that,” says Chris.
“Well, we don’t want to give them the big finger. They’ll figure out what’s going on anyway.”
An hour late, Chris walks to the X-Files meeting, held in co-executive producer Howard Gordon’s bungalow. (In TV, most successful writers end up titled as some variety of producer.) Seven writers crowd around a small coffee table, which holds a plate with five bagels.
“Year four, this is all you get,” Chris tells them. Everybody grumbles good-naturedly about how there aren’t enough bagels; nobody actually eats one. Howard’s working on a script about an albino who kills his victims by stealing their melanin. The writers debate plot mechanics, the racial implications of the story, hiding places for the killer. “The end-game should be urban,” Chris declares. “What if he’s under a bowling alley, and the balls start to back up?” More ideas are tossed around, including a mushroom farm and the crawl space under an escalator (both already used on the show), the pipes of an oil-drilling rig, and a big industrial darkroom.
“What’s that like?” Chris asks the writer who suggested it.
“Um, it’s dark.”
Chris improvises some Mulder-Scully dialogue as they try to revise the scripts third and fourth acts. It’s slow, frustrating work, but Chris keeps the plot twists flowing. He has another idea for the melanin killer: “If only he needed melatonin — you can get it at any health-food store.” Once the meeting has been going on for about an hour, Chris begins balancing his chair on its rear legs and drumming his fingers on the table. He’s got a script to revise and he can’t contain his anticipation. His tool is a laptop computer, not a surfboard, but he’s still itching for his daily adrenaline rush.