Archive for February, 1997

Rolling Stone: The Virtue of Paranoia

Feb-20-1997
Rolling Stone
The Virtue of Paranoia
David Lipsky

You’d think that people who spend their time dreaming up conspiracies would have beards and wave their hands a lot when they talk. Chris Carter is placid, handsome, clean-shaven. He pauses to find the right words — the breaks can sometimes last a few seconds — and when he talks again, the words are the correct ones. It’s as though he’s rewriting as he speaks, running a kind of mental thesaurus program.

“Right now I’m reading about these things called peak experiences or peak moments,” he says, speaking of future X-Files plots. “I had an idea that I’ve wanted to do since the first season — and I could never figure out a way to do it — which is the idea of perfect happiness: that perfect happiness is our natural state, and that if we ever find it, we’ll spontaneously combust.”

If that’s so, Carter should be wearing an asbestos suit. The son of a construction worker, he grew up a surfer in a blue-collar Los Angeles suburb. After college, he walked into Surfing magazine one day and became one of its editors. In 1982, after watching Raiders of the Lost Ark six times in six days, he recognized his own need to tell stories. (“Those first ten minutes are so intense,” he says. “It was almost like you hadn’t taken a breath. I felt I had an imagination that worked kind of like that.”) By chance, a relative was a talent agent, and two years later, Carter had a three-picture screenwriting deal. In 1992, just as his own dark preoccupations with trust and government were becoming the national mood, Carter was hired by Fox to develop television shows. Now in the middle of its fourth season, The X-Files is the highest-rated program on the Fox network. The show is seen in 60 countries. In some of them, the two-part episodes that run during American sweeps weeks are edited together and packaged as minimovies. An actual movie — an X-Files feature — is planned for release next summer. Carter is writing the screenplay.

“Chris has his hands on every single aspect of the show,” says Gillian Anderson. “He’s a controlling maniac, and he’s a genius.”

Like the show’s heroes, he’s downsized his personal life to the point of nonexistence. He and his wife have no children — “It’s fine with me,” he explains. “I think I’d love a kid too much, for one thing.”

“Chris is extremely focused and extremely loyal to The X-Files,” says David Duchovny. “He’s made the show his entire life, as far as I can see. Everything is to that end.”

Last fall, Carter’s schedule became even busier. Fox prevailed upon him to create a second show; Carter came up with Millennium, which so far hasn’t risen to the artistic heights of The X-Files. The dialogue sometimes seems to come from a line of brooding greeting cards. (“He was paralyzed not by fear but by something deeper; by understanding.” “The doctor says you have a mild concussion. But it’s not your body’s healing that worries me, it’s your spirit.”) “It’s a little bit confusing,” says Duchovny. “We all sort of say, ‘Why do you need another show?’ Because this show is enough work for anybody. He’s been with us less than during the first three seasons. And I think that if the quality of the show hasn’t suffered, definitely the process of making the episodes has become harder, just because Chris is very controlling and wants to be. But he doesn’t have the time now.” Carter points out that while Millennium’s viewership hasn’t lived up to the spectacularly hyped pilot, the new show is duplicating last year’s X-Files ratings. Carter’s professional life has become almost like an X-Files story line: a massive international corporation wired into and feeding off one man’s anxieties.

Carter describes his life thus: “I go to work, and I go home. I had one of those Global Positioning Systems given to me as a gift. It’s a little screen in my car that draws a map — drops these little rabbit pellets — to show where you’ve been. And my map is a very monotonous single track, back and forth to work. I go to Vancouver [where The X-Files and Millennium are filmed]. I don’t do anything else.”

When I asked Carter if he thinks he has a genius for being frightening, he laughs: “I understand what people don’t understand. I understand where people are vulnerable. Most of the kids I went to high school with still live in that same town. Fear of the outsiders, fear of the other, was very, very real and powerful in my town. I grew up with a guy who was actually one of the smarter kids in the school and who was also an athlete. And one night, when we were 18, we drove to Westwood [an upscale L.A. neighborhood]. Our town was only 20 miles away. And we were in a restaurant when he looked around and said, ‘We don’t belong here.’ That’s the distance that that half-hour created. He felt that those people were sophisticated and smart, and knew things he didn’t. So he was scared of them. That’s what people are afraid of. It’s the scary thing about foreigners; it’s the scary thing about aliens. We’re all afraid of the unknown. And each week, that’s what I’m doing. I’m exposing people to what they don’t know.”

What’s it been like, this season, running two shows at once?

It’s really brutal. There’s no getting around it. I think the series business is as hard a work as there is in entertainment.

So did you appreciate why [“Seinfeld” co-creator] Larry David left his show last year, before the sixth season?

Well, yes. I mean, you set out to accomplish something, and you accomplish it. I don’t think you should work past the point where you’re doing it for the money. Or for the — I don’t want to say the obligation, but I do feel obligated to Dave and Gillian. Our commitment when we started was that we’d give each other five years of hard work. I’ll have stuck with The X-Files for five years at the end of next season.

What happens then?

Contractually, I walk away. I produce something else. I have an overall deal at Fox, so I will be here past my obligation to The X-Files. I’ve signed away my life to them for longer than that. So there’s a chance I could still be on The X-Files past Season 5.

What are the odds that you won’t be?

Today? Big.

Why?

I’m really tired. I wish there were more good X-Files writers. There are very few people who have proved they can do it. That’s why it’s been so hard. I think with Millennium, I’ve created not only a good show but a problem for myself in that it requires more work. And so, because I can’t stand to do anything halfway, I’ve handed myself more work. It’s a collaborative process. You need good people to actually succeed, and you risk killing yourself if you don’t have them. I’d say I’ve written a third of all X-Files episodes. And last year I wrote or rewrote 20 of 24. I was on a round-table discussion with Stephen Bochco, and he said that when he was doing Hill Street Blues, they had six guys who could do an episode start to finish. That’s unheard of these days. You just don’t have that breadth of talent available to you. Anybody who can write drama now has their own show or a pilot deal, or something. The reality is, it’s very hard to get a group of people together to make something real, to make something right.

Had it been an ambition of yours to have two shows on at once?

I just want to do what interests me. I hate the word ambition — I think it sounds as if you’re overreaching. It sounds like a dirty word to me. Because the bad part is, you can be ambitious without having talent.

What is it then?

You know what it is? I could very easily leave these episodes alone. And we could do them, and they would probably be OK. I just — I look at them, and I just know they can be better. That’s what’s pushing me. It’s pursuit of, I guess, in a way, perfection. Which is, you know, impossible.

Did you start out intending to be a screenwriter?

I didn’t. I graduated from Long Beach State University, in 1979, with a degree in journalism and went to work for Surfing magazine for five pretty hard-core years. I was the associate editor. But even though that seems like a lowly title, sometimes I wrote almost the entire magazine.

It must have been a kick to go from being a surfer to working at “Surfing” magazine.

It was a great experience. I got to travel all around the world; I did stories in Australia, and I did stories in the Caribbean. I did many stories in Hawaii — I went to the North Shore for, I think, seven years in a row during the winter season, when all the big-wave riders gather.

When did you start surfing?

From age 12 on. Even though we lived inland, I would always find ways to get to the beach. I still surf, though I’m not as nimble as I once was. The town I grew up in is called Bellflower. Actually, it’s right next to Lakewood, which is famous now for Joan Didion’s Spur Posse article. Bellflower is one of those bedroom communities for people working at Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing. My forebears were dairy farmers, Dutch. When I was growing up, the land was all dairy farms. Now it’s called Cerritos, which has become famous for that plane that crashed on its approach to LAX.

What kind of childhood was it?

I have what a lot of people in this business don’t: a very blue-collar background. My mom was a homemaker. My father was a construction worker — the guy people curse as they go down the street because he’s one of the men who was tearing up the roads and putting in storm drains and sewer lines.

He was pretty strict, wasn’t he?

Actually, I told this story once to a group of people. I was goaded into it because they said Alfred Hitchcock said that his father had locked him in a room, or something like that. They asked, “Do you have any story like that?” And I thought, “Okay, well, if they’re going to connect it to the master.” So I told this story, which is of my dad punishing me for coming home late. I was probably all of about eight or nine years old, so I was a real little kid. I’d missed dinner, and my dad, to get across that this was not allowed, carried my dinner outside and put it down on a manhole cover, and made me eat my food there. It was his way of showing he meant business. We were on a cul-de-sac, so there weren’t that many cars. But, still, it’s a pretty strange way to punish your kid.

Is that why — well, I don’t want this to sound strange: How paranoid a person are you?

[Smiles] Very, very paranoid, in that I’m acutely aware of fear and betrayal. My father had a bad relationship with his mother. She had left his father at an early age, so he was keenly attuned to her betrayal of him. I think that’s something that was passed down.

But what do you think made you paranoid?

Well, it started out — my mother, who I loved dearly, could never keep a secret. So if as a kid you go to your mother and you tell her something, and she can’t keep it secret, it develops in you, you know, a sense that nothing is safe [laughs].

What kind of secrets?

I remember that I had a girlfriend, who I’m still very friendly with, kind of a high-school sweetheart. I’d moved away, and I was afraid that she was cheating on me. So I had my mom do some of my legwork. She looked into it and came back, and told me that nothing was going on. And then I said, “Please keep this a secret.” So as late as my late teens, I mean, she would [laughs] tell her friends. She did it in the least malicious way. She was just a person who couldn’t keep a secret.

But she didn’t tell the girl that she’d kept a stakeout in front of her house…

No, but she, like, alluded to it or something. My mom was wonderfully ditsy, and so it was just sort of like, “Oops! It just snuck out!” So I think that’s where that comes from.

What kind of student were you?

I was not a great high school student. I think I was kind of bored. But I was a good college student. I put myself through school working as a production potter. When I was a sophomore, I built a house from the ground up with a carpenter. I can build things; I can make things. I know how to take a project and finish it, which is what producing is: seeing a problem, you know, and actually taking the materials and hammering the pieces together.

Did you begin thinking about writing for TV while you were at “Surfing”?

I actually didn’t. The woman who’s now my wife — Dori — she’d been a screenwriter for a long time. I had never really had any ambition to be a screenwriter. But I had an idea. I’d go to see movies — I mean, everybody has an idea for a movie. And so I told it to her, she liked it, and she said, “Well, why don’t you write the screenplay?” So I did. And it actually got a lot of attention around town.

Was it a surfing thing?

It was called National Pastime, and it was about three kids going off to Vietnam, from my socioeconomic level, and the injustices of who goes and who doesn’t. When I go back and read it today, I cringe, because I really didn’t know my craft then like I do now. But there’s still a story there to tell. Do you know how everybody out there wants to get an agent? I didn’t — I wasn’t really pushing it at all. I wrote this thing and actually had the luxury of being able to hand it to someone — an agent who was a cousin by marriage — who had the ability then to put it out. She got some feedback, and basically … nothing happened. So I had to write a second script, a big comedy, which was seen by Jeffrey Katzenberg [then the head of production at Disney]. And Jeffrey Katzenberg, for very little money — what seemed like a lot of money to me — gave me an office and a secretary. I don’t think I ever made more than $18,000 a year at Surfing, and he gave me $40,000. So one day I was in the surf, and the next day I was driving to Burbank.

Was the second screenplay more like “The X-Files” and “Millennium”?

It was very big and wild, about a character named Bad O’Malley who was a sort of private eye. But I got my foot in the door — that was the big mistake. They didn’t ask you what you were interested in. Disney wanted you to do their ideas. So, as I’m working on a script, I start getting very strange calls from a woman who says that she’s going to ruin me, that I’d taken her boyfriend’s script and it wasn’t my property. I realized I was writing an idea that actually belonged to somebody else. But no one had bothered to tell me. It was sort of, “Welcome to Hollywood, this is how the business works.”

Anyway, this was at a time when Disney needed product, and they needed writers. They were doing The Disney Sunday Movie every week. These producers would come to my door on the lot, and they’d say, “You want to do a Disney Sunday Movie?” I’d say yes to everybody because, you know, they’re asking me to write. That’s where I got seduced by television: the pace, the control that I saw that you could have.

That’s a funny jump: from Disney to “The X-Files.”

Well, the jump from Surfing to The X-Files is somehow even funnier. But I watched a lot of TV as a kid, so it was something I was very familiar with.

What did you like?

Twilight Zone. Night Gallery. The Outer Limits. The show that inspired The X-Files was called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He was a reporter who investigated a monster of the week. But what was nice for me is that in the 20 years between Kolchak and The X-Files, a lot happened in science and technology. And those things — which, you know, became the foundation for The X-Files — they didn’t really have at the time. But I’ve never watched an episode of Star Trek in my life. I tell people this, and they never believe me.

Had you been interested in the paranormal before “The X-Files”?

I was interested in science. My brother is a physicist, and I’m kind of a dilettante amateur scientist. But magic — the unexplained, a mystery — is always fun to write about. What I really wanted was to do a good scary show. This was the summer of 1992. The two characters I came up with sort of represented those two sides of myself: the scientific and the intuitive. Then I switched the genders. At the same time, a bunch of other elements came together. You know, you start working on something, and all of a sudden your antennae become fixed. I saw a guy who worked for the FBI on Larry King whose detail was satanic cults. He said that he had found not one ounce of truth in any of those things. But I found it interesting that they had somebody specifically investigating something like that.

And The Silence of the Lambs had come out, which I thought was beautifully done, and I actually studied that movie pretty carefully. So it was scratching at my mind; the FBI was fresh in my mind. Kolchak, FBI — that really sort of helped form the concept.

And when you had it, did you think, “This is the idea, but, man, this is going to be a hard sell”?

Yeah, I thought it was going to be a hard sell, and, in fact, it was a hard sell. They didn’t buy it the first time out. Because they didn’t understand it: nothing like it on TV. I went to Martha’s Vineyard between the time I pitched it and the time they turned us down, and met somebody there who was a Yale research psychologist. He gave me a book, a tract, which was the statistical survey done by a Harvard professor, Dr. John Mack, that showed 3 percent of Americans believed they’d been abducted by aliens. Here were two guys — one from Harvard, one from Yale — who were saying, “There’s something here.” It was all I needed to go back to Fox.

Is that why David’s character is from the Vineyard?

Yes.

Was he hard to cast?

He actually came in and read for the part. I didn’t realize how smart he was, because his delivery is so slow. At first I wasn’t impressed. I was looking for a different kind of intelligence. But he read perfectly.

And Gillian Anderson?

Believe me, that was a very difficult, uh, sell to Fox.

This was when “Melrose Place” and “90210” were big hits for Fox. Were they looking for a Heather Locklear type?

When she came in to read for the part, she was not looking her best. She looked like she had probably been living somewhere in the East Village [in New York] and was dressed kind of funky. She looked nothing like she looks now. But I saw an intensity and an intelligence there that I think would be a part of any person who had gone to medical school, who was young and ambitious. A person who wanted to please her superiors. You knew the chemistry was there with Dave and Gillian. That’s something you pray for, because you can’t manufacture it.

When did you know the show wasn’t going to fail?

I guess the day the pilot was completed. I delivered it to Fox at 8:00 on the morning that they were going to show it to Rupert Murdoch at 8:30 — that’s how close we cut it. And I went home and was getting some breakfast. They found me in this place where I was having some eggs — called to say how everyone had responded, that there had been, like, spontaneous applause in the room. You can imagine, of course, if Rupert Murdoch’s there, how everyone sort of waits to see what he thinks. But people responded to it. And they, uh, loved it. It was a first inkling I had that … there was something there.

And now it’s four and a half years later. How much has changed for you? Do people who aren’t in the business recognize you?

It’s kind of funny. I got off the plane the other day, and there were like 20 people waiting for my autograph. This was the first time that’s happened, and it’s kind of scary.

Did you see any of this happening when you’re trying to sell the pilot?

It’s confusing — it is still a dream. There are obviously some very personal ideas at work on the show that people are responding to. And no one has objected to my — to the way I look at the world. In fact, they seem to agree with it.

And this is not to mention the money.

I went on a surf trip with the guy who took my job at Surfing magazine. His name’s Sam George, and he was just about to turn 40. We go on this trip, and we talk about surfing. This guy really lives the surfer’s life. He’s figured out a way to work at the magazine, be a surfer and make enough money to exist off it. But I knew he was sort of miserable in his job or felt a little stagnated there. So for his 40th birthday — because I can — I gave him a year’s salary to go around the world and write a book about surfing. It was such a treat for me to do this for somebody who truly deserves it.

You said you used to “lurk” on the Internet. Do you still read the comments posted by “X-Files” fans?

I used to look at them immediately after each show. I don’t anymore. Mostly because I don’t have time. We have an assistant go through them, and on Wednesday I’m handed a sheaf of paper that has all the stuff on it, and I sort of flip through. There are certain things that I read. I’ll read Sarah Stegall, whose online name is Munchkyn. She writes really a … literary critique of each episode, which we always look forward to. Even if we agree to disagree with it.

Why you think people have connected with the material so strongly?

I can’t explain it. Nor probably can anyone else. It’s a paranormal phenomenon.

What have you changed in your actual life?

I try to maintain exactly the same lifestyle I did in my teens, 20s and 30s. I really don’t do anything different. As you can see, I’ve got no wardrobe. I’m very careful about expanding in any way.

You’re afraid if you begin expanding …

It takes your focus off the work. It’s bad luck. I remember Willie Mays would always run on to the middle of the field before a game and touch first base. And I always thought that was kind of strange. But I don’t think it’s so strange anymore.

I think you’re dressed fine. But if you were to go out and buy some suits, for example, you think that would be immediately reflected in weak plot development?

I did go out and buy a Comme des Garcon suit at Barneys, and I was appalled at how much it cost. It was two grand. I didn’t even look at the price tag, and then I was just blown away. So even though, actually, I love fashion — and love fashion magazines and love fashion photography — it’s just not something I’m involved in now.

The characters dress well, which I assume is one of the things you had in mind?

It is. Except we made a point with Mulder and Scully: Mulder couldn’t wear three-button suits in the beginning because it was too fashionable; Scully had to wear business attire, because the FBI is very rigid about those things. And actually we’ve been criticized for Scully’s dowdy suits. I always thought that was unfair — it was from people who, I think, watched too much Melrose Place. I think the characters are dressed nicely. I learned very early on when I was producing that even if you have a character who would shop at J. C. Penney, you better put them in Armani. Because Armani fits better, and you want your actors and actresses always to look good. So that’s why David wears Hugo Boss suits. And Gillian wears very fashionable clothes, but nothing that’s a fashion statement.

About Scully: after 3 1/2 seasons, are you aware of her dialogue tics? Like the way she always restates the show’s plot about 17 minutes in. If Mulder were to say, “Scully, we have a flat tire,” she’d say, “Mulder, what you’re saying is that one of our tires has no air in it.”

Glen Morgan, one of our executive producers, says that a good X-Files episode has Scully yelling, “Mulder!” and then a couple of flashlight scenes.

Similarly, I think people wonder when you’re going to run out of urban myths. You’ve already done crop-dusting, drug tests and smallpox vaccinations as tagging devices, Gulf War syndrome, aggressive security systems, creatures living in the sewer, Loch Ness, vampire plastic surgeons, repressed memory, subliminal television messages, necrophiliac undertakers. I could go on.

Yeah. We’re not dealing with a renewable resource here. We’re mining something that someday will be mined out. But it’s, just how deep is the vein? You know, it’s hard. Glen Morgan and his [writing] partner, Jim Wong, came back this year, and they wrote four very good episodes. And by the end, they said they were out of ideas. We all struggle with that. I’m constantly reading magazines and newspapers. I pick up all the things you’d think of: Science, Discovery, Scientific American, any newspaper with a good science section. I’m the ultimate scavenger. I’ve got to be — I’ve got a lot of work to do. When I get a good idea, I clip it out and put it on the board for anyone to use. I get inspiration through the paranoia. Right now I’m reading one of those right-wing extremists sort of books — Behold a Pale Horse, by William Cooper. I read these things with fascination. You know, the books that have all those capital letters. This one was given to me by David Duchovny’s assistant. I’d seen it in bookstores before but never bought it. It’s kind of a frighteningly thick book.

Would I be correct in assuming you have your own misgivings about government?

Well, I have a basic mistrust of people. And because people are government, I have a basic mistrust of government. I think this government doesn’t care about the individual. The government cares about the government, and that’s a problem. There’s an interesting quote that one of the editors keeps on top of his keyboard: “Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness.” I think if I’m adding static to the collective awareness, that’s a good thing. Paranoia is a good thing. It creates smart people. If people are around water coolers talking about The X-Files, I think it’s because the show has that spiritual foundation. It’s talking about the unknown; it’s talking about possibilities; it’s talking about your emotional life, not just about science and how dangerous it is on the streets. I’ve always said The X-Files is about extreme possibility. Conversely, Millennium, you could say, is about possible extremes. And, ultimately, it’s about evil. And it’s something that people can think about. Evil is greater than us and, in its own way, something spiritual, too.

So, how different is your thinking from the guys writing those thick books?

Well, you’ve seen how we’ve juxtaposed Mulder and Scully with the right-wing militia group — the revolutionaries of the conspiracy movement. On purpose. Because I’ve been asked, “How do I reconcile my distrust of the government with theirs?” Those people are saying, “Destroy the government.” I’m saying, “Question the government.”

How to explain the attraction of conspiracies? Why do people want to believe in them now?

It’s what 60 Minutes tells us every week: nothing is safe anymore. You’re not safe in your job; you’re not safe at home. The money that you’ve been contributing since you were a young person now, for a lot of retirees, is no longer there. Because some whippersnapper came in and decided he was going to invest it or, you know, take it and bolster up his other company out there with your money. I think a lot of the things that were safeguards — the social safety net and the psychic safety net — have been taken away. Therefore, conspiracies are just … elaborate betrayals.

Organized betrayals?

Yes. Except that I have very little faith in people’s ability to work in any collaborative, cooperative and secretive manner collectively. That’s why I — as much as I believe that there are conspiracies — I’m skeptical of their perfect execution. On the show, I’m always pulling back and saying, “This is unbelievable; I don’t believe it.” The hard part of the show, actually, is reining it in. Keeping it believable. It’s easy to go far out. But I’m mining our basic distrust of government to suggest other conspiracies.

How many of Mulder’s beliefs do you share?

A lot, spiritually. That I WANT TO BELIEVE poster in his office — I created that for the show. It really sums me up: I’m a skeptic who wants to believe. It sums up Mulder, too.

So do you believe, for example, that aliens crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947?

I don’t know that they didn’t. But I have great doubts.

Do you believe that JFK was assassinated by gunmen other than Lee Harvey Oswald?

I don’t know. But if other people were involved, it seems to me that someone would have copped to it.

What made you pick “Millennium” as your sophomore effort?

I wanted to do something that wasn’t The X-Files. I had this idea of doing something about the millennium for a while, and the time was right. The heroic qualities of the character appealed to me a lot.

What do you mean “heroic”?

There’s not a hero like him on TV. I’m interested in his purity, his calm, his focus. I wanted Frank Black to be heroic in a way that men are not allowed to be heroic. There’s a line in an episode coming up where he says, “Somehow, we can’t do the right thing anymore, because to involve yourself in somebody else’s problems is to needlessly invite them on yourself.” And I think that’s become the world we live in. It’s frightening. You cannot reach out. You can’t do anything truly altruistic anymore without taking into consideration, first of all, the legal consequences. The question is: how can we act heroically? How can you reach out and help someone?

During the L.A. riots, I saw the most amazing thing. I was watching live footage of a man driving home from the airport on Inglewood Boulevard. Somebody threw something through his window, and hit him, and it cut him, and he swerved and crashed. He was bloodied; he went out onto the sidewalk — he was dazed. And a man rushed to his aid. And I thought to myself, “Big risk: somebody else’s blood — somebody you don’t know. Huge risk these days.”

This is our dilemma: people want to do the right thing, but they can’t anymore. Frank Black is doing it. There’s a story about Lance Henriksen — who plays Frank — that I’ve never forgotten. Akira Kurosawa’s son was staying with the director Phil Kaufman; I think they were all up in St. Helena [California]. There was a rattlesnake near this kid, and Lance went over and took it, and snapped its neck — caught it and twisted something. He slayed the dragon. I’ve never forgotten it. And so I paid very close attention to his work ever since that time.

In terms of the new TV-rating system: do you think kids should watch “Millennium”?

I don’t know. It’s scary stuff, but I’d rather have my kids smart and afraid than ignorant and vulnerable.

On the other hand, I was watching one episode, I think it was called “Kingdom Come,” and there was that guy’s severed tongue on the screen. And I thought, “The human tongue — no one should have to see the human tongue on television.”

You can see the same thing on the Learning Channel. I mean, it is a frightening image. But it doesn’t suggest that you should go out and cut off a tongue. It doesn’t suggest to anybody to do that. It actually suggest the opposite.

There’s that great line from “The Simpsons”: Lisa and Bart are at the movies, and Lisa’s looking away from some bloody thing, and Bart says, “Lisa, if you don’t watch the violence, how can you become desensitized to it?”

But you do not actually see the violent act that takes the tongue away.

But … a tongue! If we’re seeing a tongue on television, it reflects a view of the world in which violence is an accepted part of our basic feeling about the world. And I’m not sure that’s good.

It doesn’t create violence. It creates paranoia.

But if “The X-Files” creates paranoia about the public realm — the government — and “Millennium” creates paranoia about the private realm — our neighbors — then what’s left? A show about a guy who’s paranoid about himself, who doesn’t know what the hell his body’s going to do next?

[Laughs] That’s an interesting idea. Maybe that will be my next effort.

In both shows, I noticed, the male-female relationship is central and idealized. In “The X-Files,” it’s platonic. In “Millennium,” there’s a sort of idealized marriage between Frank Black and his wife.

My feeling is that the most powerful relationships you have in life are … not sexual. You haven’t seen Lance Henriksen and Megan Gallagher in a sexual situation on Millennium. Between them, love is understood. Love is gesture and feeling and trust, and all those things, and it’s not necessarily a physical thing.

And the relationship between Scully and Mulder?

It’s also like my kind of idealized romantic relationship. It’s two smart people in a room, arguing something when each one has a valid point of view. It’s like good dinner-party conversation. It’s what makes me feel alive — and good about myself. And I think there’s too little of it in most of our lives and particularly in romantic situations.

You were talking a second ago about gesture, and how Gallagher and Henriksen don’t really hug and kiss. What would happen if Scully and Mulder were to hug and kiss?

They have hugged. They’ve never kissed. They could kiss if it was the right time for it. They could never give big French kisses. People say, “Will Mulder and Scully ever go to bed?” And I say, “You really don’t want them to.” Because the minute they do, then, basically, when they’re in that motel on their assignment, you know, investigating the appearance of extraterrestrial life somewhere, and they decide they’re finally going to get it on, they’re going to lie there sort of googly eyed in the morning, and those aliens are just going to be running amok. They will become more interested in themselves than in the things that they need to be doing.

If the show is ever in trouble, don’t you think Fox would push you to have a romance?

Oh, sure.

And how strong do you think you’ll be when that call comes?

As I say, I may not be here by then, so I don’t know. But I would resist it, as I think the characters would. Or the actors that play them. That’s what The X-Files movies are going to be for.

The motto of “The X-Files” is, The Truth Is Out There. What truth is that?

You know, it’s double-edged, a joke. The truth is out there. It’s also far out there. But, in fact, that’s what we’re all seeking. That’s really what all of us want to know or, at least, anyone who is working with any depth to their own life.

What truth have you found?

I don’t know. I can tell you, every once in a while — it hasn’t happened to me in a long time, but there is something weird that did happen to me. I had a kind of psychic or paranormal experience once. I had just finished Season 2 — it was the week of my birthday. So I must have just turned 38. I’d just directed my first episode. I really liked the way it came out. I felt that I had achieved something. Something had been perfectly — not perfectly, there were mistakes — but had been executed in a way that made me feel right. I went with my wife for a birthday week to Laguna Beach. And I felt like everyone I looked at, I knew. I felt that there was some kind of truth — there was some kind of harmony to be achieved out there. It felt like, you know, you read about the Sufis or whoever, the Zen masters: that kind of calm, centeredness. I had reached it. I reached it for a very short amount of time. But I guess that’s probably what I’m looking for is that — that kind of state.

I feel silly talking about it as a TV producer. But I think that everybody, if you’re a creative person, all of us are striving for maybe that sort of moment. That great brief and fleeting moment of something, of insight.

Rolling Stone: Chris Carter As The Beast Within

Feb-20-1997
Rolling Stone
Chris Carter As The Beast Within
David Lipsky

EatTheCorn note: This is a complete and unedited version of the interview that appeared on the print edition of Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone: How would you feel watching the show if it hadn’t turned those corners and you had backed away from it?

Chris Carter: I would be sad. But I mean I’m sad that in syndication they’re going to edit out one-and-a-half to 2 minutes of each episode. It’s a shame. I mean, we’ve worked hard to pack in as much as we can, and everything needs to be there in those 43-odd minutes. To get two minutes out of a picture that’s just right — that’s a lot.

RS: Is “Surfing” [magazine] where you developed your taste for booking Mulder and Scully into motel rooms?

CC: I was always in motels working as a surfing journalist. And then right before I created “The X-Files,” I drove cross-country with my wife and we stayed in motels everywhere. So that was what gave me my feeling for it — the idea that might be a guy behind the wall looking through your mirror.

RS: I’ve always wondered if you watched a show called “The Avengers.”

CC: Sure. Loved it. Mulder and Scully come from those characters, Emma Peel and what’s-his-name — Patrick MacNee. He was older than she was, so it was a sort of May-September, whatever you call it, relationship. It lacked sexual tension because of that quality. But I loved that sort of platonic thing.

RS: You stayed at Disney from ’85 to ’87. What did you write?

CC: Do I have to tell you? “Meet the Munceys.” A pilot called “Cameo By Night.” I wrote something called “The Nanny” which was also a pilot but which didn’t become the Fran Drescher Nanny.

RS: “The Nanny” is really scary.

CC: It is really scary. I actually saw the thing. One of these watchdog groups for television was doing ratings — they had a red light, yellow light, green light — and they gave a red light to “The Nanny,” which was interesting to me. For innuendo, I guess.

RS: How did “The X-Files” come about?

CC: A man named Peter Roth had became president at Fox. And hired me to a deal, in 1992. I’d been pitching shows for a while, but “The X-Files” was the first thing I pitched here.

RS: One thing that surprised me immediately this morning is that you project a real calm. It’s a quality I associate with surfers, and I wonder if that’s been valuable to you in pitching.

CC: It’s kind of cool. It’s kind of who I am, yeah. It has been valuable, and actually when you see the character Frank Black, that Lance Henriksen plays on “Millennium,” who’s very calm — that’s very appealing to me. People who are … calm, and in control. It’s a nice guiding force for any kind of project that tends to be run from chaos.

RS: David Duchovny, of course, plays it a little bit like that too.

CC: He is like that. It’s just who I am. I like quiet humor. This is more light than you’ll ever see in this office — I like dim light. I like I guess maybe solitude. I like being alone.

RS: It must be reassuring to people on the studio side. Because you’re not someone who’s bouncing up off a corner of the ceiling and then coming back down.

CC: People think Hollywood appreciates showmanship — it’s like they think that comedians are the people who are always on. [Snaps fingers.] And the funniest people are actually the opposite, are actually very quiet. Like Woody Allen who they say never laughs. He says, “That’s funny.”

RS: Why’d you shoot the pilot in Vancouver?

CC I do both shows in Canada because the crews up there just give you everything they’ve got. My experience in Hollywood has been that this is a town where you have people who do jobs. Most shows fail, right? This is a business of failure. And so if they’re on a show, that show’s going to probably fail and they’ll go to another show. It just becomes a job. They make no connection to your show because this is where everything’s made. And so you find that a lot of people won’t invest in a project. But up in Canada, this is their show.

RS: When did you know the show wasn’t going to fail?

CC: I mean I find it surprising sometimes, I’ll hear somebody talking about the “X-Files” standing right next to me. Donnie Pfaster, who was in the “Irresistible” episode about the death fetishist: I saw him in Hawaii and he didn’t see me, I was in a pool floating around. And I saw people pointing at him. They had recognized Donnie as the guy from the show. I was just amazed by it. Here’s a character, you know, a guest star and there were a lot of people asking for him. I felt I was actually watching what must be going on all the time, from a kind of a secret place. I didn’t even go up to him and say hi. I just wanted to watch.

RS: Have you dropped by any of the paranormal conventions?

CC: This is the surprising thing. When I started the show everybody said, “Just wait — the freaks are going to come out of the woodwork.” (Laughs) And it hasn’t happened. You know, there’ve been instances, but most of those people at the conventions are just regular folk. There are a lot of people who are sort of UFO buffs. But I would say most of the people are not.

RS: Is the place just one big trading post?

CC: There’s some merchandising. I didn’t want to cheapen the show by just putting the “X-Files” logo or Mulder and Scully’s face on anything that could be licensed. So I’ve turned a lot of things down. Boxer shorts was one. Various and sundry key chains. Flashlights. Mostly just doo-dads. Gee-gaws. I don’t know how to describe them. Trinkets. What David Duchovny calls wampum.

Actually a lot of the things I learned about merchandising come from the surfing world. I saw these guys at Ocean Pacific — OP — Gotcha, Quiksilver. I knew them when they were just starting out. And as soon as those guys were in Robinson’s, May or Sears or whatever, basically you knew you’d gotten to the end. The secret is to keep everything small and keep it hard to get, and it’ll have a longer life. There was a memo that came by at the beginning of the second season, which said that “X-Files” merchandise was going to start appearing in J.C. Penney stores. And I fired off the angriest memo to these saying, “Are you crazy?”

RS: And you’d never consider licensing, let’s say, a Hugo Boss line signed by David Duchovny?

CC: I’ve never thought of it. But it sounds exactly like something I would really have a reaction to.

RS: How often have you gone to the conventions?

CC: I’ve been to probably seven or eight.

RS: And how do people respond when you go out?

CC: It’s crazy. In San Diego, I got up on stage and it was like I was truly like a rock star. (Laughs) I mean, I stood up and there were just, for five minutes, there were flashbulbs flashing, and people applauding, and people on their feet. I didn’t know. I was astounded. It’s part of this dream. It’s really to me like a — I can’t explain it. It is surreal. It’s like I’m living someone else’s life. There are some things, as an executive producer, that you don’t imagine yourself ever doing. Winning a gold record for an album that I produced and co-wrote a song on. Being an actor on one of my own episodes. But the celebrity. The fact that I had my picture taken for Rolling Stone, that I’m in Rolling Stone is a really weird thing to me. It’s like your old rock star fantasy sort of coming true. In a really bizarre way. And I never imagined that.

RS: I’m trying to think of a way to phrase this: One thing I’ve wondered about “X-Files” is whether it’s a vehicle for your own sense of conspiracy, or whether this was just something in the national mood that you sensed because you’re a smart entertainer. “X-Files” and “Millennium” are both very dark. But I mean, your early work couldn’t have been sunnier.

CC: Because I really was coming right off the beach. Literally. And I was a writer for hire — I was doing other people’s ideas. And I could write young adult, contemporary adult dialogue in relationships. I probably could have done a pretty good job writing “Clueless.”

RS: You’d learned that dialogue from surfers.

CC: Yeah I had, exactly. I mean, Jeff Spicolli [from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”] is a person who was part of my life. Which is all that “Clueless” really is, just sort of a new twist on that. So I have that in my ear, but it’s of little interest to me.

RS: Do story ideas always come from things — magazines, newspapers — you read?

CC: Sometimes I’ll suggest something, that will become a story. Last year we did an episode called “DPO” about a kid who could control lightning. That’s something I wanted to do for a long time. Because there was a James song that I’d heard, this is how that story came about. There was a James song that’s got — in fact it’s right in the beginning of the show — it always felt to me like the song was a heart attack. That it was what a heart attack must feel like. And so I thought, that would be interesting if a heart attack is actually an electrical malfunction, it means you could actually use the song too … trigger heart attacks actually, actually use the electricity to do it.

RS: Do you remember what James song it was?

CC: It’s called “Ring the Bells” by James. I don’t like the one on their album. I don’t like the one that’s off, the James album. I like the live version.

RS: Have any story ideas seemed too far-fetched?

CC: I think I’m pitched ideas, by people, that just don’t fit. I don’t know what has — has not flown. It’s often times people will try to do everything at once, in a UFO story. You know, they’ll want to do “Independence Day” and you know you have to throw in all — those things are too far-fetched. “Independence Day wasn’t my favorite movie.”

RS: No, it’s hard to have movies where either, A) the whole country is taken over …

CC: Right.

RS: … or B) where then — a whole country is liberated, and then it’s the reverse.

CC: This is oftentimes what happens as people come in and they want to do the thing where the, you know — a city is taken over. You just can’t do that on an “X Files.” It’s unbelievable. These things don’t happen.

RS: And that becomes too large an event for a single episode.

CC: It’s too big.

RS: What did you make of “Independence Day?”

CC: I was actually — I saw it, went to the premiere of that movie. And I didn’t think it was going to do the business it did. I didn’t — I don’t know, and I feel — I feel strange saying it: I didn’t quite, you know, get what the sensation was. It was just the effects, I guess.

RS: Well the effects — aside from the money shots, the effects weren’t that great. I mean the end of that movie is matte paintings on fire.

CC: Yeah, it is. And also the idea that, you know, Will Smith could be sitting there you know and cracking wise while there are space ships hovering — you know — out in the near distance. It was a show with a funny tone, but I mean obviously people really liked it. I strive hard to do something that is believable. And this was — they didn’t — they weren’t working in the same genre.

Rolling Stone: And where did “The Truth is Out There” title in the credits come form?

Chris Carter: That one hit me because I wanted something that summed up the philosophy of the show in those main titles.

RS: And do you remember where you were — were you at your desk typing out a number of things …

CC: I was just thinking, you know — we work on these main titles, and the actual main titles weren’t working. And it was like, the main titles really were not finished so they actually didn’t appear on the pilot episode. They appeared one episode later, I believe. And they just weren’t coming out very good. And I remember one thing that had — that might have worked — was that lightning strike. I love [the artist] Ed Rusha. And I wanted it to look like an Ed Ruscha painting. It worked very beautifully. And it — it was just very reminiscent of one of his paintings. And I loved the use of the literal, the textual.

RS: Yeah. There’s a line that actually is a valuable thing for the way you guys approach the FBI in story telling. I forget where — I think it’s in EBE, where Deep Throat says a lie is most convincingly hidden between 2 truths.

CC: Yeah, that’s actually in “Fallen Angel.” Morgan and Wong wrote that — which is beautiful because it’s so true.

RS: It’s a great line.

CC: It’s wonderfully true. And I just read a nice quote about. That you can — if you bury a truth under a mountain of lies, that if you … find — if you can remove that truth and put it on top of the mountain, and all the lies collapse underneath the weight of the one truth.

RS: And that’s how the science works on the show. I mean, it seems like you try to be truthful there.

CC: The show is built on a solid foundation of real science. It’s one of the secrets of the show.

RS: Tell me a little bit more about that.

CC: Well, Scully’s point of view is the point of view of the show. And so the show has to be built on a solid — a bedrock foundation of science. In order to have Mulder take a flight from it. So if the science is really good, Scully’s got a valid point of view. She’s got an argument. And Mulder has to then convince her that she’s got to throw her arguments out, she’s got to accept the unacceptable. And there is the conflict.

RS: A few times I’ve watched the show — with “Home” or “Herrenvolk” — and thought, “God, they really did their homework, that’s accurate.”

CC: Well, I told you that “Herrenvolk” is being used as a teaching aid at the Indiana University. So that’s hard, good, genetic science. That I went over very carefully with a friend of mine who’s a professor at UMass/Amherst. She went over the genetics with me, and what was possible. What actual protein strings — those were accurate. And it’s very important to the show that they are accurate, because scientists are big fans of the show. And they would call “Bullshit.” My professor friend helped me also with the “Erhlermeyer Flask.” I’d read a David Suzuki book on genetics and it was very difficult to understand. You really have to — I think — immerse yourself in genetics, to understand it completely. But that is one of the secrets of the show.

RS: Are there other secrets like that on the production side?

CC: With the directors we have, I’m very emphatic about certain ways to do things. These shows are always scary because the camera’s going to make it scary. How the show will differ from many shows — you know, some of the hit series like “ER,” “NYPD Blue” — is that we have to tell a story with a camera quite unlike most of those shows. We actually have to — the camera has to reveal things. Has to see things that are there just at the right time. The point of view is everything. Point of view is everything in storytelling anyway — but particularly when you’re trying to scare people. Because you have to scare people from a subjective — you can’t scare people from an objective point of view. Well, you can. But mostly you’re scaring them with a scare you’re delivering to someone on screen.

So I have rules. And you know the rules are always made to be broken. The directors break them, wonderfully, sometimes. We did a show called “Home” this year, which was about those three brothers, and there are many, many occasions where the rules that I usually am pretty strict about were broken to great effect.

RS: How do these rules work?

CC: I don’t like the camera in motion for no reason at all. I don’t like it pivoting [demonstrates] like a character would swivel it’s neck, unless it is somebody’s point of view. The camera has to move in a way I call “Slow Camera, Stiff Neck.” I don’t want that camera flying through space. We have a high crane available to us at all times. And directors see that, and they want to — you know — swoop the camera in. It’s distracting particularly for this kind of storytelling. I think you have to tell a story very quietly.

RS: Quietly through Mulder and Scully.

CC: That’s pretty much it. The camera shouldn’t move independently of the action. You don’t want the camera telling you a story instead of the characters telling you a story.

RS: Politics is a kind of ongoing story. What do you think the politics of the show are? As a viewer, I do find it leaves me mistrustful of politics in general. How do you feel about that?

CC: Well, I mean I think voter apathy is like one of the things — I just hate it. It’s something I find so depressing. That people are not involved in and engaged with their own government. And I think I feel that there’s a lack of moral leadership in the country. That’s what I’m trying to put across. I’m trying to raise consciousness rather than lower it.

RS: Of course — with CSM and the Syndicate — the show could very easily lead to that kind of apathy: You know, “The Government is run by those kinds of guys.”

CC: It could. But this is — the characters are not destructive characters. They are characters who want to find something. To reveal something. To change something. So they’re working — I’m sorry to use this word — pro-actively. They are not saying, they are not divorcing themselves from the government. In fact they work for a government institution, and they don’t leave it. They actually work in it, because they believe that it gives them a platform. From which to do the things that they do.

RS: Do you feel comfortable talking about who you voted for in the last election?

CC: I voted for Clinton.

RS: For Clinton?

CC: Both times.

RS: Have you voted Democratic generally?

CC: I’m a registered Democrat.

RS: That’s funny. Because in a way your politics seem at once both liberal and conservative.

CC: They’re practical.

RS: The conservative thing is the sense of family, which you see [on “Millennium”] with Frank and his wife. And then the liberal thing is this fear of government, but that has also become — recently — a more right-wing thing, like that group Kyrchek had joined.

CC: Right. Revolution starts both low and high.

RS: I wouldn’t have guessed you as a Democrat.

CC: My father was a union man so I think I’ve got some of his politics.

RS: Oh no — I mean I’m a Democrat. I guess I’ve come to see a certain kind of government mistrust as belonging to the right.

CC: Yes. I think that really — almost any affiliation now is meaningless. You know, it just seems to me that the parties have come so — they’ve both become so centrist, have moved so far to the center that they’re almost … interchangeable. Bill Clinton is very Republican. In some ways.

RS: I asked about “Millennium” a moment ago. Have you been less involved with the “X-Files” this season because of “Millennium?” I mean, you have to be. There’s no way to be as involved.

CC: There’s certain things I don’t do any more. I used to always be on the bus. The last two days of prep on every episode involve what they call a technical survey. It’s a scouting trip, on a bus in Vancouver. Where you spend a day on the bus riding around to each location, talking about how things are going to be done, where the trucks have to go — you know — to be parked. The final set deck and where the camera’s going to be. What the grips have to be ready for. All the keys from each department are on that bus. And I was on, I would say, 20 of 24 of those for the “X-Files” last year.

Then the next day is a production meeting, and then a tone meeting. Where you sit and talk through the script: how do you do this, how are you going to shoot this, remember this here: attitudes — what the characters are doing there. It is really a last … you know, it’s the last day before you set sail. It’s, “What if this storm rises here, you know, in these latitudes?” It is this checklist that you go through.

And so I don’t go on that survey. But I still, I think I’ve been to every one but two tone meetings this year on “X-Files.” Out of 13 episodes — 14 episodes. And it’s the same thing with “Millennium,” I’ve been in every one but one tone meeting.

RS: Have you considered, if the numbers aren’t good on “Millennium,” doing a crossover episode with the “X-Files?”

CC: I’ve thought of it. And I think it’s too obvious a way to get ratings. And I want the show to succeed on its own terms, rather than on some kind of gimmick.

RS: But you know it’s a fail safe: If things are going wrong, it’s something you could pull out of the hat or something.

CC: I could. I never want to reach that point.

RS: And of course the worlds the characters live in — I mean, the “Millennium” world is a much more somber world in a way than the “X-Files” world.

CC: The shows are actually worlds apart. They are certainly in different solar systems.

RS: And do you think it would violate the reality of both of them, to move from one to the other?

CC: I just wouldn’t want to do it. It’s sort of like, The “X- Files” has been sort of a sacred thing. But you know, if David Duchovny said, “I’d like to try that,” I’d seriously consider it. If Gillian Anderson said, “I’d like to try that,” I’d seriously consider it