Archive for August, 1998

Der Spiegel: Attention, conspirators!

Aug-10-1998
Der Spiegel
Attention, conspirators!

Translated from German by Bettina Steiner

Script writer Chris Carter has created one of the most successful TV series of all time: The X-Files. Now he is taking his FBI drama about extraterrestrials and conspiracy to the big screen – and proving once more how deeply he is looking into the mad world of America.

Conspiracy mania is catching. On the way to the interview with Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, the radio announces that CNN and “Time” have pulled back a disclosing story as false report. The TV channel and the US magazine had maintained that US troops had sprayed poison gas on their own comrades during the Vietnam War. That would have been a scandal. And now this: the whole poison gas number is supposedly not true; responsible journalists have been fired, the kowtow to the public has been performed. What sounds like a normal press disgrace makes you think we are under the influence of X-Files paranoia. Is it really a false report? Or isn’t it more likely that conspiring forces in high government or military circles have forced CNN and Time to pull back the truth? Do we sense a conspiracy here?

Chris Carter laughs. Yes, he too has heard the news on this hazy, cool summer day in L.A. Yes, he too promptly thought of a cover up of the truth. “When I hear something like that, I immediately think: sure thing.” Suspicion is a part of Carter’s job. With his series “The X-Files”, the 40-year old provides America – and by now the whole world – with fresh food for thought for the current hobby: thinking up conspiracy theories. The poison story will go into his files like hundreds of other newspaper articles, letters or internet rumors.

In 1993 Carter had the idea to put two FBI agents on the trail of the unexplainable. In spite of FOX’s heavy doubts he developed his project up to maturity and works as producer, script writer and sometimes as director. He has just recently signed a contract for two more years. His cultishly honored TV ghost story brought Carter on the Time list of the 25 most influential US citizens last year. About 20 million Americans – and up to 5 million Germans – turn on their TV sets every week when special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) chase after bizarre phenomena. Allegedly those files are stored in the poison cabinet as X-Files that leave the realm of rationality: aliens, UFOs, killer viruses, ghost healers, parapsychological transmissions, mutants, voices from beyond and “secret” messages that flicker over the TV screen.

At the end of its fifth season the claustrophobically sinister X-Files are more popular than ever. There are the hardcore fans, called the “X-Philes”, who meet at conventions to indulge in the bliss of paranoia; the internet is full of fan pages; dozens of handbooks provide summaries and reviews of all episodes, meticulously study the biographies of the actors, and put together encyclopedias of X-terminology. The two main actors, previously virtual unknowns, are enveloped in an almost extraterrestrial fuss. And in the meantime even the TV establishment has presented the black sheep X-Files with numerous awards – this year the series is nominated for 16 Emmys. It was only a question of time until the dark powers would find their way onto the big screen. X-Files: The Movie (directed by Rob Bowman) promises answers – rather mysterious to outsiders – to many of the questions that move X-fans, not the least of which is if the dream couple Scully and Mulder will finally kiss. Skillfully the 60-million dollar movie picks up the plot threads of the last television season.

Among much mysterious murmur, it’s about aliens who have waited for their great hour in caves for millennia and want to dominate the earth, now of all times, with the help of a killer virus. An international secret organization of distinguished older gentlemen (among them Armin Mueller-Stahl) helps them by raising bees in Texas and corn in North Africa. That sounds like high nonsense? It is. But would anyone ever have questioned the credibility of Star Trek? The tactics behind X-Files: the Movie are easily seen through: the film is supposed to help the fans who suffer from withdrawal symptoms to get over the summer (the last episode was shown mid-May) and at the same time to draw the normal action-hungry viewers who already survived Armageddon.

The movie had a considerable first weekend of over 30 million dollars at the box office because it was compulsory for the X-Philes. Carter is already planning at least one sequel. The puppeteer of the X-Files is a camouflage man. He adjusts to his interviewer in every posture: if he crosses the arms in front of his chest, Carter does the same. If he puts his hand thoughtfully to his chin, Carter follows suit within seconds. That way, it is taught by communication trainers, you pretend consent between the debating parties. But for the other Carter’s pantomime is a bit spooky. Carter places his words carefully, makes long pauses in the middle of a sentence until he thinks he has found the right word. He doesn’t want to give anything away, to make any remark he might regret – a control freak. Carter is clever, ambitious, and so crazy about details as auto-didacts with an eternal inferiority complex can be. Above all he is proud that the scientific facts in the X-Files are being researched at great expense and that the series has a large following among scientists. Suddenly he tells me that his brother teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American elite school for natural sciences and is “much more educated” than he. And the sound of his voice makes me suspect that it still troubles him up to this day. Born in 1957 in Bellflower, a suburb of Los Angeles, the son of a construction worker had a modest education in journalism at California State University. After that he started writing articles for the magazine “Surfing.” For years he followed the big waves, worked his way up to editor of the magazine, and then fell in love with a script writer.

She made him write scripts himself and send them to producers. In 1985 Jeffrey Katzenberg, at the time head of the Disney studios, gave him a chance and Carter spent the next years working at unimportant TV shows most of which saw the light of day only briefly. But he had learned his trade. He realized that nobody was giving the American viewers the creeps. Nobody dared to go near the shocker genre that grew ever more successful on the big screen – the cannibal drama “The Silence of the Lambs” had just started at the time. And nobody took up the raging UFO hype.

So the idea for the X-Files was born. Carter remembers movies and tv shows that had impressed him in his youth, above all the almost forgotten horror series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” but also TV classics like “The Twilight Zone” (1959-65), dedicated to parapsychological phenomena, the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men” (1976) and the conspiracy thriller “The Parallax View” (1973).

And now today Carter exploits relevant UFO and paranoia literature as well as the post-war B-movie shockers, and his stories often walk the fine line between science and futuristic nightmares. The eclectic’s main talent, however, consists of taking contemporary history, changing it and transporting it into the realm of mania. He starts his stories on a factual basis and from there lifts them into delirium. The real fascist idea of world domination appears in Carter’s stories dressed up as the theory of an extraterrestrial occupational power trying to dominate the earth. It appeals to him to make such connections that always also throw back a light on the mania of reality. Therefore the better episodes of the X-Files can be seen as intellectual exercises – and Carter knows this very well. If he is not careful he talks with an ostentatious seriousness of the “mythology of the X-Files” as if he had created Homer’s Odyssey. Nevertheless he tries with all tricks of the television world to pull even the less pretentious horror fan in front of the TV. The X-Files are full of allusions and Carter has developed his technique of weaving plot threads over months or years into a black art.

In the interview he hides behind cliché: “I want to scare people and I want to entertain them.” And you should believe that this is the reason for his extraordinary success. But that America should fall under the spell of his secretive art of horror just now cannot be explained by a higher tolerance for violence among the viewers and the widespread belief in slimy little E.T.s. What really differentiates the X-Files from its imitators is its basic intellectual premise: the government deceives and betrays its subjects wherever it can. Although sceptical Scully and parapsychologically open-minded Mulder fight relentlessly for the truth, behind each conspiracy they unveil there is a bigger one. Their opponent is the State and it is omnipresent and omnipotent. The X-Files profit by the fact that each conspiracy theory is built up like a classical drama: heroic admonishers and prophets of doom revolt against inscrutable villains and the war where everything is at stake – the conception of the world and the fundamentals of religion – always rages. Any fanatic worthy of the name sees themselves at the edge of the apocalypse: the time left for the heroes to stop the end of the world is always way too short. Such a countdown brings suspense – like the bombs that tick at the end of each James Bond movie. Many episodes of the X-Files work according to this apocalyptic pattern. One of the central slogans of the series is “Trust no one”. With this insecurity strategy, the series hits its mark right in the middle of an uneasiness and scepticism of authority that has developed more and more in America in recent years. A movie like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991), that wanted to prove a plot in the highest circles behind the Kennedy assassination, is typical for the pathological mind of the time. For Carter, Stone is a great filmmaker. In the X-Files, he thinks “we give people’s frustrations a forum”.

The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a former professor of mathematics, who attacked the system with parcel bombs and sent confused treatises to the press, and ex-soldier Timothy McVeigh who blew up the government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people are only the best known examples of an aggressive minority that hates the state and wants to fight it. Conspiracy fanatics exist since the United States declared its independence. In the last century the Catholics, Mormons and Free Masons were under suspicion; around the middle of this century, at the time of the cold war and the McCarthy witch hunts, rightwing zealots detected a communist plot that allegedly wanted to destroy freedom and democracy. But it was always outside forces or minorities that were to be smoked out by patriots.

Today on the other hand, the danger is suspected on the inside. “The collective American psyche is turning more and more against its own government and against any authority, and nobody can dictate an American citizen what to believe” lectures an unauthorized handbook on the X-Files. “The American public is totally estranged from its state, shocked that the treason has not ended since Watergate: the Iran-Contra affair, Whitewater and many other disclosures show that the power is in the hands of people who are just as mortal and fallible as those whom they govern.

Surely Carter, molded by the Watergate era, would have little to say against these sentences. Of course he finds an assassin like McVeigh “disgusting”. “His deed only shows the banality of evil.” And really, nobody can accuse the X-Files of calling to violent rebellion. The script protects itself from too much closeness to fanatics not least by the sharp humor with which Scully and Mulder keep uneasiness at arm’s length.

“The series is neither about paramilitary groups nor does it propose revolutionary tactics” Carter says. “It only suggests to the audience to question authority and not to trust any institution.”

Trust No One. This slogan may sound sinister but it is really “an outcry,” Carter says, because “everybody wants to trust someone after all.” And he himself? “I am a very suspicious person. Just look at the world we are living in: you always have to be on your guard, you never know who is filming you, who is taping telephone calls, who is investigating you. I cannot imagine anything that hurts more than to be betrayed like that. We are all living in a world where you have practically no private sphere anymore, where we are not in charge of our own lives anymore.”

Recently Carter read an article about prisoners who have gotten information about their guards over the computer – to blackmail them. “Just imagine that! The system is designed in a way to take all security away from you.” Carter is getting worked up. He slows down, breathes deeply and laughs. “Now I sound paranoid.” Right. Does he believe in a conspiracy too? “No. I firmly believe that not even a group of three people can keep a secret.” But sometimes secret services approach him. “Then they tell me ‘You don’t know how close you are to the truth.’ That is a really scary thought for me.” Has he ever received death threats – no matter if from the FBI or the paramilitary? “God, no, and I don’t want any either.”

And what about the extraterrestrials? Carter shakes his head. He does not believe in aliens, even if he says that he would like to. “I am a sceptic. But when my parents died six years ago I wanted to see their spirits very badly. I tried to conjure up a ghost at the foot end of my bed.” It did not work. But he thinks that everyone share this longing for the beyond. “We all want to drive through the desert at night and see something that our school-learning cannot explain. A UFO maybe. We all want to make that experience, that there is something out there that is bigger than us. For that reason the Greeks and Romans invented their gods. We want to know that we are not alone in the universe. Wouldn’t you like to cross the border to something unimaginable? I would. Anytime.”

What if extraterrestrial life really existed? Carters answer is unusually fast. Apparently he has thought about it at great length – and the intellectual game fascinates him. “Then there would be anarchy. We would have to throw everything away, the Bible, the foundations of our history, everything. We would have to start totally new. Extraterrestrial life would put everything in question.” What would he do if an alien army would contact him tomorrow? Chris Carter smiles and gives the only answer that you can give in Los Angeles. “I would try to get them to sign a movie contract.”

Mixdown Monthly: Mark Snow: The X-Files

Aug-05-1998
Mixdown Monthly
Mark Snow: The X-Files
Andrián Pertout

[Original article here]

Mark Snow

Andrián Pertout speaks with Mark Snow from Los Angeles about life as a screen composer, and the soundtrack to the ‘Fight the Future’ X-Files movie.

Composer and seven-time Emmy nominee Mark Snow’s musical genesis was officially initiated in Brooklyn in his early teens, and with the dual blessing of pianist mother and drummer father, the career of one of film music’s great inspirational forces of the 90s was set in motion. He began as a piano student, and in his early development also embraced the art drumming, although in the years that followed the oboe became his principal artistic voice, and Mark went on to explore its expressive boundaries through performances in Baroque and Renaissance music concerts. It was at New York’s Juilliard School of Music where he developed his compositional skills under the collective guidance of jazz arranger Hall Overton, oboist Melvin Kaplan, 12-tone composer George Tremblay and composer Earl Hagan, and this was also the setting for his meeting and establishment of his future association with Academy award-winning film composer Michael Kamen. In the late sixties the ‘New York Rock n’ Roll Ensemble’ was formed, and together they toured and recorded for the next five years, signing a contract with Atlantic Records. After a short period of producing, in 1974 Mark relocated to Los Angeles where he began writing for film and television. Today he has over seventy TV movie and mini-series credits to his name, which include ‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All’, ‘An American Story’ and ‘Something About Amelia’. His most prominent work to date has been ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Millennium’ series directed by Chris Carter, and his latest offering is the soundtrack for ‘The X-Files’ movie. This work presents the sonically awesome marriage of state-of-the-art sampling technology with an eighty-five-piece orchestra, and is bound to further elevate Mark Snow’s musical reverence and worldwide cult status.

How did you initially enter the world of music?

MS: “Well, my parents were musicians. My father was a drummer, my mother was a piano player, and they wanted me to be involved in it and so I started taking piano lessons at thirteen years of age. Then I switched to the oboe of all things, and played that in high school. And then I went to the Juilliard School of Music where I was an oboe player, and played in many orchestras and chamber music groups in New York City, and decided that what I really wanted to do was to be the guy who wrote the music rather than the one who played it. So I started seriously getting into composing, and then my wife had some family in California in the business who had came out here, and six months after we landed I got my first job composing, and slowly but surely it started going. And that’s the short form story of it all.”

What memories do you have today of your years at the Juilliard School of Music, and how do you perceive its influence on your compositional approach?

MS: “That’s a good question because I don’t think a place, a school or an institution can change a person. They can have equipment and some inspiring teachers, but I really believe that when somebody is really, really hell-bent about doing it, or is really interested in it, there’s nobody that can sort of keep you down, and you find ways to do the things that you really want to do. And I think I could take advantage of all wonderful things at the school, with the different teachers and having extra classes, getting friendly with some of the teachers and going to their homes, and soaking up all their experiences. So I really was a sponge wanting to absorb all this stuff. And maybe for someone else it was a bad experience, but for me it was good, although I think it would have been good no matter what the school I was at.”

Do you have a personal list of composers that you regard as a major source of inspiration in the direction of your career?

MS: “As an oboe player, most of the music I played was from the early Classical, Baroque and Renaissance time, and some of those composers were very influential to me. Some of that early music has a very, almost rural, folk, Celtic quality to it which I really love, and after that there are composers like, oh God, the obvious are Handel and Bach, Vivaldi, you know, earlier composers. I also think the great modern composers like Bartók, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg and Webern have been very influential to me, and I’m sure to a lot of my colleagues as well. And in terms of film composers, I suppose Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith, and of recent, someone like Thomas Newman, Elliot Goldenthal, these are people that I really admire.”

What is involved in the job of composer for ‘The X-Files’ series on a weekly basis?

MS: “Well, I get a script to read, which just basically gives me an idea of the story but doesn’t really help me start thinking about what the music should be. After that I get a video tape of the cut, final locked version of the episode, and that’s when I start thinking hard about it, when I start improvising in my studio with some of the scenes, and these improvisations start to become more solid and become more formed and well though out. And layers of stuff are added until the final piece in done, and then you go to the next scene, and the next scene, and so forth and so on. And there’s usually about thirty minutes of music in each of these shows, and they usually give me about anywhere from three to six days to do it, depending on how tight the schedule is.”

How do you generally go about turning dramatic elements into musical expression?

MS: “I think you see what goes on, on the screen, and you have an emotional reaction to it. And music is so abstract and so subtle that you could for example get twenty really fine composers in a room, show them the same exact piece of film, and they would have twenty different responses to that, but they would all be excellent. I mean, you might like one more than the other, but they would all be really, really good. That’s always been a wonderful experiment I’d love to do. You know, get the top composers in a room with an orchestra and give them a week to write a five minute piece, and see the different approaches.”

Although your sounds are technologically enhanced, they have obvious natural origins. What synthetic processes do you utilize to create your textures?

MS: “My background really is acoustic, it’s really about writing things down on paper, having the scores copied, and musicians performing them with me conducting the orchestra. So it was only in the last eight years that I’ve gotten into my home studio with my electronic set-up, but because of the way technology is today. It’s so facile, and these things sound so real, because they are real, they’re samples of real instruments. And when I mix those in with some electronic sounds, that’s where I come up with the hopefully cool soundscape of the X-Files. I could have a live violin section, live strings, live woodwinds and live brass, all kinds of electronic keyboards, plus there’s tones of libraries of sounds made with the most unlikely things, and in combination. Like thunder mixed in with a lion’s roar, that’s pitched down three octaves and mixed in with a basketball dropping on the gymnasium floor. And that’s just a simple, small example of how creative one can be.”

In a previous interview you mention how the famous X-Files sound is actually your wife whistling. Is that true?

MS: “Oh yes (laughs). Now I can set the record straight. It’s not my wife whistling after all, but it is an electronic sample of somebody whistling, I’m not exactly sure who. But when I first did it someone said to me, ‘Gee, that can’t be from electronics, it’s gotta be somebody.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, blah blah blah, yeah, yeah my wife!’ Who happens to be a really great whistler, so I guess that went through the wires. But I think I’m man enough now to admit that that was a stretch (laughs).”

What is in your home studio?

MS: “My main instrument is a thing called the ‘Synclavier’, which is a digital recording device. It is basically a piece of architecture that holds many, many millions of sounds and different libraries, which are incredibly easy to call up on the keyboard, and then instantly record into the machine, to play back quickly. I think it’s one of the reasons that I can do the shows quickly, because it’s so facile and elegant. And I have some other samplers that are connected into it as well, so via the MIDI connections I can get all these combinations working pretty quickly. And maybe a third of it is MIDI, the rest of it is digital samples from the Synclavier machine. Then when I finish recording I get my engineer in, and he mixes it down to a small format, you know, DAT tape or digital tape, and that goes out the door.”

Tell me about the soundtrack that you produced for the ‘Fight the Future’ X-Files movie.

MS: “The X-Files ‘Score’ album, yes that is interesting because it has an eighty-five piece orchestra. And you know, live instruments are never in the TV series, so at the moment are only in the film score. The other thing that is interesting and different is that the X-Files theme with the whistling is never used in the TV show as background music, and in the film score it’s used quite a bit, where the orchestra plays it with different harmonies, and you know, fast and slow, and sad, dangerous, different variations of it. So that turned out to be the theme of the movie score, but never used in the TV show.”

How has your approach to the music for Chris Carter’s ‘Millennium’ series differed to that of his ‘The X-Files’ series?

MS: “With Millennium, because of the nature of the show, and since so much of the material of the show is based on sort of medieval and mystical, old, gothic, religious overtones, they wanted something that had a slightly religious, mournful, timeless, somewhat antique sound to it. And I thought using the solo violin playing this somewhat, I don’t know, Celtic, folky type, mournful melody might be a really interesting way to go, and they all loved the idea. And a lot of that music is pretty simple, and stays as much as I can to that sort of old, antique, pseudo religious sound.”

What other projects do you have coming up in the future?

MS: “I just finished another movie for MGM called ‘Disturbing Behaviour’, and it was directed by David Nutter who had directed some X-Files episodes in the past. And it’s a story of teenagers who are in highschool, and there’s a sinister plot that evolves while they’re there, and that’s all I’ll say at the moment (laughs). I’ll also be going back to the X-Files season number six and Millennium season number three, starting this September, and there’s talk of some other potential movie things. So right now I’ll be going on holiday to Bora Bora actually, getting a little close to you guys, and then I’ll be off for a while actually until September.”

“The X-Files Fight for the Future” soundtrack distributed by the Elektra Entertainment Group/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. For more information visit WEA Records Online.

The Sunday Times: A Day In The Life of Chris Carter

Aug-02-1998
The Sunday Times
A Day In The Life of Chris Carter
Chris Carter

My day begins when I wake up at 5.30. I never use an alarm clock. I think surfers generally wake up early – it’s the time when you get your best surf – and I love it because the phones aren’t ringing and there’s that stillness and coolness.

I’ve been talking to Frank Spotnitz, my colleague and co-writer, about trying to get into the office at 4am. If we could do that, he and I might by noon have done a pretty good day’s work creatively, so then all the producing, which is very unstructured, could be done afterwards. But of course, life and family intrude and I don’t know if it’ll happen.

At 6am I exercise. Whenever possible, I surf, but if there is no surf, I work out. I really hate gyms, but I caved in last year because I had never run two shows before and I was feeling completely stressed and crazed.

Getting regular exercise helps. If I’ve surfed, I come to work feeling completely rejuvenated. When I’m in the water is when I’m most at peace. But the bad part of it is that I start thinking about surfing too much, and then that’s all I want to do.

It has its own cycle of irresponsibility. I sneak down to Mexico to surf whenever I can, but when I was too busy last year, I lived vicariously through my friend Sam George, who took over my old job as editor at Surfing magazine. I sent him around the world on a year’s vacation because I wanted him to write a book about being a surfer at 40. He’s finished it now and I’m editing it.

I’m usually behind my desk by 8am, and because my support crew here take such good care of me, they will have some egg whites and a coffee waiting. Then I’ll get my laptop computer fired up and open the script I’m working on. Last year, I wrote or rewrote 14 episodes, but usually its more.

At any time in the production cycle, we always have one episode where we’re working on the story, one being written, one being prepped, one shooting, one being edited, and one in sound and music. Between The X-Files and Millennium, its sister series, that’s a dozen stories you’re keeping in your head.

I can write anywhere. There’s a very funny photograph of me on the first day of shooting Millennium where I’m sitting in a park, surrounded by homeless people, working on my laptop.

Luckily, I have an ability to concentrate – it’s a problem-solving facility – but even so, I’m always beating myself up about not being disciplined enough. Maybe it comes back to my parents, who were very hard workers. I have one younger brother and he’s an amazing person: he’s one of the youngest tenured professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He teaches a physics discipline called material science. It was drummed into our heads very early that we didn’t know what a hard day’s work was. And we’re still saying it to ourselves.

I eat lunch at my desk – whatever is the latest health kick that we’re on at the office. I’ve spent more time in this office than anywhere else in my life. I never have a conscious aversion to it but I don’t have any particular attachment either. I never, ever nest. It’s the surfing thing: travel light, never take root.

I work until at least 9.30 and I always work weekends. My wife’s staying in Santa Barbara is nothing to do with any kind of marital break-up. We’ve been together 16 years. It’s more that she’d rather be there and not see me than here and not see me. We speak all the time and its actually very romantic: I’d suggest it to anybody as a way of creating connection and desire.

She would like it if I were home more often, but she knows that I tend to feel a little obsessive and understands that I would probably be miserable if I had to live my life any differently right now. I’m not a workaholic, but when something hits and it’s good, you have to obey its demands.

Things would probably have been different if I’d had children. I hear that they actually give you a kind of perspective on life that would prevent you from becoming this consumed. I was actually struck recently by the gratuitous quality of what I do, when my brother was introduced to someone at work as Craig Carter, Chris Carter’s brother. Here’s a person who is so learned and has fought so hard and yet I have this notoriety that has eclipsed him.

Right now, my life is such that I work and I go home. I never, ever go out at night. It’s all about conservation of energy. I’ve got to stay focused. Usually I’ll get something to eat on the way home. There’s a place near my house where they serve Mexican food and I’ll eat at the bar. I know the bartender and we talk, but I’m not someone who tends to unload on anybody. I’m very much “trust no one”.

When I get back, I crawl into bed as quickly as possible and watch CNN or read. Usually I’m asleep by 11.30, but I don’t fall asleep easily. I’m thinking about work all the time, but to me that’s good. If it’s not on my mind, I’m not doing my job right.

Sci-Fi Flix: Simon Says Science

Aug-??-1998
Sci-Fi Flix: Simon Says Science
[Anne Simon]
Melissa J. Perenson