Cult – X Files – Frank Spotnitz interview
How did you start on The X Files?
I was a struggling features screen writer and a part time journalist and I had known Chris Carter. I had met him some years before at a book group.
I was watching The X Files on TV during the first season and a friend of mine who also wanted to be a writer called me and asked me if I could get him a meeting with Chris to pitch some story ideas for The X Files.
So I called Chris and I said, ‘I’ve got this friend, he’d like to pitch some ideas to you, would you be willing to meet with him?’ And Chris said ‘No, but I would be willing to meet with you. Do you have any ideas?’
I didn’t but I immediately went back to work and thought of three ideas. I came and I pitched them, and I got shot down.
I thought, well that’s the end of that, and then he called me a couple of weeks later and he said, ‘You know I shot down those ideas but they were actually pretty good, in this way and this way and this way. If you can rework them or come up with some new ideas I’d like to hear them.’
So I started working on another round of ideas and while I was still working on that second pitch, two co-executive producers of the show resigned and he called me on a Thursday and said, ‘Forget the pitch, can you come in and join the staff?’
So on Monday I started writing for The X Files and this is my seventh year on the show.
What are the elements of the series that set it apart from others?
The X Files is so different from everything else that is done on network television. It is different in approach. I think it’s much more plot-driven and much more idea-driven than most television dramas. One hour dramas that tend to be about characters.
I think production wise it’s insanely ambitious, almost impossible to achieve every week. Most one hour dramas you’re in the same standing set for the majority of the time. On The X Files most of the time you’re out in completely new locations.
Every week there’s a big idea that is completely different. There’s a new set of rules, there’s a new paranormal phenomenon that has nothing to do with what came the week before.
So it’s a hugely ambitious show that tries to be cinematic in its approach. You look at an X Files shooting script and it’s unlike any other shooting script for a one hour drama on television. It’s trying to direct itself in the writing because there is so much that needs to be achieved in our shooting schedule .
Unless you’re specific with a director from the page about how you can achieve all this with the time and money we’ve got, it wouldn’t be possible. It’s a very difficult show to write for, and I’ve always felt the enormous pressure to try and achieve the work in the time allowed from the moment I got here.
Were you sceptical about The X Files’ ability to succeed when you first saw it?
I was sceptical because too often when television tries to do cinematic stuff it looks like television. You see the lack of money, you see the lack of time.
They [the producers] were just so smart in their approach: The counterpoints they gave Mulder and Scully, and what they showed you of the monster. More importantly what they didn’t show you of the monster. How much they relied on you to connect the pieces yourself.
I think especially in the early days it was the brains of the show that caught people and made them stick. Then, of course, [there was] just the incredible chemistry that David and Gillian had from the start. That’s the kind of thing that no television producer can expect or count on. When you get that it’s like gold because so much of this show depends on the chemistry of its leads.
How would you kind of describe the relationship between Mulder and Scully?
I think the first thing, the most obvious thing, to say about their relationship is it’s a Yin and Yang. It’s the believer and the sceptic. Yet it’s flipped from the beginning because the women is the sceptic and the man is the believer. That is a clear switch on gender stereotypes.
The man has the more emotional, intuitive position and the woman’s got the more cold, rational approach. That immediately made it interesting. Then they’re both fiercely intelligent, very smart and very interesting.
Secondly, as the years have gone on, there is this unspoken bond between them. It is evident in the way they look at each other, the way they treat each other, and this is very rarely spoken of.
That’s an interesting thing too because these episodes are so plot-driven that you’re hungry for character detail. You want to know more but the show doesn’t give it to you. When it does come, and something personal happens in one of their lives, it’s like a cool drink of water. At last you get more about them.
The last thing I would say is, the sexual tension. It’s there for two reasons – One, because they’re both very attractive people and two, because these two actors just have this chemistry, this electricity that is a gift from God for all of us.
It’s just there, and I don’t know how to explain that. You see them off screen as private individuals and they cannot be more different. They get along fine, but they’re not close personal friends off-screen
When the camera turns on I think both of them are aware of this connection between them that audiences react to.
How much is the show inspired by shows such as The Avengers?
I think there’s an undeniable influence of a show like The Avengers. There are four of us, four writer producers who’ve worked on the X Files now for five or six years. This one core group of us were huge fans of The Avengers growing up.
Emma Peel is a key figure in your imagination when you’re a boy, and the idea of what a beautiful women is stays with you as you grow up. She was smart, funny, and she was sexy. She was an equal to Steed in every way.
I doubt very much that Steed and Emma Peel played consciously in Chris Carter’s creation of Mulder and Scully.
I think as the years went on and as he sought for a way to explain them, the influence of a show like that and those characters probably became something that he was consciously aware of.
What has the working relationship with David Duchovny been like?
David is amazingly smart. Whereas most actors are exclusively concerned with their role in the story, he tends to look at the script as a whole. Just as a writer or producer might look at it.
When you get notes from him they’re about the script, and not just about his role in it. They’re usually very good. I think he’s made a lot of scripts better just by his reactions to them.
It’s been a great collaboration over the years. One interesting choice David made early on when playing Fox Mulder was his being completely unembarrassed and unapologetic for his whacked out beliefs.
Fox thinks the craziest things and he almost takes delight in hushing a room, in creating discomfort at the FBI by spouting these things that anyone else would be ashamed of.
It’s probably a quality David has himself. He can be a bit of a provocateur some times, just like Mulder. That’s one of the appealing things about him.
Then there are the things about Mulder that are a bit off kilter. He has no private life, we didn’t see his bedroom until the sixth season of the show.
He was an unabashed reader and viewer of pornography. These are things that you just didn’t see on network television prior to this character.
Where did the pornography story originate?
That was in the first season. You discovered Mulder liked pornography. I think it was something that Chris Carter, Jim Wong and Glen Morgan came up with. David and Gillian just had fun playing it. It was something that worked and was charming.
Gillian’s reaction to the pornography was humorous. She wasn’t shocked, she was like ‘I may be stiff and kind of prim but I can joke with you about this!’ It humanised both of them in a way.
Describe the difference between the two types of episode featured in the X Files.
The X Files has always been kind of a schizophrenic show because there are episodes that deal with the question of extra terrestrial life. Then the great majority of episodes are not about aliens at all.
They’re about all manner of paranormal phenomena from traditional monsters like werewolves and vampires, Frankenstein’s creatures to monsters that you know are unique to the show. Beings like someone who can harness lightning, somebody who can’t die. All kinds of paranormal creatures and situations.
Beyond that one of the interesting things about The X Files is it defies conventional wisdom about what a drama is supposed to be. The wisdom in the television industry in America is ‘give them the same thing every week, only different’.
The X Files said ‘forget that. We’re gonna give you a different type of show, a different situation every week. As different as we can make it’.
Is there an effort made to tap into people’s worst nightmares or their superstitions?
The show wants to tap into fears you have but you don’t know you have. It wants to be normal. We don’t, by and large, do stories that are set in exotic locations or about people that you don’t know.
It wants to be about the guy next door, the girl next door. To pick up on something that could be happening while you drive past that mini-mart, [that] this creature might be in there.
That was one of Chris Carter’s original insights into what is scary. He had a number of mottoes that he would drill into a writer’s head. It’s only as scary as it seems real. It has to be at the bounds of believability, at the extremes of science.
Scully really helped make these things seem credible. Mulder makes these huge paranormal leaps, and she talks about what science knows. Between the two of them you’d get to a place where you could see how, taking science a notch or two further, you could end up with what this episode is about.
Have you ever written something that was scary beyond the acceptable limits?
There was one episode that Chris wrote in the second season called Irresistible. It was one of the few X Files that had nothing paranormal in it at all. It was about a serial killer and it scared the hell out of people.
This was the first and only time this has happened to us.
When first draft of the script that came in, the standards and practices people who are the censors for the network sent back a memo. It had one sentence which said that this script is unacceptable for broadcast.
They just said you can’t make a show about this guy, he’s too repugnant! We discovered eventually that they were offended by the fact that he was a necrophile. So we simply went through the script and changed all the references to necrophilia to death-fetishism and then it was acceptable for broadcast
I think the episode that still receives the strongest response, and that outraged the most people was called Home. It was written by Glen Morgan and Jim Wong in the fourth season. It’s about a rural family in a town called Home in Pennsylvania.
The teaser is this deformed baby is buried under a baseball field. Again, trying to make it ‘normal’. It could be happening in your sand lot baseball diamond. It turns out that these three brothers have sex with their mother to create offspring.
The mother is a women with no arms and legs who lives under the bed and they wheel her out. So it was horrific. There was a very, very scary scene in that episode when the Sheriff and his wife are attacked by the brothers.
People were just angry, horrified, had nightmares and they described shots that we never filmed. They described scenes that they swear they saw that just weren’t there. What happened was the situation was so intense and scary that their imaginations filled in things.
And as outraged as people were, you know we were delighted because we are here to scare people. It’s very gratifying when I meet somebody and they say ‘you know I saw that episode and it gave me a nightmare’ or ‘I can’t think about this anymore the same way’.
Are there rules and guidelines to writing ‘The X-Files’?
There are an enormous number of unspoken rules on this show.
For the first several years I was on The X Files it was very difficult because I was one of the few writers who would survive every season. All the old writers would be let go because nobody was making the grade, and then you have a new crop of writers. You have to start all over again every summer.
You knew to explain all these things that you had internalised about what Scully would do, what Mulder would do. Where the camera should be. Where it shouldn’t be. Why you’d like something this way, why you wouldn’t … just endless numbers of details and a philosophy that people don’t consciously articulate.
Fortunately, the last few years we’ve actually found a group of writers who we’ve stuck with. We’ve had faith that even if they hadn’t got it immediately, they are going to get it. So there’s been a deepening of understanding and a larger group of people internalising what the model is.
But it is very hard. Once you understand the model [you say] ‘Ok I’ve got it. I think I understand what it is Chris Carter wants the series to be. Don’t do it the same way he would. Come up with something he wouldn’t think of.’ That’s why you’re here. It’s a very tough competitive environment.
What would be a good example of the rules for writing The X Files?
There’s a lot of little rules that are easy to explain. You know he doesn’t think, for instance, having your hands in your pockets is generally a good idea for actors.
He [Chris Carter] thinks it takes intensity and drama away from a scene. Reliance on a prop, an arbitrary prop like a coffee cup or something like that.
The harder things to learn, things that really make the show a success I think are harder to explain.
The biggest, I think, is the cinematic principal of this show. Who’s head is the audience in? You shoot to that character, and all the other angles compliment that character. It’s about that character psychology and if you’re standing in the wrong place, you’re not scared.
What was the genesis of the obscure episode titles?
We had the great fortune of having X Files become a success just as the internet was booming, and chat rooms and message boards were spreading like wild fire.
Chris Carter realised that The X Files had a special relationship with these people who were on the internet, so let’s have fun with our audience. Let’s come up with a title that will make them wonder what that show’s going to be.
‘What’s that title mean? I’ve never heard of that Latin phrase’ or ‘that’s a biblical reference’, and it became something that generated more chat on the internet and intrigued people.
Chris is a great showman, he’s a great withholder of information. Both in the way he tells the stories and the way he promotes the show. He makes the audience wait. He creates a thirst for knowledge and then knows just when to reveal it. He’s been very successful at that.
How important was the internet in building The X Files?
I believe the internet was critical in establishing the X-Files as a success.
The X Files is completely atypical in that its success grew every year for the first five years of the show, really peaking with the release of the feature film after the fifth season of the television series. Yet, in the first year the ratings were unspectacular and it really took a long time for it to grow to an audience that was a clear success.
There was a drum beat that you could hear from all the people on the internet who were watching the show. Talking about it, dissecting it, and it was rich material for them. A lot of intelligence and ideas.
There were many times, especially during the second and third seasons of the show, when we’d come in on Monday morning and there’d be a telephone book sized stack of e-mail that was posted about the previous episode.
We still look on the internet from time to time, and we try and gauge fan reaction. It’s a sizeable and important audience, probably the most hardcore of the show’s fans.
Over time we came to see that the people on the internet have a very specific agenda and taste. Certain things about the show are more important to them than are important to the audience at large, so you mustn’t let yourself be led or overly influenced by that sector of your audience.
Do you have to understand the mythology of the series to enjoy watching it?
Good luck to anyone who thinks they are going to completely understand the mythology of The X Files. You can’t. It’s too dense, it’s too complex. It’s been woven out over eight years.
We tell people you don’t need to understand it all. You shouldn’t understand it all to enjoy it. We repeat what you need to know. The other stuff you don’t need to know.
We’ve never wanted the audience to feel like they need a guide book to watch the show. We’ve never wanted somebody to feel like they can’t watch the show because they weren’t watching from the beginning.
It’s not true as long as you just sort of accept, ‘I’m gonna be told what I need to know to enjoy this hour’.
Are there also disadvantages by having a hardcore internet fan base?
The frustrating aspect about having such a loyal and hardcore internet following is that it’s very hard to keep secrets. We have had scripts stolen out of offices [and] off the Fox lot. We’ve had tapes stolen, cuts of shows that have disappeared.
The scary thing about the internet, not just for a television show, but actually more so for other spheres of life like politics and people trying to protect their privacy, is that all it takes is one person to know something and then the whole world can know about it.
What we’ve discovered is that the people who want to know these secrets are probably the ones who are going to watch anyway. They’re so devoted they’re gonna watch and enjoy, even if they’ve spoiled the surprise for themselves.
How do you try to protect the stories?
There is a limit to how much we can do to protect the secrecy of the television shows and the television scripts.
There are just too many people on the Fox lot who have to read each one of these scripts before it gets produced. There’s literally hundreds of people that read it so it’s virtually impossible to protect that secret.
When we did The X Files feature film we had a much greater opportunity to be super secret. So we printed the scripts on red paper, we numbered each one of them. We had people sign privacy agreements.
We were insanely protective of it. The story line still did get out despite all that, but we were able to float enough false story lines and denials that no-one really knew what the real story was until the feature was released.
Can you explain the phenomenal success of The X Files?
I believe good stories will last beyond the time they were written and produced.
I think the enduring success of The X Files is the central theme of the show which is ‘the truth is out there’.
What does that mean? That’s an endless question. That’s incredibly deep, the philosophical idea. ‘The truth is out there’. It really speaks to me, both in the alien and the monster shows.
In every type of episode we try to capture the sense of mystery in the universe and the world that everybody senses. Whether they believe in ghosts, and aliens, or God or not.
There’s a mystery that all of us are aware of, and the show says ‘yes there is more than you understand’. And it treats people. It captures their imagination because of that.
What does Mulder’s search for the truth represent?
As the years have gone on we’ve thought more and more about extra terrestrials and people’s interest in them. We’ve become more and more aware of the parallels between seeking to prove the existence of aliens and to prove the existence of God.
I think that’s a lot of what goes on within the real world and in the popular culture. With aliens and the U.F.O mythology it’s like looking for God. It’s looking for meaning, order. A greater sense of what the world is about. On another level that’s kind of what conspiracy theories do too.
The world’s too big for any one of us to encompass anymore … we can’t possibly encompass all of it. So when you hear a conspiracy theory like you do in The X Files, it’s as if it’s giving you a magic key.
You go ‘Oh, this is how it all works, I see, all these elements that don’t make sense to me’. This conspiracy theory connects it all for me and it’s very satisfying.
Now I don’t think that is the way the world works, but that’s the appeal of a conspiracy theory in a show like The X Files.
Is Chris Carter a true believer in the paranormal?
I think Chris is Scully, but he wants to be Mulder.
‘I want to believe’ sort of expresses that tension. Chris doesn’t believe in extra terrestrials, he doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories, but he’d love to. I think we all would.
Just like all of us would love to be devout believers in God, but most of us aren’t. Most of us struggle with faith. What comfort it would be to have that abiding faith, belief and conviction.
Why have so many cultures embraced The X Files?
I think the same things scare people all around the world. They’re universal.
You know if you look at comparative mythology or comparative religion the same symbols come up. The same ideas. The same religious figures all over the world from tribes in remote islands in the South Pacific to the Americas and Europe and Asia.
You can find the same notion in culture after culture after culture. You know it’s kind of a heart-warming thing, ironically, that we’re all frightened by the same things. It just sort of reaffirms our common humanity.
I think the success of The X Files is another example of that.