Interview with Chris Carter
The X-Files Creator Reflects On His Nine Years Tenure With Genre TV’s Most Ambitious Mythology-Driven Series
The studio may officially have the day off, but not Chris Carter. With his creation The X-Files coming down the home stretch of a successful nine-year run, the executive producer finds himself toiling away at the office during the Presidents’ Day holiday. The past few weeks have been above and beyond the normal level of hectic, seeing how Carter handled both the writing and directing chores for the forthcoming episode “Improbable.” Fresh off the episode’s second-unit filming, Carter shifts his attention to the teleplay for episode 17 – a story he’s co-writing with Frank Spotnitz and X-Files alumnus David Duchovny, who will also be directing as part of his deal to return for the series’ two-hour finale.
Understandably, Carter’s focus is on the immediate here and now, and the workload that lies ahead. The reality that this is the last season of his brainchild – a series no one, including the creator, anticipated would run for nine seasons – still seems far off. On the contrary, that foreknowledge is a small comfort considering the mammoth-sized task that still lies ahead.
“You’re asking me as I’m sitting here writing on the President’s Day holiday – no one’s at the studio but me,” he says. “I don’t feel relief at all. I feel burdened with the opportunity I see to do some really good work as we end the year.”
How, then, will it feel for the regular summer hiatus period to come and go – and, for the first time in eight years, not return to work on another new season?
“It will be strange not to take a couple of weeks off and come back and start working on X-Files again,” Carter says. “Is that a relief? I don’t know that [yet].”
The X-Files’ roots lie in telling chilling stories that conjure up fear. And while the series has experimented with other, more whimsical tales in recent years, this season follows in the footsteps of that which came before, continuing along the path back to creepy.
“It began as a show where we attempted to scare the pants off of people each week, and it’s always been that,” maintains Carter. “But as the show has evolved, there were seasons – for example, season 6, after the movie – where we decided to lighten it up, where we got away from being scary because it felt natural [to do so]. The show became almost comedic with the things we attempted with episodes like ‘Triangle.'”
Then came season 7, in which Carter and company felt a need to resolve certain mythology arcs such as the fate of Mulder’s sister.
“So all of a sudden, these are not necessarily scary things [we’re doing], but they are things that are important to the life of the show and to the characters in the show,” Carter says. “Season 8 was a new thing for us because ‘missing Mulder’ became a new kind of mythology season, although there were some good, scary stand-alones, too. Now, we’ve gotten back to solid ground again in season 9. And the thing that we do best is to go back to what we do best – which is to scare people.”
Finding fresh stories this season – which will cross the 200-episode mark before it’s finished – hasn’t been particularly difficult, Carter says, due in large part to the enthusiastic interest of executive producers Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban.
“As long as you’re interested, and the show keeps amusing you and amazing you, as it oftentimes does, I think that’s the sign and signal of a show’s vitality,” Carter says. “It’s never easy, but it’s not like we are straining to come up with new story ideas. The sad thing is that now there are many stories left to tell, and we’re not going to be telling them, except in the movie franchise.”
Strangely enough, Carter find himself almost busier this year than in seasons past, despite the fact that he has only one series in production as opposed to his usual two.
“It’s funny – for me, I’ve worked on two things since Christmas of the third season of The X-Files, when I was doing research on and the writing of the Millennium pilot,” he says. “I’ve always been working on two things. This is the first year that I haven’t been working on two things, and I thought it would be such a luxury. And I don’t know how or why, but this year has been one of the hardest ever. If you’re a hard-working person, your time always gets gobbled up by different things. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve come to the decision to no go on this year – maybe that took a lot of our energy. But I feel that we’re as strapped for time as we ever were.”
In many ways, Carter was exploring his own interests when he originally pitched the idea for The X-Files to the Fox network a decade ago.
“I knew it would take us on a journey,” he says. “And I knew that these characters had a lot to explore, because they’re exploring all of the rich material that I’m interested in.”
But in many ways, he adds, the memory of his original vision got lost amid the cacophony of divergent needs that a fledging series has to service.
“You’re fighting for your life, always, at the beginning,” he says. “Just trying not to make too many mistakes, trying to make the right choices, trying to hire the right people, and trying to appease the god of Nielsen. Luckily, a lot of good people came on to the show, and they helped to show exactly what kind of stories the characters of Mulder and Scully could explore and tell.”
That formative first season counted among its producers the talented writing teams of Howard Gordon (Beauty and the Beast, Strange World, 24) and Alex Gansa (Dawson’s Creek, Wolf Lake), as well as Glen Morgan and James Wong (TV’s Millennium and The Others, the feature films Final Destination and The One).
Critical to the show’s early success, however, was the balance between FBI partners Fox Mulder – all too willing to believe – and Dana Scully – perennial skeptical whose scientific background demanded she seek hard evidence before accepting Mulder’s wild theories. For Carter, the decision to assign these arbitrary, structural roles to the characters was much like one of the intuitive leaps Mulder is famed for.
“That was just my gut instinct, to have Mulder as the believer,” says Carter. “He’s not a believer outright. The poster on his wall – ‘I Want to Believe’ – really sums up Mulder to me. He wants to believe. He constantly wants to find that thing that gives him the basis in which to believe. And Scully, as the skeptic, her point of view represents our point of view. We are all skeptics; we are all wary of claims, these claims that Mulder would bring to her. I always said the story was told best from Scully’s point of view.”
As much as The X-Files has centered on scary case files and a complex web of mythology, Mulder and Scully – and their unique relationship – have always been at the heart of the show. And that’s something that Carter is very aware of, in spite of the fact that the past two seasons have seen a new duo of characters, Doggett and Reyes, added in an attempt to extend its longevity.
“The series was always about Mulder and Scully and their unique partnership, if you will, from the very moment I thought of the idea for the show,” says Carter. “I wanted this to be the ideal friendship, partnership, romance, if you will – in the literary sense of the word.”
In the early years of the series, the relationship between Mulder and Scully was always presented as being a platonic one – nothing more. But, insists Carter, the duo was always on a path that would take them to where they ended last season. The turning point, he notes, was in The X-Files feature, which was released between seasons 5 and 6. “I think that any intense friendship leads naturally to where it was going to lead with that kiss [in the movie],” he says. “That is a part of the consummation of that kind of relationship, which I think they couldn’t deny was romantic in its intensity. I always knew it was going there. It was just [a case of] when to get there.”
The same can be said of the show’s mythology, which has been woven together piecemeal as the series crept along. But will the end result converge with what Carter originally envisioned at the outset of this voyage?
“I’m always asked this question,” he says. “To be truthful, I knew I had certain ideas, but I never knew that I would have to stretch them out quite so long. I had some big ideas, and I was always surprised at how they evolved. At one point – it was during the making and writing of ‘Redux’ and ‘Redux II’ – I said to Frank Spotnitz that these stories start to tell themselves. We’d laid such good groundwork that at the point there were these interesting things that happened as a result of choices that were made way back when. I think the best things is not plan too carefully, so that you can find your way to where you’re going rather than to say, ‘I’m going over there, and let’s see how I can best get there.'”
But nine years is a long time to be weaving threads through disparate episodes – and even Carter admits, “It’s not like it’s all perfectly in my mind. There’s just so much material that’s come before, 200 hours of material.” When writing the series’ final episodes, he adds, “It’s going to take some effort to condense and winnow out the important things as we had conceived of them along the way. That’s going to be the important things to key on.”
Up until now, Mulder’s journey – standard monster-of-the-week tales notwithstanding 0 had been two-fold: a passionate quest for the truth about his sister’s fate, as well as the truth behind a government conspiracy to hide the existence of extraterrestrials.
“He’s been looking for a truth,” confirms Carter. “There are many truths that he’s been seeking, but the thing that he’s looking for is the thing that has now driven him into hiding. It’s going to be interesting to see when he comes back what it is he brought back, and at what consequence.”
Of course, any further detailed analysis is still classified information, unfortunately.
“I can’t [say], because I would be spoiling all the fun of when he comes back,” Carter says.
It’s a cryptic, evasive response, but we’ve come to expect that from The X-Files’ creator. After all, this is the series where questions are continually raised, but nothing ever seems to be conclusively answered. And like many things on The X-Files, the choice to keep the answers open-ended and ambiguous is a very purposeful one.
Explains Carter, with appropriate brevity, “It’s like life itself.”