The X-Files Magazine [US]
Season Nine’s seventh episode “John Doe” finds Doggett dazed, confused and completely oblivious of his own identity in a gritty Mexican town. Did The X-Files cast and crew leave the country to shoot this show? Almost. Robin Benty went on set to discover the secrets south of the border.
Dusty streets, stray dogs, clothes-lines. Buildings crammed together, none more than a couple of stories tall, none built after 1950… A few flies buzz. Broiling sunset slants in through the cracks… We can practically smell the p’ss… This ain’t the Ritz…
And it ain’t a travel brochure for a lavish resort. These vivid images come straight from Vince Gilligan’s script for X-Files episode 9X07, “John Doe”, which is set in a dilapidated Mexican town. The episode not only adopts an innovative visual, but weaves a unique stand-alone story. However, the premise of the episode was somewhat different in its early stages.
“Setting the show in Mexico came late in the game,” reveals Gilligan of the episode’s origins, on the set of “John Doe”. “The original idea was about a ‘memory vampire’ who steals memories.” This “vampire” was going to live in the United States, having been raised in an orphanage as a ‘John Doe’. Knowing nothing of his past, he sought to learn about his identity. In the process, the vampire would steal memories from other people and leave them as vegetables. The victims were to have ranged in age from 30s to 60s, but all his prey would have woken up believing that it was 4 July 1972 – the stay the vampire was born: he stole their memories up until that date. In fact, Gilligan’s original episode title for “John Doe was “July 14, 1972”.
However, all the months of development went out the window (along with Gilligan’s scripted teaser and act one) when the writing team began mapping out the plot. “We got halfway through the storyboards and it just didn’t feel right,” Gilligan explains. The producers felt the story would be scarier if one of the show’s heroes had his memory eliminated, but in Gilligan’s original version, there would have been no turning back. It was when executive producer Frank Spotnitz suggested that the episode be set in Mexico that the pieces began to fall into place. Gilligan, however, held onto the intrinsic nature of the story that had fascinated him in the first place when crafting the second version.
“The interesting thing is this idea of someone who has no memories,” Gilligan says eagerly. “Would you still have the same morals and character? Would you still know right from wrong? I think you’d still be the same person.”
First-time director (and current X-Files co-executive producer) Michelle MacLaren responded to this concept whole-heartedly when she read the script. “Doggett has no memory, but underneath it was important the instinct and morals of who Doggett really is come out,” she says. “His training may have him throw someone against a bus, but he would never overstep the line to actually hurt Reyes or kill a person without just cause. It’s very physical and extremely emotional on many levels.”
As an amnesiac, Doggett tries to figure out what is going on, but his only brief memories are of his wife and son – and it is only with Reyes’ help that he is able to remember Luke’s shocking fate. MacLaren loved the raw emotions of that set-up. “There are the frustrations, anger and sadness of someone who not only does not know who he is, but knows that he left a son behind somewhere. Then has to relive the knowledge that his son has died,” she says.
Gilligan agrees: “We figured that it would be a great ending if, by the time Doggett remembered Luke’s name, he then realized his son has been murdered. We knew that scene could bring down the house.”
Overcoming the story obstacles, the production department tackled its next hurdle – achieving a whole new style in one episode.
“Most of our shows are dark, smoky and gloomy,” Gilligan explains. “This one is the opposite.”
The writer was inspired by some recent movies. “I have to say that I was thinking about the movie Traffic when I was writing; specifically the scenes in Mexico.” Director of photography Bill Roe and his crew took their cue from both Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and David O. Russell’s Three Kings, by over-exposing the daytime exterior shots on the camera to help give it a golden-yellow, washed-out feel.
MacLaren’s directorial preparations were quite similar to Gilligan’s. “I thought about running across the border to refresh my mind about Mexico, but decided against it because of the current national situation.” Instead, MacLaren rented movies, turning to Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado and El Mariachi, as well as other, older movies for encouragement.
Production designer Corey Kaplan also went the cinema-study route, using Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses, and films native to the country for imagery. “Since they know their own terrain, it’s more exciting to see how Mexican directors get it right,” Kaplan adds.
“I hate to admit that most of what I know about is from the movies,” Gilligan confesses. “That’s why the contributions of the Locations, Art and Construction Departments are so crucial.”
Those three divisions of the large X-Files crew were tasked with transforming Southern California into the country that lies just south of it. Location manager Ilt Jones proposed the idea of recreating the fictional Mexican town in the San Gabriel Valley city of Pamona, California. Although it was far away from the Los Angeles set, it did have a bare bones street that the show took over and turned into the ‘Sangradura’ of Gilligan’s script. With MacLaren’s lengthy list of specific directions of Kaplan, the Art Department filled an entire notebook of research to capture the feel of the border town. The goal, however, was not to duplicate cliché notions.
“They can keep the piñatas to themselves!” Kaplan exclaimed as her mantra.
Then the painters and the plasters arrived in Pomona to turn it into the seedier side of Mexico. They added sand, aged the buildings by hand, and redecorated 30 shop fronts.
The director was overwhelmingly pleased with the exteriors her crew provided. “It breaks my heart that we can’t shoot the entire show in that town,” MacLaren says of the move back to the interior soundstages on the Fox lot.
Yet The X-Files stages were just as resplendent as their Pomona counterparts. Layers of plaster thickened the set walls to recreate the Mexican Adobe architectural style. The Art Department designed a cantina that was two stories high to permit the important choreography of the actors in the scenes. (They added one velvet painting for fun.) For the prison scenes, Kaplan tried to recreate the decrepit jail from the Alan Parker film, Midnight Express, with enough space so that the camera could capture the Calabozo station from many angles.
Despite the numerous movie influences, the production was lacking in the one thing that feature films have plenty of: money. “It was even more fantastic that they did that on a television budget, which is not the kind of money any old feature would have,” Gilligan proudly states. “In my mind that makes their accomplishments all the more important.”
With the words and sets in place, MacLaren turned to her actors, especially Robert Patrick, for whom she has total praise. “Robert is a dream to work with. He is so unbelievably talented and he loves the process.”
To support Patrick, MacLaren had to find a cast of unknowns that were believable. “We tired to keep it as authentic-looking as possible,” says casting director Rick Millikan, who required every actor who was submitted be fluent in Spanish. The lines in the script are written in English, and these actors read them in Spanish for the audition. Nobody on the show’s side of the casting table, however, spoke a lick of Spanish.
“We could always tell if there was emotion behind the words,” Gilligan remembers. “We knew whether it was fake or forced, or whether this person was really a good actor.”
Although it was MacLaren’s first casting session in the director’s chair, she knew she had found her primary leads immediately. “When Frank (Ramon) came in, he blew us away, and we knew he would be ‘Domingo.'” she says.
Another actor, Ramon Franco, read for the same part, but MacLaren and company were confident he would play better as ‘Nestor.’ “Bother were a slam dunk,” she says.
Gilligan, too, is overjoyed at the selections. “This is one of the best guest casts we’ve ever had on this show,” he says happily.
In keeping with the theme of authenticity, a dialect coach named Allyn Partin-Hernandex was hired to assist the actors – as well as the director.
“When they made a mistake in their Spanish dialogue, I didn’t even know,” MacLaren admits. “Once Allyn came up to tell me that one of the actors swore in Spanish on camera. I had no idea. Of course, I had them redo the scene.”
Partin-Hernandex based each character’s dialect on historical show facts. She listened to Doggett’s Spanish in Season Eight’s “Vienen” to match the dialogue for this episode, and then made a cassette tape of the new dialogue for Robert Patrick to study. Since Monica Reyes is supposed to have grown up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Allyn translated dialogue for Annabeth Gish to match that region. Yet MacLaren wanted the cartel players to sound different from the locals. Partin-Hernandex chose a Tampico, Mexico dialect for the locals as opposed to the internationally-sounding cartel men.
“In Mexico, they use an upwardly-gliding intonation that is quite musical,” explains Partin-Hernandez. “The ‘locals’ are using a dialect indicative of the Gulf Coast, which sounds more like a Caribbean variety.”
In many Latin American dialects, the ‘s’ at the end of a syllable sometimes gets turned into an ‘h’, but that is not pervasive in Mexico. “I told the actors to be more aggressive with their s’s,” Partin-Hernandez giggles.
Make-up Department Head Cheri Montesanto-Medcalf and her team then enter the process to overhaul the guises of the actors to match the authentic sets and Spanish language. “Vitamin E oil has been sprayed on everyone to create sweat,” reveals Montesanto-Medcalf. “It’s nice and oily, stays on all day, and it’s good for your skin.”
The three consecutive Emmy-winning staff also worked their magic on Robert Patrick. They applied a method called ‘stretch & stipple’ to make his skin look wrinkled, and attached gelatin eye bags to make him appear tired. Facial hair was also added by hand. One particular item of make-up proves vital to the storyline – Doggett’s tattoo. The image is the US Marine symbol, and Spotnitz and Gilligan created the brief words underneath the emblem to convey the characteristics of Doggett’s military service and move the story along. Unfortunately, they later realized that Patrick’s arm had been visible in prior episodes, so some reshoots were done for the two episodes of the season.
Although the basic image was only drawn once throughout the shoot, Montesanto-Medcalf aged the tattoo with skin tone paint so that it looked like Doggett had had it for 13 years or so. “Robert loved the tattoo,” Montesanto-Medcalf says. “But we haven’t done it again on any episodes since then, because Doggett always seems to wear suits.”
Her team also distorted Luis Robledo, the actor who plays ‘Crackhead’, from a handsome man into a starving junkie. Montesanto-Medcalf created one swollen eyelid, to make Robledo’s face look asymmetrical. The make-up crew then rotted his teeth, put dark circles around his eyes, weathered his skin, dirtied his hair and made his lips appear extra-dry with burns, so that he seemed to have been charred by a crack pipe. Before he went on-camera, they blew a tiny bit of menthol crystals in his face, cause his eyes to become glassy.
“He looked gross!” laughs Montesanto-Medcalf about Robledo’s transformation. “People didn’t know who he was when he arrived on the set. He thanked us over and over for helping him become his character!”
Perhaps one of the best makeovers on the episode, however, was Michelle MacLaren’s transformation into a director. She is only the second female to have taken the helm of an X-Files episode (the first being none other than Gillian Anderson), and she impressed the entire staff, especially Gilligan.
“She’s doing a wonderful job, and it is a tough proposition to ask a first-timer to come work on The X-Files,” Gilligan extols. “She has great taste as a director, and she pays fine attention to details.”
MacLaren returns the compliment to Gilligan’s writing. “I was excited that it was such a different and a great script. I feel so lucky to have gotten that script for my directorial debut.”
To take a break from her daily career of producing the show, MacLaren pays gratitude to a number of people at Ten Thirteen. “(Producer) Harry Bring has really stepped up to the plate to cover my producer duties,” she says.
MacLaren also credits the advice of show directors Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Kim Manners and Tony Wharmby. As well as office assistants Ginger Wadly and Stephanie Herrera for lightening her workload.
“The whole crew has been supportive and have let me focus on being a director. I can’t say enough about how wonderful everyone is,” she beams.
But will she give up her day job? “I wouldn’t say I’d ever leave producing,” says MacLaren. And sounding like a grizzled X-Files veteran, she adds, “This is my first shot at it. Although I’ve been learning a lot, I still have a lot to learn.”