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Cult Times: Myth Maker

Cult Times
Myth Maker
Melissa J. Perenson

We sent Cult Times’ best agents to try to get the truth out of Chris “Conspiracy” Carter once and for all

Chris Carter, The X-Files executive producer, leans back in his chair as he discusses his hit series and the new feature film that has resulted from its success. “I had a three day surfing weekend and I was thinking about what it is as a surfer that I bring to my occupation.” Carter, a long-time surfer who spent over a decade earlier in his career as an editor and writer at Surfing magazine, certainly looks the part, given his relaxed, laid-back manner and his casual dress consisting of jeans and a T-shirt.

“I think, for me, it’s a minimalist sort of self-reliance, a focus that all surfers have,” he continues. “Surfers have this one thing they love to do, and I’ve sort of taken that focused energy and applied it to what I do. That has nothing to do with anything other than basically a work ethic.”

Whatever its origin, Carter’s solid work ethic has certainly achieved results: The X-Files is widely recognized as being one of the best series currently on television. Rather than feel the pressure to succeed ratchet up a notch, Carter has drawn strength from the show’s popularity. “Does the pressure mount? It’s the same pressure. You still face that same blank page,” he confides. “What you start to develop, though, is confidence in your ability to come up with the ideas, confidence in your ability to execute the ideas, so in that way the pressures are the same, but your confidence builds.”

After 16 Emmy nominations, and a worldwide box office take that’s well over the magical 100 million dollar mark, Carter should be experiencing an abundance of confidence right about now. In fact, the only wildcard going into the series’ sixth season is how, if at all, the show’s relocation from Vancouver to Los Angeles will affect The X-Files’ trademark dark and atmospheric look.

“I’m going to do a heatwave episode,” jokes Carter about the impact of their new location on the show’s dark and damp settings. “Mulder and Scully solve crimes in different cities, so we’ll just take advantage of some environments to do stories in Nevada and Idaho and California and New Mexico and Texas. We’ll use places like that, that we wouldn’t have been able to use in Vancouver. The show is really told at locations around the country. So we’ll get to be in different places telling new kinds of stories.”

Even though the favourable exchange rate in Canada made filming in Vancouver a producer’s dream, Carter plans to keep any budget increases in check, and to avoid a sudden surge. “It better not, or else I’m in big trouble,” he laughs good-naturedly. “I think that there will be some increases. I hope to minimize those. But I don’t know – there are going to be some increased costs, and that just happens to be the nature of what we do.”

Carter had a taste of what it’s like working with a larger budget while filming The X-Files feature last year. The feature’s budget was about $65 million. With it came a level of action and special effects that could never have been attempted on the kind of money available to a weekly television series.

One of the toughest things about doing the film was getting the fifth season of the show to end up where it needed to be in order to set up the film. “That was the hard part, because we never plan too far ahead, by design. We want to feel our way through the dark a little bit, with a general idea of where we’re headed,” explains Carter. “Season Five was the first season that we actually knew what we needed to accomplish. So we knew there were certain marks we needed to hit, certain characters we needed to bring in and out, belief systems that needed to be played with. It actually provided us with a much more rigid set of demands in the story telling than we’ve ever been set with.”

Determining how to get there required a road map of sorts. “We just sat down and tried to imagine everything. We tried to be very big and bold about it and not hold anything back. We wanted to put it all out there,” Carter says. “Because my philosophy is don’t hold back, just put as much out there as you can. There will always be more stories to tell, there will always be something else to do that you can’t really exhaust these things completely because you can always turn them, flip them, take the truth back and make it a lie. There are lots of ways to play with The X Files.”

While the original plan was to have the fifth season finale lead directly into the film, Twentieth Century Fox vetoed that plan: “They were afraid that people would think that you needed to be an avid fan to watch the movie,” Carter reveals. “So they started back-pedaling a little bit. And I understand why they did it. They invested a lot of money in the movie, so they want to make sure it’s a hit. I think you’ll get more enjoyment out of the movie if you do know some facts, but I think you can completely enjoy the movie not knowing anything.”

It was important to Carter that the film maintain a balance so that it could appeal to fans who’ve invested in the series as well as newcomers to The X-Files. “You don’t want to alienate the hardcore audience. The movie,” he recognizes, “really in a way, came as a result of there being fans. And you don’t want to make it a movie that alienates the other movie-going audience because you want to make it a great movie-going experience for anybody who doesn’t watch television or The X-Files. So you try to calculate all these things and address them all.”

One story element Carter originally intended to include in the film – the explanation of what really happened to Samantha – was pulled from the final cut of the feature. “It wasn’t that we took something out that needed to be there,” he explains, emphasizing that the Samantha mention was getting lost in the shuffle of the movie’s bigger themes. “It’s something that is going to now be addressed naturally through the story telling process.” According to Carter, Samantha is just one of several outstanding XF issues that will be addressed in the coming season.

While the film’s director, Rob Bowman, has said in the past that he didn’t think the movie gave dedicated viewers as much cake as they wanted, Carter disagrees. “I think it’s given then a lot. I think there are lots of big, big answers in there. And big things happened that I think really satisfy the audience. But it’s not like we brought the series to an end, though. We didn’t sacrifice everything, but there are big things that happen in the movie.”

As some of the series’ more astute fans may have noticed, Carter purposefully paraphrased a line from the second season episode, Ascension, when he had the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville) state to his Consortium colleagues, “Kill Mulder, we take the risk of turning one man’s quest into a crusade.” “I just did what I thought was right. I didn’t weigh it that carefully,” says Carter of his choice to use a quote similar to the one used so long ago. “I did what I felt was right for the story we were telling. And that line, which I think is really an important line, says why they don’t just ‘off’ Mulder. It’s important to understand why they just don’t kill him. Imagine if you’ve got a guy out there railing against the world. But still, he could become a martyr to a much bigger cause. It suggests, as it’s been suggested in the series, that Mulder may be out there doing work for them [the Consortium]. In fact, he may be a pawn in a much bigger game.”

That there’s a bigger game afoot draws heavily on Carter’s early influences of conspiracy theories and scary stories. Carter’s own belief in conspiracies was forged while he was in high school. “It was right when I was becoming an angry young man,” he laughs. “Watergate happened and I developed this sense of paranoia and lost all of my faith in institutions. I loved that movie All the President’s Men, and those sorts of things helped to foster and cultivate my natural paranoia.”

Also as a teenager, Carter found himself drawn to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. “I could have watched it every night of the week. I loved that show as a kid,” he recalls.

“Then I end up becoming a television series creator and, after being in the business for about 10 years, someone asks me what I want to do, and I said I wanted to do something as scary as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, since there’s nothing scary on TV anymore. They said that sounds like a good idea. And that’s how you got The X Files.”

Ironically, Carter seems to identify better with Scully’s scepticism than Mulder’s willingness to believe. “I’m a sceptic,” admits Carter of his own perspective. Indeed, Carter had initially been sceptical of the series’ long-term prospects when it first premiered in 1993; certainly, he hadn’t anticipated the groundswell of popularity that has since launched the show to previously unimaginable heights.

Although Carter likes to say that it’s TXF stories that draw viewers week after week, he recognizes the important role that actors David Duchovny (Agent Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully) have played in making the series the phenomenon it is. “Their stardom, international stardom, beyond just even here [in the US], has been the thing on which we’ve all been successful,” he admits. Plus, he adds, “they need good stories and they’ve gotten good stories, so that’s very important to the success of the show.”

Another reason Carter cites when speaking of the series’ success is the sheer ambiguity of the meaning behind the stories told. “‘The truth is out there’ – these are all metaphors for something bigger and really are kind of religious, if you think about it,” Carter offers, “you can replace the word ‘truth’ with another word very easily. So I think that’s what gives the show its magnetism.”

Ambiguity is all fine and good, yet even Carter realized the need to spell things out once in a while. Which explains the short narrative piece that’s included on The X-Files’ movie soundtrack, also featuring music by such artists as the Foo Fighters, Crystal X [sic], and Noel Gallagher. “What I really did with that is tell you what you’ve seen in the series. It doesn’t tell you anything more,” he maintains. The explanation of the conspiracy “is very dense and you’ve got to listen to it very carefully, as it sets up what happens in the movie. I just thought it was an opportunity to give something a little special to people who are paying attention.”

Carter knows he treads a thin line between viewer loyalty and utter frustration as he keeps dangling questions in front of audiences, but, as he says, “that’s the fun of the show. I hopefully provide enough sustenance that people are able to enjoy it.”

Case in point: the electric tension surrounding Mulder and Scully’s relationship. The romantic overtones of not just the now-infamous hallway scene’s almost-kiss, but indeed the entire film, are a development that at one time Carter eschewed – and yet, viewers have been interpreting that level of emotion for years. Now, five years later, the tide has changed. Somewhat. “I think it’s a natural expression of the love these two people obviously have for one another. And that was an expression of that love, it’s not necessarily a perfectly…” Carter drifts off for a moment, stumbling for the right words to describe his thoughts on the matter. “It’s not a sexual expression. That they almost kiss isn’t stepping over a line that I think that neither of them are quite prepared to step over. But it’s a quite believable one,” Carter insists. “That it doesn’t happen, that’s part of the fun.”

Although Carter says Mulder and Scully’s relationship will be dealt with in Season Six, he does stick firm to one of his former proclamations: “I don’t see Mulder and Scully getting in the sack.”

In addition to tackling Mulder and Scully’s relationship, the sixth season opener, The Beginning, picks up on the plot from the fifth season finale, resolving at least some of the outstanding issues concerning Agent Diana Fowley (Mimi Rogers) and the chess prodigy Gibson Praise.

Although you won’t need to have seen the movie in order to follow the series, the virus that affected Scully in the film will be brought back into the limelight, as will Scully’s abduction. “We’re going to point it out in a big way this season. I mean, her abduction was all-important to the mythology of the show,” teases Carter.

When asked whether there will be references to the spaceships and aliens from the movie as well, Carter affirms, “Yes, there will be.” Switching gears a bit, he continues, “I think what’s interesting is the fact that this group, which seems to be orchestrating the whole thing, has stated that they are working on a vaccine. But if they’ve been working on a vaccine, that means in fact they could be a force of good. So there is some question about what their agenda really is.”

The movie’s new directions promise to give the series a renewed energy as it heads into its sixth season, a critical time when most series start showing their age. “We’ve got a lot to play with,” says Carter with a twinkle in his eye. Reading between the lines, that means: ‘Expect the unexpected.’ After all, that’s what The X-Files continually does best.

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One Response to “Cult Times: Myth Maker”

  1. […] Of course, this raises the question of how you write a mythology episode against that backdrop. As Chris Carter conceded when discussing the season in retrospect, the primary goal when doing the big mythology episodes was not to create a discontinuity with Fight the Future – something which was very much at odds with the writing staff’s more laissez-faire approach to …: […]