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Fortean Times: Frank Spotnitz on 'The X-Files Essentials'

Fortean Times
Frank Spotnitz on ‘The X-Files Essentials’

[Original article here]

X-Files producer discusses ‘The X-Files Essentials’, out now on DVD. Interview courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Q: Let’s start with who you are and what your role was on The X-Files.

Frank: I’m Frank Spotnitz. I was an executive producer and writer of the show. I did that for eight years of the nine years that the show was on the air. And I was a co-producer and co-wrote the story for the first feature film and co-wrote and co-produced the new movie.

Q: We’re talking about the new “Essentials” set. Two discs containing eight episodes, picked by yourself and series creator Chris Carter, which give audiences a greater insight into the series before seeing the new movie. Let’s go through each episode. The first is the pilot episode.

Frank: We really wanted eight episodes that were essential to the series. The truth is, you can see the movie without having seen an episode of the television series. Very much by design we wanted it to be a movie that worked for people who had never seen The X-Files before. But if you were so motivated you could go back and look at these eight episodes and really get an idea of the breadth and scope of the series. So the best place to start was the pilot, which is really unusual because it’s an excellent pilot. And I say that because if you look at a lot of TV pilots, you can’t believe what the show became afterwards. Often a pilot is very different from the series that follows it. And The X-Files pilot is unusual in that it’s exactly what the series was. It really nailed it and hit it out of the park. It’s critical for understanding the world of the series. A world where aliens may or may not exist; where proof is always elusive. Mulder is this brilliant profiler who has sacrificed his career with the FBI in order to pursue his obsession with paranormal phenomenon. This is fuelled by his belief that his sister was abducted by aliens when he was eight years old. And Scully is this brilliant medical doctor who is assigned in the pilot to spy on Mulder. By the end of that first hour, because she’s a character of integrity, we see that she is not going to fill the role that they intended. In fact, she serves as a great asset to Mulder, bring her science and skepticism to bear on all of his investigations.

I remember watching the pilot when it first aired and thinking I had never seen anything like that on television before.

It was so unusual, not just because it was so good, but because TV in those days rarely did anything like The X-Files. There was nothing scary on television. And Chris Carter was inspired by something he had seen on TV when he was a kid that scared the socks off of him, which was The Night Stalker, and ABC TV movie of the week. He said “I’d like to do something like that.” He very cleverly found a way to create a new television series that would allow these characters to investigate different monsters every week. And what he did that I think was so smart was a couple of things. First, he created this believer/skeptic dynamic, which is a great storytelling device for supernatural stories. And the other thing is that he tried to make it realistic. He tried to make it seem like it was really happening. And I think that’s one of the things that made The X-Files so successful. It feels like a police procedural. It just so happens that the bad guys are monsters. One of the philosophies of the show has been: It’s only as scary as it seems real. And that’s something we did throughout the series and the movies as well. We try to make it seem as real as possible.

The next episode is also from season one. It’s called “Beyond The Sea.”

Frank: “Beyond The Sea” was written by two writers who were very important to the development of The X-Files, Glen Morgan and James Wong. It was an important episode in a number of respects. It was the first episode that switched the dynamic. This was an episode where Scully, normally the skeptic, found herself tempted to believe. While Mulder, the believer, became the skeptic. They got to switch places, which was really interesting. And it played on the death of Scully’s father. That’s what made her vulnerable and able to believe in this case. So it’s a very interesting reversal and very powerful emotionally. And I think it’s a tuning point for Gillian Anderson. She was a very young actress at that point and hadn’t done a lot. And as good as she was, I think that was a turning point for many people, not just viewers of the show but at the studio and the network, to see the range that Gillian has as an actress.

The way that both the actors embodied those characters was a major component in the success of the show.

Frank: You’re absolutely right. I don’t think you can overstate how important David and Gillian were to the success of The X-Files. It was brilliantly conceived by Chris, very well written and produced, but it still wouldn’t be successful were it not for David and Gillian. What they did with those characters was so rich. And then their chemistry that they have together, also one of those things that you can’t predict. It’s really a kind of magic, the power that they have together on screen.

Q: The next episode is from season two. It’s called “The Host.”

Frank: “The Host,” I have to say to this day is one of the most talked about episodes we ever did. It just hit on something, a primal fear that people have of something entering your body. And it’s a great urban myth, the snake coming out of the toilet bowl kind of thing. There’s the scene in the port-a-potty that people just can’t get out of their mind. That’s when we felt we had done our job well, when people had a hard time turning off the lights that night after the show. That was early season two, and we were still on Friday nights by that point. It was one of the defining moments in the history of the series, one of the ones that helped cement our audience. It creeped people out so badly.

Q: From season three we get “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”

Frank: Darin Morgan wrote the episode and won a well-deserved Emmy. Darin was also very important to the development of The X-Files in that he brought comedy, flat-out comedy to the series. In season two, he had written a script all by himself. He had been very secretive about it, and then he presented it, finished. It was called “Humbug.” It was about circus freaks and it was laugh out loud funny. And the studio was kind of afraid to make it. But Chris believed in the script and produced it. And not only did it instantly become one of the most popular shows we had done, because it showed we could laugh at ourselves, it also showed that David and Gillian had amazing comic timing. So “Clyde Bruckman” was Darin’s follow-up and my sense was that he wanted to show he could do a more classic X-Files story, one that wasn’t so funny but was more dramatic. It still has an awful lot of humor in it, which is wonderful, but it’s also got a great deal of pathos. It’s very sweet and touching and melancholy. It features an incredible performance by Peter Boyle. The irony was that Peter Boyle was not our first choice. We actually wanted Bob Newhart to play the part. It was written for Bob Newhart, and we couldn’t get him. So we went through the list of available actors and finally landed on Peter Boyle, who we hadn’t seen do anything in a while. He was fantastic; he won an Emmy as well. And I think it really helped reignite his career. Subsequently he was cast in Everybody Loves Raymond and everybody knows what happened there. It was an important episode for him and for us.

Peter Boyle was fantastic in that role. I can’t imagine anyone else playing that character.

Frank: He really made it his own. I don’t think he knew a thing about The X-Files, but he sure did afterwards. And I remember years later my wife was a big fan of Everybody Loves Raymond, so for her birthday I took her to a taping. When they introduced him, they mentioned him having been in The X-Files, and he raised his arms, cheering for the show. I was very proud of that.

The next episode is from season four, “Memento Mori.”

“Memento Mori” is my all time favorite mythology episode. It’s very unusual, because it’s a single hour story. Usually mythology episodes were two-parters, sometimes three-parters. It’s also unusual because there’s no new science fiction element introduction to the story. Usually mythology episodes were an opportunity for us to add another chapter. And the only chapter added here was that Scully had developed cancer. It was actually a very controversial move on the writing staff. Some people thought it was cheapening the show to have her get cancer, that it was sort of the typical TV melodramatic thing to do. But we felt that it was earned, and that it had been set up by other episodes where other women who had been abducted and had these chips put in their neck subsequently got cancer. So we thought it was sort of mandatory, in fact, that Scully contract cancer and deal with it. It was an episode that almost never was. It was season four and Darin Morgan had left the show, I believe he was writing for Millennium, but he was going to contribute an episode to The X-Files that season. He had been working on it and working on it and finally called us and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not able to do this. I’m not able to crack the story. I’m not going to be able to do this for you.” So suddenly we had an opening in our schedule and we didn’t know what we were going to do. So we scrambled and I think in about two days we broke the Scully getting cancer story. And that was lightning fast for The X-Files, which typically involved a very rigorous writing process. We got a rough script together that the people in Vancouver could prep. Then everyone went away for Christmas vacation, and over the vacation Chris Carter took the script and unified it as one. And we got nominated for an Emmy award. And it’s one of my favorite episodes, one of my favorite mythology episodes. But also, I think it’s one of the best episodes from David and Gillian. Gillian, not surprisingly, is fantastic, and there’s a lot to play. What surprised me was how good David was. You’d think he has the thankless role; he’s not the one developing the disease. His response to Scully is so moving. You can see, in his refusal to accept her diagnosis, how much he loves and cares about her. I thought that was very, very powerful.

Without that episode, the vector of the mythology would be entirely different. I remember seeing the episode when it originally aired and remembering how momentous the whole thing felt.

Yes, it felt that way to me, too. It happened a lot on The X-Files, I have to say, where things turned out better than you imagined. Sometimes it would turn out far worse than you imagined, but it would often turn out better. That was one of the high points for me.

Q: From season five, the next episode is “The Post-Modern Prometheus.”

“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is probably Chris’ all-time favorite episode. It’s got another funny story behind it. Separately, Roseanne Barr and Cher both came to Chris and said that they were big fans of the show and would like to be in The X-Files. So we thought about it and came up with this really offbeat story about a monster and his mother. And this monster loves Cher. As it turns out, when we were ready for production, neither Roseanne nor Cher were available. So we had to cast someone else as the mother, and we got a Cher stand-in. It’s a very strange and specific tone that is struck in the episode. It’s shot in black and white, and is a homage to the classic James Whale Frankenstein movies. It’s very sweet and touching. It’s one I remember working on over and over again, editing it down to the frame, to make sure everything was as perfect as it could be. And I never got tired of watching it.

Q: Also from season five is “Bad Blood.”

Frank: “Bad Blood” is a personal favorite of mine, too. After Darin opened the doors to humor, a number of writers on the staff tried their hand at comedic episodes. Vince Gilligan was extremely good at it. What I loved about “Bad Blood,” coming as it did in season five, was that it was able to take the Mulder and Scully characters and have a lot of fun with how they saw each other. It’s got a “he said/she said” structure, which was borrowed from the original Dick Van Dyke Show. There’s an episode where Rob and Laura relate their events of what happened, and the humor comes from how exaggerated Rob’s perception of Laura was and vice-versa. So it was a lot of fun to figure out how Mulder and Scully would see things differently. We had the benefit of casting Luke Wilson, who had been in a movie that Vince had written called Home Fries, so he agreed to do the show. It was just a ball.

Q: The final episode on the set is from season six, called “Milagro.”

Frank: “Milagro” is, to my mind, an underappreciated episode. That’s why it’s there. It’s also, for us, somewhat autobiographical. By season six of the show, we had spent so many hours thinking about Mulder and Scully and fascinated by them and every aspect of who they were, that we could identify with the writer character, Milagro. And it’s really about the power of writing, and the power of fiction. In this episode a fictitious character actually becomes real and is capable of operating in the world. It’s about how what you write reflects who you are. It’s so personal, in fact, that the cards that are on the writer’s wall are the same format that we wrote The X-Files in. We would use those same cards when figuring out stories for the series. And those cards are in my handwriting because the prop guy couldn’t do it as well as we could because that’s really the way we did it. It’s a very emotional love story and it’s really about our love for these characters as writers.

Taken collectively, what is it these episodes bring in terms of knowledge for someone who wants to see these before watching the new film?

If you know The X-Files, and you watch these eight episodes again, then you’re going to be reminded of the incredible depth and range of the series. It will put you right back in that headspace where you might not have been for six or eight or ten years. But if you don’t know The X-Files, and you’re going to see the movie, or you’ve seen the movie and want to know more, I can’t think of a better place to start. These episodes show you all the things The X-Files was. There’s certainly a lot more. I think we could do multiple sets like this, and every one of those episodes would certainly be called essentials of the show. This is just a starting point. It’s a great starting point for understanding what made The X-Files such a unique show.

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4 Responses to “Fortean Times: Frank Spotnitz on 'The X-Files Essentials'”

  1. […] giving Scully cancer was a pretty controversial decision, even among the writing staff themselves. As John Shiban has conceded, the writers met some resistance in pitching the character […]

  2. […] Frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz has identified The Post-Modern Prometheus as Carter’s “all-time favourite” episode. It is an episode that is memorable and fun, but also one that speaks to ideas that were […]

  3. […] Anderson has repeatedly cited Bad Blood as one of her favourites, if not her absolute favourite. Producer Frank Spotnitz is similarly fond of the episode. It is not hard to see why the episode is so highly-regarded. The relationship between Mulder and […]

  4. […] Singling out Milagro as a highlight of his time working on The X-Files, producer Frank Spotnitz observed that it was a very intimate story: […]