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Sci-Fi TV: Gilligan's Files

Sci-Fi TV
Gilligan’s Files
Bill Florence

[Transcript by Alfornos]

Episode by episode, writer Vince Gilligan assesses his part in the conspiracy.

After contributing one episode each for TXF seasons two and three, VG graduated to co-producer, writing five episodes for season four and six entries during season five. And he has already penned an early episode of season six. His 13 episodes made him, in the first five years of TXF, a collaborator behind the conspiracy.

Soft Light, which aired May 5, 1995, told the story of a man whose shadow could kill by reducing matter into pure energy. “I wrote this one BEFORE I was on staff,” VG says, “and it was the one I had the least to do with. When I did my first draft, I didn’t really understand the TV budget. I thought, from watching the show and being a fan, that they could do anything. The first draft I turned in probably would have cost $13 million to produce. TXF regularly costs between $2 million and $2.5 million a week.

“My first draft had the shadow growing and growing. It moved independently of the guy, and it would go after people. In the end, in the big neutron accelerator room, this thing went crazy and grew even larger, and Mulder had to jump from a chair and hang from a pipe in the ceiling to avoid it. The Cancer Man locked it up in that Pentagon storage area. It was sort of crazy. Chris Carter and the other guys did a good job of reeling it back in to reality.”

His next script, Pusher, aired a year later (2/3/96) and featured a mind-controlling killer who picks Mulder for a deadly contest of wills. “I’m really proud of Pusher. [Director] Rob Bowman really nailed it. For a little while, we were going to get Lance Henriksen to play Robert Patrick Modell,” VG reveals. “Chris was interested in him and wanted to know what he was like to work with. That was before Millennium [where Henriksen stars as Frank Black]. Then, we had a guy we had cast in LA, who did a very good reading for us, but crapped out at the 11th hour. He accepted the job and then took some role in a TV movie instead. His agent said, I m so sorry you have to use him again sometime. We were like, Oh, yeah, THAT’s going to happen. So at the last minute we got Robert Wisdon from Vancouver. It was so important that this actor do a great job. We were going out on a limb, and it could have been an epic nightmare. But Robert did a wonderful job. I hope he has a successful career ahead of him.”

A criminal’s mind produces horrifying photographic images of his impending victims in Unruhe (10/27/96).

“I wrote the part of Jerry Schnauz with Pruitt Taylor Vince in mind, and we got him, because he’s a big X Files fan. He and Gillian Anderson had to learn a few German lines, and neither of them speaks any German. We had to play that like, We never knew this about Scully, but she took German in college, so she speaks German fairly well. I always knew that was a bit of a stretch, but you have to just go with it,” VG says. “I wanted Scully’s final speech in German to be a little rusty, though, so that the subtitles would come up and instead of Scully saying, I have no unrest! it should have said, I am have no unrest. She was SUPPOSED to get the tenses all wrong, so her meaning would come across but the grammar would not be correct. That would have been more believable. But there was a miscommunication between us and our German translator, who turned it into perfect German.

“Also, if I could do it again, I would lighten up on the plot a tiny bit. Less plot and more time with Jerry Schnauz would have been fun.”

Paper Hearts (12/15/96) featured a serial killer imprisoned by Mulder who leads the agent to think his sister Samantha was a victim of the killer years before. “The red laser dot in Mulder’s dreams was originally a blue laser dot in the script,” VG says. “Blue, green, red and yellow lasers all exist, but I found out from the prop guys that red lasers are the easiest to procure. Blue lasers are more expensive and more fragile, and the prop guys figured that if they were tromping around out there in the woods shining a blue laser, they would probably break the thing, and then they would be stuck. So they asked if we could use red instead. Red shows up better than blue on the film stock, anyway.

“That idea come from a completely different story I had for Mulder being led around by a mysterious laser beam. That story never really amounted to anything, and I wound up using certain scenes in Paper Hearts instead.”

Leonard Betts introduces a man who regrows body parts and consumes cancerous tumors. VG co-wrote the episode (1/26/97) with John Shiban. “The whole time we were writing that one, I was shaking my head saying, This is ridiculous, it’s so crazy! A guy gets his head cut off and then it grows back, and then he’s made of living cancer, to boot! To his credit, John said, No, it’s going to work! And I believe it does,” VG says. “I m particularly proud of this one, because it’s as out there as any X Files we’ve ever done, as far as the pseudo-science. Still, we explained it as well as we possibly could, and also there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek feel to the whole thing – a wink at the audience, and that lets us get away with it. There are certain moments when the pseudo-science gets particularly ridiculous, and Mulder or Scully comments on it in such a way that helps make it work. That was fun.

“It was either John or John and Frank Spotnitz together who came up with the idea to give Scully cancer. As time goes by, I forget who came up with what. And it doesn’t really matter, because it’s such a group effort. But Chris has to approve that, of course. That’s why Chris is a good guy to work for. When he heard the idea, his reaction was, That’s pretty ballsy, but let’s do it. ”

The collaboration of VG, CC, JS and FS produced Memento Mori (2/9/97). In it, Scully confronts her cancer while Mulder investigates the bizarre circumstances surrounding her abduction two years ago. “I had less to do with that one, but I would like to say I had more to do with it, because it was nominated for an Emmy. We were in a rush, and I think I stayed on Leonard Betts to take a final pass on it, while the others got to work on Memento Mori.

“None of us had really collaborated before, until Leonard Betts. Our collaboration worked pretty much the same way on this one, and it still works well for us. First, we go sit in a room together and figure out the story, putting index cards on a big bulletin board for the teaser, Act 1, Act 2, and so on. We hash it out, scene by scene, throwing around ideas, and then once we have a story from start to finish that we like, one that Chris has signed off on, we start writing. That much is true for just about any episode, but in the case of a collaborative episode, we assign different acts: I might do the teaser and Act 1, John might get Act 2, and so on. Then, the three or four of us together sit in a room with a laptop computer hooked up to a monitor, and we’ll all do Act 4 together. Then, we go back and rewrite the whole script, all of us together.”

A series of bizarre pregnancies leads Mulder and Scully to a man who can change his appearance at will in Small Potatoes (4/20/97). “I got a big kick out of that,” VG admits. “[Director] Cliff Bole is a great guy, and I love working with him. He has done more than 300 hours of TV as a director, and before that he used to be an actor, a stuntman and a whole bunch of other stuff. He has done everything. He’s a real asset to the show, and I m hoping he’ll do at least one more of my segments this season.

“I had a good time writing that scene at the end where Scully almost kisses Mulder. Of course, it’s not really Mulder, it’s Eddie Van Blundht. Both David and Gillian really enjoyed doing the episode, because it was a change of pace for them, and they have fun doing comedy. But as I recall, Gillian was a little reluctant about the kiss, because she was fearful for the franchise. In other words, she worried that we were taking the show too far. She wasn’t sure Scully would actually do this with Mulder, which I think is a smart consideration. But in the end, when she saw the whole thing cut together, she was fine with it, and it didn’t hurt the show at all. That episode is such a little piece of craziness.

“I was about 10 pages into the script when I realized that Darin Morgan would be great as Eddie Van Blundht. I wouldn’t have cast him in that part if I had not seen him in another role first, which was in a student film he and a friend did. Darin starred in this 15-minute film, and he was wonderful in it. He did a great job for us in Small Potatoes. When I called to ask him if he would do it, I said, I’ve got this great part for you. You play a fat, ugly loser. He always tells that story now.”

Season five began somewhat short on Mulder and Scully.

Unusual Suspects (11/16/97) details the Lone Gunmen meeting for the first time to assist a woman whose paranoid claims about the government may be true. “That episode was a real challenge, but it wound up being a lot of fun,” VG says. “I got the assignment to write it because David and Gillian weren’t going to be available at the fifth season’s beginning. They were still shooting the X Files movie. We had to get production rolling, but we needed an episode without Mulder and Scully. Chris decided our best bet was the Lone Gunmen. He gave the assignment to me. I was flattered, but I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it. I came up with an entire board, with John’s help, that was a pretty cool story, and we’ll probably use later, but we didn’t use it for Unusual Suspects. It was a contemporary story starring the Lone Gunmen, and it took place in the present, rather than telling how they met each other. I pitched it to Chris, who said, Maybe you ought to go back and try again. A lot of work had gone into it, but he was right, and I knew it even then. We sat there for a few minutes and talked about it, and Chris said, Why don’t you just show us how they met? Go back in time and show us the particulars of their meeting and becoming the Lone Gunmen. That’s when it all clicked. After that, coming up with the particulars with pretty painless.

“The information these guys have about the government told me that one of them worked for the government in some capacity in the past. As the clean-cut one, Byers had to have the government job. And what’s a cool job that’s sort of geeky and yet kind of on the inside? That would be working for the FCC. Then, it quickly followed that this guy is a straight arrow who loves his government, and the episode is his journey from straight arrow, government guy to a guy whose whole world crashes down around him. Everything he held dear turns into a travesty. I m really proud of the episode. Kim Manners did a wonderful job directing it, and he got great performances from those guys.”

The Christmas Carol/Emily two-parter (12/7/97 and 12/14/97) had Yuletide cheers – and tears, especially when Scully discovers a mysterious young girl who turns out to be her daughter. “I m very happy with these two episodes, although when you end part one with Scully saying, This is my child! where do you go from there?” he asks. “I had a feeling, I think we all did, that we were doing something dangerous as far as writing ourselves into a corner. Part two was very good as well, and we did the best we could with that situation. But you can’t just drop a child into The X Files. You can’t suddenly make Scully a mom and have her investigating crimes while taking care of this young child. So we had to get rid of the child, and we got in [sic] lot of trouble for that with viewers. Some hated it. I don’t blame them. Everyone loves Scully, and we have put her through a lot in the past few seasons, not because we WANTED to torture her, but because Gillian’s such a wonderful actress. We wanted to give her some great stuff to play. Christmas Carol and Emily were meant to be heart-breaking.”

Pusher returns in Kitsunegari (1/4/98). Co-written with Tim Minear, it features Robert Patrick Modell escaping from prison to taunt Mulder once more – or warn him of another danger. “That one made me a little gunshy about sequels, because sequels to favorites are very tough, as are sequels to hit movies. What do you do as an encore? How do you top the first one? What I like about Kitsunegari is that we didn’t give the audience the same thing twice. We TRIED to throw viewers a curve ball,” VG says. “Robert Modell is actually a good guy in this episode. But I don’t think that approach was well-received, because the audience was probably hoping to see one of their favorite villains, Modell, do more of the stuff that made him famous in the first place.”

Horror gave way to humor in Bad Blood (2/22/98).

It’s a he said/she said piece with M&S offering contrasting views of their adventure in a vampire-infested Texas town. “I did quite a bit of research into vampires, and I got it all from one book, an encyclopedia of vampires,” VG explains. “All that stuff in the episode is supposedly true – the seeds and the obsessive-compulsive behavior. Reading all that, I felt like I had struck a gold mine.

“Plus, the actors had a field day with the odd way we told this story. I have to give credit to Frank and John, because they helped me come up with the unusual structure. They both remembered this old episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, were Rob and [sic] Mary had a big fight and a neighbor came over to ask why they were mad at each other. One of them told the story the way he thought it happened, and the other told the story the way she thought it happened. The structure for Bad Blood was borrowed from that, and from the classic film Rashomon before that.”

Something is bugging M&S in Folie A Deux (5/10/98) when they encounter a telemarketer who believes his boss is an insect monster. “I was happy with this one, even though we were all a bit burned out at this late point in the season. Probably, if it had been earlier in the season, there would have been more energy to it. But Kim did a terrific job directing it. The effect for the bug was created with a combination of prosthetic makeup and a big suit, and also some weird post-production CGI effects.

“This one uses the idea of making the mundane scary. Everyone knows what it’s like to be interrupted at dinner by an annoying call from a telemarketer. What if all this craziness is going on, that we don’t know about? What if a monster is running the telemarketing firm? The boss is a bug, but he’s this really nice guy when he’s in human form. He would probably not be a bad guy to work for. And also, there’s something really interesting and creepy about someone who speaks the truth or knows the truth, but is not believed by anyone. That’s what Mulder has always been,” VG concludes. “It’s a very basic idea, one that’s always good to go back to, because it’s the heart of the series. Mulder is the guy who sees what’s going on, and no one believes him.”

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10 Responses to “Sci-Fi TV: Gilligan's Files”

  1. […] Soft Light is only Gilligan’s second produced teleplay, and it was produced following a meeting with Chris Carter during the first season of The X-Files. Not working on the production, and not having extensive experience in the industry, Gilligan’s initial script didn’t acknowledge the limitations of a weekly television show, as he has conceded: […]

  2. […] The episode also benefits greatly from a superb guest performance from Robert Wisden. According to Vince Gilligan, Carter had originally considered casting Lance Henriksen in the role: […]

  3. […] Paper Hearts began as an entirely different story. As Gilligan has confessed, the story that eventually led to Paper Hearts was built around the laser pointer that guides […]

  4. […] According to Vince Gilligan, the idea to give Scully’s cancer came from one or both of his collaborators: […]

  5. […] It was Gilligan who decided to cast Darin Morgan in the role of Eddie Van Blundht. According to Gilligan, the idea came to him when he was first writing the episode: […]

  6. […] Minear was joined on the script by veteran writer Vince Gilligan. Gilligan had created Modell for Pusher, and has conceded that Kitsunegari did not necessarily turn out as well as he might have hoped: […]

  7. […] Vince Gilligan conceded as much in his discussion of the episode: […]

  8. […] The factors that went into the development of Unusual Suspects are quite well known by fandom. It was very much a product of the production realities around trying to produce a big blockbuster and a television show using many of the same resources. As Gilligan has explained: […]

  9. […] Indeed, the idea of comparing and contrasting subjective accounts of the same event is such a common and frequent storytelling device that Gilligan is able to point to a rather unlikely source of inspiration for the episode: […]