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Seattle Times: Inside ‘The X-Files’

Seattle Times
Inside ‘The X-Files’
Janet I-Chin Tu

Seattle Times staff reporter

VANCOUVER, B.C. – So this is where sewer monsters lurk.

Vampires, too. Not to mention aliens, mutants and – scariest of all – shadowy government figures.

Here is where FBI Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder chase down the bizarre, the grotesque and the sinister in an ever-frustrated attempt to uncover The Truth about paranormal phenomena and government conspiracies.

“Here,” of course, doesn’t really exist. Except in the surreal parallel world of television. And in the minds of millions of fans worldwide who have turned “The X-Files” into the hottest cult hit since a saucer-shaped spaceship took off to boldly go where no one had gone before.

In this side of the parallel universe, however, “here” does exist – in the form of three cavernous sound stages in a North Vancouver studio lot where many of “The X-Files” scenes are shot.

Here, a mere shopping cart’s roll away from a suburban strip mall, where families bustle around a grocery store, a movie theater, a Blockbuster Video – here is the FBI basement office where Mulder desperately wants to believe in the paranormally tinged theories he presents, and where an ever-skeptical Scully insists on scientific explanations for all things bizarre.

Here is where a cast and crew of about 250 labor to create the spooky, murky world of “The X-Files.”

Psychic insurance salesmen. Human-liver-eating mutants.

The North Pole. Arizona. Washington, D.C.

Each week “The X-Files” showcases different guest actors and different locations around the world.

“Each episode is like a whole different movie,” says co-executive producer R.W. (Bob) Goodwin (“Life Goes On,” “Hooperman,” “Mancuso, FBI”). On this day, Goodwin, who’s in charge of production in Vancouver, is also directing the season finale, airing 9 p.m. Friday on Fox, KCPQ-TV. (Watch for summer reruns.) “We have to scout locations, build new sets, cast the characters.”

There are only four permanent sets – Mulder’s apartment and office, Mulder’s boss’s office, and a multistory prison block. The rest are built anew each time. Boxes labeled “Scully’s Living Room,” filled with framed paintings, lamps and books, lie in a pile at one sound stage.

Scripts are written each week by the writing staff in Los Angeles. The Vancouver team has eight days – and about $1.5 million – to shoot each episode.

Before shooting begins, series creator Chris Carter flies from the “X-Files” office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in L.A. to oversee final casting, location and production decisions. Writing producers fly up from L.A. for the last two days prior to shooting. Goodwin commutes from Bellingham. The raw footage is shipped to L.A. for one to three weeks of post-production work by a team of about 50. It all adds up to 12- to 15-hour work days for cast and crew.

It takes a lot of work to make a half-flukeworm, half-human mutant believable.

Gray. Dark. Shadowy.

It’s a spooky place, the “X-Files” universe.

Secret government informers whisper furtively in underground garages. All manner of bizarre creatures skulk in dark forests, nightclubs, ventilation ducts, made all the eerier by shadows-and-fog lighting. Thank John Bartley, the Emmy-nominated director of photography, for that.

TV Guide named the blue light that often bathes the show one of the 50 greatest things on television.

“Chris Carter didn’t like the blue lighting at first,” Bartley says. “His comment to me was `It looks like `Silk Stalkings’ (a syndicated Miami Vice-in-heat kind of show). But I persisted. I think he likes it now.”

There is, however, one place in this “X-Files” world where the light perpetually shines. It’s almost always daytime in the office of FBI Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner, Mulder and Scully’s boss.

Seven huge klieg lights (ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 watts each) are trained through the windows of Skinner’s office. They turn the dusty backstage darkness into a sun-lit room, and make the flat sheet hanging behind the windows look like a building next door.

They also heat the set to a toasty tropical temperature.

Skinner always looks like he’s about to break into a sweat, the stress of his job about to make him explode.

Truth be told, it’s not necessarily the job.

“It’s just hot in there,” Bartley says. Mitch Pileggi, the actor who portrays Walter S. Skinner, holds a personal fan up to his face in between takes. He’s cooling down after a scene of high-pitched tension.

Skinner walks a tightrope daily. Caught between obeying his questionable superiors, and loyalty to his loose-cannon agent, Mulder, he’s a taciturn man, tightly held in, a disciplined former military man. Words seem to leave his mouth reluctantly, from behind clenched teeth.

His character is a far cry from the charming, gregarious Pileggi. Off-camera he’s a tactile man, hugging crew members, giving a pat on the back here, a hand around the shoulder there. His teeth aren’t clenched. They’re bared constantly in a huge grin.

“A lot of Skinner’s character, I based on my dad,” Pileggi says. “He was a former contractor with the Defense Department. He just had this bearing.”

But Pileggi is a fun-lovin’ guy – goofy at times during rehearsal – finding quirky little tidbits about his character. Like the fact that Skinner’s middle name is “Sergei.”

“While filming `Avatar’ (a recent episode highlighting Skinner’s personal life), I had a scene where I was unpacking a box of Skinner’s personal belongings. The camera didn’t show this, but one of the things in the box was Skinner’s high-school diploma, with the name `Walter Sergei Skinner’ on it. Apparently Sergei was a friend of Chris Carter’s.

“It was bad enough you saddled me with `Walter,’ ” Pileggi reports telling Carter. “But `Sergei’?!?”

Now this is stranger than any “X-Files” episode.

Skinner and Mulder are standing in Skinner’s office, dippin’ their knees, snappin’ their fingers in a little doo-wop dance.

A second ago, they were yelling at each other.

Mulder: “What’s his name?!?”

Skinner: “They don’t have names!”

Another Mulder tirade. Skinner is supposed to counter with “Cool off, Mulder.”

Instead, Pileggi pops out with: “Cool, boy!”

“Cool!” counters David Duchovny, the actor who plays Mulder, instantly dipping into a jazzy, finger-snapping beat.

Pileggi and Duchovny start dipping and snapping in unison.

The crew, watching on a monitor outside the set, bursts into laughter.

It’s official. David Duchovny is one of the world’s 50 most beautiful people.

It says so right here in People magazine.

But perhaps more than the physical beauty, it’s the Princeton- and Yale-educated actor’s intelligence and quirky, out-of-left-field wit that has fans steaming up the Internet.

Get him started on a subject and you don’t know where that mind will zing.

So how do you enjoy working with Bob Goodwin as director, he’s asked.

“He’s easygoing. I know him well. As John (Bartley) said, new directors are like new sex partners,” Duchovny says with a sly grin. “It’s nice when you have someone you know. Who knows how to touch you.

“Oh, I’m kidding, of course,” he amends a second later. “But seriously, there’s a big element of trust involved. The camera’s in your face. You want someone you can trust even when your biorhythmical mood is off. When your cycle’s off. Like with PMS. I certainly have been PMS-ed from time to time, for the past few months even. The thing is, when I suffer from PMS, everyone else has to, too.” (For the record, he said this with a chuckle.)

His dog, a border collie named Blue, is led onto the set. The offspring of a dog featured in several earlier “X-Files” episodes, Blue hops onto the canvas chair that has Duchovny’s name painted on the back, rising on her hind legs to give Duchovny a kiss.

Then Duchovny is called back onto the set. Giving his dog a last pat, he walks back into Skinner’s office. Blue follows him with her eyes, then settles back in the chair to quietly watch her owner’s work on the monitor. There’s enough unresolved sexual tension in the air to jump-start a thousand moribund soap operas. Since the very first episode, the slow-burn chemistry between Mulder and Scully has had fans in a delicious torment, debating the pros and cons of a romantic/sexual relationship, analyzing the details of each gesture, each word spoken by the characters.

On this subject Chris Carter is adamant. In numerous interviews, he has stated that there will be a relationship between the two main characters “when hell freezes over,” as he recently said in USA Today.

Still, that doesn’t preclude the stars posing for provocative magazine covers. There were Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who portrays Scully, posing bare-chested in bed on the cover of Rolling Stone. TV Guide recently had the two in a series of photographic clinches.

What gives?

“For me, it was a conscious choice as an actress to get away from the stereotype of Scully,” Anderson says, of her departure from the smart, tough and oh-so-serious forensic pathologist Scully. “I wanted to show that I had other sides to me.”

Like a mischievous side.

By most accounts, Anderson is the biggest prankster on a set filled with them.

People have been known to hide under desks during filming, popping out at inopportune moments. There was the “Day in the Life of the X-Files” gag videotape sent to a Fox executive, lampooning a typical day’s shoot. And there was the infamous mooning of the camera at a Christmas party.

On this day, at any given time, several people are walking around with clothespins stuck all over their clothes. It’s a running gag with the crew, to clip as many clothespins to each other’s clothes as possible, without the victim knowing.

“Last year (director) Rob Bowman and I would try to pin clothespins on each other regularly,” Anderson says. “I won with 37 at once on this big red coat of his.”

It was the eyebrows that first captured viewers’ attentions – wiggling, squirming arches of hair that defined the flamboyant, credibility-straining psychic, The Stupendous Yappi.

In two episodes this season, actor Jaap (pronounced Yapp) Broeker has portrayed Yappi, trying to solve a crime using his questionable psychic abilities, and pitching alien autopsy tapes on television.

Broeker came by the job just standin’ around the set. Literally. The debonair actor from Holland is Duchovny’s stand-in, filling in for him on the set when scenes are blocked or lighting is measured.

“I was wearing my French beret that day, speaking with this European accent I have, doing my eyebrow thing,” Broeker says. “(Writer/producer) Darin Morgan saw me, and came up to me and said, `I’m going to write a scene for you.’ ” Now, in addition to “Jaap,” the actor is known on the set as “Stupe.”

In the “X-Files” world, bruises happen. A lot. So do cuts, gunshot wounds and stitches, not to mention vampire bites and decomposing corpses.

It’s up to Fern Levin, key makeup artist, to know what these things should look like, and to recreate them.

She’s established a network of medical advisers and pathologists in the area that she can call to ask how bodily injuries or dead bodies should look.

She gets stunned silence in reply to her questions sometimes.

“I called up a hospital’s burn unit once to ask what a severe burn should look like,” she says. “The person there asked what type of burn it was. I told them it was a vampire burn. Another time I asked them what a burn from flying-saucer exhaust might look like.”

“The Truth is Out There,” the show proclaims.

Maybe. But what’s definitely out there is “The X-Files” itself, seeping into our pop consciousness, tapping into some kind of jittery, pre- millennial Zeitgeist.

A ratings sewer-dweller when it debuted in 1993, the program is now Fox TV’s top-rated show and recently began infiltrating the Top-20 Nielsen ratings.

Its stars have adorned magazine covers worldwide, an album of music inspired by the show has been released, and its catchphrases (“Trust No One,” “I Want to Believe”) are gaining popular usage.

Locally, more than 2,000 people attended an “X-Files” convention held in Bellevue last year. A similar number is expected at this year’s “X-Files” convention in Bellevue on Oct. 13. The Associated Students of the University of Washington’s Experimental College has held “The Real X-Files” course (exploring paranormal phenomena) for two quarters now. Everett School District’s Continuing Schools Program held its first “X-Files” course recently, with videotape viewing and discussion of the show.

Fans are drawn to the show by the taut writing, dark tone, clever witticisms, fine acting and cinematography. Or maybe by something subtler – a sympatico, perhaps, with the show’s point of view that even with so many things out of their control, there’s the will to find a truth, a belief.

For whatever reason, the ranks of X-Philes (as the show’s fans call themselves) are growing.

They want to believe.

And the show gives them something to believe in.

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