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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.

Cinefantastique: Family Ties

Family Ties
Paula Vitaris

The show’s basic premise turns on a family tragedy, tracing Mulder and Scully’s backstory.

I once had the opportunity to ask what Glen Morgan thought about Chris Carter killing off Melissa Scully, because personally, that REALLY pissed me off! He told me that most networks have what’s called “character payments”. If a character that a writer created returns in another episode, they get a couple hundred bucks. This doesn’t happen on FOX, so there goes any cash for the Lone Gunmen, Skinner, Tooms, Scully’s Ma…etc. “If we did get character payments, I would have been more bummed that they killed Melissa. Now I just feel bad for Melinda who is a wonderful actress and a really nice person … sorry if I sound greedy but it’s sort of joke between Jim and I.”

Anyways, just thought I’d share that little anecdote since this article was written before Melissa’s unfortunate demise. – Sensation

Although the main focus of The X-Files is the cases Mulder and Scully solve every week, the show’s basic premise turns on a family tragedy, the disappearance of Mulder’s sister, Samantha. Although the writers have wisely refrained from overplaying Mulder’s quest for Samantha, it is inevitable that they (and the viewers) would want to see both Mulder’s and Scully’s families worked into the storylines. Mulder’s parents did not appear until late in the second season, in the two-parter “Colony/Endgame” and the finale, “Anasazi,” but viewers met Scully’s family early on in the series with the first season’s “Beyond the Sea”, and subsequently in the second season’s” Ascension” and “One Breath”. Even though their presence has been brief overall, Scully’s family has become much loved by the show’s audience.

The conception for “Beyond the Sea” originated with a desire on the part of scripters Glen Morgan and James Wong to write a “Scully episode” with the goal that such a story would both highlight Gillian Anderson’s acting ability, and humanize the dour Scully. They believed the best way to achieve that was to tie the episode’s X-File case to her in a personal way: by introducing her parents and having her father die before the teaser ended, and then linking her need to speak once more with her father to a psychic prisoner on death row.

Morgan recalled that, “In the pilot, Scully mentioned that her parents didn’t want her to become an FBI agent. We found that interesting. So many people want their own lives, and yet need their parents to accept that life, and we thought it seemed to be a common phenomenon around us. So we put it into the story and hoped it would connect with people. And we thought maybe Scully’s parents lived in Washington. And if they live in Washington, what could her father do? It was kind of obvious to us he was in the government and we put him in the military. Then we thought, ‘OK, he has to be a higher rank, a Navy captain’s kind of neat. And we just worked backwards from that.”

Director David Nutter cast Don Davis, familiar to genre viewers as Major Briggs in Twin Peaks, as William Scully, and Sheila Larken as Margaret Scully. “Scully needed to have a father and mother both of real strong qualities and charisma and three dimensions,” he said. “I felt that Don David and Sheila Larken would bring the required weird to the parts.”

Davis, who has a Ph.D. in theater, moved to Canada in 1981 to teach in the theater department of the University of British Columbia. He started doing extra work during the summers, and eventually found himself doubling for Dana Elcar in Macgyver He won a leading guest role in that show, with more series work to follow, and was able to give up teaching for full-time acting. Nutter had worked with Davis previously on several shows, including Broken Badges, and called him personally to ask him if he would accept the role of William Scully, despite its brevity.

“The character is very similar to Briggs on Twin Peaks,” Davis noted. “William is a military man who, although he loved his child deeply, was unable to verbalize that love until it was too late. It was very much along the line of the Major Briggs character, that this was a guy who was at the top of his field and the way he showed his love to his family was to give his children an example to follow and to provide them with great security. That’s kind of where I started off from with the character.”

Although William had died, on The X-Files anything can happen, and he reappeared in “One Breath” to deliver to the comatose Scully the paternal message she had longed for in “Beyond the Sea”. David said that director Bob Goodwin’s concern was that his monologue would not “become maudlin. He wanted me to be on the verge of being overcome, but he didn’t want it to happen. He wanted the character to be strong, to be very much the man that had fathered Dana. So what I tried to do was to show a man holding himself in, a man who was filled with emotion but who, as a military man, controlled the emotion. We did a few takes and each time Bob was bringing me down.”

In between “Beyond the Sea” and “One Breath” David made an uncredited, off screen appearance as a dialogue coach for “Miracle Man.” As a native of the Ozark Mountains region, and a former theater professor, he lent his expertise to the guest cast to help them properly pronounce Southern accents.

Scully’s mother Margaret was portrayed by actress Sheila Larken, and in the X-Files world, where almost everyone has a hidden agenda, Larken’s maternal warmth and sincerity was a bright spot within all the bleakness. David Nutter had met Larken when he auditioned her for his 1985 film Cease FIRE, and although he didn’t cast her, she made an impression on the director.

Larken’s husband, X-Files’ co-executive producer Bob Goodwin, mentioned her at one point to Nutter, and Nutter immediately thought of her for Margaret. “She was perfect. She was the one, and I hired her.”

Larken was reluctant to take on the role of Margaret Scully. The New York native had left acting several years ago and had obtained a master’s degree in clinical social work. But after moving to Washington state with her husband, X-Files’ co-executive producer Bob Goodwin, she found herself busy with acting offers. Her hesitation stemmed, she said, from her own father’s death the year before from a heart attack.

“It wasn’t really something I really wanted to do or pull up,” she said. “But I did it anyway. I never thought the part would repeat. My interpretation when I did that scene at the funeral was of a woman so involved with her own pain, she couldn’t even react to what her daughter was asking her. And they allowed that, even though the daughter was the lead in the show.”

Larken saw Margaret as “a military wife, married before I graduated college, someone who never gets to finish her college degree or find a career for herself, but mainly gets enmeshed in her family. You know, the Everymother. Part of her emergence in becoming self-sufficient was during the course of this show with Dana. I think Margaret is ever-evolving. ”

Larken’s favorite scene came in “Ascension, ” when Margaret and Mulder meet at a park and talk about the missing Scully. “You explore a scene and try to find what you’re thinking, and what you’re not thinking, and that one just jelled together. There were just so many little itsy-bitsy things that came together and they came together on camera.” She found working with Anderson and Duchovny to be a particular treat. “Their depth is multi-layered. A lot of times you work with actors, and when you look into their eyes, they’re a blank. You’re working alone. But when you get to work with Gillian and David, whatever you send is received and vice versa.”

Larken said that as Margaret she usually does not draw on her own experience as a mother, because “it’s almost too vulnerable to let in. ” She did admit to an exception: “There’s one scene where being a parent did work. In ‘One Breath’ where Margaret says to pull the plug on her daughter, Mulder doesn’t want her to do it. He moved away on me, and I called him his first name. I just went, ‘Fox!’ I could hear that ‘mother’ voice. And David stopped cold, he stopped in his tracks. It was like the voice of every mother; in that sense, the mother did come through.”

The arrival of Scully’s sister Melissa, in ‘One Breath’ was an unexpected one. Scully’s two brothers, of whom she spoke in ‘Roland,’ were glimpsed in “Beyond the Sea” and were seen as children in a flashback of ‘ One Breath.’ Yet the sibling who turned up in that latter episode was a previously unheard of sister, Melissa, played by Melinda McGraw. McGraw, who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, had spend several years as Syd Madison on The Commish, where she had become friends with Morgan and Wong, and they had wanted to write a part on The X-Files specifically for her. “Melissa was someone who had to understand Scully and yet be different to challenge Mulder’s actions,” said Morgan. “Who better than a mother or a sister? Considering where Mulder was at that time, we thought it would be interesting to see Mulder’s reaction to a believer of ‘positive’ ideas. So, again, it was a character that was created from the needs of Mulder and Scully’s characters. Most importantly, we wanted to write a good part of Melinda McGraw, with whom we shared a frustrating time on The Commish.”

Coincidentally, McGraw said, she brought up the idea of making Melissa a psychic, and found Morgan and Wong had already had the same thought. McGraw enjoyed playing a softer role after several years as a police detective. “It was really great for me to play a different character,” she said. McGraw felt that Melissa “was the black sheep in this family, probably a very difficult teenager, in trouble, very curious. She experimented, I’m sure, with drugs and boys, was very political and was always a bit left of center and always pretty conscious of developing her psychic ability.”

Morgan and Wong had also played around with making Melissa a girlfriend for Mulder, and although that idea was jettisoned, McGraw said she felt the element of attraction was still there, “Certainly from Melissa’s side. We had talked about that, and I think that for various reasons it wasn’t to be. Mulder had just had a romance the week before (in “3 “). McGraw felt that in the end, it was a good idea that the relationship “didn’t go that far, because that left grounds for something later. I think they wrote Melissa in a neat way, because she wasn’t all pure and light. She had this dark side to her, and this slightly jealous side, of being jealous of Dana.” But, she concluded, there is also a “total love. The bond of sibling love is so intense. It’s an age-old dramatic theme, and it’s one of the greatest loves that human beings have. It’s undeniably bigger than any other connection, because you’ve shared not only the same parents, but the same actual physical experience of being born to that mother.”