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Cinefantastique: The Man Behind The Mytharc

The Man Behind The Mytharc
Dan Persons

Where’s the profit in knowing that the sinister and the strange daily walk our streets, when it seems that The X-Files – the show that poked at our paranoias, that visualized our national apprehensions, that defined cutting-edge horror for the better part of a decade – has finally reached the end of its own, recently tortured lifespan?

In the reality of television broadcasting, The X-Files has dodged the cancellation bullet one more time, finding itself renewed for an eighth season. In terms of the all holy mythos, though, fans had to wonder at what cost Chris Carter’s brainchild had received its reprieve. Was this actually a new lease on life, or just a dwindling survival on life support, spurred by a network whose proprietors were all-too-aware of how they had botched the previous season? Could the creators and principals of the best genre show on television overcome internecine conflicts and hardening of the arteries to push this final season to heights not previously achieved, or would those tuning in be confronted with vague hints the show’s prior glory?

Those were questions that avid viewers really wanted to know. You’d sooner get the correct time from the Cigarette Smoking Man.

Talking to Chris Carter, at the end of 1999 was a cordial, but cautious, experience. He should hardly be blamed – in what for him should have been a triumphant autumn, the executive producer had instead seen his carefully conceived words dismantled by strife and incompetence. The problems had actually started last summer, when X-Files star David Duchovny filed suit against 20th Century-Fox, charging them with selling reruns of the show to the Fox-held FX network for much less than what the episodes would have brought in open syndication, thus cheating the actor out of his rightfully earned share of the profits. While Carter was not named as a defendant – Duchovny is ballsy, not crazy – the executive producer was cited as an accomplice in the deal, willing to sell his profit-partners down the river in return for favorable treatment for his future shows.

If such was actually the case, then Carter should have checked the fine print a little more closely. On the decision of Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog – a man who would be out the door scant months later – the network through the bulk of its autumn ’99 promotional might behind ACTION, a funny, edgy satire of current-day Hollywood that, it turned out, nobody on Earth wanted to watch. Forsaken in the push was Harsh Realm, Carter’s new attempt to bring X-Files-style darkness into the virtual reality world. The miscalculation was epic: by November, all of Fox’s fall debuts had been canceled, Harsh Realm included.

Carter did not mince words when asked if Fox had jumped the gun in cutting life-support on Harsh Realm: “Yes,” was his terse reply. Asked about the emotional impact of the cancellation, he became more voluble: “There were a lot of people invested in it, a lot of my friends here, whom I work with, a lot of people who had been giving a tremendous amount of attention and energy to it. For it to be so summarily and thoughtlessly canceled really just hurt a lot of people. That is something you deal with in ways that no one but people on the inside would know.”

If keeping some things within the production family was Carter’s automatic response to the tragedy, it was no surprise that he’d respond to questions about Duchovny’s litigious revolt with similar caution: “I’m not going to talk about the lawsuit, because I’ve been asked not to. But along with the creative aspect of the job, there’s a business aspect of the job. This was about business, and the business is often-competing interests.”

Was it easy, though, to set aside those interests when Carter had to face his recalcitrant star on the soundstage? “We have not had words, if that’s what you mean.”

Maybe not – whatever kind of diva Duchovny may turn out to be, not witnesses have stepped forward to claim he ever brought his business problems to the set. Still, with “The Sixth Extinction,” the season opener of The X-Files’ seventh season, one had to wonder whether the actor wasn’t paying some sort of on-screen price for his legal hubris. Picking up from “Biogenesis,” the prior season’s cliff hanging final episode, “The Sixth Extinction,” offered us a Mulder reduced to a comatose state, and maintained in that condition for the bulk of the hour. Looking close into Duchovny’s glazed stare, one could imagine someone fairly high up the production latter whispering in the actor’s ear, “Is this the way you want to play out your final season?” The perplexities only doubled in the following week’s “Amor Fati,” a script credited to both Carter and Duchovny. In a scenario that recapitulated the finale of Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, we got a Mulder wishing for any path other than the one his life had taken, and an operating table crucifixion, complete with high-tech crown of thorns, that heaped on intimations of the agent’s divine status, at least by his own perception, in shovelfuls. Daring, dramatic experiment, or Duchovny’s calculatedly over dramatized retort to his tormentors? Only the authors knew for sure.

Said “Amor Fati” director Michael Watkins about Duchovny’s on-screen vision of martyrdom, “I think David is such a fine writer and such a free mind. Chris has obviously proven that, and David – who did [season six’s baseball-flashback] ‘The Unnatural’ and this – is so free, he’s so gifted. For him to write this, he was totally there with the character. That’s what it took and it was even more enlightening to have the writer be there right at the moment, so that we could really talk about where we were going, and the passion of these moments and these themes…And for poor David, lying on that table with that headgear on, it was extremely uncomfortable – his poor butt was cooking on the lights and [in that] head thing, he couldn’t move. It was sort of ironic, because he wrote himself into this awful position. We had a lot of smiles, though. I really like David and Gillian. I like them a lot.”

While the season opener did add more fuel to the mythos fire – suggesting that aliens were in possession of technologies that could do everything from cure cancer to explain Adam Sandler’s career – it was not immediately clear in what direction the balance of the season would go. “I actually thought this was going to be the year of Scully’s science,” admitted Carter. “That in doing that, there would be many spiritual concerns. Scully’s dilemma is: how do you reconcile faith in God and faith in science? That’s always an interesting question for the writers. I think we’re dealing with that on some levels; we’re actually telling six mythology episodes this season – in those that are dealing not just with Scully’s faith, but with Mulder’s faith as well. It has become somewhat spiritual, but I think what’s more interesting is that we set out to do one thing and then found ourselves being more interested in something else.”

Something else was right, although sometimes “anything else” might have been a more accurate description. The problem was, with one star pretty much admitting his full-bore animosity towards the show and his co-star not far behind in her contempt with the executive producer potentially resenting behind held in orbit around his only, bona-fide hit when, by all rights (and possibly without the network bumbling), he should have already achieved escape velocity with newer, more challenging projects, no one seemed confident enough in The X-Files’ future to declare a clear-cut path for the season.

About the only thing that could be noted this year was a definitive move away from the more humorous tone the show had taken after its sixth season move to California, a season that fans derisively had dubbed, “X-Files Lite.” Observed co-executive producer Vince Gilligan, “Last season we didn’t have any conscious intention to make it lighter, it just sort of wound up that way. I think we heard lot of people saying they missed the old-time scary ones, so we probably tried a little harder this season to make them scarier. Which is not to say we don’t have the occasional lighter one, like ‘The Amazing Maleeni.’ But I think as a whole that we’re not really heading in any specific direction, other than to say we need to find out pretty soon whether or not this is our last season, and that will inform quite a bit.”

Deprived of a clear-cut objective, The X-Files was free to try new directions in story-telling, but also evidenced one of the most telling signs of a show that had outlived its concept: creeping redundancy, “Chimera,” about murder in a mini-Peyton Place, recapitulated the ambiance of last season’s Mulder-goes-suburban “Arcadia,” but without that episode’s subversive tang.

The witty “The Amazing Maleeni,” about a couple of conniving illusionists, not only failed to shake its ties to the classic “Humbug,” but in an overall plot structure that had Mulder and Scully slowly becoming cognizant of their participation in a mechanism greater than could be immediately perceived, also seemed an earthbound reworking of December’s more supernatural “The Goldberg Variations.”

Meanwhile, the strain marks continued to show, with at least seven of the episodes constructed to keep the bantering agents apart (and one, the killer tobacco “Brand X,” even contriving to put Mulder into a coma again), and enough episodes to set at least part in California (including, curiously, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz’s effective Appalachian-revenge thriller, “Theef”) to make one wonder whether last season’s production move wasn’t finally taking its toll. Both stars have clearly taken more active control in the show’s production, both to their benefit (Duchovny’s self scripted and directed “Hollywood A.D.”) and their detriment (ibid. “”Amor Fati,” and Anderson’s disastrous “all things,” a self-conscious outing in which Scully, hitherto to a devout Catholic, suddenly and inexplicably turns Buddhist). Whatever modifications – star inflicted or otherwise – have occurred to The X-Files characters (and what the hell happened to Mulder’s fondness for skin rags, anyway?), Carter claimed that such changes could only be expected over the span of seven years. “I think Mulder is still a willing participant to any adventure that cannot be explained; he still takes the unpopular side; he still puts it in the face of his superiors. If anything, though, he has worked with a partner who has seen so much that’s he’s not able to get as big a rise out of her as he once did. I think he may seem to be less of the ‘Spooky Mulder’ that she came to know early on. But the aspect of Mulder’s character is still the same in that he wants to believe he is looking for phenomena that cannot be explained and that might expand his perception of reality.”

As for Scully’s ability to remain the skeptic after having been exposed to weekly helpings of aliens, poltergeists, and giant mutated fluke-men, Carter said, “Scully’s a scientist, so she comes to everything scientifically. Even though she sees something that she can’t explain, she thinks it can ultimately be explained. That’s her M.O. and her bias. So while she has seen a lot, she is never going to take anything at face value and say, ‘That is paranormal.’ She will always look for a rational and scientific explanation.”

The season was far from a total wash. Gilligan was responsible for two-engaging envelope-pushers – the monster P.O.V experiment “Hungry” and the reality-TV satire “X-Cops” – and the darkly vivid Monster-of-the-week “Theef.” The mythos two-parter “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” took the questionable tactic of trying to explain the JonBenét Ramsey killing in supernatural terms, but also provided an emotionally engaging conclusion to Mulder’s search for his sister Samantha (while, in fine X-Files tradition, raising three new questions for every one that it answered). And the cleverly titled, William B. Davis scripted “En Ami” dared to give us a glimpse at the Cigarette Smoking Man’s humanity, while still keeping his motivations shrouded in clouds of Marlboro smoke. Admitted Carter, “This show is so elastic that it succeeds on so many levels. I think that there is no one episode that is a crystallization of what the show does best, because it always is surprising, even to me, how many things it does well. The fact that we can actually make fun of ourselves and everyone seems to have fun doing it and fun watching it, I think, says a lot about the show, too. It is protean.”

However mutable the series might have been, though, it could’nt accommodate all situations, especially when the decision to move ahead on an eighth season was delayed until the very end of season seven. “We’re still waiting to hear,” Gilligan said in January. “[20th Century-Fox Television and Fox Broadcasting topper] Sandy Grushow said that he thought it was a 50/50 chance at this point. I don’t know what the exact odds are, but I do know for sure it is still up in the air and we are waiting for a final verdict from David Duchovny and Chris Carter.

“We need to find out pretty soon whether or not this is our last season, and that will inform us quite a bit. If it is our last season, we just need to know so we can end the show properly with a great two-part episode or a three-part[er] or something like that. If not our last season, I guess we’re just…we don’t really have…Chris Carter and [executive producer] Frank Spotnitz may have more of a master plan, but I think generally if this is not our last season we’re all basically doing what we always do, which is trying to come up with a good mix of mostly scary and some suspenseful and some lighter episodes, and just keep entertaining our audience.

“You know, it’s a shame: with the original Star Trek, they didn’t know they had been canceled during their hiatus, and they didn’t get a chance to do a final episode, which I guess everybody would have appreciated. I don’t think anyone’s going to let that happen here. If X-Files ends, I can’t imagine it would be because we’re canceled. It would only be because David Duchovny and Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson decided it was time to move onto other things.”

Of course, any vote that incorporated Duchovny’s choice was easy to prognosticate. By April, the actor was talking openly with Entertainment Weekly about how his “Hollywood A.D.” episode would be “my way of saying good-bye,” and speculating on what his life would have been like if The X-Files had backed off the Mulder/Scully interplay and become more an ensemble show (Here’s a hint: “Hi, I’m David Duchovny for 10-10-321…” Jeez, hasn’t the man ever seen The Others?).

Taking no chances, Fox gave Chris Carter the go-ahead to spin The Lone Gunmen – the conspiracy theorists and cyber-geek poster-boys who were rarely seen this season – off into their own series, the pilot being hastily assembled and shot in early spring in Vancouver.

As far as what path an X-Files eighth season might take, no one dared to speculate. “It’s a question we’re always asking ourselves,” admitted Gilligan, who has a contractual commitment with Fox for at least the next season, and who claimed he would be happy to continue on with the show.

“Everyone knows that [Scully and Mulder] have a tremendous respect for one another, certainly a platonic love for one another and they would each lay down their lives for the other. I think that’s the way we like it, that’s the way a lot of the fans like it as well. That could probably blossom into some sort of romantic relationship, but I think we’re also reluctant to push it to that level. Other than that, I don’t really have a great answer for you.”

Carter again minced no words when asked about his intentions to participate in the next X-Files movie: “That’s my plan.” As for moving with the show into season eight, his public stance was initially one of guarded optimism: “I would only do it if I felt that everyone wanted to do it, because I felt that there were plenty of good stories to tell. If everyone felt that they were up to it, I would be excited to continue. I think that anything past year five is difficult for a series, but it’s also where, if you can work in a collaborative and creative way, I think you can find things that you didn’t know where there. I think that we’re at that place, we can continue to be. The other reason would be that there are very few, great television ideas, and something like The X-Files has the ability to generate so many different kinds of stories that you cannot close the door on it just because you can. The show becomes bigger than its parts. If there were more good stories to tell, I think, in a way, it’s only doing justice to continue on.”

But it seemed that, after making that statement, the exec producer took a more careful inventory of the stories remaining to be told and decided hat justice had well been served. Come April, both Carter and Spotnitz had signed up with Miramax genre branch Dimension Films to respectively direct and producer/write Serios, a “true” story about a man able to project his thoughts onto film negative. Why this change of heart? “I have a contract [with Fox] that lasts through the end of this year,” Carter had said in 1999, prior to cutting the deal. “If I didn’t re-up, I probably wouldn’t be giving any attention to the show, but if I do re-up, I will be giving the same amount of attention to the show that I’ve always given to it, because I don’t want it to be anything other than what it could potentially be.” In light of ensuing events, it well appeared that Carter had made his own decision about his continuing involvement in the future of The X-Files.

As with all things X-Files, Carter now faces a daunting puzzle: how to devote time and attention to a major, feature film project while “giving the same amount of attention” to the show that placed his name on the media map.

Meanwhile, for the public’s sake, it was all smiles from the series’ principals as the show received the eighth season go-ahead. Duchovny, who just prior to renewal was seen looking bored on the all-star edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (and who wound up taking home less money for his agonies than either Rosie O’Donnell or Ray Romano), told the press, ” I am pleased we were able to come to an agreement that enables me to remain part of The X-Files…I’m looking forward to going back to work.” Getting a salary raise to a reported $350,000-$400,000, and having his suit settled out of court no doubt helped.

But one had to wonder exactly how much Duchovny relished a return to the world of the sinister and the weird when part of his agreement dictated a lighter workload in the upcoming season. The result of that handy codicil: No one should expect Mulder’s prompt return from the alien fueled joy-ride that scooped him up at the end of “Requiem,” the seventh season closer.

With Mulder M.I.A (probably to some beach in the south of France), Scully in a family way (having apparently being knocked up while doing the stop-motion Macarena in an Oregon forest – did Anderson ask for some off-time as well?) and the Cigarette Smoking Man apparently passed on (though you can never keep a good creep down), it’s anybody’s guess who will be fit enough to pick up on the story come fall. Skinner? C’mon, do you really want to watch sixty minutes of paperwork? Krycek? An interesting alternative – his reformation is being hinted at, but ibid. the parenthetical for CSM.

The Lone Gunmen? Oops, sorry, they’ve got their own show to worry about that. No, The X-Files world is now filled with people who, through either contractual or other obligations, are too preoccupied to carry on work started seven years ago. It’s an ironic counterpoint to the questions posed at the beginning: the truth may still be out there, but there may be no one left to discover it.

Entertainment Weekly: 'X' Posing: In time for sweeps, The X-Files morphs into Cops

Entertainment Weekly
‘X’ Posing In time for sweeps, The X-Files morphs into Cops
Tom Russo

[Typed by alfornos]

After tracking down everything from a humanoid flukeworm to a sentient pile of coffee grounds, it was only a matter of time before Agents Mulder and Scully found themselves tangling with the lowest life-form imaginable: the Cops perp.

Raising the creative bar for The X-Files 150th episode, creator Chris Carter and Co. teamed up with Fox’s 11-year-old lights-camera-handcuffs reality show. So when you tune in Feb. 20, don’t be shocked to find bleeped-out profanity, the digitally blurred faces of pushers and hookers, camera-rattling foot chases – and, of course, that trademark “Bad Boys” theme song. “The commitment – frightening as it is – is to be Cops no matter what,” says episode director Michael Watkins. “We’ve needed to strip away our show’s exotic beats and go more with visceral instinct.”

That’s why David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and the X-Files crew are spending this January night in a dicey, pack-your-pepper-spray section of Venice, Calif. In their quest to replicate the cinema verité look of Cops, they’ve staked out a shabby bungalow, armed with a simple BVW-700B video camera – to capture that classic lighting-be-damned, run-and-gun feel. And the new aesthetic is paying nifty dividends: Not only has shooting time been reduced dramatically, but Carter estimates the move lopped $500,000 off the reported $3 million-per-episode average. “I’m sure Fox would love it if we did every episode on video,” he says.

The guy Fox can thank for this cost-cutting concept is X-Files writer and die-hard Cops-head Vince Gilligan, who’d championed the crossover for years. “I’d broach the subject now and then,” he says. “Everyone was interested, but a little reluctant.”

Carter says the series’ move from Vancouver to L.A. (i.e., Cops central) helped make Gilligan’s idea more feasible. But ultimately, he says, “it was just a question of finding the story to tell.”

Gilligan certainly solved that problem: The episode finds Mulder and Scully running into the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (and the requisite Cops camera crew) as they investigate bizarre murders in South Central, where eyewitness accounts implicate everything from a werewolf to a real-life Freddy Krueger.

The scene filming tonight finds Mulder and Scully checking up on Steve and Edy, a pair of bickering queens who are in danger of being the next victims. In classic Cops style, the agents get caught in the cross fire of a dish-smashing catfight. “He treats me with disrespect!” Edy wails. “We’re not here to get involved in personal problems,” says Mulder. As Edy continues to let loose with the histrionics, Duchovny can barely suppress a laugh.

Although they’re not straying far from Gilligan’s script, the moment has a definite improv feel. And since this is being shot – a la Cops – in continuous takes, if anyone screws up – or cracks up – it’s back to line 1. Still, Anderson says, “after you’ve rehearsed a couple of times, you start remembering what it’s like to do live theater, and it can get very fun and creative.” And, she adds, you can’t beat the result: “When you watch a scene on playback, it *looks* like Cops.”

Perhaps too much so. “I said to my mom, ‘Do you want to watch some [footage]?'” confides Gilligan. “And there’s this great scene with all the cops running up the street, sirens going. She leaves the room to go wash dishes. I said, ‘Aren’t you interested in this?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, turn off Cops and show me some X-Files.'”

Gilligan laughs. “Must be on to something.”

TV Industry: EditorsNet: Michael Watkins

TV Industry: EditorsNet
Michael Watkins
Elif Cercel

Michael Watkins has worked in every facet of television production since he was 14. An award-winning cameraman, Watkins first had the opportunity to direct while working on “Quantum Leap.” He has since directed multiple episodes of “NYPD Blue,” “Chicago Hope” and “Lois & Clark; The New Adventures of Superman.” He is now a co-executive producer and director of “The X-Files” alongside the show’s creator, Chris Carter. “The X-Files,” in its seventh season on Fox, stars David Duchovny (Fox Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully). Watkins directed three shows for this season, including an upcoming episode that will air Feb. 20 that brings together “The X-Files” with the production team from the Fox reality show, “Cops.” Watkins received an American Society of Cinematographers award for “Family Album.”

In the “Amor Fati” episode you directed, Duchovny and Carter had writing credits. How would you describe their creative input?

David is a very bright writer and Chris has proved his storytelling skill. David wrote one episode last year called “The Unnatural.” That was his first directing assignment. I thought he did a lovely job. For David to write on the show is a chance for him to reinvest his creative juices. Both Chris and David have great shorthand with the show. I can’t think of two people who are more easily acclimated at writing what goes on here. It’s fun when he’s on the set and participating, because he’s there all the time. He takes it seriously — not that he doesn’t take everything seriously, because he is a wonderful actor. But when your words are being performed, you take them even more to heart. Having him there made the dialogue of directing all the more interesting and detailed.

How involved, as a producer, are you in developing the episodes?

My job as producer is to take scripts and arrange them, schedule, budget and invent ways to get the scenes done. When directing, I try to read through the script and make my creative input in terms of the flow, cutting and visual content. I put my spin on what’s already there. Also, when we do multiple-parters, there is a traffic pattern — stories that are previously under way that have to be acknowledged and looked after in the back house. Then when you do the front-house ones, you have to set everybody up for the conclusion.

The “Amor Fati” episode must have been particularly challenging to direct given that it takes place mostly in the mind of Mulder (Duchovny). How did you feel about the task?

It’s very different with David being insane and going in and out of consciousness. The audience has to follow what’s real and what’s not. And at the beginning, you don’t want them to know what’s real and what’s not. Then little by little it starts to reveal itself. The show’s audience is so dedicated that they remember scenes and follow it through, understanding what was a dream and what was real. You have those great moments where the characters are communicating via telepathy.

How did you direct the actors in those sequences to get the right tone and pace?

We talked through it. David and Bill Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man) play heavy adversarial roles. And we talked about the content of the show and then I took them into a soundstage and had them run the dialogue at different rhythms. I played back the dialogue as they walked through the scene so they could get the movement, breathing and postures of what the words would be while they’re thinking them. It became a natural flow for them. So they didn’t just have to walk through. We rehearsed times and feelings and the flavor of the dialogue; then they were able to do it. Obviously, mystery and suspense are key to the show. Each episode is full of cryptic dialogue and clues building up to a finale.

How difficult is it to maintain that tone?

It’s a detailed show. The detail is very accurate with a graphic visual nature. So everything is researched.

Do you do much of that research?

No. We have a group of people who do the research and report to the writers about what’s real and what’s not. There are other things we’ll do in terms of research or in terms of technical advice. But everyone pulls together to keep it as detailed and realistic as possible.

What visual effects techniques and other camera or lighting tools did you use in creating the dream sequences that were so intrinsic to the plot?

We wanted to take it a step out of reality, so we saturated as many blues as we could and polarized the picture a little bit, too. As soon as you saw it, you didn’t have the sense that it was a surreal setting, but something was “off.” We laid the sound differently as well, so there was a sense of quietness — living in a world of cotton. We stripped the set of any ambience. And then when he was old, we tried to keep it real — more orange, to get the sense of a real palette of colors. And we tried to light it like a late moody day. And, of course, the end of the world — no one can film that.

How did you achieve the apocalypse sequence?

Bill Millar in visual effects made renderings to show to the writers, producers and myself. Everybody made notes and then we started to come up with the idea of what we wanted. Then we designed the windows, reflections, the shadow overhead and the fire. Everybody integrated their ideas and then we shot with nothing around. We had flame bars shooting fire up so it would reflect in the glass and also create an interactive look to the lighting with what was happening. You just have to cast your fate out there. You know that a guy is blowing propane fireballs in the air and you’re looking at the stage, knowing that the end of the world will be on the stage. It’s a matter of trust. Then we kept shooting and building to get to the final product.

Your experience in production and photography is evident when you describe lighting scenes. Do you feel that that experience gave you an edge for directing?

It does a lot; it’s huge. I have one less thing to worry about. It allows me to have more knowledge and more time so it’s much easier to come to a decision or to grasp ideas when people are trying to contribute. I’m able to visualize what people are trying to say much faster and either incorporate that or not have to spend time with it.

Did you work with a second unit?

Yes. All of the directors shoot all the way through. On this show, which is particularly different, we shoot eight days in first unit, which is primarily supposed to be David and Gillian’s stuff. And then there is the second-unit time, where we try to do bigger effects or visual effects and shoot all those things that David and Gillian aren’t on. It would be impossible for us to keep our production schedule if we only had one unit. We wouldn’t be able to deliver the 22 shows. This show is completely different from any other show you see on TV. This is like a movie. I think that craftsmen in the business appreciate what we put out technically. There’s a lot of respect paid to all those crafts and, consequently, all the people who work here give an enormous amount more than you see in other places. It’s not meant to put anybody down. It’s just appropriate for the kind of storytelling that’s done here. It’s a different sort of show.

You’ve been involved in “Chicago Hope” and “NYPD Blue” and other shows. Do you feel you have found your creative niche in “X-Files?”

Yes and no. But this is the most difficult show to do. It is exhausting. The idea of fear and suspense here is done totally differently. On “NYPD Blue,” where we worked on 90-degree angles and with the dialogue with the Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) character, he came alive because it was always about the interview in that room. This show takes us to Area 51, Chicago — it’s unlimited where we go to here. There are no boundaries and no standing sets other than maybe Mulder’s office. And we build a habitat here. It’s not like a two- or three-wall set. We have sets where the plugs and the ceilings work. We build habitats here because it’s all about point of view. So our shot list intensifies geometrically. When the characters look at something, we have to look at it. We have to be able to see all the rooms at all times so you’re always in the mind of the character — trying to study what’s going on through their eyes. The difference between horror and suspense is that in horror we all know that something scary is going to jump out while the characters don’t know and the audience does. There are all sorts of levels that have to be built and you can’t keep going back to the same close-up angle all the time because it becomes predictable. The angles help create an uneasiness with the constant movement of the camera.

As in most television series, there are other directors involved in the show. How does that affect the show’s characteristic stamp from episode to episode?

When you think of this show running for this many years, I don’t find that many. Rob Bowman and Kim Manners have been with the show from the beginning. And Chris has directed a few shows. Now I’m doing them. But it’s not like on “NYPD Blue.” There is a fingerprint to this show; it’s not easy. And television has an extraordinary amount of pressure built on top of it. We may work with a big budget, but we also have to get an enormous amount of work done in a certain number of hours. Because of the quality of the shows and the previous episodes, everyone puts themselves out there to do a successful show and feels failure when they’re not measuring up. You have to maintain more than just the sense of suspense of the supernatural.

There is also great tension between the two lead characters. Don’t they have great chemistry?

If I could bottle that, I’d be wealthy beyond compare. All I know is they have one of the great chemistries of all time. And people root for them. You feel the magic of their love and caring for each other. I don’t know what it is. If I could describe it, I could re-create it. But it’s just one of those things that happens. Like a Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy thing. You see other shows and they’re written well and they look nice. But the chemistry isn’t there.

In the episode we were discussing, you directed a number of emotional scenes. How did you get the actors to hit those emotional marks on-set?

Scully was great in that last scene. When they saw each other — it’s killer. They’re delightful and you fall in love with them.

In terms of the plot, will that relationship ever take a romantic turn?

I don’t think it can, because then I think you’d kill off the beauty of their relationship.

How much longer do you see this show continuing?

I don’t know. I certainly think they have a franchise here and a strong audience. As long as they’re telling good stories, they would try to continue. There’s all the talk about next year and we’ll see where that goes.

Are you sold on the supernatural subject matter of the show that obviously captures the imagination of so many viewers, and is it something that makes your directing better?

No, I don’t bite down. I believe that when you find yourself and let the ego fall away, everything comes together and things happen for a reason. I don’t know if there are souls that come back and forth between incarnations. I think that the big karma wheel is run all by ourselves. That’s a big relief.

How did the “X-Cops” episode come about?

In talks of “X-Files,” all the little idiosyncrasies of lenses and everything we do. But we shot the whole “X-Cops” episode on video. “Cops” is a real-life television show and it has a huge following and the banner song, “Bad Boys.” They drive around with officers all over the country. What we did is — I think it’s the 150th episode — we started off riding around with sheriff’s deputies and then lo and behold, we come across Mulder and Scully investigating a case. And they get involved in the television show “Cops.” I watched many episodes and met with the creators. I think it’s a delightful episode. It’s a huge change from our look — all those close-ups and everything. We do one-timers and turn it into that sort of TV show. I think the fans will like it. It’s a lot of fun and it took a lot of courage. Everyone had to go the other direction to do it.

Is this a one-time occurrence, or do you expect to do more of these shows?

No. I think it’s one special one, right out of the chute. A lot of times we do fun ones. Chris did one a couple of years ago in black and white. We did one as a sort of homage to Hitchcock’s “Rope,” trying not to have edits. Every now and then, one of these pops out. But this is all by itself. It’s a lot of fun.

The X-Files Magazine: L.A. Story

The X-Files Magazine [US, #7, Fall 1998]: L.A. Story
The X-Files embraces its new home–sunny California
Gina McIntyre

While driving down busy Southern California Streets, you might notice brightly colored sings sporting random nonsensical words affixed to the odd telephone poll. The markers are written in a secret code that only those well-versed in Industry Rhetoric can decipher-weird alien sounding abbreviations for film or television location shoots that transform neighborhood streets and store fronts into something more or less glamorous, depending on the day. Occasionally, between curses and head-shaking, grid locked drivers will glance across the street at the cardboard herald. But more often, the signs, gateways to what some media buffs would consider nirvana, or else a really great story to post on the internet, remain on the periphery. They’re only another part of the West Coast landscape.

So it happens that these irritated motorists, trapped in their sport utility vehicles, pass right by any number of the sites The X-Files is employing for its sixth season episodes. Little do they know that the new production team assembled to take the weighty reins , once handled so competently by the Vancouver crew, labors nearby to craft their own take on the moody, compelling series. Or that two of televisions brightest stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson , are only minutes away, preparing to bust conspiracies and capture monsters. Then again, it might not matter. After living in a town where camera crews are a regular feature of the landscape, long-time Angelinos might not even bat an eyelash if they encountered a UFO.

Those willing to follow the paper trail, however, would find so such apathy awaiting them on the set of the show. An energy rises through the air, a culmination of the frenzied buzz of technical personnel shuttling back and forth, determining how to capture just the right lighting effect or the proper sound quality. Watching the members of the dedicated (and terribly friendly) crew give their all scene after scene, you might not realize that anything has changed since filming of Season Five wrapped in British Colombia last May.

Until you walk outside. Just down the street from The X-Files’ new production facilities, nestled deep inside the winding labyrinth of identical white trailers that comprise the 20th Century Fox lot, are luxury hotels, posh restaurants and even Rodeo Drive itself, quite a departure from the suburban strip mall that abutted that series’ studio home in Vancouver. As far as the eye can see, warm unfiltered rays of sunlight bathe the mid-August landscape. A gentle breeze blows in from the Pacific Ocean; it is a comfortable 80 degrees. And of course, there’s a lot of traffic.

Yes, things are different in the world of The X-Files, but series creator Chris Carter isn’t one to let things like relocating the show to another country, hiring an almost entirely new staff and encountering a little sunshine stand in the way of his vision. In fact, the sweeping changes only served to stimulate Carter’s imagination, judging from the first few episodes of the highly anticipated Season Six

So far, he has crafted a season premiere, aptly titled “The Beginning,” that picks up where both last season and the film left off, promising a host of professional and personal changes for Mulder and Scully and introducing at least one new recurring character, Assistant Director, Alvin Kersh, played by James Pickens Jr., to the show’s roster. Cater also handily managed to transport all the series’ key players back in time 60 years for an epic, “alternative reality” episode, which he wrote and directed.

Filmed aboard the historic ocean liner Queen Mary, anchored outside of Long Beach, Calif., the show features hundreds of extras, dozens of Nazis and is staged so that events seem to take place in real time, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rope.

Such a full plate might make the new crew wonder what they had gotten themselves in for. Obviously, The X-Files expects-and receives-miracles from its production team, by the beginning of Season Six is formidable even by the show’s own high standards. When asked about the workload, though, none of the behind-the-scenes players seem surprised. Those kind of never ending challenges, they say, attracted them to the series.

“The X-Files gives you the opportunity to try different things. Every show’s different. Every show’s different looking,” says director of photography Bill Roe. “Chris Carter loves to take it to the limit.”

That’s what we know how to do,” offers construction coordinator Duke Tomasick, whose team had only five weeks to reconstruct the standing sets for the show (including Skinner’s office and Mulder and Scully’s apartments) and build at least one elaborate set-the interior of a power plant-for the season premiere. “We’re used to doing that kind of stuff. Hopefully, we get a lot more time to do it in. You know, the more time you have, the better the quality, and you don’t wear the guys out as much. These guys are working seven days a week, Saturday, Sunday, just to get everything done in time. It’s a little exhausting, but everything’s coming together.”

Things have been just as hectic for set decorator Tim Stepeck, who says The X-Files is just about the only show he watched faithfully before landing his new job. So far, working on the series has been just as rewarding as tuning in every Sunday. “You never really know where it’s going to go,” Stepeck says, “It’s not like you’re going back to standing sets of anything like that. We’re always on the road. [Every episode is set] in a new state, so we’re constantly researching out each place we’re going to be in. This show, the pace never slows down. It’s like shooting a movie in a week. The pace doesn’t bother him; in fact, he says it’s rewarding to accomplish so much in such a short time frame. “It’s nice to work on [a series] you really enjoy watching,” he says. “That’s kind of hot.”

Prop master Tom Day echoes Stepeck’s sentiments. “What I was looking forward to the most was the difference in the shows,” he explains. “It can go from anything with period stuff to way-out there futuristic. The storylines always change. They aren’t always difficult. Even the continuing ones, they go somewhere. Then there’s the stand alone ones. They can really take you in a different direction.”

It didn’t take long for an item to surface that made Day scratch his head. Even before he finished the first script he was almost stumped. “One of the very first props in the very first episode this season was something that I read on the page and said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, where am I going to come up with that?’ It was a special piece of forensic equipment that is only in forensic labs,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go home and take those little sugar cubes that kids make their little projects out of and build one of these things.”

Never losing his cool, Day demonstrated the resourcefulness necessary to survive the world of The X-Files. “I was able to contact the company that manufactures this thing in England. We wound up having a representative fly into Los Angeles with this machine and set it up for us.”

The business as usual attitude isn’t confined to the crew, either. Chris Owens, whose Agent Jeffrey Spender is treated to a big promotion in the season premiere, admits e is surprised every time he reads a new script: By now, he has learned to be ready for anything. I never know where it’s going to go,” Owens says. “It’s almost like watching the show from week to week. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Case in point: Owens never thought he’d be traveling to historic locations, such as the Queen Mary, to film an episode, the third of Season Six. “It’s great shooting on the Queen Mary and being able to walk around the boat,” Owens says. “I’ve never been on anything like it. Walking around the state rooms you get the complete feel of the era. Then you get into the costume and before you know it, it’s all working.”

Which is exactly how things are supposed to happen, according to co-executive producer Michael Watkins. Another recent addition to The X-Files team, Watkins, in a matter of weeks, has managed to attain the quiet dedication the rest of his production team possesses. Like his co-workers, he signed up for duty well aware of what was required. If that means making sure cast and crew are shuttled from the Fox lot to location shoots–which can sometimes be two hours outside of Los Angeles–or that equipment crises are averted, or that the series continues to accomplish what no other television show has yet done, all the better. The challenges just make braving the traffic of his daily commute to the office (or to some secretive location) worthwhile.

“My goal is not to give up, to maintain the good fight, “Watkins explains. “It’s a huge show and you expect nothing less. We have to be clever and very finessed and efficient in how we do everything. [My job] is to make sure we get on the air for the fans, and that’s by God, what we’re going to do.”

The X-Files Magazine: World War X

The X-Files Magazine [US, #7, Fall 1998]
World War X
Gina McIntyre

No one could have predicted that Spender, or the Cigarette-Smoking Man or even Skinner would don Nazi uniforms during Season Six, yet, that’s exactly what happened. Chris Carter’s imaginative narrative for his groundbreaking “real time” episode sends Mulder to the Bermuda Triangle where he boards a ship missing since 1939. On board, he encounters all the show’s characters — only they are not themselves but strangers from another era.

The beautifully restored Queen Mary, which is also an operating hotel, provided the ideal location for the historic episode, explains location manager Ed Lippman. “Chris Carter knew he needed an old ship and asked us what we knew of up front. We said the ‘Queen Mary,'” he says. “[Carter] actually came down and spent a long time walking the ship before he even wrote this episode, so he specifically wrote it to the location. Quite frankly, with this kind of location there’s nothing else in town that could have matched it. There’s only a few places in the country you could have pulled this off.”

Despite the authenticity of the ship, the production team still had their work cut out for them. All of the ship’s modern aspects, everything from painting to doorknobs, had to be replaced to fit with the period setting of the episode. Extensive exterior sequences required the crew to shoot the ocean vistas with no signs of civilization. Since views from the Queen Mary include the skyline of Long Beach, some special effects magic was required.

“We’re hanging a 30-by-80-foot green screen 20 feet out that will block out the city of Long Beach, so that when we pull [Mulder] up over the edge, we’ll have the option of seeing straight out with the camera and matting in our storm effect and not having to deal with the city of Long Beach,” Lippman says. “With a little luck in post-production, people will go, ‘Where in the hell did they do that?'”

The interior shots were equally complicated: The Queen Mary’s confined hallways and low-ceiling rooms needed to hold a larger-than-usual cast, which included hundreds of extras recruited to appear as the participants in an elaborate ballroom brawl. Extras casting directors Bill Dance and Terrence Harris hand-picked all of the people for the scene.

“We sculpt [the actors] together in terms of, “What do you think of this person? Do they have the right hair? Does this person look Nazi?” Dance explains. “The hair cannot be streaked or anything like that. It has to be either to the mid-neck for the ladies or long so we can make it look period. [When casting] the dancers, we had people come in [and asked them], ‘Can you do the Lindy Hop or the swing?’ Not professional dancers where it looks too showy, but people that can do it very naturally, yet have the period look, the pale complexions.”

It was up to costume designer Christine Peters to find all the period garb for the dancers, as well as uniforms for the ship’s crew and the Nazis who storm the boat. Such a task required locating existing costumes, some of which might seem familiar to viewers. “I managed to get costumes from Titanic for the British naval crew,” Peters says. “We’ve got probably 150 uniforms. It’s not the sort of thing where you can just fill a truck up on the day and just hand them things. Every extra for this episode has been pre-fit, the ballroom dancers, everyone.”

During the brawl, those carefully selected costumes took a beating. Some 50 or 60 extras were involved in a melée with 13 professional stunt people, according to stunt coordinator Danny Weselis.

“It took a few hours to choreograph and block out every move [because of] the way we’re shooting this episode with hardly any cuts. We just had to pay attention to where all the cameras were and make sure all the hits were hits and there were no misses.”

The unusual shooting method for the episode was foremost in the mind of director of photography Bill Roe, too. Generally, cuts or pick-up shots are inserted during editing to make scenes flow more smoothly. Because of the way this episode was shot, everything had to be perfect when director Carter yelled “Cut” for the final time. “You can usually get away with things, help things as you go, with different cuts and different shots, but when you’re doing it all in one [continuous take], it requires a lot of planning,” Roe says. “The hardest part is trying to find the right place for the light and still make it look good. Working at a practical location doesn’t help, especially when they don’t want you touching the Queen Mary walls. No drilling, no taping, no nothing.”

The secret to accomplishing such an extraordinary task, according to co-executive producer Michael Watkins, likes in extensive planning and a ready-for-anything attitude. Plenty of rehearsal time doesn’t hurt, either.

“All the actors have to be on board. It’s like comedians will tell you, it’s timing. We rehearse seven, eight, nine, ten pages in a row, and then walk through, change the lighting, move the actors. It becomes a series of events that all have to take place not unlike a live theater. The performance has to continue and go on from one venue to another. There’s no going back for inserts. It has to be complete and total. The sphere has to be an enclosed world by itself.”