Chris Carter As The Beast Within by David Lipsky
Rolling Stone magazine interviews Chris Carter.
Rolling Stone magazine interviews Chris Carter.
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Rolling Stone (contributed by Mark Hayden).
February 20, 1997
This is a crew interview with Chris Carter.
Rolling Stone: How would you feel watching the show if it hadn't turned those corners and you had backed away from it?
Chris Carter: I would be sad. But I mean I'm sad that in syndication they're going to edit out one-and-a-half to 2 minutes of each episode. It's a shame. I mean, we've worked hard to pack in as much as we can, and everything needs to be there in those 43-odd minutes. To get two minutes out of a picture that's just right -- that's a lot.
RS: Is "Surfing" [magazine] where you developed your taste for booking Mulder and Scully into motel rooms?
CC: I was always in motels working as a surfing journalist. And then right before I created "The X-Files," I drove cross-country with my wife and we stayed in motels everywhere. So that was what gave me my feeling for it -- the idea that might be a guy behind the wall looking through your mirror.
RS: I've always wondered if you watched a show called "The Avengers."
CC: Sure. Loved it. Mulder and Scully come from those characters, Emma Peel and what's-his-name -- Patrick MacNee. He was older than she was, so it was a sort of May-September, whatever you call it, relationship. It lacked sexual tension because of that quality. But I loved that sort of platonic thing.
RS: You stayed at Disney from '85 to '87. What did you write?
CC: Do I have to tell you? "Meet the Munceys." A pilot called "Cameo By Night." I wrote something called "The Nanny" which was also a pilot but which didn't become the Fran Drescher Nanny.
RS: "The Nanny" is really scary.
CC: It is really scary. I actually saw the thing. One of these watchdog groups for television was doing ratings -- they had a red light, yellow light, green light -- and they gave a red light to "The Nanny," which was interesting to me. For innuendo, I guess.
RS: How did "The X-Files" come about?
CC: A man named Peter Roth had became president at Fox. And hired me to a deal, in 1992. I'd been pitching shows for a while, but "The X-Files" was the first thing I pitched here.
RS: One thing that surprised me immediately this morning is that you project a real calm. It's a quality I associate with surfers, and I wonder if that's been valuable to you in pitching.
CC: It's kind of cool. It's kind of who I am, yeah. It has been valuable, and actually when you see the character Frank Black, that Lance Henriksen plays on "Millennium," who's very calm -- that's very appealing to me. People who are ... calm, and in control. It's a nice guiding force for any kind of project that tends to be run from chaos.
RS: David Duchovny, of course, plays it a little bit like that too.
CC: He is like that. It's just who I am. I like quiet humor. This is more light than you'll ever see in this office -- I like dim light. I like I guess maybe solitude. I like being alone.
RS: It must be reassuring to people on the studio side. Because you're not someone who's bouncing up off a corner of the ceiling and then coming back down.
CC: People think Hollywood appreciates showmanship -- it's like they think that comedians are the people who are always on. [Snaps fingers.] And the funniest people are actually the opposite, are actually very quiet. Like Woody Allen who they say never laughs. He says, "That's funny."
RS: Why'd you shoot the pilot in Vancouver?
CC I do both shows in Canada because the crews up there just give you everything they've got. My experience in Hollywood has been that this is a town where you have people who do jobs. Most shows fail, right? This is a business of failure. And so if they're on a show, that show's going to probably fail and they'll go to another show. It just becomes a job. They make no connection to your show because this is where everything's made. And so you find that a lot of people won't invest in a project. But up in Canada, this is their show.
RS: When did you know the show wasn't going to fail?
CC: I mean I find it surprising sometimes, I'll hear somebody talking about the "X-Files" standing right next to me. Donnie Pfaster, who was in the "Irresistible" episode about the death fetishist: I saw him in Hawaii and he didn't see me, I was in a pool floating around. And I saw people pointing at him. They had recognized Donnie as the guy from the show. I was just amazed by it. Here's a character, you know, a guest star and there were a lot of people asking for him. I felt I was actually watching what must be going on all the time, from a kind of a secret place. I didn't even go up to him and say hi. I just wanted to watch.
RS: Have you dropped by any of the paranormal conventions?
CC: This is the surprising thing. When I started the show everybody said, "Just wait -- the freaks are going to come out of the woodwork." (Laughs) And it hasn't happened. You know, there've been instances, but most of those people at the conventions are just regular folk. There are a lot of people who are sort of UFO buffs. But I would say most of the people are not.
RS: Is the place just one big trading post?
CC: There's some merchandising. I didn't want to cheapen the show by just putting the "X-Files" logo or Mulder and Scully's face on anything that could be licensed. So I've turned a lot of things down. Boxer shorts was one. Various and sundry key chains. Flashlights. Mostly just doo-dads. Gee-gaws. I don't know how to describe them. Trinkets. What David Duchovny calls wampum.
Actually a lot of the things I learned about merchandising come from the surfing world. I saw these guys at Ocean Pacific -- OP -- Gotcha, Quiksilver. I knew them when they were just starting out. And as soon as those guys were in Robinson's, May or Sears or whatever, basically you knew you'd gotten to the end. The secret is to keep everything small and keep it hard to get, and it'll have a longer life. There was a memo that came by at the beginning of the second season, which said that "X-Files" merchandise was going to start appearing in J.C. Penney stores. And I fired off the angriest memo to these saying, "Are you crazy?"
RS: And you'd never consider licensing, let's say, a Hugo Boss line signed by David Duchovny?
CC: I've never thought of it. But it sounds exactly like something I would really have a reaction to.
RS: How often have you gone to the conventions?
CC: I've been to probably seven or eight.
RS: And how do people respond when you go out?
CC: It's crazy. In San Diego, I got up on stage and it was like I was truly like a rock star. (Laughs) I mean, I stood up and there were just, for five minutes, there were flashbulbs flashing, and people applauding, and people on their feet. I didn't know. I was astounded. It's part of this dream. It's really to me like a -- I can't explain it. It is surreal. It's like I'm living someone else's life. There are some things, as an executive producer, that you don't imagine yourself ever doing. Winning a gold record for an album that I produced and co-wrote a song on. Being an actor on one of my own episodes. But the celebrity. The fact that I had my picture taken for Rolling Stone, that I'm in Rolling Stone is a really weird thing to me. It's like your old rock star fantasy sort of coming true. In a really bizarre way. And I never imagined that.
RS: I'm trying to think of a way to phrase this: One thing I've wondered about "X-Files" is whether it's a vehicle for your own sense of conspiracy, or whether this was just something in the national mood that you sensed because you're a smart entertainer. "X-Files" and "Millennium" are both very dark. But I mean, your early work couldn't have been sunnier.
CC: Because I really was coming right off the beach. Literally. And I was a writer for hire -- I was doing other people's ideas. And I could write young adult, contemporary adult dialogue in relationships. I probably could have done a pretty good job writing "Clueless."
RS: You'd learned that dialogue from surfers.
CC: Yeah I had, exactly. I mean, Jeff Spicolli [from "Fast Times At Ridgemont High"] is a person who was part of my life. Which is all that "Clueless" really is, just sort of a new twist on that. So I have that in my ear, but it's of little interest to me.
RS: Do story ideas always come from things -- magazines, newspapers -- you read?
CC: Sometimes I'll suggest something, that will become a story. Last year we did an episode called "DPO" about a kid who could control lightning. That's something I wanted to do for a long time. Because there was a James song that I'd heard, this is how that story came about. There was a James song that's got -- in fact it's right in the beginning of the show -- it always felt to me like the song was a heart attack. That it was what a heart attack must feel like. And so I thought, that would be interesting if a heart attack is actually an electrical malfunction, it means you could actually use the song too ... trigger heart attacks actually, actually use the electricity to do it.
RS: Do you remember what James song it was?
CC: It's called "Ring the Bells" by James. I don't like the one on their album. I don't like the one that's off, the James album. I like the live version.
RS: Have any story ideas seemed too far-fetched?
CC: I think I'm pitched ideas, by people, that just don't fit. I don't know what has -- has not flown. It's often times people will try to do everything at once, in a UFO story. You know, they'll want to do "Independence Day" and you know you have to throw in all -- those things are too far-fetched. "Independence Day wasn't my favorite movie."
RS: No, it's hard to have movies where either, A) the whole country is taken over ...
RS: ... or B) where then -- a whole country is liberated, and then it's the reverse.
CC: This is oftentimes what happens as people come in and they want to do the thing where the, you know -- a city is taken over. You just can't do that on an "X Files." It's unbelievable. These things don't happen.
RS: And that becomes too large an event for a single episode.
CC: It's too big.
RS: What did you make of "Independence Day?"
CC: I was actually -- I saw it, went to the premiere of that movie. And I didn't think it was going to do the business it did. I didn't -- I don't know, and I feel -- I feel strange saying it: I didn't quite, you know, get what the sensation was. It was just the effects, I guess.
RS: Well the effects -- aside from the money shots, the effects weren't that great. I mean the end of that movie is matte paintings on fire.
CC: Yeah, it is. And also the idea that, you know, Will Smith could be sitting there you know and cracking wise while there are space ships hovering -- you know -- out in the near distance. It was a show with a funny tone, but I mean obviously people really liked it. I strive hard to do something that is believable. And this was -- they didn't -- they weren't working in the same genre.
Rolling Stone: And where did "The Truth is Out There" title in the credits come form?
Chris Carter: That one hit me because I wanted something that summed up the philosophy of the show in those main titles.
RS: And do you remember where you were -- were you at your desk typing out a number of things ...
CC: I was just thinking, you know -- we work on these main titles, and the actual main titles weren't working. And it was like, the main titles really were not finished so they actually didn't appear on the pilot episode. They appeared one episode later, I believe. And they just weren't coming out very good. And I remember one thing that had -- that might have worked -- was that lightning strike. I love [the artist] Ed Rusha. And I wanted it to look like an Ed Ruscha painting. It worked very beautifully. And it -- it was just very reminiscent of one of his paintings. And I loved the use of the literal, the textual.
RS: Yeah. There's a line that actually is a valuable thing for the way you guys approach the FBI in story telling. I forget where -- I think it's in EBE, where Deep Throat says a lie is most convincingly hidden between 2 truths.
CC: Yeah, that's actually in "Fallen Angel." Morgan and Wong wrote that -- which is beautiful because it's so true.
RS: It's a great line.
CC: It's wonderfully true. And I just read a nice quote about. That you can -- if you bury a truth under a mountain of lies, that if you ... find -- if you can remove that truth and put it on top of the mountain, and all the lies collapse underneath the weight of the one truth.
RS: And that's how the science works on the show. I mean, it seems like you try to be truthful there.
CC: The show is built on a solid foundation of real science. It's one of the secrets of the show.
RS: Tell me a little bit more about that.
CC: Well, Scully's point of view is the point of view of the show. And so the show has to be built on a solid -- a bedrock foundation of science. In order to have Mulder take a flight from it. So if the science is really good, Scully's got a valid point of view. She's got an argument. And Mulder has to then convince her that she's got to throw her arguments out, she's got to accept the unacceptable. And there is the conflict.
RS: A few times I've watched the show -- with "Home" or "Herrenvolk" -- and thought, "God, they really did their homework, that's accurate."
CC: Well, I told you that "Herrenvolk" is being used as a teaching aid at the Indiana University. So that's hard, good, genetic science. That I went over very carefully with a friend of mine who's a professor at UMass/Amherst. She went over the genetics with me, and what was possible. What actual protein strings -- those were accurate. And it's very important to the show that they are accurate, because scientists are big fans of the show. And they would call "Bullshit." My professor friend helped me also with the "Erhlermeyer Flask." I'd read a David Suzuki book on genetics and it was very difficult to understand. You really have to -- I think -- immerse yourself in genetics, to understand it completely. But that is one of the secrets of the show.
RS: Are there other secrets like that on the production side?
CC: With the directors we have, I'm very emphatic about certain ways to do things. These shows are always scary because the camera's going to make it scary. How the show will differ from many shows -- you know, some of the hit series like "ER," "NYPD Blue" -- is that we have to tell a story with a camera quite unlike most of those shows. We actually have to -- the camera has to reveal things. Has to see things that are there just at the right time. The point of view is everything. Point of view is everything in storytelling anyway -- but particularly when you're trying to scare people. Because you have to scare people from a subjective -- you can't scare people from an objective point of view. Well, you can. But mostly you're scaring them with a scare you're delivering to someone on screen.
So I have rules. And you know the rules are always made to be broken. The directors break them, wonderfully, sometimes. We did a show called "Home" this year, which was about those three brothers, and there are many, many occasions where the rules that I usually am pretty strict about were broken to great effect.
RS: How do these rules work?
CC: I don't like the camera in motion for no reason at all. I don't like it pivoting [demonstrates] like a character would swivel it's neck, unless it is somebody's point of view. The camera has to move in a way I call "Slow Camera, Stiff Neck." I don't want that camera flying through space. We have a high crane available to us at all times. And directors see that, and they want to -- you know -- swoop the camera in. It's distracting particularly for this kind of storytelling. I think you have to tell a story very quietly.
RS: Quietly through Mulder and Scully.
CC: That's pretty much it. The camera shouldn't move independently of the action. You don't want the camera telling you a story instead of the characters telling you a story.
RS: Politics is a kind of ongoing story. What do you think the politics of the show are? As a viewer, I do find it leaves me mistrustful of politics in general. How do you feel about that?
CC: Well, I mean I think voter apathy is like one of the things -- I just hate it. It's something I find so depressing. That people are not involved in and engaged with their own government. And I think I feel that there's a lack of moral leadership in the country. That's what I'm trying to put across. I'm trying to raise consciousness rather than lower it.
RS: Of course -- with CSM and the Syndicate -- the show could very easily lead to that kind of apathy: You know, "The Government is run by those kinds of guys."
CC: It could. But this is -- the characters are not destructive characters. They are characters who want to find something. To reveal something. To change something. So they're working -- I'm sorry to use this word -- pro-actively. They are not saying, they are not divorcing themselves from the government. In fact they work for a government institution, and they don't leave it. They actually work in it, because they believe that it gives them a platform. From which to do the things that they do.
RS: Do you feel comfortable talking about who you voted for in the last election?
CC: I voted for Clinton.
RS: For Clinton?
CC: Both times.
RS: Have you voted Democratic generally?
CC: I'm a registered Democrat.
RS: That's funny. Because in a way your politics seem at once both liberal and conservative.
CC: They're practical.
RS: The conservative thing is the sense of family, which you see [on "Millennium"] with Frank and his wife. And then the liberal thing is this fear of government, but that has also become -- recently -- a more right-wing thing, like that group Kyrchek had joined.
CC: Right. Revolution starts both low and high.
RS: I wouldn't have guessed you as a Democrat.
CC: My father was a union man so I think I've got some of his politics.
RS: Oh no -- I mean I'm a Democrat. I guess I've come to see a certain kind of government mistrust as belonging to the right.
CC: Yes. I think that really -- almost any affiliation now is meaningless. You know, it just seems to me that the parties have come so -- they've both become so centrist, have moved so far to the center that they're almost ... interchangeable. Bill Clinton is very Republican. In some ways.
RS: I asked about "Millennium" a moment ago. Have you been less involved with the "X-Files" this season because of "Millennium?" I mean, you have to be. There's no way to be as involved.
CC: There's certain things I don't do any more. I used to always be on the bus. The last two days of prep on every episode involve what they call a technical survey. It's a scouting trip, on a bus in Vancouver. Where you spend a day on the bus riding around to each location, talking about how things are going to be done, where the trucks have to go -- you know -- to be parked. The final set deck and where the camera's going to be. What the grips have to be ready for. All the keys from each department are on that bus. And I was on, I would say, 20 of 24 of those for the "X-Files" last year.
Then the next day is a production meeting, and then a tone meeting. Where you sit and talk through the script: how do you do this, how are you going to shoot this, remember this here: attitudes -- what the characters are doing there. It is really a last ... you know, it's the last day before you set sail. It's, "What if this storm rises here, you know, in these latitudes?" It is this checklist that you go through.
And so I don't go on that survey. But I still, I think I've been to every one but two tone meetings this year on "X-Files." Out of 13 episodes -- 14 episodes. And it's the same thing with "Millennium," I've been in every one but one tone meeting.
RS: Have you considered, if the numbers aren't good on "Millennium," doing a crossover episode with the "X-Files?"
CC: I've thought of it. And I think it's too obvious a way to get ratings. And I want the show to succeed on its own terms, rather than on some kind of gimmick.
RS: But you know it's a fail safe: If things are going wrong, it's something you could pull out of the hat or something.
CC: I could. I never want to reach that point.
RS: And of course the worlds the characters live in -- I mean, the "Millennium" world is a much more somber world in a way than the "X-Files" world.
CC: The shows are actually worlds apart. They are certainly in different solar systems.
RS: And do you think it would violate the reality of both of them, to move from one to the other?
CC: I just wouldn't want to do it. It's sort of like, The "X- Files" has been sort of a sacred thing. But you know, if David Duchovny said, "I'd like to try that," I'd seriously consider it. If Gillian Anderson said, "I'd like to try that," I'd seriously consider it
Rolling Stone (contributed by Mark Hayden).
February 20, 1997