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Frank Spotnitz Armchair Interview

June 06, 2006

Frank Spotnitz is one of Hollywood’s award-winning creative heroes you may have never heard of. His legacy will mostly be attached to writing and producing credits on Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” television series; however, his influence on science fiction television goes much deeper than Scully, Mulder and alien conspiracy theories. “Millennium,” the recent “Night Stalker” remake, the “X-Files” spin-off “The Lone Gunman” and “Harsh Realm” all were blessed with episodes he wrote. We sat down with Frank recently to reflect on his career’s past and speculate where it’s headed, including a new television series in the works that could prove to be his most ambitious project yet.

TMR: You were born in Japan and attended UCLA. When did you decide you wanted to write some of the best sci-fi series’ ever put on TV?

FRANK SPOTNITZ: Well, it’s a tortured story you see because I went to UCLA thinking I was going to get into the movie business but then I changed my mind and became a reporter. So I was a reporter for about seven years in Indiana, New York and Paris before I finally realized I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So, I moved back to LA and went to film school to make a career change, and my first job out of film school was “The X-Files.”

TMR: You have served as Exec. Producer of “The X-Files,” “Millennium,” “Harsh Realm” and the short lived “Lone Gunmen,” as well as President of Chris Carter’s Ten Thirteen productions. Where did you ever find time to write?

FS: [Laughs] You know what. I just worked and worked and worked. You know all those shows were the kind of shows that I loved when I was a kid; you know, I had a deep connection with that material. So it was the right place at the right time.

TMR: You also directed many X-Files episodes. Have you ever considered jumping into film directing?

FS: Oh yeah, and I would like to still. It is hard to find the time, first of all, because I have got commitments to television, which don’t allow me the time to go and do a movie, finding a script or writing a script that I would like to make. I haven’t found the time or the script, but I would like to do that at some point.

TMR: Tell us what Night Stalker is about and how you came to work on the 70’s series, how you got involved, and who’s idea was it to do the remake?

FS: Touchstone Television, which is part of ABC Disney, owns the title outright, and a new guy with Touchstone television named Mark Pedowitz is a big sci-fi fan. He knew they owned this title and he loved it as a kid. He called me, undoubtedly because of my X-Files experience, and it was also one of my favorite shows as a kid, especially the TV movie which I really loved. So I said yes, and then the more time I spent studying the old TV movies and the old TV show, I discovered there were a lot of things that didn’t work that would not hold up in today’s entertainment landscape, and they just wouldn’t fly anymore. So I ended up departing quite a bit from what the original had been and came up with a pretty different take on it.

TMR: So you basically came up with a fresh idea and tried not to follow the original series to closely?

FS: No, I really felt I couldn’t. The original was a guy in his fifties whose career was behind him. He has landed in this backwater town and he kept stumbling onto stories about monsters that he thought would be his ticket to the big time. That idea works great in a movie, in a one-off story, but when you’re doing a series every week and that’s the contraption you’ve designed, you know he’s not going to get the story. He can’t or the series is over. So it didn’t seem very workable to me, and the more I started taking it apart, the more changes I started making. I was really hit upon something that I was really excited about. I came upon this idea that he had been accused of murdering his wife, and the police still believed he was guilty. It just opened up this whole question of good and evil in the world. And is Kolchak in fact a good or evil guy? You assume he is good because he is the start of the TV show, but at the end of the two-parter, which is on the DVD but was never shown on Television, you have to start wondering whether he is a good guy or not because the bad guys don’t kill him.

TMR: Where Gabrielle Union was a TV veteran, Stuart Townsend was fairly new and had mostly worked in film. Do you think he was convincing as Carl Kolchak and do you think fans of the original series were satisfied with the overall vibe of the series?

FS: Yeah, I think there were some people who tuned to the show and expected it to be like to old “Night Stalker” and they saw this guy and thought, “what’s he doing in this part?” He’s twenty years younger and he’s really good looking, he is nothing like the old Night Stalker. But he wasn’t trying to be like the old Night Stalker. Trying to do Darren McGavin, who was in the original, would have been disastrous. So I think for what this Kolchak was, he was perfect, because he is really attractive and charming and you can see how people would be won over by him. But then when it comes time to turn the tables and make you think maybe he really is a killer and evil, you can kind of see that in him too, because he has that kind of darkness about him. So I thought it was quite a score to get him to do the show, and actually I felt the whole cast, we were very lucky.

TMR: How did you feel about people comparing “Night Stalker” to “X-Files?”

FS: Well I knew that was going to happen because I have the female character and she is a skeptic; in fact, there are three skeptics, not just Perri Reed, but the photographer and the editor were also skeptics to varying degrees. But what I really believed would happen in time is people would start to see that while there is a believer-skeptic dynamic in this show too, it’s really about something bigger, which is good and evil, and is Kolchak good or is he evil. And how does Perri Reed respond to that, and I thought that was such a unique idea, and a fresh idea, that in time people would realize that that was the more important note of the series. I do think that it’s very hard to do this genre without having some degree of the skeptic character. Because that’s what makes it seem real, it makes it more interesting.

TMR: Right, if everyone believed and there weren’t any skeptics no one would want to watch it!

FS: Yes, because the audience would go, “well I don’t believe that.” And if you look at the history of the genre, there are plenty of examples where there is always the skeptic character, but that was the sort of predictable first response of the show, that and the people who were hoping it would be just like the original “Night Stalker.”

TMR: I read that as well, people were “not as good as the original,” or ‘”way better than the original” or “too much of an X-Files clone.” But how does it seem that “X-Files” runs for 9 or 10 seasons, yet “Night Stalker” didn’t have the legs to carry it that far?

FS: Yeah, I think that we had enormous strikes against us, and I was arguing pretty passionately with the network about this because form the get-go we had a really rough timeslot, Thursday’s at nine against “CSI,” which is probably the worst time slot you can get. We didn’t get any paid advertising whatsoever as all their money went to “Commander in Chief: The Invasion.” And our lead-in was “Alias,” which turned out not to perform very well this past season and didn’t have the same audience as our show, so when you’re trying to draw eyeballs to your show and you don’t have the good time slot, any promotion or the good lead-in, it’s almost impossible. So I made the argument at the time that it is not our show, it’s these other factors. And I have to say there were a lot of people at the network who agreed with me. But I think the pressures are such at network television these days that its very hard to stick with something even if you know its good. And I don’t think it had to turn out this way, we had the goods, and I wish it had turned out differently.

TMR: TMR got to talk with Lance Henriksen last summer, and we talked a lot about “Millennium.” He stated how he would be working on a specific episode, and right in the middle of shooting he would get the script for the next episode, and how they just kept coming in so rapidly that it was like filming 12 movies back-to-back. Is that how you go about writing? Do you just throw out as much as you can as fast as you can? But obviously once your creativity gets going it probably flows quite rapidly.

FS: Yeah, there is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. You have to; you hire your crew and you have to pay them whether you are shooting or not, and so you must be shooting every day. It’s like a train that cannot stop because it is too expensive. So you have to have a new script every 8 business days, and that’s extremely difficult. These shows… it’s a different supernatural phenomenon every week, and not only do you have to come up with a different story each week, but you have to come up with a whole new set of rules for this supernatural phenomenon you come up with every week, and I find that very challenging.

TMR: Challenging, yet very interesting.

FS: Yeah, it’s very satisfying looking back on it, yet it’s a very stressful way of doing it.

TMR: It also must be very frustrating because the show was cancelled in the end. You put all that time and effort into it and it just doesn’t stay afloat. Unlike a “CSI” type show, if it has CSI attached to it people are going to watch it. Whether it be “CSI: Duluth” or “CSI: Flagstaff.” But when you come up with any sci-fi show idea it will ultimately end up being cancelled because it doesn’t have the “X-Files” name tagged onto it.

FS: I think you are absolutely right. “X-Files” was a great show, and it was also very lucky. It came along at a time when the Fox Network was pretty new, and they could afford to be a little more patient. And unfortunately that’s a big part of its success, which was luck. You can do everything right, but I think in the end we just weren’t lucky.

TMR: Lance also mentioned to us that he and Chris Carter were talking, and if they ever decided to bring back “Millennium,” they’d do it on a cable network channel such as HBO or Showtime so they could get more language and violence into it. Would you be interested in going back and writing more episodes of “Millennium” given that chance?

FS: Oh sure, I’d love to do that. I think it’d be great.

TMR: I read that your next project is titled “Amped?”

FS: Yes, that’s a pilot I am making for Spike TV this summer.

TMR: It says on IMDB the premise is ‘Humans battling genetically altered monsters in LA.’

FS: Well not so much battling. The idea is that it’s a police precinct, and there is sort of this ensemble cast that works in this precinct. And there is a virus that has swept through the planet, and everybody got it, then everybody got well. And then what started to happen was a certain percentage of the population began to mutate. And people mutate in different ways, it all depends on your DNA on how you change. So the cops that work at this precinct when they go out every day they do not know what they are going to encounter, they may literally be finding monsters when they respond to a call. So it’s a scary show, it’s a funny show, and it also a sort of allegorical meaning for fears of terrorism, and racism and other things too.

TMR: That sounds very interesting.

FS: Yeah, I am very proud of it. It s a script I wrote with Vince Gilligan, who is another colleague from my “X-Files” Days.

TMR: Any casting ideas yet? Anyone in particular in mind?

FS: Not yet, we are still waiting for the go ahead to start prepping the show. You know, it's such a large cast that I have not really thought about any star names really. I have never written a show with so many characters. It probably has about 8 reoccurring characters.

TMR: Wow, sounds awesome. So what else do you have lined up for the future? I read something about “The Star Chamber?”

FS: Yeah I am producing that for Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a feature, a remake of the movie made in the early eighties with Michael Douglas. It was one of those movies that I always loved, but felt it was not done as well as it should have been done. It was a great idea that hadn’t been done justice to, no pun intended, so to me that’s a great candidate for a remake. Why remake something that was great the first time around? Remake something that should have been great the first time but wasn’t. So I am working on that as we speak.

TMR: So let me get your whole take on remakes these days, because everything is being remade nowadays. Whether it’s TV or an old movie, everything is being remade!

FS: For better or worse, it’s easier to get those things through the system right now. I think for executives in the film and television business it’s like cover, it’s like, “well it worked once before, so here is why I am doing it.” It requires a lot more courage to go out and embrace an original idea that has never been tried. So it’s practical matter; it’s easier to get people to embrace the idea of a familiar title. But like I say, to me this is a remake that is actually worth doing because it can be better this time.

TMR: Well some remakes are, I don’t want to say better because I cannot really think of any, but some are just outright terrible.

FS: Oh yeah, there are so many I’ve seen I am just furious about. But that’s the other thing about “Night Stalker.” I didn’t try and do the same thing again, I tried to go in a completely different direction. It’s not to say I didn’t love the original, which I did, but I wasn’t trying to do the same thing and say, “here look at the better.” It was something I hope will stand alongside the original version, not try to replace it.

TMR: A ManRoom is a room dedicated in the house where a guy goes to watch movies, drink beer, hang with friends and just basically call his own. Do you have a ManRoom and what are some of the cool things you have in it? Being a sci-fi writer you have to have some cool stuff, right?

FS: My ManRoom got taken over by the women at my house! I have got a wife and four children; I have no room of my own anymore. So my ManRoom is my office which is where I go to retreat. I have a great picture that was taken on the set of the “X-Files” movie of me and David Duchovny on the set of the space ship, and what else, I have got all our Golden Globes and Peabody awards.

TMR: That’s right. Congratulations on those by the way, as well as your Emmy nominations.

FS: Thanks very much, yes those are nice memories.

TMR: Well Frank, I had a great time talking with you and I appreciate you taking time out from your busy schedule to talk with TheManRoom.

FS: My pleasure!

Night Stalker: The Complete Series DVD set is in stores now.

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Guest ___ L@the_of_Heaven___
Frank Spotnitz Armchair Interview

June 06, 2006

Also very nice! I've never seen the new 'Night Stalker'; I wonder if it's any good...???

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Guest ___ L@the_of_Heaven___
its actually pretty good. kinda reminds me of the x-files but the stories seem to get better as it winds down

Thanks Joe; I'll hafta check it out. Not too many shows get BETTER as they wind down! :nope:

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