Back in 1995 I was on the set of The X-Files to write stories about the made-in-Vancouver sci-fi phenom for The Hollywood Reporter, TV Week and Shift Magazine (for editor Evan Solomon). Here’s the story I wrote for Shift. Or at least the draft I found in my personal x-files…
FBI special agent Dana Scully, The X-Files resident skeptic, is inside a North Vancouver video arcade (it will be Oklahoma on TV) questioning a clerk about a mysterious death in the parking lot the night before. The police believe the victim was struck by lightning, but Scully (Gillian Anderson) and her partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) suspect otherwise and they’re probably right — since this is The X-Files no one is likely to die of anything nearly as simple as a random lightning bolt
I ask for more details about the episode and I am informed by a number of different sources that they could tell me, but then they’d have to kill me. Then they laugh, but despite the fact that this is the third episode of their third season on FOX everyone — including Anderson — is reluctant to even admit that Mulder survives the second season cliffhanger. These people take their paranoia seriously and that’s not too surprising.
X-Files creator and executive producer, Chris Carter suspects that part of his show’s appeal is that it has tapped into a deep vein of American paranoia. “There’s a very, very widespread and common belief that the government is keeping secrets from you and not always acting in your best interest and that is what I’ve tapped into.”
An early episode featured a member of ‘The Lone Gunmen,’ a group of hard-core conspiracy theorists, tearing open an American $20 bill to reveal a computer chip. It was, he explained, used by the government for tracking citizens.
Sounds far-fetched? A recent Globe and Mail story about the Michigan militia began with an anecdote about a militia member ripping open a $20 bill and making the exact same claim.
As I sit down to write this story about The X-Files — a show about a pair of FBI special agents tangling with government conspiracies while investigating the type of supernatural cases the U.S. government doesn’t want to admit exist, an armed First Nations group has occupied a ranch just a few hundred kilometers north of Vancouver and one of their leaders has proclaimed – with an absolutely straight face – that they are protesting “the new world order.” As defined by Canada’s top conspiracy fan, Glen Kealey, the NWO is apparently run by the Rothschilds, who aren’t actually Jewish but are descended from the pharaohs and plan to take over the world. Even though he sounds like he’s a few stones short of a pyramid, he’s not the only one out there seriously into what The X-Files refer to as “extreme possibilities.”
On the other side of the 49th parallel the chief suspect in the Oklahoma bombing is purported to have claimed that the U.S. military implanted some sort of computer chip in his buttocks — and presumably the purpose was far more sinister than a high tech cure for hemorrhoids. The FOX network recently broadcast what some people are claiming is genuine documentary footage of aliens, and we’re not talking Mexicans and Cubans here, being autopsied at the Roswell air force base. And the on-line world is rife with paranoia. One of the busiest chat groups on the Web is alt. conspiracy where grassy knolls and sinister cabals can mingle with mysterious black helicopters, U.N. plots and fear of fluoride.
In an age where the National Rife Association can compare U.S. law enforcement agents to storm troopers without stirring up much of a fuss, it’s no wonder Carter struck a chord with the show’s motto “Trust No One.” Even people who don’t believe in UFOs aren’t likely to believe in governments either.
Carter, who was a huge fan of the short-lived horror series The Night Stalker as a kid, says that one of the keys to his show is providing audiences with a good scare — but that isn’t always easy in the world of network TV. “I get a very formal list of notes every week form Broadcasts Standards and Practices from a woman named Linda who I’ve now got a very tight relationship with.”
So has the network ever refused to let something on the air? ”Every week,” says Carter with a laugh. Carter says scenes are vetoed at the script stage and so far he hasn’t really been too surprised by what’s been refused and why. He says the usual reasons for cutting a scene is that something is, “too gory, graphic, gross, bloody, disgusting or frightening.”
Although he understands the need for guidelines, he still finds them frustrating. “Here I do a scary show and I can only frighten you so much in certain situations.” However, he isn’t upset by the concept of network censorship. “There are just certain things that you can’t do on network television and certain things that you shouldn’t be able to do.”
“Things that could be emulated. We had an episode where somebody fed somebody antifreeze and you can actually die by drinking antifreeze and we couldn’t put that on TV because somebody could actually do that to somebody else and kill them. And that shouldn’t be on TV. I’d feel terrible if somebody actually hurt somebody else.”
So Carter’s definitely not about to take out a membership in the nearest militia. “The difference between the kind of paranoia I’m putting out there and that paranoia is there are people out there who would actually like to turn over the government who are revolutionary. The message that I’m putting out is trust no one.”
It’s a very different message from the hug your neighbor philosophy of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, who built science fiction’s original phenomenon with the Disneyesque philosophy that, “It’s a small universe after all.” The more cynical world view is one reason Carter’s creation is turning into TV’s first legitimate challenger to the Trek phenomenon as people who remember where the were the day Tasha Yar died are trading in their Klingon phrasebooks in favor of conspiracy theories so arcane they make the JFK assassination look like it was plotted by Dr. Suess.
The show’s fans — known as X-Philes — are now able to satisfy their thirst for “extreme possibilities” with comic books, paperbacks and even X-Files conventions. Carter says there’s even serious talk of an X-Files movie. Meanwhile, Duchovny and Anderson are appearing on more magazine covers this year than Cindy Crawford with Duchovny turning up pretty much everywhere from Saturday Night Live to The Larry Sanders Show.
Heady stuff for a show that looked unlikely to survive a season when it first debuted on FOX. When it premiered Sept. 10, 1993, The X-Files was generally described as a “cult hit” which sounds about as exciting to network programmers as “nice eyes” does to someone heading out on a blind date. But during the second season the cult turned into a bonafide religion with ratings growing faster than any other show on TV. Despite it’s sci-fi premise which generally insures that a show won’t be taken seriously, The X-Files won a Golden Globe for “Best Dramatic Series and earned an Emmy nomination in the same category and — the sincerest form of flattery — every new series this season that isn’t a Friends rip-off appears to be an X-Files clone.
The series is also the first on-line smash hit. There are over 100 X-Files sites on the Net and one, run by Stephen Banks, boasts nearly 100,000 visitors since June.
For those of you who tuned in late, part of the premise of the series is that Dana Scully is a non-believer — a scientist looking for rational and earthly explanations to everything, while her partner, Fox Mulder, is open to what he describes as “extreme possibilities” which range from alien abductions to old-fashioned vampires. Although both characters rarely wear anything more revealing than trench-coats, both Anderson and Duchovny have become sex symbols, with Duchovny inspiring a Net group of self-titled “Duchovniks” and “the David Duchovny estrogen brigade” and Anderson causing restless nights for, “the Gillian Anderson testosterone brigade.”
Since most TV sex symbols get their titles by dressing in lycra outfits — when they’re dressed — it’s a testament to the appeal of the show and the two actors that they’ve become fantasy figures despite rarely venturing anywhere near the world of romance. And that’s one possibility they don’t intend to explore as Carter has repeatedly stressed that the show is about two professionals investigating mysterious cases and not about their love lives or lack thereof.
On the day of my set visit Anderson’s personal life is merging slightly with the weird world of Scully. When director Kim Manners yells “cut” after yet another take of the arcade scene a crew member appears with a huge pile of ice cream topped with a pair of flaming sparklers and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to Anderson who is celebrating the start of her 27th year on the set of the show that has made her a genuine TV star.
With everything going on in her life — including the recent birth of daughter Piper, who is playing on set — it’s tough to imagine what Anderson could be wishing for when she blows out the candles.
Between takes Anderson leaves the arcade and joins me in the parking lot. After watching her as the rather prim and stern Agent Scully for just over two years it’s slightly disconcerting when she casually pulls up a seat on a granite divider and displays a smile much broader than she usually gets to show when she’s chasing extraterrestrial killers around the United States. An award-winning theatre actor with virtually no other TV and film credits, the show was definitely Anderson’s big break and she has a few theories on why it’s hotter than the fuel tank on a flying saucer.
“I think it’s all of the elements that go into it,” says Anderson. “I think ultimately the show looks so good on screen and it’s so exciting to watch — you don’t know what to expect from one episode to the next and we get the most incredible costars to work with. It’s just all around such a tight and slick show that it’s just drawn people in from every aspect from the lighting to the scripts to the editing — everything.”
Scully and Mulder may trust no one — but it’s clear that everyone involved with The X-Files trusts each other.
During the first season it seemed that whenever anything strange happened Scully always missed it by just a few seconds, which meant she was never quite sure if her partner had a full set of batteries in his flashlight. But Anderson’s pregnancy late in the season meant the writers had to find a creative way to explain her absence. They did. Scully was abducted by aliens on The X-Files maternity leave program.
After Anderson gave birth to her daughter (who spends as much time on-set as possible) her character returned to the show with a slightly different world view — and although Scully is still looking for plausible scientific explanations and hasn’t quite accepted what happened to her, she isn’t quite as quick to dismiss “extreme possibilities.”
Two of Anderson’s favorite episodes featured role reversals where Scully wanted to believe and Mulder played the doubter — one was about a death row convict who claimed to be able to channel her recently dead father and the other told the story of a murderer with a fetish for defiling fresh corpses. “It’s more fulfilling for me in that I am more of a believer and it gets frustrating to be a nonbeliever over and over and over again when sometimes you’re sensitive to certain subject matter and want to be more open-minded in that arena.”
Anderson says the most difficult part of her job as a special agent — aside from the long hours — is “reacting to special effects that aren’t there or exaggerating something that you know is fake, is prosthetic, or some kind of make-up reality and reacting to it as if it’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen in your life.” And she laughs at the thought — after all, over the past two years she’s been attacked or haunted by pretty much everything.
As for what she’d like to do if she ever gets a break from The X-Files, Anderson says, she’d “love to do features” and as she gets up to leave she adds, “It would be great to do a comedy right after this.”
After Anderson returns to the set Duchovny exits the arcade, also casually pulls up a piece of curb without fretting over his designer duds and reveals that when he was first offered the part of Mulder he turned it down. “Two years ago I received a script from my manager who said “Here’s a pilot that I think is good” and I wasn’t going to do any pilots because I was just doing films. And I read it in my bathtub and I said, “It’s okay, it’s a good pilot.””
Duchovny agreed to audition, Carter offered him the role and Duchovny declined. He had already committed to working on a friend’s movie. “So I said, ya know I think I’ll pass. Thank you, I appreciate the interest, but I don’t really want to do a TV show. I think it’s a great script but I’m already committed to this person. And then,” says Duchovny, “they just leaned on me.”
Casting director Randy Stone called Duchovny from Vancouver, “and he said Chris Carter’s willing to come on a plane to come talk to you and I was like, well, I guess you guys really like me. I was just such a pushover that just those words that he would fly — and then they gave me a little more money – and then I did it.”
The 35 year-old actor seems to have an almost supernatural knack for backing into success. Duchovny, who shares story credit with Carter on two X-Files episodes (including the second season cliff-hanger), originally wanted to be a writer.
“I thought that learning how to act would probably be helpful in writing dramatically, so that’s how I started acting.” Because he wasn’t looking for a career as an actor Duchovny didn’t have much at stake when he showed up at auditions, which may have been partially responsible for the apparent ease with which he seemed to land interesting roles (prior to The X-Files, Duchovny appeared as the transvestite FBI agent in Twin Peaks and in numerous films including New Year’s Day, Kalifornia, The Rapture and Beethoven). “It’s the same in everything in life — relationships are unfortunately the same — if you don’t need the other person, then you’re in the position of power. If you go into an audition and you don’t really need the job they’re like, ‘that guy’s cool, there’s something about him.’ Yeah, he wasn’t kissing your ass.”
The X-Files seems to have that same special something — because it’s not trying to pander to an audience, people are rearranging their schedules to watch it. Duchovny believes the show’s appeal is that it’s both scary and smart. “I think that it’s intelligent writing for television and there’s nothing like it. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it on TV because all the scary shows have been kind of stupid. I mean Twilight Zone is interesting, but its goofy, in the end it’s campy. Outer Limits is campy. I don’t think we’re campy. I think we’re kind of conceived of as an actual drama rather than some kitschy, campy slice of Americana from this day and age. I mean we may turn into that, I can’t say, but I just don’t think there’s anything like it right now.”
As for his personal ambitions for his next hiatus — or his work beyond The X-Files — Duchovny admits he hasn’t given up on his dreams of writing. “I’d like to write and direct a film or just act in films again when this is over. I guess I’ll stay in the business in some capacity.” He says he’d also like to take a shot at writing an X-Files script.
And with that, Duchovny gets up, but before he can leave I ask if he has anything he’d like to see happen to Mulder. “I’d just like to see him die one day,” says Duchovny with a laugh. “Not soon, but one day. I think he should die — but then again they’re gonna have movies.” Then he flashes the charming smile that partially accounts for his legion of devoted female fans and adds, “I think he should get laid and then die.”
He may get laid, but chances are FOX’s’s franchise player isn’t going to pass on to the great beyond anytime soon. And if he does it will likely be for a special episode where Mulder investigates the after-life.
Whatever happens it will likely be debated in more detail than the next election as Internet fans obsess over every detail. X-Files producer-director, Kim Manners, says he became aware of the show’s relationship with the Internet when he was presented with the buzz on the two episodes he directed last season — Humbug, which featured The Jim Rose Circus (and will be rebroadcast this Halloween) and Die Hand Die Verletzt, a spooky story about small town devil-worshippers. “They showed me over a hundred typewritten pages about Humbug. They chatted about it for over a week and now on America Online it has its own file, it’s own department for Humbug. It’s bizarre.”
Manners says it’s an exciting, but slightly surreal experience to be working on a show that fans obviously care so much about. “Something about the show is fascinating, almost hypnotic to them, because they pay attention to every detail. It’s amazing what they watch. I mean they’re paying attention to every prop, every nuance, every line.”
J.P. Finn, the only Canadian producer on the Vancouver-filmed sci-fi series, believes the World Wide Web played a key role in the show’s success. “I think X-Files was one of the first shows that was adopted by people on the Internet and then it spread through the Internet — which is really a grassroots, word-of-mouth situation — and because it became grassroots through the Internet I think that’s why our popularity has reached into all facets of the community.”
Part of the magic of The X-Files is that it went on the air about the same time much of North America went on-line. “It definitely was one of those wonderful coincidences,” says Carter. “The timing was perfect. The X-Files and the Internet on-line services sort of came of age at the same time and so here you’ve got an audience who is highly computer literate and capable and they happen to watch The X-Files and so it was one of those things where — there’s probably a really pithy way to put this — the medium and the audience sort of all found their way to one another.”
However, just because a couple finds each other and falls in love doesn’t mean they’ll stay together. What makes The X-Files and the on-line crowd have such a fine relationship is that Carter, who is the show’s guiding force as the executive producer as well as one of the show’s top writers and directors, actually cares what the fans have to say and has spent time discussing the show on chatlines on Delphi (at alt.tv.x-philes and alt.tv.x-files.creative). Says Carter, “We download reams of paper from the Internet, America Online, Delphi, Compuserve — we download each episode — and I read through it, because I’m obsessive.”
The Internet and The X-Files are clearly a match made in cyberheaven and when William Gibson’s episode airs later this season millions of X-Philes may actually experience virtual rapture.
“He’s definitely doing an episode,” says the show’s creator, Chris Carter. “He’s written a treatment and as soon as I get my head above water here I’m going to work closely with him to turn it into an episode.”.
What will it be about?
“It will really be playing to his strong suit which is the cyber-world,” says Carter.
Gibson is a fan of the Vancouver-filmed hit series and Carter is a fan of the Vancouver-based sci-fi icon so an original tele-play was inevitable. Just the idea of Mulder Mnemonic likely has on-line addicts caressing their keyboards in anticipation — after all, it seems almost poetic that the creator of the term “cyberspace” is hooking up with the first cross-over hit of the Internet age, a show that’s as successful on computer monitors as it is on TV screens.
Asked how he deals with all the hype surrounding his baby, Carter replies ingenuously, “what hype?”
“As it comes,” says Carter. Although he keeps an eye on any official X-products, he wants to make sure he never loses track of his prime directive — scaring the hell out of millions of viewers every Friday night. “Everything I do the best I can do and really everything comes from the TV show, so the TV show’s got to be the best it can be. Everything else is secondary to me although most of these things get a tremendous amount of my time and energy because I’m concerned about the image of the show in any form.”
Although he has fairly limited involvement with the books and comics, Carter has been a part of the first two X-Files conventions and he freely admits that the kind of attention he received was a bit strange — even for TV’s new master of the paranormal. “It was rather startling actually when I walked on stage in San Diego and all those flashbulbs started going off,” says Carter. “Who ever imagined that they’d be speaking at a convention for a TV show that they created?”