"I want to start off talking about one of my favorite subjects, which is Dana Scully.” This is how host Kevin Ott started the conversation with Chris Carter at the Writers Guild Foundation Genre Smash Event on Tuesday. Philes and writers filled the NerdMelt Showroom in Los Angeles to hear Chris' memories of The X-Files and thoughts on being successful in the television business.
The event started with a host Q&A and then fans were able to ask their own questions. If you followed along with us on Twitter you may have seen some of the highlights. Here's what you missed if you weren't able to make it to the event!
From the very beginning, The X-Files went in different directions than most other TV shows. Chris described the trick of the show: "Mulder is always right. It's keeping it grounded in Scully, but you know Mulder's always right.”
The pilot we know and love could have been very different. Scenes were shot that included Scully's boyfriend Ethan. His scenes were eventually cut, but when Scully answers the phone call from Mulder at the end, Ethan is sleeping next to her. Chris joked about Scully laying next to the guy even though "She's still a virgin.”
The other episodes included on the walk down memory lane were “Beyond the Sea”, “Home”, “Irresistible”, “Jose Chung's from Outer Space”, “Post Modern Prometheus”, “Pusher” and “Milagro”.
On "Home," Chris pointed out that while scary, it wasn't a violent episode. "You never saw the violence itself and that was kind of an amazing trick. And it shows you just how powerful suggestion can be.” Even before filming began the unit production manager warned Chris they'd gone too far. Later the head of the studio said the episode would never run again, but it's played often now.
But “Home” certainly wasn't the first time The X-Files pushed the limits. When Chris turned in the script for “Irresistible” the character of Donnie Pfaster was originally a necrophiliac. The network said no, but with no other script available and time running short Chris made one little adjustment. He changed necrophiliac to "death fetishist." The network's response according to Chris? "Great, shoot it!"
The inspiration for “Post Modern Prometheus” came from James Whale's film Frankenstein. Originally written for Cher and Roseanne Barr, Chris said he believes the episode turned out better without the Hollywood stars. He found the man who played Izzie while he was driving down the street. When asked if the end of the episode is real Chris shared "it's my fantasy that Mulder and Scully danced.”
When filming that famous end scene, Chris revealed "That was actually David and Gillian who got up and danced without my direction...and for me that was one of those magic moments that sort of encapsulates the show and how they feel about one another. So that was complete luck and hats off to David and Gillian.”
And the rock star who helped inspire the episode, what did she think? "Cher ended up liking the episode so much that she invited me to present her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. So you can imagine... I was standing up on Hollywood Boulevard presenting Cher... with this star... it was an X-File.”
When asked about his personal favorite episodes, Chris said really all 202. But he did share this tidbit about “Milagro”. Shortly after it aired "Sean Penn came up to me, which was a big deal for me, and he said 'that was one of the best things I've ever seen on television.’ "
In that age-old argument between Shippers and Noromos, did Chris feel pressure to get his two characters together? He said no, because as much as the audience may have thought they wanted it, they really didn't. "I knew that if they got together it would spoil everything. And everything would then be having to play 'we got together now what do we do.' I think for me Moonlighting was a good example of going a step too far. And it's funny on Castle, they asked me 'what do we do?' and I said don't, don't do it! But what do I know! That tension had to be there and I felt that it lasted. It's funny, even when you know that there's a child, you still feel that somehow they never consummated it.”
But these episodes weren't created by Chris alone. One recurring theme throughout the conversation was Chris' thankfulness for those who helped him make the show as good as it is. He credits Rob Bowman, Kim Manners, R.W. Goodwin, Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, David Gauthier, Frank Spotnitz, Mark Snow, Howard Gordon, and Alex Gansa as well as many others. Chris also recognized Anne Simon, as well as his brother, as the scientists who help shape the mythology. Like Mulder once did, Chris said he “depended on the scientist to keep us honest.”
Of course it’s also the actors who bring the characters to life. Upon meeting David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, Chris said he knew the moment he met them there was something special. When it came time to cast the role of A.D. Walter Skinner, Chris jokingly said “Mitch was, he was such a perfect choice for it. Glen Morgan taught me something. And everyone should listen to this because it's really good advice when you're running your own TV show. He says when in doubt, cast the bald guy. And he's right. Because immediately it makes the character more real. He seized on something that was so perfect and I've never forgotten that.” In the role of Krycek, Nicholas Lea won the part largely do to his outstanding performance in his small role in the episode “Genderbender”.
Having great people helping you is one key to creating good television, but Chris shared other lessons he learned along the way. His first opportunity to be a showrunner came on a show called Brand New Life that starred Barbara Eden. There he said "I learned what producing television is, it's problem solving. Every moment you're awake it's problem solving. And I learned the politics and I learned many, many things".
Television is a grueling business and can be repetitive. But a college job may have given Chris the patience to deal with the repetition. "I put myself through college sitting at a potter's wheel. I made the same thing over and over and over day in and day out. I made 10 different things but I'd go in and make 100 of them. And I loved it. And for me to wake up and do the same thing every day is a form of mastery. Was it hard? Yes. Was it excruciating and maddening? Yes. But the idea of getting up and knowing what you're doing every day, it's a fantastic thing."
For aspiring writers, Chris offered this advice. "I always say that when you're writing a television series, you're writing one handed. You've got one hand on the telephone and one hand on your keyboard. And that one hand on your keyboard often goes to the cash register that you're forced to be accountable for when you're writing that episode.”
Another thing to keep in mind "It's a puzzle, and if you like puzzles you'll be really good at the job. Every day presents new challenges. I always say you're doing 5 things every day on a TV show. You're coming up with an idea. You are boarding or outlining the idea that you came up with. You are writing the episode you just outlined. You are prepping the episode you just wrote. You are shooting the episode you just prepped, and you are editing the episode you just shot. Every day you're doing all those things. It's never a dull moment and that's 5 days a week...really 7 days a week but 5 days a week, 13-14 hour days, for us 11 and a half months a year".
A fan asked about the pitching process and whether it's important to have your story arc planned out ahead of time. Chris responded that not knowing might lead to a better story. "When they ask you to give the arc for the first season you make it up. Because you don't quite know how it's going to work. So many things occur to you in the doing of it. I wish some of the studio heads would have more trust and more faith and let you figure it out as you go along. Because that's the way it becomes good. You can shoot for something but I think that's actually a danger too. Because if you have a goal you're going to shoot straight for it and you're going to miss all the things you could have found along the way. Should you know what your show is and generally where it's going? Yes. Should you know exactly? I'd say the answer should be no".
Hard work is important, but as Chris pointed out, so is passion. "Television is really hard. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, you've got to prove yourself every step of the way. It's really a meritocracy and you really have to sell your vision and believe in it and be passionate about it. And that's the only way good things get done, is if you truly believe in them and fight for them every step of the way."
One of the last thoughts of the evening was on the practical effects used on the series, and how they pulled off so many big stunts like blowing up the train in “731.” Chris said, "The show became the show it was because we were too stupid to know what we couldn't do. So we tried everything. And we'd give them these scripts and they didn't know what was coming. And they'd say 'you want to blow up a train?' Yeah, yeah, can we do it? And they'd figure out a way. You want to have a conning tower come out of the polar ice cap? This is on an episodic television show. There's got to be a way. And they truck in tons of ice from the hockey arenas and build a conning tower and it happens".
Of course you can’t have a conversation with Chris Carter and not ask about XF3. His answer? “I think about the show all the time and certainly there's always talk about bringing it back in whatever form. So never say never”.
The final question of the night: When will we see new episodes of The After?
The always enigmatic creator says simply "Stay Tuned.”