The X-Files universe may be one full of mystery and uncertainty, but there's at least one thing about it that is crystal clear: When writer, and now, director Darin Morgan's name is on an episode, audiences can always expect a weird and wonderful ride.
Morgan's first contribution to the series was the story for Season 2 episode, "Blood," and since then he's written ace installments like Season 3 episodes, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," and "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'" and arguably the best episode of Season 10, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster".
Morgan's episodes have a tendency to meld pathos, very quirky humor, and character introspection into a memorable mélange that even the actors find refreshing. As David Duchovny conveyed to me in a separate, recent interview about the joy of Darin Morgan episodes, he said "I always appreciate Darin Morgan's character assassinations. I'm always trying to figure out how to do that. I love his writing and I love working with him."
With "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," Morgan goes down the meta rabbit hole as Mulder and Scully explore the concept of The Mandela Effect, where humans are susceptible to the phenomena of remembering something as real when it never happened. An example being the bizarre cumulative belief of some that the comedian Sinbad played the genie in the movie, Shazaam (it was Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam, people!). In this episode, the concept is explored via Reggie (Brian Huskey), who asserts to them that he's been their partner in the X-Files department for their entire career at the FBI.
It's bonkers, it's brilliant, and needs to be explained. As such, a Letterman-esque bearded Morgan sat down with us to explain how his brain conceived of this piece.
With the renewal of The X-Files for a Season 11 and your call back to write another episode, did it start with asking yourself, "What do I want to explore?"
Darin Morgan: Well, you know my last episode ["Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster"] was kind of about coming back to the show, and reflecting back on what did it all mean and how did I feel about that?
I have to say, it was a unique exploration of those themes via comedian Rhys Darby's out-of-sorts monster.
Yeah, Rhys was great. So this one was more of like, 'Okay, you've reflected, so what's going on now with the world?" And the whole idea of, if this show's main thing has been 'The truth is out there' and we have a president who...
For him there is no truth.
Right. Or you have Mulder, who's been a conspiracy nut from the get-go, and now you have essentially his boss [President Trump] is even a bigger conspiracy nut.
Mulder actually looks sane for the first time compared to where the world is right now.
Exactly. So that was the main approach. How would Mulder respond to all that's going on around him?
David and I talked about that too, in that over the 25-year span of the show, the world has achieved peak surreal. As a writer, how do you distill that into this world?
Good question. I don't know. This may not directly answer you, but I found the hardest thing was in terms of Trump, every day he does something that you go, "I can't believe he said that. I want to address that." But a week later, no one remembers that thing. There were so many things when I first started writing that if I had referenced it I don't think people would have remembered it now. So I ended up focusing on the wall and his lying. Those two things will always be around as long as he's president. I sort of focused on those two things.
Having Reggie as the third partner is fantastic. Where did that idea come from, and also Brian's casting?
Brian was great. He's a lot of fun. I came across the... I was going to say the Mengele Effect, but it's The Mandela Effect. (Laughs) From that it was figuring out what I was going to do with that. It's this idea -- and I think this is where the third partner idea came in -- was like if someone has never had an experience, like I don't have a memory other people do, the only way to make them understand what that might feel like is if someone was watching the show, The X-Files, and the someone goes, "There was always another character." And you go, "Wait, no, no. It was just Mulder and Scully." And they say, "No, no. There was Mulder and Scully and Reggie something." That would put them in a position of going, "Oh, how would I react if a memory I have that I cherished of my past, suddenly nobody else believes me?" So that was the way to do it.
Did you come out of the other end of it feeling like the phenomena is something more?
I still think it's just people misremembering. I have a really bad memory myself. It's interesting to go, "Oh, try to come up with some theory to explain it." But it's just people not remembering. I guess that's why I probably didn't do as thorough and in-depth exploration of that phenomenon, because, to me, there wasn't a lot to run with. Other than that, I get parallel universes, which is one explanation.
As a director, you get a lot a looseness out of David and Gillian that is just so much fun. Do they immediately respond to your writing with a sense of play?
David and Gillian now know what my stuff is, so that's great because that's the biggest hurdle. They know what they're doing. And you know David's really good at contributing ideas. Gillian was all into it. It's like there's nothing they won't really try, even though this is probably not what they would normally do, so that's all easy. The hardest thing actually, in a weird sort of way, is with Rhys last time, and Brian, because they're joining The X-Files, they are more serious to begin with. We have to go, "No, no, no. This episode you use the comedy thing." This time I actually told Brian, straight out, right from the beginning, this is a comedy. But even then, they're still reluctant. You really have to push them. By the time you're done shooting, they're there. I've just learned, like I tried to do with Brian this time, is right from the get-go, explain this is what we're doing, and he was all into it.
Is there are sequence or scene from this episode that pleased you the most in execution and outcome?
I have a strange fondness for the scene with Mulder and Dr. They (Stuart Margolin) and the statue. It's hard to explain, but it has to do with sometimes when you're doing my episodes, you get a sense that the actors are like, "Oh, this is kind of fun." They're into it. Doing that scene, I got that same sense from the crew. You could tell Craig (Wrobleski), our DP, and our the camera guys were really going, "Oh, this is going to be interesting." They were really into it. Stuart Margolin, who played Dr. They, is also great. Just him and David and that whole scene, I I don't know if anyone will get it, but I just really love that scene.
And after we shot the scene, I was talking to Craig after this going, "We don't have a bad shot. Every shot in the scene is kind of interesting." And it cut together. I'm proud of that scene.
Are you doing any episodes in the back part of the season?
No. Once is enough.
After all these years, do you feel like new X-Files stories still come to you easily?
Oh, God no. No. It's always tough. Writing for the show is so hard because you have to come up with a completely different story and it's not in an anthology show, which in some ways makes it easier. But it's also difficult because you have to do Mulder and Scully investigating a story on something completely different. It's just always difficult. I've never had an episode where, "Oh, that one was easy."