"The X-Files" ended its run on Fox six years ago, but its writers and producers can still grouse about working on the show like it was yesterday.
The Paley Festival session on the long-running hit series featured a dozen members of the cast and crew. The overall theme of the evening was that working "The X-Files" was very hard. In terms of news value, the panel was trapped in an “X-Files”-esque netherworld: The TV show is yester-decade's news, while this summer's new "X-Files" movie is of very high interest. Yet creator Chris Carter is naturally unwilling to give any spoilers. The panel moderator -- Variety deputy editor Cynthia Littleton -- is thus charged with the tricky task of either asking about a series that's been endlessly discussed, or asking about a movie that cannot be discussed. Plus, charismatic leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson did not attend. So, again, tricky.
Luckily, some fine nuggets were nonetheless unearthed about the movie, those controversial final seasons, dealing with Fox censors and the bizarre "X-Files" 9/11 connection.
The second "X-Files" movie was delayed due to Carter's 2005 lawsuit against 20th Century Fox Television claiming the studio short-changed him on syndication fees. Carter says the moment the lawsuit settled out of court, Fox was ready to do the movie.
The film has wrapped shooting and is currently scheduled for release on July 25. The trailer (shown twice for an enthusiastic Paley crowd) features lots of snow, running, a large syringe and a helicopter.
Most everything else is pretty hush-hush, including the title.
"I know what I want it to be, but Fox has ideas of their own," Carter says. "I know what it should be."
The film will pick up six years after the end of the series. It's supposed to be a standalone feature removed from the alien mythology of the TV show, a throwback to the show's "monster of the week" episodes. Still, some lingering aspects from the series, like whether Scully's child will be a normal tyke, will be addressed.
"It will not be a mythology movie, but it's true to everything that's come before," says writer-producer Frank Spotnitz.
The final seasons
Let's quickly check off the ways "X-Files" influenced modern primetime TV: Strong female investigator, serialized story lines, sci-fi themes, writers taking story cues from online message boards -- "The X-Files" trailblazed. "Lost," "Heroes," "Jericho," "Battlestar Galactica," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"... the entire modern pantheon of Geek-TV owes a huge debt. (Chris Carter, left, and Frank Spotnitz. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/Paley Center for Media)
And then there's the last few seasons, eight and nine in particular. The series' tortured final years wound down like some sort of cautionary tale of network timeslot addiction: The quasi-recasting of the lead characters (fans, meet agents Doggett and Reyes), the constant cliffhangers upon cliffhangers, the Gordian knot of tangled alien mythology that no amount of Scully's logic or Mulder's theories could ever explain, even the inevitable ill-conceived spinoff with minor characters expanded to leading actor status -- remember "The Lone Gunmen"?
"X-Files" finally died in 2002. The ending: Yet another cliffhanger. When it came to giving loyal fans closure, "X-Files" makes "The Sopranos" look like "The Love Boat."
Yet the show's meandering third act also became influential, teaching an inadvertent lesson. The producers of "Lost" almost certainly would not be so eager to set an end date for their South Pacific island adventure if not for "The X-Files." Same with "Battlestar." For serialized shows, there's now a powerful desire to conclude with class and style. The creative meltdown of the "X-Files" is oft-cited as the exact model to avoid: "You don't want to go out like that" is the fanboy refrain, as if "X-Files" died of a long bout with pancreatic cancer rather than simply airing a few mediocre seasons.
Littleton asks Carter if he had any regrets about the final season. The room goes dead quiet.
"I'm not going to admit to my regrets," Carter says. "I look back [and wonder] why did I make that choice ... [but] you never imagine it's going to go nine years ... you have an idea where you're going to, but you don't know how long it's going to take you to get there ... you're always going to be dealing with a new landscape each week ... I'm going to say, no, I have no regrets."
Translation: Of course I have regrets, but, really, how do I benefit from listing them here and now?
Carter's process seems to be very, as creatives like to say, organic. He notes that he was largely winging the mythology story line and that having a series bible -- standard practice for a show -- is "a really stupid idea because they can fire you and get somebody else." He added that the mythologies of the show flowed together and the "connections were really beautiful" in the middle of the series' run.
The sense is that Carter didn't try to impose his will over the direction of the show, which resulted in a character-driven, flowing story that went wherever it wanted, for better or worse.
Watching the crew reminisce together, one is also reminded of the bottom-line reality of what it means to end a television show: You and all your co-workers, many of whom are your friends, lose their jobs.
Here's what happened in the short-lived "The Lone Gunmen" spinoff's March 2001 pilot episode: The Lone Gunmen stop a plot to hijack a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center. Really. How did they react to the September terrorist attacks having dramatized a very similar scenario just six months prior?
"It was freaky, and one of the weirdest things is no one really asked us about it," Carter says. "It had been imagined before, by many others."
"Condoleezza Rice is saying its an unimaginable crime -- hello, my pilot!" adds "Lone Gunmen" actor Dean Haglund.
"It made me angry," Spotnitz says. "It was not unimaginable. My first thought was ... 'Oh my god, I hope they weren't copycatting the Lone Gunmen, which they weren't. My next thought was: 'Why weren't we prepared for this?' "
Odds and ends
"You get these magnificent sculptures and it ends up being a rubber suit on a guy and they look stupid. So you want to turn all the lights off because I can see the suit and I start laughing and I can't direct the scene." -- director Rob Bowman on how silly monster costumes helped inspire the show's distinctive low-lit look.
[Hearing the show's theme music for the first time] "I'm like, 'What the hell is that?' And Chris is like, 'I like this; it's like whistling in a graveyard.' And I'm like, 'Whatever' ... Chris wanted to leave room at the end of the credits for 'The Truth Is Out There,' and I'm like, 'What for?" -- writer-producer Glen Morgan, gamely reciting how Carter was clued in to how some of the show's signature elements would be effective early on.
"They said you can't deal with necrophilia, you cannot put necrophilia on television. So I thought, 'What do I do now?' So I just called him a death fetishist ... and they said, 'that's great.' " -- Carter in getting his first solo scripted episode, "Irresistible," past Fox censors.
"At that point it was very polite and very helpful then ... it exploded and became vicious ... and it became unhelpful." -- Morgan on how online message boards aided writers with constructive feedback before devolving into a flamewar.
"The problem in television is the train doesn't stop. Every eight days is a new show ... that drive wears you down" -- Bowman on the "X-Files" workload.
"It will not go unconsidered in the movie," -- Carter on giving fans some added insight into whether Scully's baby turned out normal vs. paranormal.
"We've talked about it over the years ... Lance [Henriksen] would love to do it ... [but] it's a long shot" -- Carter, on doing a follow-up to "Millennium."
"I came up first day I got the whole suit on and Duchovny comes up to me and he shakes my hand and I've never met him before and he leans into me and says: 'Why are you doing this?'" -- Darin Morgan, on playing fan favorite monster-in-a-suit Flukeman.
"It never got easy. In the nine years, it was always difficult trying never to repeat yourself" -- Spotnitz, on workload.
"I never had a good sense of how popular it was, I had my head down ... working to make my deadlines. Not until we did the movie" -- Carter, on "X-Files" popularity.