“I’m done chasing monsters in the dark.”
That’s former FBI agent Dana Scully speaking in the trailer for the new franchise feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, pretty much guaranteeing an imminent run of chasing, monsters, and darkness. But until very recently, the words might just as easily have been spoken by X-Files series creator Chris Carter. It’s been six years since the last X-Files TV show aired, ten since Fight the Future, the first X-Files movie opened. And according to Carter himself, the search for the Truth very nearly stopped there.
“There was a time when I was happy to just look back at the good work that we’d done and move ahead to more good work,” he says “But I was convinced by my colleagues Frank Spotnitz and David Duchovny that there was a great movie to be made, and that the time was right. And while I wasn’t against it, they really helped push me in the direction of making the movie.”
That sounds a little like an X-Files plot point, with echoes of a despondent Mulder being encouraged by Scully to carry on his quest. And it’s not the only instance of X-resonance in the making of Carter’s new film, which involved extreme secrecy pacts; ominous deadlines; a mysteriously lost story; the fortuitous un-retirement of a wise editor; the helpful emergence of a technology wizard; an unstoppable conspiracy of Macs; and a harmonic convergence of suits and creatives around Final Cut Studio.
Fox approached Carter and co-producer/writer Frank Spotnitz about making a second X-Files movie in 2002. But the project was afflicted with serial delays: conflict with the TV schedule; fatigue from same; legal issues over TV rights; and scheduling conflicts with the stars. “I thought this would never happen,” says Spotnitz. “Then in January 2007 they resolved the dispute and literally the next day the movie was back on.”
Both Carter and the studio had taken notice of the efforts of hardcore fans who’d rented billboard space and taken out ads in the trade papers to say they wanted to see another movie. “Fox felt that there was a window for it, and that that window was now,” says Carter. “So really we made this movie for the fans. But we also realized that if this was going to be not the last movie, we had to make it also for people who might not be as familiar with the show.”
They settled on doing a “monster” show, in the tradition of the standalone scary TV episodes that made up almost two-thirds of the TV show’s run, rather than pursuing a “mythology” story arc that featured aliens and cover-ups. “We set up to tell a very scary story using two characters who we would introduce you to, without that introduction being a burden on the hardcore fans,” says Carter. “We integrated that introduction into the story line. We tried to create a good thriller, a mystery, call it science fiction. It works on all those levels, and it also works as an X-File.”
In fact, Carter and Spotnitz had actually created the germ of the story back in 2004, but the comprehensive notes had somehow disappeared. What looked like a loss was actually a net gain. “We essentially stuck with the same story, although we actually had forgotten some of it,” says Carter. “But these were all good things, because when we came back to it, we came back to it in a fresh way.”
After years of waiting for a green light on their project, Carter and Spotnitz found themselves in hurry-up mode through production and post. “The opening date they gave us was hard and fast,” says Carter. “With about 60 days of filming, mostly in Vancouver, modest budget, short prep, short post.”
They had no choice but to make the film at television pace. “We began filming December 10 and finished filming March 19,” says Carter, “but it felt like a hundred days, because three of the those weeks were in the snow.”
Carter was helped considerably by the careful planning he and Spotnitz had written into the script. “Everything was pretty much designed,” he says. “I never did a take 10 if I got what I wanted on take 3. I moved on.”
Up to Camera
To keep pace with his fast camera, Carter persuaded his neighbor, Richard Harris, an Oscar-winning editor, to come out of retirement and cut his first feature film in Final Cut Pro. “The schedule really was the villain here that needed to be slayed,” says Carter. “I don’t think we could have done this movie without a system that facilitated the speed and also without people who knew how to use the system beautifully.”
One of those key people was assistant editor Ryan Chavez, who Harris hired at the suggestion of the studio. “Ryan is a Final Cut Pro wizard,” says Carter. “And therein lies the beauty of this system: it has no limit if you understand it. As Ryan says, it’s all about workflow. And if you understand the workflow, there is no better system than Final Cut Pro.”
Chavez blue-printed a post-production workflow for the film that emphasized maximum speed and flexibility. With some brief hands-on pointers from Chavez, Harris was quickly cutting the show in an edit suite set up in Carter’s house in Malibu while the crew was shooting in Vancouver. “Because Richard had never done a Final Cut feature before, this was all new to him,” says Chavez. “But I was amazed at how fast he picked it up. I’d show him a shortcut and that was it. He was good to go.”
“I like the simplicity of Final Cut, I really do,” says Harris. “I’m not a technical guy, but it was just very friendly, as well as flexible enough to handle all the formats. And certainly the HD picture output is better than anything I’ve seen.”
Chavez’s Final Cut Pro-based workflow delivered to spec, allowing quick daily turns of significant footage. “Our schedule was extremely fast. As soon as I got a drive with new footage, Richard was watching dailies. I would organize his material as he was watching, and the moment I finished, he was cutting. So we were always right up to camera. I think we surpassed a lot of people’s expectations with what we were able to do.”
Because Chavez’s workflow allowed for secure digital HD dailies, Carter and Spotnitz could watch the progress of the edit while still shooting in Vancouver, in a nearby facility, at a trailer moved in for the snow shoot, and even on the set. Editorial also had the ability to securely DigiDeliver encrypted QuickTime files of scenes for Carter and Spotnitz to review.
“This was the first time I had the luxury of having digital dailies delivered to me on set," says Spotnitz. “Richard would cut scenes, and his assistant would email me links where I could download QuickTime files of the scenes as they existed and watch them on my MacBook Pro. If something came up, I could show it to Chris or the DP right away and deal with issues before principal photography ended. That allowed us to get tons of little pieces that we realized we wanted, and it saved a lot of money and time.”
The tightly-strung editing workflow helped bring the movie in on schedule. Carter showed a cut to the studio after only three weeks of editing, less than half the time allowed in his Directors Guild contract. “I knew that I couldn’t take that time,” says Carter. “We wouldn’t have been able to make our release date. I ended up showing it to them after three weeks of cutting.”
The front-loaded editing workflow also produced other backend results. “A month after we finished shooting, I gave Richard Harris a week to cut before I came in and saw the picture. And that first cut, which some people call the “suicide cut,” was nothing of the sort. You could already see the shape of the story, and it was very exciting.”
Working with Harris, Carter and Spotnitz cut the movie from a 2:39 running time to a lean 1:45. “We locked picture by the end of May,” says Spotnitz, “which is just unheard of in the movie business, to go that fast.”Pleased with responses to the film in previews, Carter says he’s open to doing another X-Files movie if this one does well. But if the next movie never happens, Carter says he is fine as well with putting the monsters to bed. “What happened with X-Files, I know, may never happen again in my life” he says, “where you write something that interests you, and it interests other people as well. I have to say, it’s been a miracle.