Making Humbug

Behind the scenes of the show’s popular “comedy of horrors.” We’ve seen some pretty way-out things on The X-Files in the past two years. Morphing aliens, exploding facial boils, possessed kids, and lots and lots of glowing green bugs hungry to drain our body fluids… everything is grist for the gloomy X-Files mill. But nothing could have been a more extreme possibility than what arrived on our TV sets on March 31, 1995: a funny episode of The X-Files.

Funny? The X-Files? Well, why not? Comedy attempts to manage pain and chaos, and from the pilot on, there has always been a streak of wonderfully dry, ironic wit running throughout this very serious show. “Humbug” worked a neat reversal, with the humor, as dry and ironic as ever, finally taking centre stage. Yet the episode remains anchored to a core of sadness, and its X-Files roots, with a tale of sibling love and loss unfolding after prim and proper Mulder and Scully arrive to investigate a murder in a Florida town inhabited by sideshow artists with names like Dr. Blockhead and The Enigma.

Two of the X-Files newest staffers, writer Darin Morgan and director/producer Kim Manners, are responsible for this particular hour of madness, although some of the credit can also be laid at the foot of Morgan’s older brother, former X-Files writer and co-executive producer Glen Morgan. “The word came down from Glen, ‘Do one about circus freaks’ ” recalled Morgan, who immediately sat down to watch a tape of the Jim Rose Circus given to him by his brother.

Morgan’s X-Files debut came not as a writer but as an actor, when he played the Flukeman in “The Host”. He also received a story credit for the subsequent episode, “Blood”. Morgan’s credits previous to The X-Files are sparse. He had guest roles on The Commish and 21 Jump Street – “I wasn’t very good, ” he joked. Taking the job with a show as dark in tone as The X-Files created something of a dilemma for him, because he considers himself primarily a comedy writer: “I just don’t know how to write non-comedy. “

Handed the assignment to write about characters who could possibly by played by Jim Rose and members of his troupe, Morgan “did a ton of research.” On the history of sideshows and circus freaks. Once embarked upon the script, he found he couldn’t help but write it with a humorous slant. “I wasn’t trying to be goofy,” Morgan said. “I wasn’t told to do a funny X-File. I just wrote an episode that would have enough scares and be strange enough to be an X-File, and where the comedy would be good enough that they would let it slide. And that’s what they did. They said, ‘Okay, we’re going to go with it.’”

Executive producer Chris Carter was ready to “throw a knuckleball” at the audience. “I felt that by episode 44 we had earned the right to take a breather, and that people would appreciate a break from the unrelenting tension and paranoia, ” Carter explained. “And it wasn’t so far afield for The X-Files, even though the tone was different. We were still dealing with rather creepy stuff.”

Carter said the studio was “nervous about Humbug, but probably the most nervous person was director Kim Manners, who confessed to a panic attack when he realized he was about to undertake “the first comedy X-Files.” While the episode was shooting, he had no idea whether it was going to work or not. “This is only the second episode I directed, and Chris Carter wants to explore new ground. And I’m the guy that’s going to take the patient into the operating room and do an entirely unproved operation and see if it’s going to still have a heartbeat when it leaves surgery. And it did. But I was really scared to death. I’ve been directing in television for 16 years and it was the first time since the first episode of television I ever directed that I’ve literally been frightened.”

Manners’ first directing assignment on The X-Files had come earlier in the year when Glen Morgan and James Wong, with whom he had worked on 21 Jump Street, brought him in to directed their final script for the show, “Die Hand Die Verletzt.” That episode had moments of exaggerated humour played as straightforwardly as possible, and Manners’ approach towards “Humbug” was similar. “I felt that the script was funny, and if I played it straight and let the comedy bleed through, it would be genuinely, honestly funny. I tried to stay away from the obvious slapstick and to keep it from being too broad. It was a struggle. The idea was, we better not say, ‘Hey, this is X-Files the comedy.’ What I wanted to do was say, ‘This is X-Files, and it’s a funny episode, so enjoy it for that.”

One scene that illustrated Morgan’s theme of not being able to judge a book by its cover took place in a museum of curiosities. Beautifully shot by Manners and director of photography John Bartley, the sequence allowed the viewer to glimpse the museum curator’s severely disfigured face and hand primarily through reflections from a number of mirrors, or from obscuring angles. Morgan wrote it that way for several reasons, one of which was practical in nature. “I didn’t know how much time [SFX makeup designer] Toby Lindala would have. This was just one scene, and I didn’t want to do too intricate a makeup job, so we did end up showing a little bit more of it that I originally thought we would.” Morgan also didn’t want to “gross people out, to be honest. I didn’t want people to be afraid to look at it. But also, it had to do with people with physical deformities, the idea being that you want to look but don’t want to look -looking by not looking.”

This latter idea also inspired a scene where Gillian Anderson, as Scully and Vincent Schiavelli, who plays Lanny, a man with a “parasitic” or underdeveloped twin attached to his body, encounter each other early in the morning. Their bathrobes are slightly open, and they can’t help but peek at each other. “People look at other people’s body parts, without trying to look like they’re looking,” observes Morgan. “If any man were to see Scully in her bathrobe, and it was slightly ajar, he would glance, but trying to look like he was not glancing. And I believe it’s the same way with people’s deformities. You don’t want to stare, and yet you’re attracted. And so I was playing off those inclinations.”

Some of The X-Files’ online fans read more into Morgan’s gentle spoof than he intended. Although he wanted to “have fun with the viewers’ expectations of the show, Morgan was not responding to any specific audience concerns. For example, in one scene, Mulder falls onto a bed of nails and pronounces it more comfortable than a futon. Fans thought that was a joke referring to a computer conference where Chris Carter had said Mulder sleeps on a futon. Morgan, whose first contact with online computer discussions was a huge sheaf of printouts about “Humbug” given to him by the X-Files staff, said the line “was just a reference to futons. I had no idea there was a question among the viewers as to what Mulder sleeps on!” Another example was the hotel manager’s comments about Mulder’s “unimaginative necktie design.” Said Morgan, “I didn’t know that Mulder normally wears flashy ties. I watch the show and I picked that up, and people commented, ‘Oh, he’s making a joke about the ties,’ but I was not aware that Mulder’s ties were a past topic of discussion.” He added ruefully, “I had no idea I was tapping into the collective unconscious. “

Although “Humbug” was fraught with dialogue and situations of deadpan hilarity, the characters were always treated with dignity and respect, and when the story called for earnestness, levity was temporarily abandoned. The central scene for both Morgan and Manners was a completely serious one: Lanny’s confession in the jail cell that his underdeveloped twin has the ability to detach himself and has inadvertently killed trying to find a new host to replace the dying, alcoholic Lanny. “I wanted to play that for real compassion and sympathy, and make it an honest, heartfelt moment,” said Manners. “It made me feel good that, in the middle of this carnival of fun, we could give the audience a scene where there was a guy who was really dying of alcoholism. And we showed his pain about this twin brother that he had taken care of, and done everything for – he had nothing in his life because of this brother. And that scene paid off. I felt really good about it.”

Fortunately for an episode set in Florida, most of the shoot took place during weather unusually warm and sunny for winter in Vancouver. Even so, Mother Nature played havoc with the cast and crew. The sideshow artist known as The Enigma, who played a character known as The Conundrum, had to wade for several takes in water close to freezing in temperature. And when the crew arrived to shoot the opening cemetery scene, Manners recalled that “it was Monday morning and it snowed over the weekend, so there was four inches of snow on the ground when we got there in the morning. We had guys with torches who were walking around melting it. We brought in a water truck to wash it away and a steam truck to steam it away, and I had to start the sequence shooting all the close-ups.”

The tight shooting schedule also prevented some scenes from working out to Morgan’s complete satisfaction. His inspiration for the funhouse sequence where Scully shoots out some mirrors was not so much Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai – a film Morgan dislikes – but “every chase through the mirrors” he’s seen in film. A fan of silent era comedy, Morgan greatly admires Chaplin’s funhouse mirror scene in The Circus, and he brought a videotape with him to Vancouver (Morgan was on set for the entire shoot) to show Manners and the art department. The scene ended up much shorter and simpler than what Morgan had hoped for. The filming took place late at night at the end of a 15-hour work day.

“I actually had no time to shoot it, ” Manners said. , “It was time for us to go home. So I planted the camera in one spot; I either had it high or for another shot I had it low, and I tweaked the mirrors, I never moved the camera. We shot the whole sequence in about 45 minutes, because we had to get off the clock. I wish I could say it was a designed sequence, but in television sometimes you can design a sequence and when you get to work and you’re in your 15th hour you take your homework and throw it out the window. You’re now going to tap dance, and that was one of those sequences that was just completely winged.”

Despite the long hours, Manners said everyone enjoyed poking a bit of fun at themselves, and the stars themselves got into the spirit of things. “We all had a good time. It was good for David and Gillian to be able to do the jokes, do the yucks, and not have to be Mulder and Scully, we’re FBI, we investigate the paranormal. It was our version of MAD magazine. David loves to open up his comedic wings. In every episode, he’ll come up with a funny line. So we’ll do what’s scripted, and then we’ll do another take with his comedy lines in it, and oftentimes Chris will say, ‘Let’s use it.’ “One scene had Scully pretending to eat a cricket, and on a dare from Jim Rose, Gillian Anderson actually ate one. When it came time to film the scene she shocked Manners by volunteering to swallow more live insects, even though the producers had spent $2000 on edible honeycomb crickets. A bemused Manners laughed that Anderson was “nuts, absolutely nuts, but then she’s young enough to be nuts.”

Manners allowed the actors to play with different line readings. “I would say, ‘Let’s go a little bigger here, let’s try one a little smaller.’ And I would print two or three takes. I got in the cutting room and I looked at all of them, and even as I was cutting the picture, I was still thinking what would be the best way to go, because I was walking on thin ice.”

Certainly, “Humbug” was an enormous risk for all involved, but The X-Files has always been about taken risks, not only for the characters, who frequently put their lives on the line, but for the producers, who continually experiment with every aspect of the show. “I’m very proud of the episode,” said Chris Carter. But Morgan is characteristically ambivalent; he is “still not sure” how well “Humbug” succeeded.

Is there another humorous X-Files on the way? That’s open to question, but without a doubt, this time the risk paid off with a unique lighthearted and affecting hour of television.

 
 
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