Rolling Stone (Australia), 1995. Rock and Roll Yearbook. An Interview with Chris Carter
AD: When the X-files was being developed, was it one of 30 ideas in your top drawer?
CC: It was my top idea actually, something I had wanted to do for a long time. It was inspired by a show that was on when I was a teenager called the Night Stalker. So I had almost 25 years to contemplate that or refresh those memories. I loved the show and wanted to do a show as scary as that one.
AD: Was it the scariness that you were trying to recreate or was it that lurking sense of paranoia?
CC: Both those things. I wanted to scare people first and foremost.
AD: It’s the first mass entertainment show I can think of that is really in this decade. It deals with the culture – like cyberspace, the Net, technology, the Gulf War and stealth bombers.
CC: Yeah, it’s funny, I don’t think we could actually tell these stories without cellular phones. Or without the Internet or the computer connection.
AD: How hard was it to sell the concept? How did you pitch it in the first place.
CC: Well, I was brought to Twentieth Century Fox under an exclusive contract by a man named Peter Roth. We had a nice lunch soon thereafter he said, “What do you want to do?”. I said, “I want to do something like the Night Stalker”. I came up with some ideas about two FBI agents. I had just seen Silence of the Lambs so I’m sure that inspired me. I came up with these things called the X-Files, X standing for the unknown. [Roth] loved it. We pitched it to FOX, and they turned us down.
AD: Really, Why?
CC: They didn’t really get it. Peter was so sure that we were onto a winner, that we arranged another meeting. We pitched our hearts out again, and whether it was because they liked it, or they wanted us off their backs, they bought the idea and I went to write a pilot script.
AD: How did you improve the second pitch?
CC: I think we just added enthusiasm and a little more detail. I had the good fortune to see a friend who was a research psychologist. He gave me a scientific survey on the occurrence of alien abduction and belief in extraterrestrials. It showed if you were to believe it, that three million people, or thereabouts, believe they’ve actually been abducted by aliens in the US.
CC: So I thought, well, this is interesting. I took it into them and said, “There are people out there taking this stuff seriously and I think that we can make that the foundation of the show”.
AD: When you first explained Scully and Mulder to FOX, was it a point of sale that this was going to be purely working relationship, no love interest.
CC: I wanted it to be that way from the get-go, although I did want there to be sort of an underlying tension between the two of them because my feeling is when you put two smart people, a man and a woman, in a room, I don’t care whether or not they’re passionate about their life and their work, you’re going to get sexual tension out of that naturally.
AD: Yeah, the sort of Harry-met-Sally-with-brains-scenario. You’ve said, “That’s incredible paranoia out there – that’s what test marketing taught us.” Did you actually go and test market paranoia?
CC: We actually test marketed the show and what I was really surprised to learn was that everyone in the test audience believed that the government was not working in their best interests.
AD: The whole concept of the X-Files strikes me as being a very clever ploy. You’ve got unsolved mysteries which in a way absolve you of the responsibility of actually solving them. That must be nice out sometimes.
CC: Well, it’s not an out. It’s kind of a necessity. We’re dealing with the unexplained and what we would have to do at the end of each episode with closure would be to explain things. And of course we have no explanation.
AD: Some of the scripts are written in less than 72 hours I believe – fairly insane writing sessions. What causes that situation?
CC: This is a grind, and what happens is that you’re always doing many things at once. You are conceiving a show, writing, prepping, shooting, editing, and then putting music and sound into the show. Every day you do those things. So sometimes it all catches up with you and you find yourself in a situation where a good script doesn’t come in. You’re forced to put together something to shoot in a very short time. Seventy-two hours – that’s more a rewrite than an actual concept-to-completion scenario.
AD: What are you knee-deep in at the moment? What’s occupying your mind – are we talking about abductions, horseripping?
CC: We’re shooting an episode, no11 for the third season, It involves Scully and Mulder and what in fact looked like a religious miracle. And it’s currently in its third day of shooting and I’m still sitting here at my computer doing some little tweaks on it as we go.
AD: I’m actually amazed by some of the subjects you get away with on mainstream American TV: voodoo, devil worship, necrophilia. Has the moral Majority got on to you yet?
CC: No, I think we handle these things rather smartly. I’ve got to answer every week to a censorship wing at the network. With the necrophilia episode, as you call it, the word necrophilia is never spoken. He’s called a death fetisher. In the Satanic Cult episode, the word Satan never actually appears.
AD: Even so you’ve got people ripping out human hearts and so on. I mean, there’s not much room for doubt there.
CC: Right. It’s all a lot of fun, of course.
AD: Of course. In fact, you won an award for children’s programming.
CC: Yes. We won an award from a parents association for the quality of our show.
AD: Were you a bit surprised by that?
CC: It’s a family show.
AD: Yeah, the Manson family.
CC: I think it’s smart and I think we scare people by heightening their fear, by making them use their imaginations. We don’t show a whole lot. It’s what we don’t show that is the scariest.
AD: The thing that attracted me to the X-files is how smart it is. You cover a really broad range of scientific and cultural references, from the philosophies of Indians in New Mexico to quantum physics. We don’t normally equate vast intelligence with television.
CC: That’s because people underestimate the audience. If you tell people a good, tight mystery tale, whether it’s highbrow or lowbrow, it’s a good mystery and this one happens to be very smart. It’s about science, so it has to be based on science fact in order for us to create our science fiction. Mulder and Scully are two intelligent characters behaving in an intelligent way – they don’t speak over your head.
AD: What do you define as the X-Files twist?
CC: It’s gotta take something that’s familiar and try to make it unfamiliar, of course. When you have anything that is classic horror or classic genre material, twist it and make it unfamiliar. The X-Files take on vampires was basically a very urban take on the idea: people who live off blood banks and who work in groups. So it’s our own peculiar ideas about the unexplained.
AD: It seems you owe something to Steven Spielberg. I really like the fact that the X-Files is set in very ordinary locations. It’s not glamorous, say New York, where all these things take place. It’s Lake Okobogee, or whatever it’s called. Is that deliberate to put it in the middle of ordinary lives?
CC: Most certainly. We don’t cast many stars on the show. The show’s only as scary as it is believable. I’ve had an opportunity to put big stars on the show and I haven’t because it would be a liability. I happened to grow up in a very Spielberg-like area of Southern California. I think that he’s an amazing film maker and I’d have to say that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the reason I’m even doing what I’m doing. It pretty much reflects my own sensibility and my roots.
AD: That’s interesting because Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is still one of my top ten, is classic comic book entertainment, brilliantly realized.
CC: I just loved it. When I saw that movie, I knew I had to do this.
AD: It’s interesting because the X-Files has evolved the other way. It’s now a comic book. Were Tales from the Crypt and the Twilight Zone an influence to you as a kid?
CC: Certainly, all that stuff. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, The Night Stalker, anything that Jules Verne wrote, any movies they made from his books were fascinating to me.
AD: So you have always been fiddling on the edges of the dark zone? Have you always been dreaming up stories of what if, what if?
CC: Yeah, I think I’ve got a kind of perverse sensibility.
AD: I like the sound of that. So, for instance, when you find yourself at a dinner party, do you drift off and look at someone and think what if they were actually a werewolf?
CC: No. I usually think what they do look like naked.
AD: I’ve suddenly become very uncomfortable in this interview Chris. The darkness of the show is also very appealing, too – it’s that classic thing of Mulder and Scully walk into a room with just flashlights which nobody in their right mind would ever do. Is the darkness of the show a key element as well.
CC: Certainly. I owe most of that to John Bartley who’s our fantastic director of photography. He’s made the show so beautiful and dark. He knows the X-Files sensibility well. And also, the art director, Graeme Murray, who, each episode, will figure out how to make it a little bit better. And that’s a rarity in this business.
AD: Well, it is one of the things about the show that sets it apart; it’s quite cinemagraphic as opposed to normal TV.
CC: It looks more like a movie; the way it’s cut, the way it’s directed, the way it’s realized, is very theatrical and there’s not a lot of stuff on television like it.
AD: The understated acting style of David and Gillian – is that something they brought to you or was that something you wanted?
CC: Something I wanted. I wrote these characters who were very serious, who were very real. When David came in a few years ago, he was very deadpan, very minimalist in his approach to acting. And so it worked for the character of Fox Mulder. But David’s also one of the funniest people you’ll meet.