Chris Carter made the paranormal sexy with The X-Files. Now, with his eagerly anticipated new creep show, Millennium, he’s shooting for just plain shocking.
Chris Carter has a horrifying idea. More monstrous than the Flukeman who wormed his way onto The X-Files during its second season. More hideous than the jumbo cockroaches that wiggled across the screen last season. More appalling than the apocalyptic serial killers about to be unleashed this season on Millennium, the deeply creepy X-Files spawn arriving Oct. 25.
“Let’s go jogging,” the TV producer suggests with hair-raising cheeriness. “How about Sunday morning? Sunday morning good for you?”
The horror, the horror. And that’s just the beginning. Hanging out with Carter for a few days in Los Angeles turns out to be an exhausting voyage into an otherworldly realm of paranormal scheduling. He may look like an ordinary 40-year-old human being–graying blond hair, blue eyes, the mellow demeanor of a man who’s spent far too much time on a surfboard–but there are definite signs that something not quite terrestrial lurks beneath the surface. For example: The guy never sleeps. At the office every morning at 7 a.m., seldom home before 11 p.m., he’s such a compulsive worker he makes James Brown look like a slacker.
Of course, Carter has lots to lose sleep over these days. After his breakthrough triumph creating The X-Files–the show that made UFO abductions chic–the world is waiting to see what he’ll come up with next. And what he’s come up with may just be the most boldly gruesome series ever allowed on the airwaves. Chockful of decapitations, live burials, incest, and other way-gross atrocities, Millennium pushes the limits of TV horror to such shockingly bleak levels it’d have Cancer Man reaching for the night-light.
Lance Henriksen (the robot from Aliens) stars as the not-so-subtly named Frank Black, an ex-FBI agent who belongs to a shadowy quasi-governmental organization of ex-law enforcers called The Millennium Group (supposedly based on a real quasi-government serial-killer-chasing group called The Academy–or so Carter insists). Using mysterious empathic powers to get into the heads of violent criminals, Henriksen skulks through each episode tracking down a growing tribe of psychopathic no-goodniks, apparently made extra cranky by the cosmic forces of the looming fin de siècle. “We’ve got this very important date coming up,” explains Carter. “The end of the millennium is an unsettling time, very nervous making. It sounds so obvious now, but I got this idea that someone should capitalize on it.”
That someone, of course, turned out to be the Fox network–home to The X-Files–which is betting big bucks on Carter’s new show. Spending $10 million on a feature-film-style launch, Fox is pre-premiering Millennium in 25 theaters across the country Oct. 23, followed by a satellite link-up in which Carter will answer questions from the audience. Millennium is also getting Fox’s prime time slot–The X-Files’ Friday-night hour–while Mulder and Scully are being transferred to Sunday evenings. A Millennium book is in the works as well, to be published by HarperCollins, a company owned by the same media mogul–Rupert Murdoch–who controls the Fox network (and Mulder thinks he’s the only one who can sniff out a conspiracy).
In short, get ready for Millenni-mania, the biggest hype attack of the TV season.
A writers’ meeting at 9:30 a.m. Carter has been toiling on the Fox lot for several hours already, tapping away on a laptop in his comfy bungalow office. Now he’s moved to a nearby conference room, where he’ll review script schedules with his Millennium scribes, mostly young, mostly male vets of shows like Homicide and NYPD Blue. It is instantly clear why these guys got their jobs–even their banter is dark.
“Remember that man who got killed by an errant golf ball near Griffith Park?” Carter asks. “If you think about it, it’s the perfect murder. If you were a good enough golfer, you could kill your victim and claim it was an accident.”
“Yeah,” nods one of the writers. “But you could only get away with it once. You couldn’t be a serial golfer.”
Carter usually spends about half his week on the Fox lot, taking meetings like this one, holding auditions, dealing with an endless barrage of emergencies (like when an assistant storms into the room to demand, “We need to know Mulder’s mom’s name, right now!”). For the other half, he jets up to Vancouver and visits the Millennium and X-Files sets (“He’s like a phantom—whenever we need him, he turns up,” says Henriksen). Technically, he lives in Santa Barbara, with his wife, Dori, and dog, Frankie. But the couple spend most of their time at their modest second home in Pacific Palisades.
On the surface, at least, it seems an utterly normal Hollywood lifestyle. Perhaps a bit too normal. Eerily normal. “People expect me to be a weirdo,” Carter admits. “They expect me to be pierced and tattooed and look a lot different. I do have a very dark sensibility, but it’s all inside.” Which is pretty much the way head X man David Duchovny describes his boss: “He’s not a psycho or anything,” he says. “If you get to exorcise yourself weekly on a TV show, you get all that stuff out of your system. He is a dark guy, but it’s all internal. He’s tough to get to know.”
Certainly there’s nothing obvious in Carter’s biography to suggest a portrait of a serial killer–although there are early signs of nascent neurotic work habits. He grew up in Bellflower, outside L.A. His father, Bill, who died last year, was a construction worker; his mother, Catherine, passed away five years ago; his younger brother, Craig, is a physicist working in Washington, D.C. In junior high, Carter got seriously hooked on surfing, a habit he still occasionally indulges. He put himself through Cal State University at Long Beach by, believe it or not, making pottery. His wife remembers him as a budding workaholic even then. “He would make 100 casserole dishes in a single night,” she says. “With tops that fit!”
After college, Carter took a job at Surfing magazine, but Dori (a screenwriter who penned the 1988 comedy Big Business) soon persuaded him to try his hand at script writing. Carter’s first effort, a Vietnam home-front drama called National Pastime, was never made, but it did catch the eye of Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney, who gave the 27-year-old novice a three-picture deal. After cranking out some more never-produced screenplays–like a comedy called Rest Home for Spies–Carter made the jump to television, where he labored in obscurity on such brief-lived projects as Copter Cop.
Then, in 1992, X finally marked the spot. At first, Fox had zero interest in a show about FBI agents chasing little green men. “It was a really tough pitch,” Carter remembers. “They just didn’t understand it. They already had a UFO show, Sightings, so they weren’t interested.” Carter repackaged the concept, emphasizing the paranormal as much as aliens, and pitched it again, this time successfully. Flash-forward to the present and The X-Files is Fox’s top-rated drama, a show that’s redefined sci-fi for the ’90s and inspired countless imitations (like NBC’s Dark Skies, which gets this year’s Oliver Stone Award for wackiest JFK conspiracy theory—that he was killed for knowing too much about the Roswell aliens).
The success of The X-Files has also turned Carter into something of a cult hero, a sort of post-Watergate Rod Serling (at X-Files conventions, he gets almost as mobbed as Duchovny). More to the point, it’s made him the hottest producer on the Fox lot, especially now that the network’s other big shows–Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210–are starting to slip in the ratings. No surprise, then, that Fox has granted Carter virtually free rein with Millennium, gambling that he can catch lightning in a bottle once again. Carter got the cast he wanted (although Fox execs did want William Hurt for the Frank Black role, until they found out Hurt doesn’t do TV); he got the budget he wanted (nearly $1.5 million an episode); and he got the look he wanted (hiring Seven art director Gary Wissner as production designer for the Millennium pilot).
“The concept is that we live in a culture where justice has been stolen from us,” says Carter, riffing on the new show with his trademark enigmatic caginess. “People have lost faith in the system. That’s the madness and insecurity I’m trying to write about. But, at the same time, I wanted to create a very bright hero who carries the weight of the world, who’s trying to make it a safer place for his wife and child [played by Megan Gallagher and Brittany Tiplady].”
Now that he’s famous, of course, Carter has to deal with some madness and insecurity of his own–celebrity nuisances like marital-discord rumors and other unkind whispers. Recently, things got ugly when the press reported a sexual harassment suit filed by a former X-Files script coordinator. Carter denies the charges but says his lawyers have advised him not to discuss the case. Others around him are less constrained: “It’s ludicrous,” says X actress Gillian Anderson. “It’s not him. He’s gentle and kind. He’s a wonderful guy.”
He certainly seems like one. And yet…something about Carter–the chilling California chipperness, the spooky sunshiny serenity–smells ever-so-slightly fishy, like one of those bottomless government cover-ups Mulder is always bumping into. Somewhere under that coolly bland exterior must beat a secret heart of darkness. How else could so seemingly pleasant a fellow hatch such brilliantly diabolical TV shows?
“You know, I have seen evil,” Carter reveals teasingly after the story meeting. “I’ve stared into its face.” With this, the master of the cliff-hanger leaves you dangling, only a tiny sliver of his psyche exposed. Typical.
Sunday morning. Pacific Palisades. Time for the dreaded jog. Carter, of course, has already been up for hours, working in his home office, a narrow space crammed with X-Files leftovers, like an alarmingly realistic dead alien from the show’s pilot episode (“I think he’s starting to decompose,” Carter says, giving him a sniff).
A quick ride in his Land Cruiser and he’s standing on the runners’ path on San Vincente Boulevard. As he starts to jog, the conversation returns to Carter’s face-to-face confrontation with evil. Mercifully, he finally opens up, recalling a seminal incident that happened over 20 years ago, back when he was umpiring his younger brother’s Little League team.
“There was a boy my brother’s age,” he begins. “He was 14 or 15. He was a good athlete and a good kid from a solid family. And then one day he was arrested. He had killed an Avon lady. Then they found that he had also killed his girlfriend with an ice pick. I didn’t know how to feel. I think I was wearing one of the kid’s T-shirts the day it happened. It was very unsettling. I would never have suspected he was capable of that. I think that was my first touch with darkness.”
As if on cue, another touch of darkness jogs into view–an ominous, skanky-looking fellow with greasy hair and a mottled beard. On his T-shirt is a portrait of the ultimate Millennium guest star, Charlie Manson. “Did you see what it said on the back of his shirt?” Carter asks. “It said, ‘Charlie don’t rave.’” He smiles. “Odd, isn’t it?”
He continues jogging on his merry way.