Brother from another planet

You might say that writer Darin Morgan became the proverbial overnight success – after a decade toiling away on unproduced scripts – on March 31, 1995, the day the Fox Network broadcast “Humbug”, the first X-Files episode from his pen. Although fans had already learned his name earlier in the third season – he played the ‘Flukeman’ in “The Host” and received a story credit on the subsequent episode “Blood”, written by his brother Glen and James Wong – it was Morgan’s comedic take on The X-Files that instantly struck a chord with fans. It also earned the fledging writer a place on The X-Files staff.

“Humbug was a weird experience,” he recalls. “Everyone thought it was going to be a disaster up until the time we aired it.” Then, almost immediately after its premiere showing, Morgan knew the response was far more favourable. “(Co-producer) Paul Rabwin called to tell me about the online response back East, and how everyone liked it.” Only one person seemed to have been somewhat disappointed with the show – Darin Morgan himself. As an unproven writer, Morgan had little to say in the episode’s editing process, and found that some of the character interplay didn’t make it to the final cut. “There was this funny bit with Mr. Nutt, the hotel manager (Michael Anderson),” he says. “it was a gag David Duchovny came up with on the set. The manager goes through his big long spiel about making judgements based on people’s appearances, and then Mulder goes, ‘But I am an FBI Agent.’ and shows his badge. The manager says, ‘Sign here, please,’ and you see a close up of a hand ringing a bell. That’s how it ends now. But when we shot it, the manager turns to Scully to say ‘And you’re an FBI agent as well?’ Scully nods, and then he says, ‘But you’re a woman.’ Gillian reacted as if to say, ‘WHAT? I’m going to KILL you!’ but before she could speak, Duchovny leaned over quickly and rang the bell. It was a wonderful little bit of business for both David and Gillian, but people were concerned that we were being too funny, and the decision was made to cut that out.”

Lucky for Morgan, in the wake of “Humbug’s” success, the writer was allowed much more freedom in the editing room with his three subsequent third season episodes. “I love editing,” he enthuses. “this will sound like a schmaltzy one-liner, but I told the other staff writers – who came from shows where they weren’t allowed in the editing room – that (that’s) where you do your final rewrite. All my scripts were too long, which in one respect is bad, because they had to shoot more footage, but as (editor) Stephen Mark said, it’s always so much better to trim that to have to add on.”

As a boy, Morgan had no ambitions to be a writer. He describes himself as a “regular kid” whose goal was to be a professional baseball player. He liked watching TV and went to the movies regularly with his father, a film buff. But when elder brother Glen decided to try acting in high school, Darin saw “how much fun he was having” and also became an active participant in high school dramatics. When Glen enrolled in the film school at Loyola Marymount University, Darin would visit and help his brother create student films. Eventually, Morgan the younger enrolled in the same course, discovering the classic filmmakers who would become his principal inspiration.

“I saw Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL for the first time in a theatre that had an organ,” Morgan recollects, “and I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but seeing THE GENERAL changed my life. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do! I had a similar experience with Charlie Chaplin, when I saw CITY LIGHTS for the first time. I’d always heard Chaplin was a genius, but I hated the image of him as the Little Tramp. Watching the boxing scene in CITY LIGHTS, I realized he really *was* a genius.” Morgan’s film studies, particularly the physical comedy of silent film and the screwball genre, provided invaluable instruction in how to think visually. “I think of slapstick as a way of positioning the camera, to make a bit of business funny to look at, rather than someone having someone say something. That sounds very simple, but you mention slapstick to most people nowadays, and they just think of someone being conked on the head. The only time I write camera movement and angles is when I have a specific gag requiring the camera to be positioned in a particular way. Some gags just aren’t funny if they’re shot wrong. So in that way silent film has influenced me – you have to think about how the scene is going to be filmed. The X-Files’ visuals are mostly atmospheric. I’m told that when other television writers read our scripts, they hate them, because there’s so much description, whereas other shows don’t have *any* description. But the directors on The X-Files don’t mind being told specific things that need to be seen or shown because we are a visual show. I’ve heard stories of some directors on other shows getting very upset when a writer puts in too much description, and just to show the writer up will intentionally shoot it differently. On the X-Files, the directors are willing to have the writers put in as much as possible so that they knew exactly what we wanted.”

Morgan began writing in college, but dropped out after selling a script to a film studio. “I thought my career had started,” he says, “and that was part of my decision to leave college. I felt I’d already accomplished what I was hoping to get started there.” Then after an embarrassing attempt at writing a studio conceived “cross between BEVERLY HILLS COP and POLICE ACADEMY” which ended his Hollywood career as abruptly as it started, Morgan found himself without a job or a diploma. By this time, his brother Glen was working, with partner James Wong, for producer Stephen Cannell, and helped his brother land some guest roles on THE COMMISH and 21 JUMP STREET (which also starred Steven ‘Mr. X’ Williams). Then, in 1993, Morgan and Wong left Cannell to become writers and co-executive producers for The X-Files. “Glen showed me the pilot before it had been picked up for a series… and he was all excited about it.” But at the time, Darin, who has never been a sci-fi or horror fan, couldn’t appreciate his brother’s enthusiasm for the show. That was all soon to change. Glen, who was enjoying success on The X-Files first season, had great faith in his brother’s writing abilities, and suggest that he work on a script for The X-Files during the hiatus between the first and second seasons. Glen would then present the finished script to executive producer, Chris Carter, with a view to get it into production. Darin’s first idea was for a ‘teaser’ – TV parlance for the sequence before the titles of each episode – about two kids in a car, which eventually became the teaser for “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” At the same time, Glen and James Wong were suddenly faced with an unexpected assignment to write episode three (Blood), and Glen asked Darin to come up with a story idea about postal workers. Darin suggested a postal worker who goes berserk from reading subliminal messages on a sorting machine’s digital display screen, and when the amount of time allotted for writing “Blood” was cut, Glen asked Darin to come to Los Angeles to help him and Wong storyboard the episode, for which he would receive a story credit.

X-Files producer Howard Gordon, who had sat in on a Morgan and Wong story meeting which Darin had attended, proposed that Darin join the writing staff. “I guess Howard thought I understood the show,” Morgan surmises. However, Morgan himself wasn’t sure that his preference for writing comedy would suit such a serious show. “I had learned from my other job at the movie studio that I always wanted to make sure that I could do a good job on what I was writing. And I was so slow a writer back then that I was terrified of the idea of being on a staff, where you have specific deadlines. But they contacted my agent directly and my agent said, ‘Yeah, okay, he’ll do it.’ And then my agent called and said, ‘You start on Monday. you’ve been out of work a long time. You need to start somewhere again. why not do it?’ I thought that made sense.” The first contract was due to run for nine weeks, but Morgan was unconvinced that he would last even that long. “Once I started I knew right away I was in trouble,” he say. “I was trying to figure out what I could do to fit in. Fortunately, everyone assumed that Glen was supervising me – but he wasn’t. He let me go off and make up my own stories.”

The first such story was “Humbug,” after which expectations suddenly skyrocketed. And Morgan more than lived up to them, with three more outstanding third season episodes, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, “The War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”. By the end of the season, he felt burned out from all the deadlines and distressed that his episodes upset some fans, who didn’t agree with his off-kilter view of the show. Most of all, he was ready to step away from the worlds of Mulder and Scully and return to fashioning worlds in feature scripts that were wholly his own. “I prefer doing a story that stands by itself,” he explains. “With a series, you have to consider how your episode affects everyone else’s episode. I don’t want to have to worry about that anymore.”

The reputation this remarkable writer earned during his residency on The X- Files – and the nominations of his “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” script for a 1996 Prime Time Emmy Award suggest that, whether his scripts end up on film or television, The X-Files was anything but Darin Morgan’s final repose.

 
 
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