The Cool View Motel is not the kind of place you would expect to find outside the balmy, bustling activity of Los Angeles. A breeze rustles leaves belonging to a thick stand of trees nearby. The gravel lot shifts uncomfortably as the occasional truck rumbles over its skin. The decor is anything but trendy. The Cool View us a rustic stop somewhere in the middle of nondescript territory. Its only distinguishing feature on this mid-October evening is the remarkable sunset consuming the Western sky, an explosion of red hues that is the inadvertent result, a random passerby mentions, of the brush fire that erupt from this site earlier in the day.
Outside the building’s perimeter, people assemble. The chattering of countless walkie talkies drowns out the night’s more natural sounds. Spectators gather in the artificial illumination originating from sets of powerful lights. It could be anywhere, but this rural locale is actually the location set of The X-Files’ first foray into romantic comedy, an episode called “The Rain King” penned by Season Six writing recruit Jeff Bell, that just might ruin producer/director Kim Manners’ reputation as “The Horror King.”
Manners, renowned for gruesome offerings such as the now famous Season Four outing “Home”, is unconcerned. In fact, he’s pleased to contribute to the eclecticism that is rapidly coming to define the series’ Sixth Season.
“It’s a sweet little story,” he explains. It’s got a lot of compassion, a lot of pathos, and it’s very funny. We’ve got some great characters. It all revolves around this weather man, Holman Hardt, who for 20 years has repressed his feelings for Sheila Fontaine. You know how people’s emotions and how they feel are affected by the weather, well it’s just the opposite here. The way Holman feels affects the weather. It’s really quite a clever script.”
Clever and different from traditional X-Files subject matter, “The Rain King” is indicative of the kind of unexpected episodes in store for the show’s devoted fans. Never afraid to take risks, Chris Carter and his new Los Angeles based crew have challenged themselves to push the series’ boundaries even further this year to deliver the most compelling television possible. So far, they’ve tackled car chases, time travel and body switching with equal aplomb; with the Valentines Day episode “The Rain King” and the Chris Carter brainchild “How The Ghost Stole Christmas,” they turn they attention toward creating paranormal greeting cards for the holidays.
Even as Manners is putting the finishing touches on his remaining second unit work, X-Files mastermind Carter is himself toiling inside the confines of a supposedly haunted house (no, really) in out-of-the-way Piru. A comedy of errors of sorts, the imaginative episode takes place on Christmas Eve and features only four characters: Mulder, Scully and two mischievous characters played by guest stars Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner.
The differences between the two episodes, which were shot in sequence, even though “Rain King” will not air until next year, were not lost on the crew. The first episode required them to find dozens of locations, build and decorate a number of sets, not to mention create snow and hail storms and stage a car crash on a deserted stretch of highway.
“We have to make it hail on the entire roadway while a guy’s driving a car and loses control and crashes it in a hail storm,” Manners sighs, largely unaffected by the daunting task. “This is my 27th one of these. I kind of giggle because it’s always big. We’ve done it. Nothing scares us anymore. You get a huge ice-chipping machine, then you get three of them. We put them on 40-foot flat bed trucks. We use 300 pound blocks of ice. It’s like a wood chipper. You throw it into the chipper and it blows then up into the air and it lands on the cars and you have to drive these machines along with the car. They’ve got to get the hail between the camera lens and on the car and in the foreground. As it doesn’t work, my lenses get tighter and tighter and tighter, so I’m shooting narrower and narrower and narrower. You get very wet, very cold and the ice hurts when you’re driving in it and it’s hitting you in the back of the head.”
Jeff Bell admits he was astonished at what it took to realize his creative vision. “Frank [Spotnitz] really encouraged me to be on the set the whole time, which has been a great learning experience, seeing how they do it, seeing how big it is,” he says. “I had no idea it was this big. Here’s one example. We make it rain one day, and so you write the word ‘rain.’ You don’t think it takes 25,000 gallons of water and three cranes to do that. You don’t think it’s 50 tons of ice, three ice chippers and about 40 guys throwing ice, staying up all night as you do it. Sort of the reality of how a simple word can become [something that] takes a lot of labor, it just makes you think about what you write next time.”
Watching as his script was carefully shaped into being, Bell says, was ultimately more rewarding because he had poured so much effort into painstakingly crafting the quirky story. “This is so specific,” he explains. “To balance two points of view, the paranormal with the rational, have them both sort of half right, is incredibly difficult. I had no idea it was this hard. I think the writers/producers here are terrific, and now I see how hard they work to make it that good.”
As Manner’s team bravely suffered the barrage of their own ice storm, the first unit crew preparing Carter’s episode had somewhat the opposite problem. The day before the episode began filming on location at the Piru mansion, a sizable California brush fire broke out.
“It was like Vietnam because there were six of those big yellow and red water dropping planes circling around dropping water on the hillside and then there were about six helicopters doing the same thing,” marvels location manager Ilt Jones. “At one stage, the fire got within 500 feet of the house and we were standing in the backyard with Venture County fireman watching these huge 30-foot flames leaping up behind the eucalyptus trees and saying, ‘Are you sure this is going to be O.K.?’ They said, ‘Oh sure, it’ll burn itself out in an hour’ Sure enough that area right behind the house burnt out within an hour or two, so the house was saved. It was amazing because the whole of the hillside was lit up, only half a mile away.” “After something like the fourth episode, Frank Spotnitz called and said, ‘Great work guys. It’s amazing what you do.’ I said, ‘Yeah, they’re pretty exhausted but happy.’ Joking, I said, ‘You could do us a favor and do a “My Dinner with Scully” [episode]. Let everybody have a break.’ If you’ve ever seen the movie My Dinner with Andre, it’s one set. So Frank said, ‘You know thats a good idea.’ They call this Christmas episode ‘My Dinner with Scully.’ This is the break. When I found out this was the episode, I said, ‘Well, there’s one small catch: The only people who didn’t get a break were the art department because they had to build this house!”
The house in question is the beautifully recreated library, complete with working fireplace, of the Piru mansion. All teasing aside, Kaplan says she and her team are happy to have been able to collaborate on such an elaborate set. “To be honest with you, the art department is so pleased to have had a chance to put so much quality woodwork into a set. Everybody feels proud. They take a look and it feels like an art piece.”
Construction coordinator Duke Tomasick echoes her sentiments. In only eight days, a crew of roughly 50 people-painters, plasterers, carpenters, laborers- built the library from scratch. “”we’ve got a good crew who came in and got it done. It’s a beautiful set. I knew it would be. I couldn’t wait to do it. I was hoping we would build something. At first they were talking about finding a practical location, but I think Chris wanted a lot more ability to shoot it and with all the trick stuff I don’t think they could have found a location that would work, so we created it.”
Mid-Afternoon, mid-week on Stage Six. Chris Carter walks through the replica library ensuring that everything will be ready when David Duchovny and Lily Tomlin arrive on set. Nearby, visual effects supervisor Bill Millar stands waiting to answer any questions about how to adjust camera angles or lights to make Tomlin’s entrances and exits more dramatic and spooky.
“We decided that [she] appears usually in flashes of lightning, which is obviously practical, so we shoot background plates different frame rates, different camera speeds, then shoot the production plates to match those and introduce [her character] selectively in post-production. Most effects on this series are acquired as 35mm images and then scanned into the digital domain and we manipulate them there. Even the effects we plan wholly as production visual effects we tend to enhance a bit later on,” Millar explains.
Last minute changes, which are not out of the ordinary, require Millar to stay close by as the shots are set up and completed. Even before the actors arrive on set, the effects supervisor spends time discussing new ideas with perfectionist Chris Carter. “We have Lily disappear in one shot and she’d been holding Mulder at bay with his own service revolver,” Millar says. “Now rather than just disappearing, he wants her to disappear selectively, a little bit at a time, leaving the gun hanging in the air, which will then drop and Mulder will catch it. The original script idea was that she would just disappear and take the gun with her. It’s a nice idea. It just means we have to rig things slightly differently. We need to be able to isolate the gun on the set so that we can move the actors independently of it.”
Costume designer Christine Peters explains that it was her job to construct Tomlin’s replica turn of the century gown to enhance her antique look. “Lily’s [dress] had to be made,” she explains. “She had to be [dressed in turn-of-the-century [garb], and we couldn’t exactly find that anywhere, so we had to make it and we had to have doubles, so it had to be made. We couldn’t just rent it from a costume house or something. It’s a direct copy of two separate pieces. We used the back of one gown I found and the front of another. The sleeves and the front are a copy of an old silk piece that’s from the 1890′s and the back is a copy of a separate piece.”
Complicating matters further, Peter’s continues, was the fact that Tomlin’s guest-star role was not finalized until the day she was to begin shooting. “She came in Friday night for a fitting to work on Monday afternoon,” she says adding that the consumers took the liberty of working ahead to ensure that the costume was ready. “We decided what the costume was going to look like before the actress was even cast. We cheated and called another costume house and got [Tomlin's] measurements. We pretty much knew it was going to be her, so we started without her. We decided if anything changed, we’d change accordingly.”
As Lily taunts a bewildered Mulder over and over again to capture just the right camera angle and just the right vocal intonation on film, the busy second unit team assembles a high-school gymnasium set for the final day of shooting on “The Rain King” on adjacent Stage Five.
What that means for set decorator Tim Stepeck and his crew is recreating piece by piece the set that they first built on location, much as they were required to do for “How the Ghost Stole Christmas.” When the set is as elaborate as a high-school reunion, though, that prospect can be more difficult than it sounds. “Half of that gym is being re-shot, and we had to build the gym on that stage,” he explains. “The Rain King” was actually the hardest episode for my department. I think that it was dressing all whole big high school reunion dance and then doing the corridors here on stage on top of doing the bathrooms on stage. It was like eight sets a day. The good thing is with the crew and I have, pretty much anything these writers throw at us, they seem to surpass it.”
That tireless dedication is something Manner’s is also quick to praise. “It’s really a good crew,” he says. “I think part of their stamina comes from being part of the excitement in being part of the best show on TV. We thought that there would be a longer learning curve in getting the crew hip to what we do here on The X-Files, and as it turned out, boy, by the end of the first episode, they knew very quickly what they were up against and they responded.”
When second unit shooting at the reunion wraps in the wee hours of the morning, the actors will depart, the crew will travel home for some much deserved rest and Bell’s script will be complete, sending the writer back to the storyboard to brainstorm a concept for his next episode. For the time being, however, Bell is just happy that he could contribute a script that would add a new dimension to the series he’s watched for so long. “It’s an X-File/Love Story. Of course when Mulder and Scully sleep together in my episode, I think it’s going to shock everyone,” Bell dead pans, trying to stifle a sly smile. “And then the fact that everyone dies is probably more shocking. But isn’t that what a great X-File is? Anyone can die at any moment?”