L.A. Story

The X-Files embraces its new home–sunny California

While driving down busy Southern California Streets, you might notice brightly colored sings sporting random nonsensical words affixed to the odd telephone poll. The markers are written in a secret code that only those well-versed in Industry Rhetoric can decipher-weird alien sounding abbreviations for film or television location shoots that transform neighborhood streets and store fronts into something more or less glamorous, depending on the day. Occasionally, between curses and head-shaking, grid locked drivers will glance across the street at the cardboard herald. But more often, the signs, gateways to what some media buffs would consider nirvana, or else a really great story to post on the internet, remain on the periphery. They’re only another part of the West Coast landscape.

So it happens that these irritated motorists, trapped in their sport utility vehicles, pass right by any number of the sites The X-Files is employing for its sixth season episodes. Little do they know that the new production team assembled to take the weighty reins , once handled so competently by the Vancouver crew, labors nearby to craft their own take on the moody, compelling series. Or that two of televisions brightest stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson , are only minutes away, preparing to bust conspiracies and capture monsters. Then again, it might not matter. After living in a town where camera crews are a regular feature of the landscape, long-time Angelinos might not even bat an eyelash if they encountered a UFO.

Those willing to follow the paper trail, however, would find so such apathy awaiting them on the set of the show. An energy rises through the air, a culmination of the frenzied buzz of technical personnel shuttling back and forth, determining how to capture just the right lighting effect or the proper sound quality. Watching the members of the dedicated (and terribly friendly) crew give their all scene after scene, you might not realize that anything has changed since filming of Season Five wrapped in British Colombia last May.

Until you walk outside. Just down the street from The X-Files’ new production facilities, nestled deep inside the winding labyrinth of identical white trailers that comprise the 20th Century Fox lot, are luxury hotels, posh restaurants and even Rodeo Drive itself, quite a departure from the suburban strip mall that abutted that series’ studio home in Vancouver. As far as the eye can see, warm unfiltered rays of sunlight bathe the mid-August landscape. A gentle breeze blows in from the Pacific Ocean; it is a comfortable 80 degrees. And of course, there’s a lot of traffic.

Yes, things are different in the world of The X-Files, but series creator Chris Carter isn’t one to let things like relocating the show to another country, hiring an almost entirely new staff and encountering a little sunshine stand in the way of his vision. In fact, the sweeping changes only served to stimulate Carter’s imagination, judging from the first few episodes of the highly anticipated Season Six

So far, he has crafted a season premiere, aptly titled “The Beginning,” that picks up where both last season and the film left off, promising a host of professional and personal changes for Mulder and Scully and introducing at least one new recurring character, Assistant Director, Alvin Kersh, played by James Pickens Jr., to the show’s roster. Cater also handily managed to transport all the series’ key players back in time 60 years for an epic, “alternative reality” episode, which he wrote and directed.

Filmed aboard the historic ocean liner Queen Mary, anchored outside of Long Beach, Calif., the show features hundreds of extras, dozens of Nazis and is staged so that events seem to take place in real time, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rope.

Such a full plate might make the new crew wonder what they had gotten themselves in for. Obviously, The X-Files expects-and receives-miracles from its production team, by the beginning of Season Six is formidable even by the show’s own high standards. When asked about the workload, though, none of the behind-the-scenes players seem surprised. Those kind of never ending challenges, they say, attracted them to the series.

“The X-Files gives you the opportunity to try different things. Every show’s different. Every show’s different looking,” says director of photography Bill Roe. “Chris Carter loves to take it to the limit.”

That’s what we know how to do,” offers construction coordinator Duke Tomasick, whose team had only five weeks to reconstruct the standing sets for the show (including Skinner’s office and Mulder and Scully’s apartments) and build at least one elaborate set-the interior of a power plant-for the season premiere. “We’re used to doing that kind of stuff. Hopefully, we get a lot more time to do it in. You know, the more time you have, the better the quality, and you don’t wear the guys out as much. These guys are working seven days a week, Saturday, Sunday, just to get everything done in time. It’s a little exhausting, but everything’s coming together.”

Things have been just as hectic for set decorator Tim Stepeck, who says The X-Files is just about the only show he watched faithfully before landing his new job. So far, working on the series has been just as rewarding as tuning in every Sunday. “You never really know where it’s going to go,” Stepeck says, “It’s not like you’re going back to standing sets of anything like that. We’re always on the road. [Every episode is set] in a new state, so we’re constantly researching out each place we’re going to be in. This show, the pace never slows down. It’s like shooting a movie in a week. The pace doesn’t bother him; in fact, he says it’s rewarding to accomplish so much in such a short time frame. “It’s nice to work on [a series] you really enjoy watching,” he says. “That’s kind of hot.”

Prop master Tom Day echoes Stepeck’s sentiments. “What I was looking forward to the most was the difference in the shows,” he explains. “It can go from anything with period stuff to way-out there futuristic. The storylines always change. They aren’t always difficult. Even the continuing ones, they go somewhere. Then there’s the stand alone ones. They can really take you in a different direction.”

It didn’t take long for an item to surface that made Day scratch his head. Even before he finished the first script he was almost stumped. “One of the very first props in the very first episode this season was something that I read on the page and said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, where am I going to come up with that?’ It was a special piece of forensic equipment that is only in forensic labs,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go home and take those little sugar cubes that kids make their little projects out of and build one of these things.”

Never losing his cool, Day demonstrated the resourcefulness necessary to survive the world of The X-Files. “I was able to contact the company that manufactures this thing in England. We wound up having a representative fly into Los Angeles with this machine and set it up for us.”

The business as usual attitude isn’t confined to the crew, either. Chris Owens, whose Agent Jeffrey Spender is treated to a big promotion in the season premiere, admits e is surprised every time he reads a new script: By now, he has learned to be ready for anything. I never know where it’s going to go,” Owens says. “It’s almost like watching the show from week to week. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Case in point: Owens never thought he’d be traveling to historic locations, such as the Queen Mary, to film an episode, the third of Season Six. “It’s great shooting on the Queen Mary and being able to walk around the boat,” Owens says. “I’ve never been on anything like it. Walking around the state rooms you get the complete feel of the era. Then you get into the costume and before you know it, it’s all working.”

Which is exactly how things are supposed to happen, according to co-executive producer Michael Watkins. Another recent addition to The X-Files team, Watkins, in a matter of weeks, has managed to attain the quiet dedication the rest of his production team possesses. Like his co-workers, he signed up for duty well aware of what was required. If that means making sure cast and crew are shuttled from the Fox lot to location shoots–which can sometimes be two hours outside of Los Angeles–or that equipment crises are averted, or that the series continues to accomplish what no other television show has yet done, all the better. The challenges just make braving the traffic of his daily commute to the office (or to some secretive location) worthwhile.

“My goal is not to give up, to maintain the good fight, “Watkins explains. “It’s a huge show and you expect nothing less. We have to be clever and very finessed and efficient in how we do everything. [My job] is to make sure we get on the air for the fans, and that’s by God, what we’re going to do.”

 
 
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