Shaken, stirred and satisfied. That’s how X-Files creator Chris Carter felt after seeing the cast and crew of his new TV series Harsh Realm reproduce the battle-scarred streets of Sarajevo down to the last bullet-scarred detail last weekend on a block-long stretch of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“Believe me, I don’t consider myself to be a philosopher,” Carter said, taking in the scene in his characteristic even-tempered, California surfer-dude voice. “This is the amazing thing: I’m telling stories that I want to tell and people seem to like them. It’s really as simple as that. It’s all been a dream for me.”
The weekend was an emotional roller-coaster for the 43-year-old writer and television producer, recently named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in the entertainment industry — thanks to The X-Files, which has tapped into a worldwide nerve of paranoia and mistrust of government institutions.
Understandably, Carter has little time for those who dismiss the television medium as the ruination of society. “Television is an easy target,” he said. “It’s an easy target for lazy people. Television is the most powerful cultural tool we’ve ever known and possibly ever will know.”
Carter’s firstborn, The X-Files, now based in Los Angeles, is guaranteed a seventh season. Fox has indicated it wants an eighth, but Carter says none of the principals, including actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, are committed beyond next season. Carter has said recently his vision for The X-Files is as a series for seven seasons, followed by two or three theatrical films spread out over 10 years or so.
For now, though, Carter’s attention is focused on Harsh Realm, set to air this fall. For 14 straight hours last Saturday and 15 hours the following day, Carter felt a surge of satisfaction go through him as his crew reproduced a war-torn Sarajevo street from photographs taken during actual street fighting in 1994.
Throughout the filming on Cordova Street behind the old Woodward’s building, props masters dressed the street with bullet-riddled pages from actual Bosnian newspapers, burned tires and the charred remains of several cars flipped end over end by mortar fire. Carter took calls from Los Angeles on his cell phone throughout the day and chatted quietly with crew members while sporadic bursts of gunfire punctuated his thoughts.
While other crew members flinched and blocked their ears against the gunfire — genuine M16 assault rifles firing blank ammunition and so-called “squibs” — Carter ruminated at length about his time in Vancouver, the looming millennium, the state of television today, the tolerance and grace of Canadian society and the moral decay of American society.
“We live in a world where too many people won’t go far enough, won’t do what they know is right, what they believe,” Carter said, echoing a line from his script for the Millennium pilot, squinting into a heavy, windswept rain while across the street, director Daniel Sackheim quietly directed four local children playing Sarajevo refugees caught in a hail of sniperfire.
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“Shooting in Vancouver has just been a dream, which is why I am back here again,” Carter said. But he points out that working here does have a personal cost.
“The most difficult thing about making The X-Files had to do with keeping the actors away from home for 10 months a year, for five years running. I think that is what was most under-appreciated by those Vancouverites who saw our leaving as some kind of betrayal or treachery. David and Gillian were working away from home, their friends and their family, for five years, and I think that was a huge sacrifice on their part.
“I fly back and forth all the time, and that has been a sacrifice for me. I’ve given up a huge amount of my life. But that’s been by choice.”
Carter, who maintains a home away from home in downtown Vancouver, says he never seriously considered pulling out of the city entirely. “Vancouver feels like a foreign place to me. And when you stage things in a place that feels foreign, it adds a new element that fiction often needs to be believable. It makes the stories feel as though they are happening in a believable place, but not a familiar place.
“There are so many different languages spoken here. It feels much more multicultural in a European sense than any of the American cities I’ve been in. People here seem much more tolerant. The politics here seem to be a little bit more the way I wish they were in the States.
“There’s a much more common-sense approach to political correctness. In America, political correctness has gotten to the point where it is absolutely ridiculous. Really, it’s a ridiculous place right now. Here, people seem to have their heads screwed on a little straighter. And thank God, too. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be working here.”
There are other benefits to working in Vancouver. Carter said the on-set atmosphere on Harsh Realm is relaxed, unlike in Los Angeles, where sets on TV pilots can vary from anxious confusion to outright chaos.
For Carter, the weekend-long staging of an intense gun battle between United Nations peacekeepers and snipers was part bittersweet reunion, part fresh beginning.
Carter, who has kept Millennium in Vancouver for the past year, was again working with key members of his Vancouver X-Files crew for five seasons, including two-time Emmy Award-winning production designer Graeme Murray, American Society of Cinematographers nominee Joel Ransom, Steadicam operator Marty McInally, assistant directors Vladimir (Val) Stefoff and Mark Currie, gaffer Richard (Bucky) Buckmaster, continuity supervisor Helga Ungurait and Emmy-winning art director Greg Loewen.
“One always get excited about doing something new,” Carter said. “Millennium came at just the right time. Three years into The X-Files we did the pilot for Millennium and now three years into Millennium, we’re doing the pilot for Harsh Realm. I think that’s the way to do it. All of us working at Ten Thirteen [Carter's production company] hate failure, so you don’t see us doing 10 pilots a year and hoping that one hits. We try to put all our energy into something that we believe in and try to make it a hit.”
Carter is aware of the daunting task facing any new TV series looking to make an impression with viewers disillusioned by chaotic scheduling, a surfeit of mediocrity and executive decisions based on commerce, not art.
“A new show has to tap into some human concern and tell the stories that need to be told at that moment. Shows succeed for many different reasons, but a show that really comes into its own has to crystallize something. Look at what David Kelley has done with Ally McBeal — it singlehandedly prompted a Time cover story on the new feminism. This is a person who is striking a chord. It’s not just what’s entertaining but what’s relevant.”
Carter hasn’t made any personal plans for the looming millennium. He will probably be home in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve with Dori, his wife of 12 years. No matter what happens in the real world with Y2K, Carter plans to ring in the new millennium quietly.
“It’s an important date, because even if we can’t agree on when Christ was born, we’re all moving through history at the same time. We all sort of agree on this date. If anything happens, I believe it will be brought on by man and not by the gods. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The cultists and militias who could cause problems will do so because they’re looking for attention at that time. It really has nothing to do with the date itself –it has to do with people’s perception of that date.”