Seeing the story helps writer keep ‘The X-Files’ ‘out there’
You don’t have to believe in UFOs or government conspiracies to write for “The X-Files.”
“We’re all fairly agnostic on all those subjects…,” says Vince Gilligan, co-executive producer and writer, in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles about what it’s like writing for a hot TV show. “I don’t disbelieve in any of this stuff we write about, but there’s a big difference in not disbelieving it and actively believing it.”
“The X-Files” heads into its seventh and perhaps final season this Sunday, Nov. 7 (Fox, 9-10 p.m.) as contracts for the show’s creator, Chris Carter, and one of its stars, David Duchovny, run out. Launched in 1993, it found an audience primed for a one-hour drama about two FBI agents who investigate cases involving alien abductions and government conspiracies.
Mr. Gilligan, whose scripts reveal a deft if sometimes dark comic touch, says that since the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in the ’70s, “we’ve lost a lot of innocence … a lot of respect for government … and maybe this [show] taps into those feelings.”
“X-Files” also taps into America’s love of movies. “We really try hard to put … a one-hour movie on television every week. We tell our stories visually more than verbally,” says Gilligan, who joined the show in 1995. Most TV shows are dialogue-based, whereas “X-Files” and big-screen movies rely on scene direction (visual cues), he adds.
“The process of being a writer is to picture the scene in your head,” he says. “It’s almost like closing your eyes and watching it play out in your imagination and then just getting it down on paper.”
Gilligan was a fan of the show from the start. “I was home alone one night. I saw an advertisement or two for this new show called ‘The X-Files’ … I was literally hooked about 15 minutes into it.” He liked the charismatic characters – Fox Mulder, the intuitive UFO believer, and Dana Scully, the scientist and skeptic.
Gilligan sums up the two this way: Mulder is a “quixotic hero; he’s always tilting at windmills, he’s always fighting the good fight, and it makes him a very romantic hero…. Scully is every bit as appealing … she’s more down to earth.”
As for whom he’d follow into a UFO hunt, “Most of us would be much more comfortable in the presence of Scully than Mulder…. We’d all be tagging along with Scully saying, ‘Mulder, you’re out of your mind….’ As Chris Carter always said … ‘Mulder is the main character, but Scully is the eyes that we the audience watch the show through.’ ” Gilligan found his way into the TV writing business via the movies. He went to film school at New York University, wrote a script for his senior thesis titled “Home Fries” (released in 1998), and entered it into a contest called the Governor’s Screenwriting Competition, sponsored by his home state of Virginia.
As one of the 1989 winners of that competition, his script drew the special attention of a panel judge, producer Mark Johnson (“Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man”), who often teams with well-known director Barry Levinson.
“He’s still my mentor,” Gilligan says. “He produced ‘Home Fries,’ and I still work with him every chance I get.”
Screenplays and TV scripts offer different rewards and different kinds of heartbreak, but they’re both “a lot of hard work,” he says. With movies, “You can live anywhere … you can live on some island in the middle of the Pacific and e-mail your stuff around.”
In TV, “the writer is not only taken seriously, but the writer is very often the boss, the final arbiter [who] has the final say in matters ranging from the stories that are told to the look of the cinematography to the editing to the casting to the music….”
Writing for TV also means that “your life is not your own.” On “The X-Files,” the eight writers spend about 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, pounding out scripts. Schedules are relaxed as the season starts, but later, when the “[script] pipeline is empty,” days get longer, deadlines are cut from three weeks to 10 days, and scripts can turn into a team effort, with different members tackling one of the four acts that make up each show. There’s a three-week break in May. Says Gilligan: “Three weeks is great, but by the end of the season three years would be [even better].”
Unlike movies, in TV, there’s the pleasure of seeing your work aired only a week or month after it’s written. “You’re watching it on TV along with millions of other Americans. And that’s the whole point of being a writer, to get your stuff made and to share it with people.” With movies, scripts often never get filmed.
This season will kick off with a two-part mythology (“The Sixth Extinction” and “Amor Fati”) written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. It picks up where last season ended with Mulder gone mad. Gilligan, who will write or co-write seven or eight episodes this season, provides the season’s third episode, “Hungry” – a scary and humorous story from a monster’s point of view. “I’m as proud of that episode as I’ve been of any of them that I’ve ever written,” he says.
This season, Mulder will undoubtedly still pursue extraterrestrials and Scully will continue her Spock-like interrogations of “Spooky” Mulder. But the question remains: Is an eighth season “out there?” Gilligan can only say that those who work on “The X-Files” are also “wondering what the future is going to hold.”