In season seven’s first stand-alone, Vince Gilligan tells the tale of a monster’s tragic eating disorder. Vince Gilligan has everyone fooled. The X-Files writer/co-executive producer best known for quirky episodes like Seasons Four’s “Small Potatoes” and Season Five’s “Bad Blood” projects an unmistakable Southern charm; in person, he is amiable, easy-going, good-natured. But lurking somewhere deep within his psyche is a villainous imp. There must be. There’s simply no other explanation for how someone so unassuming could send property master Tom Day on a mission as revolting as hunting down real brains for the inaugural stand-alone episode of the series ‘ seventh year, the all-too-appropriately named “Hungry.”
The story of a monster in disguise who uses his part-time job slinging burgers to sate his unstoppable and quite literal appetite for the cerebral. “Hungry” is a throwback tot he show’s classic take on horror, with touches of Gilligan’s irrepressible wit thrown in for good measure. Although the episode will air third in the season line-up, scheduling demands mandated that it was the first to be filmed. As stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were both completing work on features they shot over the hiatus, a Mulder/Scully-light story was needed to begin the roster. Gilligan’s unusual and intriguing stand-alone offered the perfect solution.
“Originally, I wanted to do a story about a monster from the monster’s point of view,” the writer offers. “sort of like an episode of Columbo where you were following the bad guy throughout the show and then Columbo, or in this case Mulder, keeps coming in and asking questions that make it clear that he suspects our main guy. It seemed like a fun idea. What I really wanted to do, if it really worked correctly [was] to have it by the end of the show [that] you’re rooting for the monster. You’re sort of not happy every time Mulder and Scully show up because you don’t want the poor guy to get caught. I don’t know if it will work like that when you watch it but that was the intention.”
X-Philes displeased at the intrusion of their favorite agents? The unlikely prospect made Gilligan’s task that much more formidable. To capture the pair’s signature chemistry without using them as the center of the narrative, the writer employed inventive storytelling devices.
“It was a very interesting experiment.” Gilligan admits. “By the time I got through it I was realizing that this is why we don’t tell stories this way, because Mulder and Scully get so little screen time in comparison. I don’t know how much the fans are going to like this one. I hope the do and they see [that] at least we tried something different. I’m real proud of it. The fans so like Mulder and Scully, so enjoy watching then on screen together, and this episode by virtue of the fact that it had a different structure to it, they’re on screen much less. I mean they still have that Mulder/Scully dynamic and yet I had to be very scrupulous about only showing it from this guy’s point of view.”
While Gilligan’s script offers yet another approach to the classic X-Files formula, it also helped ease the crew back into the routine of shooting television’s most cinematic series. Nearly everyone working on the L.A. set praises the episode not only for its ingenuity, but for the fact that it allowed them the rare opportunity to gradually work back into the show’s frenetic pace. Rather than exhausted seniors battling final exam week with too little sleep and too much caffeine, the principals seem more like classmates reunited on the playground after a relaxing, homework-free summer.
Not that there’s a dearth of activity on Stages Five and Six on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, The X-Files’ home when not shooting on location. On this, the sixth of eight days of first unit photography on “Hungry,” the construction team has been toiling since 5 a.m. to strike the various sets no longer needed for the episode, make changes to existing pieces and begin planning for what the next script will bring. Music from an unseen radio blares from across the stage; sawdust litters the air, seen only in the rays of sun streaming in from the open doors at either side of the building. Voices call to one another, sharing jokes and plans for lunch.
In the midst of this bustle, Day enters the safe confines of his office, which is nestled along the side of Stage Six, camouflaged in part by Mulder’ s apartment and various props and pieces of set dressing. After enjoying a pleasant summer hiatus, Day admits he was ready to get back into the swing of things, but was quite astonished to learn what Gilligan had in store for him.
“Fried brains, that was one of the highlights,” Day says, shaking his head. “At one point, we need to simulate human brains. We actually had a brain test day where we went out to the different meat-packing places and brought in a bunch of your different varmints’ brains, cow and pig and sheep, to see which one would look the best and which one would sit on the set properly.”
Given that Day has been working in the industry for years, one might think that brain detail would be less grisly that it sounds. Not so, he says. It was possibly the most grotesque assignment to ever come his way. “It’s right up there,” he says, “It took some getting used to. It took a leap of faith to jump in and say this will all work just fine. I talked to the medical technician on Chicago Hope because they use all kinds of animal parts, stuff you could even go to the market and buy. Obviously when you’re simulating surgery you have to have something. I talked to them about what’ s best to sue for rain. We found steer brain worked best. They could have had [special effects make-up coordinator] John Vulich whip out some brains, but I don’t know in all honesty if it would have looked the same. It looked great for what we were doing with it. It was perfect.”
For his part, Gilligan felt no remorse at sending Day on his stomach-turning errand. “They love this stuff.!” He says with a smirk, “I think they said they used steer brains. I would have thought they’d be too big, but I guess not. I mean they’re not super-smart animals, but their heads are so big you ‘d think their brains would be bigger than ours. That was pretty funny. Then they have to cook them once they’re out there. They have to put them on a hot grill. I don’t know what brains do when you grill them. People eat calves’ brains. I’ve never had them. I don’t know what they taste like.”
If there’s brain on the grill, you might guess which of the X-Files stable of directors would be behind the lens. Infamous for his affection for the gruesome, the tireless Kim Manners found in “Hungry” material he could really sink his teeth into, aside from its horrific menu. As odd as it might sound, the script is actually a subtle character study about one man’s seemingly futile struggle to conquer insurmountable odds.
“I think they tailor made it for me,” the director says. “It’s one of mine. I’m having a good time with it. I had a good time off and I’m feeling really fresh. Normally when I do my first show of a season, you come in with butterflies and you’re always a little frightened. It’s been two or three months without directing, talking to actors, pointing the camera, but I feel like my brain’s on Viagra. I’m very, very excited. I’m getting great film and great performances, and that’s what it’s about.”
According to Manners, guest star Chad E. Donella, who portrays peculiar anti-hero Rob Roberts, is responsible for one of those “great performances.” The actor, whose previous television appearances include stints on such impressive series as ER and the Practice, recently completed work on Flight 180, the feature debut of X-Files vets Glen Morgan and James Wong, perhaps accounting for his ability to key into the show’s dark spirit. “Chad is an outstanding actor.” Manners raves. “He’s really carrying this episode, [Because] the episode is from Rob Roberts’ point of view, the ball is really in Chad’s court. He’s doing tremendous job.”
Of course, man cannot become monster alone. To truly assume the aspect of an otherworldly creature, one needs special effects – and lots of ‘em. Supervising Donella’s transformation from mild-mannered fast-food employee to intimidating and ravenous fiend are FX make-up artist Greg Funk and visual effects maven Bill Millar. Prosthetically, the monster is comprised of three separate pieces-a forehead appliance, a bald cap and a nose piece. To completely transform the actor into his hideous alter-ego took nearly three hours, Funk says, adding that the metamorphosis was complicated because certain scenes required Donella to remove portions of the make-up himself.
“He has a disguise on and he takes all the pieces off,” Funk explains. “It can’t just be a make-up job-boom, he’s the monster. We’ve got to make it so a human disguise comes off revealing this monster, almost kind of Mission Impossible-like without pulling a whole mask right off. He pulls off little ears, takes [his] wig off. Kim was very specific. He said, ‘It’s gotta be good.’”
One of the creature’s most distinguishing attributes is its rows of deadly teeth, which it uses to extract sustenance from its victims. The lethal incisors had to be fashioned digitally by Millar. “The monster has shark-like teeth, several rows of them, which are seen to slide in and out of his jaw as he opens his mouth,” he says. “He covers that with an artificial set of dentures which makes it look as though he had normal teeth. He removes those teeth and we see nothing but gums and then these razor-sharp rows of teeth slide out of the gums. To build that prosthetically would have been difficult and also would have extended the gum to the end of the actor’s [real] teeth, which would have looked somewhat strange. We’re doing all that digitally and enhancing the mouth and shortening the practical teeth digitally and then introducing the shark teeth. They’ll be a digital composite generated with CGI teeth and tracked into the mouth.”
Finding a place for all this monster business to occur fell to locations manager Ilt Jones. After scouring Southern California for a restaurant that would employ a brain-eating monstrosity, he stumbled onto a Mom and Pop-owned hamburger stand named Lucky Boy in a working class Los Angeles neighborhood called Southgate.
“There’s a Greek family who owned it for 38 years,” Jones says. “It’s actually one of the first burger joints in L.A. It was right around the time of the first McDonald’s, 1948, [that] they built it. It’s actually something of a landmark in the neighborhood. It’s much nicer than your average generic Burger King or something like that. It’s got a huge neon sign, lots of fun lights. It’s got a great look. I’m happy to have found that. I combed L.A. looking for burger joints because none of the big boys wanted to touch us. Curiously enough, McDonald’s didn’t want to be associated with somebody who ate brains.”
After Jones discovered the kitschy locale, the rustic restaurant was given a slight overhaul by construction coordinator Duke Tomasick and his crew. “We had a lot of work to do at the restaurant,” Tomasick says. “We had to make it what it needed [to be] for the script. We were down there for five working days. We took an average-looking restaurant, and we made it nice. We repainted everything, brought in a lot of greens, made some new signs. The owner of the place is probably happy.”
Except for the fact that there was a monster working behind the grill luring unsuspecting customers to their deaths, the owners were undoubtedly pleased. (At least the monster was kind enough to vacate the premises when filming wrapped.) For the scene in which the creature claims its first victim, the restaurant’s drive-thru was used as a clever snare for an unsuspecting unnamed “Hungry Guy.” As the man drives to the open take-out window, the equally hungry monster snatches him from his car for a quick bite.
The sequence, which serves as the episode’s teaser, was shot in the wee hours of a mid-August Saturday morning, explains stunt coordinator Danny Weselis. For the scene, Weselis used a double in the place of the actor cast as Hungry Guy, the stuntman wore a vest-like harness that was rigged with a cable underneath the costume. “From the camera you couldn’t see the cable,” Weselis says. “You see his whole body leaning out of the car. We had three effects men on the other end. We had fall pads inside [the restaurant] so when he got pulled through the window, he actually slid across the countertop and landed on the top of the fall pads. On the count of three, they pulled, he was out of the car, through the window.”
At that point, the script called for the drivers car to creep forward. Obviously, a real runaway car is far too much of a danger on a television set, so Weselis climbed on the floor and took control of the wheel. The only catch was he couldn’t see where he was going. Fortunately, the stunt went off without a hitch.
“As he goes through the window I was lying in the car blind-driving it,” he explains. “I took the driver’s seat out of the car, lay on the floor, covered myself in black so you couldn’t see me. I could just barely look out of the top of the windshield. When [my stuntman] got yanked out of the car, I just sort of crept forward, went out the driveway and made a slight left turn and he headed across the street. Traffic was blocked, obviously. I just ran into the curb.”
In addition to driving an out-of-control vehicle, “Hungry” required the enterprising Weselis to dispose of a corpse-in broad daylight with witnesses, no less. As he devises a way to tackle this latest obstacle, a group of onlookers gathers across the street from the apartment building in the trendy L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz where the production has moved for the day.
Watching from beneath a black tarp, Manners, sporting a white X-Files T-shirt and his new short haircut, sits surrounded by a barrage of camera equipment, artificial tree limbs and an assortment of black and white trash bags stuffed with paper. Soon, he and the stunt coordinator discuss Weselis ‘ carefully choreographed designs for tossing the body of stuntwoman Annie Ellis out with the garbage. Unrecognized beneath the remarkable work of Emmy-award winning make-up team Cheri Montesanto-Medcalf and Kevin Westmore, the normally sun-tanned and svelte Ellis has assumed the identity of the unfortunate Sylvia Jassy, a nosy neighbor who falls prey to the monster’s malignant hunger. Dressed in a flowered house dress and covered with layers of padding, Ellis undergoes final touch-ups, which include being doused in even more fake blood, before climbing into a trashcan.
“We put her inside one of those big trashcans, like the ones outside residential areas, and the trash truck’s going to pick her up,” Weselis says. “Inside the trash truck, we’ve got fall pads and boxes with padding in there. We’re going to slowly dump her in. She’s got a big, nice area to fall into. It’s a brand new truck, actually. It’s not one of those old ones. I already tested it out myself a couple of weeks ago, got the arc of the trashcan and put a pad in there. It’s over pretty quick, and you’ve got a big landing area. There’s no problem with that.”
He’s right. Despite having to repeat the action four times, Ellis escapes unharmed and manages to stage her landing perfectly for the camera. Manners repeatedly praises her, and pleased, the crew breaks for an early lunch – promptly at 3:30 p.m. Over his meal, Manners discusses the myriad components that comprise his first Season Seven outing, the out-and-out horror, the black humor, the poignant tragedy of Rob Roberts’ dual nature. It’s a potent mix and one that the director seems quite confident will find a place in the hearts of X-Philes.
“I think the fans are going to love the show because it’s scary,” he states. “We’re having a chance to shoot scary, [with] tight eyes, a guy waiting, points of view, a lot of tension. I think that’s what the fans like. I know it’s what I like as an audience member. I want to do more shows like ‘Home’-shows that when the audience turns them off they go, ‘Wow,’” Manners says, adding, “I think that’s what I’m going to try to do this year.”