With Millennium floundering, will Chris Carter ever be more than a one hit wonder? Jeff Craig talks to him on the set of his new show, Harsh Realm…
“I was never a science fiction fan. I spoke to a group once, and they were shocked that I’d never seen Star Trek. But I’m just not a science fiction fan. It’s never interested me.”
It’s a bit of a shock admission from a man who, thanks to the massive worldwide success of his first SF series, The X-Files, now has the creative autonomy and network clout to produce whatever he damn wants… and has returned to the SF fold for the third time. With the X-movie franchise now assured and Millennium into its third series, the former surf-boy journo is now shifting his attention to Harsh Realm, a new series inspired by the comic book by James Hudnall.
“It’s not really an adaptation,’ Carter explains. “It’s really quite different from the comic book. We’re just using the name and the concept of virtual reality. It’s a broad-canvas kind of show, kinda like The X-Files. This is going to play with reality in ways that I think The X-Files has done so well over the years.”
It’s the theme of playing with reality that excites Carter more than spaceships or anal probes. And he knows where this more down-to-Earth fascination with the macabre stemmed from. “When I was a 13-year-old boy growing up, The Night Stalker was my favourite TV show. I always wanted to make The X-Files as scary as The Night Stalker was for me. I’m really interested in personal experiences that could affect me in this place and time. I like that method of storytelling. I think that’s what makes The X-Files so scary – it seems very, very real. I just didn’t want to do creepy science fiction violence.”
Carter says other conscious influences are “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock – these are three film-makers who’ve had the greatest effect on me”.
Harsh Realm is set to continue the theme of blurred reality in recognisable settings. The pilot of Harsh Realm will air sometime in the autumn of 1999. The show is the first in his deal with 20th Century Fox, rumoured to be worth up to $30 million over five years, making him one of the highest-paid producers in Hollywood. A deal which, incidentally, came shortly before he signed a high seven-figure contract to write two novels for Bantam Publishing.
In describing the comics for those unfamiliar with the series, author Hudnall says that his main character, Dexter Green, “is a private eye specialising in finding missing persons. It is the far future when pocket universes are created by computers, providing real worlds for people to experience. A teenager has gone missing in a world called Harsh Realm and his parents want Dex to find him. Harsh Realm is a fantasy world where magic and monsters are real. You can die there. But you can also become a god. Dex’s journey into this world teaches him a lot about himself and the human race.”
Carter remains cagey about how similar the show will be to the comic, but while the cast has been announced, it now seems unlikely that the Dex character – long rumoured to be played by The X-Files’ Nicholas Lea (Krycek) – will even feature in the show. For years now, in fact, Carter has made an effort to guard against news leaks of his shows reaching fans before he wants the truth out there. Scripts have leaked before and bootleg tapes of Millennium were being sold at swap meets before its 1996 premiere.
Since then, scripts – particularly for The X-Files film – have been printed on non-copiable paper. He’s even leaked dummy scenes to his staff to determine where leaks are occurring – and to confuse fans to maintain some surprise.
“If you put enough bogus information out there it starts to work for you and against itself,” he says. “Everybody saw that there was an angle to being a spoiler. It’s the world we live in. If you want to maintain the element of surprise, you have to be vigilant and try to confound people. I realise that I sound as paranoid and secretive as the show itself, but there are some things that are meant to be secrets.
“We need to keep people guessing. We only give away fragments. The viewer has to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When it comes to The X-Files, you can’t be a passive viewer.
“The storytelling on The X-Files is obtuse and that is on purpose,” he says. “It’s very tantalising, just like the investigating they do in the film. You get fragments and you have to connect the dots.”
Joining the dots on Harsh Realm, therefore, is particularly tricky, but at least the main cast for the pilot has been confirmed. It’s headed by DB Sweeney (Strange Luck), Scott Bairstow (Party of Five), Max Martinini and Samantha Mathis (Thing Called Love) for what could be called the next generation of television science fiction. But even though this is his umpteenth pilot (he produced a host of teen-orientated dramas before The X-Files) things don’t get any easier.
“Well, no, it’s not easy,” he admits from the Vancouver set of Harsh Realm, three days into the pilot’s 16-day shoot. “With a pilot, of course, it’s a new cast. Everyone’s feeling around, paying a great deal of attention to their characters. We’re just trying to see how it all falls together. This is all the stuff that just falls into place once a show goes to series. Every day is very long. I suppose that now I’m more confident in my approach to making decisions to solve the problems that present themselves, but it’s still very hard work.”
It seems, then, for a a while at least, Chris Carter must officially be the ‘busiest man in Stateside TV’. If the pilot for Harsh Realm impresses the men in suits it will go to a series, meaning that Carter will be performing a juggling act between the Los Angeles-based X-Files and the Vancouver Millennium and Harsh Realm, plus his new career as an author. But, bizarrely, if Harsh Realm gets the thumbs down, he could end up with little else other than the X-movie franchise to occupy his time, with The X-Files seemingly coming to the end of its run and Millennium still having a very uncertain future.
While acclaimed by a fiercely loyal following, Millennium has lagged in the ratings from its debut, and Carter has returned to the show with season three after leaving the day-to-day running for season two in the hands of Glen Morgan and James Wong. He’s defensive about the show some viewers have found too nihilistic and dark for prime-time viewing.
“It’s got a magnificent fan base, but that’s never translated into big ratings,” admits Carter. “Man, I’ve worked hard on Millennium this year. I’ve written and rewritten several shows. It’s not like it was in the first year, but I’ve certainly paid a lot more attention to it this year than last. There are some really good episodes coming up. Really scary episodes. I took the lessons from the things [Morgan and Wong] did but moved the show in a new direction.”
Part of the stumbling block with Millennium, Carter adamantly believes, is that it was set in Seattle. This season, he’s moved the show’s setting to Washington DC and had Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) join the more identifiable FBI. “That establishes a firmer common ground from which to tell the stories, which are still ultimately about good and evil,” Carter says.
He’s also introduced the kind of humour more associated with The X-Files. This season’s Hallowen episode contained references to Psycho, Scream and Oral Roberts, and featured an appearance by the mightily, frighteningly made-up rock band KISS.
“I’m very proud of the work we have done. I really think that the show is hitting its stride. I wish that more people watched it. I wish more people would give it another chance. And I hope it comes back next year.” But whether the show can survive “is anybody’s guess right now. I just don’t know,” he admits.
More clear is the fate of The X-Files – at least The X-Files “as we know it”, Carter says archly. It’s scheduled to wrap its run at the end of next season, marking the beginning of what he hopes to be a long film franchise. While the first X-Files movie wasn’t the blockbuster some had expected it to be last summer, it’s gone on to top $200 million in takings internationally. And, that, Carter insists, “is a success by all measurements”.
Much has been written about the strained relationship on the weekly X-Files set between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and Duchovny himself has publicly criticised Anderson over her dispute for more money. But Carter says: “It’s a relationship that’s bound to have its stresses and strains and it’s understandably complicated. What’s important is that this particular relationship has passed the test of time. When you work together, day after day, month after month, as David and Gillian do, you form a relationship that is not unlike a marriage.”
For the film, each actor was reportedly paid $4 million – an equity which, allegedly, made everyone happy.
“I’m looking forward to the next movie because I anticipate the show will be over, and we’ll be free to re-invent ourselves,” Carter says. “But it won’t be on this summer’s hiatus . It seems like the actors are very excited to do it. It’s just a matter of finding the time, and I think it would either come out in the summer of 2001 or possibly 2002. It would have been great to culminate the series and go right into the next big movie. I think there will be a year, or possibly two years, in between.”
While there is still the possibility Fox might ask Carter to continue The X-Files television show – with or without Duchovny and Anderson – Carter says: “I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I get to it.”
An X-Files: The Next Generation, anyone? “I just don’t know.” speculates Carter tantalisingly. “It is conceivable that the show could be done without the both of them”.
Whether he’s indulging in the mythology or running with the stand-alone episodes, Carter boasts that, “The thing about The X-Files is that the plot is so elastic. We can do just about anything we want – from comedy to horror to religion – and it just pops back into shape. I think that’s the true test of any good television show.”
It’s a similarity he is anticipating with Harsh Realm – although he’s quick to add that this is “where the similarities between this and The X-Files end; they are very different shows. Harsh Realm deals largely with the subject of war. With the two worlds (real and virtual) the allegorical possibilities are exciting. I think we can be telling stories in quite interesting ways.”
Some critics have wondered if the so-called mythology of The X-Files – the grand black oil, killer bees, abducted relations and alien abduction-colonisation plot – has perhaps spun a little too much out of control and gone on for too long. But Carter, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
In recent shows, Carter has been revealing the grand conspiracy in his own veiled way. “We’ve got to prepare for a big unravel,” he says of the show’s sixth season.
“We figured it would be better to explain the conspiracy now, and make the final season more action driven… less hampered by baggage.”
One thing Carter is eager to clear up is the misconception that the arc plot is part of one tangled web of unanswered questions and opaque explanations. “The conspiracy is not as complicated as you think,” he insists. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Whenever we go out into one of the mythology episodes – or series of episodes – I think we consistently hit a high level of quality.
“And we hardly ever have a crappy episode.” he adds with a smile.