With the ever-changing world of American television getting more complicated and competitive, one prolific American writer/producer has up and moved across the pond and is now producing television in the United Kingdom where things are done quite a bit differently than in the States. Frank Spotnitz, best known for his work during the majority of the television run of "The X-Files" and co-writer of the two big-screen versions, saw the differences in the way the two countries produce television to be so enticing that he's been living in London since last summer with his family.
First, he helped shape Cinemax's new series "Strike Back," premiering tonight, and currently he is busy at work writing the spy thriller series "Morton" (working title) that was originally going to star his "X-Files" lead Gillian Anderson. While Spotnitz is definitely not turning his back on American television, he welcomed our Jim Halterman into his London home earlier this year and discussed what was appealing about the move to the U.K., why Anderson is no longer involved with "Morton" and why some shows translate well between the U.K. and U.S. and others fail miserably.
Jim Halterman: What brought you to the U.K. for television work?
Frank Spotnitz: The long answer is that 8 years ago I met Stephen Garrett and Jane Featherstone, who are the heads of Kudos Film and Television, one of the most successful independent producers in the U.K.. They do 'Spooks,' 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' and a lot of big TV series here and I was very impressed with them and liked them. They said 'Would you ever come work in the U.K.?' I had just finished 'The X-Files' and didn't know what I was going to do and I said, 'I'd love to but I don't know when or why I would do it.' I love Europe and had lived in Paris in my 20s so the idea of going back was very appealing. The years passed and it was never the right opportunity and then two years ago, I was talking with Gillian Anderson who was visiting Los Angeles from London and she said 'Would you ever consider doing a show?' I started talking to her about doing a spy series and then the first call I made was to Stephen Garrett because we had never lost touch. 'You know the idea of doing a show in England? I think I may finally have it.' That's how it got started.
JH: What were you not getting from American television anymore?
FS: The TV business is changing so much. All the pressure in America is do it for less. Take less money, have fewer writers and have smaller budgets; all the pressure is downward. If you come to the U.K. and you produce television... I own this show with Stephen and Jane. I'm a partner in the show so the upside is bigger. You can come here and have advantages that you couldn't have at home. The opportunity to work with them, the chance to live in Europe and to be an owner in my show was irresistible.
JH: From a creative standpoint, what are the advantages of working in U.K. television?
FS: It's very different and I didn't appreciate how different it was until I got here. It's a little disorienting, actually, because I was so used to Hollywood - it's the only world I knew and I was trained in that system - and the show I'm doing with Stephen and Jane is for the BBC. The BBC cares about ratings, obviously, and they want people to watch their shows but I think they care at least as much about quality and that's an incredible thing how prized quality is in this process. There's less fear, I would say. There's fear everywhere so I don't want to make it sound like this is all roses and paradise. It's not paradise anywhere but the atmosphere is so brutal right now in American television especially with the executives who are really driven by fear because it's a shrinking business and looking over their shoulder and seeing their decisions being questioned... it's just not as desperate here. That's just the sense you get in working with people. They're going to do the best they can but it's not this little life or death feel that you get these days in Hollywood.
JH: You were also helping out on another U.K. show, 'Strike Back,' right? How'd that come about?
FS: 'Strike Back' just kind of fell into my lap. I wasn't looking and then there it was. It started out as a series for Sky but now it's season 2 and it's been picked up by Cinemax so it's a British/American series. Part of why they asked me to come onboard is they needed to reimagine the show because they needed it to work without Richard Armitage, who had been the lead in season one but left the show to do 'The Hobbit' in New Zealand. So they needed two leads - a British lead and an American lead - and I came in and it was great. We had this great format, this great world of 'Strike Back' and then we had to imagine who were the new characters who were going to drive the show in the second year. It's been a lot of fun.
JH: The model in the U.K. is fewer series episodes. For example, last year's popular cop drama 'Luther' [starring Idris Elba originally] only ran for six episodes. In America you need to have 5-7 years imagined when you go in to pitch the idea. Quite a difference, right?
FS: This is the funny thing coming in as an outsider. A lot of British people bemoan the state of their television industry and say 'We don't have great series like you do in America! They're amazing and they're so long' but British television is not in that business. They're not in the business of doing a series of 13 or 22 hours a year. For them, a long order is 10 and, yeah, as you were saying, most series are 2, 4 or 6 hours and 6 hours is a long run. Then if it does well, then they decide, 'Yeah, we'll do another one.' With this series it's very much with the intention, even though it's a shorter run by American standards, of creating a series that returns every year and has a number of episodes.
JH: 'Morton' is more spy thriller than sci-fi or supernatural so it's not what you're known for. Was it your intention to get away from those genres?
FS: Well, I've written a number of different genres in the years since 'X-Files' has gone off and not everything has been made. It's easiest for me to get something produced that's in the supernatural genre because that's how I've been typecast and, honestly, I don't mind being typecast that way because I love that kind of storytelling. But 'X-Files' was not just supernatural. It was also a suspense thriller and murder mystery and romantic drama and all these different things so I feel very comfortable in this sort of paranoid, suspense thriller world.
JH: Are there things you're finding in your writing of 'Morton' that maybe you couldn't do if you were writing it in America?
FS: I anticipate that this will be like 'Strike Back' as an American/British series so the exact same hour you're watching here will also be the same in America. In another way I will say it is different because what the BBC is looking for is so different than what most broadcasters in America start out with. But at the end of the day I think it's going to be not quite like anything the BBC has done before either so it will be a hybrid.
JH: That first chat with Gillian Anderson started all this but she's no longer a part of the project. What happened?
FS: I think the reason is that it just took longer than either of us expected and by the time we had our yes she couldn't do it anymore.
JH: Have you had to reconfigure anything with Gillian no longer involved since you wrote the part for her?
FS: There will inevitably be differences but we don't start filming until the fall. I will have written all the scripts before we start to film! Can you imagine that in America? It's months away!
JH: There are some U.S. shows that are real popular in the U.K. like 'Glee' but why do you think some shows translate well and others don't?
FS: I'm far from an expert on this but I would say anecdotally that comedies are a tougher thing in either direction. It's such a culture-specific thing and sometimes it works but more often that not it doesn't work. In terms of drama, the 'CSI's, 'House,' 'The Mentalist'... shows like that seem to travel all over the world. Shows that are excellent like 'The Sopranos,' 'The Wire' and 'Mad Men' are admired all over the world but they don't get the big numbers. We're sort of forgetting this now that cable is so popular but the networks are still the big tent of TV viewership. You can forget that in America if you watch cable all the time but around the world it's still network dramas like 'Glee' and 'House' and 'CSI' that are the big, big, big sellers.
JH: How has the web changed your job as a writer/producer? Do you think about that in your process?
FS: I think economically it's challenging because the web has taken away a huge amount of the viewing audience for television but I think it's an incredibly exciting and an amazing opportunity. I thought about the Internet in the creation of ['Morton'] and how to use the Internet not as a marketing tool but as another layer of the series so I think it's really exciting and obviously allows you to be very, very close to your audience. I have a website [www.BigLight.com] where I'm in constant contact with fans so you'll see when this series in the air that there's a huge online component to the show; it's built into the design of the show.