Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz talk to Mark Pilkington about The X Files: I Want to Believe. Beware spoilers!
After six years of silence, Mulder and Scully are back – and, as a result, I got the chance to discuss their new cinematic outing with writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. A thoughtful, friendly pair – and if you squinted a bit and tilted your head to one side, they could almost be surf-bronzed, Californian versions of our own Bob Rickard and Paul Sieveking…
FT: What was the impetus to get away from extraterrestrials for the new film?
Frank Spotnitz: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do a movie like most of the episodes of the show, which had nothing to do with aliens. And that was something the studio wanted to do as well. It allowed us to tell a simpler story, because the alien mythology had gotten quite complicated after nine years. It also allowed us to focus on Mulder and Scully and their relationship more than we could have otherwise.
FT: There's a strong emphasis on Catholic faith in the film – a theme that had always been bubbling through the series. Is this something that is personal to either of you?
Chris Carter: Neither of us are Catholics. But, of course, we pick up the newspaper every day and we realize that there's a controversy about stem cell research, which is an element in the story. And it was interesting to us.
I had also read that, as in the movie, there was a place, a facility, where pædophiles lived together and sort of policed one another, and I thought that was very interesting. And I was very interested in that they hated one another for their particular appetites. And that plays on this character, Father Joe. He is at odds with his impulses and yet he is a man of faith. How do you reconcile those things? How do you look for forgiveness? What if God were to give you an opportunity for forgiveness?
FT: Is this something you saw as particularly relevant to the America of the past few years?
FS: I don't think we were that calculating about it; it was just something that sort of emotionally felt right to us. And we talked for days before we started working on the story about our lives and what mattered to us right now. That's where this whole theme of “don't give up” came from, because Chris had seen the religious scholar Huston Smith speak, and that was the advice he had given the audience. And that seemed very relevant in today's climate: don't give up hope.
CC: Seeing Huston Smith speak is like being in the presence of an oracle. He's this wizened little old man who has to be helped to the podium, but the power of his presence is really remarkable.
FT: When you're writing together, is one of you Mulder and one of you Scully?
CC: Frank wears the dress! [laughter] No, it's not quite like that, I think both of the voices are in our heads and after 202 hours of entertainment, I think they're pretty much implanted there.
FS: I think what was interesting to me about this script and this story is the theme of faith. Because Chris is a person of faith; not in a particularly religious sense, but still he believes in a higher power…
CC: Like Tony Blair!
FS: [Laughs] And I'm a sceptic, for sure. So, for a long time, we didn't know how to end this movie. Because I wouldn't feel comfortable with proof of God, and we didn't want to deny it either. So the ending we came up with was actually sort of the perfect resolution of the two opposing points of view.
FT: Would you say, when it comes to anomalous phenomena, that you both meet in a middle, let's say fortean, ground?
FS: I like to say I'm a humble sceptic. Because I've always been a sceptic. But after years of being exposed to this kind of material and meeting people – abductees and other people who have seen or experienced strange things – I realise there is so much I cannot explain. I still think science is the only way to make sense of the world, yet I think there is still an awful lot that science doesn't yet understand.
CC: I'm the same way. I used to call myself a natural sceptic and I still think I have a sceptical nature, but I do have faith that there is meaning in something greater.
After The X-Files finished, I did a fellowship at an institute for theoretical physics. And I saw that these scientists were doing what I would call some of the most imaginal work I had ever seen. They can't see what they're imagining, they calculate it. It is mathematical, but it is completely imaginary. And yet, it is so beautiful. It's almost as if they are, in a weird way, searching for God through science.
FT: Going back to the original series. Initially, where were you drawing your source material from? I'm curious about which books and authors you were engaged with.
FS: I read Fortean Times, Scientific American, Discover, Nature, New York Times… But I have to say, where stories come from is the most mysterious part of the job because usually it's not conscious where something comes from. So just as often, I would find inspiration from something completely unrelated. I once got a story idea by reading a cookbook. So it's absolutely unpredictable.
FT: I'm very interested in the feedback loop between paranormal lore, entertainment and perceived anomalous experience. Initially, the series was thought by audiences to be based on actual events. Was that a deliberate ploy of yours, to present it that way?
CC: Well, Twentieth Century Fox said, you've got to wrap this up in a little bubble. You have to tell us at the end of each episode what just happened. And I said, “Well, these are unexplained phenomena! You can't necessarily explain it. It's better left to wonder.” And they didn't understand that concept in the beginning. And they said, “In the beginning, you have to tell people that this is based on actual events.” And I think that appeared in the original episode and never again, thankfully. But the truth is, some of the best stories came from paranormal lore. And so, yes, they were based on lore, if you will, but they didn't come from real life.
FT: Did you feel a sense of responsibility that the ideas you were putting out as fiction might bubble through to become folklore, and perhaps even reality for some people?
FS: Yeah, we were very conscious of that. Especially because we would frequently weave in real history, you know, Operation Paperclip, Japanese experiments during WWII. We were always very mindful about what conclusions people could draw when we were touching on real events. I think we were conscious about the ideas we were putting forward that were purely fictional as well, and were making sure that we were saying something we wanted to say.
CC: You know what was very helpful in approaching that… David Duchovny had read something and it had jibed with something else I had read about the Holocaust and memory. Memories now are fading of this time. When the people who were involved in it die, then those memories will be… not necessarily lost, but they will be mutable through the impermanence of memory. That was all very interesting to me and it ended up, I would say, informing that whole mythology arc.
FS: I think you can also draw from real history. Even if people don't know it's real history – it gives the storytelling some kind of imprint of credibility and believability. It was something we did again and again, throughout the mythology of the show in particular, that I think was effective.
FT: Have either of you had what you would consider to be anomalous or paranormal experiences?
FS: My wife tells me that I'm too closed-minded to sense it. And she may be right. We lived in a house where she insists there were ghosts and that she could feel them and hear them all the time, and I never did. I'm very much a Scully in real life, so it's entirely possible that my own closed mind has kept me from experiencing anything.
CC: I've had what I'd call a spiritual experience before, but not what I'd call a classic paranormal experience beyond déjà vu. I'm just waiting for one to happen.
FT: You're probably too close to the material for it to happen to you. Is there any particular mystery of science or the paranormal that you'd like to see a resolution to or an explanation of?
FS: There are so many! The first thing that comes to mind is dark matter. It's sort of astonishing that scientists are now saying we don't understand most of the world we're living in, the reality we're living in. But then, you know, the big question is the question that's in this movie, which is: Is there a God? Is there a meaning? Or is that just something that we feel the need to create because we've got these big brains and our bodies? That's the one I'm eager to find out when I die.
CC: I'd love to see that Theory of Everything, you know, that t-shirt explanation, equal to the Theory of Relativity. And there was a time when I got very excited that, you know, we were very close to discovering it. And I think with the supercollider that's being built in Switzerland that there are going to be big answers, certainly about black holes and possibly about things like dark matter. I’m also fascinated by neuroscience, explaining how the brain works. What is consciousness? For me, they're the big questions.