The X-Files creator talks killer cats and creepy underpants
Chris Carter more or less vanished from the public eye after the release of the maligned second X-Files movie, 2008's I Want To Believe. But his influence lives on, in the form of TV shows which likely would not exist without him. X-Files alumni are behind Homeland (Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa), Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan) and American Horror Story (Tim Minear), while the likes of Fringe, Grimm and Supernatural all owe a major debt to Mulder and Scully. As the X-Files creator continues to develop a new paranoia-tinged series for AMC, we rang him up to reminisce about 20 years of keeping things spooky...
You've been pretty quiet of late. Have you been using your downtime to watch lots of TV?
I do watch a fair amount of television. I've been watching Ray Donovan and Scandal. I'm a big fan of Homeland, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey. I love Mad Men. And I recently watched House Of Cards in three sittings. I'm all over the map! I also caught up with a lot of things that had flown by me. I didn't have a chance to watch The Wire when the show was on, so I got to go back and watch five years of The Wire. That was fantastic. Plus I watched all seven years of The Shield.
Have you revisited The X-Files recently? How do you think it's aged?
I think it still stands up. We worked very hard to make the show look beautiful. I think the stories and the writing stand up. David and Gillian stand up. You know, I do think it has some timeless qualities. Of course there are some things which are dated - the more superficial things. But it's amazing to me that so many young people are finding it these days. They're getting beyond the wardrobes and the hairstyles and they like it!
You did a 20th anniversary panel at Comic-Con with David and Gillian, but disappointingly didn't make an announcement about a third movie...
I know. But I do feel there is an appetite. It's really up to Twentieth Century Fox, whether they have the will to do it. I think all of us are interested in putting the band back together. I have an idea for it in my head. The colonisation date has passed and that is something we wouldn't ignore in that story. When they came to us and asked us to do the second movie, they told us the budget limitations and we knew we wouldn't be able to do another mythology story. So we did something much smaller and more intimate - I call it a standalone movie. But if we were going to go forward, I would go back to something that would really connect more to the mythology and to the first movie.
Going back to your earlier days, you were at Disney. Was that a Tim Burton situation where you were hatching dark ideas in a wholesome place?
I was just lucky to be in the business. I had written a script, the second one I'd ever written, that was read by Jeff Katzenberg, who had just come there with Michael Eisner. They were really transforming the studio. And one day, I'm not kidding you, I was a surfer working as a writer for a surfing magazine, and the next day I was in the movie business with an office and a secretary. It was just wonderful to be doing whatever they wanted me to do. I wouldn't compare myself to Tim Burton at all. I would compare myself to the most wet-behind-the-ears, fledgling filmmaker. I had a tremendous experience there. I got to do Disney Sunday movies. I got to do a TV pilot there. And it really helped me to realise that I needed to not just be a writer, but a producer, to see my work up on the screen the way I wanted it to look and play. So I left Disney with all those good experiences and went on to do a few things for NBC Productions and then I went to Fox. I think seven years after I started at Disney I created The X-Files.
Is it true that while you were at NBC you created a show called Copter Cop?
I did. Brandon Tartikoff came to me with this futuristic idea about a Bill Murray-type guy who patrols the streets in a vehicle that can immediately turn into a helicopter. I would call it fanciful and whimsical and kind of comic-booky. Even though I wrote it and intended to make it, it got lost in the process when Brandon got into a terrible car crash with his daughter and eventually left NBC. It's funny, Brandon's widow contacted me a few years ago and asked me if I'd be up for re-investigating that concept. I was just too busy at the time.
Is it true that the British Avengers was an influence on The X-Files?
Yes, I loved it. I grew up with it as a kid, loving that relationship, and I'm sure that people knowing that would recognise some of it in Mulder and Scully.
Did the show give you an opportunity to vent some of your own fears?
What I tell people, because it's so amazing to me, is that it was an experience where I got to write whatever I wanted to write about, and people liked it. I didn't have to tailor or taste-test the show. The voice was one that caught on. And so, yeah, it was amazing.
You once told Rolling Stone that you nixed some Mulder and Scully boxer shorts. Is that really a thing someone wanted to make?
Yes. I mean, people will make and put a name on it, just to make money. So many things for me are unfortunate in the commercialization of something that is special. It's like when Led Zeppelin appears in Cadillac commercials. There's something that is taken away from your love of this thing and your connection to it. I felt the same thing with the over-merchandising of the TV show. If there was too much stuff out there, it would take away from what I would call the special connection that fans developed with the show.
Do you remember other things you put a stop to?
I don't. But Fox were always very respectful of my feelings and comments. That said, there's still an awful lot of stuff out there with X-Files on it.
Gillian told us that she has Scully's tombstone in her house. Have you kept a lot of things yourself?
Yeah. I've kept a lot of stuff, although I've given plenty away. From the episode Humbug, the character - I think his name was Leonard - anyway, he has that creature coming out of his stomach. That thing was created for the show and I saved it. I gave it to Darren Morgan a year ago, and he now uses it at Halloween to scare the kids. I've got funny things. David Duchovny had to have a cast made of his face to do an old person's make-up, and I've got that cast of his face in my house. I've got something from the pilot, the original implant that was in Billy Miles' head. I've got a sign from The Erlenmeyer Flask. But my house isn't a museum to The X-Files!
Just out of curiosity, which room did you put David's face in?
It's actually in my office. Not in the bathroom.
There are a lot of X-Files references in a British sit-com called Spaced. Have you seen it?
No. But I do know that Simon Pegg is a fan of the show. Gillian worked with him on a movie and told me that he was a big fan, so we actually thought about putting him in the second movie. There was no part for him, but I certainly would think about him if we were to go forward in any way.
Have you kept in contact with the series regulars?
David's my next-door neighbour, so I see him often. Gillian I'm in contact with all the time. Mitch Pileggi only rarely, but we're still friends. I've lost touch with William B. Davis, but I hear about him and read about him. There's nobody that I'm out of touch with for reasons other than distance and everybody's busy.
David famously hosts basketball games with people like Garry Shandling. Do you join in?
I never have, but I have played basketball with David and play tennis with him. Last summer we took a really nice swim in the ocean with him. We try to hang out whenever possible.
As a surfer, what's your favourite surf movie?
That's a good question. There are two. One is called Pacific Vibrations and the other one is Five Summer Stories. They're real surfing movies, the kind you used to go the theatre to see. The experience of seeing a surf movie in the 1970s, as a teenager, and the energy in those theatres, was amazing. It was the only way to see people surfing. These guys would go out and make these surf movies and bring them to four-wall theatres. It was an incredible experience that I'll never forget. The moment I stood on the pier at Huntingdon Beach and talked to my friend about surfing, I knew that it was something that I had to do. I was 12 years old. And I surfed last night, so I'm still at it.
Were you ever tempted to set an X-Files episode in the surfing community?
No. As you can see, I've pointedly not done anything related to surfing. I'm sort of protective of it. I think Hollywood often times misses the point.
There have been many debates about the best X-Files monsters. Do you have a favourite?
I love the one in Post-Modern Prometheus, but he's not quite a scary monster. I think the Peacock brothers (in Home) are really scary. Donnie Pfaster (in Irresistible) is a scary character. There are just so many good ones. I got a lot of feedback to Home, but we also got our hands slapped by the people at Fox, who said we'd gone too far. They said that episode would never air again and shame on us. There were glaring lights on us, making sure we never did anything like it again. Of course, it's now one of the most beloved episodes. Which is ironic and wonderful.
Were you aware when making it which episodes were going to be upsetting?
We wanted them to be upsetting! We always were trying to do the show as scary as we could do it, given the limitations of network television. What you can show, what you can see. We were always pushing the limits, which I think is why it's still relevant today.
You had an episode with killer cats. We're presuming you're a dog guy...
Teso Dos Bichos. Yes, I'm a dog guy! But I think it came out of American Indian mythology. Something the writer John Shiban stumbled upon that he thought could be scary. The director found it very difficult to make cats scary, and that became a legendary episode.
Finally, do you think the mythology ever got too complicated?
No. I feared it would, but I made a great effort - as well as Frank Spotnitz, my partner in crime - to always take a few steps back to tell people where we had come from before going forward. So it all connects. And I've had a few fans recently say to me that they had watched the mythology episodes all together and how well it holds up. I think when you do anything for nine years, it's bound to get convoluted, by sheer dint of the twists and turns you build in. Anything that lasts that long is bound to develop its own built-in difficulties.