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The X-Files: I Want To Believe - Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz interview

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRIS Carter and Frank Spotnitz, co-writers and director (Carter) of The X-Files: I Want To Believe talk about the history behind making the film, developing the iconic characters of Mulder and Scully and why they think the TV series was ahead of its time.

They also discuss the film’s disappointing American box office, working with each other and why they like to ask questions without – necessarily – providing answers…

Q. Why did this X-Files movie take so long to get to the screen?
Chris Carter: It was really a matter of business. Fox came to us a year after the series was off the air and said: “If you guys want to do another movie, we’re ready and waiting…” So, we started and came up with a good idea, which we pitched to them, and they agreed. Then negotiations began… not only with us but with the actors. But that all came to a screeching halt when my representatives came to an impasse with Fox over a TV contract and the profit participation. I’d call it par for the course in the industry – there was a squabble over who owes what to who. That became a very long negotiation, which became a law suit… but not in any kind of true sense because swords were never drawn. But it just reserved my right to negotiate and we continued to do that. It took four years, I think, in all, which was four years of legal fees [smiles]. I’m not kidding, I was then picking up one phone and my lawyers were saying, “it’s resolved”, and the other phone was saying: “It’s Fox here and if you want to do that movie, now’s the time!” It was now or never because there was a writers’ strike looming and they said: “If you don’t do it now, you probably won’t have it in theatres for a couple of years because the strike could last a year or more.” They were ready for that, so that now or never was the call to arms for us and we picked up our pens and began to write. That was a year and a half ago.

Frank Spotnitz: But here’s the part of the story that we don’t always tell. Chris said: “OK, the notes, the cards, from when we did the story in 2003, let’s pull those out and get back to work…” But I couldn’t find them! I’d moved offices, so I couldn’t find them. And we’d done a lot of work on the story [laughs]. So, we had to start over. We remembered a lot but we didn’t remember everything. It was actually a blessing, though, because so much time had gone by that Mulder and Scully were in a different place in their lives. So, it actually became a movie about Mulder and Scully… about them and their relationship first. The X-File is still there, obviously, but it’s not as prominent as it was going to be when we first attacked the story.

Q. Did you trust from the loyal audience you’d built up throughout the series that you could do things differently from what might be expected and know they’d go with it?
Chris Carter: One of the most amazing things about The X-Files – unlike any other show – is it’s elasticity. It could become this big satire or parody of itself [one week] and then next week go back to a mythology episode and no one seemed to mind. The characters could be silly and then be very serious too. So, we’ve not done the silly story here, although there is some humour in it, but we’ve done a stand-alone story which is what about 80% of The X-Files are. Roughly 20% of them are mythology episodes, so we’ve gone back to what I would say we’ve done most and best – and told a story that’s scary, creepy, smart, and engaging. I think it requires the audience to think and there are many things to think about. It’s a story of redemption, of religious faith, of faith in science, of faith in your friend, partner and soul-mate, and there are lots of layers that it works on that makes it different to a summer movie.

Frank Spotnitz: Something that’s been interesting to me when looking at this is the fans… or at least the hardcore fans have embraced the movie and seen that it was different. They’ve even welcomed the difference. A lot of the film critics… it’s clear they didn’t watch the show because they’re saying: “Well, where are the aliens?” But if you watched the show, you’d know the aliens were only a small part of the show… and actually the aliens themselves hardly even showed up. So, really the more you know the show and the characters, the less surprising the choices are.

Q. David [Duchovny] has mentioned that he feels the show was ahead of its time. Was that something you were aware of?
Chris Carter: Well, it was interesting because most television… there used to be a cliche which was that a TV series was the same thing every week, only different. You knew exactly what was going to happen. But The X-Files broke that rule because it was a different little movie every week; a different paranormal phenomenon and a different logic to it. You never knew what you were going to get when you turned on the show, or what type of story it was going to be, especially after season 2. It could be a comedy, it could be horror, murder-mystery, suspense-thriller. It was many different genres and people welcomed the surprise. And in doing this movie I think we said we were going to do the same thing. It was sort of a big gamble because you’re doing it with a movie and you don’t have another episode next week to try again, but we were so interested in the characters and their relationship that we wanted to go deeper with them than I think we’ve ever gone before. It was bold but it felt interesting and honest to Mulder and Scully to go in this direction.

Q. How easy was it to persuade Billy Connolly to take on the role of the psychic and ex-paedophile priest?
Frank Spotnitz: It was written for him actually. Chris had been a fan of his for many years and we’d both loved him in Mrs Brown and knew he was a fine dramatic actor even though he’s so famous as a comedian. What I thought he gave it besides his acting ability is just this humanity and likeability. However repugnant his character may be you can’t help but sort of like him….

Chris Carter: And that’s true of Billy Connolly. He is one of the most charming men you’ll ever meet in your life.

Q. But such a potty mouth…
Chris Carter: Filthy! [Laughs]

Q. But does he feel the need to get a laugh when he’s not filming?
Frank Spotnitz: He’s really funny but it’s not like he’s performing. You are actually having a real human conversation with him. There are some people when it’s like, “please stop”, but he’s actually genuinely very funny… but also very kind and warm. The crew adore him because he engages everyone and he’s always there. It was very cold and that cold he was wearing was not warm at all, but there was never a word of complaint, he always knew his lines and always had an approach to every scene. We really couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.

Q. How bad was the snow to cope with?
Chris Carter: It was bad. When it’s snowing it’s actually warmer. But we had nights where it was just clear skies and freezing, freezing cold. You could not stay warm. It was a damp cold that went right through your clothes. We started filming on December 10 and then we finished filming on December 17 and went off for a two week holiday. I spent that time with my wife on a ski resort because I’m a skiier. But I did not ski once. I spent the whole time dressing up, walking around, figuring out if my feet were going to be cold, what shoes worked best, when to change, what to wear, how to layer… I spent the whole two weeks preparing for what I knew was going to be the next three weeks once we were back in Vancouver, or what I would call Ice Station Zebra. It was a survival test in a way because when you get cold you don’t think straight. But if you’re on the clock you have to keep the crew moving and you’ve got to have everything planned.

Snow is also a funny thing. It can deep, shallow, it can be soft, hard; if it’s too warm, everything sinks and you’re stuck. You can’t move things on wheels, you have to slide things around. And you can’t just tramp across the snow to talk to the actor because you’ll mess up the snow and it can’t be refreshed. So you have to yell, which is never good. So, everything changes and the degree of difficulty goes up by a factor of 10 at least. And that was the three weeks back after Christmas, but luckily I had those two weeks to prepare because it was another kind of filmmaking.

Q. From watching the series and the film it strikes me that you like asking questions but are less keen to give answers. Is that deliberate?
Chris Carter: I think that’s a good question [laughs]. I think that’s really something that’s probably a signature of the show – the asking of questions but not answering them because we’re dealing with the unexplained and mysterious. So, yeah, there are a lot of questions posed but it’s a question of faith in the end. There is actually a question mark at the end of this movie but it’s kind of a beautiful question mark because it’s somebody who moves forward on faith completely.

Frank Spotnitz: I like asking questions. I have answers to everything in my movie but they’re my answers and I don’t feel as though we should impose our answers on other people. But if people walk out of the movie and they think about it, then that’s quite something.

Q. Was the focus on the relationship between Mulder and Scully also a way of pandering to the fans slightly? Did you get fed up with people asking ‘are they going to get together’?
Frank Spotnitz: Not really. 16 years after the show began it was a natural question that we wanted answered. We wanted to know where these characters were going with their lives, personally and professionally.

Chris Carter: It’s funny that even in the scene where they’re in bed together – and it’s a big surprise – but even when I look at that scene I’m thinking to myself: “That’s basically the office scene.” Even though they’re in bed together it is one of the most chaste bed scenes that you’ll ever see in a movie.

Frank Spotnitz: To be honest, it was the only thing we could do with the relationship. It felt kind of risky because it’s messing with the architecture that’s driven the series for all these years. But we needed to be true to the characters and if, after 16 years, they’re still flirting and frustrated then there’s something very wrong with this relationship.

Q. Did David and Gillian come on board with that?
Chris Carter: Yes, everyone saw the beauty of it and the honesty of it right from the beginning. It struck me because I do go online and I read everything and there’s been so little questioning of that decision. People have just accepted that it was natural, which was a surprise because I thought that would be the thing that there would be the most debate about.

Q. How protective are they of their characters? Have they ever disagreed with a direction you’ve taken them?
Chris Carter: It never gets to that point but they have definite ideas about their characters and it’s always constructive. I have to say, in fact, that they’re almost always right. Even though there might be some give or take, they know those characters, they embody them. In a way, even though I wrote those characters, they made them and have to play the emotions of them. If you’re not listening to them, you’re not doing your job. You have to listen to the actors. You can’t just stuff words in them and have them come out beautifully. They have to come from somewhere and it’s always been, fortunately [touches wood], a wonderful give and take.

Frank Spotnitz: They very rarely question the larger choices or architecture of the story. But the truth of a scene, or a particular moment… they’re very, very perceptive about that and that’s where it’s really helpful. And David’s always looking to inject humour among other things that he does. But humour is one of the great gifts that he brings.

Q. It intrigues me that you’re superstitious [in reference to touching wood]. Is that something that manifests itself on set?
Chris Carter: I have certain rituals. But I’m fascinated by the whole idea of consciousness. What is it? We don’t know. We can’t explain it. We know essentially how the mind works but we don’t understand what consciousness is. I think everything, essentially, affects consciousness, including everything you do and how you do it.

Q. How tough on each other are you when you write?
Frank Spotnitz: We argue but we think things through in a very detailed way….

Chris Carter: And I win [laughs]! But that’s the pleasure of the partnership… are those disagreements. There’s so much we have in common in terms of the movies that we like and the things that we like. So, it’s a good starting point and it’s always interesting. The thing I love about writing is that you sort of find your own mind about things and in this movie, especially, it’s about faith, and he’s a believer and I’m not. But I didn’t want to make a movie that I didn’t believe in. I didn’t want to make some kind of pro-God thing when I don’t think there is a God. And so the ending of the movie, to me, was beautiful. I believe in faith but I don’t necessarily believe that it comes from God. So, that ending to me could speak truth for both our points of view.

Q. Was there ever a moment when you realised the show had gone beyond a TV show and had informed pop culture?
Chris Carter: There was an article that appeared in The New Yorker after the first season of the show that said people are paying attention. I felt that at that point we’d reached some level of recognition. But as far as being a part of pop culture I still don’t trust that. I don’t trust that anything lasts now. I think everything is consumed very quickly, is gone and replaced by something else. I feel like the sediment builds very quick and you can get lost very easily. Only time will tell.

Q. Is TV a healthier place now?
Chris Carter: I don’t, personally. I think it’s changing. Network TV in America, the audience declines every year. The types of shows they’re willing to do are becoming narrower and narrower. Cable is interesting but you’re only aiming for a slice of the pie on cable. So, there are some really interesting shows but they’re not trying to get a big, big audience. They’re trying to get this one little segment and the budgets are really modest. You couldn’t do The X-Files on cable because it would be impossible. You just couldn’t mount it. So, it’s a changing beast. I’ve always loved reaching that big audience on network television and that’s harder and harder to do. It’s one of the reasons I took time off because I saw the writing was on the wall… this was going to be an era of reality television and a lot of the time slots were going to be taken up with that, so why would I want to compete against these shows which are done for a price and get a big audience? But in that time [off], other good drama started sneaking in and that was refreshing.

Q. I understand the year 2012 looms large in X-Files mythology. Does that imply another feature?
Chris Carter: Roland Emmerich is doing a movie called 2012 right now. So…

Q. But will we see another X-Files movie in 2012?
Chris Carter: We wrote this movie as if it could be the last movie because we don’t know that it won’t be the last movie. It’s on its own now… we’ve pushed it out of the nest and even though we’re here saying “fly”, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. But of course, we’ll have that conversation and of course we want the movie to succeed. It happens to have opened in a very big shadow cast by a very big bat [laughs] and we’re just hoping that it’s able to fly out of that shadow.

Read our review of The X-Files: I Want To Believe