Interview with Chris Carter
There are many reasons why I find myself continually drawn back to Carter's oeuvre. In broad terms, these reasons involve television history, the artistry of the particular programs, philosophy, and of course, personal taste.
Historically speaking, The X-Files and Millennium have grown virtually synonymous with the decade of the 1990s. Carter's programs captured the Zeitgeist of that epoch in sometimes challenging, sometimes stunning fashion.
By the end of the decade, various Ten Thirteen productions had gazed at the teen culture ("Syzygy,") pondered the Human Genome Project ("Sense and Anti-Sense,") skewered nineties tabloid culture ("The Post-Modern Prometheus"), satirized Scientology ("Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"), peeked behind the closed-door mores of our affluent gated, McMansion communities ("Arcadia," "Weeds"), considered domestic terrorism ("52266"), dissected the mentality of cults ("The Field Where I Died"), and much more. This is Who We Were.
In terms of my continued appreciation of these series, I find myself again relying on Roger Ebert's insightful and useful refrain -- that it isn't what a movie (or TV program) is about that's important; it's how that production is about the narrative that truly matters.
And the "how" of Chris Carter's genre programs -- The X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen -- is also the thing that perpetually intrigues and fascinates me. Specifically, I enjoy that these productions invariably deploy symbolism and literary allusion to further their themes. I've written about that facet in regards to Millennium, specifically, in my essays: "Enemies Within: Chris Carter's Millennium and America's Suburban Apocalypse, and "Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium's Second Season."
I also admire the unconventional and cinematic visuals forged on these series, which stand apart from the majority of dramatic programs in television history. Television tends be...visual radio.
But not The X-Files, Millennium or Ten Thirteen's other works. They regularly utilize expressive, unconventional camera-work and always seem to find a way for the image to marry theme. If you have any doubt of this fact, just go back and watch The X-Files episode "Triangle," a dizzying, audacious balancing of "real space and time" with "fantasy space and time" in the Bermuda Triangle. It's Alfred Hitchcock's Rope meets the split-screen climax of De Palma's Carrie meets The Wizard of Oz. And that's just one example.
Notably, Carter's programs were also at the vanguard of the movement in dramatic television towards multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. And gazing across nearly 300 hours of filmed entertainment, I find myself fascinated by the connections between Ten Thirteen's many works; and the consistency of world view I see across the spectrum of Carter's universe.
For shorthand, you might call this "the Chris Carter mystique," or his "brand." It's the same thing with Joss Whedon (another artist I deeply admire): the alert viewer will be aware within minutes that he has stepped into Chris Carter's world.
So, after I received a happy birthday note from Chris Carter last week (!), I decided this was a great opportunity to open a dialogue with him regarding some of these ideas. To my delight, he agreed to a wide-ranging interview, and that's what you see transcribed below. I re-arranged the interview to group my questions by themes to present, hopefully, a cohesive picture.
JKM: One of the threads I've noticed running throughout your work is your use of symbolism.
For example, the Yellow House as paradise and then paradise lost in Millennium. Or the Arthurian Chair in Harsh Realm. I guess my question is simply, why?
CARTER: I don't set out to throw these symbols in as anything other than what interests me.
It's done on a case-by-case basis, and then they only become symbols to everyone else. What I can say about everything that I've created or worked on is that it's been about what interests me at the time.
JKM: In terms of Millennium and the yellow house -- this perfect place of safety and happiness -- where did that idea came from?
CARTER: It came out of the bigger concept of a guy who was trying to paint away the darkness.
I had worked on X-Files for three to four years at that point, and we were dealing with some very dark subject matter. After awhile -- after writing about that dark subject matter and realizing how powerful it can really be -- you try to come up with remedies, yourself, for the darkness. It's not always fun to write about the darkness.
JKM: So the yellow house was a place of safety for you, as well as for Frank?
CARTER: It was. And it's funny, when I look back at Millennium now, I think, in a way, the concept was actually too complex. Especially when I look at shows that have become hits, like CSI, or other procedurals. They don't deal with ideas like the yellow house. They don't deal with things like family, necessarily.
JKM: But that's what made Millennium so great. It had all those elements. I know I wrote once that Millennium must be the most-often imitated show in TV history. But other series have sort of stripped it down to the component parts: the paranormal angle (Medium, Ghost Whisperer); the forensic (CSI) angle, the serial killer (Criminal Minds) angle. Everybody's taken a page from it, but nobody's been able to sort of re-assemble the totality of it.
CARTER: It was also a show set on a specific schedule, which was the countdown to the Millennium, and of course nobody can duplicate that in this decade. It had...complexity.
And it's funny, when it went off the air it did so with ratings that are better than many of the shows that are on the air right now. In a weird way, if you look at Millennium and Harsh Realm, you can say that Harsh Realm kind of booted Millennium off the air, which now -- looking back -- is very unfortunate.
JKM: It would have been good to have them simultaneously.
JKM: Another aspect of your work that I see repeated throughout is the depiction of men. My wife is a therapist,and as much as she enjoys the way Joss Whedon writes women, she likes the way you write men. She's suggested a clinical classification: The Chris Carter male.
CARTER: I'd have to say it's dramatically-interesting to me. It's what's withheld that counts, or that is important.
If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things -- because it's series television we're talking about here -- it becomes something that needs to be discovered. So if you discover these things too quickly; if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from the interest in the character. It makes that character less dramatically interesting.
JKM: And less tragic?
CARTER: The characters are tragic. That's what makes them interesting. Their flaws and their weaknesses. And also their strengths. By not telling his wife about the darkness, Frank is painting it away. By not telling her about the polaroids, he's painting it away. It's a strength, but one which could be viewed as a weakness in terms of how men relate to women.
JKM: Not to push a point, but it does seem that your men seem to suffer from this quality, but the women don't have that level of remoteness.
CARTER: I think that's the women's strength. They stay there. They don't shy away from the entanglement. From the darkness. That says a lot about the women. Look at Scully. She's a very, very independent person. Her strength is measured against Mulder's; it's not measured by Mulder.
JKM: There's a period of rebellion against Mulder, by Scully. Like she's rejecting in a sense, his control, his remoteness.
CARTER: In season five you can say that for sure. They really have a falling out. They're of two different minds. Scully actually pursues Mulder's path, and Mulder, in a weird way, pursues Scully's. That was all a plan.
JKM: You don't see relationships go up and down and back and forth like that on many of the dramatic series today. Take CSI For example.
JKM: Which brings us to another topic. In terms of genre history -- Star Trek, Kolchak, programs like that -- they were not able feature a story arc.
CARTER: That arc -- which arcs over nine years -- has been the subject of a lot of debate.
JKM: Does that mean you long for the days when TV stories were simpler? When you could just say, "next week, we start over."
CARTER: You look at Law & Order. It's an amazing television series. It really has what you're talking about. It starts anew each week, and it doesn't feature characters' personal lives over and over again. That is not part of the series. It's a luxury. I never figured out how to create something that would interest me that would be as simple as that.
JKM: And that may be the very thing that precludes a series like Millennium from running for nine years. Some people can't take that journey, but the people who do take the journey usually end up feeling very rewarded.
CARTER: We did an X-Files charity day recently, and we had a lot of people there from all over the world. One of the things that someone said to me -- and pointed out as a regular watcher of the show -- she said: "people say the mytharc of the show is complicated. It's not complicated. You just have to pay attention to it."
I think one of the things that happened, certainly -- and this is part of it being a nine year show - is people say that it got too complicated. I think that what it did -- rather than becoming overly complicated -- it became stretched-out. It took on a complexity given there were 202 episodes.
JKM: In some sense, broadcast television in the 1990s -- before DVD box sets -- worked against you there, I think. It's very difficult when you have to stop your story momentum for Thanksgiving, or play-off games, week-in and week-out. This was the case with Twin Peaks as well. But when you watch a season on DVD -- in a week or two weeks -- it's easier to see how it all makes sense. I don't know what this fact says about our attention span, but it seems that series like Millennium and X-Files are much preferable to watch on DVD, back-to-back, rather than with weeks of interruption in-between.
CARTER: Of course, when you're producing the series, it is a week-by-week experience. So you're not thinking about the DVDs. I never thought about the DVDs. You really are thinking about what it is-- week-to-week -- that interests you. You do it simply on that basis. So when you hear that people watch it from beginning to end, it's very satisfying that what you were pondering, and working out carefully, elaborately, and painstakingly plays out on a grander scale.
JKM: It does. Millennium, in my opinion, is one of the most pure works of art I've ever seen on television. It holds so many resonances of things half-spoken and suggested. It's a beautiful puzzle.
CARTER: I appreciate you saying that. That was what it set out to be, and I know that's what the writers set out for it to be. In the second season -- which I had so little involvement in because I was working on The X-Files and The X-Files movie -- Glen Morgan and James Wong came in and put their stamp on it. They added layers to it. It was truly a collaboration of points-of-view, and of I guess you would call it an artistic approach to what was I think, an interesting subject matter.
JKM: Taken together, all the seasons lead you to this inevitable conclusion about what is going to occur at the Millennium. You almost have three meditations from three perspectives-- in three seasons -- on the same subject, about the same man, the same organization, and the same situation.
CARTER: If there is a mystique, it's truly collaborative. On The X-Files it was also truly collaborative. There were so many good people that came to work on the show: who wrote the show, who directed the show, and who became involved in the show. It's one of those things where you have to spread out the accolades for what the series became; and what they did
JKM: I think Millennium is the first time I heard on network television the descriptor "the culture of fear" as applied to the United States. In the last decade, we've certainly become well-acquainted with the culture of fear in this country. But not many of us were thinking about that in the 1990s. But you were. And your shows were. All of your programs feature this brand of "anticipatory anxiety." You know, there's going to be a doomsday. An alien invasion in 2012. Millennium went through many end of the world scenarios. Even Harsh Realm. What were you seeing that other people weren't seeing? How did you tap into this?
CARTER: I don't know. That is a sensibility of mine. I just sensed that there was something bad coming. Probably, the combination of Y2K and the Millennium; the Millennial anxiety everyone was feeling. The word "Millennium" wasn't actually a popular coinage. People didn't know what Millennium meant, by and large, so while there was nervousness, it was truly an instinctual gut nervousness. There wasn't a whole lot of intellectual effort being put into the decade, into the turn of the century.
JKM: But you started doing this in 1993, even before people started talking about Y2K or the Millennium. The Cold War was over. We had peace and prosperity. We had no enemy. We had all this technology, and the economy was booming. But you still found this underlying uneasiness. If you look at it today, your programs are even more timely. People wondering about vaccinations, the government, etc...
CARTER: Oh, there's much more paranoia today.
JKM: In a decade in which a lot of people seem to think nothing happened, your shows were saying a lot's happening. You even issued a challenge in the opening credits of Millennium when you flashed up the words, "who cares?"
CARTER: Right. "Who cares" came up, and then the question mark came up a moment later. It really was a two-edged sword. Frank Black represented the people who had the weight of that worry on their shoulders. The few people who actually were looking forward; or feeling the anxiety. Who weren't lost in, as you say, the good times.
JKM: If you look across Millennium, X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and Harsh Realm, you also see that in addition to the anticipatory anxiety, you return again and again to the idea of the unelected privileged -- a small group, a cabal -- whether it be the Syndicate, the Millennium Group of the military industrial complex in Harsh Realm dominating the many. Is that something really interests you?
CARTER: Yes, it interests me, and it's continuing to interest me. Sometimes, I don't even stop to consider these things, but I'll find something of interest. A conversation with someone, for instance. I'm looking at the Zeitgeist of today and trying to make sense of it in what I'm doing. Sometimes these things are commercial, and sometimes they aren't.
JKM: That's the tragedy of Harsh Realm. The show got better and better and better, but only three episodes actually aired. At the end, you're left mourning what could have been.
CARTER: I feel the same way. I look at a show like Dollhouse, and if we would have been given the opportunity that Dollhouse had...we might have lasted. The same thing happened to Joss Whedon with Firefly. He had a great idea and didn't get a chance to develop it.
JKM: In creating your shows, you had to research the paranormal, conspiracy theories, Scripture, forensic science. Are these all interests of yours?
CARTER: I always had this question that I would ask myself and I would ask the writers as we went forward. Why this story? And why this story now? Those questions set the bar high, and they were relevant philosophically and dramatically to their times. It's important, as a television writer, to ask yourself that question. It deepens the work. That's not to say it's always a good thing. Sometimes it makes it less accessible or more intellectual than it needs to be.
JKM: Which brings up the end of the X-Files series. I'm sure you're aware of the conventional wisdom: that the series sort of petered-out in the last two years and was not so good. But I watched Season 8 recently and it is incredibly creative; it can stand up beside any other season of the X-Files.
CARTER: Thank you.
JKM: Was it just that we had gotten so attached to Mulder that we couldn't make the leap to a new leading man? Or did the culture move beyond The X-Files at that time?
CARTER: It was easier to say, it's not the X-Files anymore, because it had changed. The characters changed. Mulder became the absent center, which was an interesting approach, I think, and made for an interesting season. It changed, though, and so -- like it or not -- people who would tune in to see Mulder and Scully wouldn't see them anymore. But creatively, the show sort of took on a new life. The stories were interesting, and the new characters made the stories interesting.
JKM: Robert Patrick was terrific. And in Doggett you suddenly had a non-veteran set of eyes on these X-Files cases. You saw someone with vulnerability in "Via Negativa," for instance. We always knew after seven years that Mulder and Scully would be there for each other, but we didn't know yet about Doggett. He was alone, in a way, and suddenly you had this new uncertainty, which the show got a lot of mileage out of, in my opinion.
CARTER: It was kind of meta-X-Files because it was commenting on itself at the same time, and the show turned inward, in a way. The characters deepened. The concept deepened. And I think for some people that was interesting and for some people it became inaccessible.
Expressing Terror and Mystery: The Visuals of The X-Files and Millennium
JKM: One thing that's important to me as a viewer and a critic is the visual component of television. Not all TV looks like the X-Files or Millennium. They're very cinematic. Why is that important to you?
CARTER: First of all, in television people haven't quite been given the opportunity to produce things that were so visual. It was sort of by demand on our part. We had to tell these really scary thriller stories, and they couldn't be done from one angle, two-shots. They needed to be done in a multi-faceted, delivery-of-information way. So we got to emulate a lot of what I loved about film, and we got to do it on a television schedule.
It didn't happen right away, but not long after we started, we were given what I call respectable budgets. We needed to tell these stories in interesting visual ways; we took an artistic approach. We were one of the first shows to give credit to the director of photography and the production designer, and other people up front in a television show. So we had the budget and the desire to push the limits. I always say "we didn't understand what we didn't understand" about producing a TV show like this. We tried everything.
I point to something like the conning tower coming out of the ice in season two ("Colony"/"Endgame.") We refrigerated a sound stage, brought in tons of snow and ice and built this conning tower. I didn't know you couldn't do that. So we just started doing things.
JKM: It seemed as if we were watching a movie every week. So much so, that I must hold you responsible for the fact that horror movies in the 1990s didn't do particularly well. Every Friday night, for many years, you could get a better experience at home watching The X-Files or Millennium instead of going to the theater and being disappointed.
CARTER: I always said that we weren't doing horror and couldn't do horror based on the standards-and-practices that were applied to the shows. We did an episode like "Home," and the day after we did it I was given a very stern lecture about never, ever pushing those limits again.
And you see where horror went after The X-Files. The Saw series for instance. It had to push limits that we couldn't push on television.
CARTER: I don't think so. I mean, we had 22 days to shoot "Kill Switch" -- that's including second unit work too -- but 22 days. That's just unheard of. That's why I don't think there will ever be another series like The X-Files. People ask me that, and I just don't think there can be in today's climate.
JKM: In general terms, what are some of your film inspirations?
CARTER: For The X-Files, I point to Silence of the Lambs (1991). Another movie that I love -- which is horror in a certain kind of way -- is the David Lean version of Great Expectations (1946).
JKM: I want to talk to you about I Want to Believe. Although critics including Roger Ebert, The Flick Filosopher, Whitney Pastorek, Stephanie Zacharek, and myself all appreciated the film, by and large it was met with savage, dismissive reviews. I mean, people -- including critics -- just categorically refused to engage with it.
Do you think this was because it was not at all the typical summer blockbuster -- it featured few big special effects and almost no gunfire --- or because the subject matter was so dark that people just weren't willing to engage with it?
CARTER: I think it was about as you say, the summer blockbuster mentality, and what we delivered and what was expected. What we attempted to do; and what the audience expected.
All these things played into how I Want to Believe was received. It's funny, but on the series, we prided ourselves each week with making a little movie. Then, when it came time to do the second X-Files movie, we were given the money and the opportunity to make, literally, a little movie. That's what we did. We realized we had no money for big special effects. We had to come up with a story that didn't rely on those special effects, and hence wasn't a summer blockbuster kind of movie.
So we came up with a movie that was about faith and forgiveness and redemption. And then you put it up against The Dark Knight in late July, in the heat of the summer, and what happened to us was that we met with some valid criticism, and also what I call lazy criticism.
But we also met with box office results that showed there was a hardcore X-Files audience out there, six years after the series had been off the air. The people who had hoped for another X-Files movie -- or were willing to see another X-Files movie -- were probably hoping to see something bigger than the first X-Files movie.
JKM: In a way what you gave us was bigger emotionally than what you gave us in the first X-Files movie.
CARTER: That's a feature of not having a money to do anything else that was bigger than the first X-Files movie.
JKM: Father Joe is a really fascinating character in the film. And how you use him in I Want to Believe really challenges the audience. You tell us this is someone society has judged as irreedemable, and yet on the other hand, as the film points out, we have this little work called the Bible that preaches forgiveness and redemption. And our culture says it believes in those things. And so Father Joe is looking to be redeemed, and is doing positive things, so why can't people take that extra step and at least try to forgive him?
CARTER: It's an idea I've been holding onto for a long time; the idea that Father Joe lived in this complex with these other men, where they sort of policed each other. I had read about that a long time ago, and I always thought that was so intriguing and relevant to the idea of redemption, the idea of forgiveness, of living life after the point of judgment.
Another thing that wasn't talked about much in the criticism of the film was the Frankenstein idea. I had run across something on the Internet: a Russian doctor creating two-headed dogs. I mean he was really doing this...creating two-headed monsters. It's a Frankenstein story, yet nobody really reviewed it as a kind of modern Frankenstein story.
JKM: Some critics also suggested the film was homophobic or anti-gay.
CARTER: It was the opposite.
JKM: That's how I read it. It was about going to extreme possibilities to save the life of someone you care about. Whether it was the sick boy, Christian, Mulder's obsession with the case, or the villain's obsession...he was going to do anything to save his lover's life....
CARTER: Don't give up. He wasn't giving up. I always said that the film was really a multi-layered love story. There was the love between Mulder and Scully. Then there was the Russian character who had been collecting these body parts and his love for his partner. So the love stories reflected each other. But again, I just want to say that some criticism of the film was valid.
JKM: Bottom line, did I Want to Believe make enough money to ensure production of a third X-Files movie?
CARTER: I wouldn't use the word ensure. But because of the business the movie did, especially the international business, it is a possibility.
JKM: I know that you're paying attention to this. There's been this fantastic movement, and a group, called Back to Frank Black, dedicated to the resurrection of Millennium. The show seems more popular now than ever. Is a Millennium feature film something you are interested in pursuing?
CARTER: I would like to do it. But it is going to take interest on the studio side for it to happen. Everyone involved with Millennium has left the studio. The people there now know it ran for three years and that it starred Lance Henriksen, and that's all. You have to find reasons to interest them.
JKM: Given that the Millennium is passed -- and without giving away specifics -- what kind of storyline would interest you for a Millennium motion picture?
CARTER: Considering we're engaged in a War on Terror that is ongoing, I'd like to see Frank and the Millennium Group distill something from that war that is...interesting.
JKM: If you could take one episode from any one of your shows and put it away in a time capsule for 100 years...and say this is who we wre in the 1990s, this is who Chris Carter was, what episode would it be?
CARTER: Well, I think maybe "Post-Modern Prometheus." In a weird way, it captures so much. And I really like that moment at the end with Mulder and Scully dancing together. It's just a sweet moment.
JKM: I wouldn't presume to tell you your answer is wrong, but I also really liked The Millennium pilot.
CARTER: David Nutter did a great job shooting that. I love the final moment with the polaroids, when Frank realizes this isn't over. That it's just beginning...
CARTER: Thank you.