The truth is still out there

It has taken 10 years for 'The X-Files' to finally return to the big screen. Director Chris Carter reveals what in the heavens took him so long

By John Patterson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 14

X-Files creator Chris Carter might be the most zenned-out guy you’ll ever meet. An enviably youthful-looking 52-year-old, he is as lean and tanned as a surfer — he has been one all his life, which he admits explains a lot — with cobalt-blue eyes blazing under a full head of well-coiffed, absolutely white hair. This look, combined with his even-toned, soft-spoken articulacy, reminds me at times of an adult version of one of the preternaturally calm and self-assured alien children in Village of the Damned (though Carter probably can’t murder you using his mind).

Carter has been away a long time. He took five years off after the extraordinarily successful and influential nine-year run of The X-Files and its various outgrowths and spin-offs. He vanished so thoroughly that one might be forgiven for suspecting he’d been abducted by the aliens The X-Files was so obsessed with. He wasn’t, of course, and now he’s back with a new X-Files movie, subtitled I Want to Believe. It is the successor to X-Files: Fight the Future, which appeared as a part of the ongoing series narrative between its fifth and sixth seasons in 1998.

So what has he been doing in this long interim? “I took five years off because I ended the show when I was 45, and I felt that those 10 years involved nothing but output and no real input. So why not take this opportunity to do all the things I would probably kick myself for never taking the time to do? I’m not an empire builder.”

You still built one!

“Well, I guess what I mean is, not by temperament — I’m not an egomaniac and I needed to step away from Hollywood. In those five years, I did some things that I’ve brought back to my approach. I became a pilot. I have a Cessna Caravan. I climbed some mountains, which I’d always wanted to do, and which helped in this movie because it taught me about extreme environments — a valuable lesson. I took some great surfing trips. I became a music student, because I’d never had the chance to do that seriously. I was doing piano for a while, but then I stopped that and took three years of drum lessons, much to my wife’s chagrin.”

He also immersed himself in some cutting-edge hard science, thanks to some guidance — “a lifeline,” Carter calls it — from his brother Craig, who is a professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I did a fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I had this opportunity to be around a lot of really smart people, all thinking about things that are completely imaginary — quantum physics, subatomic constructs, and so on. A lot of the scientists were atheists, and I thought that was interesting because they were talking about some of the most beautiful ideas I’ve ever encountered. I mean, truly poetic. And I thought exactly the opposite way from the way they saw it. I saw it as science trying to explain God, while they see it as science trying to explain truth. While those things might be one and the same, I think that this movie is in some ways informed by those ideas: science and faith.”

Where does Chris Carter stand in that debate?

“I would call myself a spiritual person. I used to call myself a non-religious person looking for a religious experience. I’d say that sort of defines me, though in these five years, I’ve come closer to faith than I’ve ever been.”

So The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully — the rational man who “wants to believe” and the skeptical Catholic doctor — can we construe them as symbolizing conflicts or debates in your own mind?

“Oh, very much so, yes.”

In the past five years, the chances of another X-Files movie seemed slim, thanks to a long-running lawsuit with Fox TV. “We talked about another movie as far back as the last one, 10 years ago. But Fox approached us in 2003 and said, ‘Let’s go.’ We were ready to go, but then there followed what I would call a contractual thing over the series’ profit, and what started out as a negotiation had to turn into a lawsuit — it’s complicated — in order for me to protect my right to negotiate. It took years to settle, and at that point I didn’t think there could ever be a second movie. Then, after everything was resolved, Fox called and said, ‘Remember that movie you had in mind? You’d better get ready to do it now or never, because there’s a Writers Guild strike looming.’ So it was years of stasis, and then a mad rush.”

Of course, in the interim, his stars had been doing other things as well. David Duchovny has recently been seen leaping naked from bedroom windows as the charismatic cad Hank Moody in Californication. Gillian Anderson, meanwhile, has reinvented herself in the UK (where she spent a long period in her teens), carving out a new identity in period dramas such as Bleak House and the House of Mirth, where her John Singer Sargent-style looks serve her well. How was it for them, returning after such a long hiatus?

“They’ll tell you it was hard, but I felt they stepped back into it with a facility that they both developed through so many years of doing the show. I think what you cannot discount is how much those 202 episodes did for them as actors. They brought back an artistry beyond technique, with these other roles and experiences enriching, deepening them, stretching them. Then they had to come back into shape, as it were, back to the original roles.”

One particularly eye-catching piece of casting is the use of comedian Billy Connolly in the “monster of the week” role of Father Joe, a pedophile priest — more sympathetically depicted than one might anticipate — whose supposed psychic abilities help Mulder and Scully disinter a series of murder victims but also place him under suspicion. (It’s bracing to hear Anderson say things like, “Well, let’s not forget, he buggered 37 altar boys.”) Is Connolly an X-Files fan?

“No, he’s not, actually,” Carter says. “I’m a fan of his, and we wrote the part especially for him. I saw him in Mrs Brown and I thought he was fantastic. When we were filming in Vancouver, we found he’s a lot more widely known outside the US. There’s a much more direct connection to British culture in Canada, and everyone knew The Welly Boot Song. But I loved Mrs Brown, and I also heard him on a George Martin record [singing Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite], based on the Beatles song. And between noting those two things, I’d spent some time down in Baja California, and someone told me — another Scotsman who lives down there — that he had seen Billy Connolly down there, by himself, walking down a road literally in the middle of nowhere, and I thought, ‘That is so bizarre! Somehow Billy Connolly and I are meant to work together!’”

Is there a difference between The X-Files pre- and post-9/11? Some believe those terrorist attacks involved a government conspiracy and cover up; the attacks came just as The X-Files, which was speciously linked in the 1990s with rightwing fantasies about new world orders, alien abductions and the militia movement, was concluding its final season.

“I think we changed, the world changed, once and for all and forever. You could tell a story about this new zeitgeist, but we chose not to. We chose to tell a more classic X-Files story that goes back to the basic fundamentals of the show: it’s only as scary as it is believable, if it takes place within the realm of ‘extreme possibility,’ and it doesn’t always need a political context to be interesting.”

Then there were the show’s famously attentive (and anal-retentive) fans, posting their approval or lack thereof on a million X-Files bulletin boards, which was both a good and a bad thing, says Carter. “That was the revolutionary thing about the show. We had an immediate connection with our fans, which first created an intimacy, which in turn created an incestuousness, which then created politics, which created all the things that go with that ease of communication.

“While it’s been a great thing, it could also be a dangerous thing, if you try to please or appease everyone, which we don’t. We don’t read fan fiction, we don’t take ideas from fans. We listen to them, which you can do to the point of insanity. Oh, we had lobbies, quorums, caucuses — you could go on and on — all of them trying to make us go back to Scully’s original hairdo! You could get lost in this stuff pretty quickly. So we always do what we do best, which is go with our gut instincts. The scary thing is that there are fans who now know more about The X-Files than I do.”

NOTE: The X-Files: I Want to Believe is released in Taiwan on Friday.