”THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.”
So promised The X-Files, the groundbreaking sci-fi saga that debuted 20 years ago this fall. But the maxim that appears in the show’s credits — the mantra of questing FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) — was supposed to be something else. Creator Chris Carter forgets the original phrase, but he remembers that it wasn’t good. With time running out, and Carter hating the entire credits sequence in general, the producer began brainstorming ideas for images (germinating seeds, a man’s morphing face) and words. Out came The truth is out there. ”And everyone liked it,” says Carter. ”That’s simply the story.”
In fact, that’s the simple summary of The X-Files’ remarkable creative evolution. One of the most influential stories of the past two decades — a progenitor of our geek-pop moment and fan culture; the model for any show with conspiracy, mythology, and monsters of the week — was a product of inspiration and improvisation, happy accidents and discovery. Oh, and a pregnancy. Here on the 20th anniversary, we asked Carter, Anderson, and Duchovny to reflect on the early years and how The X-Files found its truth.
A Leap of Faith
Chris Carter was a 34-year-old journeyman television writer when he got the chance to pitch a dream project. He credits Peter Roth, then president of Fox Television, for believing in his talent, and two unproven actors who embodied his vision — and had no interest in TV.
Chris Carter, Creator
I remember watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker as a kid and thinking how scary it was. So when I was at Fox, I said, ”There’s nothing scary on TV. Let’s do something scary.” Another inspiration was a psychologist who told me that people were doing scientific studies on the alien-abduction phenomena. That captured my imagination, that there was actual science being applied to the supernatural. I thought that was a fascinating jumping-off point for this world. But the show owes just as much to The Silence of the Lambs. Look at Gillian Anderson and look at Clarice Starling. That’s not an accident.
Gillian Anderson, Dana Scully
I had come to Los Angeles to be a movie star, not a TV star. But I remember reading that pilot script, and it made me sit up and pay attention because it delivered on page. I thought, ”I’ll go and audition for this. It probably won’t lead to anything, so it’ll be harmless.” Cut to nine years later. I had also just seen Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster was a big influence. Having that reference was powerful.
I wasn’t a big science-fiction fan growing up. But I loved Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes. Both came into play on The X-Files. I grew up a child of Watergate. It gave me a good dose of skepticism about authority. One of my favorite movies is All the President’s Men. Woodward and Bernstein, those guys were my heroes. I have a degree in journalism. All of that was encoded in Mulder.
David Duchovny, Fox Mulder
I also had this fantasy that I was going to just act in movies. I had that prejudice that people seem to have, though not anymore. Then this script came along. I was really drawn to the irreverent quality of the FBI guy because most procedurals then — and still now — play that guy so straight.
Mulder the believer, Scully the skeptic — that tension is in me, in everyone. Somewhere along the line, I came to the conclusion that the show was really about the search for God. I think science is about the search for God; it just comes at it from a different angle than religion. But the show was equally about the difficulty to believe. And doubt. The actors just brought it to life. David was smart and funny. Gillian looked like a street urchin but had a seriousness and gravity about her. Both had a chemistry you can’t put on the page.
The final round of auditioning, there was me and another fella, Gillian and three or four other girls. Gillian and I got there about the same time, and we ended up running lines in the hallway. We had developed a comfort level with each other when we did the audition. Over time, we grew into ourselves as actors, and refined what those characters meant to each other.
The only note we got — and this might have helped build a feeling of rapport — was that they wanted us to always share a look at the end of any scene that dealt with a UFO or monster. The look on my face is I don’t know about this! And the look on his face is See? It’s real! Come on! The rest was just chemistry. It was always there, through months of winter and rain, through times of enjoying each other and not necessarily enjoying each other so much. We could pull it out, no matter what.
From the start, I didn’t want Mulder and Scully to get together romantically. That was not met with perfect agreement. I wanted their relationship to be platonic but intense. Of course, this changed over time.
Trust No One…Except Your Writers
Carter praises X-Files’ early directors for developing the atmospheric, flashlight-noir look of the show and its young, hungry writers for turning a promising premise into a dynamic, tonally eclectic storytelling machine. Many writers would go on to create their own groundbreaking shows, including Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (Homeland) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad). Darin Morgan became a cult figure with four heady, hilarious episodes, including the Emmy-winning ”Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” But it was the influential team of Glen Morgan (Darin’s brother) and James Wong who crafted the template for ”the perfect X-Files episode” with the show’s third installment, ”Squeeze.”
As we were coming on the air, there was a show on Fox called Sightings, which was a more nonfiction approach to alien phenomena that had explanations and closed endings. You’ll see in our pilot episode something that reads ”This story is based on actual events.” That was because Fox said, ”People need that.” That was a direct product of their Sightings experience. I realized quickly that wasn’t going to work. We had to expand the canvas and have some ambiguity. It’s about the paranormal and the supernatural. But it was not easy for me to know what an essential episode of X-Files was. However, it came really easy for Wong and Morgan. They got it immediately.
James Wong, Writer
When we first started working, we asked, ”Does everything have to be alien-related?” At first the answer was yes, but Chris quickly changed his mind. We came up with these paradigms for what the show could be: the alien-abduction story. The monster-of-the-week story. The weird-science story. And, eventually, the mythology story. ”Squeeze” was the first monster-of-the-week story.
Glen Morgan, Writer
Jim and I, our office was this box. I’m not kidding. A box. It was crappy. Jim pointed up at this narrow air vent and goes, ”What if a guy just came through that thing right now?”
Then we thought, ”He should hibernate. And eat people’s livers.” You know, so it wasn’t just another serial-killer thing. It was fun creative play.
We got one note from the network, saying ”Mulder and Scully should help people.” So we did one episode called ”Shadows” where this girl’s being haunted by her boss and Mulder and Scully help her. It was lame, and the network knew it, so that went away. They were focused on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which they saw as being the hit, so they left us alone. By the time they realized we were doing okay, they didn’t know how to give us notes, because we were off and running.
Mulder’s porn habit came from Morgan and Wong. The sunflower seeds came from Chris. We did less sunflower eating as the years went on. It’s hard to act with sunflower seeds.
Morgan and Wong also had a real sense of humor, and they set the stage for writers like Darin and Vince. Darin’s scripts were like sly send-ups of the show itself and the genre. David came to me while doing one of them and said, ”You know he doesn’t like this show, right?” But they worked because everyone committed to them. When we did ”Humbug” [in which Mulder and Scully investigate macabre murders in a community of circus freaks], the studio didn’t know what it was. They initially wanted to test it before putting it on air. But they got behind it, and the rest is history.
Fandom and Mythology
By the second season, an ongoing story line began to develop about a conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens, managed by the menacing Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and linked to the (alien?) abduction of Mulder’s sister. This part of the show — overseen by Carter and exec producer Frank Spotnitz, with key contributions from Glen Morgan, Wong, and many others — might never have emerged if not for an unexpected development in Anderson’s offscreen life…
I got this letter from a viewer, Terry Berube, who said, ”People like the episodes best that explore Mulder and Scully’s relationship and invest in their belief systems.” She was absolutely right. I named a character after her in the season 1 finale. The philosophy she articulated informed our approach going forward, especially as we moved into the conspiracy story line.
The X-Files was one of the first shows that had a real Internet following, and we took advantage of that. Fox had a thing called Delphi, and they gave us free accounts. I remember having a show air, then going online and interacting with fans. They inspired us. For instance, people were hating Scully because she didn’t believe anything Mulder said. That caused Glen and I to write ”Beyond the Sea,” in which they switched the roles.
That was an important episode for me. In early episodes Scully had to be confident enough to address a room of male FBI agents and tell them what to do. I remember thinking, ”I’m not sure if I have the balls to pretend that I have the same balls as her.” With ”Beyond the Sea,” which was a quote-unquote Scully episode, I recognized that this was an opportunity for me. I sat down with the director, David Nutter, and worked out the performance beat for beat. That they had confidence in me to give me that material bolstered my confidence.
We got a tremendous Internet fan response after Deep Throat [Jerry Hardin] died in season 1. People were devastated — they wanted to know why. That led the show toward mythology.
Gillian’s pregnancy also was a major factor. She had to leave the show for a couple episodes, and Chris and the writers were forced to tell a story that explained Scully’s absence.
The news of my pregnancy was not welcome information, and only in retrospect have I been able to truly understand the dilemma that everybody was in. I didn’t know until recently that the mythology pretty much stemmed from that.
A Fox exec did say, ”Let’s recast.” I said no. My first impulse was ”Let’s make it an alien baby.” The writers and Fox convinced me that’s probably not the best way to go. So we turned it into an abduction, which had the effect of personally investing Scully in the conspiracy and bringing her closer to Mulder. This was about the time I came up with doing two-part ”mythology” shows, which became major events. Scully’s abduction became our first two-parter.
They Still Want to Believe
The X-Files would run for nine seasons. While the later years are not as beloved as the first — the conspiracy became confusing and unsatisfying; Duchovny scaled back his involvement in seasons 8 and 9 amid contract turmoil — the show is remembered fondly by its fans and for its profound impact on pop culture. Two feature films followed (1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future and 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe); though Carter, Anderson, and Duchovny are currently focused on other projects, they remain open to the idea of revisiting Mulder and Scully.
Producing a series is like being Lewis and Clark: You know where you’re going, you just don’t know how you’re going to get there. When people say, ”You should create a bible for your show,” I say, ”You don’t want a bible. It’ll prevent you from making discoveries along the way.” And that’s what happened on The X-Files.
I don’t know if The X-Files would have the same impact today. It’s a different world. People stayed home on Friday night — and then on Sunday night — to watch it. It was mass-audience appointment television. It has many qualities of shows that excite us today. But I don’t know if the phenomenon would be any bigger than, say, Homeland or Breaking Bad, shows that people watch at their leisure.
The show made a long-standing mark in terms of stuff that’s become popular since. Not just in TV, but also in movies. It was that initial strain of yeast in a lot of other bread. I always wanted the show to keep growing into whatever form it wants to take — then, now, into the future.
I have a great idea that continues the conspiracy story — the alien mythology from the series and the first movie — but it’s really up to Twentieth Century Fox.
Update: The X-Files TEAM
The 53-year-old’s signature success after The X-Files has been playing womanizing writer Hank Moody on the long-running Showtime series Californication, which earned him a Golden Globe in 2008.
This year Anderson, 45, sparred with serial killers to great acclaim, first on The Fall (Netflix), then on NBC’s Hannibal as the good Dr. Lecter’s shrink. Next year she’ll star on the NBC drama Crisis and in the sci-fi film Our Robot Overlords.
After flirting with a number of follow-up projects to The X-Files, Carter is about to begin shooting the pilot The After, a series that will be produced and released by Amazon. The drama, which stars Jamie Kennedy and Adrian Pasdar, takes place during (or right after?) the apocalypse. ”I’m superstitious, so I don’t talk about it,” says Carter. ”But it owes to The X-Files, my love of some shows that affected me as a kid, and my appreciation of a show like Lost. I sort of kick myself that I didn’t come up with that.”