Behind the Scenes

Past Perfect

Chris Carter's most ambitious episode to-date mimics Hitchcock's tactics in ''Rope''

When X-Files creator Chris Carter got the bright idea to write and direct an episode in real time, Fox execs needed some convincing. ''You always have to sell them on the idea of spending more money,'' Carter says of a budget that, he'll cagily admit, ended up being ''somewhat more expensive'' than the show's $2.5 million per-episode average. Fortunately for the ambitious Carter, there was ''an easy hook'' in convincing the Fox brass: Alfred Hitchcock's technical masterpiece Rope, the 1948 film in which the director pioneered real-time filmmaking (i.e., when the action — through long, seamless takes — transpires over the length of the movie). And Hitchcock, of course, ain't bad company to be in.

But on Carter's set, the whole undertaking seems more like Rope on steroids, or speed, or both. In the episode, entitled ''Triangle'' and airing Nov. 22, David Duchovny's Fox Mulder heads to — you guessed it — the Bermuda Triangle, where he's knocked unconscious in a boat wreck, only to reawaken on an ocean liner circa 1939. The ship may or may not be secretly running munitions for the Allies (Carter the conspiracy nut at work) and has been seized by Nazis. More baffling still, there's a passenger on board who looks exactly like Mulder's partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and a few feds/Nazis who seem awfully familiar as well.

Most of the episode is being shot aboard the storied Queen Mary (home to The Poseidon Adventure) in Long Beach, Calif. This evening, Carter and company are staging a climactic fight sequence pitting the ship's passengers and roughneck crew against the Germans. More than 150 extras decked out in period costumes have assembled in the ship's art deco ballroom. As Carter calls action and the ballroom blitz begins, it's quickly apparent why, as he puts it, ''this is less like a play, the way Rope was, and more like a movie.'' No kidding. Hitchcock was, in the end, shooting a fairly static dinner party on a two-room set with a camera mounted on a dolly track. Carter is filming exclusively with a Steadicam, a 60-pound rig that beleaguered camera operator Dave Luckenbach must literally ''wear,'' even into the midst of a full-tilt brawl. ''Reminds me of when I used to play football in school,'' remarks Luckenbach. ''You'd have a game on Friday, and you'd wake up Saturday and really feel it.''

With the shoot nearing the end of the eight days allotted any X-Files episode, the pressure not to ruin an ultra-long take has increased. Real-time photography means no safety nets in the editing room: no cut-and-paste. (Even with a minimum of glitches, only 2 of tonight's 10 takes will ultimately prove usable.) Carter, 42, who directs the show only occasionally but who seems to run a pretty relaxed set when he does, suddenly appears very much the school principal taking over homeroom for the day. He pointedly quizzes a too-chatty Nazi on his cue, and while his tone isn't exactly withering, you can't help thinking it's a good thing the guy knows the right answer.

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