For Chris Carter, the Truth is Still Out There

The X-Files creator wants to believe.

Chris Carter is the mastermind of the award-winning “X-Files.” (Courtesy of FOX)
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Chris Carter is the creator of “The X-Files,” a fictional TV show that follows FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigate the paranormal. Debuting in 1993, the series ran nine seasons, and critics and fans praised the show’s cinematic quality, the result of substantive scripts, thoughtful acting, advanced special effects, and multiple camera viewpoints. Indeed, the best episodes felt more like films than TV shows.

On January 24, FOX began airing six new episodes, which ran through February 22. The closing scene of the final episode (Scully standing on a bridge in the middle of a traffic jam) surely leaves the door open for another season.

Carter will be one of the speakers at Smithsonian magazine’s “The Future Is Here” festival, which will be held April 22–24 at the Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C.

Air & Space: I thought the Roswell scene in the new “X-Files” was beautifully done, and it had me wondering if you accept the official military explanation of Roswell.

Carter: Well, the way I understand it—and I only know what I read—is that the military had put out one account of a crashed spacecraft and then withdrew that account and said it was a weather balloon. So that sounds very suspicious to me. But if you read—I’ll call it literature, and I say that with hesitation because I’m a skeptic—there were other crashes in addition to Roswell at places like Aztec [New Mexico], and they were supposed to be far better recoveries of downed craft. Now this is all what I read, and I find it fascinating. There’s that poster on Mulder’s wall: I want to believe. And I want to believe this stuff. But without hard evidence, it begs as many questions as it fails to deliver answers to us.

In this age of digital media and smartphone cameras, do you think it’s possible for governments and large corporations to keep secrets?

I think it’s increasingly difficult. I think that is a good thing. But I also think it’s difficult to determine—from all the various sources—what is the truth.

You mentioned that you’re a skeptic. Do you have any tried-and-true practices for sorting through the glut of information to find what is accurate?

Since the beginning of the show, we’ve gone to great lengths to try to. Let me preface this by saying, I think of “The X-Files” as a science show before I think of it as a science-fiction show. Because it’s based on science: hard science, conventional science. And it’s really Scully’s show because she is the anchor to which the sometimes-untethered Mulder is affixed. So to come back to your question, we’ve always been rigorous in our science, and we have reached out to the most reputable scientists. In the original series, we had researchers who did that. Now I think more often, we—like everyone else—sit at home and with the press of a button have 500 conspiracy sites at our fingertips. We weed through all of that. We see what seems credible, and try to do our best.

Do you think that extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist?

I want to believe that we’re not alone. That we have just yet to contact, discover, or recognize signs in whatever form.

Do you think we can handle the truth? Are we ready for our SETI searches to uncover irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial beings?

It would be a game-changer to put it mildly. I think all wars would end tomorrow if we found out.

What are your thoughts on religion? Do you think there’s a place where science and religion can intersect?

I believe that they have the same ultimate goal, which is the search for God. One is a systematic and analytical search, and the other is based on faith and feel.

The Piper Maru episode from the original series is one of my favorites. It has the wonderfully spooky scene of a diver finding a man alive inside the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang sitting at the bottom of the ocean. How did that scene come about?

One of the reasons it came about is that we had access to this just-unbelievable diving suit. I think it was a one-atmosphere diving suit that happened to be designed and built literally right across the street from where our studios were. So it came as a result of technology we had access to. But then we liked the idea—we were playing with this black oil. We liked the idea that living inside a man and animating him was this alien substance [the black oil].

Can you name a filmmaker whose work you admire?

I’ll tell you right now the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because of Steven Spielberg. I was working as a journalist in my early 20s when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. I was blown away by both of those movies. I’ll mention a second filmmaker because of the effect one of his movies had on me, and that was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. I saw it on opening night at the Cinerama Dome [a historic movie theater on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood]. I lived about 75 miles away. I went home that night—sleepless. And I drove back 75 miles the second night to watch the movie again.

Are there one or two “X-Files” episodes you are particularly proud of?

I have to say I’m very attached to the pilot because it was the maiden voyage that launched 202 episodes. So I look back at it, and all of the thinking that went into it and all of the work that went into making it and all of the battles that were fought in order to get it to screen and then ultimately to a series makes it all-important. Included in those battles was the fight for David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson], and while I think that they both shined in their auditions, they weren’t necessarily the stereotypical television leads. So when I watched that pilot, I thanked my lucky stars for both of them.

Then there was an episode in season 5, and that was a black-and-white, fanciful episode about a young man who loves the music of Cher and is conducting science experiments [one of which goes wrong]. There’s a scene at the end where Mulder and Scully dance. Mind you, they hadn’t kissed in five years, so when they spontaneously began to dance, it was a magical moment.

Skeptic and believer: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny reprise their roles as FBI special agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder in a new season of “The X-Files." (Courtesy FOX)

How much creative control do you have? For instance with the Roswell scene we discussed earlier, if you had reviewed the raw footage, and you felt that something was off, say, the lighting, would you have the power to tweak it or do a re-shoot?

In this case, I would only have myself to blame since I shot it. But in other cases, I would have a limited power to change anything because time is money, and the budget is a finite thing. I could go and ask for more money if it meant the difference between the success or failure of the series, but this is why we work so hard on the scripts. We know exactly what we want, and what we want to see, where we want to see it, and how we want to see it. So you employ many people to do it, and I have to say over time the show has been blessed with so many talented people who made it more than it might have been otherwise. I think some of the largely unheralded artists who made all that happen were the directors—it’s not just a matter of good scripts. The scripts have to be brought to screen by field commanders who are visual storytellers as much as we are sometimes textual storytellers. If you point to the success of “The X-Files,” you can point to the good writing, you can point to the good acting, but you have to point to the exceptional directing.

A recent episode of “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by Larry David, featured a smart parody of the black-oil scene from the Piper Maru episode. Did you know about it in advance, and what was your reaction?

It was completely out of the blue for me—a wonderful surprise. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it. Everyone, including my wife, has watched it, but I haven’t watched it yet. I’m going to savor the experience.

What is your reaction to the fandom that has sprung up around the show?

It’s the reason for our success. In the 14 years we were off the air, there were hardcore fans out there who kept the show alive. They are the reason we came back 14 years later. So that fandom is—for me—it’s surreal. The whole experience has been surreal, and it’s incredible to me that the show has struck a cord. People come up to me and say, “I’m a scientist because of Agent Scully. I joined the FBI because of Agent Mulder.” I see the same people at these gatherings, at these conventions. And I’m shocked when I seen an X-Files tattoo or a Dana Scully signature tattooed on someone’s wrist recently. That kind of fandom is extraordinary.

Brian Truitt, of USA Today, will interview Chris Carter at Smithsonian magazine's "Future is Here" festival. To watch it LIVE, join us on Facebook this Saturday, April 23, at 4:40 p.m. EST.

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