Chris Carter spent the '80s working as a writer and editor for Surfing magazine and developing TV shows for Disney before creating the TV series that made his name. Debuting in the fall of 1993 on Fox, The X-Files became one of the defining television series of the '90s. Starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, two FBI agents charged with investigating strange cases, The X-Files mixed hard science and fringe beliefs into stories that were alternately comedic, terrifying, and philosophical. Playing Scully's skepticism against Mulder's credulity, it used pre-millennium tension, post-Watergate paranoia, UFO lore, and long-simmering sexual tension to create an atmosphere all its own.
It proved tough to imitate. Other Carter projects, like Harsh Realm and the X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen, faded quickly. The high-profile Millennium developed a cult following, but died after three seasons. Meanwhile, the 1998 release of the feature film The X-Files: Fight The Future signaled a high-water mark for the show's grip on the pop-culture imagination, coinciding with a move of operations from Vancouver to Los Angeles after The X-Files' fifth season. Later seasons were notable for declining ratings and Duchovny's limited participation.
But the cult never really went away, and this June will see the debut of the new film X-Files: I Want To Believe, which reunites Carter, Duchovny, and Anderson. Carter has remained tight-lipped about the plot, beyond revealing that it will be a standalone, not tied to the series' overarching story about a long-in-the-making alien invasion. But in a recent conversation with The A.V. Club, Carter had plenty to say about changing times and the reasons for doing a movie now.
The A.V. Club: You'd have to be in the final stages of making this film now, right?
Chris Carter: Well, sort of. We finished filming about three weeks ago, so we're editing now, and we'll be editing and doing post-production right up until the première.
AVC: It's been six years since The X-Files went off the air. Does that put more pressure on you for this movie?
CC: To make the movie, or to make the movie good?
AVC: To make the movie good.
CC: There's always the pressure to make the movie good. I don't know if it adds any time—I think it actually was just the right amount of time away, for me and for the audience, I hope. Those are my instincts.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
CC: There were 202 episodes of The X- Files. I think it was time to finish when we finished, but I think that there's still a fan base out there. And they're the reasons for me to do it again. And also David Duchovny was anxious to do another movie, as was Gillian. And it just seemed like Fox came to us and said "now or never," so "now" was probably the best answer.
AVC: Why would it be now or never? Do you not think it would have still worked a couple years from now?
CC: It possibly could, but there was a writers' strike coming up, and they wanted to do it before the strike.
AVC: Spoilers are now a problem in a way that they really weren't when you were doing the series, yet you've done a good job of keeping the details of this film under wraps. What was that process like?
CC: Working with people you trust, and having done it before. Only showing the script to the people that needed to see it. Everybody wants to keep it a secret. It's really, as Fox has pointed out to me, it's the people who have a script and they leave it on their kitchen table, and somebody else looks at it, that's how the details get out. I don't know if we'll stay successful in keeping the details a secret. The system is something you can't control completely, so we're trying to do our best.
AVC: Some fans have expressed disappointment that the film won't be part of the overarching mythology of the show. What was the thinking behind that?
CC: It goes right back to the time we started talking about—it's really been 16 years since the show first aired. There are kids in college now who never saw The X-Files, because they were too young, or their parents didn't let them watch it. So I think you need to reintroduce the show, the idea, and the characters to a new audience. And I don't think you can do it with a mythology episode. I think it's best done with a standalone story. But we're mindful of the characters, and the history they have together, and of that mythology, and how it relates to their personal histories. So there is, I would call it, an aspect of mythology in the show only because the characters produce that mythology.
AVC: So it won't be completely ignored, then.
CC: It won't be completely. What I don't want to do is, I don't want to insult the intelligence of the fan base, and have to take them through, I call it, a re-conceptualizing of the show.
AVC: The X-Files worked in part because it was in touch with this sort of vague, free-floating 1990s paranoia. Do you sense that our fears have changed in 2008?
CC: Yeah, they went away, and we trusted everyone. I should say, we trusted the government completely. And I think that's changed again, and I think that there's an element of distrust, and maybe the paranoia is different. But it was short-lived, that period of fear and trust in your government to protect your life and your interests.
AVC: Has what frightens you changed over the last 16 years?
CC: I think the longer you live, the more you see larger patterns in power and the corruption of absolute power. And I guess the things that frighten me are the same things, but now I have to say they're an accretion of experience, and they come through being a good student.
AVC: Your roots were in comedy before you started The X-Files, and yet it began as a deadly serious show. Did you have to fight your instincts when you were first putting the show together?
CC: Well, it wasn't a deadly serious show, there was actually humor in it, and I think David Duchovny was funny from the beginning. It was mild, though, because you don't want to undermine, I would call it, the paranoia of the show. And it became actually a very funny show, not necessarily as a result of any of my comedic ability. It really became a comedy show as a combination of the terrific writers who came to write on it, and then one writer who really busted it open, Darin Morgan.
AVC: Fans never really embraced, in the later seasons, the idea of moving the focus away from Mulder and Scully. Why do you think that relationship resonated so strongly with viewers?
CC: I think it was, for me, an ideal relationship. It was cerebral, it was not easy, it was challenging. I think that the protectiveness he showed her, and the trust that she showed him, was something that was just lacking certainly in life, and then also in maybe entertainment relationships.
AVC: The X-Files always had at least one toe in actual science. Will that be important in the film as well?
AVC: Any scientific concepts that people might want to brush up on before seeing this movie?
CC: No. [Laughs.] But I never thought of it as a science-fiction show to begin with, even though it was labeled as science fiction, because I wanted it to be in the realm of speculative science, the kind of what-if, taking hard science and applying an unexplained quality.
AVC: Do you keep track of scientific developments, for your process?
CC: As much as I can.
AVC: What are your sources?
CC: My brother teaches at MIT, so I have a good source there. I did a fellowship at the Institute For Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara while I was taking some time off. I have friends who are scientists, and I read regularly science journals, etc.
AVC: You shut down your production company when The X-Files went off the air. What have you been doing in the meantime?
CC: I took some well-needed time off to think.
AVC: Lost, a show that's obviously been influenced by The X-Files, made a big deal about announcing a definitive end point. Was that ever considered for The X-Files?
CC: No, the reason… We went to season five and we did the movie. Actually, at the end of season four, I could have left, and I might have opted to. My contract was up, and I could have left, and it would have been a successful show. But it was clear that Fox was going to—because it was a powerhouse for their schedule and for their network—the show was going to go on, and it would have gone on without me. And I had made a pledge to the actors that I would stay with the show as long as they did. And that kept me going, so there was not an end point imagined, which was a result of the fact that Fox was not going to end that show anytime without a reason to end it. And I think that it's a luxury for the creators of Lost to be able to have an end point, and to have a network that supports it. I'm sure the network is not happy about it, because it is a business first, and entertainment second. And they get to put one before the other, which is a luxury that I didn't actually have or imagine.
AVC: You've suggested that the years have made you even less trustful. Is there any sort of hopefulness to The X Files?
CC: Yeah, I think the whole concept of "trust no one," if that was a mantra of The X-Files, is basically a desperate cry for someone to trust. And I think the show has been exceedingly hopeful, and the idea that it's not is, I think, not looking deep into what the heart of the show is.