Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Mark Mann

David Duchovny on writing, revisiting Mulder, and his new movie with Judd Apatow

Photo: Mark Mann
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Note: This interview contains specific plot details about David Duchovny’s new Audible story release The Reservoir.

Most people identify David Duchovny as an actor, having appeared in landmark TV series like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. But Duchovny’s creative pursuits stretch far beyond the small screen. He’s released two albums, for example (with a third slated for this year); and he’s written four novels, including 2021’s Truly Like Lightning, about a former Hollywood stuntman whose polygamous Joshua Tree retreat is threatened by an interloping developer. His latest literary effort is an Audible production called The Reservoir, which was released this week, in which Duchovny reads—performs, really—a short story he wrote about a man trapped inside during the pandemic who becomes obsessed with his view from his New York City apartment. Duchovny is currently adapting Truly Like Lightning into a possible TV series for Showtime. He also just wrapped The Bubble, an action movie/comedy from Judd Apatow about eight actors trapped together in a pandemic bubble on a franchise movie set. He talked to The A.V. Club about his writing process, the pandemic as a creative inspiration, and what he really thinks about all those X-Files fans (he totally gets it).

The A.V. Club: What interested you in doing an auditory project like The Reservoir for Audible?

David Duchovny: I wrote the story, and it was an in-between-form kind of a thing. It was probably too long to be a short story to get published, and I don’t have a bunch of other short stories to put into a collection. This was the first one that I’ve written. And it was too short to be a novella, so I didn’t really know what to do. And I was talking to my friend Jess Walter, who’s a terrific writer, and he mentioned Amazon Audibles. And I’d not heard of them. I knew that novels existed this way, but I didn’t know there was a form that was solely audio like that, and they were interested in that kind of length exactly. So I just learned about it and thought, “Well, I’d love to get the story out there and this is a this is a new way to do it.” And, you know, why not? It’s like telling stories around the campfire. It’s like the oldest way to hear a story, theater of the mind, whatever you want to call it.

AVC: How many words is the tricky spot that’s too short for a novella, too long for a short story?

DD: It’s not written in stone anywhere. And I don’t really know. I think Jess had some numbers for me, and I think the piece is a little under 19,000 words. Okay, my first novel was a very short one and that was about 40,000 words. So I think a novella is about 25. I mean, I’m just making this shit up right now. I don’t really know.

AVC: Speaking of theater of the mind, that’s what The Reservoir sounds like, those old suspense-driven radio shows. Was that an influence for you? Did you ever listen to those?

DD: I didn’t as a kid. But when I was first in L.A., driving a lot more than I was used to—and before Sirius radio or just classic rock stations, whatever, stuff that I might waste my time with—I would flip around the dial. They would play those really old shows, complete with sound effects. And actually I was listening to The Reservoir, because they sent it to me to listen to the final product, and there’s a little music that starts towards the end of it. And I thought, “Oh, this would be interesting, if you cast it, if you had those cheesy sound effects.”

AVC: This feels like a pandemic-based creation. Listening to it, you can picture you writing this while quarantining in New York. 

DD: The view that [main character] Ridley is obsessed with in the story is pretty much my view, and I’m obsessed with it, too. I also take time-lapse photos of the sunrise over there. I’ve been doing that for years. Just one morning recently, I like to get up early before the sunrise—facing the east that way and either read or write—and I had the idea of kind of a Rear Window thing, seeing lights across the park on Fifth Avenue that seem to have intent and then opening up a mystery that way. And I had no idea where it was going to go from there, but it seemed like an interesting start and trying to figure out who this character is—it’s not me—and then what’s happening with him, what does he want.

And that lent itself and the distance to being a pandemic story or a lockdown story. I had no intention of trying to figure that stuff out or addressing it through fiction. But, it happened that way and it seemed natural. And the story, it opened up kind of a window into all sorts of suffering, historical, or all sorts of conspiracies, misunderstandings. So I turned it into the key to all mythologies in a way. I think there was a maybe a story I’m remembering along the lines of [An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge] or that Richard Gere movie Intersection that basically took place inside a guy’s mind as he was dying. The last 10 seconds, you didn’t know it was the last 10 seconds of his life. But I’ve always been really interested in that idea. So, a guy who may or may not be dying of this virus, turned into my version of almost the entire life playing out inside somebody’s head that may or may not actually be happening. I kind of surprised myself. It’s the way I like to do things or write or even act, where I have a bit of a plan, but then I write or act my way into a corner—or out of a corner.

The whole story became to me about how—and in no way am I going to want to make light of anything like the pandemic or 9/11—but there is a way in which these events of mass suffering make us human and more loving, at least temporarily. That’s the irony of it. We say, “Oh, we get it now. Life is more important than anything. Love is more important. My family is more important. I get it. I get it. Thank you, pandemic.” And you know that’ll last six months, a year, and I’m fascinated by that. How difficult it is to live with that kind of sensitivity and in the story, it’s the bear. You have to kill the bear or the bear will eat you or fuck you. That’s the joke. And that also seems to me something about living in that sensitive space that only tragedy can inspire. That’s very sad to me that we need things like this to remind us of who we really are and then we so soon forget it.

AVC: That’s why the references to 9/11 in your story were so interesting, because we did have that same mindset. We were all charged up after 9/11. And look where we are 20 years later, where things are even worse than they were.

DD: Aside from the politics of it—which are much less interesting to me than the human aspects of it—it’s just that human paradox. We get a glimpse of truth, and it’s usually only through tragedy that we get it and then we can we can live that way for a while. But it’s painful. It’s painful to live in that space, even though it’s beautiful. And then, we get back to work, we get back to normal. We say that word “normal.” Normal means forgetting that that shit happened, in many ways.

AVC: You are such a New Yorker, so was it tough for you living in L.A. while shooting Californication and other projects? It’s such a different mindset.

DD: I was living in L.A. when I got married and started my family. So when I moved back to New York, it was ridiculous. That was one of the reasons I took Californication, because I could be at home, which was in L.A., and work. And I did a year of that and then moved back to New York, so I made it very hard on myself that way. I’m a New Yorker in the sense of I was born and raised here. Whatever that means, and I think people get unnecessarily combative about who’s a real New Yorker and who’s not. I grew up here and I’ve seen a lot of it. I still love it, but I love California, too.

AVC: In Aquarius, you really took to the role of one of those great retro L.A. private eyes, like Marlow or Rockford. It suited you well.

DD: I loved it. I was sad that we didn’t figure out a way to go more than two years. We had so many hopes for stories going forward, [creator] John McNamara and I and the rest of us. But it was a network show. It might have been the wrong vendor for that show. It might have been a little dark. Might have been a little hard to follow. It kind of lended itself to bingeing because it didn’t have storylines that were wrapped up every episode. And I think that gets tough on network broadcast. So I do have some regrets and certainly wish that we could have at least gone another season or two. But the work itself, the 25 or so episodes we did, I really like and I agree with you. I love that kind of laconic, flawed, but funny and tough L.A. noir cop. And Rockford is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. And that’s one of the vibes that I’ve tried to develop, as I try and figure out stuff for myself to do as an actor, I also will think, “What’s the Rockford of now? If you did Rockford, what would it look like?” So I think in a way, you’re right, it was darker than Rockford, but it was getting to that area.

AVC: You’ve been in two of the most iconic series that people still hold in the highest regard. But you have so many new creations going on, at this point. Does it get annoying for you or do you still welcome the Twin Peaks and The X-Files fans?

DD: No, it’s not annoying. At some point, in my life anyway, I get to the point where I’m like, “People like something that I was involved in, something that I did.” And that goes for Twin Peaks and X-Files and Californication and Aquarius, obviously, too. But, I know that a phenomena like The X-Files is really once in a lifetime, and to remember that pre-internet global influence and presence of that show, it just doesn’t happen more than once to anybody. Maybe Spielberg with Indiana Jones, E.T., and Jurassic Park, there are people that have huge hit after huge hit. But that kind of pop culture phenomenon? It’s just like lightning striking.

So there it is. And I can’t run from it, but I can be proud of it. I’m proud of just the basic work that we did aside from the size of the show and the reach of it. But I continue on and I do my work and I feel like I get, not necessarily better, but I’m interested in other things. People can come along or they don’t want to come along. It’s really up to an audience. So I have nothing but love for people that love the show. I get it. It’s such a touchstone for people who were growing up at the time. So I’m not going to rain on that parade or say, “Hey, fuck off.”

AVC: What was it like going back to The X-Files, with the more recent revival?

DD: It’s interesting, to try to figure out a character at a different point in his life. That’s a very interesting question for an actor. You know, James Bond is James Bond. He doesn’t really change. He doesn’t really get older. He just does the same thing. But I didn’t want that with Mulder. I couldn’t play him the same way I did when I was 30. It would be silly. So it’s like how has this changed? How come? Who is this guy now? And it’s the same for the writers. And it’s a really tough tightrope to try to walk, because, as you said, you’re bringing back a show that means a lot to people. So you do have to keep it kind of the same, but in order to be truthful artistically, you’ve got to realize things are not the same. So how do we do both of those.

AVC: You seem to be underrated in comedy, even though you won a Golden Globe for Californication, and were often very humorous on X-Files, and so funny on Larry Sanders or in your cameo in Zoolander. Now you have new movie The Bubble coming up. It’s Judd Apatow, so that seems like it must be a comedy.

DD: Well, we’re hoping it’s a comedy. [Laughs.] I got to work with Judd Apatow again after so many years. Larry Sanders, as you mentioned. And yeah, I’ve always tried to smuggle comedy or at least humor into whatever world I’m trying to exist in creatively or as an actor. It’s my general inclination. And sometimes I have to check it, like, “Am I being funny here because I don’t want to say something, or am I being funny because it is so dark humor or whatever? What’s the other reaction?” Funny to me is one of the most beautiful reactions to how painful life is. And I think there’s nothing more unfunny than talking about what’s funny.

But The Bubble is broad and wonderful, I think. And it’s a great idea that Judd had. And there’s a lot of very funny actors and they all have different backgrounds and styles coming to the comedy. So that was interesting for me to play with people that work so differently from me.

AVC: It’s something that you all could do during the pandemic, so is it one of those small Zoom-type productions? IMDB says it’s about eight actors trapped in a hotel. 

DD: Oh, no, no, no. It’s a huge action movie. The basic premise is that we’re a group of actors—think of The Fast And The Furious—and we’ve done, like, six versions of movies called Cliff Beasts, that’s like an action dinosaur franchise, hugely successful. And we’ve come together during the pandemic to try to shoot another one, so we have to go into a bubble in order to shoot the movie. And then we start to realize that we really don’t like each other and we’re not enjoying ourselves. At some point we think about trying to escape from our own movie and our own selves.

It’s the madness of trying to film what is ostensibly a spoof of action movies, but the action in it is going to be really good! I mean, it’s got to be. It can’t be bad. So it’s a big fucking film that we shot in London during the pandemic, with all the Netflix protocols, which worked out well. I don’t think we had one illness.

AVC: Apatow’s not really known for his action directing, though, so what was that like?

DD: It’s fantastic for Judd. I’d be like [Suspiciously.], “Have you done this before?” And he’s like “No, no.” And there was lots of CGI… it’s big.

AVC: In your novels, you’re going for these larger than life characters or you go to mythology a lot. Could you expound on your inspirations and your creative process a little bit?

DD: If I’m lucky enough to have an idea… and they’re not like raining down on me, I’m not choosing between seven novel ideas every every month or so. But if I get an idea that I think is interesting or fertile for some kind of investigation, then I’ll think about it like this: What is this? Is this a novel? Is this is a movie? Is this a show? Is this a song? Is it a short story? What is it? And where the inspiration comes from, who knows. Like in this case, the inspiration came from my wonderful view here in New York. But Miss Subways inspiration comes from mythology and retelling mythological stories. Truly Like Lightning, the inspiration came from learning a little about the original Mormon beliefs, which I found fascinating. And I guess that’s why when I when I read what people write about my writing, they’ll say, there’s nothing consistent in it, in terms of style. And I think that’s because my ideas come and then they demand a certain kind of style, or whatever the ideas will demand, not only the medium that I’m going to tell in it, but also the style that I’m going to write it in them. To me, the creative process is like, “Okay, here’s an idea. I’m lucky enough to have it. Am I going to be responsible enough to pursue it?” I have to be sensitive enough to listen to it and let it express itself in the right way.