A close encounter with Chris Carter

When the creator of "The X-Files" makes a rare public appearance, things begin to get weird.


A close encounter with Chris Carter

Chris Carter, the world leader of the sci-fi geeks, is also the definitive anti-geek. You
might expect the brain behind “The X-Files” to look like one of those guys you see at
the “Star Trek” conventions sporting a mullet haircut and glasses held together with
duct tape, but Carter doesn’t even wear glasses. He’s tall, tanned and handsome,
well-scrubbed and well put together.

He made a rare public appearance recently in Santa Barbara, Calif., which is where he
lives part-time. It’s also the place he most likes to surf. That’s what they say about
him in the online chat rooms, anyway. They also say his nickname is “Carver” from his
days as a writer for Surfing, and that he surfs goofy-foot, which means he keeps his
right foot forward. He chose the character name Mulder because it’s his mom’s maiden
name and named Scully after famed baseball announcer Vin Scully. But if you’re an
“X-Files” fan worth your salt, you already knew that. There’s little they don’t know about
him, those fans. In the chat rooms, Carter is commonly referred to as “God.”

After Carter was introduced to a packed auditorium of 800 at Santa
Barbara’s gorgeous seaside University of California campus, the
audience erupted into sustained, possessive applause. Carter strode
onstage in tan pants and a blue, button-down oxford
shirt. God was in the house, and he was wearing Banana Republic.

Before Carter arrived, the middle-aged woman in front of me had been wringing her
hands in anticipation. When he was 10 minutes late, I feared a nervous breakdown.
Now that he was here, she breathed easier but looked like she might cry.

Carter carried himself as though he were meeting up with some dudes for a beer.
Despite being the ’90s’ most intense purveyor of paranoia, his entire demeanor in
person seemed to say, “What, me worry?” After the applause died down, he initiated a
penchant for deflective self-deprecation that would last all night — “I have a lot of
family and friends who are probably wondering why you are clapping.”

Carter was introduced by Constance Penley, a professor and chairwoman of the University of California at Santa Barbara Film Studies
Department, who has herself written extensively on science fiction. “The creation of
‘The X-Files’ was arguably the most important event of the decade, except for possibly
the discovery of the Mars rock, or the impeachment of the president,” Penley said. “Of
course, in the ‘X-Files’ universe, the two would be connected.”

Penley continued to gush: “The show was so sophisticated in its presentation of the
ethical and social dimensions of science that you would have thought that Chris Carter
had been trained as a philosopher, rather than a journalist.”

A philosopher? A blue-collar guy from Bellflower, Calif., a crummy Los Angeles suburb?
His dad was a construction worker; his mom, a housewife. He earned a journalism
degree from cheap California State University in Long Beach in 1979, paying his way through
school as a potter. For a while, he did construction. He started working as a reporter for
Surfing magazine but, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” six times in six days,
began to entertain the idea of becoming a scriptwriter. He was encouraged by his
screenwriter girlfriend, Dori Pierson.

That’s when things began to get weird.

In 1985, Jeffrey Katzenberg, while still head of Disney, saw a script Carter had written
and gave him a development gig for $40,000 a year — chump change in Hollywood,
but twice as much as Carter had ever made in his life. He worked on such forgettable
product as “Meet the Munceys” and “B.R.A.T. Patrol.” But his work impressed an
up-and-coming suit named Peter Roth, and when Roth became president of 20th
Century Fox in 1992, he stole Carter away to develop new shows. Carter’s “X-Files”
pitch didn’t fly at first. Too out there. But Carter did some research, showing in part
that 3 percent of all Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens, and Fox
took a chance.

Carter’s story, obviously, is too whacked to have been scripted on any show besides,
perhaps, his own. “It only proves he’s an alien,” Penley said. “He has been placed
here by creatures who did not know how to construct a believable narrative about how
one becomes a television producer and creator of a mass cultural phenomenon.”

Carter’s appearance in Santa Barbara came just a day after he began work on the final
episode of the show’s seventh season, which he revealed will be called “Requiem.” It
could be the last “X-Files” show. Carter and Duchovny’s contracts come up this season.
And even though Gillian Anderson is still under contract, she’s said to be unsure about
returning. Meanwhile, Duchovny has filed a lawsuit against Fox protesting what he sees
as sweetheart rerun licensing deals.

“Elian Gonzalez’ future is more certain,” Carter remarked.

But even after 160 episodes, Carter said, he still has more stories to tell, and would
like to keep going: this, despite the incredible weirdness that the job has brought into
his life. As he told the crowd in Santa Barbara, the weirdness began before the series
even made it on the air.

From the start, Carter envisioned the dichotomy of an inquisitive, credulous male lead
working with a female lead who combined elements of rationalism and skepticism with
a deep spiritual yearning. The studio accepted Duchovny immediately for the role of
Fox Mulder, but didn’t warm to Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully.

“Gillian was unknown and when she came in she was disheveled,” Carter said. “She
wasn’t a very good salesperson for herself. But she had an intensity and an
intelligence — and she cleaned up well. I couldn’t get the executives to see what I saw,
no matter how much I tried, and it really came down to the idea of how she would look
in a bathing suit. And I kept saying to them, she’s not going to be in a bathing suit.
She wasn’t the bombshell they envisioned. They thought it was going to be a show
much more like ‘Hunter.’”

The only thing more difficult than dealing with the suits was dealing with the FBI. “Early
on, I was calling the FBI for some research. And they were very kind. They talked to
me about procedure and protocol, and then one day they just cut us off. They wouldn’t
accept our calls and then about two weeks before the first show aired, a call came in
from the FBI and they said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing?’ And I swear to
God, it was like J. Edgar Hoover reaching up from the grave. I was that nervous about
it, as you can imagine.”

The FBI’s tune changed, though, when the show became a hit that glorified its work.
“All of a sudden we started getting calls from agents, individual agents, saying that
they loved the show,” Carter said. “And by the end of the first year they took us on
what they call the ‘Jodie Foster tour’ of the FBI. They rolled out the red carpet as they
had done for her in ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’”

Of course, the show hit just about the same time as the Internet started to take off, which added a whole new
dimension to fandom, and to Carter’s job as producer of the first television show to
ever attract such a huge online following. “The Internet and ‘The X-Files’ grew up
together and it was great,” Carter said. “The show originally aired at 9 o’clock on Friday
night and at 10 o’clock, I could get on the Internet and see what people thought of it.
It was great in the beginning.”

But even that got weird. “It became overwhelming; it was too much,” Carter said. “I
used to see every single piece of Internet mail. And now I see the reams of stuff after
every episode and I ask them not to put it on my desk. It’s not because I don’t care
anymore — it’s because I think there are lots of voices out there trying to be heard,
and a lot of it ends up being shouting. A lot of people do it just to get attention.”

The intense fan passion for the show meant his personal appearances could also take
on an element of otherworldliness. “The autograph sessions at events like this are
always really odd,” Carter said. “People try to slide you things, tapes of their
abduction. My wife and I have gone to bed at night listening to tapes of people’s
abductions. It’s better than counting sheep.”

The obsessive-fan phenomenon played itself out in living color in Santa Barbara. The
event opened with Carter showing clips from the series. Then questions came from
Penley and another film studies professor, Lisa Parks. Then the night was turned over
to audience questions.

That’s when things began to get weird.

Carter was asked if he had ever been dropped on his head as a child. He was asked
about his surfing. He was asked about specific episode elements too arcane for
anyone but the most hardcore fan to understand. He answered every question, no
matter how bizarre, with the same low key sense of humor, as if he knew better than
anyone how absurd it all was.

Had he ever been abducted?

“I have never had an experience with an alien, and I think they owe me a visit
because I’ve been their best P.R. man ever.”

“What are you horrified by?”

“I would say an IRS audit.”

“What about Mulder’s fascination with pornography?”

“He’s a lonely man.”

“Explain the apparent homoeroticism between Mulder and Skinner.”

“We’re saving that for the cable series. The ‘Triple X-Files.’”

In the end, Carter left the impression that he doesn’t take the fandom and his own
place in it especially seriously, but that he does take his role as a popular storyteller
with the deepest sense of personal gravity and responsibility. “The X-Files” gets raves
in part because it addresses so many of the central themes of life in the United States
at the turn of the millennium — a wariness about technology, a wondering about the
deeper questions of life and a distrust of big government.

It is his ability to bring these issues forth in story form that makes Carter want to
continue, despite the weirdness, and makes him so valuable to a culture that needs an
intelligent mirror of itself. And he revealed in Santa Barbara that what all the wondering
and yearning really come down to is not paranoia, but society’s increased need for a
spiritual touchstone.

In his last statement of the night he talked about Scully’s personality traits. “The most
difficult thing to reconcile is science and religion,” he said. “And so we created a
dilemma for her character that plays right into Mulder’s hands. So that cross she wears,
which was there from the pilot episode, is all-important for a character who is torn
between her rational character and her spiritual side. That is, I think, a very smart
thing to do. The show is basically a religious show. It’s about the search for God. You
know, ‘The truth is out there.’ That’s what it’s about.”

Then he sat down to sign autographs, and listen to people’s abduction stories.

That’s when things began to get weird.

Russ Spencer is a Southern California freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, Book, Icon, the Los Angeles Times and online magazines New Media, Shift and IFILM.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>