Chris Carter is responsible for the nightmares of a generation.
As the creator of “The X-Files” and “Millennium,” he shepherded in a new wave of horror and suspense on television, and his legacy can be seen in the success of everything from “Fringe” to “The Walking Dead.” For his contributions to the medium, Carter received the Outstanding Television Writer award from the Austin Film Festival, where he appeared on several panels and presented a pair of episodes from his best-known series. Indiewire got a chance to sit down with him in Austin to talk about everything from the rise of cable to the future of content distribution.
Let’s start with why you chose to screen these specific episodes of “The X-Files” (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”) and “Millennium” (“Pilot”).
First of all, it’s nice to be here. I’ve never been to Austin, so this is a big thrill. It was an amazing honor today to be among my other honorees, Frank Darabont and Eric Roth. Amazing.
The episodes I chose were for two reasons: I didn’t want to focus just on “The X-Files.” I thought that “Millennium” pilot stands the test of time. I think it’s a really good, scary episode of television, and I was very proud of it. I still am. It was very nice to see it again today myself.
The other episode I chose [“Final Repose”] was, for me, a high point during [the show’s early years], and I thought it was still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. It’s completely original; it was taking “The X-Files” and turning it on its head. The performances were wonderful, the direction was wonderful, the writing was wonderful. I thought it was just an excellent episode in every way.
“The X-Files,” in a lot of ways, paved the way for network genre shows, especially horror. I can’t imagine it was easy to get a show with so many straight-ahead scares off the ground in the early 1990s. Was that a fight with Fox? Was there ever any feedback from them about the content’s grimness?
The good thing and the bad thing about was that there was nothing scary on television then, so when I came in and said, “There’s nothing scary on television, and this is something that we should be doing,” they got that idea. But they didn’t get the idea of two FBI agents investigating the paranormal. That was weird to them, and they didn’t want to do it at first.
I had to pitch the idea twice to the network, and they finally bought it maybe just to make me go away. I was at 20th Century Fox Television, pitching it to 20th Century Fox network; it was kind of a no-brainer for them, because it’s one hand feeding the other. That was a fortunate thing in the beginning, not so much in the end.
Do you think any shows since then have been that scary?
It’s really hard to scare people on network television. You’ve got to be smart about it. You’ve got to parcel out the scares. I’ve seen a few really scary shows, episodes of them, but I have to say, I took a break from television after “The X-Files” was off and sort of didn’t pay much attention, but I’m back now.
What are you watching right now?
“Breaking Bad.” Love it. A little bit of everything: little bit of “Game of Thrones,” little bit of “Walking Dead.” I’m back into “The Wire.”
Has there ever been a show that’s made you say “I wish I’d been part of that”?
I admired shows like “Six Feet Under.” That was an amazing show. Never boring, always inventive, smart. Loved the characters. Completely original. Those are shows that I admire.
In terms of your writing process, how did you determine what works for you best?
It’s pretty much a regular workday, 9 to 5. That works for me. I’ve worked, believe me, from 4 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night when we were in production, so I’ve done those kinds of hours. I try to sort of have a regular life now, but I’m not in production, so it’s a luxury to have a regular life. When you do have to feed an ongoing production, you have a finite amount of time in which to do the best work possible, so you have to work really around the clock.
Speaking of productions, could you talk a bit more about the status of the project you’re writing for Showtime?
[smiling] The status is, right now, that they like it.
Any descriptions or ideas you can discuss?
I’m sort of superstitious.
You had a show, “Unique,” that didn’t go. This Showtime project is a different one?
Yeah, this is a different project.
What was the fallout with “Unique”?
There’s no fallout. It’s just a show that we tried to set up in a certain way, and we didn’t set it up, and then we took a step back, and so that’s where we are on that right now.
What’s changed in the industry and writing/production process since you launched “The X-Files”?
There are more and different places to pitch and to develop, and I think you’re looking at the obvious eclipse of broadcast television by cable in terms of content. Things that you can’t do on broadcast now that you can do on cable, which is making it feel like a superior product.
It’s not more popular, but you’re watching viewership go up on cable so that now cable is actually starting to give broadcast a run for its money. Look at “Sons of Anarchy,” look at the way “Hatfields & McCoys” performed. There are lots of instances of cable shows … what else did I see the other day that premiered to huge numbers? [We both drew blanks, but Carter was likely thinking of “American Horror Story: Asylum,” which drew 3.85 million viewers on FX.] You’re looking at a change, and that’s an exciting thing, but what it says to me is there are also opportunities to do inventive things on broadcast television and still get a large audience.
Was that what inspired you to write a cable show?
I love the idea — as do a lot of people who have done broadcast shows, where you’re doing 22 episodes a season — of doing six, eight, or 10-13 [episodes]. That is very appealing to me, and it actually allows you to attract a different kind of actor because they aren’t doing it 10 months a year, they’re doing it three months a year. That’s a benefit, too.
I want to circle back to “The X-Files,” based on some comments you made earlier today about how the show evolved to encompass procedural, horror, comedy, etc. Was there a type of episode that was the most rewarding to do?
Some of the big mythology episodes, where we did big production stuff — exploded trains. I mentioned an episode [“End Game”] at one of the panels where we trucked in tons of snow and created the polar ice cap with the conning tower. There were things we did just because we didn’t know we couldn’t. Those were really exciting times.
Then there were episodes like the black-and-white episode [“The Post-Modern Prometheus”] which were taking a whole other direction. Production design had to be switched up because you design differently for black-and-white. We filmed in black-and-white. We didn’t film in color like a lot of people do and change it. So we took some technical risks.
One of the episodes I’m most proud of in terms of taking a risk would be the episode called “Triangle,” which took place on the Queen Mary. 24 edits in the hour of television, so big, long takes. We would do one take before lunch. You just don’t do that in television production.
That was the one with two long shots down a hallway that crossed each other, right?
Yes, that’s right. There were big tricks in it, and it took some inventiveness.
You mentioned alternate routes of pitching and distribution. Would you ever consider online fundraising like Kickstarter or online distribution like Netflix?
It’s funny, I just gave somebody some money through Kickstarter to work on a documentary — I think it’s a really interesting way to do things. Right now, I have what I would call more conventional avenues open to me, so that’s the way I think I would prefer to work right now. But I actually like the idea of choosing these alternative methods, and people coming up with new ways to distribute content, and people taking control of their projects. I think that will be a future of sorts.
Would online distribution be a possibility for “Fencewalker,” your film in progress?
Possibly. I’ve sort of put that away right now, and I’m gonna come back to it.
Do you think you’ll revisit that in the near future?
I’m not sure.
I wasn’t actually sure of the status: if it had finished shooting, etc.
It had been filmed and was in the editorial process, and I decided I wanted to rethink some things about it.
There’s a big focus here at the Austin Film Festival about writers, pitching, getting projects off the ground, and so on. What’s the best or worst piece of advice you’ve ever gotten as a writer?
It’s funny, no matter how much advice you get, the truth is that it’s kind of like “Throw Momma From the Train,” you know, “A writer writes always.” You must persevere. That’s the only way to find the gold.
You spoke at the panel about your relationship with the fan community, and how you read a fan letter in the first season of “X-Files” that influenced your approach to the show and steered you toward stories involving the relationship between the main characters. I can’t imagine what it would be like to mount a show like that today in the age of blogs, and comments, and recaps. Is that something that’s on your mind as you prepare the Showtime project?
You’re bombarded with, uh, “advice,” and with people wanting you to consider their ideas and their direction. Some of it filters through, and some of it doesn’t, so you filter a lot of it out. It comes to you in a variety of ways, and I still think I would pay attention [to it]. I’m sure every editorial writer in The New York Times reads the comments that come after, because they can be so — they are wildly varying in their meanness or sometimes insight. So you can’t disregard them. You must pay attention. It’s important. It’s a reality check of sorts. So it’s part of the process.
That seems like a tough balance to strike.
You could spend a lot of time just reading your reviews, basically. A lot of people don’t read their reviews, but I do. I read my reviews.