Uncanny X-man

HE'S FROM BELLFLOWER, southern Los Angeles. A 'burb for guys who used to be on the payroll in the airplane-making compounds; a part of what Chris Carter's writers like to call the military-industrial-entertainment complex. It was also a sealed unit. Chris's schoolmates never left the town, nor did the girls who voted him Mr Smile and Mr Flirt. Leaving the neighborhood meant fear - fear of outsiders. Teenage Chris and a classmate drove 32 kilometres to Westwood, LA. The boy looked nervously around a restaurant there, scared by the sophisticated assurance of Westwooders. "Let's go," he said to Chris, "we don't belong here."

It's the right footage for a Carter production. He looked the part of the kid who wouldn't survive the pre-credit sequence; tense face under a blond mop in a teen snap taken after he'd found a way out, via the beach and surfing. He watched off-beat TV series, not then called cult - a short-lived oddity, Kolchak (The Front Page meets Bela Lugosi); the Twilight Zone. His mistrustful temperament appreciated uneasy-riding '70s movies like the Alan J. Pakula-directed paranoid trio The Parallax View, Klute and All The President's Men. Watergate, which broke when he was 15 or 16, was, he says, "the Big Bang of my moral universe".

Now this is not the usual background of entertainment management execs over the past 20 years; Californian they might be, but from the Westwoods, as were the creators they backed. Carter recalls Bellflower as a "Spielbergian community", but Steven Spielberg only films in places like that. He is middle-class, as is that other founder of the new order, George Lucas. Both made movies through the colleges and film schools to which their parents sent them. Carter put himself through the journalism course at California State University by working nights as a potter - sign on, cut up 100 two-kilo balls of clay, shape each into identical pot, sign off.

A degree later, he gofered for Surfing Magazine, writing almost the whole mag, travelling through Australia, the Caribbean and doing seven winters on the north shore in Hawaii. It was a pleasurably extended adolescence, learning about merchandising ("Keep everything small and hard to get"), about responsibility ("I know how to take a project and finish it, which is what producing is") and about living from a shoulder bag in motels.

Maybe he'd have stayed on the shore, skin leathering, but in 1982, as he was penning his umpteenth surfer profile in distinctive prose (fans can always attribute his lines), he saw Spielberg and Lucas's Raiders Of The Lost Ark six times in six days and knew he wanted to tell stories with the inexorable zest of its opening sequence.

He might not have known how to go about it, except that his girl, later his wife, Dori Pierson, was a screenplay writer. She encouraged him into a debut script about three kids bound for Vietnam, taken from his own background; American Graffiti, but done by someone with no exemption from the draft. He didn't push it or himself ("I hate ambition; you can have ambition without talent"), but a cousin by marriage was an agent and showed pages around town. Nothing happened. So he wrote a comedy and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney's head of production, offered him $40,000 a year, and an office. He came off the beach with his hair "barely dry from the ocean" and a talent for youth dialogue - "I could probably have done a pretty good job writing Clueless."

Disney was buying batches of fresh writers because it needed bulk product. Carter was set to develop other people's ideas. As a Burbank newbug, happy to be paid to write, he'd say, "Wow, yeah", to sitcoms pitched to Disney or coming out of its own stable. Stuff not now mentioned even on the many Chris Carter web pages: Rags To Riches, Meet The Munceys. Another apprenticeship. But in TV he could sense control, and a direct access to a pop audience that didn't have to be underestimated, treated contemptuously in the mass, as it often was by the Westwoodians.

Then the new, naff and, of necessity bold, 20th Century Fox, grabbed by Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, offered him an exclusive contract to develop programs. What do you want to do? he was asked. "A good scary show," answered Carter. Those were the years when the most frightening things on TV were Baywatch's silicon implants.

He felt his way through the summer of 1992, reaching for elements: Noir Kolchak encountering his zombie of the week; Conan Doyle's delight in scientific detection in Sherlock Holmes stories; The Avengers' avoidance of sexual contact onscreen; the fantasy FBI woman in Silence Of The Lambs; the real FBI man on the Larry King show, whose beat was satanic cults.

Carter pitched Fox a show about two FBI agents investigating the paranormal, he a believer, she a rationalist, sometimes he would be right, sometimes she. Fox turned it down, but took a while to forward the rejection. He ran away and met a research psychologist who gave him a survey done by a Harvard professor claiming 3 per cent of Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens. Carter didn't buy it, nor did he think his target audience might be the 3 per cent: but he understood he had accessed a new folklore narrative, as Bram Stoker in the 1890s had created Dracula from a synthesis of Victorian sexual repression and misinterpreted Slavic legend.

He repitched. Fox bit. He cast his leads against Fox's desires. They wanted tans and tits, he needed to deliver entire paragraphs of quasi-scientific exposition without pause or inflection. He shot the pilot in wet and cheap Vancouver, and delivered to Fox at 8am on the day they were due to premiere it before Rupert Murdoch at 8.30am.

Carter always instructs TV neophytes that "this business is about failure, most shows fail". But he knew his Files would not fail when they phoned him at breakfast. Spontaneous applause happened before any executive had a chance to observe how Rupe had reacted. Thirteen episodes were ordered as back-up to a new comedy western everybody had bets on.

The western sank. Carter's show slowly, by word of web, acquired an audience. A sleeper hit. He could experiment and screw up imaginatively, although he had to fight every drop of gore or goo through Fox censors. It was low enough in the ratings to be cancelled, but advertisers coveted its under-35, computer-literate fans, who went on-line afterwards to discuss it.

"You didn't have to wait for your fan mail any more," says Carter, who lurked on the web until being the boss ate all his time.

He recruited writers and directors he knew to be outsiders like himself but, as executive director of his production company Ten Thirteen, his is the last screen every script blips across. He gets to choose the mode of murder, too. Perhaps a third of all 117 episodes of the Files is a Carter write or rewrite. The proto-TV creator Steve Bochco told him that when he attempted Hill Street Blues nearly 20 years ago, there were always half a dozen guys around who could do an episode start-to-finish. But TV's increased output means loss of breadth of talent, because any original writers will get their own pilot deal, as did Carter's regular writer-directors Glen Morgan and James Wong, who took off temporarily to launch Space: Above And Beyond.

James Wolcott in the New Yorker teased Carter that he'd become a "visionary with a heavy workload". His 200-strong TV crew has been sleep-short for five years - "If you're sleeping, you're not working" - turning around episode-filming in eight days, writing in three and dubbing post-production effects so close to the wire that one show differed according to where it was seen in North America because progressively better versions were fed to satellites for transmission.

Ten Thirteen's operations in Fox lot bungalows in LA, or until this year at North Shore studios in Vancouver, are like Operation Overlord, although "I think the invasion of Normandy must have been simpler", says Carter. He and the boys pad sneaker-footed about, wearily whispering, pinning index cards of plot on their notice boards.

He's a perfect demonstration model of '90s success: listed in Time's 100 shapers of modern America, and among People magazine's 50 most beautiful humans (silver surfer hair, tanned, calm and with a voice suited for God); he alights from the flight that was held for him, and 20 people await his autograph. And yet he eats at his desk - "My fine china is styrofoam" - and tracks his life with a satellite global positioning system, his progress charted like a line of rabbit pellets on-screen: house to the ocean; dot-dot-dot; ocean to house; house to studios.

He cannot expand his lifestyle beyond the way he lived in his teens or 20s because it would take his mind off work. And maybe break faith with where and who he came from.

While his lead actors wilted, Carter proved to Fox two years ago that he could originate another extreme possibility of a concept, the unrelentingly dark Millennium. Its genesis was also that creative summer in 1992, when, seeing the LA riots on TV, he realised that nothing altruistic could be done now in the US without considering legal consequences. Everybody feared the unknown outside their neighborhood. Millennium has not become part of the culture like the Files; it's too dark, too adult - Carter is hopeless at evoking Generation X. But it will for sure run to the year it mythologises.

Traditional logic insists that after the X-Files movie Carter will morph into a triumphant cinema creator, because the Westwoodian snobbery is to presume that five years' interactive devotion from 100 million viewers in 60 countries counts for less than a few reviews and the ticket stubs on a $70-million investment Fox did not commit to until the last moment. Although our real daily amusements are measured out in television, we are persuaded by the hype that films shape our calendar.

The only reviews that have discerned this film's cross-over significance have been those online, pointing out that, although Fox conventionally leveraged the series to promote the film, Carter has actually used the movie as a big-toy reward for the faithful and a chance to lure in new TV viewers. His original idea seems to have been that it should be an expensive finale to the whole series, with the hoopla of cinematic Hollywood put subversively in the service of TV watchers. But the sixth season is certain - Carter has signed for a seventh - so the film promotes and advances the series.

A reporter from Entertainment Weekly recently quoted the artist and critic Manny Farber at Carter, warning the film might be white elephant art, whereas the TV series had been the best pop culture: "Termite art which always goes forward eating its own boundaries, leaving nothing but the signs of industrious unkempt activity". Carter adores Farber. So, OK, he said, the film might be white elephant art, "but we should at least make sure the elephant steps on the right people". Westwoodians, mostly. -- The Guardian

The X-Files is on general release from Thursday.


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Stacey O - carterconn@aol.com