He wears jeans and eats ice cream bars in his office. He's the sort of forty-year-old who considers the major downside to his success the fact it leaves him no time for surfing.
It's not that this guy with the cheery disposition doesn't seem bright enough or creative enough to be a highly successful writer-producer. It's just that you'd figure him to come up with characters like those who populate Friends or Wings. But where the hell did Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black come from? How did somebody so sunny create worlds so spooky?
I tracked Carter down to his lair at the far end of the Twentieth Century Fox lot. From the outside, the bungalow housing Carter's 1013 Productions office looks normal enough. You'd never guess that behind its walls are alien life forms just waiting to....garner huge ratings.
What did you start out wanting to be?
As a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player. By the time I was in college, though, at Long Beach State, I found I couldn't get my fast ball past anyone. At that point, my blue collar background kicked in, and I decided to be practical. So I majored in journalism.
That was practical?
It was in my case. I got a job right out of college working as an editor for Surfing magazine. It was great training in meeting deadlines.
How blue-collar was your background?
My dad was a construction worker and my mom was a housewife. And when, after five years, I decided to quit my job at Surfing, which was then paying me $18,000 a year, to try screenwriting, they both thought I was nuts.
How did you manage the transition?
I wrote a couple of freelance scripts that got me a lot of attention. I wound up signing a deal with Disney and wrote a lot of their Sunday-night movies. I found, to my surprise, that I liked TV. I liked the pace and I liked the amount of control I had over my scripts. Eventually I helped produce a Joe Bologna series, Rags to Riches, for Len Hill. It was an education, though not a complete one. When Peter Roth took over TV for Twentieth, he gave me an overall deal to produce. The very first thing I came up with was X-Files.
How did you go from Disney to the dark side of the moon?
When I was young, I loved the old Darren McGavin series, The Night Stalker. It was the scariest show on TV. So when Roth asked me what I wanted to do, that was it. I wanted to scare people.
Considering the amount of clout you now wield, are you ever required to battle Fox executives?
Sure. My goal is to make it good. Their goal is to make it good, but make it affordable.
How successful is Millennium?
Very. Although X-Files has gotten more attention, Millennium is getting the same ratings X-Files was getting in its second season.
How do you explain that, although there are producers with shows more popular than yours on the air, your name has become so much better known than theirs?
I'm an indefatigable interviewee.
Meaning you enjoy the spotlight?
Not really. In the beginning, when X-Files first went on, I felt certain there were misconceptions about Fox, and therefore about the show, that I had to go out and squelch.
You were afraid that people would assume the show was juvenile and just filled with a lot of cheap thrills and cornball effects?
Yes, exactly. I wanted people to understand that ours was to be a story-driven series. I wanted to alert them to the fact that we were doing forty-three-minute movies, taking a big-screen approach to the small screen.
Speaking of which, I understand there are plans afoot to make an X-Files feature this year.
Yes. I have sixteen more pages to write. The trouble is that I have to steal the time from the two shows to write the movie.
Do you see yourself forsaking TV for the movies?
No way. I really like TV, even though it's a brain-numbing, back-breaking job. Right now, unfortunately, it's a boom time for one-hour dramas on TV. It's unfortunate because it means a lot of the best writers have big overall deals, which depletes the number of talented people available to work with me.
What do you watch on TV?
Hardly anything. There's no time. But I try to catch Larry Sanders, Tracey Takes On..., NYPD, and Law & Order.
Have you grown accustomed to your success?
Not really. The success of X-Files is still like a dream to me. It's not only a big hit in America but huge all around the world. When Gillian Anderson was in Italy not too long ago, they reacted as if she were Madonna.
Did your parents live long enough to find out there was life after Surfing?
My dad did, but just barely. My mother didn't. Which was really sad because Mulder was her maiden name. She'd have been really tickled to have had her name made world-famous.
How big a motivator has money been in your career?
This is a business in which money affects product, relationships, and loyalty. I don't think I'm greedy, but I do want to be rewarded equally with the other people who do what I do. To tell you the truth, what I really lack for these days isn't money, it's time.
When you say that money affects relationships and loyalty, do you mean that your success has cost you friendships?
There is definitely something bad that happens. I have lost friends because of my success. I have also gained friends. On balance, I'd have to say I'm ahead. The problem has mainly been with old writer friends who want me to hire them because of the relationship and not because they can write the show well. If I hired on that basis, it would hurt the product, and I'm not willing to do that.
What book has most influenced or inspired you?
There were two books I read in high school, John Cheever's Bullet Park and Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Reading them made me think I wanted to be a writer.
Have you any plans to write a novel?
Yes, when and if I ever get the time. In the meantime, I have a title for it. But it's too good to tell you. I don't want to risk somebody ripping it off.
What do you do for fun?
There's no fun. I have an exercise routine, and everything else is work. When I leave the house, I tell my wife, "I'm off to the wars. If they don't kill me, I'll be back."
X-Files has won several Emmy Awards, as well as a recent Peabody. Do you care about such things?
You bet I do. I grew up as a competitive athlete, so I love to win. The one thing that's bothered me is that our three directors, Rob Bowman, Kim Manners, and Bob Goodwin, never even get nominated. They have as much to do with the success of the series as anyone, and it bugs me that they keep getting overlooked.
What would you like people to say about you?
My mom came from a Dutch dairy-farming family and she'd always tell me, "You don't know what a hard day's work is." And my dad was always going off to a construction site before I was even out of bed. So, ultimately, I'd like people to think I'm hard-working.
How has success changed you in these past few years?
I honestly think it's made me a better person, that it's made me more myself.
Would you care to elaborate?
Well, early on, as a writer in this business, you just want to get something — anything — made. Once you become successful, people want you to do more and more, and you have to resist the temptation to do things just because you know they're going to get made.
Do you have a favorite word?
If I do, I can't think of it. That's terrible. I'm a writer and I can't think of any words I like.
How about a favorite sound?
That's easier. I love the sound of the surf at night. That and the crack of a bat hitting a baseball are my two favorite sounds in the entire world.
Have you an all-time favorite movie?
David Lean's version of Great Expectations.
What person, living or dead, do you most wish you could have met?
Teddy Roosevelt. I'm a great admirer of his. I'm just amazed at the fantastic life he lived.
Is there some bizarre, metaphysical meaning behind calling your company 1013 Productions?
Actually, it's my birthday. I was born on October 13, 1956.
There are numerous Biblical references in your shows. Particularly in Millennium. Are you religious?
I started out as a Baptist, but at about the age of nine or ten, I stopped going to church.
I don't remember. Although now that I think about it, I believe that was when I first got into Little League.
Well, baseball is a religion to some of us.
Actually, I usually describe myself as a nonreligious person searching for religious experiences.
Clearly, Carter has his work cut out for him. The Fox lot, after all, is hardly Lourdes or the road to Damascus. Still, religious experiences have occurred in stranger places. And who's to say that a 30 share isn't a sign?
By BURT PRELUTSKY (the author of Success: Interviews with 51 Men and Women, recently published by Dove.)