The spooky show starring David Duchovny builds a cult following by following the occult
”I had a dream about a week ago,” Gillian Anderson reveals in hushed tones, during a break on the Vancouver set of Fox’s drama The X-Files, ”a nightmare where I was shot at point-blank range, and it was really weird ’cause I couldn’t say anything.” Her eyes widening, Anderson continues, ”When we were doing the scene just now where I get shot, I remembered (the weapon in my dream) was a very similar gun. It was really scary. Often when I read the scripts I get freaked out, creeped out.”
As FBI agent Dana Scully, Anderson plays a rationalist who party-poops the paranormal theories of her partner, agent Fox ”Spooky” Mulder, played by David Duchovny. In real life, it’s the other way around: Duchovny is skeptical and & Anderson enthusiastically open-minded. ”Psychokinesis appeals to me,” she confesses. ”ESP, telling the future, I love that stuff.”
She’s on the right show. The X-Files — which follows Scully and Mulder as they hunt for answers, however strange and implausible, to the FBI’s unsolved cases — has plenty of standard shoot-’em-up action, but it’s also the eeriest show on network television. A very loosely reality-based flight of fancy, it’s the series with the best chance of skyrocketing from nowhere to the Twin Peaks cult-hit empyrean. Though The X-Files dwells in a chilly ratings-cellar time slot, Friday nights at nine, it has the potential to get as hot as The Twilight Zone once was, by blending science and the supernatural to scare the pants off smart people.
Many of the scripts are inspired by actual events: For example, a report by a London researcher who grew an extra limb on a salamander’s back helped inspire X-Files creator Chris Carter’s episode about a man with a salamander-like hand. ”I’m trying to play with real scientific ideas,” Carter explains, ”like Crichton cloning dinosaurs.” A former Surfing Magazine scribe who has written and produced four previous shows — none of which made TV history — Carter, 37, burns to chill the spines of people who aren’t true believers in space invaders and spoon bending; he wants to shake their faith that such things just don’t exist.
Yet there are viewers who will insist the tales are firmly rooted in truth, even when agents Scully and Mulder exhume a teenager’s grave to see if he had been the victim of experiments by aliens. The show originated when Carter read Harvard professor John E. Mack’s commentary on the 1991 Roper Survey on UFO abduction, which suggested that at least 3.7 million Americans may have been shanghaied by extraterrestrials. ”Everybody wants to hear that story,” says Carter, who pitched the series to Fox shortly thereafter. ”[Abduction] is tantamount to a religious experience.”
Divine guidance couldn’t have nabbed Carter a more ambitious cast. Anderson, 25, an award-winning Off-Broadway actress, hopes to make the most of her break. ”It’s a complete learning experience for me — the pilot was only the second time I’d been in front of a camera,” she says. Since agent Scully, like Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, is desperate to impress her chauvinist-pig FBI superiors, Anderson’s gritty determination fits the part.
As for Spooky Mulder, Duchovny says, ”An obvious choice would be to make him an oddball, a mad professor.” (Actually, Duchovny, 33, was an English literature teaching assistant who was sane enough to quit Yale grad school and go to Hollywood in 1989.) But what makes Mulder work so splendidly is Duchovny’s ironic, abstracted, soft-spoken demeanor: He resembles a deadpan Richard Gere who’s made a pact with the devil to trade 10 percent of his good looks for an extra 40 points of IQ. Notes Carter, ”It was David who pointed out correctly that if he were a nerd with pocket mechanical-pencil protectors, you wouldn’t be interested. But a smart, educated, perfectly sane guy can get you to believe outrageous things.”
Duchovny plays it cool. ”Sometimes I have to fight, because [directors] say, ‘Here’s this dead body, how come Mulder’s not more emotionally involved?’ Everybody’s aghast, and I’m detached, like, ‘Look at those beautiful maggots.”’ He’s more scientist than G-man: ”Like in the episode with the liver-eating squeeze guy who could elongate himself through chimneys, the director wanted me to be mad about this horrible serial killer. I was like, ‘No, this is an amazing discovery! He’s not morally culpable, because he’s genetically driven.’ I judge no one.”
He doesn’t have time for much deliberation. The X-Files must pack about 70 scenes into an hour show that’s shot in about eight days. The two stars shoulder most of the scenes, with special effects often added later, and their performances are necessarily spare. Given a roomier rehearsal schedule and fewer lines to learn, such guest stars as Carrie Snodgress and Brad Dourif have contributed attention-grabbing one-shot characters (Snodgress as the mother of an abducted child, Dourif as a convict-mystic). ”My character comes across better in reaction to them,” says Duchovny. ”Thank God for the guest stars.”
Ratings permitting, The X-Files could surpass the L.A. eatery Babylon as the spot for actors to be seen; and it’s just as attractive to directors, who change from episode to episode. ”They encourage cinematic stuff,” says Michael Lange (Northern Exposure, Sisters), director of the Salamander Man episode. ”Instead of shooting at a normal eye level as the Salamander Man takes the gun, I tilt up, and now I’m shooting up his nose almost, and it was kind of like very disorienting. The show’s got a certain ennui that appeals to me, the film noir-y movies of the ’40s look, an undercurrent of tension and anxiety ’cause of all the weird things going on. ”
The odd mix of subjects, however, makes it hard for viewers to grasp X-Files‘ gist quickly, which could be fatal. Even Fox didn’t get it at first: The network spurned the series after Carter’s first pitch — which led him to flesh out his concept and return a few weeks later. Then Fox bit, first ordering a pilot, then 13 shows, and eventually 22 — a whole season’s worth. In January, the show got the nod for a second season. Even though The X-Files makes most shows that traffic in the uncanny look like boring slop for dumb suckers, Carter admits, ”I wish all the people who watch Unsolved Mysteries would watch us.”
But The X-Files just might be closely watched in high places. Soon after makeup artist Fern Levin had finished her lurid simulations of roasted flesh for an episode about arson, she got a real-life scare. ”I phoned home, and my apartment house was up in flames,” she recalls. The blaze stopped just short of her own apartment. ”The script was leaking into my life!” says Levin, smiling. ”I question everything now.”