Articles and interviews

Underneath

By Joe Nazzaro, From The X-Files Magazine - Issue #3 (April 2002)

John Shiban was brought in to write starting in the third season, having to live up to the standards set by writers such as Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and James Wong, Howard Gordon, Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan, and Frank Spotnitz, he had quite large shoes to fill. John Shiban eventually became a significant member of Ten Thirteen Productions. There's a degree of candor in this interview which is why it was chosen. Again, special thanks to Megan from XF Road Runners for the transcription.

As The X-Files finishes production on its ninth and final season, writer/producer John Shiban is trying to finish some of the stories he always wanted to tell. He's just finished writing and directing Underneath, a contemporary twist on a classic story. He's also collaborated with Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan on Jump the Shark, which ties up some of the threads from the short-lived Lone Gunmen series, and wrote the story for Release, about an unusual genius who may be more than he appears.

The X-Files was the first television job for Shiban, who began writing for the series with The Walk in season three. It wasn't long before he joined the staff, creating such episodes as Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira, The Pine Bluff Variant, S.R. 819, and Badlaa. He also collaborated with Gilligan and Spotnitz on a number of stories, including Leonard Betts, Memento Mori (with Chris Carter), Three of a Kind, Theef, and The Amazing Maleeni.

Shiban took some time out from his post-production duties on Underneath to discuss his upcoming Season Nine episodes, some personal highlights from the past seven years of The X-Files, and his feelings about the series coming to an end...

THE X-FILES MAGAZINE: Tell us about Underneath, which marks your directing debut on the series.

JOHN SHIBAN: It's about an old case of Doggett's, a serial killer of sorts when he was a beat cop back in 1989. Since then, this man was caught and convicted and is serving a life sentence, but his case was reopened by a sympathetic lawyer who had his DNA tested against the evidence that convicted him and found that it wasn't the same person. Doggett, of course, sticks to his guns, because he believes this is the man, so he turns to Scully and Reyes to help him prove that he did the right thing back in 1989. The idea of the story was to force Doggett into a position where he has to fall back on an X-file to solve a case - will be believe or not? If he doesn't believe, this guy is going to get away and possibly kill again, but if he does believe, that means Doggett has to face a lot of his own world views and what he thinks about reality versus the X-files, so it's an interesting journey for him.

What was your source of inspiration for this episode? (Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen Underneath yet, you may want to skip the answer to this question!)

Part of the inspiration (and people will hopefully have seen it by the time they read this so I'm not giving anything away), was that we'd actually talked for some time about doing a Jekyll/Hyde story but never quite found a way to do it until we came up with the idea of DNA evidence, which is happening more and more these days. 'The Innocence Project' for example, reopens cases for people, and the notion that somebody's DNA could have changed because they're turning from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde was the heart of this story. So I came up with a character named Bob Fassl, who is this accused killer, and his problem is he doesn't know that he's turning into this other person. In his mind, he's burdened with these killings, and he's actually guilty in a way, because to him, this strange man, this apparition appears and magically leaves dead bodies at his feet. In reality, he's turning into Hyde and killing them and turning back into himself. So we play that mislead for quite some time in the episode; until act four in fact, when Reyes has figured out the X-file and that's when we reveal to the audience that this man is one and the same.

There was another source of inspiration, which actually turned into a very exciting thing for me, especially as a first-time director. I wanted to play with the idea that as a cable man, maybe the people he killed are people that he encountered at his job way back then. Since he had access to underground tunnels where they lay the cable, maybe he used them to hide his bodies. After coming up with the idea, I had the inspiration of The Third Man. I thought it would be great to do most of act four as a chase through these tunnels and into the sewer, trying to catch the bad guy. With that in mind, I went to our location people and said, 'Can we shoot in some great big tunnels here in Los Angeles?' and the answer came back, 'No, there's a moratorium on shooting there since September 11, shooting anything that the DWP controls,' which was understandable.

So I turned to our art director Corey Kaplan and said, 'What can we do?' She pulled up blueprints from the 1952 Fox movie version of Les Miserables, and used that as inspiration. So they actually built a huge underwater sewer set on Stage 11 here at Fox, with actual running water and big culverts and waterfalls. It was just amazing, and this was for a little TV show. There was a big Y section that broke off into two pieces and had all these arches and whatnot, so what we did was re-dress it a couple of times to make it look like different parts of the tunnel in order to use the same stretch again. It was so exciting to walk onto that giant set, especially for my first directing effort.

Had you wanted to direct for some time?

I originally got into the film business thinking, "Gee, I'd love to direct one day!" and then I fell in love with writing and thought of that as a path to do it. When I ended up in television - on The X-Files specifically - it was something I'd wanted to do since I got here, but watching Rob Bowman and Kim Manners trying to such a complicated show on eight or ten days of shooting, I soon saw how difficult it was.

Have you finished post-production on Underneath yet?

Because of actor availability issues on other episodes, I had to stop shooting for one day, and I'm doing another day in a couple of weeks. So it's been a while, but there were some scheduling issues, and it was like, "Okay, let's shut down for a month or two and come back." The set is still there, but I've already been in the cutting room, and on the whole, I'm fairly pleased with it so far.

And you're collaborating with Frank and Vince on Jump The Shark, an episode that ties up the Lone Gunmen series.

Today is actually the last day of shooting. That was a difficult story to write and to break. We've always loved those characters and a lot of people love them, so we did want to give the Lone Gunmen their due and a fond farewell. To do that in the context of The X-Files turned out to be very difficult, because there was a lot of ground to cover in 43 minutes. I think we did a nice job of having both a good X-Files story, and paying tribute to and tying up the loose ends from The Lone Gunmen show as well.

In terms of tone, is Jump the Shark as comedic as a Lone Gunmen episode, or is it a serious X-Files story?

On The Lone Gunmen, many of the episodes were quite a bit more comedic than we would ever do on The X-Files. But I think the pilot and the season-ending episode All About Yves were closer in tone to what we're doing here, which is closer in tone to what we previously did with the Lone Gunmen on The X-Files. When we did Three of A Kind, or Unusual Suspects, those episodes both had solid X-Files-type stories, so there was a serious dilemma, and yet these comic guys have to save our butts. It adds humor to a thriller, and that's the tone of this episode: it's clearly a thriller, but there's also a lot of comedy in it. We also brought back the Morris Fletcher character (played by Michael McKean), from the Dreamland episodes of The X-Files. He also appeared in the season finale of The Lone Gunmen, so in a way, it's a hybrid, but it's also an X-Files episode because most of the characters in it are from the X-Files world.

And you've written another episode this season?

It's the last one with my name on it, but I actually turned to David Amann to write it. I didn't have enough time because of everything else that was going on, so I have story credit on it. It's called Release, and it's a story I've wanted to do for some time, so I'm glad I got to it before the end of the season. I'd always wanted to do a story about Scully encountering a strange genius and you don't know if he's a mastermind like Sherlock Holmes or if he's Professor Moriarty. Either he's a brilliant guy who's solving crimes with his amazing intuition, or he's a guy who's actually doing those crimes and playing a game with the cops. I've always been fascinated with eccentric geniuses, so we came up with a story where Scully encounters this genius as a cadet under her tutelage, and he has these amazing powers of deduction that truly impress her. The story starts with a murder that he seems to be almost psychically prescient about solving, that may be connected back to the death of Doggett's son Luke. For Doggett, it might be a great opportunity to get some closure and find out what really happened, but on the other hand, he starts to believe that maybe this guy had something to do with it.

So what else do you have coming up after you finish editing Underneath?

The work I did on "Release" will be my last piece of writing for the season. I'll be involved with breaking the story for the season-ender, but other than post work - editing and so forth - this one is really my farewell.

Looking back over your time on The X-Files, what are some of the personal highlights that come to mind?

This is probably an obvious one, but the first episode I wrote, The Walk. That was certainly my first milestone, because it was such a thrill to see my work on the screen, and to have it directed and produced and acted with such a high level of quality; I was just in heaven. So I'd have to say the first time is certainly memorable. Along the way, there are certainly a number of episodes that I feel were not only personal landmarks but for the series as well. Leonard Betts for example stands out in my mind as not only a great X-Files story with a truly wild premise, but the fact that we were able to pull it off and make it seem real was very exciting. It also planted the seed for Scully's cancer, which led to another milestone, which was Memento Mori. The four of us got nominated for an Emmy for the writing, which was a real honor, and David and Gillian's performances were thrilling in that episode, so it was great to be part of it.

I would say Dreamland and Dreamland II were important. Let me say even beyond that, another milestone for me was Three of Kind, because that was the episode that proved, at least in our minds, that the Lone Gunmen could have their own show, which let to a lot of excitement for us. Unfortunately the show wasn't picked up after the first year, but I'm still proud of our work on it. So that was a milestone to me, because it led to a lot of stuff. And I guess the big milestone (not counting my directing debut) would be last year's season-ender, Existence. That was a thrilling episode, and it also starred my son, [who plays Scully's baby] so I've got to love it. That actually worked out well, because a lot of our relatives back east hadn't seen him yet in person, so I was able to say, "Watch The X-Files tonight, and you can see him!"

Overall, how would you describe your contribution to the series?

There are two things, to be honest. I've always been a fan and a student of the movies and movie history ever since I was very young, so one of the things I brought to the show was a library of stories and ideas and images that we could call upon for inspiration. We tried from very early on to make a different movie every week, and I'd like to think I was helpful in that because it's something that I've always loved and could call upon. So that's one thing.

The other thing, I hope the other writer/producers would concur - there's a lot of stress involved in putting out 20-something episodes of television. I feel that another quality that I hopefully brought to the group is a calm in the storm. It's something I got from my mother, just that sense that, "This too shall pass, so let's figure out how to solve our problem rather than going insane!" I think I was helpful on a lot of those tight corners, making sure we got shows on the air, and I'd like to think that was partly my contribution.

Have you started thinking about life after The X-Files yet?

My agents are taking away the luxury of not thinking about it. They're excited, because they can actually sell me for once. I'd love to have my own show some day, I'd love to do some feature work, and I'd love to continue working in television. There are a lot of opportunities out there, so over the next year or so, I'm going to get back into the market and see what's going on, but I haven't really pinned anything down yet. It feels very odd to be looking for a job, because I've never really had to do that, but it's certainly a great thing on your résumé, so I'm not concerned. I do realize as I begin to look into other shows and see what's out there, I'm not sure I'll ever have another experience like this. The combination of the talented people to work with, the effort and time and money spent on each episode, all those things made it a very special time for all of us. I don't expect to see that again.

Special thanks again to Megan and Please visit Megan's excellent site: XF Roadrunners

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