Lexicon Exclusive

"The Master's Return"

The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Frank Spotnitz

Conducted by Matt Allair, 12/07/2016

Page Editor: Liz Tray

The website’s history with Frank Spotnitz goes back a decade. In late 2005, he was the first person we had the pleasure of interviewing during the promotion of The Night Stalker. That interview changed the website from a mere ‘reference-based fan site’ into something much more. We’ve held a huge debt of gratitude to Frank Spotnitz since then. It’s no accident, nor secret, that certain circles of Philes refer to Mr. Spotnitz as ‘uncle Frank’. Since 2005, a lot has changed for Mr. Spotnitz. He moved to England and, through the production and development of several projects via his company, Big Light Productions, he is enjoying a phenomenal wave of success due to The Man in the High Castle. Now he has tackled a new project, with an Italian production company, called Medici: Masters of Florence, co-written by iconic filmmaker Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek V: Undiscovered Country, and the 2017 Star Trek: Discovery TV series).

Frank is another X-Files alumni, along with Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24), who has carved his own unique niche as a storyteller - the common denominator with all of these creators is quality writing, a willingness to think outside of the box, and a boldness with telling a tale and breaking new ground. Since 2005, Frank Spotnitz has remained busy with Strike Back, then Hunted, Transporter; The Series, Crossing Lines, the now celebrated Man in the High Castle, and now Medici: Masters of Florence. Aside from CBS’s kidnapper drama Ransom, he has another project in development, The Indian Detective. He’s arrived at a streak that some casual viewers might find surprising, but then again, many X-Files fans weren’t really surprised that this would be the case. The quality of Frank’s work on The X-Files helped to elevate it, why wouldn’t he repeat that elsewhere.

Obviously, fans of The X-Files were curious and eager to find out about Frank’s thoughts on The X-Files: Event Series, and what role he would like to play in its development if he had the opportunity to do so. It was a great pleasure to raise these questions with him. Once again, he was gracious, warm, thoughtful and concise, candid with a grace that was characteristic of what we’ve seen in the past as well as an underlying decency. The interview proceeded as follows…



Matt Allair: Hi Mr. Spotnitz, thank you for taking the time.

Frank Spotnitz: Great to talk to you again.

Matt Allair: The Medici family are important historical and cultural figures, how did you get involved with the project?

Frank Spotnitz: Well, I was asked by our Italian partners, a company in Rome called Lux Vide. I should have known something about the Medici, but I knew nothing about them. I knew a little bit from high school and college. So, I did some reading and discovered that they are one of the most, if not the most, important family in the history of western civilization. Not just because they were the primary financial backers of the Renaissance, which really defines what we understand beauty to be to this day, but because, at least in my reading, they really started to create the beginnings of a middle class; before the Medici, there was no social mobility. If you were born poor, and almost everybody was born poor, you stayed poor, and your children would be poor, and their children would be poor. But after the Medici became bankers to the Pope, they had to do something with all of that money, so they used it to sponsor trade and commerce, which gave people the opportunity to improve their situations. So I thought they were really interesting, and then the challenge for Nicholas Meyer, my co-writer and I, was how do you make a story that is utterly compelling for a modern audience? So, we created this murder mystery involving the Dustin Hoffman character that kind of drives the first season.

Matt Allair: Is the series, Medici: Masters of Florence, intended to comment on what is going on in contemporary society, especially in America and Europe? Are you using the setting of the 15th Century as a means to an end?

Frank Spotnitz: Yes, absolutely. I just don’t think there’s any reason to tell a story unless it’s something to the people living today, about our lives. I think the Medici story speaks very powerfully to us today. I’m moved by several things in the story, but the thing I am most moved by is Cosimo’s sacrifice, as he really had to give up things that were very important to him for a bigger idea. One of the things that I’ve felt a lot, and Nic Meyers felt, I think for some time now, we, in the West, have become about making money, about being safe, about living a long time. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but those aren’t really values, those aren’t really ideals. Those are just understandably selfish desires. What really built our civilization were powerful ideals, about equality of opportunity, liberty, freedom, education, civilization, and that requires sacrifice. This is a very powerful and relevant story to tell people about today.

Matt Allair: Dustin Hoffman is such an iconic actor. Was there any trepidation, from your perspective, about having him involved with the project?

Frank Spotnitz: Oh gosh, no. To be honest, Luca Bernabei at Lux Vide said: “Who’s your first choice for Giovani?” The founder of the Medici bank, and obviously a legendary character, and I said: “Well, I would say Dustin Hoffman,” and he said, “Okay well see if we can get him.” I just never expected we would, but we did. You want somebody of that stature to believe he is this great man who played this pivotal role in history and of course Dustin Hoffman is truly a legendary actor. It’s not an overstatement to say that he brought this strength and the vulnerability, and the charm. So many qualities that Giovani had, he brought to the role. I think we all felt incredibly blessed to have him in the show.

Matt Allair: There are some very fine actors like Richard Madden, and Brian Cox who are involved with Medici: Masters of Florence. Was there an actor you especially liked working with on the series?

Frank Spotnitz: I have to say it was an incredible cast, there wasn’t a weak link in the bunch, and that goes for both the British actors and the Italian actors who made up our ensemble. It was really an extraordinary experience because we were in Tuscany for three months and then we were in Rome on a soundstage for about six weeks, so these actors were basically living together for all of that time in this beautiful place. Having dinner together, they became very, very close. A lot of them have formed friendships that will last for the rest of their lives, and it think it shows in the performances. You just see this chemistry that they have together. I could not have been happier with the cast. Absolutely with Richard Madden and Stuart Martin, who plays his brother Lorenzo. Annabel Scholey, who I think is going to be a huge star, she is incredible as Contessina, Cosimo’s wife, and it goes on and on. Brian Cox, Ken Bones, Guido Caprino, who is Marco Bello. I was really delighted with the cast.

Matt Allair: I’ve met Nicholas Meyer once, and I recall you’ve had real admiration for Mr. Meyer in past interviews. What has it been like to be involved with him on Medici: Masters of Florence? Has it been daunting or a comfortable experience?

Frank Spotnitz: Well, when I first met him it was daunting, but I’ve known him for quite a while now. Now’s he’s one of my closest friends, and it’s a joy. Actually, what’s funny is that I got to thinking, ‘Gosh, he approaches storytelling just like I do’. He really wants the characters to be rich, three-dimensional, emotionally engaging, and the story be emotionally engaging. But he also really thinks about what the story is about and why we are telling the story. I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s amazing that we have that same approach’, then I realized, dummy, the reason why I have that approach is because of him. Because I grew up watching his movies and reading his books. The Seven Percent Solution, Time After Time, Star Trek II; The Wrath of Khan, The Day After, and on and on. It’s been a great privilege and one of the joys of my life that I was able to work with him and get to know him.

Matt Allair: Can you tell us anything about the pilot for your next series Ransom that’s being developed? What is it about?

Frank Spotnitz: Ransom is about a world I did not know existed. It’s the world of private kidnap and hostage negotiation. It turns out there’s something like thirty thousand of these around the world every year where the negotiations are conducted without the police. I was introduced to a man named Laurent Combalbert, who’s French and considered one of the best, if not the best, private kidnap and hostage negotiators in the world. So, this show is about a negotiator who saves people’s lives in every episode. He’s a brilliant student of human nature, he knows how to manipulate people, and he knows how to get people who are making impossible demands to compromise or surrender. It’s an incredible skill set. I’ve learned a lot doing this show, about how you influence and manipulate people, but he does it for the best of reasons, which is to avoid violence, and to bring people back home safely to their loved ones. It’s very much a classic story-of-the-week kind of TV show, which obviously I started doing with a pretty well known one called The X-Files. I never lost my affection for that format, but it’s endless, the kinds of negotiations that our character Eric Beaumont embarks upon in each episode.

Matt Allair: A lot of fans are disappointed that you are no longer very involved with Man In The High Castle. What is your current role, if any, and why did you decide to step down as show runner?

Frank Spotnitz: Well, it’s still a co-production with my company, Big Light Productions in London, and I’m still executive producer on the show. But it became clear, at least at that point, that Amazon’s management history… I had a very different idea about where I wanted the show to go, and what I wanted the stories to be. So, we just sort of agreed to part ways, and I would say it was pretty friendly; in fact, it was one of the most cordial disagreements you could imagine. I still obviously have huge affection for the show. I enjoyed working with everybody on it; there was an absolutely incredible cast, and the team behind the scenes there as well. The cinema photography, the production designer, the costume designer, all of the props… they’re just extraordinary. Obviously that show – building an alternative world is one of the most challenging concepts you could imagine, and the imagination that team brings to that world, that discipline, everything is thought through and there’s thousands of decisions every episode about what the alternative world would look like – I have great affection for all of them, and I’m very much rooting for the show’s success and eager to see where they take it.

Matt Allair: It seems like your decision to move to Europe to develop projects has turned out well. Do you feel there’s too many limitations with the America marketplace? Are platforms like Netflix giving you more creative freedom?

Frank Spotnitz: I think it’s the best time ever in television on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s extraordinary: the freedom, the amount of material, the creative ambition, the execution. I’m not saying anything you don’t know; everybody knows what a great time it is. I’ve just found that I really like the challenge of making television in Europe. Americans that come to live and work in Europe have a special appreciation for this place because it’s all different to us. I mostly grew up in the southwest, in Arizona. When I moved to London, compared to a city like Phoenix, most of the buildings were, if they were old, they were thirty or forty years old. When I moved to London the first house I lived in was three hundred years old! (Laughs) Older than our country, so I’m amazed every day by the richness and the beauty of this place, to get to work and live in London, Paris and Rome. Shooting Medici in Tuscany, it’s just a great adventure that has been incredibly rewarding and it’s only possible because this is an amazing time in television. It’s six and half years now, believe it or not, and I started my company, Big Light Productions, three years ago really as a way to be able to do what I do in Europe. You may or may not know that they don’t have the culture of showrunners, or writers/producers here *, so that was my way to do television of this scale on this side of the Atlantic, and it’s been incredibly busy and exciting.

Matt Allair: A lot of X-Files fans wished you had been involved with The Event Series? What are your thoughts about the initial reception to the first three episodes? Did the ratings validate your feelings there was an interest in the remaining story arc?

Frank Spotnitz: Yeah, I wish I could have been involved too; I would have loved to have been involved. I’ve been waiting and as you know I’ve been rooting for the show to come back in one form or another all along. So, I was just so happy and thrilled, especially for the fans that had been pushing for the show for all those years. Like X-Files News, and all the fan groups around the world, many of whom I’ve had the opportunity to meet with because I’m such a traveler. You know, it’s interesting to me because I think over time the love for the show has only grown. There was so much anticipation, so much affection for the show and the characters. That was really gratifying to me, and then the ratings were phenomenal. It’s very sweet, especially when we had a pretty rough time in 2008 with the second movie, so it was very nice to see this happen.

Matt Allair: While The X-Files: Event Series was in production, were you in contact with Chris Carter socially? Were you given any sneak previews before the airdates?

Frank Spotnitz: I was in contact with Chris, as we were shooting Man in the High Castle in Vancouver at the exact same time. Sometimes we were one block away from The X-Files (laughs). So, I talked to him and Gabe Rotter, who’s the producer, spoke to Darin Morgan. But I didn’t ask what was happening with the show. I feel like it’s better not to go there; you’re either working on the show or you’re not. With some middle ground, I didn’t think it would be a comfortable place for anybody, so I watched the episodes and got to enjoy them and be surprised like the rest of the world.

Matt Allair: The status of The X-Files is in flux right at the moment, if more episodes do get produced, and if you have a window within your schedule to come on board as an executive producer and writer for The X-Files, would you get involved?

Frank Spotnitz: In a second, absolutely, if I could do it, if I could find the time. Yeah, I have huge affection for the show, and for the actors and Chris obviously. It would be great fun to go back. But it all comes down to whether I’m asked, and whether I can make it work since I don’t live on that side of the planet anymore.

Matt Allair: If you could be involved with finishing up the remaining story of The X-Files, what direction would you like to see it take?

Frank Spotnitz: I think what Chris did, he kind of has the attitude: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; that was my reading of it from the outside. But I think the world is full of X-Files stories, new stories that have cropped up in the years since the show went off the air. I can’t tell you how many times I [felt I] was actually back on The X-Files, when I think about it; I probably have a long list of things that would be great X-Files. When I look back on the show, obviously with enormous pride, but it’s kind of like what I was saying about working with Nicholas Meyer – the best episodes of The X-Files for me were about something. Monsters for me are simply an exaggeration of human characters, which we exaggerate to make a point. There are an awful lot of stories today that The X-Files could tackle in a unique way that could reach people very powerfully, I think.

Matt Allair: With The X-Files Event Series episodes, was there an episode that you especially liked?

Frank Spotnitz: Gosh, as far as watching it I have no impartiality whatsoever (laughs). I have no ability to critique. I’m too close to the show, to the actors, to Chris, Glen, Darin and Jim and everybody who worked on the tenth season. While I couldn’t really single out one, it delighted me that Darin did a variation on an episode that he and I had worked on for Night Stalker in 2005. He paid tribute to that with the straw hat and the seersucker suit. That felt like a victory to be because Night Stalker was canceled prematurely before Darin’s episode ever got to be produced, so I was particularly satisfied by that.

Matt Allair: What do you hope American audiences will take away from Medici: Masters of Florence?

Frank Spotnitz: First of all, I hope it will be really entertaining because it’s a pretty powerful family drama about two sons trying to figure out who murdered their father and about one son who sacrificed everything he wanted to do with his life to help build the civilization we all enjoy right now. But I think there’s a lot of ideas in the show that are worth considering if people are so inclined after it’s over. I think people will see, referring back to your earlier question, that people will see that the show is really about the world we live in today, like right now. It’s very, very contemporary.

Matt Allair: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It’s always a pleasure and honor, and hope we can do it again.

Frank Spotnitz: Thank you Matt, it’s great to talk to you and I’m sure we will.

We wish Frank the very best with his new projects. The series premiered in Italy earlier this year, where it smashed viewing records with an average of almost 7 million viewers and a 27 percent audience share. It will shortly debut on Netflix. We hope everyone will take a look at Medici: Masters of Florence. The talent involved looks promising, and it would be worth it for X-Files fans giving it a try.

Thank you to Tracey Raftery and Katherine Pongracz for making this interview happen.

A related Frank Spotnitz article can be found at Den of Geek.


*Our UK editor has noted that Mr. Spotnitz is incorrect about his comment about British television not using showrunners. Many TV series in the UK have now adopted the American model. Several examples of shows that have showrunners include Doctor Who, Sherlock and The Fall.

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