Interview with Frank Spotnitz
Conducted by Matt Allair 07/19/05.
There's a truism in life, opportunities often develop when you have no expectations, and this was especially true in this situation. While pursuing other related business concerning The X-Files Lexicon, I found myself having to get in contact with the staff at Mr. Spotnitz's production company, Big Light Productions. Frank's assistant, Jana Fain, was quite helpful, professional, kind and approachable. As an afterthought, with little expectation that my proposal to Interview Mr. Spotnitz would come to fruition, I made a general suggestion and received a very surprising answer. The phrase has been used so often that it's clichéd, but it's still true, 'be very careful what you wish for.'
A special thank you must go out to Jana for her tireless effort to make the following phone interview happen. Of course, there's a debt of gratitude to Mr. Spotnitz for making the time to do this interview, especially considering that he was in the middle of starting up his new show for ABC, The Night Stalker. Mr. Spotnitz almost needs no introduction to long time fans of The X-Files. He started during the series second season, as a writer and producer, and moved forward to become the second most pivotal creative figure throughout the show's history. Eventually, for a time, Mr. Spotnitz was the vice-president of Ten Thirteen Productions. During our conversation, I found Mr. Spotnitz to be approachable, gracious, good humored, confident yet humble and endlessly patient. The interview progressed as followed...
Matt Allair: Mr. Spotnitz, how are you?
Frank Spotnitz: I'm good thank you.
Matt: Let me start by asking you about the show you're working on for ABC, a re-imaging of Kolchak; The Night Stalker.
Matt: I know that the pilot was shot, and I enjoyed your blog page.
Frank: Oh Thanks.
Matt: I noticed that Daniel Sackheim is involved, is Dan Curtis involved as an executive producer?
Frank: He's a consulting producer on the show, so that's been a great thrill for me because I grew up watching, you know, so much of his work. Not only Night Stalker, Night Strangler, but Dark Shadows and Winds of War and so many things. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he did with Jack Palance, it just..., really, he influenced my whole perception of television which was so important to me as a child, so it's been a real thrill for me to get to know him.
Matt: Great, Is the new characterization of Kolchak, played by Stuart Townsend, very different from Darrin McGavin's interpretation?
Frank: It really is very different, which is why I really call it, like you said, it's a re-imagining. It's not a re-make because, I spent, I don't know, close to six months (nervous laughter), working on this before I even wrote the script. I loved Darrin McGavin and loved the original T.V. movies and T.V. series. But I just couldn't figure out a way to do that character and do it better than Darrin McGavin did it. And I came to the conclusion that no matter how fine an actor you cast in the role, if it was the same guy that Darrin McGavin played, you were going to fail. He was such a unique personality and did it so beautifully, that I thought that the smartest thing to do is to take the shackles off my imagination and really be free to make this a different character entirely. So that was one reason why I ended up casting somebody who was, you know, twenty years younger than Darrin McGavin was when he played the part. But there were a number of other reasons too, I think the two TV movies were terrific and really hold up.
Matt: I agree.
Frank: But the TV series, as much as I loved it as a kid, had a lot of problems and was not a success, commercially or critically, as much as I enjoyed it. I don't know if you know, but Darrin McGavin himself was so unhappy with the TV show, that he begged the network to cancel it.
Matt: I heard about that.
Frank: So, I really had to think about why didn't it work when they turned it into a TV series because I don't want to make the same mistakes, and I came up with a few answers which, you know, (laughter) I hope they're right. I think one of the reasons that it's a difficult movie to make into a series, is that in the movies, you know Darrin McGavin was a guy in his fifties whose best days as a reporter were behind him. He'd been bounced to a second or third tier market as a Newspaperman, and he was looking for the big story that was going to put him back in the major leagues. He saw these supernatural stories as a way to get back there. Well, that works great if it's a one off, if it's a movie, but if you can imagine doing a TV series where that's the motivation every week, it seems very thin, it's like a one note idea. So I really felt like the smarter thing to do was to make him a guy whose career is ahead of him, not behind him. Who is pursing these stories not because he's looking at them as a way to get back into the big time, but because they have a personal meaning to him, and he's sacrificing his ambition, he's sacrificing what could be a very bright future to pursue these things.
That also helped me with another problem, a sort of reality problem I had, which was that again in a movie you could buy that it doesn't make it into the newspaper. But week in and week out, that it would never make it into the newspaper is more challenging. Honestly it's still a challenge in this series, but I think it's helped by the fact that in my incarnation, Kolchak isn't really doing this to get into the newspaper; he's really using his press pass as an excuse to ask people questions about the things that interest him. He wants to know these things for himself and so if it ends up in the paper, that's fine so long as it serves his interests, but it's really about his own personal mission.
Matt: So, Kolchak won't be necessarily stumbling into the situations, monsters and unexplained phenomenon he encounters, he will be seeking them out?
Frank: That's exactly right, because that was the other issue I had with the reality thing, like, how does somebody find these things, you know, just by happenstance every week? You know that does not happen in the real world. I think so much has happened in this genre for the past thirty some odd years, since the original Night Stalker, thirty three years, and people's sophistication level is such now, that they wouldn't buy that. You know, that you just happen upon these things, you really got to be looking for them to make it believable, so that's also why I created the other new characters because they stand in conflict to Kolchak and help drive the series. You know, it's one thing to have him as a lone wolf in a TV movie, but in a series you need other characters who are going to create conflict and drive the story telling.
Matt: Let's talk about Perri Reed, I noticed she's new character played by Gabrielle Union.
Matt: Is the Kolchak and Reed characters modeled after Mulder and Scully?
Frank: No, I mean there's certainly are parallels you could draw because he is obviously a believer like Mulder was, and she is a skeptic. But that's only one component of their relationship, I have to say for a long time I resisted it, just because; 'Oh, people are going to compare it to The X-Files and there going to think it's just like it.' But then I realized, you know, the believer / skeptic dynamic is present in dozens and dozens and dozens of works of fiction, in movies and television shows in this genre, it's what you do when your trying to make something far out seem believable. Weather its Dracula, The Omen, Jaws, you know, The Exorcist, There are skeptic characters in all of these things because they play the role of the audience. They demand that the believer make this credible to the audience, and that's one part of the dynamic between Reed and Kolchak, and between McManus and Kolchak, and Vincenzo and Kolchak for that matter, there's really three skeptics in this configuration.
But there's so much more to it, she's an idealist, he's a cynic, she's honest and straight forward, he's manipulative (laughter) and a little more devious. She wants the story in the newspaper, he doesn't. Only if it serves his interests does he want it in the newspaper. And there's a lot of Woodward and Bernstein, honestly, in that relationship as well. If you remember the movie with Redford and Dustin Hoffman, you know Redford was pretty straight with people, pretty workman like prose, good solid reporter. Whereas Bernstein was much more reckless, you know, took a lot of leaps, it wasn't necessarily fact checked very carefully, and so there's a lot of Woodward in Reed and a lot of Bernstein in Kolchak.
Matt: I remember there was a lot of manipulation between of the two of them.
Frank: Yeah, which is really fun to watch, you know? That's the other thing that I'm really excited about doing the show is that I started out as a reporter, I actually wrote for the wire services and for magazines for something like seven years before I came to Hollywood. It's not something that's been dramatized a lot in movies or in television, and you know, most TV shows tend to be doctors, lawyers, or cops. And I'm really excited about all the dramatic possibilities of showing reporters at work.
Matt: Great. this next question is inevitable but depending on if the Night Stalker pilot does well and if the series is picked up, is it possible that Chris Carter might write an episode?
Frank: Oh, I would love to have him write an episode. I think I'd have to twist his arm pretty hard to get him to do it (laughter), because he's enjoying his life immensely now. I still talk to him just about every week, we're very good friends and he's traveling the world, surfing and skiing and ice climbing and really enjoying things. We are writing a movie together right now, but I'd be surprised if he'd be interested in writing an episode of television, but I'd be thrilled if he would.
Matt: Any further updates on shows produced by Big Light Productions? The Star Chamber, A Philosophical Investigation or John Fante?
Frank: Well, Star Chamber we're trying to get set up as a feature right now, there's a terrific script I wrote with a writer named Jan Oxenberg, and that's in the development process. Philosophical Investigation is the screenplay I'm writing with Chris Carter for Paramount that he will direct, and we're writing that currently. And John Fante, I (sigh) I actually began that documentary before I did The X-Files back in 1992, and I have been unable to find the backers, the financial backers to get it completed and I am eager to do so. I expect that if I never get the money from someone else that I will end up paying for it myself, because it's very much a passion project.
Matt: Well, I wish you luck with John Fante.
Frank: Thank you.
Matt: Let's talk a little bit about your process as a writer. I know that in series television, time is limited, how many re-writes do you personally do for an episode? And have you ever written on spec*?
Frank: Well, it varies wildly how many re-writes I do, some writers write their own scripts and I don't touch them. It's more common, especially when you're doing a new show however, that I will do some kind of re-writing on all the other writers, or most of the other writers' scripts. But honestly, we're so early in the game here, nobody's turned in a script yet, except for me, (laughs) because I wrote the pilot and I wrote the first episode. So, I'll find out, but the truth is in television, the time frame is so condensed that you just keep re-writing and re-writing until you're out of time. Things always get better by re-writing, you know, I think, there's a cliché, 'writing is ten percent writing and ninety percent re-writing', it's really true, and everything gets better by refining it and I never want to give up on the script until I have to let it go, and finally let it go before the camera, I just work as hard as I can on every one. You can look at the number of production drafts on the cover of a script to see how many pages were issued, or how many different drafts were issued, if it's anywhere between five and ten typically.
Matt: I'm always fascinated by the process of inspiration. I noticed that some artists can have trouble articulating or explaining the origin of an idea, the germ of it, and the moment it came. For example, did the idea come in a burst, or did the idea arrive due to isolated, unrelated experiences that connected together somehow, unexpectedly. What are your thoughts?
Frank: Yes, I have a hard time articulating it too. I think for me that's the most mysterious part of the whole process. I don't really know why it is sometimes, I'll wake up or I'll be driving, and something will hit me that I want to do or say. Very rarely does it come to me wholesale, I very rarely get an idea where I see the whole shape of an episode instantly, usually I start with something I really like, weather it's an image or a character or a scene or simply an idea. Then I have to do just work to develop it and find out what I really think about that idea. That's the hard part, but it's also the really satisfying part because I end up learning things about myself, about what I think about the world, what I think is true, which sounds funny when you're working in this genre because everything is so fantastic. But I think especially where you're doing something fantastic like this, there's got to be some true idea that you're trying to express, otherwise the whole thing just seems silly and like a waste of time.
I think things that are about monsters or supernatural events tend to be much more idea driven. I think that's why they inspire such incredible loyalty and devotion from so many fans, it's because people are hungry for those ideas and they get excited by them, there's something to think about after the show is over. Also that's why I love this genre and why (the reason) I wanted to do this show after having done The X-Files for so many years is because these stories work on two levels. They work on the very superficial, manipulative, 'just turn out the lights, eat some pop corn and it's fun to be scared' level, which is great, but they inevitably end up being about something deeper that you can think about long after the show's over.
Matt: Can you give me an example from the show you're working on, or from past shows for Ten-Thirteen, where a personal experience influenced the writing of an episode?
Frank: Wow, I think I have to say that everything you do as a writer, if you're really trying hard, is shaped by personal experience and by what your perception of the world is. Every character you write, you try and make it true and reflect you're understanding of how people behave. The most obvious example to me was something that was a personal experience was an episode that I co-wrote with Chris Carter and John Shiban of The X-Files in season seven**. It was called Milagro?
Matt: I remember that.
Frank: It was about a writer who lived in Mulder's building who became obsessed with Scully? It was very autobiographical because by that point I had spent six years doing nothing but thinking about The X-Files (Laughter), and it was very much, not so much, me staring at Gillian Anderson as me staring at Scully. Obsessing about her, what she thought and what she liked. You know that writer in his apartment; he had index cards on his wall that was supposed to be plot points of the novel he was writing. That's really the way that I write the stories for television, and those index cards were written by me, they were in my handwriting (Laughter), in that episode. So that was very much autobiographical and very close to home.
Matt: Let's switch gears and talk about Millennium, my impressions of the second season of Millennium; it reminded me of the third season of The X-Files, very expansive and experimental in a sense. Do you think Frank Black and Catherine's character arc should have progressed more naturally? For example, some Millennium fans tend to feel that Catherine's emotional turn seemed too abrupt.
Frank: You know, maybe. What happened was, season two, Chris and I really backed away from Millennium and it became Glen Morgan and Jim Wong's responsibility. They agreed to come on and run the show, we had, Chris and I had double duty on X-Files and Millennium in its first year as well as, you know, making the first X-Files feature film. It was just too much and we needed somebody else to help carry the weight. So Glen and Jim stepped in, and they had a lot of really great, creative, original ideas what to do with the show, but it was a very different show than what it was in season one, and it was a very different show than it was in season three. I think some of the best episodes of the whole series were done in season two, but it clearly was a sea change for the show and experimental in many ways.
Matt: From my understanding, The X-Files didn't use a back story bible early in its progression. In the history of the shows produced by Ten-Thirteen, was a back story bible ever developed for Millennium, The Lone Gunmen or Harsh Realm?
Frank: Never. Because Chris Carter didn't believe in show bibles, he thought that they were...., well I don't want to put words in his mouth, but my understanding was that he felt that they became crutches for people and that they constrain your imagination. So it was kept in our heads and if we needed to reference a specific thing, a biographical detail about Mulder or Scully or Frank Black or one of the Lone Gunmen, we'd have to go back and literary re-read the scripts that concerned that aspect of their lives. Every once in a while we made a little continuity error, but he just didn't think it was the right thing to do.
Matt: In Hindsight, during the eight seasons you worked on The X-Files, are there any guest stars or actor's you worked with you now look back on fondly?
Frank: Oh gosh, So many, so many fantastic actor's, I mean not just actor's who went on to do great things, like Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black, You know, Peter Boyle, who had already done so many great things, but many wonderful, lesser known actor's too. Too numerous to mention honestly, I think one of the great things about The X-Files is that we were never interested in casting pretty people, that was the rare day in The X-Files casting office when we were looking for good looking people (Laughs). We really wanted people to look like people you'd see on the street, I think that opened up just huge avenues of casting for us that a lot of other shows didn't get a chance to access.
Also honestly, being in Vancouver those first five seasons, when, you know, X-Files really blazed a trail for filming in Vancouver. A lot of those actor's were relatively unknown to American TV audiences and I think we found a lot of great talent there. One of the other great things about doing The X-Files was that we had a plan, how we were going to do the show, what the mythology was going to be, but we were always smart enough to recognize a piece of talent when we came across it. That's why Cigarette Smoking Man grew into the part that it grew into. He was originally an extra in the pilot and then lo' and behold an episode was written where he had a line of dialogue and he really could act, then he became one of the greatest assets the show had. The same with Mitch Pileggi, the same with the Lone Gunmen, the same with X, and so many other characters who are really memorable parts of the series history.
Frank: Are you willing to divulge any progress on the second X-Files movie? Are you past the script outline stage, have any drafts been written yet?
Frank: Unfortunately the answer to all those things...I mean I'll divulge this, the answer is no. There's no script. Believe it or not the deal is still not done, my component of it has been done for, and this is not an exaggeration, a year and a half. But there are other players in this, you know who they are (laughs), and for some reason it's been very difficult to make this happen. I'm as disappointed as anybody and I'm still optimistic that this will happen.
Matt: When you look back on the overall arc of The X-Files, are you satisfied with how the show progressed?
Frank: You know, I have to say I am satisfied. If I could go back and you could tell me that The X-Files was going to run for nine years, here you get these actors for seven years and here's the actor's you have for the last two years. There are things I would do differently, if I could go back looking at it as a whole. Unfortunately when you're in television and moving forward, you don't have the benefit of that foreknowledge and you have to make the best possible decisions you can at the time. I can honestly say, I think we worked very, very hard to make the best possible decisions we could at each juncture. It's not one of those things were you have the benefit of knowing where you're going, you don't know for instance weather there's going to be a season seven or a season eight or nine. So you're trying to make the mythology of the show this beautiful, organic, novelistic thing, it becomes very difficult because you keep having to add chapters that weren't anticipated. When you're doing mythology, as many other series have found out since, as Chris has said, 'when you stumble, you fall'. It's a very narrow tightrope; I think we managed to stay standing much more often than we stumbled.
Matt: Thank you for doing this.
Frank: My pleasure. Thank you.
Neither of us realized it during our interview, but Mr. Spotnitz helped to indirectly answer my question about the process of how inspiration works, through his breakdown and pitch of his new show, The Night Stalker. If anything I think he helped to validate my suspicion that the spark of an idea, develops out of a collection of isolated, unrelated experiences that subconsciously connect. Thus ideas, especially great creative ideas, arrive from refinement and working them out. They often arrive slowly and when the artist is the most receptive to them. I suppose that the term 'genius' could apply to anyone who has been able to consistently come up with great ideas. Mr. Spotnitz's candor should be comforting to any aspiring artist or writer, it's never an easy road to write original material, most creative people are, usually, good at what they do, sometimes great, and on a very rare occasion, brilliant. In many respects, writing is guesswork, you have to listen to your instincts, usually a story will tell you what it needs, if you are honest with your creative instincts, you will arrive at the correct direction to go in the telling of the tale. In this respect, Mr. Spotnitz's work demonstrates this creative ethic, which is all that a writer can hope for.
Additional thanks must go out to Alec Rosenberg for technical advice.
* Spec: An industry term meaning that if a writer finishes his own screenplay outside the studio system, and if it isn't assigned by the studio, then sends it to the studios for consideration, that is considered a 'spec script'.
** Milagro (6x18) was an episode that appeared in the sixth season. In defense of Mr. Spotnitz, it's quite easy for series writers, who have worked on long running shows, to lose track of the chronology of episodes written.
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