Keeping Austin Weird

I am writing this from the airport in Austin, Texas, with the prospect of a long overnight haul back over the Atlantic to London. This weekend has been worth every mile of that journey. The Austin Film Festival was as vibrant and fascinating as the town itself, with the highlight being the featured appearances by Chris Carter.

Carter was the recipient of the festival’s Outstanding Television Writer Award, which was presented to him during the Awards Luncheon by Robert Patrick, in town for a flying visit just to make the presentation. This was swiftly followed by A Conversation with Chris Carter, a 75-minute panel moderated by self-confessed fan, Lost’s Damon Lindelof, at the opulent Driskill Hotel.

The panel comprised a fascinating discussion, and Carter was relaxed, considered and candid in his responses to questions from both Lindelof and the audience of the packed ballroom, where your correspondent was lucky enough to have a front row seat for proceedings. Carter spoke of how he started out as a writer, also revealing how an early job as a production potter was, in a sense, good preparation for producing television on a tight schedule. During the course of this part of the discussion, he cited the perhaps unlikely early influence of Nancy Drew, alongside that of Sherlock Holmes, mentioning Murder by Decree as an early filmic influence ahead of his later screening of that movie. (For anyone interested in exploring the links between Conan Doyle and Carter’s work, look no further than Fourth Horseman Press publisher’s Brian A. Dixon’s excellent essay—“Second Sight: Profiling, Prophecy, and Deductive Reasoning in Chris Carter’s Millennium”— in Back to Frank Black.)

Asked to offer advice to aspiring writers—of which there were many taking notes in the audience—he spoke of nuclear physicist Hans Bethe. When working complex mathematical theory, Bethe would never let his pen leave the paper if he got stuck, instead sitting and contemplating the problem until he found a way forward. Chris said that writers should follow the same approach, never disengaging from their work until they were done. That’s great advice, and he complemented it by adding that Bethe also took a forty-five minute bath every morning, to allow the solutions to problems that his brain had been processing in his sleep to come to the fore. Summing up, he said, “Keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard.”

Naturally, many of the questions focussed upon The X-Files. Carter spoke generously of the influence of his creative team, including that of Glen Morgan and James Wong on the use of 3×5 cards in plotting episodes, and in particular singling out Frank Spotnitz as his key collaborator in plotting the series’ complex mythology. He cited Season Two’s “Colony”/“End Game” two-parter as key in the creative team learning just what they could do with the mythology, and Season One finale “The Erlenmeyer Flask” as being a highlight to him in terms of those mythology-based episodes. Carter commented that he had the movie JFK—another key influence—playing in the background as he wrote that script. Speaking further about the episode he revealed how a fan letter influenced a key component of the storyline, whilst adding that he uses his gut choosing what advice to take onboard and what to throw away, drawing a distinction between the “shrill voice” and the “smart voice” of fandom! Ultimately he attributes the success of the series to two things: the writing, and the performances of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, noting that they brought such depth to the characters of Mulder and Scully. Asked about the prospect of a reboot he described any such attempts as “sacrilege” to him and, whilst he could offer no news on progress for a third X-Files movie, he said he has a “big idea” for the film and re-asserted that the storyline would represent a finale for the series’ mythology.

A number of questions were also posed on Millennium. He re-asserted how he got his first choice in casting Lance Henriksen as Frank Black—benefitting at the time from his increased influence with the Fox network given the success of The X-Files—and how the character was written specifically for his voice. Asked what scares him, he responded that it is the same as what scares everybody, including “the fear of a violent death”. And on conspiracy as a common theme in his productions, he spoke of how he is a child of Watergate and how this informs his work. In a response to a question on religion and the place of television in a more secular culture, he spoke of how television is now at the heart of modern American—and world—culture.

My own question to Chris was to ask, given recent news on some new series for which he has been seeking distribution alongside his interest in further big screen outings for both The X-Files and Millennium, what interests him the most creatively. This prompted a revelation that he is currently working on a new series with Showtime on a subject completely new to him, and that he was asked to write it. He stated his script is in its third draft and is receiving great feedback, but he was too superstitious to say any more at this stage of development! Asked about what the freedom of a cable channel like HBO or Showtime might have brought to The X-Files, he explained the restrictions of network television made him and the team into better writers and voiced a concern that broader language in particular would have taken something away from the purity of the series and its lead characters. Speaking about his return to writing now, he explained that after ten years of continuous output he had wanted to take some time away but is ready now to take a step back into the business. In terms of what interests him creatively, his direct response to the question was that it was whatever stretches him.

Carter also revealed what he is watching and enjoying right now: The Wire and Breaking Bad, being sure to give huge credit to Vince Gilligan in the process. He also gave a very specific shout-out to Frank Spotnitz’s new series Hunted, which had made its U.S. debut on Cinemax the previous evening, and said how thrilled he was that the series had made it to the screen.

After the panel came to a close, it was time to hot-foot it a few blocks to the Austin Convention Center for screenings of Millennium’s “Pilot” followed by The X-Files Emmy Award-winning classic “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”. The two instalments made a great double-bill—given the intuitive investigative procedures on display in both—and looked great up on the big screen. It was interesting and a little surprising to hear that even the occasional dry wit of Millennium’s first episode drew laughs from the audience. The screenings were followed by another Q&A session, and here there was much more talk about Millennium. Carter spoke about “real world psychology” as the series’ heart and the complexities of its stories and characters, complications that at times worked against it in retrospect. In answer to a question on the episode’s strong content, he spoke of how he was aiming for a “super-creepy” tone in “Pilot”. Then, in response to a direct question about a potential return for Frank Black, he was quick to mention both the Back to Frank Black campaign and Fourth Horseman Press’s publication of the book—including a shout-out for your correspondent and co-editor in the audience!—and once again asserted that he would love to return to the character if Fox had the appetite to support the venture. That statement drew some clear voices of approval from the crowd.

It was after this second panel that I was able to grab a few minutes with Chris. He was thrilled to get his hands on a copy of the book, quick to complement Matthew Ingles’s cover art, and noted that he can’t wait to read it. His sharp eye did not miss a trick regarding the name Fourth Horseman Press, which was indeed at least in part inspired by Millennium itself when we launched the venture back in 2003. He was generous, warm and appreciative of the campaign’s ongoing efforts and eager to see how the book can further its cause.

A welcome surprise and bonus later in the day was that Lance Henriksen made it to the festival a couple of days sooner than we had expected him! I caught up with him at a party for his excellent movie It’s in the Blood and forwent any notion of sleep to be there to see him introduce a late night screening too. Even though Lance and Chris were, tantalizingly, on opposite sides of the street to one another at one point, their conflicting schedules precluded a chance for the two to meet up on Saturday evening. A reunion between these two great creative forces behind Millennium may, however, still be on the cards before the duo leave town. As Lance said in the introduction to the screening, “Every time I am in Texas something great happens.”

All in all it has been an excellent and rewarding weekend in Austin, and an important one for both in respect of the book’s journey and the wider Back to Frank Black campaign. Our work continues as we publicize Back to Frank Black‘s release further in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to stay tuned. These are exciting times.

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