SANTA MONICA, CA – No two iconic television series share the same Origin Story, but chances are good that a great series started with a terrific script that numerous people felt passionate enough about to do their best work to see that script fully realized.
Each genesis begins in an entirely unique way because if there’s one maxim that holds true in Hollywood, it’s That No One Knows Anything.
You’d never guess that The X-Files, a mythology-laden conspiracy theory show about government cover-ups, owes a debt of gratitude to a completely unheralded NBC series called Rags to Riches, a show about cute orphans.
(By all means, google this show as it’s one of the credits that helped then-lower level writer Chris Carter get his modest overall deal at 20th Century Fox Television in the early ‘90s. Carter, a former editor of Surfing magazine, had also written an unproduced pilot script about LA surfers which had great dialogue that had gotten him a lot of attention. Carter had written about something he knew inside and out: Surf culture.)
Peter Roth, then-president of 20th, had just joined the studio from Stephen J. Cannell Productions, the indie company best-known for shows like Greatest American Hero, 21 Jump Street, and The A-Team.
And, Yours Truly was Roth’s Executive Assistant at the time. I enjoyed a Bird’s Eye View of the birth of such trendsetters as The X-Files. As all assistants and former assistants know, I was the first person in the office in the morning and also the last person to leave the studio each night.
Why is that important, you might well ask?
Well, for one very good reason: Assistants are the first people to read scripts. As such, I was the first person to discuss every new script with Roth each day. We both loved The X-Files pilot script from the very first draft.
(Note: Roth is now President of Warner Bros. TV, the industry leader in television production.) Peter Roth: #73 On THR’s 100 Most Powerful In Entertainment
With a modest budget dedicated to overall deals, Roth had to juggle major players like Steven Bochco (LA Law, NYPD Blue) with less expensive and lesser-known writers such as Carter, who had yet to make a pilot or to run a show.
Once the studio signs a writer to an overall deal, the writer is set up with an office on the Lot and then comes in to meet the President and his development team. This is a general meeting designed to talk about what’s working on television and also, what the networks say they are looking to develop, and most importantly, what subjects the writer is most passionate about discussing.
For Roth and Carter, their common denominator and collegial bond was that they were both fans of Television. And a major talking point from that first general meeting was a discussion of What’s Not On Television.
At that time, the answer was Horror. Enter Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Both Roth and Carter were fans of that late-night series starring Darrin McGavin as a sleuth embroiled in creepy noir-ish stories.
(Note: Carter just paid homage to McGavin in the recent re-boot of X-Files in an episode written by Darin Morgan.)
So, Carter goes back to his bungalow and comes up with three ideas to pitch the Studio at his next meeting. Here, Roth and his D-team listen to Carter’s ideas and, based on their knowledge of each of the network’s needs, are able to say to Carter: That romantic idea sounds great for ABC. That FBI show would be great for Fox.
That year, Carter and 20th sold two pilot scripts: one to ABC (which did not move forward from script stage) and one to FOX, which of course, was The X-Files, a drama about two FBI agents, one a UFO Believer partnered with a Skeptic, who investigated cases dealing with the Paranormal.
However, FOX was not keen on The X-Files at script stage.
The head of drama development at the time was Bob Greenblatt, who was not initially a fan. (Note: Greenblatt is now Chairman of NBC Entertainment and doing a bang-up job there.) Bob Greenblatt: #33 on THR’s 100 Most Powerful in Entertainment
The X-Files sat at or very near the bottom of the network’s Pile of Pilot Scripts, but Roth would not be deterred. He knew that distinctive script deserved to be ordered to pilot because there was no show on television like it. Carter wrote a good script, but it was Roth’s passion for it and strength as a salesman that kept it in the ballgame during script development season that year.
(Note to Writers: A great studio exec is like having a terrific downfield blocker helping you bypass all hurdles in order to score a touchdown. Do not underestimate their value to you in the creative process.)
My personal contribution to The X-Files pilot script is giving the note that inspired its fabulous ending. Originally, the story just ended after the central alien abduction mystery was left unsolved even though Mulder and Scully obtained physical evidence of an alien nasal implant in an abductee.
My note to Carter was that the script needed a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type super dramatic ending, where the evidence was boxed up and secreted away in a vault full of other secrets just as the Ark of the Covenant had been boxed up and secreted away in a government warehouse. Remember how the crate was wheeled down an aisle a mile-long filled with similar crated secrets? I loved it!
Carter sparked to my note and came back with a powerful ending that would also create one of the show’s most memorable characters, The Cigarette Smoking Man (aka, CSM) played by Canadian actor Bill Davis.
In the final scene of the original pilot of The X-Files, the alien implant is boxed up and taken to a room by CSM who walks it down a hallway that is revealed to be a labyrinth of shelved evidence from other cases. Davis has no lines in the pilot. He’s just smoking and looking sinister.
Cue: Music sting as CSM shuts the door to the evidence room revealing a sign that says property of the US Government: Government Conspiracy concealing evidence of alien abduction!
That ending showed the network execs at FOX where the series could go: Other secrets. Other stories. Other mysteries. Carter had done something special: The audience was one step ahead now of Mulder & Scully. He invested the audience with the information that Mulder & Scully were definitely onto something!
The script was now a certifiable winner.
Gradually, the script for The X-Files moved up the Pile of Pilot Scripts commissioned by FOX as Roth kept selling Greenblatt on its potential.
Passion matters, folks. Carter’s script and Roth’s creative investment in that script fueled the passion that led to a pilot production order.
Once a script is ordered to pilot, the studio D-team shares it with three very integral departments: Production. Casting. Legal.
Everyone reads the script, and when a script really works as Carter’s did for The X-Files, everyone gets excited to make the pilot, and in doing so, contributes their creativity and best work. This happened to an absurd degree on The X-Files.
Charlie Goldstein, the head of production at 20th, read the script and knew that Vancouver was the place to go to shoot all those night scenes in heavily wooded areas. He hired all the below-the-line crew in Canada and was responsible for the signature look of the show which included a lot of night shoots in rainy Vancouver and creepy scenes in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.
He also was instrumental in hiring Shirley Walker to score the pilot, and it is her theme music which remains iconic. You know from the first few strains of her theme music that it’s The X-Files.
Roth and Carter then zeroed in on Rob Bowman to direct the pilot.
Next, the script was sent to Casting. The head of casting at 20th was Randy Stone (who would later go on to produce the Oscar-winning short film, Trevor, that would inspire the launch of The Trevor Project, a global philanthropy that helps gay teens avoid suicide).
Randy Stone brought in David Duchovny who was best known for his supporting turn as a transvestite FBI agent on Twin Peaks. Duchovny won the role of Fox Mulder, but casting his female partner was proving to be difficult as the network wanted a voluptuous babe-type actress. The problem was that those babes couldn’t make lines like “Mulder, I’m a medical doctor!” believable.
Can you imagine Heather Locklear as Scully? A few execs at FOX could.
Here, Randy Stone’s personal passion for Carter’s script fueled his determination to see unknown actor Gillian Anderson win the part of Dr. Dana Scully. Anderson had a Punk look back then which did not appeal to the network, but her intelligent reading of the script’s challenging science and medical dialogue won her the part in the end.
Again, Passion counts. Television is a collaborative medium. Success depends on not just a great script but a team effort and enthusiasm for that script which included the attorneys in Business Affairs who make the deals for everyone from Bowman to Duchovny to Anderson (who was paid less) to Walker, and so on.
Their enthusiasm led by department head Gary Newman (now Chairman of Fox Entertainment running both the network and the studio) for the project fueled their own creativity to find ways to make deals and lay the groundwork for a good show that the studio could afford to make. Gary Newman: #12 on THR’s 100 Most Powerful in Hollywood
The pilot was ordered to series and given a dismal Friday at 9 PM timeslot following the much-heralded new show, The Adventures of Brisco Co. Jr. starring Bruce Campbell. That was the show FOX thought would be the breakout hit.
Instead, it was Brisco Co.’s lead-out, The X-Files, that caught fire and captivated the world because simply, there was no other show on television quite like it.
Timing was Everything, but it all started with a great script from a low-level writer, a script that was ordered to Pilot and then to Series (which ran for 10 seasons) which spawned a spinoff series, two feature films, novelizations, and most recently, a successful re-boot event series that garnered huge ratings and profits for FOX.
People still Want to Believe that The Truth is Out There.
Note: An earlier version of this article was featured on the London Screenwriters Festival Blog. Origin Story: The X-Files For LSF
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