The New York Times
March 10, 1998

'X-Files': Adventure for Directors; Stronger Roles Than Usual in the Shaping of a Series
By James Sterngold

VANCOUVER, British Columbia— It was a deliciously ominous day on the set of "The X-Files" at a studio here, and Kim Manners was busy doing what he excels at: breaking most of the rules of television directing.

The scene was the office of Special Agent Fox Mulder, the F.B.I. sleuth trying to flush out the Government conspiracy to conceal a history of alien abductions, and Mulder (David Duchovny) was talking with his sidekick, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), about his loss of faith in his mission. It was like a thousand other scenes from television dramas, except in this case the wiry, frenetic Mr. Manners had lighted the scene from behind the actors, so the faces for which Fox Broadcasting pays several million dollars a year were obscured by shadows.

Scully had her back to the camera, and her shoulder partly blocked the view of the shabby office. Ms. Anderson, who earlier had been engaged in animated conversation with the crew during cigarette breaks, adopted a monotone for a scene that seemed to drift in a psychological haze. "You look constipated, actually," Scully said to Mulder, who responded, in effect, that it wasn't surprising because his thoughts had been elsewhere. Scully answered, deadpan, "So this isn't just a dietary thing?"

"Cut! Print it!" Mr. Manners shouted. "It's a really dirty shot. Perfect."

"The X-Files" has won accolades for its quirky writing, strong acting, oddball sense of humor and creepy depiction of an unbelievable world made believable, and in the process the one-hour drama has attracted an almost cultlike following. Less well recognized is the role that the directors play in the success of what may be the most expensive series being broadcast today.

Television is generally described as a writer's medium -- in sharp contrast to the movie industry, which venerates the director. On the small screen, the writer-producer dominates the creative process, while the director is decidedly subordinate. For the most part, directors are high-priced freelancers who hop from show to show, remain unknown to the public and execute the orders of producers, using their skills within very narrow parameters.

"In television, your hands are usually tied," said Rob Bowman, one of the directors of "The X-Files." "You have a block of dialogue. You have a format that has been established by somebody else. You're told, 'Don't get in the way of the dialogue.' In my view, you just give up to a life of anonymity as a television director."

But "The X-Files" has taken a different path, using more aggressive directors with strong points of view. That approach has contributed to making each episode of the series almost a separate movie, with distinct cinematic touches.

For one, the show costs about $2.5 million an episode to produce (despite being filmed in Vancouver to save money), an extremely high figure for television dramas. Those sums reflect the exacting standards and high ambitions of the directors, who are provided with all the tools that movie directors would have at their disposal, from expensive cranes to special cameras, helicopters, lots of extras and special effects. In one episode, the crew constructed the conning tower of a nuclear submarine, which was made to rise and then slip beneath the ice of a make-believe Arctic Ocean.

This season, the stakes have been raised even higher. On a recent afternoon, Chris Carter, the show's creator, executive producer and occasional director, took a busload of crew members about 20 miles from Vancouver to a gritty Depression-era dam and bridge where he was planning to bring in a helicopter, fire engines and the cast to film an alien abduction scene -- at night.

After the group figured out how the difficult shot would be done, they drove to a huge industrial building where carpenters were building a full-size model of the bridge to film some difficult portions of the abduction sequence.

Seeing a Similarity To Making Pottery

"You know, when all the debris and stuff is flying up toward the light from the spaceship, I want it to look like this is happening because of the interaction of the light and the ground," Mr. Carter instructed a crew member.

"I'm doing this episode like a piece of pottery," he later explained. (He had studied pottery making before moving first to journalism -- he was an editor at Surfing magazine -- and then to television writing.) "We're going to do a lot of film effects with the camera. We won't know exactly how it'll look until we open it up and have a look. It's just like a kiln. It's a magic box."

The series began, like most television dramas, by shifting from one director to another. Once producers found directors they liked, the episodes were concentrated in their hands. "The X-Files" used 8 directors for the 24 shows of the last season, compared, for instance, with 12 directors for the 22 episodes of "E.R.," television's top-rated drama, which is known for its crisp directing style. More important, "The X-Files" keeps its two most prolific directors, Mr. Manners, 47, and Mr. Bowman, 37, on its staff full time.

Both men have show business backgrounds -- Mr. Bowman's father is also a television director, and Mr. Manners, the son of a television writer, was a child actor -- and both share a passion for using the camera as an active participant in, rather than passive observer of, the unfolding drama.

Mr. Bowman has directed 24 episodes of the show, as well as a feature film based on "The X-Files" that is scheduled for release in early summer as the regular television season ends. Mr. Manners has directed 22 episodes. David Nutter, who has since left the show to work on movies, directed 15 episodes, and Robert W. Goodwin, an executive producer, has directed 8 episodes, usually the first and last of each season.

These regulars share Mr. Carter's dark, moody vision and his interest in making each episode a distinct film rather than just another link in a chain of episodes. That trend has grown more pronounced this year because, as Mr. Carter admitted, the directors have been given even more freedom to interpret the show's noirish style and introduce humorous touches.

This sense of fun has become another hallmark of "The X-Files," often lightening up a show that otherwise might be unbearably bleak.

Earlier this season, Mr. Carter directed "The Post-Modern Prometheus," an episode shot in black and white that transformed several visits to a spooky diner into scenes straight out of Fellini. The episode won him a nomination for a television directing award from the Directors' Guild.

'A Very Big Canvas' For Doing a Show

In another episode, Mr. Manners took three conspiracy theorists, a group known as the Lone Gunmen, and in a moment of confrontation huddled them together in a slick tableau drawn precisely from the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which Dorothy and her friends cower before the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Chris gives us a very big canvas, a big playground to play on with this show," Mr. Manners said. "I came here a very good director, and I've become a very good filmmaker. I've become a storyteller. I'm still growing as a director."

The regular directors say they are both collegial and competitive. In their efforts to be original and deliver emotional impact, the camera is transformed by the directors into another character in the drama with a distinct, if sometimes warped, personality.

"Oh, we steal from each other all the time," Mr. Goodwin said. "I'll call one of those guys if I have a question or a problem. We all help each other. But the truth is, I'll watch these guys' dailies and I'll get jealous. It just makes me try harder."

If there is an "X-Files" signature, it is darkness. Mr. Bowman calls it subtractive lighting, using shadows rather than a spotlight to underscore the threatening quality of this reality.

"What this is about for me is that your fate is to lose," Mr. Bowman said. "The alien aspect is just a metaphor for the mistrust of the Government, about our isolation. The subtractive lighting isolates the viewer. There is the inevitable doom that seems to be waiting for you. You'll never figure out the conspiracy. That's what the camera is leading the audience to understand."

And each director has a signature. Mr. Goodwin likes shots in which the camera looks directly down on a scene. Mr. Manners likes cameras that are close to the ground, looking up at the action. Mr. Bowman is known for putting cameras right into the teeth of the action, sometimes at the front of speeding cars, a practice that has resulted in the destruction of several cameras.

And each deals with the actors a little differently. "Rob tends to get more into the psychology behind the scene," Ms. Anderson said. "He talks to you but then focuses on what the camera is doing. Kim is more energetic. He keeps at you and at you to get things to happen just in the way he wants them. He also works out a lot of it beforehand."

An Overall Effect Of Understatement

Mr. Carter said there had been a long process of fine-tuning the styles so the overall effect was understatement. "He understood about making it dark," Mr. Carter said of Mr. Bowman. "He had this reputation of going around the set turning off lights. That's been tempered a bit."

"Kim has this 'it's going to be the greatest day in television' speech he gives before shooting sometimes," he added. "He's got a lot of energy. He loves to move the camera. At the beginning, we had to handcuff him a little. But he understands storytelling, and that's how he uses the camera now."

For Mr. Manners, the distinctive directing is not just a nice element, but essential to making the whole premise behind the show believable. "This show is about emotional reality rather than dramatic reality," he said. "That's why, if this show hadn't been done well, we would have been laughed off the air a long time ago.

"I mean, some of the shows are pretty far out there. You're asking Mulder and Scully in one episode to take seriously a man who supposedly can regenerate all his limbs. That's why you have to make the emotions real. That's what people come back for."