On the eve of its final episode, The X-Files' creators and stars take a fond look back at the early years of TV's mesmerizing cult sensation.
By Mike Flaherty
As they prepare to turn off the flashlights for the last time, The X-Files' prime movers are typically closemouthed about its two-hour May 19 series finale, aptly titled "The Truth." "There's a sense of a perfect circle, coming ack and completing the promise of what the first two episodes suggested," says the show's creator, Chris Carter. In other words, expect the return of David Duchovny's FBI agent Fox Mulder, as well as a gallery of the show's favorite conspiratorial costars (Cancer Man included–smoking out of one side of his, uh, neck) and cataclysmic subplots. Making an almost clandestine Friday-night debut on Sept. 10, 1993, X immediately became the still-fledgling Fox network's premier drama. By season 4, its groundswell of success–and the burgeoning sexy-smart superstardom of Duchovny and costar Gillian Anderson (Agent Dana Scully)–prompted a move to highly competitive Sunday night. Far from faltering, the former cult oddity proceeded to crack Nielsen's top 10, earn small fortunes for its creators and network, and, perhaps most significantly, turn apocalyptic paranoia into mainstream family fun. Although its gorgeous, terrifying vision never garnered the Emmy appreciation it deserved, The X-Files became a global phenom, spawning a slew of inferior imitators as well as an eponymous movie franchise (Carter expects to begin shooting the second X feature in summer 1003). In the wake of its latter-day ratings drop-off and Duchovny's exit, Carter and Co. Introduced X's next generation, bringing Anderson front and center and adding a pair of gadfly agents–Robert Patrick's John Doggett and Annabeth Gish's Monica Reyes–to the team, all the while keeping the chills and thrills coming. "If I were to sit still for a couple of minutes, I might just feel the weight of the transition that's taking place. I guess I'm choosing on some level not to put myself through that," says Anderson. In that spirit of lovelorn denial, we decided to revisit X's storied beginnings with a cabal of the show's former and current talents, who recall those cold, dark days in the wilds of Vancouver, the origins of TV's most intriguing crime-busting duo, and the episodes most firmly implanted in their brains. Read 'em and weep.
MAKING MULDER AND SCULLY
CARTER I saw at least a hundred people for each part. David was one of the first to come in; Gillian probably auditioned about midway. She came in like a complete ragamuffin, with [casting director] Randy Stone's high hopes. He told me she was a Julliard graduate, which she's not. She was attractive, but also had the gravity to play an FBI agent–yet [one] who was still young enough to be idealistic. And she was a new face. I loved her.
ANDERSON TV didn't interest me at all. I mean when I was in grade school, I watched reruns of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, and I didn't know they were reruns! (I don't know if I've ever admitted that before.) But I was living on unemployment and my agents were [ready to drop me], so I read the pilot script. I had no idea how different The X-Files was, but I thought it was cool, and I loved the intellectual repartee between her and Mulder. I remember borrowing a suit for the audition. Chris called a week later about auditioning for the network, and I borrowed another suit. There were actresses I knew from New York there, Jill Hennessy and Cynthia Nixon.
CARTER The network wasn't sure why I liked Gillian so much, and there was a lot of resistance to her. But I basically staked my career and the project on her, said this is the only person I'm going to go with. I took a page from Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. Gillian wasn't a cookie, and we didn't want a cookie. I didn't want her to be a woman who looked like she got up and the first thing she cared about was "What am I wearing today?"
ANDERSON I wanted to be realistic about Scully. I never paid attention to my look, and, in a way, thank God, because it added to the weird, cryptic nature of the whole thing. She seemed so different [from me] that I really got into the matronly outfits. Seeing them now, I mean, there was a red-and-green plaid jacket that I wore, and all the pleats–ugh! It wasn't until we moved down [to L.A.] that they hired a new designer and started to put Scully into hipper things. At first I was like, "No, no, no!" Then I started to say, "Well, it does look better..."
CARTER I'd seen David's reel before he read for the part. His delivery was kind of slow, a little laconic, and I thought, He's got an interesting quality.
DUCHOVNY Mulder was described as being more MTV VJ than FBI agent. Shows you how old the pilot is. I thought, How do I get this MTV VJ thing without the hair? So I wore a tie with cartoon pigs on it. I tried to program a little irreverence into it. I remember Chris seeing that tie and almost freaking out.
CARTER I said, "You've got to think like an FBI agent." David looked at me, and there was this moment that said, "I know how to play this," and he did.
DUCHOVNY Mulder was driven by intellect, whereas the parts that I was coming from–in The Rapture, and the independent films I'd done–were more sexual. And here's one of the most chaste series of tall time. So, I had a good instinct on this guy being chaste, and yet all the sex was in his head. What was interesting to me was [his] outsider status with an insider look. In [writer] Darin Morgan's scripts he was always poking fun at the insider look, but to me, the pathos of the character...it's like a woman trapped in a man's body.
CARTER It was easy to give Mulder eccentricities, because he was conceived as an eccentric character.
GLEN MORGAN [writer/coexecutive producer] There were a lot of inside jokes. David's not an Elvis fan, so I threw that [obsession] in to annoy him. And he was a good sport to do it. I also [showed him reading Adult Video News] as a joke...
DUCHOVNY But those are just quirks, those aren't character. You can say "sunflower seeds" and "porn" till you're blue in the face, but in the end it's about an attitude. They could have made Mulder interested in gay porn. It all would've worked for me.
CARTER The sunflower seeds came about because I was eating [them] obsessively during the writing of the pilot. The porn came mostly from [Glen] Morgan and [his writing partner James] Wong, who–how can I put this?–had a connoisseurship.
MORGAN Thanks, Chris!
CARTER The funny thing is that we'd all work until the wee hours, then go back to the hotel. They had four channels of porn, and you could watch three minutes for free. Everybody would come back the next day having seen the same porn.
DUCHOVNY Everybody putting so much at stake in Mulder and Scully wasn't happening at this point. The writers hadn't built themselves that prison yet. It was a function of less being more: The more people started to want us to be together, the less it was written to, and that was good. I remember after, like, six episodes, Chris said he wanted [Gillian and I] to go into what amounted to couples' therapy for character actors. He thought we had stopped relating to one another. I thought it was a good idea for a series, and I tole him to f — off.
THE GREAT WET NORTH
ANDERSON Once we'd gotten the job, it was like, "Okay, leave tomorrow." That was a Thursday, and I left for Vancouver on Saturday.
CARTER It was two weeks that became five years, as David says. But Vancouver became a huge part of the show's success. The great thing about it is that it felt foreign–and it was a foreign place to me–which made it seem spooky, a little surreal.
MORGAN It has such a visual stamp. They [originally] wanted to film it in L.A., but down there you have to go 60 miles to Los Padres National Forest, and it just wasn't the right kind of dense, green woods.
DUCHOVNY If I had had more business savvy, I would've thought that we were just doing a crap syndicated show, and we're up in Canada because it's cheap. But I didn't, so it felt fantastic, like this small army going into the jungle to come out with the prize.
TOM BRAIDWOOD [assistant director/Lone Gunman Melvin Frohike] Every week there was some kind of monolithic problem...creating flying saucers, having to build huge cranes with structural steel arms mounted with 30 to 60 lights so that the effects department could paint a saucer around it. Then there was the submarine show ["End Game," episode 40], where we filled a stage with like 25 tons of ice and snow, and they built this huge conning tower that we could raise and lower. It was an amazing experience.
CARTER I would go on every [location scout] to see what the director was going to do. I was intimately involved in wardrobe, with props. I didn't want to leave anything to chance, because I knew that one screwup could sink us. I remember in "Deep Throat" [episode 1] there were signs around Area 51 that were meant to say "Authorized Personnel Only," and somebody had written it Authized, and I was like, "Who the f— can't spell?!" But it's stuff like that that can make the show look shabby. The audience watches very carefully, they expect it to be authentic.
I showed [the pilot] to rick Carter–the production designer for both Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. He said, "Try to do as little as possible, because you're not going to have the time or the money for effects. Hide everything in shadow." It was great budgetary advice and good storytelling advice, because the less you see, the scarier it is.
DAVID NUTTER [director] Imagination doesn't cost anything. Those limitations brought out the best in everybody. The X-Files was one of the first shows where the look and style got people interested before they got involved in the story.
BRAIDWOOD A lot of production happened over the winter. The show was often dependent on night shooting and exteriors. And we didn't really have any place you could go to wait between shots. If it was raining, you just adapted.
MITCH PILEGGI [FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner] If you watch those early episodes, you can see water pouring out of the actors' mouths as they say their dialogue.
ANDERSON They would shovel snow from the grass to make it look like we were in Indiana. They were blowtorching snow off of things. And me, in skirts, in heels, having to walk on ice. And rain, and the rain, and the rain...And when there wasn't rain, we had to force rain, because the preceding scene takes place in the rain! It was un-f—ing-believable.
OF ALIENS AND CIGARETTE-SMOKING MEN
CARTER The idea for a mythology, [the arcing, aliens-will-take-over-the-world plot at the heart of the series] really comes out of the pilot and episode 1 when Deep throat says, "Mr. Mulder, they've been here a long, long time." That opens the door. The next time you really get a good sense of it is with "The Erlenmeyer Flask" [episode 23]. Then I had an idea for a tow-part episode with the alien bounty hunter, which became "Colony" [episode 39] and "End Game" [episode 40]. About that time [exec producer] Frank Spotnitz came aboard. He wrote the second half of the two-parter, and that's when the mythology became really important.
DEAN HAGLUND [Lone Gunman Richard "Ringo" Langly] It was the concept of an enemy without. In fact, one of the producers said how after 1990, after the Berlin Wall came down, we seemed to no longer have enemies, and here was a show that developed an enemy outside our regular channels. I thought it was cool how it captured that zeitgeist.
CARTER I remember the guy who was head of drama at the [network] would say, "You've got to wrap up these stories." And I said, "You can't put handcuffs on the aliens and throw them in jail at the end." "But people are not going to feel satisfied." "Trust me, they are." We ran that game for a long time. I guess it was a gamble, but I just felt if you did a good enough story, made it a thrill ride, that the audience would come with you. The amazing thing is, not only did the audience come with us, you could do a comic episode written by Darin Morgan [the circus freaks of "Humbug," episode 43, for example] and come back and do a mythology episode on the heels of it, and the audience would love it. I realize the franchise was very elastic.
ANDERSON When "Humbug" came, it was like "Oh, my God, is this the same show? What is this?" And it was such a ball–like we were on vacation!
DUCHOVNY Chris has never been that comfortable with the humor, but Darin, his brother [Glen] Morgan, and [James] Wong were. And Vince Gilligan ["Small Potatoes," episode 92] obviously was. It became kind of my fight to make it a certain way. I didn't want it to be wacky, I just wanted these people to be real, and a sense of humor is as real as you can get.
MORGAN Even little jokes were kind of tough. Darin said that when Chris read "Humbug," he said, "It's not that bad, I just don't know what to do with it." And to Chris's credit, they shot it. And I think that's another real pivotal episode. Our first monster episode, "Squeeze" [episode 2, about a human-liver-loving mutant], also allowed the show to open up. Up until then, everyone at Fox thought The X-Files was going to be UFO-of-the-week.
DUCHOVNY "Ice" [episode 7, in which the agents are stranded at an arctic outpost fighting a killer virus] was important, and probably my favorite from season 1. It was the first time the characters went in another direction. Morgan and Wong wrote a really fun, scary script.
HAGLUND "Beyond the Sea" [episode 12] and "Ice" really gave a sense of the show's potential.
MORGAN People will deny it, but [during the first season] they thought Gillian was not up to David's snuff. There was "Fire" [episode 11, about a pyromaniac], with Amanda Pays, and Chris was taking a look to see if maybe [Pays] should replace her. [But] James and I thought Gillian was terrific. She just didn't have anything to do. So we wrote "Beyond the Sea" to show what she was capable of.
CARTER David got all the attention early on, and Gillian felt a little overwhelmed by that. Also, Mulder got to crack wise, and it always seemed at her expense.
MORGAN One, David is funny and charismatic, but two, Mulder is the believer, so he was more interesting. Scully always seemed like a wet blanket: "Oh, Mulder, you're crazy."
ANDERSON I was supposed to walk a few paces behind him. That was how we were directed! It wasn't until the crew, I think, kept on saying "You know, Mulder's always right" that I went, "Yeah, why is Mulder always right?!" I was clueless.
CARTER I always resisted "domesticating" the show. I didn't want to know about the characters' personal lives. Well, [in "Beyond the Sea"] Morgan and Wong robbed the store: They killed off Scully's father, but they also beautifully switched the roles. Scully became the believer, and Mulder the skeptic.
MORGAN Nobody [at Fox] thought The X-Files would last, that it would do 13 episodes and get canceled. They really thought [The Adventures of] Brisco County, Jr. was going to be the big hit.
CARTER But our first-year success was good, by Fox standards. We were never on the bubble [in danger of being canceled].
ANDERSON There was a time when I started reading the letters and people were saying "You saved my life," or interviewers would say that Scully was a role model for young women. It stroked my ego for about five minutes before I thought, I don't know if I can handle this. I always felt that they were talking about Scully, it had nothing to do with me. But the more I started to talk about her character traits–how honest she was, how passionate about doing the right thing–the more I took cues from the way she handled herself.
DUCHOVNY I liked it better when we were the butt of jokes, and not TV stars. When the show became popular, the writers lost sight of that fact, and all of a sudden Mulder walks into a room, or Scully starts barking orders, and everybody hops to. And I'd say, "Nobody listens to Scully! And everybody laughs at Mulder! Don't listen to Mulder! Make fun of Mulder! And don't light him so well...but don't light him so badly, either."
CARTER When the net came to me in  and said,"We're going to move the show to Sunday night," I said, "Don't do it." My fear was that the cult of Friday-night television was going to rebel. Little did I know that you could take a cult show and make it a mainstream cult show.
Now that we're doing the last episode...every time you have a production meeting, it's the last production meeting, and there's a little lump in your throat. Then there's a casting session, and you get a little lump in your throat.... I don't think I'll actually feel anything until I'm some ways away from it.