Writers Guild of America, west

April 15, 2005

House of Duchovny

"I didn't choose this idea. Ideas choose you. The idea has you and then you have to figure out what the idea wants and how to service the idea."

Written by Denis Faye

While some thespians known for cult science fiction television shows are loath to mention the series that made them famous, David Duchovny has no problem discussing his time as Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files. In fact, he's the first to recognize that acting in and, eventually, writing and directing for a well-constructed show taught him a lot about crafting a solid script.

"After doing a show for 200 episodes or so, the craft of screenwriting kind of becomes instinct," he explains."It just becomes, yeah, this is the flow of good storytelling. This is how you manipulate an audience in a good way. This is how an audience wants to be manipulated."

This instinct played a major role in creating his cinematic writing/directing debut, House of D, the story of a troubled artist who looks to his past to resolve his issues. For Duchovny, while knowing the craft was important, listening to his gut was crucial.

Duchovny took a little time out to discuss both craft and instinct with the WGAw, especially as they apply to House of D, which goes into limited release today.

Although not completely autobiographical, there are bits and pieces of your life in House of D. While writers should write what they know, they're also cautioned against writing about themselves. How did you draw that line?

You draw it with your own instinct and taste. Confession is not usually art unless the life has been outrageous. The art part is taking what you know and turning it into something that makes sense, because life usually doesn't make sense. But art should and movies should. I think we go to movies for an experience different from life itself.

I imagine a lot of filmmakers might not agree that art has to make sense. For example, a lot of films from the '70s just pointed out that life was cruel and didn't make sense.

I don't mean it that way. I think that life can be cruel. But the actual artwork of a movie cannot be as random and open-ended as life. Life is not dramatic, except at points. Warhol shot life -- you know, those movies of a guy sleeping -- and it's boring! Life doesn't have climaxes the way film does. The '70s filmmakers, philosophically, can say whatever they want, but their movies had a dramatic arc. Whether it's cruel or not is neither here nor there for me. It's the arc of the story.

You've commented that this film is fairly sentimental. How did you walk that line between sentiment and saccharin?

I think it's also instinct -- and specificity. What is sentimental, or saccharin, is something that doesn't seem authentic, a variant of something you've seen a thousand times. And what is true sentiment, I think, is specifically observed and that has to do with research and the originality of your characters and your imagery.

For instance, I have kind of a motif in the movie of these cigarettes in a toilet bowl and I always thought "I haven't seen that before and I certainly haven't seen it become a pivotal scene that might bring tears to your eyes." These cigarette butts are the last ruminants of the protagonist's dying mother. So I thought, if I can construct a movie with the kind of specific imagery where a boy scooping cigarette butts out of a toilet bowl can be seen as an act of love, to me that's sentiment.

Sentimental would be the boy finding a letter from his mom and reading it, something like,"Dear Tommy, you'll be old when you get this..." I can't really make it up now because it's bullshit.

It's a fine line, but it's an ambitious line. It's a worthwhile line to try to push because we go to the movies to feel. And how do we make people feel? You have to have sentiment in your film to make them feel.

It's tough to write something that makes an audience feel moved, but not manipulated.

Well, you are manipulating them. That's the point. But you want them to feel that they're getting there themselves. You want them to reach out and embrace the characters. You don't want the characters to come out of the screen and say,"Feel for me! Aren't I pathetic?" And again, I think that's instinct. I don't think you can learn that and I'm sure we all make mistakes from time to time by going too far.

People talk about ambition in filmmaking. I really think that to deal in sentiment is ambitious, the way that Jim Brooks does or Woody Allen sometimes does, as opposed to the virtuosic technical ambition that we so prize in this film society. To me, it's not as interesting. It's not human. I'll sit there and I'll be completely blown away by the technical expertise of what I'm seeing but it just makes me feel small -- I don't connect.

It's interesting when you're forced to tell the story with the actual story and not the bells and whistles of the camera. I think the bells and whistles can be used in service of story, for sure -- but they're no substitute for it.

Did you learn a lot about telling the story when you were writing and directing The X-Files?

A thriller-style show has five acts because you have to ramp it up before the commercial breaks. It's not my instinct to ramp it up. My instinct is character driven, so I really learned a lot about structure and tension that I wouldn't have learned otherwise.

But still, character was the thing on X-Files.

Well, sure, you had the two characters taking you through, but by the time I was directing, they were set. I was given that. Normally, you have to come up with the characters yourself, but I was given the gift of writing for Mulder and Scully, who were great, established characters. With House of D, I had to make them up.

It's a lot harder.

(Laughs) I'll say.

Do you find being an actor has helped you create more meaningful characters?

I don't know. It gives me a sense of what's good to say. It gives me a sense of how dialog establishes a character. The way somebody speaks is really all you have on the page of a screenplay for an actor. You hear the way he speaks and that marks the difference in characters by the flow of their talking. I love writing dialog and making it specific.

House of D is a story within a story, with one story strongly influencing the other -- a really complex task for a first time film writer. Why did you choose that direction?

Again, just like I didn't choose to become known as a science fiction actor, I didn't choose this idea. Ideas choose you. The idea has you and then you have to figure out what the idea wants and how to service the idea. I had the idea. I had the House of D. I had the images from my neighborhood of a character like Pappass, I had a school like that school. From there, I just took off and tried to write the story. It was all in service of the idea, so I just followed it wherever it wanted to go.

You keep mentioning inspiration and following your instinct. Do you find that these things sometimes butt heads with the craft and sticking to a structure?

They may, but the hard work of writing is to make a marriage between those two things. I think it's wrong to try to start with structure. At least for me it is. I start with character. I start with a voice. I start with an image even. For me, it was the image of a woman locked in a prison high above a New York City street teaching a boy how to dance with a pole beneath her. I start with that, I don't start with,"On page 37, there has to be a turn," because I don't even know what I'm talking about at that point.

For me, once I've outlined a little bit and I've got my first draft, then I play with the flow of the story. You play with the ups and the downs and you try to bring the structure to it. And I think structure isn't inorganic. I think we respond to the three-act structure because it's in our genes, so it's always a good thing to go there. Sometimes a story won't go there and in that case, you can't make it happen. Some stories refuse to play fair.

Should those stories be told as films?

I don't know. I think I broke this down into three acts. I approached it that way after a while. I think you'll find that any good story naturally falls into three acts. The knowledge of structure can also be an aid. I think that structure's out there because it's an aid. You'll probably get there naturally, but if you don't, you can try to play around with it and make it fit and I think that structure can make it better.