By Joe Nazzaro, From The X-Files Magazine - Issue #2 (March 2002)
One of the most important qualities a scriptwriter can have is an understanding of where their strengths lie, and what their limitations are. Vince Gilligan's candor on the subject is one of the reasons why this interview was selected for inclusion. Special Thanks to Megan at the XF Road runners website for her transcription.
Long-time X-Files writer/executive producer Vince Gilligan chats to Joe Nazzaro about the future of the show, his personal favorite X-Files episodes, the cancellation of The Lone Gunmen, and much, much more.
For the better part of a decade now, writer/executive producer Vince Gilligan has been trying to push the envelope as far as what could be done with an X-Files episode. Hungry came from the idea of telling a story completely from the bad guy's point of view; the groundbreaking X-Cops is a letter-perfect homage to the pseudo-reality show Cops, right down to the cheesy production values and bizarre camera angles; and Bad Blood managed to combine Rashomon-style flashbacks with a goofy vampire parody.
Gilligan began writing for The X-Files with Soft Light at the end of Season Two, eventually landing a staff position and working his way up the show's production hierarchy. His episodes range from the terrifying (Unruhe, Paper Hearts) to the comedic (Small Potatoes, the aforementioned Bad Blood). More recently, his time has been divided between script rewrites on The X-Files and working on the short-lived spin-off series The Lone Gunmen, the unexpected cancellation of which still dismays and puzzles him to this day.
This season, Gilligan has written the psychological thriller John Doe, and is preparing to write and direct episode 18, the first time he's directed for the series since Season Seven's Je Souhaite. And finally, he'll be teaming up with fellow staff writers Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban to tie up some of the threads from The Lone Gunmen, which means the next several weeks are going to be rather busy. Just before sitting down to write episode 18 (a story he couldn't reveal), Gilligan sat down to talk about his work on the series...
Do you find the current season easier to write because you've got new characters and situations to work with, or is it more difficult without the Mulder/Scully dynamic ?
In some ways it's easier, and more difficult in others. It's easier to come up with new ideas and new situations to put our two new characters in, by virtue of the fact that they've been in so few episodes compared to Mulder and Scully. And it's challenging and exciting to come up with ideas for them because they're such interesting and original characters as far as I'm concerned. I absolutely love the character of John Doggett, and the way Robert Patrick plays him. The same goes for Annabeth Gish who plays Monica Reyes. They're two very unique characters, and they have, in my mind, a lot of striking differences from Mulder and Scully, so it's great fun to write for them. On the other hand, with every X-Files episode we write, that's one less idea that we can no longer go to when it's time to come up with another episode. So it gets trickier with every episode we write, to come up with something new plot-wise, but on the other hand, yes, it's easier in a sense to write the new characters.
Do you think the X-Files concept is strong enough in Season Nine without Mulder and Scully?
I believe so. I know for a fact that there are many fans who would disagree with that, but in my mind, the basic idea of The X-Files is more than sound enough with a different cast. Provided the two new characters are just as strong and interesting as the old ones were, that is. At the end of the day, I think the show can be just as interesting with a new set of characters.
Is it easier concentrating your energies as a writer on just one show right now ?
To my mind, the only good thing about The Lone Gunmen being cancelled is that we have half the work to do this year. Last year was the roughest single year I've had working on this show, because we were doing double duty on every-thinking, "Boy, I don't want to get cancelled, but how the heck are we going to do this again next season?" Fox solved that problem for us very abruptly by canceling the series, and I can't tell you how disappointed I was. I enjoyed the show and its characters, and truly loved writing for it. Having said all that, I don't know how we would have got through another year, because if we'd been doing it this year, we would have had 20-22 episode order, and we barely got through 13.
Why do you think the Lone Gunmen show didn't catch on ?
That's the question I've asked myself every day, because I'd love to know the answer. Maybe this was a show that had a specific time it should have come out and we missed that window. I don't know what that window would have been, but I've got to think there was enough interesting plots and humor, and the characters were likeable and noble enough. In my mind, and I'm the most biased person you can ask, my thing was always, what's not to love? Maybe there wasn't enough sex or sexiness or something. Maybe three guys hanging out together in a basement, maybe people need more romance; I don't know what it is.
Tell us little bit about your latest episode, John Doe.
This episode went through a lot of permutations, and wound up being a story about memory loss and amnesia. It's about a character who can suck people's memories right out of their head. In the teaser, Agent Doggett wakes up in this abandoned warehouse, where a crack addict is trying to steal the sneakers right off this feet. Doggett chases this guy out in a very bright landscape that turns out to be a Mexican border town, where Doggett promptly gets arrested, and we realise that our hero has absolutely no memory of who he is or he got here.
The bulk of the episode is about Doggett trying to remember who he is and falling in with some characters who lead him to believe it's probably in his best interests to lay low and not to go back to the US where he imagines he's from. It's a different sort of episode. At the heart of it, the one little glimmer of a memory that keeps coming back to Doggett is something to do with a little boy who comes and wakes him. He imagines this little boy is his son, and that's the emotional part of the episode, because as fans of the show know, Doggett lost his several years before he joined the X-Files unit, so that's the key to him getting his memory back.
So it's more of a psychological piece?
There's a fair bit of action to it, but it's definitely a psychological piece, and not your standard X-Files. It was interesting to write, because the teaser and the entire first act is just Doggett in Mexico. We're wondering the world, but it takes until act two for us to catch up with our other heroes in Washington and see what's going on there. I always like to try and construct a different kind of structure, and John Doe is a different kind of story.
What made you decide you wanted to direct again this season?
I feel like I've been lucky my whole life in that I've always knows what I wanted to do, even since I was a third grader. I always wanted to make movies, and in my mind, I wanted to do everything - I wanted to write and direct them, I wanted to do the special effects and make the costumes, and all these years later, I've been very lucky to have seen that dream fulfilled. Writing is a wonderful career, and I feel very blessed to get to do it, but I wanted to try directing as well. The first time I directed (on Je Souhaite), my plate was already full, and I was really nervous. In the back of my head, I thought, "Maybe I should call this off, what if I screw this up terribly and waste 20thCentury Fox's money ? What if everyone just thinks I'm a fool and completely screw me up ?" But something kept me going, and I guess it was the self knowledge that if I didn't take this golden opportunity when I had it, I would forever be looking back and kicking myself in the butt for not having at least tried and failed. Now that I've done it, I've still got so much to learn, and that's one of the reason I want to do it again.
So you've taken some lessons on board from that experience, which you'll be using when writing and directing?
Yes, and hopefully I can come up with something good. I've got a bit of an idea, but I really need to nail it down, because the clock is ticking and I need to get going on that script. I'm hoping to get going on that one sooner than later so I have time to polish it and make it the way I want it. That's always our concern, are we going to have enough time? Somehow it always works out, although there's a lot of nervousness and a lot of ulcer-causing stress related to this job, but I guess we wouldn't have it any other way.
Are you looking forward to tying up the threads from The Lone Gunmen later this season?
As I said, I was so disappointed when it was cancelled, and I want to do right by the fans and the characters, so I hope we do it justice. It's so hard to wrap something up perfectly in just 42 minutes and 26 seconds, which is all the time we have in an episode, but I hope we do a good job. I really don't want to disappoint anybody, including us, and I don't want to disappoint Bruce or Dean or Tom, our three Lone Gunmen, because all three of them are great guys, as are Steven Snedden (Jimmy Bond) and Zuleikha Robinson (Yves Harlow). All five of them are wonderful actors, and wonderful people to work with, so I hope we don't disappoint them either.
What do you look on as your strengths as a writer on The X-Files?
Well, I can tell you where my strengths don't lie. I definitely don't have a facility for the mythology episodes. There was only one that I was actually involved in as a writer, and that was the quasi-mythology episode, "Momento Mori". I'll be honest, I love watching the mythology episode, but I watch them as a fan. I don't have that much to do with them. They're a different kind of story-telling, and a very good kind, but one I don't feel particularly equipped for. If I had strength on the show, it would be for the stand-alone episodes that don't deal with the mythology or the over-arcing mythology of the series. That would be both my strength is the actual sitting down and writing of an episode. I say that because we as producers have a lot different hats to wear during the course of production on an episode. We have to come up with a story and beat it out brick by brick before anyone starts writing. And then we have to cast the episode and edit it and listen to the music, give input into the visual FX producers, and all of these things are part and parcel of our job. I feel like I've learned a lot about those aspects, but I guess my strength lies in actually taking a finished 'board' - which is the hashed-out beat by beat plot of the story - and turning it into a finished script. If I have a strength, that's where it lies.
Looking back over the many episodes you've written for the series, are there any particular favorites that come to mind?
That's a good question. The truth is, I don't really have a favorite. I've never been the kind of person who had a favorite food or soft drink or a favorite anything. I don't know why, but I've never been able to pare anything down to one favorite, and that goes for the episodes I've written. As far as episodes I've written but just enjoyed as a viewer, I'd be hard-pressed to say which one is my favorite.
Do you have a shortlist?
Of mine? Well, Bad Blood, Pusher, Paper Hearts, Hungry, Je Souhaite just because it was so much fun, along with X-Cops. One that I was actually really proud of is Folie a Deux, which I don't think was as enjoyed by the fans as I would have hoped, but to this day is still one of my favorites.
Any you'd like to forget?
I feel very fortunate in that the episodes I've worked on or rewritten, there are some I'm not as proud of. But I can honestly say there's not a single episode of this series that I would abscond with and bury in the middle of the woods. I'm just so proud to be a part of this series that was great before I got here, and to this day, nine years later, is still great. It was a show I was a fan of before I ever had anything to do with it, and I'd still be a fan of it today if I'd never joined the staff. I think it's a strong show regardless of anything I ever did, but I'm also proud of what I've done while here as well. I'm very proud of this show, and I'm biased I'll admit, but I hope it's going to have a place in TV history.
Special thanks again to Megan and Please visit Megan's excellent site: XF Roadrunners