Lexicon Exclusive

"Co-Conspirators"

The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Alex Gansa.
Conducted by Matt Allair (05/08/2012).
Page Editor: XScribe

The following interview is fairly historic for The X-Files Lexicon. While Mr. Gansa participated in The Complete X-Files book, there have been lengthy periods when Mr. Gansa didn't seem accessible in relation to other X-Files crew alumni. As a result, Mr. Gansa has remained an enigma and held a kind of intrigue for some fans, which seems fitting when you consider the canon of the series. Yet as the writing partner of Howard Gordon in the first season, he played a vital role in shaping the foundation for the series, a role that other writers would have to follow, so his part was no less important indeed.

Since his amicable departure from the show, Alex, a fellow graduate of Princeton with Howard, went on to create or co-write a number of iconic or memorable television programs - Maximum Bob, Dawson's Creek, Wolf Lake, Numb3rs, and Entourage, before participating in the iconic 24, and developing Homeland. Not withstanding his early breaks on Beauty and the Beast, and Spencer: For Hire.

The journey that lead to this interview began many months earlier when Howard Gordon graciously contacted me to Alex's assistant, Charlotte Stoudt, which lead to connecting with Lisa James. Both graciously helped arrange the following interview. I found Alex to be approachable, candid, modest, easy-going, and gracious (adjectives I realize are commonly used when describing past X-Files alumni). The interview proceeded as follows...

Matt Allair: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me.

Alex Gansa: Matt, no problem. How are you doing?

Matt Allair: Great. So how did you initially meet Howard Gordon, and how did you break into the business?

Alex Gansa: Howard and I met in our senior year at Princeton. We were both creative writing majors, and both writing novels for our senior theses, and a number of our friends kept telling us that we had to meet each other because we both shared an undying admiration / love for Saul Bellow*. We finally said, 'aw, f***, we have to actually sit down and meet each other,' and we did. And became very close friends in that last year.

Matt: Was working in television a childhood dream? Were there certain television shows that were a favorite, or inspired you growing up?

Alex: You know, the truth is that Howard was always the television guy. He loved television, and I didn't watch, actually, much TV when I was a kid. I was brought up by parents who were first generation immigrants and so we watched precious little television, and I was sent away to boarding school when I was twelve-and-a half-years old, and so I wasn't even allowed to watch television between the ages of twelve and college. If I hadn't met Howard, I can guarantee you that I would not be writing for television right now (laughs). I would probably be living in a garrison somewhere in New York with a bunch of unpublished novels in my drawer.

Matt: Which filmmakers or screenwriters have had an influence on you?

Alex: In the great tradition of American film, it's so hard to identify. It's mostly on a project-to-project basis. In other words, I can tell you the filmmakers that we looked at when we were researching Homeland, for example. Or the things we did when I was doing X-Files with Howard. You tend to sort of root around, and see what other people did in those genres, and go from there. But it's actually really hard for me, the list would go on forever. I think the people that are making films right now that I completely and utterly admire, I think David Fincher is an amazing filmmaker, [Stephen] Soderbergh is fantastic. In terms of people who are writing, the guys who are writing the Dark Knight movies are amazing {Jonathan & Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer]. The funny thing is that I'm so illiterate when it comes to most of this stuff, not having been raised on all this, like most people, and not having much of a film / and television background. I come to writing from a much more literary tradition. Even with Homeland for example, when I look at the models for Homeland, I don't really look to film or television, I look to novelist like Graham Green, or John LaCarre.

Matt: In light of Howard going the direction of writing novels now, is that something you are interested in doing as well?

Alex: If I were to sit down and write a novel now, I think I'd try my hand at literary fiction, and not work in the thriller genre, which is where my career has landed me. If I ever get around to it, I think that would be something for my dotage.

Matt: Did Ron Koslow** (Beauty and the Beast) play an important part in your career? What did you learn from him?

Alex: Absolutely. Beauty and the Beast was Howard's and my first staff job. We had written a bunch of episodes of Spencer For Hire on a freelance basis, and I think we'd done another episode for the Wizard of Elm Street ***or something, and maybe one for Huston Knights, so we'd done a bunch of freelance work and we were always looking to land that first staff job, and Ron, who'd just gotten Beauty and the Beast picked up to series, read one of our Spencer for Hire's and I think we quoted Wordsworth, and Ron looked up our background, saw that we'd gone to Princeton, and he called us in. We hit it off with him on the first meeting. Interestingly enough, the talk was mostly about the literary antecedence of Beauty and the Beast, and Vincent's penchant for poetry, and around that subject, a connection was made and Ron offered us the job. My God, on your first show to work with somebody like a Koslow was just extraordinary. He had such a vision and a voice for that show, and really we learned at his feet. We learned how to tell stories, we learned ultimately how to run a show. I can't imagine anybody having a bigger influence on our careers than Ron, with the possible exception of John Wilder who gave us our first break writing Spencer for Hire.

Matt: If you recall, was Country Estates intended as a TV movie, or was it originally intended as a series?

Alex: Oh, Country Estates was definitely a series. Beauty and the Beast was coming to an end, and we had an overall deal with Wit Thomas, who had produced Beauty and the Beast. We wrote this pilot for ABC. It was not a movie, but hopefully a series. It was a pilot, but it never made it to series. It's so funny, but when I look back on that experience, I realize that we just kind of too green, and too young, we made so many mistakes writing that pilot. We wound up not being seasoned enough to see what was actually a very interesting script, to seeing it through, to being fully realized we weren't just not ready to do it yet.

Matt: When discussing the first season of The X-Files, Howard mentioned learning a lot from watching Jim, Glen, and Chris. Did you find the 'positive competition' with The X-Files writing team to be instructive, and helpful?

Alex: Well, helpful insofar as watching real masters at their profession, at work. I was only on The X-Files for the first year. I helped Howard with a couple of episodes in the second year, so I was only really there for year one. Although the learning curve was steep for everybody, it was steep for Chris Carter too who never really had run a television show before, and in that context, Glen and Jim were the steady hands at the tiller through the first half of that season, and watching those guys work was extraordinary. Their love of the material, the way that they immersed themselves in the world of The X-Files, in the world of conspiracy theories, and aliens, and monsters, was something that was completely alien to me – not to use a pun. I'm not a science fiction guy, I'm not a fantasy guy. I was kind of at sea, and watching these guys do what they do, and love the material so much, was incredible. To watch how they structured stories in that genre was a learning experience second to none, and I will say that there was a healthy amount of competition through the first couple of episodes. We were all trying to one-up each other, like 'who was going to write the best episode' that first season. I'd say Jim and Glen won (laugh), but it was a very sink-and-swim environment that Chris created on The X-Files, and you had to learn to swim pretty quickly, and we just learned from Glen and Jim.

Matt: Do you recall if there was a particular episode in the first season of The X-Files that you had more of a hand in writing?

Alex: Howard and I, our process is fairly collaborative, I think we wrote all of those episodes mostly together. There was a period in the middle of the year [when] NBC had actually had come to us, and asked us to write a medical drama for them, and I remember that I went off and did most of the work on the pilot, while Howard stuck around and wrote an episode****, more and less by himself, although I got credit on it, and he got credit on that pilot I just happened to be working on that pilot more, and he had been working on The X-Files at the time. But, no, I think except for that particular episode which I can't remember which one it was, we split our duties fairly down the middle on all those shows.

Matt: After you departed The X-Files, there was a gap in writing activity until Maximum Bob; did you take a break from the business? If so, what were you doing?

Alex: I was mostly trying to get my own show on the air, Howard really wanted to stay on The X-Files, and really loved the genre and thought he was most suited to that sort of everyday work environment, and I was just interested in trying to get something on my own--or our own--on the air, and it was impossible to do while you were on a show. We'd been partners for seven or eight years at the time, and so it was a very amicable break-up, but I just went on to write a bunch of pilots. I had a couple of overall deals, I wrote a bunch of pilots that just did not go, and Maximum Bob was the first one that I wrote that actually got shot for a series.

Matt: Thematically, do you see any parallels between 24, Homeland, and The X-Files? Did your work on The X-Files influence the kind of work you're doing today?

Alex: Well, I think the kind of stories that we told on The X-Files, and the need to tell a narrative with a very strong story engine was something I learned on The X-Files, and which certainly carried over into 24 and into Homeland. They're each unique unto themselves, but there were certain tricks, and tropes that I learned on The X-Files that have been incredibly helpful over the span of 24, and Homeland, and one of those things is just learning how to compress a story. In other words, you wind up plotting an episode out, and then you realize that some of those events that you planned to happen later in the episode, actually should happen earlier, and likewise, over the course of the series, some event that you plotted, that you planned to happen in the middle of the season, or towards the end of the season actually wind up being in the second or third episode, and it always helps propel the story, and gets you off at a good clip in the beginning.

Matt: I wanted to ask you about your new show, Homeland, what inspired the idea behind it? How closely is the show faithful to the Israeli series, Prisoners of War?

Alex: Well, that's clearly the inspiration for the show, Hatufim. There's a lot of similarities and there are a lot of differences. The main conceit of both shows, in the case of Hatufim, prisoners, and in our show, a prisoner of war coming home after a lengthy period of captivity. The Israeli series is much more of a family drama, and Homeland is much more of a psychological thriller, there are similarities but I think the general and overarching tone of both series are quite different. By virtue of the fact that there's no Carrie Mathison character in the Israeli version, so there's sense of the hunter and the hunted, and there's no real sense in the Israeli version that there's an actual terrorist plot afoot, which I think actually drives the American version in a way that the Israeli version just takes its time more. There's a big difference between these two genres.

Matt: Is Homeland a counter argument to some of the issues put forth with 24? Personally, are you skeptical or trusting towards the Federal government?

Alex: I think 24 was as rough on the government as Homeland may be. I think that if there's a difference between the two, and I think that there is, I think you have to look at where they came, when they aired, and what they were successful [at]. I mean, 24 was successful in the wake of 9/11, in which the country was sort of looking for a hero. There was a wish fulfillment quality about Jack Bauer, who could get things done in the face of a terrorist threat, and in the face of bureaucracy for that matter. Homeland is a much more contemplative and retrospective look at where we've been in the ten years since the towers coming down. In a way, the country, and Americans in particular have achieved a kind of -- we've distanced enough from those very raw events, to look at the course of the last ten years in a more objective way, and that allows the drama of Homeland to be a little more nuanced and sophisticated than 24 was.

Matt: Now a number of Homeland fans had a number of questions for you. One wanted to know if the show has a story bible, if the entire show had been scripted ahead of time, and how much you've been able to adhere to that story arc as the show has gone along?

Alex: There was a bible for the first season which we adhered to pretty closely, but there is no bible for the second, third, forth, and hopefully fifth season. We're flying a little by the seat of our pants.

Matt: Another fan wanted to know about Carrie's career. Will she return to the CIA? Especially since she previously stated aloud she would never work for the CIA again?

Alex: I think one of the places where we left Carrie last year, is that she's in such a state of disgrace, that if she does go to work for the CIA again it will be under very particular and confined circumstances. Either that or she'll work around the edges of the intelligence community.

Matt: I see that Chip Johannnessen, whose work on Millennium was notable, is involved with Homeland, Did you have a history with Chip prior to his involvement with the show?

Alex: Yes, I worked with Chip on 24. I've known of Chip for a long time, and in fact when I was staffing Maximum Bob, I tried to get Chip onto Maximum Bob and he was busy at the time, which was heartbreaking, but Chip was our very, very first hire-on for Homeland, he's just a major league talent, and we couldn't do the show without him.

Matt: After you left writing for The X-Files, did you continue to follow what was going on with the show? Have you watched or followed Millennium or Harsh Realm?

Alex: I've watched a lot of X-Files, I watched some Millennium, and I watched no Harsh Realm's.

Matt: If the right idea or opportunity came along, would you want to collaborate with Chris Carter again?

Alex: Oh, absolutely, Chris is fantastic.

Matt: Well, thank you, this has been such an honor to speak with you. I wish the show good luck, and we'll be looking forward to seeing more of it.

Alex: Thank you very much, it was great to talk to you too.

It is interesting to note how so many of the alumni connected to The X-Files have broken their own ground: Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), John Shiban (Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries) and of course Glen and Darin Morgan, and James Wong (The River, The Event, Fringe). In each case the pupils and became the masters, and television has been made the better for it. Alex has managed to reach a career pinnacle over the last few years that Chris Carter previously enjoyed and understood well. I do hope the success of Homeland will be the beginning of more excellent work from Mr. Gansa.

*Saul Bellow was a Canadian-born, Jewish American writer (1915-2005) who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. Bellow's work often commented on the disorientating nature of modern civilization, and the ability for humans to overcome their frailty, to achieve greatness or awareness. His work included Humbolt's Gift, Ravelstein, Seize the Day, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Herzog, Henderson the Rain King, and The Adventures of Augie March.

** Ron Koslow is a television writer / producer who created Beauty and the Beast, My Life and Times, the TV movie Running Delilah, Roar, and Moonlight.

*** The Wizard of Elm Street was an eighties show developed by Michael Berk, Paul R. Radin and Douglas Schwartz. Huston Knights was a late eighties program developed by Michael Butler.

**** The episode in question is likely "Lazarus," which we've reviewed.

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