Lexicon Exclusive

"Lessons Along the Journey"

The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Howard Gordon
This questionnaire was conducted via E-mail between 01/10/08 and 02/02/08 by Matt Allair.

For many fans of the early seasons, Howard Gordon played an important role. Along with his writing partner, Alex Gansa, Mr. Gordon helped to create a unique narrative palate within the X-Files universe. As confirmed in our exchange, he acknowledged that many of the writers from those early seasons--Glen Morgan, James Wong, Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Frank Spotnitz, and Vince Gilligan--sensed they were doing good work and were onto something special. These writers laid the foundation; all future writers of the series would have to live up to these standards or surpass them. Considering the show operated with no story bible, with story lines that didn't follow many of the clichés of supernatural thrillers, UFO chases, or police investigation capers, there was a good degree of trial and error in flushing out what kind of show they were writing, as well as finding writers that could pass the trial by fire.

Mr. Gordon has gone onto resounding success with the Fox television show, "24", not only as a writer, but as an executive producer as well. His body of work as writer and producer has been impressive as well as respected. He was recently an Executive Producer for The Madness of Jane. He built his career working on Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Inside, Beauty and The Beast, as well as his own series, Strange World. The possibility of contacting him and securing an interview was daunting, as well as intimidating. To my surprise, I managed a personal correspondence with him and I found him to be gracious, humble, candid, and respectful. In contrast to the clichéd 'Hollywood Power Broker' image of most producers who reach the heights, it is encouraging to see that upon occasion nice guys actually do finish first.

This interview wound up becoming a year long process to realize. Howard's assistant, David Niles, was contacted through my own trial and error. First on the phone of the "24" Fox production lot, and then via E-mail where the request was made as far back as late 2006. At the time, the show, "24" was at the height of its production schedule and this made the opportunity difficult. Then ironically, the recent misfortune of the WGA strike left an opening to approach Mr. Gordon again and to my pleasant surprise, he agreed. I must thank David Niles for his patience and cooperation, as well as Jana Fain of Big Light Productions for pointing me in the correct direction. This surprisingly candid interview proceeded as follows.

Matt Allair: Thank you, Mr. Gordon, for taking the time for this interview. I wish you the best of luck with your upcoming work on The Madness of Jane and the "24" feature film.

Matt: Was your background in writing for Beauty and the Beast somewhat helpful when you started writing for The X-Files? Meaning, was there anything in the context of the stories written for Beauty and the Beast that helped you write for The X-Files?

Howard Gordon: Beauty and the Beast was a more lyrical and less narratively taut kind of storytelling. But as in Beauty and the Beast, I always tried to find the emotional core and to create characters I was interested in seeing interact with the series regulars.

Matt: Coming from the East Coast, did you find yourself intimidated or daunted by seeking those crucial breaks in television? Or did you feel right at home once you arrived in Los Angeles?

Howard: "Intimidated" would be an understatement. I knew no one. I had no way into the business. The truth is, some part of me never believed I would actually ever land a job writing. I gave myself a year or two to gain some traction - then I would probably have returned to the east coast and gone to graduate school.

Matt: There's a somewhat different process and strategy in writing for television vs. feature film. Do you find writing for television more satisfying?

Howard: Writing a screenplay is more challenging for me, but mostly because I've only written two screenplays, as opposed to hundreds of one-hour scripts for a dozen different series. Television is more satisfying for me as a writer (and, I think, for the audience) because it allows for a much deeper relationship with the characters. I think audiences feel a lot closer to Tony Soprano than they do to Vitto Corleone.

Matt: Which other writers have influenced the body of your own work?

Howard: The writers who've influenced me include every writer I've ever read. Even the bad ones show you what not to do.

Matt: Considering that you graduated from Princeton, did you and Alex Gansa find any intellectual affinity with Chris Carter from the outset?

Howard: We all got along tremendously well - especially that first year. We felt a bit like underdogs writing a show that had low expectations, but we knew we were doing good work.

Matt: During the first season, was there a positive competitive environment among the writers? For example, would you look over what Glen and Jim were doing, or Chris Carter and feel that you and your partner, Alex, had to do better?

Howard: "Positive competition" is exactly how I'd describe the atmosphere. Alex and I learned a lot from Glen and Jim, and also from Chris. Hopefully they learned something from us too. But Glen and Jim did things which really blew our minds, and which expanded the franchise in ways it might not otherwise have grown.

Matt: In retrospect, were you surprised that The X-Files became such a phenomenon? Of the shows you've been involved with, can you sense when you're involved with something special?

Howard: Absolutely. We knew the show was good--very good, even. But the phenomenon part is something no one could have anticipated.

Matt: Let's discuss your recollections about season one: Conduit was your first episode. Considering the Mulder back story, did Chris Carter offer a lot of input in its writing?

Howard: Chris was really helpful. Alex and I were struggling with the story - so much so that we even began to think we didn't belong on the show - but Chris convinced us not to get down on ourselves and he helped us figure out a way to tell the story.

Matt: In light of Carrie Snodgress's passing, do you have any memories of working with her? Were you a fan of her work and was working with her intimidating?

Howard: We were definitely fans of her work, and fans of her ex-husband, Neil Young. I only got to spend a few hours with her up in Vancouver, but I thought her performance in Conduit was pitch perfect.

Matt: You've mentioned being quite disappointed with Ghost in the Machine, feeling the Artificial Intelligence subject wasn't developed. In light of all that has developed with AI research science since then, today if you were to ever write a story that involved that subject again, would you take a very different approach?

Howard: I suppose the most disappointing aspect of Ghost in the Machine was that there weren't many - or even any - surprises in the story. It felt a little by-the-numbers. I went on to tell another AI story on my series, Strange World, and unfortunately it suffered from a similar weakness. So I don't know how I'd do it differently, all I know is that I'll think twice before I do another AI story.

Matt: During the casting process for Fallen Angel, Scott Bellis seemed like such a find. Were the writers given a lot of room with the series' directors to push for certain castings?

Howard: We had complete authority to pick our cast. Scott was a real find.

Matt: In the First Season, FOX seemed to push for a lot of back story with Mulder and Scully. We're you satisfied with your back story with Scully in Lazarus? Were you disappointed in the Scully / Jack Willis back-story arc?

Howard: It wasn't so much the network or the studio that pushed for backstory - it was all of us on the writing staff. It was a bit of a landgrab, trying to be the one to establish Mulder's and Scully's untold stories, and to answer questions about their respective families and histories. After about a year, though, that pond is fished out.

Matt: There's the saying attributed to writers, "Write what you know". You suffered from insomnia prior to the writing of Sleepless in the Second Season. Which, you could say, is one example of personal or professional experiences that influenced the germ of an idea. Do most of your story ideas come directly or indirectly from personal experiences?

Howard: My story ideas on X-Files came mostly from desperation. I always found it difficult to settle on an idea. But one I carried with me from almost the beginning (though I only figured out a way to tell the story in the fourth season) was Kaddish. I knew the golem myth from my own longstanding interest in Jewish mysticism.

Matt: Were you influenced by Jim and Glen while working with them? For example, I was wondering if the episode Firewalker was your personal attempt to write within the flavor of Ice?

Howard: I feel like I just got busted. Yes, Firewalker was a pale and inferior version of Ice. As I said earlier, I learned a lot from Glen and Jim.

Matt: Was it pretty common, for example as was the case in Dod Kalm, for Chris to ask you to build a story from an available set or location? Isn't there the risk of not serving the story by working that way? Or are setting story limitations helpful, creatively?

Howard: Limiting a story to a single location can be liberating because it narrows the narrative possibilities; you start the story knowing what you can't do. It may seem like an exercise, but in that case, the location really becomes a character in the show.

Matt: In the Third Season, you took on a more important role as a producer, writing less. Was there an adjustment for you in taking on such responsibility? Do you find it a challenge to offer critiques of other writers' work?

Howard: I'd supervised other writers on Beauty and the Beast so it wasn't much of an adjustment. Finding other people who could write the show turned out to be more challenging than I thought it would be.

Howard: I'd supervised other writers on Beauty and the Beast so it wasn't much of an adjustment. Finding other people who could write the show turned out to be more challenging than I thought it would be.

Matt: When Jack Black and Giovanni Ribbisi were cast in your episode D.P.O., did you sense there was anything special about them as actors?

Howard: I though Jack was funny, but I didn't imagine he'd go on to the career he's had. I was impressed by Giovanni's intensity; we spent the better part of a day playing video games in Vancouver as he prepped for the part.

Matt: The flavor of the episode, Grotesque reminded me of something that could have been written for Millennium. When Chris was developing Millennium, were you ever tempted to move over and work on that show?

Howard: I was tempted, but the truth is, I was never invited to write for Millennium.

Matt: Avatar seemed to give Mitch a real chance to shine. How was the experience of working with David Duchovny as a co-writer? In retrospect, were you surprised he wrote such later season episodes such as The Unnatural and Hollywood A.D.?

Howard: David's a smart guy with a great sense of story and character. I'm not surprised that he wrote those episodes - but the only one I saw was The Unnatural.

Matt: When you wrote Teliko, was the casting of Carl Lumbly specifically what you had in mind? Were you a fan of his previous work?

Howard: I liked Carl in everything I'd ever seen him in, so he was exactly what I had in mind.

Matt: Kaddish felt like a very personal story in a way. Was there anything in your past history that inspired that story?

Howard: See above.

Matt: The episode, Zero Sum, seemed to look at Skinner in a different perspective. Were the tactics that Morgan and Wong used for Musings as far as seeing CSM/ Spender in a different light an influence on your approach for that episode?

Howard: Not consciously, but maybe there was an influence I wasn't conscious of.

Matt: After you departed from the show, did you continue to follow what was developing with The X-Files? What are your thoughts concerning the fan controversies surrounding seasons seven, eight, and nine?

Howard: The truth is, after I left, I stopped watching the show regularly, so I'm not aware of the fan controversies. **

Matt: Let's talk about Strange World. You've commented in the past that the show might have suffered from being a little too earnest. The X-Files seems to have cast such a long shadow for writers / producers who worked on the show. Another example would Frank Spotnitz's efforts with Night Stalker. Is there still a crutch to pitching off-beat TV shows in the present marketplace to the networks, compared to the early 90s?

Howard: The X-Files pilot was cool and compelling and ironic in ways that Strange World wasn't. I don't know that it's about the present marketplace.

Matt: Are there any competing genre television shows that you currently follow?

Howard: I like what I've seen of Battlestar[: Galactica].*

Matt: You've commented in the past that of all the shows you've worked on, you learned the most working on The X-Files. In retrospect, in terms of your current role as a producer on "24", did Chris Carter have an impact or influence on the way that you deal with the other writers, technicians, or actors?

Howard: As much as I learned from Chris and from my experience on the X-Files, I have to revise my prior comment, and say that 24 has been the single best learning experience I've had as a writer and as a producer. Joel Surnow is a gifted writer and producer, and I learned a lot from him.

Matt: Could you talk about The Madness of Jane and how you became involved in it?

Howard: My friend, Rob Lazebnik, who is a producer on The Simpsons, asked me to help him shape a pilot about a friend of his, who was a bipolar neurologist at Harvard. I told him it was a terrible idea, but he persisted, and it came out really well. It wasn't picked up by Lifetime, but there's an Australian production company interested in producing it for Australian television.

Matt: What should fans of "24", expect to see with the upcoming feature film version?

Howard: The film is on hold until the series is over.

Matt: Someday, after you've moved on from writing for "24", would you be tempted to work in the science fiction genre again?

Howard: I'd love to explore another SF show.

Matt: Thank you, again, for this opportunity, Mr. Gordon.

Writing, regardless of the genre or medium, often is a difficult process. There's never a set formula that will always work. In writing for series television, each story presents a new set of challenges for the writer, combined with the pressures of delivering on a deadline. Mr. Gordon's comments, I hope, will illustrate that there is always an element of creative chance, insecurity, educated guesswork, as well as the hard work of finding those moments of inspiration under pressure, yet when those elements work, it can be very satisfying indeed.

Mr. Gordon's part in the history of the X-Files will always be appreciated by many fans for decades yet to come. His own trials by fire in the early seasons of the series must have helped him along his own creative journey as an artist. As more and more people discover this magical and subversive entity known as the X-Files, hindsight will continue to smile on that creative period from September of 1993 until May of 1997. Mr. Gordon has every reason to be proud of the role he played in that iconic history.

We will keep watching, wondering, and looking up to the skies with that desire to believe.

Editorial notes:
* Ron Moore's Battlestar: Galactica
** In the context of Mr. Gordon's comment, this isn't surprising within the industry, nor should any malice be taken. Many who work on a series regard it as a job-- even if there is pride in the product--and will focus on the next job, thus losing contact with the previous creative staff in the process.

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