Lexicon Exclusive

"Another Co-Founder"

The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with James Wong on 'Founder's Mutation'

Conducted by Matt Allair in 02/05/2016

Page Editor: A.M.D.

When word came down a year ago, last February, that FOX television was going to produce six new X-Files episodes, one of the more pleasant surprises wasn’t that a new roster of writers would helm each episode, but that most of the “original band was being brought back,” and that included James Wong, one of the figures who helped establish the tone of the original series, and a writer who other writers did emulate in the later years. Recently, I have seen an argument, that is valid, that the absence of Frank Spotnitz on the new episodes was notable, and that Mr. Spotnitz acted as the soul of The X-Files. But some fans seem to have forgotten that The X-Files faired quite well in the first two seasons, before Mr. Spotnitz came on board toward the end of season two, and largely due to the great work of James Wong and Glen Morgan, as well as Howard Gordon. The above point isn’t to diminish Mr. Spotnitz’s role, but to contextualize why the announcement of James Wong’s appearance in the new six-episode series was so important. This decision resulted in one of the finest episodes to appear in the new series arc.

With “Founder’s Mutation,” James did seem to find a way to honor the unfinished story arc for the William adoption, while moving forward at the same time. What is ironic, and something few people know, is that when James’s episode aired, he was overseas and missed the episode premiere, and missed the high ratings the episode enjoyed. Most of the details of James Wong’s iconic career go without saying. He established a writing partnership with Glen Morgan, and worked on 21 Jump Street. But James had branched out into other areas, writing for The Commish and Booker; co-creating Space: Above and Beyond and The Notorious 7; writing, producing and directing for Chris Carter’s other iconic series, Millennium; creating features such as Final Destination and The One; remaking Willard and Black Christmas; and doing a T.V. miniseries remake of Rosemary’s Baby. This doesn’t even factor in his on-going success with American Horror Story and Scream Queens. All of which managed to retain some of the creative stamps that were seen with his initial run with The X-Files back during seasons one, two, and four.
But this particular interview was a long time in the making. At least three years prior to knowing he would be involved with the revival, we approached him for an interview, and it’s been a challenge to find an ideal window to speak with him. But James has shown himself to be gracious and patient, as well as unassuming, when I personally met with him during the Jan 12th premiere. The interview proceeded as follows…

Matt: Thank for taking the time, and I really do appreciate it.

James: No problem at all.

Matt: How long did it take to write “Founder’s Mutation”? Was there a long, or short, gestation process with developing the ideas for the episode?

James:  It really didn’t take that long. I guess it was three or four weeks. You know, coming up with what to do with The X-Files, I had a couple of meetings with Chris [Carter], and a couple of meetings with the other writers. I think I started with a monster idea, and then Glen had a monster idea he wanted to introduce. I gave up the one monster idea I had. I talked with Chris about the regular run of The X-Files, and they had never done anything that had to do with sound. So, I started to think about how sound could play into the episode. Have you seen All That Jazz, the Bob Fosse movie?

Matt: I have, yes.

James:  There’s a sequence in there I like where Roy Scheider’s character, there’s a read through, then all of the sound comes out, so people are talking, reading the script, you can’t hear them anymore, and all you hear is this objective sound. He hears his own pencil breaking; he hears his own breath. And I always admired that sequence. I thought about using that in the episode, using that technique. There’s a couple of things I always wanted to do, that I had been thinking about in terms of ideas and images. I had these ideas about a mom in a group, and she finds her baby in the pool. What would you think about? At first there would be terror as it’s your baby and it’s drowning, and she dives in and the baby is breathing underwater. I know, it’s random (laughs), but I had that idea about starting a movie for awhile. I also had this idea of about cutting open a pregnant woman’s belly. I had some weird, disjointed ideas about that. So, the gestation period is very long if you think about some of the ideas I wanted to put into an episode, that weren’t necessarily X-Files at first. But I started to think about putting those ideas in, and then I wrapped the story around it.

Matt: The episode is a stand-alone with mythology elements. There’s also a lot of past references, and Easter eggs, as well as the William fantasy sequences. Did Chris Carter offer a lot of notes? Did you watch a lot of past episodes again prior to writing the script?

James: No, he didn’t offer a lot of notes. I had only worked on, in the past, that first, second, and fourth season, and I really didn’t follow it, at least the mythology that much, but surprisingly, or not surprisingly, there’s a whole website devoted to the mythology of The X-Files. So, knowing that I wanted to deal with William, the baby, for me that was a very emotional , interesting connection that they have that hasn’t been dealt with. So, knowing that, I went onto a website where a lot of fans have written about things that have happened, about the mythology, which episode that occurred, and all of that. So, I went through that and had a basic understanding of what’s happening. That’s how I approached it. And of course Chris read the script after I finished it, but I think I was pretty thorough in understanding that. There weren’t any outstanding notes. I don’t think I missed anything.

Matt: During the scripting was there a conscious decision about drawing a parallel between Kyle and Molly and Fox and Samantha?

James: Yes, it was. In that, particularly in the fantasy scenes – Kyle is always looking for his sister, once he found out he had one, which is sort of Mulder’s quest, and then, in the sense, that’s the obvious connection right there.

Matt: Do you feel like changing the airing order of this episode from fifth to second made a difference in how it will be understood in the arc of the six episodes?

James:  I do in that I felt the fifth episode melded in with the first episode more than the second episode originally, because there’s a connection between the alien DNA thing, and what Sveta was talking about being abducted and being experimented on. And in that way I guess the network felt that it made it easier to kind of think, “Oh, this is sort of the same, even though it’s a stand alone, they are sort of talking about ideas or themes.” They were trying to eliminate the questions that the viewers would have, which were, “Hey, what happened? Do they work on the X-Files anymore?” That was the reason for doing that, but in doing that, for instance, there’s an original episode [Home Again] that was shot where it’s mentioned about Scully’s mom dying, and the emotional context of Scully start thinking about William. So, there are things like that changed about each episode, and probably it was a slower build to get to the place where they start thinking about William. Scully’s mom dies and this other thing happens, and by the next episode has an interesting experience [Babylon]. I think it’s a slower build to them thinking about their son.

Matt: There’s some strong performances and interesting choices with the casting: Jonathan Whitesell, Doug Savant, Rebecca Wisocky, and Vik Sahay. Could you discuss the casting process for the episode?

James: There’s two casting directors, one in L.A. named Rick Milligan, and he basically cast Doug Savant, Rebecca Wisocky, Vik Sahay, and then up in Canada we have Heike Brandstatter, who helped us cast all of the other roles, including the kid who played Kyle. Casting is pretty straightforward. We saw people who were right for the part, and we were lucky to get Doug, who is an old friend of mine. I’ve known him forever. He’s actually been in The One, which is a movie I directed a long time ago. It’s funny because everything that he’s done with me, he dies a horrible death. (Laughs) So, we’ll kid around, and he’ll say, “How will I die the next time?” (Laughs) That was easier to cast, and Rebecca has this really great off-kilter thing that we really loved in her audition. She was extraordinary.

Matt: The X-Files and Millennium have a history of casting young actors who go on to be very important actors. Is there a particular actor in the episode that fans should be really paying attention to in the future?

James:  The girl who played Agnes, Kacey Rohl — the pregnant girl that was in the hospital and she gets killed? She’s going to be great. She’s done a lot of stuff already, and I think she’s in The Magicians. I just saw her in that show where she played this [cross] between Harry Potter and Pretty Little Liars. I think she’s great, and I also think the kid who plays Kyle was great. Those two young kids, you are going to see a lot from them.

Matt: Thus far, production designer Mark Freeborn has done an incredible job with the episodes. Was there a particular set piece on your episode he was most helpful with?

James: Well, the thing about my episode [that] is not known is that apparently mine was the most expensive one, which I was shocked by that too. (Laughs) Because there was so many sets, in my episode we tried to go scale. I had this feeling that I wanted to make it go quickly, that Mulder and Scully are investigating and going everywhere, to a lot of places, a lot of short scenes. What that created for Mark was that there was a lot of sets, a lot of different sets. They went to a lot of different places. What he did that was so amazing was that [he] basically made what would be a feature schedule, which is all these sets, and in T.V. you try to cram as many shots on the same set as possible that you already had. So, we created a big problem for him, as he had to create these big sets, and he did a great job, of course. The Goldman Eugenics set was a location, but we had to create the server room, I think at a hospital space, so it was pretty amazing that he could make everything, kind of, consistent, while we’re all over the place. I don’t think there’s one particular set where it was like, ”Wow, that the most expensive [set].” But it allowed a scope on the episode that was spectacular.

Matt: Has the process of working with editor Heather MacDougall, or composer Mark Snow, changed at all from your past work with them in the 90s?

James: No, it hasn’t changed a bit, really. We’ve all gotten older. (Laughs) We sort of have that shorthand that we had when we were working together. It was really easy. Mark has always been the kind of guy that when we would start a conversation, before we start, we would listen to the stuff he had, and after listening to it, we would compare notes. It wasn’t at all different than what we had done before. The whole process was really like coming home again.

Matt: Technically, if I recall, you hadn’t worked with director of photography Joel Ransom before on The X-Files. How was the experience of working with him?

James: It was good. I think the director and the DP have to work really close together because you are creating the visual elements that go into the show. I think as much as I hadn’t really worked with him before, when I was prepping, I went out there a few times, and carried on a vibe with how he worked with Chris, because Chris was shooting. I got a really good vibe from him, and when we started talking, we quickly started talking about how I’d like to [work]. There was some special lenses that I wanted, and Joel had some ideas of his own that we tried. It was a really collaborative effort. I felt really good about it, and I think it turned out nicely. The show was really well shot.

Matt: Some fans have noted that with a few sequences, some of the camera set ups and camera moves reminded them of Kim Manners’ work. Was there a conscious nod to Kim while filming the episode?

James: No, there wasn’t a conscious nod, but I guess unconsciously I learned so much from Kim. I had worked with Kim forever, from the beginning when we were on 21 Jump Street. I wasn’t on the show when the pilot was shot, but I think Kim was the pilot director. I was on the show with Glen on season three. I’m not sure if Kim did one of ours. I know he came back and did the show when we were there, and that’s how we came to really admire him, and worked with him throughout our television career. So, in a way he influenced my directing style — in that way it’s a nod to Kim. He rubbed off on me.

Matt: I’ve heard that crew members commented that Vancouver was a lot warmer than they remember it from the past. How was your experience shooting in Vancouver after a long spell?

James: (Laughs) Well, I shot a lot in Vancouver, including the two Final Destination movies that I did, and other shows. I’ve lived there a lot. This is the first time I remember, the first summer, that it didn’t rain when I was up there. Usually it rains even in summer, and they were in a drought situation where they couldn’t water their lawns, their residence once a week. The lawns were brown, which is the first time I’ve ever seen that. I guess with the weather patterns for this year, or maybe it’s the global warming thing, I don’t know, [it] has really changed. It was crazy. It was great for me in that it didn’t rain. Any time you shoot exterior you have to wet down the street because you never know when it’s going to rain, so to make everything consistent, you automatically wet down the street, just in case it rained. In this situation, I think they frowned upon us wetting down the street anyway because there’s a water shortage. (Laughs). It was really weird. It’s the first time ever I worked there that we weren’t automatically wetting down every location.

Matt: Glen Morgan is the executive producer on the new series. Was it easy to fall back into a working relationship with Glen after a spell of the both of you working separately?

James: Oh, yeah, very easy. I guess we split up about nine years ago, maybe. But we’ve kept in touch, and we’ve talk to each other on and off, so it wasn’t like a [situation] of ”who’s this guy?” (Laughs) We’ve always had a really easy relationship in terms of communication, and we certainly know each other well. There was no problems. In fact, it was a pleasure. To have somebody you can talk to that you trust, and who you understand, and understands you. It was great. 

Matt: What projects are you working on next? Will there be anything you will be taking away from the experience working on the new episode while moving forward?

James: I’m going to be going back on American Horror Story. We start Monday [the 8th]. That’s where I am going to be. I’m trying to develop some other projects, some other T.V. shows. I don’t have anything specific yet in mind. What I take away from this episode, not anything specifically except that I really enjoyed the experience quite a lot. I really like the process that we went through. Today’s television series, the process is very different than how we did it when we started The X-Files in the 90s. Today’s shows, there’s a writers room, you really break down the story and work it with a very close manner with your fellow writers on the show. For this episode on The X-Files, it really went back to how we used to do it, which is talk about [the story] in general, what your ideas would be, so that it doesn’t clash with other people’s ideas about their episode. But we worked on them ourselves, and we directed the episodes, so it really felt like a little movie, instead of the T.V. process, which is so different now. It’s so collaborative now. It takes more of a group effort, you know, in today’s world than it used to. Often the way we did The X-Files it felt like a little movie. I appreciated that, and I think I would like to continue to do that if I could on a different show.  Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to do that.

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

James: No problem, Matt, take care.

At the time of this writing, ratings for the second episode were phenomenal, bringing in 9.7 Million viewers, and the decision that some fans had expressed consternation over, when news of the schedule changes had been first announced, may have been a good move. Such news must have been gratifying for James. Let’s hope that such developments open up doors for James to develop some new original projects in the near future. Now, things have gone full circle, with James coming back to the series that opened up possibilities. We wish him the best.

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