John’s note: I conducted this interview with award-wining special effects guru Brian Johnson (Space:1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, etc., in February 2001, via e-mail. The subject was Space:1999, and the occasion was the new release of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series on DVD.
Interview with Brian Johnson
John: Have you seen the DVDs?
Brian Johnson: I haven’t, though I would like to. Every dog has his day, and the show deserves some extra acclaim. We all gave it our best bang for the buck.
John: I know you’ve mentioned that DVD is a different format than Space:1999 was originally intended for, and that the format throws off your “wire threshold.” What exactly does that mean?
Brian Johnson: The resolution of TV images was low in those days. We had a margin with which we could view our dailies and say “That will never be seen on TV.” I never re-shot stuff if I thought we couldn’t improve the action, and it didn’t show wires when projected at 25-30 frames per second, not rock and rolling and freeze-framing the way people do now, just to see how a shot is done. Wires were a bloody nuisance – I hated them. As often as possible, we avoided them.
John: If you were to do a new Space:1999 today, would you in any way change the look of the series? Do you see a role for CGI in a new Space:1999?
Brian Johnson: I would change everything – but not completely. The Eagles would be subtly changed with better undercarriage systems and “bits” on. The Moonbase could do with a spring clean, but not too much. I liked the launch pads. The planets would be much better now. I would use a huge amount of CGI work. I would shoot digitally and make subtle camera moves to enhance production values.
John: The Eagle may be one of the most beloved and believable spaceship designs in TV history. Can you tell us how you came to design it?
Brian Johnson: I was in my “modular” design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be “chained” together, etc. I sketched the basic idea and got Michael Lamont (then a draughtsman/art department) to draw up the full scale 44″ plans. I then added sections and thickened tubes until it looked “right.” The final cladding was added, and then the different scale versions were finished to match the 44″ model. My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree – I think it made the Eagle believable.
John: Moonbase Alpha?
Brian Johnson: Moonbase Alpha was an unashamed homage to Harry Lange, Tony Masters and Stanley Kubrick from 2001, with my own ideas too.
John: One of the things that constantly amazes me about your work is how the miniatures of Space:1999 blended so seamlessly with the live action. How did you manage to coordinate the live action with the miniatures on so tight a schedule?
Brian Johnson: I was always about ten days behind the Main unit live action shooting, so Keith Wilson would do his thing. I tried never to interfere with his imagination, and we used the Main Unit shots as keys to our establishing shots. The trick was to “lag” the Main Unit. Also, editor Dave Lane was just the best at using everything we shot.
John: What was the one thing you wanted to do on Space:1999 that you never had the opportunity to do?
Brian Johnson: Motion controlled moves and such, but we didn’t have time or money. We had just started to build our first motion control system, but it was cranky and slow.
John: At the time it aired, Space:1999 was roundly criticized for being mystical and anti-science. What do you think about such criticisms?
Brian Johnson: I have to confess that I was never really moved by the concept of Space:1999. I find the most exciting sci-fi ideas are those that obtain some semblance of reality. Frankly, the Moon traveling through space (other than in the company of the Earth) is dumb. We would have stood a better chance if we had been an Asteroid Mining Company, or something. I could have really gone to town in terms of visuals. We had good writers and good directors, and yet we never really got to know the main characters. It was all a little superficial. However, I am being picky here, and in its time, it did push the frontiers a bit. I think TV politics had something to do with the demise of the series.
John: What were the primary strengths of Space:1999, in your eyes?
Brian Johnson: Quality and attention to detail. A whole slew of superb actors who lifted some of the more esoteric storylines. Good directors like Charles Crichton, who, because of his background, was given the weakest scripts.
John: The primary weaknesses?
Brian Johnson: We didn’t really progress as we went from Series 1 to Series 2. I still feel the first series had the best stories. The whole Maya thing was just a gimmick, though Catherine was superb, and we took on board an established American script advisor who led us away from the audience we had already established. I don’t know what figures were charged for each episode, but I think the quality we put out allowed a much higher figure to be charged than was actually the case. If the unit cost was less, we might have gone on for years. Hopefully on an asteroid, not the Moon!
John: Any thoughts on the fans?
Brian Johnson: I’m always amazed by the enthusiasm and loyalty shown by so many different types of people. From the absolute nutter through the sci-fi buff, to the cerebral. Even Mums have a lot of nice things to say about the show – maybe it kept their kids quiet for an hour or so. I also do not have the retention of memory for lines in the script that many fans can recite, ad infinitum. I’m always flattered by the nice things they say about Eagles and Moonbase Alpha.
John Newland came of age as a theatrical artist just as television developed into a national obsession.
Perhaps the foremost leading man of the 1950s, Newland guest-starred on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-1961), The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), Climax (1954-1958), Suspense (1949-1964), Studio One (1948-1958), Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957), Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) and Inner Sanctum (1954).
He also directed the memorable (and chilling…) TV movie starring Kim Darby, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).
NEWLAND: He would say: ‘I need a two-shot here, John,’ etcetera. And usually his recommendation was something that would have never entered my mind. Cutters are very helpful to directors, and I always listened to Henry and placed stock in his advice/
MUIR: One Step Beyond had a location shift for the last part of its third season. Thirteen episodes were filmed in Great Britain.
MUIR: What was ABC’s general response to One Step Beyond?
The popular genre talk show is hosted by Ian Cullen with writer Marx Pyle, and together we all discuss everything from sci-fi television and film to my dramatic web series, The House Between (now nearing the fourth anniversary of its debut on Veoh), to my upcoming stint as film festival judge in NYC.
Sci-Fi Pulse airs tomorrow, Sunday, February 7th at 5:00 pm, EST. So check it out. Here’s the link and the advert:
“For episode 55 we feature a discussion with journalist and writer of many science fiction reference books. John Kenneth Muir. Over the years John has written a number of books, his first of which was Exploring Space 1999. During our chat with the Writer Marx Pyle and Ian Cullen asked the writer not only about his view point on the current state of genre television, but also about his web series The House Between. Want to learn more? Tune in this Sunday.”
There are many reasons why I find myself continually drawn back to Carter’s oeuvre. In broad terms, these reasons involve television history, the artistry of the particular programs, philosophy, and of course, personal taste.
Historically speaking, The X-Files and Millennium have grown virtually synonymous with the decade of the 1990s. Carter’s programs captured the Zeitgeist of that epoch in sometimes challenging, sometimes stunning fashion.
By the end of the decade, various Ten Thirteen productions had gazed at the teen culture (“Syzygy,”) pondered the Human Genome Project (“Sense and Anti-Sense,”) skewered nineties tabloid culture (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), satirized Scientology (“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense”), peeked behind the closed-door mores of our affluent gated, McMansion communities (“Arcadia,” “Weeds”), considered domestic terrorism (“52266”), dissected the mentality of cults (“The Filed Where I Died”), and much more. This is Who We Were.
In terms of my continued appreciation of these series, I find myself again relying on Roger Ebert’s insightful and useful refrain — that it isn’t what a movie (or TV program) is about that’s important; it’s how that production is about the narrative that truly matters.
And the “how” of Chris Carter’s genre programs — The X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen — is also the thing that perpetually intrigues and fascinates me. Specifically, I enjoy that these productions invariably deploy symbolism and literary allusion to further their themes. I’ve written about that facet in regards to Millennium, specifically, in my essays: “Enemies Within: Chris Carter’s Millennium and America’s Suburban Apocalypse, and “Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium’s Second Season.”
But not The X-Files, Millennium or Ten Thirteen’s other works. They regularly utilize expressive, unconventional camera-work and always seem to find a way for the image to marry theme. If you have any doubt of this fact, just go back and watch The X-Files episode “Triangle,” a dizzying, audacious balancing of “real space and time” with “fantasy space and time” in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope meets the split-screen climax of De Palma’s Carrie meets The Wizard of Oz. And that’s just one example.
Notably, Carter’s programs were also at the vanguard of the movement in dramatic television towards multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. And gazing across nearly 300 hours of filmed entertainment, I find myself fascinated by the connections between Ten Thirteen’s many works; and the consistency of world view I see across the spectrum of Carter’s universe.
For shorthand, you might call this “the Chris Carter mystique,” or his “brand.” It’s the same thing with Joss Whedon (another artist I deeply admire): the alert viewer will be aware within minutes that he has stepped into Chris Carter’s world.
So, after I received a happy birthday note from Chris Carter last week (!), I decided this was a great opportunity to open a dialogue with him regarding some of these ideas. To my delight, he agreed to a wide-ranging interview, and that’s what you see transcribed below. I re-arranged the interview to group my questions by themes to present, hopefully, a cohesive picture.
For example, the Yellow House as paradise and then paradise lost in Millennium. Or the Arthurian Chair in Harsh Realm. I guess my question is simply, why?
CARTER: I don’t set out to throw these symbols in as anything other than what interests me.
It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and then they only become symbols to everyone else. What I can say about everything that I’ve created or worked on is that it’s been about what interests me at the time.
JKM: In terms of Millennium and the yellow house — this perfect place of safety and happiness — where did that idea came from?
CARTER: It came out of the bigger concept of a guy who was trying to paint away the darkness.
I had worked on X-Files for three to four years at that point, and we were dealing with some very dark subject matter. After awhile — after writing about that dark subject matter and realizing how powerful it can really be — you try to come up with remedies, yourself, for the darkness. It’s not always fun to write about the darkness.
JKM: So the yellow house was a place of safety for you, as well as for Frank?
CARTER: It was. And it’s funny, when I look back at Millennium now, I think, in a way, the concept was actually too complex. Especially when I look at shows that have become hits, like CSI, or other procedurals. They don’t deal with ideas like the yellow house. They don’t deal with things like family, necessarily.
JKM: But that’s what made Millennium so great. It had all those elements. I know I wrote once that Millennium must be the most-often imitated show in TV history. But other series have sort of stripped it down to the component parts: the paranormal angle (Medium, Ghost Whisperer); the forensic (CSI) angle, the serial killer (Criminal Minds) angle. Everybody’s taken a page from it, but nobody’s been able to sort of re-assemble the totality of it.
CARTER: It was also a show set on a specific schedule, which was the countdown to the Millennium, and of course nobody can duplicate that in this decade. It had…complexity.
And it’s funny, when it went off the air it did so with ratings that are better than many of the shows that are on the air right now. In a weird way, if you look at Millennium and Harsh Realm, you can say that Harsh Realm kind of booted Millennium off the air, which now — looking back — is very unfortunate.
JKM: It would have been good to have them simultaneously.
JKM: Another aspect of your work that I see repeated throughout is the depiction of men. My wife is a therapist,and as much as she enjoys the way Joss Whedon writes women, she likes the way you write men. She’s suggested a clinical classification: The Chris Carter male.
CARTER: I’d have to say it’s dramatically-interesting to me. It’s what’s withheld that counts, or that is important.
If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things — because it’s series television we’re talking about here — it becomes something that needs to be discovered. So if you discover these things too quickly; if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from the interest in the character. It makes that character less dramatically interesting.
JKM: And less tragic?
CARTER: The characters are tragic. That’s what makes them interesting. Their flaws and their weaknesses. And also their strengths. By not telling his wife about the darkness, Frank is painting it away. By not telling her about the polaroids, he’s painting it away. It’s a strength, but one which could be viewed as a weakness in terms of how men relate to women.
JKM: Not to push a point, but it does seem that your men seem to suffer from this quality, but the women don’t have that level of remoteness.
CARTER: I think that’s the women’s strength. They stay there. They don’t shy away from the entanglement. From the darkness. That says a lot about the women. Look at Scully. She’s a very, very independent person. Her strength is measured against Mulder’s; it’s not measured by Mulder.
JKM: There’s a period of rebellion against Mulder, by Scully. Like she’s rejecting in a sense, his control, his remoteness.
CARTER: In season five you can say that for sure. They really have a falling out. They’re of two different minds. Scully actually pursues Mulder’s path, and Mulder, in a weird way, pursues Scully’s. That was all a plan.
JKM: You don’t see relationships go up and down and back and forth like that on many of the dramatic series today. Take CSI For example.
JKM: Which brings us to another topic. In terms of genre history — Star Trek, Kolchak, programs like that — they were not able feature a story arc.
CARTER: That arc — which arcs over nine years — has been the subject of a lot of debate.
JKM: Does that mean you long for the days when TV stories were simpler? When you could just say, “next week, we start over.”
CARTER: You look at Law & Order. It’s an amazing television series. It really has what you’re talking about. It starts anew each week, and it doesn’t feature characters’ personal lives over and over again. That is not part of the series. It’s a luxury. I never figured out how to create something that would interest me that would be as simple as that.
JKM: And that may be the very thing that precludes a series like Millennium from running for nine years. Some people can’t take that journey, but the people who do take the journey usually end up feeling very rewarded.
CARTER: We did an X-Files charity day recently, and we had a lot of people there from all over the world. One of the things that someone said to me — and pointed out as a regular watcher of the show — she said: “people say the mytharc of the show is complicated. It’s not complicated. You just have to pay attention to it.”
I think one of the things that happened, certainly — and this is part of it being a nine year show – is people say that it got too complicated. I think that what it did — rather than becoming overly complicated — it became stretched-out. It took on a complexity given there were 202 episodes.
JKM: In some sense, broadcast television in the 1990s — before DVD box sets — worked against you there, I think. It’s very difficult when you have to stop your story momentum for Thanksgiving, or play-off games, week-in and week-out. This was the case with Twin Peaks as well. But when you watch a season on DVD — in a week or two weeks — it’s easier to see how it all makes sense. I don’t know what this fact says about our attention span, but it seems that series like Millennium and X-Files are much preferable to watch on DVD, back-to-back, rather than with weeks of interruption in-between.
CARTER: Of course, when you’re producing the series, it is a week-by-week experience. So you’re not thinking about the DVDs. I never thought about the DVDs. You really are thinking about what it is— week-to-week — that interests you. You do it simply on that basis. So when you hear that people watch it from beginning to end, it’s very satisfying that what you were pondering, and working out carefully, elaborately, and painstakingly plays out on a grander scale.
JKM: It does. Millennium, in my opinion, is one of the most pure works of art I’ve ever seen on television. It holds so many resonances of things half-spoken and suggested. It’s a beautiful puzzle.
CARTER: I appreciate you saying that. That was what it set out to be, and I know that’s what the writers set out for it to be. In the second season — which I had so little involvement in because I was working on The X-Files and The X-Files movie — Glen Morgan and James Wong came in and put their stamp on it. They added layers to it. It was truly a collaboration of points-of-view, and of I guess you would call it an artistic approach to what was I think, an interesting subject matter.
JKM: Taken together, all the seasons lead you to this inevitable conclusion about what is going to occur at the Millennium. You almost have three meditations from three perspectives– in three seasons — on the same subject, about the same man, the same organization, and the same situation.
CARTER: If there is a mystique, it’s truly collaborative. On The X-Files it was also truly collaborative. There were so many good people that came to work on the show: who wrote the show, who directed the show, and who became involved in the show. It’s one of those things where you have to spread out the accolades for what the series became; and what they did
JKM: I think Millennium is the first time I heard on network television the descriptor “the culture of fear” as applied to the United States. In the last decade, we’ve certainly become well-acquainted with the culture of fear in this country. But not many of us were thinking about that in the 1990s. But you were. And your shows were. All of your programs feature this brand of “anticipatory anxiety.” You know, there’s going to be a doomsday. An alien invasion in 2012. Millennium went through many end of the world scenarios. Even Harsh Realm. What were you seeing that other people weren’t seeing? How did you tap into this?
CARTER: I don’t know. That is a sensibility of mine. I just sensed that there was something bad coming. Probably, the combination of Y2K and the Millennium; the Millennial anxiety everyone was feeling. The word “Millennium” wasn’t actually a popular coinage. People didn’t know what Millennium meant, by and large, so while there was nervousness, it was truly an instinctual gut nervousness. There wasn’t a whole lot of intellectual effort being put into the decade, into the turn of the century.
JKM: But you started doing this in 1993, even before people started talking about Y2K or the Millennium. The Cold War was over. We had peace and prosperity. We had no enemy. We had all this technology, and the economy was booming. But you still found this underlying uneasiness. If you look at it today, your programs are even more timely. People wondering about vaccinations, the government, etc…
CARTER: Oh, there’s much more paranoia today.
JKM: In a decade in which a lot of people seem to think nothing happened, your shows were saying a lot’s happening. You even issued a challenge in the opening credits of Millennium when you flashed up the words, “who cares?”
CARTER: Right. “Who cares” came up, and then the question mark came up a moment later. It really was a two-edged sword. Frank Black represented the people who had the weight of that worry on their shoulders. The few people who actually were looking forward; or feeling the anxiety. Who weren’t lost in, as you say, the good times.
JKM: If you look across Millennium, X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and Harsh Realm, you also see that in addition to the anticipatory anxiety, you return again and again to the idea of the unelected privileged — a small group, a cabal — whether it be the Syndicate, the Millennium Group of the military industrial complex in Harsh Realm dominating the many. Is that something really interests you?
CARTER: Yes, it interests me, and it’s continuing to interest me. Sometimes, I don’t even stop to consider these things, but I’ll find something of interest. A conversation with someone, for instance. I’m looking at the Zeitgeist of today and trying to make sense of it in what I’m doing. Sometimes these things are commercial, and sometimes they aren’t.
JKM: That’s the tragedy of Harsh Realm. The show got better and better and better, but only three episodes actually aired. At the end, you’re left mourning what could have been.
CARTER: I feel the same way. I look at a show like Dollhouse, and if we would have been given the opportunity that Dollhouse had…we might have lasted. The same thing happened to Joss Whedon with Firefly. He had a great idea and didn’t get a chance to develop it.
JKM: In creating your shows, you had to research the paranormal, conspiracy theories, Scripture, forensic science. Are these all interests of yours?
CARTER: I always had this question that I would ask myself and I would ask the writers as we went forward. Why this story? And why this story now? Those questions set the bar high, and they were relevant philosophically and dramatically to their times. It’s important, as a television writer, to ask yourself that question. It deepens the work. That’s not to say it’s always a good thing. Sometimes it makes it less accessible or more intellectual than it needs to be.
JKM: Which brings up the end of the X-Files series. I’m sure you’re aware of the conventional wisdom: that the series sort of petered-out in the last two years and was not so good. But I watched Season 8 recently and it is incredibly creative; it can stand up beside any other season of the X-Files.
CARTER: Thank you.
JKM: Was it just that we had gotten so attached to Mulder that we couldn’t make the leap to a new leading man? Or did the culture move beyond The X-Files at that time?
CARTER: It was easier to say, it’s not the X-Files anymore, because it had changed. The characters changed. Mulder became the absent center, which was an interesting approach, I think, and made for an interesting season. It changed, though, and so — like it or not — people who would tune in to see Mulder and Scully wouldn’t see them anymore. But creatively, the show sort of took on a new life. The stories were interesting, and the new characters made the stories interesting.
JKM: Robert Patrick was terrific. And in Doggett you suddenly had a non-veteran set of eyes on these X-Files cases. You saw someone with vulnerability in “Via Negativa,” for instance. We always knew after seven years that Mulder and Scully would be there for each other, but we didn’t know yet about Doggett. He was alone, in a way, and suddenly you had this new uncertainty, which the show got a lot of mileage out of, in my opinion.
CARTER: It was kind of meta-X-Files because it was commenting on itself at the same time, and the show turned inward, in a way. The characters deepened. The concept deepened. And I think for some people that was interesting and for some people it became inaccessible.
CARTER: First of all, in television people haven’t quite been given the opportunity to produce things that were so visual. It was sort of by demand on our part. We had to tell these really scary thriller stories, and they couldn’t be done from one angle, two-shots. They needed to be done in a multi-faceted, delivery-of-information way. So we got to emulate a lot of what I loved about film, and we got to do it on a television schedule.
It didn’t happen right away, but not long after we started, we were given what I call respectable budgets. We needed to tell these stories in interesting visual ways; we took an artistic approach. We were one of the first shows to give credit to the director of photography and the production designer, and other people up front in a television show. So we had the budget and the desire to push the limits. I always say “we didn’t understand what we didn’t understand” about producing a TV show like this. We tried everything.
I point to something like the conning tower coming out of the ice in season two (“Colony”/”Endgame.”) We refrigerated a sound stage, brought in tons of snow and ice and built this conning tower. I didn’t know you couldn’t do that. So we just started doing things.
JKM: It seemed as if we were watching a movie every week. So much so, that I must hold you responsible for the fact that horror movies in the 1990s didn’t do particularly well. Every Friday night, for many years, you could get a better experience at home watching The X-Files or Millennium instead of going to the theater and being disappointed.
CARTER: I always said that we weren’t doing horror and couldn’t do horror based on the standards-and-practices that were applied to the shows. We did an episode like “Home,” and the day after we did it I was given a very stern lecture about never, ever pushing those limits again.
And you see where horror went after The X-Files. The Saw series for instance. It had to push limits that we couldn’t push on television.
CARTER: I don’t think so. I mean, we had 22 days to shoot Kill Switch — that’s including second unit work too — but 22 days. That’s just unheard of. That’s why I don’t think there will ever be another series like The X-Files. People ask me that, and I just don’t think there can be in today’s climate.
JKM: In general terms, what are some of your film inspirations?
CARTER: For The X-Files, I point to Silence of the Lambs (1991). Another movie that I love — which is horror in a certain kind of way — is the David Lean version of Great Expectations (1946).
Do you think this was because it was not at all the typical summer blockbuster — it featured few big special effects and almost no gunfire — or because the subject matter was so dark that people just weren’t willing to engage with it?
CARTER: I think it was about as you say, the summer blockbuster mentality, and what we delivered and what was expected. What we attempted to do; and what the audience expected.
All these things played into how I Want to Believe was received. It’s funny, but on the series, we prided ourselves each week with making a little movie. Then, when it came time to do the second X-Files movie, we were given the money and the opportunity to make, literally, a little movie. That’s what we did. We realized we had no money for big special effects. We had to come up with a story that didn’t rely on those special effects, and hence wasn’t a summer blockbuster kind of movie.
So we came up with a movie that was about faith and forgiveness and redemption. And then you put it up against The Dark Knight in late July, in the heat of the summer, and what happened to us was that we met with some valid criticism, and also what I call lazy criticism.
But we also met with box office results that showed there was a hardcore X-Files audience out there, six years after the series had been off the air. The people who had hoped for another X-Files movie — or were willing to see another X-Files movie — were probably hoping to see something bigger than the first X-Files movie.
JKM: In a way what you gave us was bigger emotionally than what you gave us in the first X-Files movie.
CARTER: That’s a feature of not having a money to do anything else that was bigger than the first X-Files movie.
JKM: Father Joe is a really fascinating character in the film. And how you use him in I Want to Believe really challenges the audience. You tell us this is someone society has judged as irreedemable, and yet on the other hand, as the film points out, we have this little work called the Bible that preaches forgiveness and redemption. And our culture says it believes in those things. And so Father Joe is looking to be redeemed, and is doing positive things, so why can’t people take that extra step and at least try to forgive him?
CARTER: It’s an idea I’ve been holding onto for a long time; the idea that Father Joe lived in this complex with these other men, where they sort of policed each other. I had read about that a long time ago, and I always thought that was so intriguing and relevant to the idea of redemption, the idea of forgiveness, of living life after the point of judgment.
Another thing that wasn’t talked about much in the criticism of the film was the Frankenstein idea. I had run across something on the Internet: a Russian doctor creating two-headed dogs. I mean he was really doing this…creating two-headed monsters. It’s a Frankenstein story, yet nobody really reviewed it as a kind of modern Frankenstein story.
JKM: Some critics also suggested the film was homophobic or anti-gay.
CARTER: It was the opposite.
JKM: That’s how I read it. It was about going to extreme possibilities to save the life of someone you care about. Whether it was the sick boy, Christian, Mulder’s obsession with the case, or the villain’s obsession…he was going to do anything to save his lover’s life….
CARTER: Don’t give up. He wasn’t giving up. I always said that the film was really a multi-layered love story. There was the love between Mulder and Scully. Then there was the Russian character who had been collecting these body parts and his love for his partner. So the love stories reflected each other. But again, I just want to say that some criticism of the film was valid.
CARTER: I wouldn’t use the word ensure. But because of the business the movie did, especially the international business, it is a possibility.
JKM: I know that you’re paying attention to this. There’s been this fantastic movement, and a group, called Bring Back Frank Black, dedicated to the resurrection of Millennium. The show seems more popular now than ever. Is a Millennium feature film something you are interested in pursuing?
CARTER: I would like to do it. But it is going to take interest on the studio side for it to happen. Everyone involved with Millennium has left the studio. The people there now know it ran for three years and that it starred Lance Henriksen, and that’s all. You have to find reasons to interest them.
JKM: Given that the Millennium is passed — and without giving away specifics — what kind of storyline would interest you for a Millennium motion picture?
CARTER: Considering we’re engaged in a War on Terror that is ongoing, I’d like to see Frank and the Millennium Group distill something from that war that is…interesting.
JKM: If you could take one episode from any one of your shows and put it away in a time capsule for 100 years…and say this is who we wre in the 1990s, this is who Chris Carter was, what episode would it be?
CARTER: Well, I think maybe “Post-Modern Prometheus.” In a weird way, it captures so much. And I really like that moment at the end with Mulder and Scully dancing together. It’s just a sweet moment.
JKM: I wouldn’t presume to tell you your answer is wrong, but I also really liked The Millennium pilot.
CARTER: David Nutter did a great job shooting that. I love the final moment with the polaroids, when Frank realizes this isn’t over. That it’s just beginning. …
JKM: Kevin, can you tell us about how you first personally “discovered” the films of Ken Russell, and why they stuck with you?
KF: I first consciously discovered Ken Russell in 2000, but my first experience with a Ken Russell film was in 1999. In those days, the cable channel Bravo had a series of films which they called “Five Star Cinema,” often shown in prime time, especially on Friday nights (this before their nose-dive into cooking shows, fashion shows, and other “reality” programming). Typical, repeat titles included Patton (1970) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983).
Anyway, it took me over a year—during which time I got a job at a video store and saw Russell’s acknowledged masterpiece The Devils (1971) for the first time—to do enough sleuthing in order to figure out that the film in question was Russell’s biopic Mahler (1974), which to this day remains one of the films I most admire.
JKM: What, in your eyes, makes Russell such a unique artist, and one worthy of book-length study?
KF: Well, there are two main reasons, each equally valid, though each of which positions him slightly differently vis a vis other directors. On the one hand, he has the most striking visual sensibility. In a cursory comparison to other (I’ll stick with British) directors, he is justifiably paired with Nic Roeg, though I think that Roeg attains his best effects mainly through a combination of painterly camerawork and analytical montage (which is to say, Roeg’s best films tend to work based on how they string their shots together). Russell’s stuff has more to do, for me, with his taste in framing. He is able to use fantastic, often symmetrical, but also often off-beat, framing to isolate his subjects in the pictorial frame.
So, outside of the kind of stock answer—that Russell’s films have a “vision,” that he is a maverick, etc, though these sentiments are starting to feel like shopworn cliches—I had always felt that Russell’s work had been done a great disservice because of how it was talked about, either in praise (the praise usually coming for the same set of reasons, and usually only in relation to his Monitor films and The Devils), or in dismissal. Russell has made an extraordinary variety of films, on subjects ranging from a man who paints agricultural steam engines (Mr. Chesher’s Traction Engines ) to an illicit staging of an Oscar Wilde play in a Victorian brothel (Salome’s Last Dance [1988—incidentally, available for free viewing here: http://www.hulu.com/search?query=salome%27s+last+dance), yet he tends to only be celebrated in a few ways.
JKM: When did you know that you wanted to write/edit a book about Russell, and how did you get the project off the ground?
KF: This is a long story, so I’ll tell a condensed version. Many years ago, while doing work on a quickly ballooning honor’s thesis that was partially to do with Russell, I realized that I had enough material, had accumulated enough of Russell’s obscure films, and had enough of a differing perspective from the prevailing critical winds to write my own book on the filmmaker. I had envisioned something along the lines of a critical filmography that delved into areas that previous books did not. This was before Joseph Lanza’s Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (2007), when the most recent book on Russell that was not written by the man himself was Ken Hanke’s book Ken Russell’s Films (1984).
Because of my research into Russell’s recent—which is to say, post 1990—career, I was to write the last section of what was to be a 3 section book detailing Russell’s career more-or-less chronologically. However, in 2007, I was invited to present at the Literature/Film Association conference in Lawrence, KS, partially in honor of Russell’s 80th birthday. In addition to screening Russell’s early short film Amelia and the Angels (1957), I presented on Russell’s recent work. At the conference, I learned that John was bogged down by other projects, especially his book on director Tony Palmer and that Jim was likewise in the midst of several things (he has most recently done The Literature/Film Reader and a book on adapting No Country for Old Men . Anyway, to make an already long story short, I was asked to continue our project, but as an edited collection.
JKM: I believe you’ve met Mr. Russell on several occasions. Is he different in person than you might have expected, after seeing films like The Devils? What were/are your impressions of him?
I was next able to meet him at the Asheville Film Festival the following year, 2005, when he was guest of honor. He and his wife Lisi were very nice, supportive, and gracious. Russell even sat through a short interview, a portion of which appears in Mr. J.K. Muir’s excellent book Horror Films of the 1980s! Since then, our contact has mainly been in writing. But Russell’s a major celebrity again—thanks to his stint on Celebrity Big Brother, his newspaper column, his teaching appointments, etc…—so I try not to bother him too often.
JKM: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist — which you edited — was just published by Scarecrow Press . What can you tell the readers about this project? What, in your mind, does it attempt to achieve? And how does it go about achieving it?
KF: As mentioned above, I saw the project as a chance to bring a lot of articulate people together to write about Russell in ways that had previously been ignored, or not even thought of. My own personal goal was to combine my long-time study in Russell’s films with a number of complimentary academic interests. I wanted to frame Russell’s films in debates that had been complimentary, but generally relegated to other spheres, such as a larger discourse over governmental structures as potentially repressive cultural technologies, or the multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation about Britain’s economic dependency on showcasing and exporting its cultural heritage. Personal goals aside, I wanted to showcase a few pieces of exemplary scholarship on Russell that already existed—I settled on Barry Keith Grant’s fantastic essay on Russell in the 1980s, and on a largely archival and interview-driven essay by John Tibbetts on The Debussy Film (1965) as reprints—but otherwise wanted the book to consist of new work.
JKM: The book includes thirteen essays, covering all aspects of Russell’s film career. Can you tell us, in broad terms about the essays and about some of the contributors?
KF: Of interest to your readers is your essay, which discusses Russell as an auteur in the tradition of 1980s horror (so feel free to say more about that yourself)! I won’t spoil all of the surprises but: Tom Wallis has done a great job writing about Tommy (1975); Tom Prasch has written a highly informed piece on Salome’s Last Dance (1988) which questions a lot of the iffy things that have been said about the film in the past; and Paul Sutton has provided the largest scale account of Russell’s pre-1970 television films yet. The contributors range from younger to seasoned veterans. I think between us all, the authors of the various essays have written or edited over 50 books. Some are full professors. All, I think it is safe to say, are passionate about film!
JKM: Russell has been a biographer, a maker of horror films, a provocateur, and more. In what mode to most prefer Russell? Where do you think he’s flourished, and where has he faced pitfalls?
KF: Well, I think that Russell has done some amazing things in all those areas you mention, but has also occasionally faltered in said areas. His greatest critical success, Women in Love (1969) means that many think of him most specifically as someone who does literary adaptations, esp. of D.H. Lawrence (those also, as you know, of Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Paddy Chayefsky, etc). If one is inclined to rock and pop modes, he’s the man behind Pop Goes the Easel (1962), Tommy, Lisztomania (1975), and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001), a gonzo pastiche of Poe which also stars a rock-star (James Johnston).
JKM: What about your essay, “Television, Contested Culture and Social Control: Cultural Studies and Pop Goes The Easel?” What did it crystallize for you about Russell as an artist?
KF: Again, I don’t want to give too much away (where’s the fun in that??), but that essay of mine seeks to help people work toward rethinking Russell’s cultural contribution during his early BBC years. The conventional wisdom—commentators, critics, and Russell himself—casts his Monitor and Omnibus career as a kind of struggle with the documentary form and Huw Wheldon, one that was ultimately beneficial both to the programmes in question and to Russell’s own method.
While this contribution is certainly important—think of how mainstreamed this approach is now on the History Channel!–I also located at this early point in Russell’s career a different contribution. The short of it is that, whereas films previous to Russell’s (specifically Pop Goes the Easel, from 1962) tended to talk about art in purely venerable terms, idolized the isolated artistic individual as someone above most forces of social strife, and tended to approach the television audience in an explicitly educational, some would say patronizing way, Pop Goes the Easel showcases a more democratic understanding of what art is, who it was for, and how it could be used and enjoyed. It showcased 4 pop artists, who worked as a group and benefited from the dynamic interplay of their peers, and showed how they negotiated popular and commercial culture in the creation of their artworks.
JKM: How do you contextualize Russell in terms of cinema history. Do you see him as an auteur? A part of a specific movement? A pioneer? An artist shunned by his own country, to some extent?
KF: Well, all of those things…but also none of them. He is an auteur, but not in the strictest terms or in the most waterproof way. As I think the book makes clear, it simply isn’t that interesting to only thing about his work in those terms, when there are so many other ways of thinking about his films and their status in a wider world. As a maverick, he has peers but no exact parallels. In fact, he was recently chosen as one of Sight & Sound’s “Wild Bunch” of cine-mavericks who continue to shock, thrill, and provoke. But beyond that level of sensation (remember, Russell took great care with Tommy’s credo of “I’m a Sensation”–the phrase applies as much to the director and his career as to the film in question), his works constitute a great contribution to 1980s horror, British cultural history, the biopic genre, and the personalized documentary.
JKM: What are the reasons, do you think, that Russell isn’t making films for Hollywood right now?
KF: His films have basically been absent from the mainstream of first-run cinemas since Whore (1991). There are a number of factors, many of which Russell discusses in his autobiographical books and films: his theatrical films of the 1980s were slightly fringe, made for Vestron, who went out of business at the end of the decade; the vogues for his types of films had waned by the end of the 1970s, a decade when chances were taken on a great many strange films, most of which could not have been made under the more conservative production slates of Hollywood in the post-Star Wars blockbuster era. Remember, as great as films like Jaws and Star Wars are, their success changed the entire paradigm of US film production. While Russell’s films, despite their bombast and their appeal to a number of audiences (for the most part), worked better through word of mouth, as gradual roll-out art films. Moreover, despite the fact that Russell is still active as a filmmaker—see his strong contribution of the recent horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006)–he is getting on in years. Older directors can’t get as easy of a break. Cinephile audiences tend to get screwed over because of the hesitations of the money-men.
JKM: Tell us where readers can find the book…
KF: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist is published by Scarecrow Press. It is available on their website, Amazon.com (where it is currently being offered at a discount!), Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold—or, more appropriately, can be special ordered, since this is something of a niche title. The book is being sold worldwide, so check the Amazon site that services your country or region!