Q&A with Frank Spotnitz
Although the concept is really old hat now on television, an elaborate mythology for a series was new back in the early days of The X-Files. Frank Spotnitz, long-time writer and producer of that series, helped develop much of what became a complex storyline of aliens, monsters and religion. He later went on to executive produce its short-lived spin-off, The Long Gunman, as well as Millennium and Harsh Realm, and recently worked on Michael Mann’s Robbery Homicide Division. This past season he helmed his own series, Night Stalker, starring Stuart Townsend.
With the DVD of that cancelled series hitting stores on Tuesday (see our review of that here) we were given the opportunity to chat with Spotnitz and discuss his experience making Night Stalker and more.
Tail Slate: What is your fascination with Kolchak?
Frank Spotnitz: When you were growing up, as I was, in the 1970s, in a three-network world, there was nothing scary on television. And when Night Stalker originally came on, it was really good. It was really scary, and it made a huge impression on people my age. And I never forgot it, and I loved that character, and Darren McGavin was such an incredible personality. He made it even better than it would have been without him. And then I watched the TV series. It wasn’t quite as good, but he was still great. So, however many years later, some 30 years later, I got the call to do it again. I said yes out of love of the character and thinking of my childhood. But then when I really went back and looked at those original TV movies and the series, I realized how many of those things were wrong. With the series, anyway. And why in my judgment you really couldn’t do it today without changing it quite a bit.
TS: You mentioned in one of the commentaries on the upcoming Night Stalker DVD set, that the show was actually based upon the two television movies, not the series. Did that change or affect the way in which you developed your version?
FS: The only think it really changed is that I would have liked to have included some of the music that was in the TV series, and some of the characters and character names. But, because I couldn’t base it on the series didn’t stop me from watching it and studying it, and figuring out why it didn’t work. There were a lot of reasons why I think it didn’t work. Like, why did Kolchak alone of all the reporters in Chicago find monsters week after week? And what was his interest in monsters, anyway? He didn’t really have any interest other than looking for that story that would get him that big time newspaper job again. And why did any of these stories get into print? And what about the cops? And sometime the cops would even see these monsters and they didn’t respond to it. That really shaped a lot of what my series was going to be.
FS: I have to say I’m not a true horror fan. I don’t run out and see most horror movies. But I like supernatural storytelling, to be more vague about it. Because it tends to be about something. If you can change the physical world, and you come into a story where there’s supernatural phenomena, or a monster, or something like that, it’s because you have an idea, a good story, that can’t be expressed in the real world. And that’s what I like about it. It tends to be about something, and there’s something to think about after it’s over. And I think that’s why so many people take an interest in the writers of this genre, where they don’t take interest in writers of other genres, because they recognize that those ideas are unique.
TS: It seems a lot of the writers from The X-Files have gone off and done similar-themed shows. Were you and the other writers all of a like mind and loved the genre?
FS: I think what happens is that once you do a successful show, whatever genre it is, Hollywood likes to typecast you. I think a lot of people, whether they like it or not, are going to be asked to do shows in the same vein. John Shiban, who’s doing Supernatural now, loves the genre, just like me, as a kid. But I think some of the others, they just fell into it.
TS: When it comes to developing a mythology for a series, how much is plotted out? Like with Night Stalker, how much was plotted out and how much did you discover as you went along?
FS: I think you try to do both. You try to get a very clear idea of where you’re going, and what the series is about. But then you have to be flexible about all the stops along the way, because you don’t know what actors you’re going to find, or what’s going to happen in the news that might affect your storyline, and you don’t know how many years you’re going to be on the air. In the case of Night Stalker, ABC actually required that I tell them what the mythology was. I had to write a top secret, five-page document, before they would order the series. It explained what was in the pilot, where the series was going to go, and what the last episode would be. So I had a very clear sense of what that show was about, and I have to say, I really felt like I had a particularly rich mythology to pay out. It was particularly disappointing that it got cut short.
TS: Do you think that a “mythology” show has a limited lifespan? How long can a storyline get dragged out until it burns itself out?
FS: I think it depends on your skill in weaving the mythology of the series. I have to say that we had the benefit and the curse of being the first to devise the mythology series. As it was happening, we didn’t realize what we were doing until we were well into it that we were in fact creating this mythology that wove in and out of the series. I remember hearing the word “mythology” and thought what a pretentious word that was to apply to a TV series, but now it’s sort of accepted. And our’s spread out over nine years. And now I see the viewer’s impatience, and their appetite for resolution happen on a much faster schedule then it did when we were doing The X-Files. The thing that I wonder is how many of these shows can people keep in their heads at one time. So many shows now have a mythology that you’re expected to keep track of.
TS: Right. After Lost last season, they came out with several shows this season, such as Invasion, Surface and Threshold, all of which are gone. I’ve had discussions about this with others and, for me, it always came down to: I only have so much room in my brain to dedicate to a television series, I don’t want to have to remember all these things for all these different shows.
FS: Yeah, that’s the way I feel. I really don’t want to have to keep track of too many fictional universes.
TS: I always get nervous about shows like Night Stalker that don’t last, because if you get into it and it gets cancelled, then you never find out what the plan was for the series. I was glad that you explained a lot of the show’s secrets in the DVD’s commentary.
FS: Well I figured this was my chance on the DVD set for those who liked and watched the show, or were buying the DVD, this is what this meant and this is what that meant. And [the show] was fairly unique. And I would like to think that I have the benefit of experience, having played a key role in The X-Files mythology for all those years, of what a mythology should and shouldn’t be, and I tried to apply those lessons to Night Stalker.
TS: Now, you worked with Michael Mann on his most recent show, Robbery Homicide Division.
TS: The one thing I remember thinking when I first saw Night Stalker was that it looked like Mann had directed it. Was that intentional?
FS: He’s such an amazing filmmaker, and he is truly a visionary, which is not a word I would use about many people. And he understood early on what these new high-definition video cameras can do and how they were going to change filmmaking. And, especially in their early days, what they could do better than anything else was photograph the night, because they see light in very low levels. In fact, the new generation of cameras see light at levels even the human eye can’t see. So, when you’re doing a show called, Night Stalker, and you just worked with Michael Mann using these high-definition cameras, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to say that these cameras would be great for this show. So I wrote the pilot and subsequent episodes to take advantage of these cameras and the technology. And going hand-in-hand with that is the idea you want to be on location a lot because you can see off into the distance, you can see clouds in the night sky, you can see all these details which are so rich. That was part of the show, too. We filmed on location almost everyday, which is extremely difficult for a television series, and extremely expensive, too. But I think that’s what gave the series its look.
TS: I understand that you were once a reporter yourself.
FS: I was, which made me uniquely qualified to do [Night Stalker]. Not by design did I follow that career path, but right out of UCLA I became a reporter for seven years. But then I made the career change by going back to film school.
TS: How did you end up as a reporter?
FS: It was an accident. I went to UCLA intending to get into Hollywood, and fell in love with journalism. I became editor of the college newspaper, and then left to become a reporter. And it wasn’t quite the job I thought it was going to be. I think I was very young, and idealistic, and I became disillusioned by what the job really was. And I just didn’t have the dedication and love for it that you need to become a really great reporter. I think I knew before seven years, but after seven years I finally said that’s enough and I moved back to Los Angeles and Hollywood.
TS: Now, one of the next things you’re working on is Amped.
FS: Yeah, that’s a pilot for Spike TV that we hope to do this summer.
TS: What can you tell us about that?
FS: We’re waiting, any day now, to get the green light to start casting and so forth. It’s another scary show that I wrote with Vince Gilligan, from The X-Files. This one is about cops in a police precinct. It’s got a larger ensemble cast than I’ve ever worked with before. And the world outside them has changed. A certain percentage of the population has begun to mutate, and they mutate in all different way. It depends on the individual’s DNA on how he or she changes. So the cops go out every day and they quite literally don’t know what they are going to encounter. They might encounter what, for all intents and purposes, may be a monster. And this makes the job utterly unpredictable and, pretty scary. And they all react to this challenge in different ways. So, it’s a really funny and scary show, but it also has a lot of parallels to things that we all feel and fear today.
TS: And you’re also doing the The X-Files sequel.
FS: Well, I hope to be doing it. I’m still waiting like everybody else. My deal is done. I think all the creative deals are done. We’re just waiting for some legal issues between Chris Carter and 20th Century Fox to be resolved.
TS: And there was a mention that it wouldn’t be connected to the alien mythology of the show.
FS: No, no, it’s not. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re excited to do it, because we did the mythology for nine years. The first movie had to deal with the mythology and was sandwiched between two seasons of the show. Now we’re freer to do a good, scary movie. I always thought it could make a really good film franchise of really scary mysteries. It will have, not a mythology element, but a character element in that we’ll catch up to where Mulder and Scully are in their lives.
TS: Now, in the spirit of conspiracies, I had this question for you: When ABC decided to cancel Night Stalker did they intentionally cancel it showing only the first part of a two-part episode, so they would hook people into getting it on iTunes and now on DVD so they can see the second part?
FS: No… you know, I don’t even know if when the people that make those decisions realized they were pulling it in the middle of a two parter. I think what really precipitated their haste was that we were in November sweeps, and they thought that we were going to get another week of low numbers, so they wanted to yank us off for something better. They did yank us off for a Primetime Live special that didn’t do any better. In fact, it did worse. That was particularly frustrating, because I think that second part of the two-parter was one of the best episodes of the series.
TS: I actually got to watch it this morning on DVD, and I did think it was pretty good. It was interesting to see where the show was going. And I was disappointed that they canceled it. I was actually ready to dedicate a part of my brain to watching it and keep track of its storyline.
FS: That was the first episode that really told you that, you know what, you may think you know what this show was about, but maybe you don’t because the bad guys didn’t kill him when they see that mark. So, who is he? What is going on? And that was really the exciting part of the mythology that you really hadn’t seen before.
TS: Would you ever consider letting people see the five-page document you wrote for ABC?
FS: Only when I know without a shadow of a doubt that the show is absolutely dead and wouldn’t come back in any way shape or form. Even then, I have to say, some of those ideas may find their way reimagined or reconfigured into something else. So much of what this show was about are themes and ideas that are really important and interesting to me. The mythology of good and evil, which is such a profound issue in everyone’s lives, whether they think about it or not. So I expect I’ll continue to deal with these ideas in some way in everything that I do.