Having worked on The X Files for eight years where he wrote or co-wrote forty episodes, Frank Spotnitz has amassed a colossal body of high profile work, also working on the associated shows Millennium and The Lone Gunmen alongside Harsh Realm and Night Stalker. His new show is Hunted, the explosive new drama from Kudos, the production company behind Spooks, Life on Mars, Hustle and Outcastsamong many others.
On Friday 24th August, as part of the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, executive producer Alison Jackson, director SJ Clarkson and Frank attended a screening of the premiere episode at the Edinburgh Filmhouse where they spoke about the international flavour of their ambitious new show, the ambiguous morality of the characters, and the extensive casting search that led them to Melissa George. Afterwards in the bar, Frank was kind enough to spend a few minutes with Geek Chocolate to talk about Hunted and his work on the FBI’s most unusual cases.
Geek Chocolate – Hunted is quite a departure for someone who is best known for work focused on the supernatural. It’s very hard edged, it’s global, cinematic, densely plotted, and it’s all your work, all eight episodes. You must be very proud. What was the inspiration?
Frank Spotnitz – Well, I wanted to do something in Europe, and I thought a spy series was something that I could do that would be British through and through, but that Americans would watch. The spy genre is actually my favourite genre. It’s what I grew up watching, more than anything else, more than science fiction even, spy stuff, all the James Bond movies, all these spy series around the sixties and seventies.
But the hard part was coming up with something new to say, and so as I said in there, the first thing was coming up with a character who was complex and worth watching, and the second thing was the world of private security firms and the really interesting morality that’s posed by having spies who work for profit, not for ideology.
GC – You wrote all the episodes of the first season. Was that a challenge or was it a boon to have the whole thing on paper before shooting began?
FS – Well, actually, I didn’t write eight, I did it like we do in Hollywood, we had a writers room, and I did a version of that here, so it was me and three British writers and so I wrote five of the eight, and they each wrote one episode. We did it just as I would have done The X Files or any other show I’ve done, except in London, and it actually was crucial for me being able to do the show, because I hadn’t lived in the UK before and I couldn’t really write British characters unless I’d had British writers to help me understand their voices and their psychology.
We didn’t actually have all the scripts written before we started filming, we probably had, I don’t know, drafts of four scripts, but I like that, because I like seeing film, seeing the actors, and then being able to adjust what you write based on the reality of who you’ve cast and the way the film has come out.
GC – Which makes me think of Melissa George, I was very surprised when you said upstairs that I was going to ask, she’s a very complex character, was it written with her in mind, but obviously, it wasn’t, the fact that you had not finished the whole show, did that allow her to bring something to it, that you could direct the later scripts?
FS – Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the best things about series television, the ability to react to what your actors are doing, and there are so many qualities she has that you get inspired to write certain scenes, which you’ll see in the later episodes, they are inspired by her performance in the early episodes.
Frank, SJ and Alison
GC – HBO is a prestige channel. Were they fully supportive?
FS – They were, yeah, they were great. I mean, an anxiety I had at the beginning was what kind of partners the BBC and HBO/Cinemax be, because they’re so different, their audiences are so different, but as it turns out, really it was painless, they both had the same kind of reactions to the scripts and the cuts, and that should kind of give you confidence that they were seeing it the same way.
GC – I think the bottom line for both though, is quality.
FS – That’s right, that is true. HBO is one of the few places in America that, like the BBC, puts quality first.
GC – It’s a shorter season, a self contained eight episodes, than you would work on for a Stateside season. What other differences are there on this side of the Atlantic?
FS – Oh, my goodness, there’s so many. The pace of the storytelling, I would say, is not like anything I’ve done before, so I can’t say that that’s one of the differences between the UK and the US, but I don’t exist in this system, the showrunner, the writer/producer does not exist in the UK by and large. There’s a few exceptions to that.
That was a bit of a challenge, adjusting to the way that things are done here, and for everybody, trying to figure out a way to fit me into the system here. Writers rooms don’t exist in this culture either, and the role of the director is quite different in the UK versus the US, so those were all very different. The crews are great, but they’re much smaller, and the budgets are small, and so for a show of this ambition and scale, even with the relatively generous budget we had, it was not easy.
GC – Writing sixty minutes must have been a change.
FS – It’s a lot longer than what I’m used to. You watch an episode, 44 minutes, this would be over in the US, and there’s still so much to go. It’s also a challenge to sustain interest in a story for that much longer, so it’s a different form.
GC – Generally, television has a much higher production value, certainly for the prestige productions, than it did fifteen, twenty years ago, and I remember watching an X Files DVD commentary, I can’t recall which episode or which director, but they pointed out one of the reasons the show sold so well globally was that it was so cinematic, you could watch it in any country with the sound down, and visually it would look as good, and it was one of the first shows to do what is now a standard, a high standard.
FS – That was absolutely our ambition, that was absolutely something we thought about consciously, was trying to tell stories with picture, because that is moviemaking, right, it’s the best use of the medium. Use the pictures to tell the story. I did think about that, obviously, in Hunted, and I think I’ve gone farther than I’ve ever gone before in my career, with storytelling by pictures.
GC – The casting of Hunted reminds me of the ethic that was used on The X Files as well, they are people who are right to inhabit the roles rather than household names. You cast for the part, not to generate column inches.
FS – That’s right. In X Files we rarely used famous names. We wanted you to believe in the characters, not be distracted by who’s playing them, and yeah, that was our thinking here, too.
GC – The X Files was a genuine global phenomenon, and you wrote forty episodes, including many decisive two parters of the mythology, Nisei/731, Piper Maru/Apocrypha, which introduced the black oil, Purity, Tunguska/Terma, which took that forward, A Christmas Carol/Emily were fantastic shows for Gillian Anderson. What stories do you look back on most fondly, either because they came out exactly as they were envisioned, or just because they were fun to work on?
FS – I have to say, it was so hard, it was eight years of my life, and it was really, really hard work, but there were so many times when an episode would come in, not necessarily one I’d written, but it was better than I’d thought it was going to be, and it was such a delight when that happened, and we were blessed with so many great directors.
David Nutter was one of the best, and then there were a number of seasons where we had Rob Bowman and Kim Manners both directing at the same time, and they competed against each other, and they helped elevate the show and make it visually far more sophisticated and contributed to that idea that you were talking about earlier, about telling stories with pictures. Often when it was Kim or Rob directing, the episode would come in, and I would just be smiling, because they loved it so much and it showed.
GC – It never reached the same level of success as The X Files, but if anything Millennium has an even more devoted following. How do you look back on that show?
FS – Yeah, I mean, I loved Millennium, and I do meet people to this day who liked The X Files, but loved Millennium. It was more extreme, it was darker, which speaks to me, though, I like that kind of storytelling. But it was enormously frustrating because it didn’t get the popular success that it needed to keep going, and it should not have ended after three years in my view, and there are amazing fans out there who still support Millennium, and are actually publishing a book this summer about Millennium, so it still lives in the hearts of fans.
GC – Excellent. It was very much a gift that few shows get, to have a concluding episode, on another show, no less, and you got to do it twice on The X Files, both for Millennium and for The Lone Gunmen, and I have to say, the zombies in the basement, the hissy, spitty zombies, those were creepy. You had seen slow zombies, you had seen fast zombies, you had never seen zombies like those before. How did that feel, and were you satisfied, or was it a necessary compromise to squeeze it into that hour?
FS – I wasn’t satisfied. Actually, it was one of those things where we were so frustrated that Millennium didn’t get an ending, we were just determined that we were going to do it on The X Files, and we made the decision, got Lance and everything, and then when we tried to write it we realised, this is really hard to do, because they’re different series, with different mythologies, and how do you make it an X File but use the character of Frank Black? It was really tough. So it’s not the ending that Millennium the TV series I think really warranted. It was the best we could do in the X Files universe.
GC – And you did it for The Lone Gunmen too.
FS – And The Lone Gunmen as well. That was another frustration, though. That was another show where I feel like we had just figured it out by the thirteenth episode, and then it got cancelled, but that’s television.
GC – You got to tie up a lot of other loose ends on The X Files, Three Words, picking up the first feature film. When that disc was dropped on the White House lawn, and the camera pulls in, and you see the three words are Fight the Future, I got a chill, Provenance/Providence, tying up the mythology, and particularly William, with both Scully’s son and Jeffrey Spender. You’re the man with the loose ends.
FS – Yeah, yeah. Well, a lot of that was actually David Duchovny’s idea, which is why David came back to direct towards the end there, but it was a collaboration, obviously, primarily with Chris Carter, but David throughout had a lot of ideas about the mythology of the show, too. It was a great experience because you were pushed to do your best, and to be as smart and ambitious as you could be, and those are lessons I’ve kept with me my whole career.
GC – How much of the mythology was set in stone, was planned out beforehand?
FS – Well, Chris didn’t want to be locked down too specifically, he wanted to be able to find things, and react to the news, and so every year in the beginning we’d sort of say “okay, this is where we want to go this year,” we’d know what the end point was that we wanted to reach in general terms, and then we’d figure it out as we went.
But you know he told me when I joined the show, at the beginning of the second season, he imagined the show would go five years, and his original ending, as I recall, was going to be that Mulder would find his sister, and that would be the end of the series, but that just wasn’t possible, the show was more popular than ever in the fifth year, you know, there was a movie in preparation, so the mythology of the show changed, and David left, and so it became very hard to wrap it up in a satisfying way because all these market forces interfered.
GC – Some people have accused the later season of being not as good, but I always felt Robert Patrick was excellent, as was Annebeth Gish, increasing the role of Skinner was a good move, and so on. Perhaps you did not have as original work each week, but the actual physical production value of the show never dropped, even in the later seasons. Drive is a particular episode from the later seasons that springs to mind, something completely new and brilliant, and Patience, the one with the man-bat in the rafters, fantastic episode.
FS – Thanks, you really know the show! Well, thank you, we never stopped trying. We worked as hard on the ninth season as we did in the early years of the show. I think when people say they didn’t like the last two seasons as much, I think what they’re really saying is, they weren’t as emotionally engaged once Mulder was gone, and I understand that, I get that, I can’t quarrel with that. But I think, you know, for us, we killed ourselves to make it as good as we could from the beginning to the end.
GC – Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny both deserved all the praise and acclaim that they received. I once read a comment somebody made about David Duchovny, I can’t remember who, I’m afraid, how it was astonishing how little he actually does as an actor, yet he remains completely convincing. It was a very different style than you were used to seeing in a science fiction show.
FS – I think he’s hugely underrated. I think it’s really, really hard to do what he does, and I know. You’re a writer, you see an actor interpret your words, and you realise how good they are when they do, and I think he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves on Californication, because it’s comedy, and it’s so obvious what his gifts are with comedy, but as a dramatic actor, he’s a really fine actor, I think.
GC – It has to be said, the final episode, The Truth, although it was good in terms of tying everything up, in that it was satisfying, sort of like Snoopy sat there with the typewriter, looking up and thinking “See how neatly all of this fits together,” and it was astonishing how many pieces across the years –
FS – All fitted together.
GC – Actually all tied together, yes, but I did not feel it was satisfying as an episode. What was your feeling about it?
FS – Yeah, I think that’s fair, and to me it’s because so many people watched The X Files for Mulder’s quest, it was Mulder’s quest, his sister had been taken, he had opened the X Files, and having that two year interruption where Mulder was only partially there, and having him return in the end, it just didn’t feel organic, and I think that’s what people missed. We may have resolved the plot about as well as we possibly could, but the emotional journey didn’t feel as satisfying as it could for some people.
GC – And again, in season, you wrote Closure, the episode where Mulder actually finds out his sister Samantha is dead, and he says it with a tear and a smile, it’s a resolution. He knows she’s at peace. That was, again, a fantastic episode.
FS – Ah, thanks. I liked that too.
GC – I am one of the few who loved I Want to Believe. I thought it was in many ways a more satisfying film than Fight the Future, and it felt to me like a genuine X File, and it was great to see the cast together for one last time to say goodbye, and give it a happy ending. There’s been a lot of people who say they want another film, but I am actually happy with the way we said goodbye to them. What’s your feeling?
FS – I’m really proud of that movie, but I think my frustration is that it didn’t do well at the box office, and it doesn’t feel like we ended with a home run, it feels like we ended with a movie that we’re proud of but that wasn’t a commercial success. And in truth, we did end it with that last shot in case that was the end, we wanted there to be an end for Mulder and Scully in case that was the last film, but you know the story of the alien colonisation of Earth has never been completed, and I think it should be. So I’ve made no secret of my desire to finish the story.
GC – Well certainly although we’re happy with where you left off, if there was ever another chance, we wouldn’t say no.
FS – Yeah, neither would I.
GC – Thank you so much. It’s been great.
FS – Thanks for knowing the show so well.
Hunted premieres on BBC One in early October and on Cinemax on Friday 19th October
Special thanks to Frank for his time, Big Light Productions and Ruth Neugebauer of BBC Drama for assistance