Writer/Producer discusses the Night Stalker TV show, his remake of The Star Chamber and a possible X-Files sequel
Few people have had the effect on modern television storytelling as Frank Spotnitz. In crafting episodes of such popular shows as Chris Carter's the X-Files and Millennium, Spotnitz helped redefine the way that modern television stories could be told. His tales were ones of people coming to grips with realities many in the world could never imagine, and he has been rewarded by a devoted legion of fans who follow him from project to project.
During a recent interview with Frank Spotnitz for the upcoming release of the Night Stalker: The Complete Series, the revered writer discussed why wanted to "reimagine" the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series from the 1970s, his work on such shows as the X-Files and Millennium and he even discussed the possibility of there being another Millennium movie.
What was it about the Night Stalker and the character of Carl Kolchak that made you want to reimagine this show?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, I'll be honest, I said yes because I loved the old TV movies and it wasn't until I said yes, and really sat down to watch them again and watched the first series that had been done, that I really had to figure out why I was doing this. (Laughs) Because as much as I loved those first two TV movies, when I watched the series I started to realize how many problems there were with this concept. While you could have a reporter who found a vampire, for instance, in the first TV movie, that was fine. When you're doing a series you have to create a logic for how he's going to find something supernatural week after week after week. "Why is this one reporter doing that?" "Why isn't it ever ending up in the newspaper?" and "Why aren't any cops seeing these things?"
It's a whole other set of issues that I felt like the first series was not very successful at resolving. So it really led me on a pretty tortured path to come up with something that made sense within the standards of contemporary television and was still interesting. And I ended up going in a pretty different direction from the original series.
What do you think it is about yourself that draws you to such shows as the Night Stalker, the X-Files and Millennium?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, I liked these kind of shows as a kid. They were my favorite shows. I loved Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek; and I loved movies like Planet of the Apes. So it just always spoke to me and I think as an adult what I like about genre storytelling is that it is, invariably, idea driven. There is a subtext beyond the text itself. Usually monsters are some aspect of human behavior or humanity at large.
That appeals to me very much. I like to think I'm not just wasting an hour of people's lives, but that these shows have something to say and that you take something with you after having seen them. That's why I think this particular genre... the fans are so devoted and they take an interest in who writes the material because they recognize, intuitively, that they're about something.
You mentioned realizing when you said "Yes" to doing the Night Stalker that you would have to come up with something week after week, was that the toughest part of writing that show?
Frank Spotnitz: I think devising the approach to the show was the most difficult thing. Then, when I finally sort of freed myself not to go with the Darren McGavin-type character, that was the big breakthrough for me because I loved Darren McGavin (the original Carl Kolchak from the 1970s show) so much and he was so fantastic, but I also came to believe that it would be foolish trying to do Darren McGavin better than Darren McGavin. I went with a younger guy and embraced the idea that Kolchak may in fact not be a good guy. It got very, very interesting to me.
There were two "Holy Sh*t" moments in the series. One was the end of the pilot when you see that he himself has the mark on his wrist, the very last image of the pilot, and then the second one was in the second part of the two-parter, when he's being chased by the bad guys... and they've got him with their shotguns and he holds up his wrist and they don't shoot him. That was particularly heartbreaking to me that that episode didn't make it on to network television because I thought it was such a great, intriguing moment and just when you think you've gotten to know the character, who is he really? And, what's he about? Why aren't the bad guys killing him?
So I'm particularly gratified that that episode is now on this DVD collection, people are gonna get a chance to see it.
Is it ever a problem for you getting characters like Kolchak and Perri or Scully and Mulder out of the situations you 've written them into?
Frank Spotnitz: It's always really hard figuring out how to resolve a supernatural storyline. It's invariably a fight you have with network and studio executives. (Laughs) Because it's my belief that when you're dealing with the supernatural, the supernatural still has to trump we mortals, it still has to be more powerful than we are. You can't really defeat it. You can live to fight another day but it's very rare that a human being can actually destroy a supernatural force. That's the type of thing you get from executives, "Well, they need to win! They need to be heroic." It's like, "No, that's part of what draws us to this genre of storytelling is the sense that there are forces out there larger than us. There are things in the universe we don't understand."
That's always the balance in these stories. Having your heroes live but not truly be victorious.
That seems to be a running theme in a lot of your work. These characters who have been to the other side, they know that that world exists and now they're scarred for the rest of the show because maybe they can't defeat it.
Frank Spotnitz: Yeah, that's exactly right and I think that's what dimensionalizes these characters, makes them feel relatable and gives them a personal connection to what is otherwise pretty outlandish subject matter. So that's what you need to find and I think that was the brilliance of Chris Carter on the X-Files, was having Mulder's sister be abducted by aliens because it gave him a real emotional reason to be following these cases. Some people compared the death of Kolchak's wife to the disappearance of Mulder's sister, and that is true, they both function the same way to give the hero a personal connection to the supernatural. Although, in the case of the Night Stalker, there's some evidence that Kolchak in fact is a supernatural force himself or rather, aligned with supernatural forces responsible for his wife's death.
Do you think your background as a journalist highly informs your writing?
Frank Spotnitz: I do. I think it was, even though I didn't know it at the time, obviously, fantastic training for what I do now. As a journalist you have to think quickly, you're exposed to all types of people and situations and you've got to synthesize your thoughts in a very clear and concise way and write them down quickly. Those were all things that have proven really useful in my life as a television writer. I'm really grateful that I had that experience, not just because of the training it gave me but because I got to see so much of the world as a reporter. If I'd just gone straight to Hollywood out of college I really wouldn't have as much context for the stories that I tell now.
Are there any plans for another X-Files movie? Is that something you have any interest in?
Frank Spotnitz: Yeah, I actually have a deal, believe it or not, to co-write and co-produce with Chris Carter. And David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have deals; I think even Chris Carter has a deal. There's some legal issues pending between Chris and 20th Century Fox relating to the old TV show. So I'm hoping that those will get resolved and that we can still do it because we'd love to.
Can you talk at all about The Star Chamber? Do you think a movie like that is even more relevant today?
Frank Spotnitz: I do, totally. It's funny because we began this process of remaking it some years ago. It was still fairly early in the Bush Administration. Now, you know, I think the issues we see everyday with the Bush Administration... about how far can the law go to capture bad guys? It feels very relevant. I think it's a great remake because it's a great idea that was never, in fact, fully realized. I think there's a lot of great things about the first version of the movie that was done in '83, but there's also things that should have been done that weren't done so it's one of those remakes where you have a chance to actually do it better, I think, the second time around.
Lastly, can you talk at all about your new series Amped? Also, I hear you are writing a new project with Chris Carter?
Frank Spotnitz: The project with Chris is based on a book called A Philosophical Investigation and it's a movie for Paramount Pictures. Our hope is that Chris will direct it. We just turned in our first draft just last week, actually. So that's still fairly early on in the process. That's ongoing and then Amped is a pilot I wrote with my X-Files colleague Vince Gilligan for Spike TV. We hope to begin filming this summer and it's set in a police precinct, and the idea is that the world has changed. A certain percentage of the population is mutating and they're turning into monsters... all different types of monsters and it depends on your specific DNA what type of monster you become. So the cops who work in this precinct go out everyday, and they literally don't know what they're going to encounter. It's a very dangerous world and it's a really scary and funny script.
The Night Stalker: The Complete Series creeps on to DVD shelves May 30th, 2006.