The first thing visitors notice upon entering the sun-drenched four-story Santa Monica office of X-Files creator Chris Carter is the artwork on the walls. Massive, imposing canvases and decorated surfboards loom overhead, each emblazoned with a unique phrase: Bullshit ain’t fertilizer. Rotten on the inside. God’s gift to women.
Ask Carter what those phrases mean, and he will tell you that they are about bad experiences he’s had – with sociopathic people, with the destructive force of nature, with 40 acres of farmland he bought. And so this golden temple of creativity is secretly a shrine to the dark side. This is the world of Chris Carter.
“I guess I’m looking for relevance again,” he explains when asked why he chose to immortalize bad memories as his art and office decor.
Relevance? It’s an oddly appropriate word to use for someone who hasn’t had a new series on television in nearly 14 years. This month, however, Carter is finally returning to Fox with a six-episode reprise of The X-Files. “It’s about looking for a personal relevance, a foggy window into me,” he elaborates.
At the height of his productivity in the late Nineties, he was running two network TV shows – The X-Files and Millennium – in addition to writing an X-Files movie. Not long before the series’ final episode, Carter decided that he needed a break.
“After 9/11, everything changed overnight,” he recalls, sitting at the large rectangular table in his office where he normally writes. A weathered, rubber-band-encircled Tiffany box rests atop, stuffed with thank-you notes he’s writing to the people who worked on the new episodes. A Murphy bed is pushed into the wall across from him, with two corkboards for storyboarding affixed to its bottom.
“All of a sudden, talk of government conspiracies wasn’t so interesting anymore,” Carter continues. “People were looking to the government to help them. And they were too scared of real-world things to be scared by a television show. It felt like a huge downbeat in the country and … reality TV started taking all the best time slots. So it seemed like a good time to bow out gracefully.”
When the series ended, Carter, as he puts it, “dropped out” of the TV business for 10 years. “I needed to get out of small dark rooms looking at small screens,” he says, blinking through piercing pale-blue eyes. “I just needed to live my life.” So he parted ways with an industry he compares to a train: “When you hop off of it, it just takes off without you.”
A row of framed pictures on a shelf in Carter’s office documents the result of this sabbatical. One shows him in a single-engine plane on his first solo flight; in another, he’s surfing a monster wave; in the adjacent frame, he’s heli-skiing; then he’s climbing a mountain. Carter, who began his career as an editor at Surfing magazine, didn’t really rest, it seems. He just found intensity outdoors instead of indoors.
“I hadn’t imagined that we would have a second run. There’s a bit of ‘been there, done that,’ but it’s got a whole new context, both politically and scientifically.”
To fill his remaining time, Carter accepted a fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at University of California-Santa Barbara.
When he noticed that television was having a renaissance in the form of shorter-run shows on cable with far fewer restrictions on language and imagery – many of them created by former members of his writing room, such as Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan – his enthusiasm for TV rekindled.
Though Carter doesn’t admit this, his return to Hollywood (not counting a second X-Files film he wrote in 2007) must have been disappointing for the man who ruled the medium a decade earlier. A series about the Salem witch trials that he created for Showtime never made it to air. Same with an Area 51 drama he worked on for AMC. And ditto for a conspiracy thriller, Unique, which he developed at Fox.
But the toughest hit was his 2014 Amazon pilot, The After, a Sartre-meets-Dante serial drama set in the intersection of Los Angeles and Hades. Carter spent a year writing eight episodes in what was envisioned as a 99-show arc. But when the executive spearheading the project was replaced, and Carter refused to create a “show bible” explaining the series for his new boss because he prefers a more spontaneous writing process, Amazon canceled its order for the series.
“I was excited to explore hell,” Carter says. “I believe we’re all in a kind of hell.”
And so, 14 years after The X-Files ended its run, Carter is finally back on TV in a familiar guise: bringing the show, and some of its presumed-dead characters, back to life. “I hadn’t quite imagined that we would have a second run,” Carter says of his paranormal baby, which he describes alternately as a monster, a hydra and a Frankenstein. “It’s amazing to me. There’s a little bit of ‘been there, done that,’ but it’s got a whole new context, both politically and scientifically.”
“I want that paranormal experience. Aliens, they owe me a visit. I’ve been their best PR man for the past nearly 25 years.”
The current arc, which comes too late for the 2012 alien invasion prophesied at the end of the series’ first run, centers on a conspiracy-theory Internet show reminiscent of Alex Jones’ popular Infowars. To gather material, Carter attended a number of conventions, including the Secret Space Program, where speakers discussed various theories about how the world’s elite are weaponizing space, using alien technology, planning an overhaul of the economic system and, in general, plotting a new world order. The final episode explores Carter’s interest in CRISPR – a relatively cheap and fast technique of altering genes.
“The show is kind of a search for God, because I believe science is a search for God,” says Carter, who was raised Baptist in Bellflower, California, as part of the Christian Reformed Church. “During my fellowship, I worked under a Nobel physicist. He didn’t believe in God. For me, it’s mind-boggling that a person who deals with things that are so incredible, so beautiful that you have to believe that they were actually created by some greater power, doesn’t believe in it at all.
“My wife doesn’t believe in God either,” Carter continues. “I just have a sense that there’s something greater out there, and I think that has fueled the stories that we tell. That poster that says, ‘I want to believe’ ” – he gestures to the classic X-Files artwork on the wall – “that’s me. That’s me! I want to believe. I want that paranormal experience. Aliens, they owe me a visit. I’ve been their best PR man for the past nearly 25 years.”
Close encounters notwithstanding, if the miniseries goes well, does Carter plan on keeping The X-Files open for further seasons?
“I think I’m going to answer for my wife,” he replies, very seriously. “No.”