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Chris Carter.

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Chris Carter on Area 51, Playing Softball With Brandon Tartikoff, and the TV Musical in His Closet

This time last year, The X-Files creator Chris Carter sat down with Vulture for an extended conversation timed to the 20th anniversary of his iconic series. His Amazon Prime pilot, The After, was still in the early stages of development, and Carter was formulating a plan of attack on a super-secret project for AMC. We thought we’d check back in with Carter at the TV Critics Association press tour held earlier this month, where he’d come to promote The After, which Amazon had given a series order for. (The apocalyptic drama is set to debut early next year.) Given that Carter had already talked at the event about The After, we decided to use our 20-minute window with him to discuss burning questions relating to the AMC project (now tentatively titled Area 51; “I’ll be handing [a script] in next week,” he told us), his early days in TV working with legendary NBC boss Brandon Tartikoff and other industry heavyweights, and whether we’re any closer to something new on The X-Files front (Hint: It sounds like we just might be).

Can you tell us anything more about what Area 51 will be?
I’m going to keep you in the dark on that. But [referring to a conversation before the interview began] I already sort of gave you a hint: I’m reading biographies [including Gabriel Sherman’s Roger Ailes bio, The Loudest Voice in the Room], and I’m interested in the media landscape. I’ve read An Atheist in the Foxhole. I’m reading a variety of things about the 24-hour news cycle.

The heads of 20th Century Fox TV, which produced The X-Files, are now also in charge of the Fox network. Does this make it more or less likely there’ll be some sort of reboot or sequel to the show? Things were tense between you and the suits at the studio for a while; you filed a big lawsuit against them.
A lot of the people that were involved in that [lawsuit] have moved on. It’s the business. I’m very friendly with Gary and Dana. Dana and I basically cut our teeth at the same time. She was a publicist. It’s nice to go through your career with someone you have respect for and were in the trenches with. Dana and I sat in the same room during the first market testing of The X-Files. She was like a junior publicist, and I was this unproven producer. She was there at the beginning. So I owe her a lot. And certainly she and I have talked a lot about this.

Is that a way of saying a reboot is happening?
That’s just a way of saying there certainly have been conversations.

So why hasn’t it happened? 
I would assume nothing. Hold on a second. [Looks at phone.] This is funny — I just got a text message from David Duchovny. You can put that in! We are not only friends, but neighbors. There’s something to do with a remote control that I have. [Laughs.]

You worked on some interesting projects early in your career. One was a pilot with Sela Ward.
Cameo by Night. I learned a lot on that. I learned that I wanted to be a producer.

And early on you ended up with a writing deal at NBC. But you didn’t work on any of the big shows they had back then. 
NBC came to me and said, “We can put you on a show immediately as a producer, a writer/producer. You can go on one of these three shows: You can go on Miami Vice, you can go on Crime Story, or you can go on a show we have called Rags to Riches.” What would a smart man have done? He’d have gone on Miami Vice. It was a great show with great writing. But I looked at that show and said, “That show is shot in Miami, and the writers/producers sit in Los Angeles. I don’t want to do that.” Crime Story? Producer sitting in Los Angeles, show shot in Las Vegas. Rags to Riches? Show is shot in Culver City, producers sit in Culver City. And that’s the show I wanted to take, because I’d learn the most from that show. And Len Hill, the producer, I learned a lot from him. Harry and Renee Longstreet, I learned a lot from them. Andy Schneider. Robin Schiff. Diana Frolov. That was a big education for me.

It was a musical! 
Yes. The guy who did the music for The After is John Debney. And I met John on Rags to Riches.

You played softball with Brandon Tartikoff during your NBC days, right? What do you remember about that?
So baseball was my sport, and Brandon was a super-competitive guy. It didn’t hurt that I brought some skill to the game. But Hollywood is a meritocracy. I don’t care how good a baseball player you are, if you can’t put it on the page or screen, it doesn’t matter. [Laughs.] But there was a time when I really couldn’t pay my mortgage. And Brandon reached out to me and gave me a job. So I’ll be forever grateful to him for that. And also for teaching me some things about good television, and instinct, and competitiveness.

Is it different producing TV now versus 20, 30 years ago?
The process of making things large remains largely the same. You must get up every day, you must move your junk in trucks to a place and film it, whether it’s [shot] digitally or not. A lot of the nuts and bolts continue to be nuts and bolts, and not 3-D printing. Much has changed technologically, but when you talk about good storytelling, what hasn’t changed is, people are still emotionally the same as they were 3,000 years ago.

We’re in the era of the superstar showrunner, and the era of showrunners closely connecting with fans. Going into The After and maybe an AMC project, do you feel pressure to interact more with audiences?
I’m not on any social media, but I do have an Instagram account, which I plan to use for The After. [But] there just isn’t enough time to interact with everyone. I think your job is to do a great show. And if you’re not doing that and you’re interacting with people, in a weird way, you’re taking your eye off the ball. I think that I’ll continue to do my job the same way until I find it makes sense to do it differently.

You told us last year that you’d been devouring a lot of TV shows, including Breaking Bad and Scandal. Anything lately you’ve been wowed by on TV? 
I loved True Detective. I thought it was brilliant in every respect. Those actors were fantastic. It was beautifully directed. They had beautiful scripts. For me, that is a high-water mark in television. I truly fell in love with it.

Do any shows on TV right now, in your mind, truly capture the ethos or spirit that you created with The X-Files? Have you seen Orphan Black?
No, but I hear great things about it. There’s no one show that I want to point to. But it’s a really amazing time for television. People are always saying they were inspired by The X-Files, and making these connections. I don’t see the connections quite as clearly as other people do. But I can tell you that The X-Files learned many hard lessons, and I’m thankful when people tell me they’ve capitalized on the lessons we learned.

Photo: Jon Furniss/Getty Images