When one character meets a conspiracy theorist in Intruders, a new series debuting August 23 on BBC America, he looks at the wall and expresses disappointment: “What? No ‘I Want to Believe’ poster?” This was a wink to the X-Files roots of showrunner Glen Morgan, who adapted the program from the 2007 novel Intruders by British writer Michael Marshall Smith. “Well, for all of us, it’s kind of the elephant in the room,” laughed Morgan, in a recent interview with Vulture. The series slowly unravels a mystery involving a crew of immortal body-snatchers who can hop into the bodies of mere mortals and make their “hosts” seem a little out of sorts to their friends and family members. It’s an intriguing premise, and takes more than a few episodes to make sense, but like any great installment of The X-Files, not knowing exactly what’s going on is half the fun. In this wide-ranging chat with Vulture, Morgan discussed his new show, creepy kids, the Final Destination movies, other X-Files writers, and his acting debut (and farewell) with the cheesy ’80s heavy-metal horror movie Trick or Treat.
Many of the projects you’ve worked on over the years have involved conspiracy and mysterious threats. Are you more paranoid now than you used to be?
[Laughs] I wish I wasn’t. I didn’t use to be, but I’ve become pretty skeptical. Ever since those Final Destination movies, I always look twice when crossing the street. Like that thing in Final Destination 3, in the hardware store? That girl who gets hit by the nail gun? I went to the Home Depot on Sunset Boulevard for two or three days straight, going, “This goes to this, this goes to that,” like every aisle, I’m in danger. I always thought they were comedies, the way I approached them, but I do look twice everywhere. [Laughs]
Your wife, Kristen Cloke, was in Final Destination.
She played the French teacher in Final Destination. She got off the plane and she was playing John Denver and she got burned up and the knives fell on her in the kitchen. She’s always telling me [things like], “Here’s a good thing for you to use: I was driving, and I reached back for something in the back seat, and my hand was stuck, and the motorized seat thing was pushing me closer to the steering wheel.” People always do that. [Laughs]
In addition to giving you good ideas, though, she’s also a writer on Intruders?
She co-wrote episodes six and eight of this, yeah.
And your younger brother Darin, who also wrote for The X-Files, is involved with the show as well?
He wrote episodes five and seven. It’s kind of a jumble. We don’t really need to have a writers’ room — just after dinner, we start talking. [Laughs]
Do you and Darin have a friendly competition where writing is concerned?
You know, he’s really one of a handful of writers that I would go, “Yeah, I’d go see a movie or a TV show because of them.” You know, the David Simons and the David Chases. I think my brother is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever worked with. He’s a total pain in the ass [laughs] because he’s my brother, but he’s one of my favorites, so anything I can try to do to facilitate him writing anything, I just feel like that’s my responsibility to the rest of the world.
Darin and I have always worked together, and he has a very particular kind of taste. If you have him on your writing staff, you’re going to have to fight for things. Every executive wants Darin Morgan on their writing staff, and then when he starts doing what he does, they get nervous. So as an executive producer, you’re going to have to understand that you’re going to have to fight or reassure others that, “No, we should do that scene.” We have a great scene where Millie’s character steals a car, she drives it away, and it’s great, but when it was in script form, everyone was like, “Is this what we want to do?” “Yeah, no, it’s going to be great.”
Have you guys ever talked with the other writers from The X-Files about getting the band back together? There were a lot of heavy hitters there: Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, and, of course, your old writing partner James Wong.
Yeah, I’d hire everyone from The X-Files! But they all have their own shows. [Laughs] Chris has two shows, Vince has Better Call Saul, Alex [Gansa] is doing Homeland, Howard’s really busy … You know the guy who works for Howard, Hugh Fitzpatrick? He’s the guy who brought the novel for Intruders to me. Frank [Spotnitz] has a couple shows in England. And [John] Shiban I think is going to Da Vinci’s Demons. So they’re all busy. We see each other once in a while. But if anything ever came about, sign me up! [Laughs] That’s how I look at it. If they ever came to me and said they were a fan of the show, if they wanted to do something, or if they were down on their luck, whatever may be, absolutely! I mean, I worked with Jim Wong for 15, 20 years, something like that? So I hope one day to be able to do something again with them.
Why did you and James Wong stop working as a writing team, by the way?
Um … you know, I was getting older, and I just wanted to do a certain type of thing. I was in search of a different kind of thing than he was, and then I was like, “Why should I bring you down?” It was friendly. I wish my separation with my first wife could have been that pleasant, you know what I mean? There was no animosity. It was just like, we had achieved all these things, and he wanted to go that way, and I wanted to go this way. And that’s what we did.
You two were uncredited writers on this weird ’80s horror movie Trick or Treat, and you acted in it as well. It may have been your only acting role?
[Laughs heartily] That was the best six weeks of my life! We had two friends Michael Murphey and Joel Soisson who were making this movie for [Dino] De Laurentiis, and Jim and I did a polish on the dialogue that, yeah, was uncredited. And Joel and Michael had a character, this dork friend, and the actor had dropped out, so they had auditions, and then somebody said, “Why not Glen?” because I had done some of that stuff in college. And I went and auditioned for [director] Charlie Martin Smith, and he gave me the part! I just went and learned from Charlie how to behave on set. It was such a great experience. I tried my best to give him what he was looking for, and I got to hang out with Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons. It was a blast! I’m not an actor, so I didn’t pursue it. I wouldn’t do a cameo even — that’s just taking work away from somebody else. I’m not an actor. I’m doing the world a favor! [Laughs] I didn’t understand [the movie’s villain]. I said to them, “A rock-and-roller is not supposed to kill kids. Shouldn’t he be killing authority figures?” I think that’s what the big flaw is, because it is kind of cheesy and goofy and whatever.
But sometimes, it’s fun to watch a movie that doesn’t entirely make sense.
My brother and I, I don’t know how many times, would go to the theater in the ’70s, and we’d see The Food of the Gods, which was just, like, running hamsters and guinea pigs. It was the worst movie, but we just went to see it over and over again. It just made no sense. It was stupid. But on another front, one of my favorite pieces of art is Eraserhead, and I don’t want to figure that out! I just want to watch it.
And sometimes it takes a while for a good mystery or conspiracy story to unravel, for all the dots to connect. If people haven’t read The Intruders, they might be in the dark for the first few episodes, but that’s the appeal of the show, trying to figure it out.
We have the book, and the answers are there, but we do veer off. It’s kind of nerve-racking, but I had the experience, even when I read the book, “What’s going on?!” halfway into it, or even three quarters of the way into it, and then you go, “Okay, this is what’s going on.” So when I wrote the first two scripts, the studio said, “Hey, this is good. What’s going on?!” And then they embraced that. And then we do two more scripts, and we give it to the network, and they go, “I don’t know what’s going on! But I want to read the next one.” So as long as they’re saying, “I want to read the next script, I want to watch the next episode,” then I feel okay. If someone’s going, “This show’s nuts, but I don’t care,” then we blew it. But that’s what the show is going to have. Even our sound mixer says, “I binge-watch all my shows, and this is killing me to not have the next episode.”
Did you discuss expanding what’s in the novel, like detailing more about what the Shepherd and other immortal characters are up to? Things like that are murkier in the book.
Yeah, a bit. I’ve adapted a couple novels, but if you really did it … Harry Potter is the best example. You need eight two-and-a-half-hour movies to do it properly, so you always have to take shortcuts. And some stuff will be hopefully more fleshed out next year, like a day in the life of the Shepherd. You come to understand how they work for this group, and what the criteria is to be recruited by them. And I think the first four episodes very much adheres to the book. In the last four, we veered a little bit, really primarily based on the actors that we had. Once we had Millie Brown, we wanted to see more of her, because she could do anything.
She’s amazing. That little girl is able to convey innocent and sinister while switching between her two personalities.
Oh, man, let me tell you. Secretly, when we were like, “Hey, we’re going to make this thing!,” as a producer I thought, Oh, man, we’re never going to find this kid. And this show is going to get shut down because we can’t cast the kid. And she was the first one! It’s the greatest stroke of luck I’ve ever had in my career. Millie Brown — she’s never played Mrs. Claus in the school play, I think she did two episodes of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as young Alice. But when she auditioned for me in person, she was completely speaking American [English] and then she started talking with a British accent. I was like, “Whoa! What’s going on here?” But there’s that scene in the pilot, where her character drowns her cat, and she was doing the scene, and she was covering her face, and she was crying. And I was like, “Millie, your character … your parents are going through a divorce, and at night they fight, and this cat is your only friend. And you just killed it. So I’ve got to see your face.” She just says, “Okay.” She starts circling her hands, “Let’s go, let’s go, right now,” and the people come in to touch up her makeup, and I’m like, “Everybody, get out of here, get out of here.” And she just does the scene, you’re just watching her at the monitor, thinking, “This kid has never had that level of tragedy. Where is she pulling this from? This is incredible!” So that’s a long-winded answer to say, sometimes you look at people and you’re like, “Man, this is outside their experience. This is outside of their genetics. Where is this coming from?” I know that Michael Marshall Smith, the novelist, was intrigued with things like that, like how Mozart wrote an opera when he was 4. So we were like, “I’d like a scene where Millie and James Frain actually meet.” That’s not in the book. And we have a lot of scenes that we hadn’t shot yet, we had teasers that took place in the 1700s, and flashbacks of how Jack and Amy met. That’s all stuff we can revisit. Originally, we were preparing for a ten-episode season, and then when BBC U.K. got involved, they wanted an order of eight. And so that’s another thing in adapting the novel, and having to shrink this part over here because we have eight episodes instead of ten.
It’s infuriating sometimes that British television wants fewer episodes per season, even if the episodes themselves might be longer. Like, what? Only three episodes for Sherlock? Why can’t we have more?
I agree with you about Sherlock. And Luther. I don’t know how … I started on 21 Jump Street, and we had 24 episodes a season, and I had no idea how we did that. That would kill me now. When I was doing 24-episode shows, and that includes The X-Files, we knew that three were going to suck, just because you couldn’t focus that much. It’s just really hard, even with a 22-episode season. People get annoyed with me for saying this, but in all honesty, out of 22 episodes a year, four were great, most were okay, and some of them sucked! And that’s just how it goes! Classic shows like Dick Van Dyke or I Love Lucy or M.A.S.H. or Seinfeld, they have a couple classics, and most are kind of okay. We don’t always remember those.
What would you say was your best episode of The X-Files? “Home”?
Oh, I’m uncomfortable picking that one! If I ever rewatch an episode, I rewatch one of Darin’s [involving] Jose Chung. There are two episodes of that [character], and one was on Millennium. Those are the ones that I watch.
Okay, so if you could try on a different body, the way they do on Intruders, who would you pick?
I would want one that doesn’t need to pick up a doughnut! Or a Manhattan late at night! You know, the thing that the show says, and what I believe, is just because you could live forever doesn’t mean that you should. Just because you’re immortal does not give you immunity from human emotions and motivations. The fact is, no matter what body you pick, there are going to be problems. So I’m fine! I’m happy with the one I have. I wish I didn’t have this gut, but I’m happy.