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INT: Frank Spotnitz

05.29.2006by: Matt Withers


Frank Spotnitz, for better or worse, will always be known for his work on the seminal series THE X-FILES. But don't let that dupe you into thinking the dude is a one trick pony. He was also one of the forces behind the under loved classic MILLENNIUM, and now has seen another great show end all too soon in the new NIGHT STALKER.

I chatted with him the other day in anticipation of the NIGHT STALKER DVD release. In my opinion, every genre fan out there should scoop this sucker up. The only down side to checking it out is how much it hurts to know that there's no more coming.

Still, the DVD commentaries shed a lot of light on the mythology he had created for the project, and we get into it a fair bit in the interview as well. So if you want to check out the series with virgin knowledge, skip this 'til later. Otherwise read on and discover an awesome project that never really had a chance.

Since you are an avowed fan of the original series, how difficult was it for you to develop this as something that stands on its own?

It was much harder than I had imagined to update the show. I signed on without really thinking about the specifics of how to update it. Just how cool it would be to do this and that with Carl Kolchak. Then I went back and watched the TV movies and the TV series.

I was vaguely aware as a kid that I loved the movies, but while I still enjoyed Darren McGavin, the series just wasn't as good. I started analyzing the reasons that I thought the series wasn't as successful and it was quite a can of worms.

It really came down to the reality that having Carl Kolchak stumble across something supernatural once was OK. But to have him stumble across something every week, why is he alone in discovering these stories? Why aren't they making the news? Why aren't the police involved? There are all these logical questions, and I think the standard of logic and reality is much higher now then it was in the 70's.

It must have been tough to sidestep governmental consipiracy theories in the development even though you've clearly traveled that ground before.

That's absolutely correct, and I ran into The X-Files many times in the creation of this, and every time I did I thought how can I steer this away from The X-Files. I finally came up with something that I felt very deeply about and was very excited to pursue, but I knew I'd piss off a lot of the purists. Kolchak was no longer going to be a character actor in his 50's. It was going to be very different.

Of course you were going to piss off the purists by remaking the show period.

I think you're absolutely right. The name is a bit of a double edged sword. To many people you can't do Darren McGavin better than Darren McGavin did. So I think the best thing you can do is just exist along side the original. Not do it better, just different.

And one of the things that I talk about on the DVD is where the series was going. What a lot of the clues and the mythology that were planted in these episodes meant.

You do talk extensively about where the mythology was going in the audio commentaries, and it sounded like one of the coolest structures that episodic TV has seen. How painful was it to lose the chance to explore such a rich concept when the series was canceled?

Oh it hurts. It's very painful. I really loved where the show was going, and we got pulled off the air right before the second part of a two-parter. Of course it ends with Kolchak raising his wrist and the bad guys walk away when they see the mark.

To me that's the first holy shit moment where you have to ask what is this series about? But they didn't even broadcast that.

It's also the first point that recompromises Kolchak's character for the audience. We're a little suspicious of him at first, but 'til that point we've pretty much just bought that he's a good guy.

That to me is what was so exciting about the show. I don't think I've ever seen that before on network TV. Where you're not sure if the character you're following is good or not. I think there were a lot of people at the network who were terrified of that as a strategy, and that may be one factor in why they didn't keep going with us.

You were very open about most of the secrets on the commentary track, but stayed very coy about Agent Fain's ultimate role. Does this mean we may still see more of Night Stalker?

I tell as much as I can in those commentaries, while still holding out the remote possibility that Night Stalker might continue in some other format. And I do think it is a remote possibility, but I think the material is certainly stong enough, and I would still jump at the chance if we could do some kind of movie that would continue the story line.

So from a fan of the show standpoint, where was the Linda Caleca storyline going?

It was about who Linda Caleca was and who Irene Kolchak was. Just as some people were born evil, some were born good. And they were targeted by evil. That's where that was going.

So on that line, can you talk about why evil wanted those women's fetus'? I presume the woman killed at the beginning of the pilot was one of the good people too.

That's correct. I think evil is drawn to good. It's the idea that I loved so much about this show. The questions about what goodness is, what evil is, and the challenges of being good. I really think it's harder to go through life trying to be good and having a conscience. It's a handicap. I don't necessarily believe in real life in good and evil from a supernatural standpoint. But I do believe people act in good ways or in bad ways.

And this show was about what's the quality of evil, is Kolchak good or evil? And more interesting to me, how do you respond if you're a normal person like [his partner] Perry Reed. Do you end up doing evil things thinking you're doing good things. Has Kolchak done good things even though he may be in service to evil? There are so many interesting convolutions. I'm sure I'll find some other format to return to these questions because they interest me very much.

I want to partner with Perry Reed!!

Do you often take ideas from one project, that you didn't get to explore, and work with them elsewhere?

Well, you start with an idea that you find really interesting, and then you attach it to a character in a story, and it ends up taking a shape that you never could have anticipated at the beginning. At least if you are diligent about pursuing the heart of the story.

So you end up discovering something about yourself, and what you think of the world that you never would have discovered without going through this process. I might start off thinking that the show will return to some of these ideas of good and evil, but the reality is that it would have changed and evolved.

Stepping away from the mythology, the episodes worked as excellent stand alones, but the network wanted you to avoid monster based scenarios. What the hell?

That's still a question that I cannot answer. It was a big surprise to me. I mean anybody who knows the title knows that it was all about monsters. So to do the show without that aspect never crossed my mind.

Did you get a sense that the network was fully behind the show from the start, or that they were just throwing it to the wolves and if it survived, so be it?

I think it was more the latter than the former. I would have much preferred to be one of those shows that got all the billboards and promotion along with a great timeslot. I think the odds were enormously arrayed against us at the start, and then when Alias didn't perform as expected, the one thing that we thought we could count on - a strong lead in - didn't pan out either.

So when the show isn't doing well, you have to ask is it the show or is it the other factors. I think it was clearly the other aspects, but the network felt differently.

My wife thinks the show was too smart aka good for network TV. It offered quite a bit of moral complexity in an era when many people seem to run from anything without easy answers.

My theory is that it takes time for a show like this to find an audience. It's so unlike most of what you watch. Almost every one-hour drama is lawyers, doctors, cops or a soap opera. It takes time to build word of mouth, you have to be patient, and that's really hard for a network executive to do in this environment.

Almost to the point of ridiculousness. If Seinfeld was released today it'd be canceled before the end of the first season based on ratings.

So might have The X-Files. The truth is you have to get really lucky. Unfortunately, this time we didn't.

Speaking of series in development, any news on the status of AMPED? [Note: The series concept follows L.A. cops as they deal with a population that is mutating into monsters for unknown reasons]

I'm waiting to hear any day now. They plan to shoot this summer so there should be more news soon. I also signed a deal with Touchstone, a two-year development deal and I'm already working on some ideas.

Anything you can share?

No. It's so early in the process I haven't even told them what I want to do yet.

Any chance that we might see [Millennium's] Frank Black back in action anytime soon?

I know it's something that Chris [Carter] wants to do and Lance [Henriksen] wants to do, but I haven't heard anything from the studio. If the offer came through it would be met with a lot of interest, but I haven't heard anything in a while. I think it would make a great movie because you could take it as dark and scary as you want.

Any X-Files 2 news?

Well everybody has a deal in place, but there are legal issues between Chris Carter and 20th Century Fox that I hope will get resolved soon so that we can move forward. It has something to do with compensation for the original series.

So what he needs to do is a straight to DVD X-Files project so that the movie can be based on that instead of the series.


Returning to moral complexity, you're working on a remake of THE STAR CHAMBER which is a highly political movie, probably even more so these days. How's that coming along?

It's been really fun and interesting. I'm meeting with the writer almost every day, and it's really timely right now...in some unexpected ways.

The first one is eerily timely now, and that's even with the self-doubt about the moral rightness of his actions that the Michael Douglas character has. I understand you're making the lead much more assured in his vigilante approach this time.

That's right. It's one of those movies that is a great idea, but wasn't realized as beautifully as it might've been originally. So I feel great about the remake, because I think we can do full justice to the concept this time.

I thought the original was a great movie with an atrociously broken third act.

Yes. In fact there isn't really a third act. It's just suddenly over.

It asks such an interesting question, though, about whether it is better to be effective or good.

That's exactly right. Do the ends justify the means and can you accept injustice.

Any casting news on it yet?

Not yet. We'll get into that once we have the script completely finished.

Well thanks so much for taking the time to chat today.

My pleasure.

I really can't say enough about how good the NIGHT STALKER series was, and definitely encourage everyone to go out and buy it or rent it. As to the rest of the projects we chatted about, expect more coverage as solid info comes down the pike...if it ever does. Seems the only mystery deeper than what these series are ultimately about is what's going to happen next with them in production.



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