The Collider Interview – Frank Spotnitz

     May 24, 2006

If you’re an X-Files fan, you certainly know the name Frank Spotnitz. He was one of Chris Carter’s most valuable collaborators during the show’s glory years in the mid-nineties, earning a couple of Emmy nominations for his trouble and getting a story credit on the X-Files movie. Though Spotnitz is an undeniably talented writer (Michael Mann brought him as executive producer for his short-lived Robbery Homicide Division, and Mann doesn’t just work with any old hack), he has yet to find his own breakthrough show or movie to completely move out from under the shadow of Carter and The X-Files.

It’s a shame, too, because had ABC exhibited a bit of courage during the just ended 2005-2006 television season, I think Spotnitz was poised to connect in a big way with his redo of Darren McGavin’s cult favorite Night Stalker. Emphasizing mood and character over the more sensational horror elements (though there are plenty of monsters knocking about in all ten episodes), Spotnitz was trying to make something soulful in the Mann style, and though the show never hits its stride (again, ten episodes), it’s always interesting and, at times, genuinely frightening.

I had the opportunity to chat with Spotnitz on the phone the other day, and he was refreshingly candid about the development of Night Stalker, network politics, and how the show’s elevated budget might’ve contributed to its demise. We also discussed his in-development big screen remake of The Star Chamber, John Fante and, yes, a potential second X-Files movie. If that sounds interesting to you, have at!

I think the smartest thing you did was to go with a lead who couldn’t be more different in appearance and personality from Darren McGavin.

I wish I was that smart from the beginning. I went through weeks if not months of trying to figure out how to do it with somebody more like Darren McGavin, and it’s sort of a long discussion about why I ultimately didn’t go in that direction, but among other things I came to the conclusion that it would be a mistake to do it like Darren McGavin did it because of the comparison I would be bound to suffer by comparison. Nobody can do Darren McGavin better than Darren McGavin. And there were a number of other issues about the idea of a TV series having a lead in his fifties who’s looking back on his career and trying to get back into the big time that didn’t quite work for me. It was sort of a long process that lead me to going in a different direction than Night Stalker had gone before.

Having a fifty-year-old lead in a TV series – would that be a problem for the network?

You know, if you cast the right guy you could probably get away with it. If it was Ted Danson or John C. Reilly, which are both people I thought of. Or Bruce Campbell. But I was a big fan of the original Night Stalker TV movies and I watched the original series as a kid, and I re-watched them all when I was trying to figure out how to go about it now. And I realized that it worked great in the movies to have a guy in his fifties looking for a story that would catapult him back into the big time, but it doesn’t work so great when you’re doing a weekly series, where that’s his motive, because you know what’s going to happen. You know he can’t possibly get the story of the series would be over it’s kind of a one-note idea. So, the more I understood that, the more I realized that it didn’t make sense to have an older guy. You wanted a younger guy whose future was ahead of him rather than an older guy looking over his shoulder.

I also liked the idea to have Kolchak tormented by a tragedy in his past. The way you use that gives the show a bit of soulfulness.

Thanks. That sort of came about as part of the same process of discovering what worked and didn’t work about the original. Before, he had no personal connection to these stories whatsoever they were just stories that he thought would give him a job at a big paper, and it just didn’t work to sustain a TV series in my mind. You needed some kind of personal connection to the supernatural, which would also help explain why these stories didn’t end up in the paper every week, because he really wasn’t doing it for the paper that was just his excuse to be able to ask questions.

I was a really big fan of Robbery Homicide Division, and I was happy to see that you kept the digital camera approach. I wasn’t sure that worked all the time on a cop show, but here it really enhances the eeriness. Are you a HD convert?

I am a convert, but I think there are some types of stories that lend themselves more naturally to it than others. I mean, you can use it for anything, and it’s fine for anything, but especially when you’re doing all this night photography on locations, it’s just spectacular because it’s so good at capturing light in low light situations. You see details that you’re not used to seeing. We’ve been watching film for so long that we’ve forgotten that, when you’re watching film stuff at night, you’re not seeing the sky at night you’re not seeing way off into the distance like you do in real life. For me, Robbery Homicide Division was a revelation working with these cameras, and, then, by the time Night Stalker came along it was not that difficult a connection to make that these cameras would be really appropriate for it. And they had a new generation camera at Panavision called the Genesis, which I was all over. Actually, with the pilot, we were the first TV show to ever use that camera I think there were only three in existence at the time, and the others were all down in Australia for Superman Returns. Then when we went to series, I fought really hard to get them so we were all an all Genesis show.

Now, did that knock the budget up?

It sure did. It was a big, passionate fight on my part to the studio, because, of course, they don’t want to spend any money they don’t have to spend. These are sort of hard things to quantify when you’re talking to people who are looking at the bottom line. “I mean, what does it matter? You’ll still get the script shot?” But I really believe people have a response to images that are new, that they haven’t seen before. Whether they think about it or not, you’re feeling that something is different. I was pretty passionate about that, and, happily, I won.

But I’m also wondering, having this enhanced budget as the show was struggling to survive, if you would’ve been willing to back off on the look of the show just to keep it going?

I don’t think in terms of our life on ABC that it made any difference. It was a question when we got cancelled, and could we go to another network. And then it was not practical because we had to designed the show not just for the cameras, but it was virtually all locations. Almost every day we were out on different locations in the city of Los Angeles, which is very expensive. So, it wasn’t practical to take it to a cable network, for instance.

This is a great Los Angeles show. And that’s something you share in common with Michael Mann, who shoots the hell out of L.A.

The reason I did Robbery Homicide Division wasn’t so much to do a cop show, because I wasn’t dying to do any show after having done X-Files for eight years. But because Mike is such a visionary, I really couldn’t turn down the chance to work with him. He understood what these cameras could do, and used them to their maximum effect. He has such an incredibly keen aesthetic sense, and his use of locations is extraordinary. It made a big impact on me, so I was eager to use these cameras and to take advantage of all the amazing locations we have in the city that, oddly enough, are not photographed as much as you think for all the filming we do in Los Angeles.

Were there any holdovers from the crew of Robbery Homicide Division on Night Stalker?

Actually, not as many as I would’ve liked. There were a number of people on Robbery Homicide Division that I would’ve loved to have worked with again, but they had all been snapped up. Same with a lot of X-Files people that I had worked with, so I was forced to find a number of new collaborators. But we ended up having an extraordinary crew, and it was a very happy working experience.

You hear so often that these shows take a lot of time to find their audience, and there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to give a show any kind of time if the ratings aren’t there. Going into this, was that something that worried you? Did you know going in that you only had so many shows to catch on or else you’re screwed?

Yes. (Laughs) Completely. We had enormous obstacles to our success, starting with the time slot. As soon as we got picked up, it was like, “Oh, good news: you’re going to be a series! Bad news: you’re going to be on Thursdays at 9 PM opposite CSI!” And that’s probably one of the worst time slots you can get. And, then, over the course of the summer as we were going into production, we discovered that the network wasn’t going to buy any paid advertising for us whatsoever. So, the only comfort we took was that we had a great lead-in in Alias, which hopefully would bring a lot of eyeballs to our show. Finally, when Alias went on the air, as you probably know they had a really disappointing season they didn’t get the audience they used to get. And as the research later showed, the audience they did deliver wasn’t compatible with our audience. So, when you don’t have a good time slot, you don’t have any paid advertising, and you don’t have a good lead-in, it’s very tough to succeed. And I made the argument pretty strongly to the network that, “Look, this is a really strong show. You’ve got a lot of assets here. Look at these other things as reasons why it’s not performing in the ratings.” And I really believed that argument was persuasive and that it would prevail right up until the day we got cancelled. That’s my take on why the show didn’t succeed.

Even then, did you feel like you were being set up to fail?

Well, we certainly weren’t given a lot of help. When that’s your set-up, you would hope that the network would realize that those are tough circumstances to succeed in. And there were a lot of people at the network who did agree with my arguments and were pulling for the show. It’s such a competitive environment, network television right now. They are so pressured to come up with instant hits because their advertising dollars are bleeding away every week that they don’t have a certain number. It’s very tough for them to stick with something.

Do you feel like you’ve got Night Stalker and Kolchak out of your system, or do you feel like there’s another life for it?

You never know. I think the odds are remote that it would come back. I had spent so much time thinking about it, and had such a full world that I wanted to explore, that I would love to do it if there was a chance to do it, if there was some way to do it. I’m not expecting that it will find some afterlife, but you never know.

Well, I was thinking about maybe developing a feature.

Aside from Joss Whedon doing that with Serenity, it’s so rare to find anybody interested in

exploiting it again.

I was doing a little snooping and found that you’re a John Fante fan.

Yeah! You know John Fante?

I’ve read John Fante. I’ve read Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Ask the Dust and The Road to Hollywood. (Actually, Beaks, it’s The Road to Los Angeles, but misspeaking is what makes you so embarrassingly you.) I’m interested in what it is you’re working on here.

Well, this is really a long term project, you might say, because I actually began work on it before I started work on The X-Files. It’s been… boy, fifteen years or more. I shot a bunch of film, including a lot of interviews with a lot of people who have now passed away, like Fante’s widow Joyce, but I have not been able to get the funds to complete it, nor have I had the time, honestly, to complete it. But every year I continue to get bites of interest from film companies that know John Fante and love his work, but it’s been very difficult to attract the funding because his name is not widely known.

And unfortunately Ask the Dust failed to take off.

No. And for about five seconds I was hoping that that was going to give me the leverage I needed to get some financing.

Fante is kind of a quintessential Los Angeles personality.

He really is. The books to me are so fresh and timeless and funny I just love him. I think he’s incredibly brutal, but more brutal on himself than others, and that’s what I like about him.

It’s kind of a strange match considering your background in genre fare. How did somebody like Fante influence you when you’re working in another genre?

I think what influenced me was the fact that he was for many years a writer who was not discovered. It kind of captured my imagination. Here’s a case where maybe the cream wouldn’t have risen to the top, where the powers that be wouldn’t have recognized the talent that lay in this man. At the time, I had not made it in Hollywood and had not gotten any work, so, at that point in your career, you fear that you’re going to end up like a John Fante. And living in Los Angeles, it makes you see the city around you differently, especially the way he wrote about L.A. in the thirties.

I see that you’re working on a remake of The Star Chamber.


That’s a perfect target for a remake. If you’re going to remake movies, why not pick a title that had a great premise that wasn’t successfully exploited?

That’s exactly what I felt. It was one of those movies that I saw when it first came out, and it was a great idea that they really didn’t exploit fully. If you look at it now, it really seems like a relic from the early 80’s – it’s the Reagan era, and it’s a diatribe against the civil liberties guaranteed criminals. That’s clearly not the world we live in anymore, so I think the more powerful message, and the idea that’s implicit in this movie, is “How far will you go to get justice?” That is a message that seems much more timeless and, in fact, much more appropriate to the times we live in right now. It really resonates. I’ve been working on this movie for some time not, and you see how many echoes it has. There were other problems with the original movie it kind of didn’t have a third act. But I agree with what you say: don’t go make a movie that was perfect the first time around. (Laughs)

I guess they’re just looking for a brand name.

That’s it. It’s a way to market things and stick out of the crowd.

Do you find yourself getting offered a lot of remakes?

All the time. For executives, it’s their fig leaf. It’s like, “Well, it worked before, so of course it’ll work again!” People are always looking for ways to provide rationales for the decisions they’re making. It’s much scarier to go out on a limb with an original idea.

I guess I should ask about X-Files. Do you think there’s anything more on the way?

I hope so. All of our deals are done. We have a story, and all we need is the go-ahead to write the script. The problem now, as I understand it, is that there are some legal issues between Chris Carter and 20th Century Fox – not about the movie, but relating to the TV series. Nothing’s going to happen until those issues are resolve, and I don’t know when that’s going to happen, whether it’s tomorrow or never. I do think it’s a natural to do it. They’re great characters, and Dave and Gillian are great in the roles, so I’m hoping it’ll work out.

Do you feel like there’s a point when it’ll be too long, where you’ll think that the audience just isn’t there anymore?

I think as long as David and Gillian aren’t in walkers. (Laughs) In a weird way, I think when we first started talking about it that it might be too soon, that people hadn’t had time to miss the show yet. But between the end of Star Trek and the first movie, that was, what, eleven years? I think now would certainly be a good time if we can get it underway.

While you’re waiting, why don’t you see what Spotnitz has been up to in the interim and pick up the complete series of Night Stalker, which hit stores on May 23rd.

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