Of “The Night Stalker” and “The X-Files” fame
Frank Spotnitz has his plate full these days. In light of the cancellation of his reimagining of the classic “Night Stalker” TV series, he has no fewer than two television shows and two movies in the works. A veteran writer/producer on “The X-Files”, Spotnitz is a man who understands the supernatural genre, and while “Night Stalker” ended its run before it had a chance to develop into an outstanding show, the ten episodes that were produced stand as an intriguing glimpse into what could have been must see TV.
We recently had a chance to talk to Frank about “Night Stalker”, the possibilities of seeing another “X-Files” movie in the future, and his new series “Amped”, amongst other things.
Daulton Dickey: You’ve stated that the decision to pull Night Stalker away from the original Darren McGavin mold was the first real breakthrough in your plans to reimagine the series; what inspired you to move it in the direction it ultimately went?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, you know I really love Darren McGavin and I really love those TV movies that he did, and I watched the show, too, the series that followed back in the seventies. But I watched them all again and I studied them as I was figuring out how to do this new version. And what worked great in the TV movies, which was that he was this guy in his fifties whose career was behind him and he’d been bounced to a smaller newspaper market in Las Vegas or Seattle, and was looking for a story that would get him back in the big time. That worked great in the TV movies.
But the series, to my mind anyway, it didn’t work so great; it was sort of like a one-note thing. It was like, okay, every week the question was will he get the story and if he does is he going to get back in the big time. Well, you know he’s not going to get the story because there’s no series if he gets the story. And there were a lot of sort of just basic reality issues that the series never bothered addressing, like why does Kolchak alone of all the reporters in Chicago get these stories about monsters? Why nobody else? Why don’t the police see anything that he sees? Why doesn’t one of these stories just once make the papers and change the world? Just basic reality stuff that, thirty some odd years later, they just wouldn’t pass on network television. I just would not buy it. You really have to make it make more sense than that.
And so the more I delved into the logic of this, the more I started to believe, ‘you know what, I don’t want this to be an older guy who’s looking for a way to get back into the game.’ I wanted a younger guy whose career is ahead of him, and not a guy looking to regain his career. And then I wanted him to have some kind of personal connection to all this that gives him a reason to derail his career and set aside everything else in his life in order to pursue this stuff. And when I really got excited was when I hit on the whole idea of his wife was murdered and the cops think that he did it; they can’t prove it but they think he did it.
And that was all obviously completely original to this version of the Night Stalker, it had nothing to do with the old version. Because it just created this whole mythology about good and evil. You know? It was a way to sort of fit together all the episodes that are all about evil in the world. And the question that you start to wonder the more you watch the show is, ‘which side is Kolchak on?’ I mean, in the beginning you’re like, ‘well, he’s the hero of the show, of course he’s good.’ But then by the end of that two-parter when the bad guys catch up to him and they see the mark on his wrist and they don’t kill him, then you have to start to wonder, ‘wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ And that’s when I really felt like, ‘you know what? This idea has some integrity to it and it’s unique.’
DD: What was it about Stuart Townsend? How long did you look for an actor before you found him?
FS: Oh, man, we looked so hard for the guy to play Kolchak. We read over a hundred actors and just had not found the guy that we thought was a home run for this part. And we were ten days away from filming and I still didn’t have a Kolchak. So I’m going through all the lists and I’ve got literally hundreds of actors’ names, all the casting lists, and I see Stuart’s name and I knew his work, and I’d seen him in a lot of smaller movies but I thought he was especially charming in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not a great movie, but I thought he was amazing in it. But it said that he was not interested in television in the casting notes. However, I saw that he’s represented by the same agency I’m represented by, so I called and I said, ‘look, it is true he’s not interested in television?’ And they said, ‘well, he’s not but he has read a couple pilot scripts this year.’ I said, ‘will you please send him Night Stalker and ask him to read it right away because we have no time and just let me know if there’s any way he’d be interested in doing this.’ And then amazingly, he did. He read it right away, that afternoon; they called me back at the end of the day, like five-thirty on a Friday and said, ‘he read it and he likes it.’ And so he came to the office the next day, on a Saturday, and we met for like two hours, had a great meeting. He really responded to the subject matter, the whole idea of the series. And then he spent like three days thinking about whether he really wanted to work in TV because it’s such a brutal life, you know, especially in a series like this where there’s basically two leads and you’re just working fourteen, sixteen hour days, five days a week. But he agreed to do it on a Tuesday and then we started filming on the following Monday. It was a real nail-biter.
DD: How much did he bring to the role? He has a nice mysterious aura about him.
FS: Yeah, he brought— I didn’t imagine him having quite as much darkness and mystery as Stuart just naturally brings to the roll, and that’s what he brought to it. What I thought Stuart had that so many of the actors we saw didn’t have was intelligence. I mean, you could completely believe this guy is a writer, or believe that he is literate and capable of writing well. But what really worked for the show was the idea that you had this really good-looking, charming, attractive guy, but when you’re expected to believe that he’s also possibly a murderer, you can see that in him, too.
FS: He has that darkness.
DD: Is there a chance you’re going to work with him again? Would you like to?
FS: Oh, I’d love to. I have to say, I would love to work with all four of the actors who were regulars in the series. I mean, it was a very tough casting process for Kolchak and Perry Reed, those two parts especially. But at the end of the day we really feel that we scored with all four of them.
DD: Now that the show is over, do you ever look back and wonder if there was something more you could have done to save the series?
FS: I was so aware at the time of the huge problems we were facing. First the time slot that we got, which was a really terrible time slot, Thursdays at nine, against CSI, which is the worst time slot on television. And then over the summer as we were in production, we discovered they weren’t going to be buying any advertising at all for us.
DD: Awesome. What a wonderful way to show support.
FS: They were putting all their money on Commander in Chief and Invasion. And then the only hope we had for survival at that point was a great lead-in, which was going to be Alias. But, you know, when we finally premiered, Alias did very disappointing ratings this past year and ultimately we discovered their audience wasn’t even the same audience that watched our show. So those were three pretty devastating blows when you’re a series trying to find an audience. And I argued passionately to network guys and anybody who’d listen: you know, you can’t blame the show when you’ve got all those strikes against you. And I had a lot of support, I have to say. There were a lot of people … I mean the studio was completely supportive and there were a lot of people at the network who were also supportive, but I think the pressures on network executives these days to get instant hits and have ratings out of the box are so enormous that as powerful as our arguments were they just didn’t work for us.
DD: Does it affect your morale when you’re working on a show to see the network constantly opposing you with the time slot and how they’re marketing it?
FS: Oh, sure. I mean, it’s very discouraging, but you know my job as the executive producer of the show is to be the leader and the cheerleader and to keep everybody’s spirits up and not let them get discouraged. And I think what did sustain everybody was knowing that the work was as good as it was. And I think that’s also what led everybody to believe they can’t possibly cancel the show, we’re doing such good work. But, yeah, I mean, in a weird way it’s what pushed everybody to work harder because you want to prove to them they can’t do this to you. But you don’t always win.
DD: Is your attachment to shows such as the X-Files, Millennium, and Night Stalker an extension of your childhood viewing habits, or does the tone and content of these series say something more about you or your worldview?
FS: Oh, both. I mean, they’re absolutely what I would have watched as a kid; they’re exactly the types of shows I loved when I was a child. But I think part of the thing I like about the genre, the supernatural genre, is that the stories tend to be about something. They have ideas behind them, which is why I think people take an interest in people who write for this type of genre, and why they don’t take an interest in the writers for other genres. They recognize that there’s an idea being communicated. And with everything I do I try to make it about something. You know I really believe in commercial entertainment, you know really entertaining, emotional storytelling, but I also want there to be something worth thinking about after the show is over.
DD: Do you believe in supernatural or extraterrestrial phenomena, or are they simply conventional plot devices?
FS: Well, I’m definitely much more a Scully than a Mulder, but, you know, you can’t do the X-Files for all those years without [laughs] stopping to wonder a little bit. And I have come to the conclusion that while I’m not, I’m certainly not a believer in UFOs, I do think there’s a lot about the world that we don’t understand. And I think it’s worth being humble about all the things we don’t understand. And that’s mostly what I’ve gotten out of doing all these shows, and that’s humility and wonder about the universe. And I think that’s why this genre speaks to people, is that we … all of us sense that there’s more to the universe that we know, and we’re intrigued by that mystery.
DD: I’ll bet you’ve gotten some wacky fan mail in your day.
FS: Oh, yeah. Especially during the X-Files.
DD: Oh, I’m sure that was the pinnacle of weirdness for you. Have you gotten some really crazy stuff, like photographs and proof that Bigfoot exists?
FS: Yeah, and it came from all over. And for a number of years we did the conventions and we met a lot of people with really interesting beliefs.
DD: Is it likely that we’ll see another X-Files movie? I know there’s some lawsuit right now, or some legal issues, right?
FS: Yeah, there’s some, and I don’t know exactly what they are, but there’s some kind of legal issue between Chris Carter and Fox that are holding everything up. And I don’t know, honestly, when they’ll be resolved or if they’ll be resolved. It could be tomorrow or it could be never. But I would hope they would resolve them because I think it’s a waste because I think it’s natural to do as a movie series, and I think they’re great characters and I think David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson] are great in those roles. And I would like to do it.
DD: Plus they’ve proven to have longevity. I mean, Fox is still reissuing the TV series and it’s still doing well.
DD: And I’ve been watching them since they reissued them and it’s surprising how many of those episodes really hold up, as though they were made really recently. I mean, I know the show’s not that old but—
FS: Yeah, well, I have to say, even at the time we were doing them, we would think about that. We really wanted them to live on beyond the initial network run so it’s really gratifying to hear that.
DD: Did your background as a journalist affect the way you write for film and television?
FS: Completely. I mean, I didn’t realize it, obviously, but it ended up being great training for Hollywood because first of all it exposed me to all kinds of things. I was a reporter for the wire services and we’d cover all kinds of different stories and often many different stories in a single day, so I got exposed to all different walks of life and all the different kinds of people.
You know, you have to acquire information very quickly, you have to synthesize it, and you have to write quickly and clearly on a deadline. And those were all really useful tools, especially for television.
DD: Now you’re working on A Philosophical Investigation with Chris Carter?
FS: Yeah, it’s a screenplay based on that book. It’s changed quite a bit from the book. The book was written, I guess fourteen years ago now, and ideas that seemed pretty far out back then, about genetic typing and stuff, are not so far out anymore. And so we’ve departed from the book a bit. And we just finished the first draft of the screenplay a couple weeks ago.
DD: Is Carter attached to direct that?
DD: So is there a possibility that that will move along, or is it too early to tell?
FS: I would think there is a good possibility for it to move along. But I don’t have any concrete evidence for it to.
DD: Are you still working on the Star Chamber remake?
FS: I’m working on that actively, yeah. That’s one of the things I spend every day doing. I’m producing that. And that to me is one of the great ideas never fully realized, which is a perfect candidate for a remake.
DD: Absolutely. Those are the only films that should be remade.
FS: If you look at the original movie now, it’s really sort of a Reagan-era diatribe against the rights afforded to criminals, and it seems pretty dated. But now, the movie that we’re talking about making is much more about the lengths you’ll go to get justice.
DD: It seems so relevant today.
FS: Yeah. I look at the news everyday and I see the Star Chamber.
DD: Was that a conscious choice in opting to remake it, or was the decision to remake this made pre-9/11?
FS: It was post-9/11, but this project actually has a tortured history. It began as a TV movie that I was supposed to direct for the FX cable network, and it’s kind of evolved into a feature film [laughs], which is an unlikely task for a project to take. But the longer I’ve worked on it, the more and more relevant it’s become to the national debate we’re having right now.
DD: Are you going to frame it more as a debate or—
FS: No, I think if it’s done right it doesn’t feel like a debate at all. I think it’s a real compelling entertainment. It certainly has ideas in it that you’ll think about after the movie’s over.
DD: Could you tell me about your new series Amped?
FS: We’re supposed to shoot that pilot this summer for Spike TV. I wrote it with Vince Gilligan, a colleague from The X-Files. And it’s another scary show, an ensemble cast set in a police precinct. And the idea is that the world outside the precinct has changed. There’s a certain percentage of the population that’s mutating and the mutations take all different forms depending on the individual DNA. And so these cops go out and they quite literally don’t know what they’re going to encounter every day, whether they’re going to encounter monsters or not. So it’s very scary and funny, and it will have allegorical meaning, you know, for fear of terrorism and racism and all kinds of other issues.
DD: Has that been cast?
FS: No, I expect a green light on that to come any day now.
DD: Are you going to direct any of the episodes?
FS: I don’t know. I don’t know how deeply involved I will be in this series afterwards, because I’ve signed a deal with Touchtone Television, which produced Night Stalker, to develop a new series for them. I’ll do the pilot, but then I honestly don’t know what my involvement will be from there.
- DAULTON DICKEY