clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Conversation With ‘X-Files’ Legend Darin Morgan

The man responsible for some of the series’ best episodes, including this week’s instant classic, on the inspiration for his latest episode, how this season is handling President Donald Trump, the series’ convoluted mythology, and more

Fox/Ringer illustration

Darin Morgan might not believe it, but he’s the most beloved writer in the history of The X-Files. In a phone conversation earlier this week, the 69-year-old series veteran referred multiple times to how divisive his episodes are. But the truth is out there, and the data don’t lie: The mercurial Morgan, who had written five X-Files episodes before the series’ current season, has the highest average episode score—as judged by IMDb users—of any X-Files writer with at least that many writing credits.

Morgan’s sixth X-Files episode, which aired on Wednesday, is unlikely to hurt his score. Instead, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”—the fourth and, thus far, best episode of the 10-installment Season 11—reinforces his status as an X-Files whisperer who has never generated much quantity but has always offered quality to spare. As series creator Chris Carter once said, “He has such a gift, it’s frightening.”

The first X-Files episode Morgan wrote, Season 2’s “Humbug,” set an important precedent by bringing a comedic, absurdist, and satirical tone to what had been a mostly straitlaced series. The following season, Morgan wrote three more episodes in the same distinctive style, including classics “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” which won the series’ only Emmy for writing, and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,’” which seemed to stretch the series’ conventions as far as they could go. After that, Morgan took an extended X-Files hiatus until the series returned from a long layoff in 2016. True to form, his contribution to the abbreviated 10th season—the nostalgic, philosophical, and amusingly self-referential “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”—was by far the best episode in an uneven slate.

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which guest stars Brian Huskey (Veep, People of Earth) as the possible long-lost originator of the X-Files, finds agents Mulder and Scully struggling to stay relevant in the era of fake news—a phenomenon that the episode addresses directly—while investigating yet another conspiracy claim. (In this case, that the so-called “Mandela effect,” or the existence of collective false memories, is evidence of a government plot to tamper with our minds.) The X-Files’ future is, as always, uncertain; the show’s ratings are down from last season, and costar Gillian Anderson has announced that this will be her last time reprising her role as Scully. If this is the end of The X-Files 25-year road, Morgan’s swan song will be a worthy late-career highlight for the series he helped elevate. Below, we discuss the inspiration for the episode, how this season is handling President Donald Trump, The X-Files’ convoluted mythology, how Morgan’s work has influenced the series, and why he hasn’t written more episodes.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was the inspiration for an episode about the Mandela effect?

Strangely enough, unlike most of the other episodes, the starting point wasn’t so much the weird phenomenon, but wanting to write something about Trump. Or, you know, what Mulder’s position in life is now that his president is now more of a conspiracy nut than he ever was. That was the starting point. And then it was like, “OK, so I’m doing a conspiracy episode.” I hadn’t done one of those, so, just looking for any kind of conspiracy thing, and somehow I stumbled upon the Mandela effect thing online. And I don’t know how I figured out that could be used for a conspiracy thing, but I somehow shoehorned it in. So it was unusual, because usually you start from the weird phenomenon thing, and you start your story there. But this one was a bit different. Because these are different times! [Laughs.]

“Were-Monster” was an adaptation of a script that you had already partially produced for another show in the past. But this one was from scratch?

That’s true. “Were-Monster” was the [traditional] starting point. You start from a weird werewolf story and figure out your themes from there. But this was the opposite. So it wasn’t just a new thing, it was kind of a unique approach.

David Duchovny, Brian Huskey, and Gillian Anderson in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
David Duchovny, Brian Huskey, and Gillian Anderson in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
Courtesy of Fox

Trump is a looming presence throughout the current season, and in your episode he’s sort of a central figure. Was there any hesitancy about making that so explicit? In the past, The X-Files was political, but it rarely referenced a specific event or administration so much as a shadowy government cabal. Whereas this episode is tailored to the present political moment.

Yeah. I personally didn’t have any hesitancy, because I felt it was needed. [Laughs.] In the past, I guess you could just ignore it because, like you said, you’re talking about UFOs and conspiracies, and it was such fringe stuff that it didn’t really matter who was the president, or what the government was actually doing. But now everything is kind of topsy-turvy, and I don’t know how you tiptoe your way around it. I guess I kind of did, a little bit, without mentioning Trump by name so much. I don’t want to turn someone off just because they don’t share my political viewpoints, and yet I am trying to make a point. So you can’t get around that fact. So you try to do it in a way that people at least see the point. Which I hope, as silly as the presentation of it is, if someone actually supports building the wall at the border, perhaps this episode might make them rethink this, in some strange way. I’m not expecting people to change their political viewpoints, but I don’t know how you avoid [these things] in the current climate. It’s so all-pervasive that you can’t. If you ignored it, and the show ignored it completely, then you’d be accused of being blind to what’s going on around you. You’d then get accused of just being a nostalgia thing. So you’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So you might as well do it.

So much of the episode is about how Mulder fits into—and maybe in a more meta sense, how The X-Files fits into—this post-conspiracy world. When you heard that The X-Files was coming back again, were you thinking, “How do we even do The X-Files now that people are talking about what they’re talking about,” as opposed to the almost innocent-seeming, in retrospect, things that we were worried about in the ’90s?

Yeah, it was kind of a starting point for me, of going, the whole key catchphrase of the show was “The truth is out there,” and yet, what does that even mean nowadays, when we have a president that—regardless of what you think of him, you can’t pretend that he cares about the truth very much. What was weird was, in the old days, I always kind of made fun of that idea. Mulder was on this mythic quest to find the truth, whatever that was. I always thought it was kind of silly. But now there’s something really kind of sentimental and sad [about that], I think. The idea that someone actually is trying to find the truth. [Laughs.] I guess now I can relate, or something. I have that kind of line, and it’s done as a joke, when Mulder’s explaining Reggie escaping into a fantasy where he’s doing what America is supposed to do: fight for truth and justice. It’s such a cornball thing, but there’s this weird sort of truth; that’s what America used to at least like to think that it stood for. Truth and justice, what does it mean now? Is that really what we think we stand for now? With the president we have? I guess you could argue for justice, in some way. But truth? I don’t think so.

Is that what you were referring to at the very end of the episode, those last lines of Scully’s? “I want to remember how it was. I want to remember how it all was.”

I was evoking a lot of things in that line, I’d like to think. And I’d like kind of keeping that nice and ambiguous, because that’s one of the things I actually like about that, is that it’s meant to refer to a lot of things. But I’d rather not specify what all those things were, because I’m sure they’ll be a little different for everybody. But yes, that was an aspect of it.

Since you largely write stand-alone episodes, do you have to pay attention to the mythology? Are you fully up to speed on whose son William is, and what the Cigarette Smoking Man is up to?

Even back in the day, when the mythology was just beginning—I was there for Season 2 and 3—I didn’t follow it then. When we’ve come back and done these two new seasons, I’ve kind of tried to take the same approach. [Laughs.] So I kind of know, but if you quizzed me right now, I might fail. [Laughs.] So yeah, it’s kind of need-to-know basis, and I don’t really need to know. [Laughs.]

Darin Morgan and David Duchovny during the production of “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
Darin Morgan and David Duchovny during the production of “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”

I won’t quiz you, then. [Laughs.] What’s the feeling when you find out that the show is coming back again? Is it anxiety that you have to live up to your previous work, or is it eagerness to tell new stories with these old characters in a different world?

I guess in a way it was kind of lucky, because the first time, my hope was that I was going to get to be able to do the “Were-Monster” story, which I’d been wanting to do for almost a decade. And I got to do that, and I was happy about that. And this time, when they said we were coming back, it was like, “OK, I have an opportunity to write something about Trump.” Which you don’t always have, the ability to be working on a show, or you don’t have a forum. So to be able to have a forum, and one that’s so nicely situated—you know, because your lead characters are FBI agents. And it’s really kind of, in some ways—I don’t want to say perfect, but there’s an opportunity to tell a story about stuff that’s driving you nuts, and you get to do it. So there’s pressure about living up to the past, and the reputation and stuff, but you just know, even going in, you’re not going to be able to live up to everybody’s expectations. That’s always just kind of a given. You’re just trying to do what you think is good. You know going in that there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to hate it anyway. So knowing that, it was kind of nice to be able to tell these two episodes that I did.

Is there a different type of tone or emotion that you can conjure now that there’s this weight of history behind the series, and we’ve spent so much time with these characters?

Yeah, for sure. You have a deep history that you can refer to. Shows nowadays are all serialized, and so the plot is just a continuation. But The X-Files isn’t that, and so to me, like, I got accused of—no, not accused, accused is too strong of a word. But the “Were-Monster” episode had a lot of what everyone called Easter eggs. But I just consider them references to past episodes, which is a way of showing the past history in a way that other shows—you have to watch them from beginning to end in order to understand what that history is. This show isn’t that. The plot isn’t continuing, but it has, nevertheless, a history that you can refer to or use. In the same way, if you were doing a show that was one serialized story, you would make references to specific plot things. I feel I’m free to refer to certain incidents from the past in order to conjure up their past history together. And it’s helpful that you have so much that you can use, although I tend to only refer to stuff before Season 4. [Laughs.]

Because that’s when you were still involved in the show?

Yeah, I left after Season 3, so the rest of it’s all just a blur to me. [Laughs.]

You do have to find that balance between being derivative and offering enough nods to older episodes to satisfy fans.

Once again, you can’t win. You’re going to have some people that are going to accuse you of just being pure nostalgia or fan service. You do what you think is appropriate, and I don’t feel either of these episodes are just for fans only, or just pure nostalgia. That’s one of the things that I liked about the new episode, because it feels very of the moment, which is not true of really, I think, any of my other episodes.

But there is, maybe, a common element, in that Rashomon structure of characters remembering things differently, which you had in “Jose Chung’s,” for instance. Does that structure particularly appeal to you?

Yeah, I think it’s just a fun way of telling a story. You see different versions of the same story, so you don’t know what to believe, and so much of the series—I mean, “I want to believe.” But it’s so, not being sure of what to believe, or what’s real, or what’s supernatural. Is it real, or is it someone psychotic? It plays into that, what the show is about, is that uncertainty of knowing what is and what isn’t. Even though I said it in a kind of gobbledygook manner, it’s a kind of highfalutin way of saying it’s just fun to write. Weird, different versions of the same event, to make your point. It’s just fun to do, which is reason enough to do it, I guess.

When I see your episodes, I think, “I wish all X-Files episodes were like this.” Except that maybe your episodes have to exist as a counterpoint to the standard X-Files episode. Is that the way that you think of it? You couldn’t have the whole show be Darin Morgan–style episodes, because the Darin Morgan–style episodes play off the standard X-Files format?

I know what you’re saying, and I’ve heard people express the same viewpoint. I don’t agree with it. [Laughs.] I just don’t. I’ve never looked at my episodes as just being the change-of-pace thing or the comic relief for the more serious stuff. I’ve always approached mine as being just as serious as any of the other episodes, even though they’re done in either a humorous or downright silly way. And I can’t say, “Oh, if they were all like mine you wouldn’t get sick of them,” because maybe you would. But the thing is, they’re not all like mine, so you don’t have to worry about it. Although, there’s a simple fact—the difficulty with the series is just, the fans all have different things that they want from it or out of it, and so regardless of what you do, there’s going to be someone disappointed with whatever your episode is. There are some people that would be happy if they were all like mine. But then there are people that wouldn’t even watch the show. They hate my shows. So it’s the weird nature of this series that just continues to drive people crazy, because consistency has never been its strong point.

When one of your episodes comes along, do you think the cast and crew are enlivened a little by the opportunity to be a bit more playful? I’d imagine that people who’ve been acting in this series for decades would look forward to doing a Darin Morgan episode.

I’d like to think that they do too, but maybe they’re just pretending, to make me happy. [Laughs.] I know David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson] enjoy the change. They consider it kind of a challenge, and I believe the production staff and crew all enjoy it as well. The very first episode I did like this, which was called “Humbug,” was back in Season 2. You could sense everyone was really nervous and was unsure, and I think that episode was hurt, in a way, because of that. But since that time, everyone has been on board, and I think look forward to doing them. So that’s never been a problem since that first time.

Darin Morgan and David Duchovny during the production of “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
Darin Morgan and David Duchovny during the production of “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”

Was there anything you wrote for this most recent episode that was too out-there to include?

My episodes are always long. I always overwrite them. So the first cut was actually 10 minutes over. So some stuff is gone. But nothing really that I go, “Oh, I wish this …” There’s a couple lines that I would have liked to have kept here and there, but I somehow managed to lose the 10 [minutes] without too much pain. It’s almost like every scene, there’s just line trims throughout, which always drives the actors crazy because they resent having to memorize lines that you end up cutting out. But I find it’s helpful. When you’re a little long, you really get to tighten up the story. But it’s always actually kind of beneficial. Ten minutes is still way too long, but a few minutes over is actually a good thing.

You directed a couple episodes of Millennium, but these most recent two X-Files episodes were your first directing credits on the show. Did you feel ready to take on that extra responsibility? And did being involved visually help capture what you had in your head?

The first one was a bit tough because I hadn’t directed since those Millennium episodes, which was almost 20 years ago. I was just worried about making sure I got my days done in time and that sort of thing, so I was nervous about that. I don’t think I would have really done anything different, but I was just really nervous about that whole thing. Whereas this time, knowing that I was going to make my days and what have you, it was a bit more fun, I guess I could say, which sounds weird. Whether I’m directing or not, you’re usually on the set most of the time, and shooting stuff—I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a set. It’s not that much fun. It’s a lot of waiting around and can be quite a painful experience. But this episode, actually, there were moments where I was laughing out loud, and I actually had kind of a good time for most of it. So I’m glad I got the opportunity to do this one. And I think it shows in a weird sort of way. I think I did a much better job directing this one, but it was basically just because I was more relaxed.

How would you assess your impact on The X-Files, going back to the beginning? Not just the episodes you’ve written, but the way in which your style may have rubbed off on other writers.

Yeah, the first episode being “Humbug,” which I referred to earlier: Even though it wasn’t as good as it maybe could have been, nevertheless it kind of worked, and it opened up a new kind of avenue for the show, which I think gave it a couple more years, maybe. Just opened up a new kind of way of telling an episode, which Chris [Carter] and Vince [Gilligan] then did. Which doesn’t say they wouldn’t have done that eventually on their own anyway, but if that first episode, the first comedy episode, had been terrible, which admittedly some of them are, that could have been the end of it. It could have been, “Ooh, we tried it, and that was a disaster. Let’s not do that again.” A lot of people hate the comedy episodes, and I understand why, and yet other people, it’s some of the fans’ favorite episodes. And those might not have existed if that first one wasn’t a success, even for its faults.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”

Looking back at all of your episodes, is there one that gives you the deepest sense of satisfaction?

No. There’s a couple that I’m really proud of, but it’s—I was going to make the analogy, it’s like a kid. You can’t choose your favorite. It isn’t really that, but I guess it depends when you ask me. There’s certain episodes that I’m proud of for different reasons. There isn’t one where I feel like, “Oh, this is my best, and all the other ones are not equal.” The thing about the last two I did—and I guess “Clyde Bruckman” and “Jose Chung” are my two favorite from back in the day—those four episodes, I think, all have things about them that, even though they all have flaws and they all have things I would do differently, they all have things about them I’m really proud of. Those are the four episodes that I would point to going, “This is my best work.” I know they all feel like they’re similar because they have my voice and they’re comedy episodes and they’re different from the normal X-File—and even though, yes, they all have kind of Rashomon elements of multiple narration and stuff like that—I feel they’re all very different from each other. It may not seem like it on the surface, but they’re very different, and that’s another thing that I like. They’re different stories, and you don’t get to do that on a lot of series. One of your goals of doing a serialized show is to have it be exactly like the episode before, and that’s not what these are.

What has dictated the extent of your involvement in The X-Files over the years?

What dictated it is whether or not I can pay my rent. [Laughs.] I don’t know what to tell you. That’s pretty much it. I don’t work when I don’t have to. I only work when I absolutely have to.

So what will you be doing, or not doing, now?

I never know what I’m doing. I have no idea if I’ll ever work again. It’s how I’ve lived my life, and it’s been very weird, but I’ve learned not to count on anything. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m unemployed. I don’t know how long. I’m not too worried about it, because doing shows—Jesus, doing 10 [episodes]—it’s just exhausting. Afterwards you just want to take a break and not think about anything. And people always ask, “What are you working on now?”, and it’s like, I’m just trying to recover, you know? And whatever I do after I recover … but it takes me five years to recover. [Laughs.] So I don’t know.

Thanks to Jessie Barbour and Walt Hickey for research assistance.