THE WRITE STUFF
By STEVE HOCKENSMITH
THE X FILES OFFICIAL MAGAZINE ISSUE #17
Storyteller Greg Walker joins the ranks of The X - Files' hard-working scribes.
The few. The proud. The X-Files staff. According to The X-Files executive story editor Greg Walker, writing scripts for the critically lauded series is akin to signing on for a tour of duty with America's elite fighting corps.
"The X-Files is known as the Marines of television", he says. "They expect a better performance out of you. When your friends are out Christmas shopping or having three-hour lunches, we're here working."
Not that he's complaining. Like any red-blodded leatherneck, Walker's gungho about getting the job done and getting it right.
"The payoff is immense," he says. "You get to work on a show that has the highest standarts around."
Walker has contributed to that reputation for high quality with two chilling episodes: last season's [SPOOKY note: season 7] "Brand X" (which he co-wrote with fellow staff writer Steve Maeda) and this year's [Spooky note: Yup, you got it, Season 8] "Surekill." Before that, he was a staff writer on the (criminally) short-lived Chris Carter series Harsh Realm, an experience that, though disappointingly brief, was his entree to the world of The X-Files.
Walker recently took time out from another long day at the word processor to chat about his career as a Hollywood writer and what it was like to become on of The X - Files' Few Good Men.
Q: How did you get interested in writing?
A: I went to high school in San Jose, Calif., and I had a great English teacher there. I went to a Jesuit boys school with really difficult academic standards. It's called Bellarmine Prep. I had a heacher there named Tom Alessandri. He didn't just stick to the standard read-it-and-cringe high school English material. He was really animated and passionate about the written word. So we'd have seminars on Dune - a whole semester on the book. Or we'd have a Faulkner seminar or a Joyce seminar, and it really got me inspired. I probably would've become a really mediocre lawyer if it hadn't been for his class.
When did you decide that you wanted to write scipts?
I went to the University of California at Berkeley. They have something called the Pacific Film Archive. I fell inlove with movies there. It's a great resource. They show three movies a day and I have an incredibly wide array of films there. I became a 16mm projectionist there at the archives, so I was always lugging around films, splicing films, showing films twice a day, repairing the projectors. I was the A/V geek on campus. I graduated without having a job, but through luck I landed an internship working at Zoetrope [Studios] for Francis Ford Coppola. That was a blast. I worked there for a B production company they had. When you've got Francis Coppola looking over your shoulder, you learn a lot. It's also very humbling.
What was the name of the movie you wrote there?
I can't even remember. It was never made. It was a submarine movie in outer space, which I butchered so badly it was amazing that they were nice enough to pay me.
What came after Zoetrope?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I wrote low-budget features to get started [such as the 1997 thriller Man of Her Dreams] and did a variety of jobs while I struggled and tried to get my work out there.
How did you get into television?
I did a year on a show called L.A. Doctors, which a friend on mine created - a guy named John Lee Hancock. We'd met when we were production assistants on a music video. He's gone on to write a bunch of movies and create a couple of TV seires.
What was the music video you worked on?
The band was called The Dream Warriors. It was a Canadian hip-hop band. I know "Canadian" and "hip-hop" don't exactly meld in you mind, but they were good. So we were PAs on this videom, and he was just about to sell A Perfect World, which Clint Eastwood made with Kevin Costner, and we became friends. He was further along on the writing path than I was, so I'd show him my staff and he'd give me notes. And years later he was doing L.A. Doctors and he asked me to come and write on it. So I did that, and I really enjoyed the experience. I had been working in development on features and not getting stuff made, spending a lot of time waiting for things to happen. And then I worked in television where you write a script and literally the next week [it's being shot]. It was a real thrill. I got the TV bug then. After L.A. Doctors was canceled, I interviewed for Harsh Realm and got hired. I wrote one of the early episodes. I was on the [staff] with Steve Maeda, who is now an X-Files writer also. So we were both on the series until it was inexplicably canceled so early. I was in New York when that happened. it was at a wedding and I caught the first flight back and got here the next morning, and by 10:30 a.m. Frank Spotnitz had offered both Steve Naeda and me jobs on The X-Files. Chris and Frank were incredibly generous that way. We were besically untested in The X-Files waters, and this is an immensely difficult show to write. So they gave us a great opportunity. And Steve and I stayed on and wrote "Brand X" last seasom.
Where did the idea for "Beand X" come from?
Steve had an image in mind: bugs coming out of somebody's mouth. The X Files has covered a lot of territory with bugs and bodies, so we thought that if you just had that - if it was juat a gross-out episode - it wouldn't hold water here. It wouldn't meet the rigorous standards that are enforced by Chris and Frank and John [Shiban] and Vince [Gilligan]. And rightly so. So we were trying to figure out what we could do, and Steve had the idea of bringing it together with tabacco and smoking, with tabacco somehow getting into somebody's lungs. We worked on that together and came up with a story that was sort of inspired by the movie The Insider, which we both really loved. It was a story about really difficult moral choices, about a scientist who is trying to do the right thing, but the right thing ends up having terrible consequences. We tried to put somebody in that situation in the character of Dr. Voss in the episode. He was the inspiration that drove that episode. And then in coming up with that, we wanted to have somebody who was smoking the cigarettes and came up with the Daryl Weaver character - a character I love. Tobin Bell brought so much to that role. This character is not a classic villain. He fits into the world of The X Files villains in that he's fully rounded. He's doing bad things, but he's doing them for the right reasons. He wants to be part of history. He has nothing going for him his whole life. His life has been one heartbreak after another. And here's his chance to do something good. So once we had those two characters, everything came into place.
I thought Tobin Bell was great as weaver.
Absolutely. Tobin had been in my episode of Harsh Realm, "Reunion". He was the villain of that episode - which, coincidentally, ["Brand X" helmer] Kim Manners directed. When Kim read the script for "Brand X", he said, "I've got a great idea for DAryl Weaver." And I was surprised when he said Tobin Bell. But withing a day or two, everyone came around and thought it was a great idea, including myself. It was a terrific casting choice, and you have to credit Kim for that.
How about "Surekill"? Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Frank Spotnitz had the idea to do a story about X-ray vision. He loved, as I do, the Ray Milland movie X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. That movie is about a scientist who tries to increase the range of human vision and, in doing so, gets X-ray vision. But he's tormented by it. So Frank got me intersted in the idea of a character who could see through anything, could see anything wanted, and instead of that being liberating, it's tragic. he can see so much bad in the world, the things that are hidden away in houses and apartments - the truth that lies behind walls. So instead of being this cool superhero tool, the vision becomes this metaphysical burden. He sent me off with that idea, and the characters fell into place over the course of a few months with the help of Vince Gilligan, who was also really interested in this idea. So we came up with this Of Mice and Men story about two twin brothers, one legally blind, the other born with X-ray vision.
You mentioned earlier how difficult it is to write for The X - Files. Why is that?
It's really difficult to come up with something new, especially after 130 or 140 episodes. Early on, Chris established a tone of storytelling and mood that I hadn't seen on television before. I was a fan from the et-go. The X Files was always pushing things, always coming up with twists. And there's been a long tradition of really fine writers here. Chris, Howard Gordon, [Glen] Morgan and [James] Wong, Frank, Vince, John, Jeff [Bell] and David [Amann] - just to name a few. The story really counts here. So where I get the most amount of respect got the guys I work for, especially Chris and Frank, is from the high standard they maintain. You can't start doing new versions of something you did two years ago. You have to come up with something new, and it has to be interesting. And while that means a lot of late nights and weekends working, not seeing your girlfriends and your wives much, it really makes for a better show.