“Everything’s a Conspiracy”: Chris Carter on the Legacy of The X-Files

The creator of the seminal sci-fi series has officially parted ways with his claim to fame and returned to his original passion: art.

Chris Carter for the Chris Carter Collection
Legacy West Media
The Inverse Interview

There’s a reason why The X-Files never continued beyond its 2016 revival. Long-term fans didn’t take well to the reboot of the ‘90s classic, but producers at Fox knew what they had. The X-Files in its prime was the rare left-of-field procedural, one that would go on to inspire everything from Supernatural and True Detective to Breaking Bad and Homeland. It would also make the studio exorbitantly rich, so Fox was prepared to greenlight the series for another season, ratings be damned. It was Chris Carter, the creator and longtime steward of The X-Files, who put his foot down.

“I needed some time off,” Carter tells Inverse. “I wanted to go surfing.”

Carter’s been a surfer much longer than he’s been in television. Apart from writing, Carter is also a multimedia artist, creating pottery, prints, and photo collages that stand almost in defiance to his legacy with The X-Files.

Chief among his works, which he recently exhibited at Legacy West Media in Los Angeles, is a piece called “My Crowning Achievement.” Its design doesn’t feature Fox Mulder or Dana Scully, the FBI agents he helped bring to life in The X-Files, but a gold leaf-dusted motif of Hello Kitty. The true purpose of this artwork remains a mystery, and the same could be said for the bulk of the work in the Chris Carter Collection.

Carter’s flagship piece, the cheekily-named “My Crowning Achievement.”

Legacy West Media

“Every piece in here is personal,” Carter says. “Showing them to people, it’s exposing yourself a little bit.” That’s why Carter never outright explains the story behind any one composition. He’d rather let it speak for itself — or rather, field guesses from his audience. “Everyone is always like, What’s ‘My Crowning Achievement’? And why are there Hello Kittys on it? I’ll tell you that it all works for me in my mind.”

At 67, Carter has more than earned the right to a little introspection. The X-Files was an improbable phenomenon, one enjoyed by millions all over the world — but it was also a piece of Carter’s soul. For over 30 years he’s shared it with the world, and its legacy has followed him everywhere, even bleeding into some of his art.

Standing amongst his personal, once-private projects, you get the sense that Carter has well and truly moved on from The X-Files. The show, of course, is never far from his mind — and he’s happy to share anecdotes about his tenure. With its 30th anniversary finally in the rear view, however, Carter seems ready to move into the next chapter. Even if it doesn’t make sense to Hollywood, there’s likely no better time to forge ahead.

“Intense” nostalgia

Carter had to fight hard for the core cast of The X-Files. “They didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the show,” he admits of Fox.

Angela Weiss/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

It’s a sunny, windy day in Downtown LA — perfect surf weather — when Carter and I meet at Legacy West. His exhibition concluded the night before, and the bulk of his pieces are about to be scattered to the winds. Though I’ve caught the tail end of the showcase, select prints are available to purchase through the gallery’s website.

By all accounts, the show was a success, but Carter is still surprised by its reception. “I hope it’s a hit,” he says quietly. “And I hope I get to make more art. That’s really what I do.”

Carter majored in art at California State University, Long Beach, and put himself through school making pottery. Being a craftsman, he says, is not unlike the act of making a TV show. “You’re doing the same thing every day, the same 10 things every day. You’re coming up with an idea. You’re plotting the idea that you just came up with. You’re writing the idea you just plotted.” And on and on, from pre-production to post and editing to special effects.

“You’re doing all those things every day,” Carter says, a real fire in his eyes. “Every day. The clock is ticking and the pressure is on.”

From the outside looking in, it sounds like hell. But Carter was clearly forged in that fire, and though he’s content without it, he does seem to miss it on occasion.

“My wife and I, we were just on the road driving for nine hours,” Carter says. “She says, ‘Don't you get tired of this?’ I said, ‘No, I love the intensity of it. It reminds me of producing television.’”

The Chris Carter Collection featured a few pieces of memorabilia from The X-Files.

Legacy West Media

There aren’t many reminders of The X-Files in his exhibition, but there were a few small tokens for fans of the series. In one corner of the studio, almost as a consolation prize, rests a case full of coveted memorabilia: an alien prop mask, a director’s slate from the revival, and the original casting sheet from the ‘90s.

The latter comes complete with Carter’s handwritten notes from auditions. Alongside David Duchovny’s name, who auditioned against hundreds for the role of Mulder: a simple “Yes.” Carter had similar feelings for Gillian Anderson, who went on to play Scully, but casting the actor wouldn’t be so easy.

“For Gillian I wrote ‘Test,’ which means I wanted to take her before the studio and the network,” Carter says.

“They didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the show.”

Fox famously wanted a bombshell type for Scully, ideally someone like Pamela Anderson. “Where’s the sex appeal?” Carter recalls executives saying. “Even though Gillian's beautiful, she wasn't their idea of sexy. First, because they didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the show. And she was an unknown, so that never helps.”

Duchovny, too, was a relative unknown, which made both castings more of a gamble than most realize now. But as the story goes, Carter fought hard for the actors, Fox conceded, and the rest is history.

“Ancient history,” Carter says wryly.

The truth is (still) out there

Carter has officially moved on from The X-Files: “I’m looking forward to seeing what somebody else does with it.”

FOX/FOX Image Collection/Getty Images

With or without Carter, The X-Files is too big a property to abandon outright. Fox is still keen to continue the series by any means necessary — but with Carter focusing on other projects, the studio has put its faith in a new director.

The fate of The X-Files now rests in the hands of Black Panther and Creed director Ryan Coogler. Carter isn’t involved in any capacity, but he’s content to cheer from the sidelines. “It’s interesting, people say, ‘Aren't you possessive of it?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m looking forward to seeing what somebody else does with it,’” Carter says.

The pair had “a really nice conversation” when Coogler first pitched the reboot to Fox: “I just asked him what his ideas were, and he told me, and I said, ‘Those sound like good ideas.’”

So the blessing is secured, but that’s really only half the battle as far as Carter’s concerned. “No matter what, he's got a hard job,” he says. “Casting is a hard job. Mounting it is a hard job. All the problems that I dealt with are going to be his problems.”

The world of The X-Files is getting a diverse reboot from Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Equally tricky will be tackling new ideas of “conspiracy” in such a cynical, post-modern age. The term doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when Carter first built a show around it — now, it’s taken on a more dangerous connotation. The X-Files effectively predicted QAnon, #PizzaGate, and anti-vax conspiracies. Those fringe superstitions have since been co-opted by a vocal, and dangerous, minority.

“Everything's a conspiracy,” Carter sighs. “No one knows what the truth is. It’s completely subjective and relative now.”

He’s thinking specifically of Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, who became the subject of endless conspiracy theories after a prolonged public absence. Just hours before Carter and I met at Legacy West, Princess Kate broke her silence by sharing a cancer diagnosis. The dubious online reaction to that very personal news has been weighing heavily with Carter.

“No one knows what the truth is. It’s completely subjective and relative now.”

“Can you imagine, first of all, being sick — but then everyone’s got a take on it? The most private thing becomes the most public thing, and then the most misunderstood thing.”

It’s hard not to think about The X-Files, and the skepticism it might have encouraged, in the face of all that. “You do a show like this, [and] there’s media done on you and it’s like, what does that spawn? What does that produce? What is the result of that thing? It’s not always good.”

To paraphrase the series’ most iconic adage, the truth is still out there, but what does the search for that look like in an era of such harsh political divides, perpetual surveillance, and a rampant distrust in our government? Carter isn’t entirely sure, but he trusts Coogler to figure it out.

Carter’s second act

Carter is developing a new project with his wife, but it won’t be another sci-fi series.

Drew Bly 'Pockets'/Shutterstock

Nowadays, Carter prefers to speak through his art, a pursuit that’s evident from his politically-charged “Hate Plates.” He remains coy as ever as he shows me a large ceramic plate, one of a series inspired by dinner conversations about a public figure who shan’t be named. Labels like “orange,” “petulant,” “vain” and “friendless” trace a hypnotic sphere around the dish.

The work speaks for itself, and it’s probably the most overt of Carter’s art on display. Most are clever, ironic plays on words superimposed over excerpts from novels and faded scripts. There’s also a UFO triptych consisting of three black-and-white photos that could have been taken either underwater or among the stars.

“I walk outside every night and stare up at the sky,” Carter says, offering a partial explanation. He does it to ground himself and regain some of that childlike wonder that gets “beaten out of” us all. “Just walking outside at night, it's the simplest thing to do,” he says wistfully.

Carter’s multimedia collage, “Xanax.”

Legacy West Media

“Manic,” the companion piece to “Xanax.”

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Carter strikes you as a filmmaker with a deep love of nature — even when it’s not convenient.

He directs us to two towering collages of photographs, positioned back-to-back instead of side-to-side. Each features hundreds of images of the same tree, potentially taken over years.

“I lived in a house for a decade, and this was my view for that decade,” he explains. “I’ll call it a perfect ocean view, except for that tree.” The tree stood on the boundary between his property and his neighbor’s, and she refused to cut it down. Carter exhumed his frustration by photographing it daily. Now those photographs live on in “Xanax,” a straightforward side-by-side collage, and “Manic,” which ups the saturation of each image to lend a psychotropic, Andy Warhol feel.

“You’ve gotta be ready for anything.”

There’s no denying the sense of humor in any of Carter’s pieces. His work is the real deal, and he’s clearly well-suited to it. That said, he’s not giving up on television, even if he’s left The X-Files behind. He's currently developing a project with his wife, one decidedly outside of the genre he’s best known for. He’ll also coach film students through TV production on occasion.

“Right now, I’m going to talk to a class of college students about producing the show,” Carter says just before we part ways. “And everybody asks, ‘What’s it like? Can you give us any hints?’”

He recounts another story about a bleary-eyed commute, this time as he’s driving from his home in Santa Barbara to work in Hollywood. “I was still half-asleep, but I see something up ahead on the freeway.” It was a pig — “a giant sow” — creeping from the median to the shoulder. He called 911 to alert them about this massive pig, of course, but they already knew. “Now I’ll say to my students: ‘Whatever you do, be ready for the pig on the freeway. You’ve gotta be ready for anything.’”

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