The updated version of Night Stalker only ran on ABC for a few weeks, but we live in a time when cancellation isn’t quite the end for a TV series. The show has been resurrected on home video, complete with a number of episodes that never aired – including the second part of an integral story fans never saw, as the network cancelled the show after airing part one.
The discs are also packed with features, many of them with creator Frank Spotnitz. Spotnitz really got his start on The X-Files, a show that was heavily influenced by the original Darren McGavin version of The Night Stalker. Spotnitz ended up being an integral part of the X-Files universe, executive producing the show and co-writing the feature film.
Night Stalker hits stores today. If you’re living in LA, you can get your copy of the 2-disc set signed by Spotnitz and star Stuart Townsend – head out to the West Hollywood Best Buy, 1015 N. La Brea, at the corner of Santa Monica and La Brea – they’ll be there from 7 to 9 PM. Let me know if you ask Townsend about his experience playing Aragorn. Gabrielle Union may show up as well, but I’m not promising anything.
Q: We live in an age where you have a TV show that gets cancelled fairly early but still ends up in the fans’ hands on DVD. Does that change how you look at TV as a producer?
Spotnitz: First of all, I think it’s great. I think it’s fantastic that this exists and that these shows will find the audience that wants to see them now. And not only that but find them in better quality, since the picture and sound are far superior. But I have to say that I’ve always looked at television as a long term product. There have been an awful lot of shows, especially in the past, that were meant to be watched and then thrown away. It was disposable television. It was meant to be seen, get an audience and then there wasn’t much of an afterlife for them. I never looked at television that way. From my first episode of The X-Files, I was thinking I want people to be watching the show years from now. I didn’t want to be working that hard just for one hour and then to be disposed of. The formats and the technology are constantly changing, but everything I do I hope will have an afterlife.
Q: Is there a part of you that regrets giving Night Stalker such a deep mythology you were never able to get to?
Spotnitz: I don’t know how else to do it, and part of what gets me excited about a show is knowing that there’s this really deep well you can pursue. I think the problem with a lot of TV shows is that they make a great pilot and then they don’t know what the series is; they’re trying to figure it out as they go along. I want a great pilot but then I want to know I have a hundred or two hundred great episodes behind it. My only regret about the Night Stalker mythology is that I didn’t get a chance to actually play it out, because I was so excited about what it was and having all these ideas to explore.
Q: One of the biggest departures you made from the original show was casting Stuart Townsend, who doesn’t look like he could even be related to Darren McGavin, let alone have any of the same aspects of the guy. What made you decide to go younger and hotter?
Spotnitz: I saw many reasons why I couldn’t go with the Darren McGavin approach when I was developing it. I sort of said yes to this without really thinking about how I was going to update it, and when I did the research, watching the movies and watching the series again, I realized this was not going to be easy. As great as those first two TV movies are, there are a lot of big problems inherent with doing it as a weekly TV series. Why would Carl Kolchak, alone of all the reporters in a big city, stumble upon supernatural stories week after week? Why wouldn’t they end up in the newspaper? Why wouldn’t the police be aware of these things? What was his connection to the material? An idea that worked great as a TV movie has a completely different set of problems to be solved if you’re going to carry it off week after week.
I came up with giving him a personal connection to this, and when I hit upon the idea that he may have killed his wife, and then hit upon the idea that maybe he really did kill his wife, I got very excited. Then I thought that if you had a young, handsome, charming guy – taking those qualities and turning them on their head and saying he may be evil is very, very interesting. That was one of the things that was most difficult about our cancellation – it was in the middle of a two part episode, and that second part is where just when you start to think he’s a good guy, he’s a hero, you can trust him… the bad guys catch him and let him go! That, to me, was like the first ‘Holy shit’ moment after the pilot. It was like, wait a minute, who is this guy, and just where is this series going? Just when you think you know, you don’t know. I think that was one of the beauties of having Stuart play the role – how appealing he was and how he could cut both ways as good and evil.
I’ll also say that the more I thought about it the more I realized you can’t do Darren McGavin better than Darren McGavin. It’s a fools errand. It was better to go for a completely different approach to the character and the series and hope that over time people would accept it not as better than Darren McGavin but different.
Q: On some of the commentaries you mention that ABC wanted to downplay some of the supernatural elements. To me that’s like getting Law & Order and asking them to cut out the crime. It doesn’t make any sense. How does the network come to that decision?
Spotnitz: You know, I still don’t know. You can imagine that I was shocked, especially with this title. If you know the Night Stalker at all, it was all monsters. All monsters! We got that directive that they didn’t want any monsters and I was shocked. I don’t know whether they have some research that supports this or if it was some personal preference. The interesting thing is that what happened was that we had more reality based bad guys in the first ten episodes, and they ended up scarier than monsters might have been, because with monsters you can say that’s not really real. And that’s harder with a human bad guy.
Q: ABC has supposedly asked Lost to cut down on the sci-fi elements as well. It seems odd – in feature films genre elements sell, but they’re afraid of them on TV. Why is that?
Spotnitz: I do think they’re different markets. I think the demographics of network television are completely different from the demographics of feature films. In some ways it’s a good thing – you can do more adult and interesting work, often on television now, than you can on a big budget feature. But I do think, and this is where I think they’re not wrong, I do think there’s a prejudice against genre storytelling in the audience that watches network TV. I think that’s a prejudice that has to be overcome. I think you can do it, and I think the best example is the X-Files, which became a top twenty hit and was squarely a supernatural show. But once you’ve seduced people I don’t see why you need to pull away from it, and my approach has always been make it seem real – make it feel like a cop show – and then introduce the fantastic elements.
Q: You’re working with Chris Carter on a new feature film.
Spotnitz: Yes. We haven’t titled the movie yet, but it’s based on a book called A Philosophical Investigation by Phillip Kerr.
Q: I haven’t read the book but I looked it up – I would never imagine this book being adapted into a movie because it’s filled with Wittgenstein and other philosophical concepts that we don’t often see in feature film thrillers.
Spotnitz: It’s a loose adaptation in the sense that you’re probably right that a lot of it is too intellectual for a feature film thriller. But there’s a lot about the book that we found really compelling. We just finished our first draft on that, and we’re hoping to move forward with Chris directing.
Q: You’re also remaking The Star Chamber, I heard.
Spotnitz: That’s right. I’m producing that. It’s an interesting project for me, because I thought it was a great concept but I didn’t feel like the movie took advantage of everything it could say. The last few years – I’ve been working on this for a couple of years – with the Bush Administration it feels more relevant than it did twenty years ago.
Q: Are you keeping any of the elements of the film, or are you just going with the basic concept and reinventing?
Spotnitz: There’s a lot that I thought was quite good and quite successful in the original film, but there are a number of important things that I think they should have explored that they didn’t.
Q: I think I would get my writing for a website license revoked if I didn’t ask about X-Files 2. So here I go with the obligatory X-Files 2 question.
Spotnitz: I have the same answer, unfortunately, that I have for a long time, which is that all of our deals are done but there’s a legal issue between Chris Carter and 20th Century Fox over the TV series. I’m hoping that will get resolved soon and then we can move forward.
Q: And the idea you guys are working with is a stand alone story?
Spotnitz: Yes, it’s a stand alone, scary movie, and I think that’s part of why we’re excited to do it. As proud as we all are of the first film, it had all this baggage – it had to deal with all the mythology of the show and it was sandwiched between two seasons of the series, and so there were a lot of constraints on what the story could be. Now we’re free to do stand alone scary movies, and I think we all believe it could be a series of films. And these are great characters to do that series with.
Q: I have to ask, how did Mulder and Scully get home from Antarctica in the movie?
Spotnitz: He had a satellite phone and he called… [laughs] I don’t know how he got home.
I can’t remember if it made it on the air or not, but there was an episode I wrote and directed called Alone, at the end of season 7, I think it was. Mulder and Scully are in a hospital room with Agent Harrison, and she’s asking questions and they ad libbed a lot. That question may have come up, or it may be on the cutting room floor.