Actor-comedian Dean Haglund is probably best known for his role as Richard “Ringo” Langley, a Lone Gunman member on the iconic Fox series The X-Files. The Lone Gunmen were so popular, they were given their own show, and although that only lasted 13 episodes, it had positive reviews when it aired in 2001. In the aftermath of 9-11, some of the parallels between the series and the real-life horror of the tragedy were incredibly eerie.
I caught up with Dean last week to hear about his post-XF projects, which include his long-running podcast Chillpak Hollywood Hour, his new graphic novel, the very cool-sounding documentary The Truth is Out There, and a forthcoming graphic novel. We also talked about comedy, our mutual admiration of beautiful British Columbia, and of course, The X-Files. Because of the length of our conversation, I’ve split the interview in half. Part One is largely about The X-Files; Part Two is largely not.
I was really delighted that I made the connection through Denise Dorman of WriteBrain Media. When I mentioned, among other things, that I had done a lot of writing about The X-Files, she thought it would be a nice opportunity for the two of us to talk.
Aw, that’s awesome. So you’ve written extensively in terms of critical reviews of The X-Files, is that it?
It was probably how I ended up writing TV criticism at all—doing X-Files reviews on the old X-Files listserves back in the day.
Oh my gosh, that’s going back, isn’t it?
It is. And it led me to eventually write critical analyses of other TV shows, and the rest is history. Anyway, when I tweeted out this morning that I was going to be talking with you, I got all these tweets back asking me information on the alleged X-Files 3 movie.
There was a big push for getting that out before 2012 ended, but they would’ve had to already been shooting by now to get that out by 2012.
Hold that thought for a minute, because I want to get back to the movie. But I want to talk about The X-Files series first. The Lone Gunmen were introduced how early in the first season?
We were just supposed to be day players back in an episode called “E.B.E.” which stood for Extraterrestrial Biological Entity. And I think it was a way to get Mulder inside a top-secret facility. They needed some guise. And at the time [episode writers] James Wong and Glenn Morgan said they saw these three guys in an airport handing out UFO pamphlets, and they were all very diverse, and they thought that was hilarious. So they created these characters, and it was just going to be a one-off thing. But I think because suddenly realized that the Lone Gunmen were the representation of the online, the early, early online fan gatherings that were happening back then. And they were happening in newsgroups. There was a newsgroup called alt.tv.xfiles.
Do you remember that?
I not only remember it, that’s where I wrote my reviews back in the day.
That was the thing; everybody assumed that [creators] Chris Carter and Frank [Spotnitz] and [writer] Vince [Gilligan] were all lurking on the site. And in fact, they were, because they were so excited that this was the first time writers got a chance to get direct feedback anonymously. Like, you could see the feedback honestly. Because if you go, “I’m Frank, I write the show.” Then everybody goes, “oh, I love the show,” and it’s hard to get honest feedback of what they [really] think of the show. But if you’re just lurking in the newsgroup, you can see how everybody is complaining about this, or you know, some of the ideas that the fans had back then were very, very passionate and very cogent. So Chris Carter really appreciated that, and [after] putting in the Lone Gunmen, the newsgroup went wild, going, oh, well, this proves it. And for seasons two and three, we would say lines that actually appeared on the newsgroup. So we would take an actual sentence from the newsgroup and give it to the Lone Gunmen to say.
Oh, that’s wild.
So we had this great symbiotic relationship with the fans early on, and I don’t think the Lone Gunmen would have been as popular were it not for the Internet and the newsgroups at the time.
At the time, the Internet was really sort of new. I mean, there had been newsgroups before, for a long time before, but I think that because being on the Internet had become all of a sudden fairly cost-effective, especially with AOL, suddenly everybody was online. You didn’t need like some crazy, $95-an-hour subscription anymore to hang out. There was some very serious discussion on alt.tv.x-files and alt.tv.x-files.analysis. Maybe for the first time about a TV show.
Yeah, and it actually sparked, like whole communities of debate, which I always found fascinating. But, you know, scientists would gravitate, and talk about the science aspects of the TV show, and then the [Mulder-Scully] “shippers” and the “no-romos” had their own newsgroups, and I really thought that was a great fragmentation of how you could find your own collective group and hang out with them.
And, for the most part, the discussion was very intelligent. I remember a lot of the participants were writers themselves, especially fanfiction writers, including me, and it was really cool. There was tons of X-Files fanfiction: some fairly brilliant novels, scripts, short stories…
I tended not to read a lot of that. Sometimes it delved into that slash universe that I wasn’t into, so I stayed away from it. And early on one of the executives said, “You know, if you read anything online, any fanfiction, and then that shows up in the series, and there is a lawsuit, you’re left out, hung out to dry. We’re not going to support you on that. So be careful what you read, because if it mirrors on the TV show, the lawsuit lands on your shoulders, not the Fox Network.”
Back then, writing fanfiction was a real risk, and frowned upon by the networks. And now, it seems it’s really encouraged. Over the last couple years I’ve talked to a ton of TV writers, people who write amazing scripts for major shows. These days, the writers I ask about it really appreciate it as a compliment to their characters and their own work.
Absolutely, and that was a huge learning curve too for the executives, because I remember even when you could show video for the first time, when the bandwidth increased and you could show video on your website, all the fans used to put The X-Files up there, and they would get a note from Fox saying that’s licensed stuff; take it down. And then I would get e-mails saying, hey we’re fans of the show, we’re promoting the show, we want this on our website, why can’t we do it? And I had to then get up on the legalities of copyright law, and be in the position of defending Fox.
And that too has changed, because now they have, you know, embeds, so the studio will release something and you can just embed it and everyone’s happy.
Yes, I think that was the thing. Before embedding, they felt like it was just being released in the wild. Now with embeds and all the tracking stuff, you can still get all the metrics back so that you know exactly how it’s being used and where, and still use that to sell advertising, I think was the biggest issue.
So I have to confess, I think I stopped watching The X-Files after season seven.
Right, when Mulder left.
When Mulder left, yeah. The show changed when it came to L.A., a little bit.
It sure did.
And it wasn’t just the move to L.A., I think the whole show just sort of changed, and I’m not sure if I could put my finger on why, but it just…
I know Chris Carter originally, said “we’ve got a five-year plan for this series, and then at the end of five years, we can go and do movies”—that kind of thing. And of course when you sell your show to a network, the network tells you when it’s over, so… That’s sort of changed now too. I mean, there’s a way of ending series properly, but back then, because it was so successful, the network demanded more seasons than perhaps the writers wanted it to continue.
Right, right. And I think the fans kind of picked up on that.
Yeah. At that point everybody kind of burnt out. We were doing sixteen-hour days, every day. Nobody saw a Saturday towards the end of the show because you were shooting all day and Friday night, and just slept all day Saturday. Sunday you did some chores and then Monday you’re back at work. And so it burnt out a lot of people for sure.
And after awhile the conspiracy got kind of crazy after a while as well, don’t you think?
Yeah, it became more and more—It got larger and larger, and it was a large—any time you brought it up there was a lot of strings that you had to keep—a lot of plates you had to keep spinning on the poles, as it were.
Right. Was there ever even a Bible for the show?
Not originally. In fact, it was just going to be sort of an anthology of monsters of the week—
Absolutely. And then Gillian Anderson got pregnant and had to sort of be written out for a couple episodes, so they just wrote in an abduction story that arced over three episodes, and then from that became, well why was she abducted? Now the conspiracy, now the alien-hybrid thing, all of that started because she was pregnant, so—
Yeah, I know, right? If that didn’t happen, the series would have just continued on as a crime-of-the-week kind of thing.
The conspiracy arc was actually pretty compelling, until it got really convoluted…
We kept adding different layers; the layering of the onion, sort of was working in two directions. So I think, yeah, around season three, they sort of arced out a Bible, but definitely in the beginning there wasn’t one.
Unfair question time: Do you have a particular favorite season or a particular favorite episode or episodes?
Wow, so, yeah, difficult. I guess my favorite season is… Well, no, there’s no favorite season because some of the shows stood out so great without a season, that you couldn’t really connect them. The truth of my favorite episode, I still think is [Darin Morgan’s] “Humbug” with the Jim Rose Freak Circus—
What a fabulous episode that was: pathos and comedy rolled into one.
I saw them live in a bar when I was in college, and I thought the show was hilarious, Enigma and all of them in the show, acting and doing what they do as well. And I thought that was so cool.
So they were a real act, then?
Yeah. Oh, yeah, there was a live stage act. It was almost like an old throwback to a big circus that you would see on the road in the south or something like that, and each person would come up and they would do something horrific or bizarre. And there was one guy who wasn’t in the show, and I don’t know what happened to this guy, because it was the most amazing act I’ve ever seen, but he would step off the stage to the pool table that was in the bar, and he’d put in some coins and release the balls. And then he’d take all the solid colored balls, you know, one through eight, and he would swallow them. And then he would say, call up any number, and people would shout out ‘five’, and then he’d sit there and wriggle his stomach, and he’d bring up, out of his mouth, the five ball.
That is very strange and bizarre.
I know. How do you keep track? How do you do that? How do you train for that? How do you not throw up everything you ate all day? I mean, like, there were so many questions. And then everybody—It was so stunning that the applause was just a smattering, because you couldn’t believe what you were seeing. And I never saw that act again. I don’t know what happened to that guy. I don’t know, but it was the most amazing bar show I’ve ever seen, so, So Humbug is my favorite.
I can imagine. Darin Morgan wrote some really great episodes in addition to that one.
Oh, yeah. He was so good. I loved Clyde Bruckman’s Return. He’s a brilliant writer.
And he didn’t start out as an X-Files writer, as I recall.
Well, no, he came because of his brother, Glen, and acted in one episode. (He played the iconic Flukeman in the early season two episode “The Host.”) He’s the guy with the tail [in the fourth season episode “Small Potatoes].
And then, of course there were the various “shipper” camps. I have to confess, I wasn’t really a Mulder-Scully shipper, I was more of a Mulder-Scully USTer.
I was a Noromo myself, frankly. I appreciated a relationship that was based on respect and intellect, even though they didn’t agree on their points of view, and that they could be working together and not have to make it all kissey-gooey, so I was disappointed when it became kissey-gooey, as… Yeah, and it’s not just the tension, but it takes out the idea that you could work with somebody on a professional basis and still call that a relationship, you know? And have it as satisfying, and not be boyfriend-girlfriend or whatever, cohabitation thing. So when the second X-Files movie came out and you know, they’re just in a cabin together… Just wrote me out of the movie.
Oh, yeah, well, in the first movie, there was that infamous “almost-kiss.”
Yeah, well, you know, there were a lot of executives involved in how that movie needed to play. So, yes, you had to answer everything from season four, and it had to be a lead-in to season five, and it had to be a stand-alone so that, for people who had never seen the TV series, they could watch the movie and still get it. And so, because of all of these demands put on that movie, I was surprised it was as good as it was.
What did you think of the second movie?
See, now here was the harder issue. I mean, already you had the romance thing. They’re already cohabitating in a cabin. And then, aside from the [2007-2008 Writer’s Guild] strike, they had a lot of restrictions. The writers’ strike was coming; they couldn’t do re-writes, so they basically had the script that they had. And I didn’t realize this, but they had written another script, and they had it in story notes, and Frank moved production offices and that shoebox went missing. So they basically had six months to write that script, and then had no opportunity for re-writes because of the—
The writers’ strike, right. So that was a really tough position to be in. And then, for my taste, you know, a lot of the conspiracy of the government stuff [in the second movie]… I mean, here you are at the height of the Bush administration with, you know, Karl Rove and all these guys, and then you write about Russian head transplants. It just seems like you missed a real opportunity to explore conspiracy in the government.
I mean, when we had our own real-life insanity going on, real time, how do you not…?
Exactly, I know. You had this opportunity to do—Even if you couched it in some other thing, you know, different names and stuff like that, you could’ve still explored all of these ideas, and instead chose two-headed dogs, you know?
Yeah, yeah. That was a missed opportunity.
So do you think there is going to be a third movie? You think they’ll get a redux, or a do-over?
A do-over? Well, you know I talked to Frank that—He moved to London, and he said he’s into it. It’s just once Chris comes up with something that his heart’s really into, then there will be a third movie. But right now it’s all resting on Chris Carter’s shoulders and his impetus to come up with a really great story.
Stay tuned for Part Two.