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Puzzle-gamesmanship


David Duchovny gets on the phone in mid-chew. “You don’t mind if I eat blueberries while we’re talking, do you?” I’m going to say I do mind? And besides, it’s rather human of him, to be so hungry that he can’t wait until after the interview, and even a little charming that his snack of choice is blueberries. Not slurpy or crunchy food, not meat on bread. Neat little blue fruits.


No doubt, the 41-year-old New York native has cause to be hungry. He’s on an all-day jag of phone interviews to promote his new movie, Evolution, a broad comedy by Ivan Reitman, in which Duchovny (perhaps the Yale lit program’s most famous ABD [All But Dissertation] non-graduate) plays an ex-government scientist now toiling as a biology professor at an Arizona community college who comes across a meteorite full of superfast-evolving aliens — from single cells to marauding dinosaurs in a matter of days. Between munches, Duchovny about being consumed, the good time on Reitman’s set, and saying good-bye to Mulder.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Here’s a pleasant coincidence. Before I even knew I was going to talk to you, a few days ago I was putting together a course on race and science fiction, and was watching that first X-Files episode you wrote and directed, [“The Unnatural,” starring Jesse L. Martin] about the baseball player in Roswell.



David Duchovny:

I’m very proud of that. When I directed those two shows [the second being “Hollywood A. D.” starring Garry Shandling], it was the time in my life when I was totally involved with what I was doing, I have these fond memories of being utterly consumed. And whenever anybody asks about them, I’m overjoyed. It’s only a tv show, but I feel like they’re little works on their own. The idea for the baseball one arose in 1998, when Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa were hitting all those home runs, and every day there was a newspaper story about home runs. And one day in the LA Times there was a story about this guy named Bauman, I think, and he had hit the most home runs in any organized baseball, like 70 in one minor league season. And then I saw that he played in Roswell, New Mexico. So then I thought, what if this guy was an alien? Chris Carter and I had been talking about doing a baseball episode since the beginning. Then I talked to my wife [Tea Leoni] about making him black, and wanting to stay in the minor league so he wouldn’t be found out. And then the weirdest thing was — and it wasn’t planned at all, just beautiful fictional serendipity — the year that the UFO supposedly landed in Roswell was also the year that Jackie Robinson went to the majors. So I thought, I am the genius, I have got my reins on the zeitgeist, I am the man. The allegorical stuff about race and aliens easily laid into one another.



CF:

So, directing appeals to you?



DD:

Oh yeah, in that sense that I can write it too. If someone asked me to direct someone else’s script, I don’t know what I could bring to it that someone else couldn’t, but I know that I have my own sensibility, and that as a director I can bring out what I write. And it’s a way of making sure that what I write gets out there.



CF:

So to speak. You sound confident: have you always felt that way about writing and directing?



DD:

Only since then. But I thought I could, but had lingering suspicions that I couldn’t. My experience on those two shows made me feel . . . less confident than excited about doing it.



CF:

Working in movies now is expanding options for you?



DD:

I had never intended to work for so long on one thing. It just happened that way, and I loved it and I’m proud of the show and all that is fantastic. Most actors get into [acting] because they don’t like doing the same thing all the time. I’m sure there are a lot of actors out there who would read that and say, “Fuck him,” he’s lucky to get a job that lasts. But I never wanted that steadiness. It became a matter of, it’s time to move on.



CF:

And so how did you come to Evolution?



DD:

Last year I had the twelve episodes to do, and I had four or five months in between, so I wanted to find something that would fit in that time. I wanted to find something that was as far away from The X-Files as I could, and Ivan called me in for a meeting, and I thought that working in Ivan’s mode — that influential style of comedy that he created with Animal House and Ghostbusters — was very different from what I do and who I am. Then I went home and read that it had aliens in it and I was profoundly disappointed. But I came to the conclusion that it was the style I was pursuing and the subject matter was kind of incidental. Of course, it raises a lot of questions, like, why would you leave The X-Files if you’re gonna do that? But again, what the words are about is not really what you’re doing. You’re trying to service the piece, the genre, the mode that you’re in — drama, comedy, dramedy — you have to find the right tone.



CF:

Not only the finished piece, but the experience on the set must have been so different.



DD:

Every movie set is different from a show you’ve been doing for 8 years. A television show that’s been running that long is all business. No matter what they tell you, you punch the clock, you go in and do your work and you say good-bye. A movie is more like summer camp, not in the sense that we’re goofing around, but in the sense that they’re all intense relationships that you strike up very quickly, then they dissolve and disappear. I was so sad saying good-bye. [He makes boo-hoo sounds.]



CF:

In fact—and I promise to stop talking about The X-Files after this — the first thing I saw this morning on the internet, some headline entertainment news, was your definitive good-bye to the show, very dramatic.



DD:

It’s interesting that it’s headline now, because I’ve been saying this for a long time. I think the fans of the show understand and to a great extent applaud this. I think coming back in a cameo — like Obi-wan Kenobi in your head, or like I did this last year, or whatever — it doesn’t do a good service for the character. And I’m proprietary about Mulder. I feel like if Mulder’s gonna be on that show, his quest is the show, and Mulder and Scully are the show. And really, there’s 180 hours of Mulder and Scully out there. I know in my heart that I gave a lot.



CF:

How is it to work in a film that’s flat-out comedy? It appears to me that no matter the part, you bring, in your presence and affect, a kind of wryness or dry comedy to every part.



DD:

That’s my nature. I think Ivan had reasons for wanting to work with me. He wanted to have that in his movie as well. And speaking of race and science fiction, what I like about the racial dynamic in Evolution is that it’s more of a friendship. Most relationships in movies and television, between black men and white men, are about that difference, you’re black and I’m white, like Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, the white guy acting black or vice versa. But Orlando [Jones’s] character wasn’t “written” black, so our relationship is two men who happen to be friends. So though there are a couple of racial asides, the movie is not about that. And Orlando has that ad-lib line, “The black dude dies first,” and that’ll be the theme of your course. That’s what your course should be called: The Black Dude Dies First: Race and Science Fiction 101. You know, in Star Trek, it wasn’t just the black guy, it was the guy you hadn’t seen before.



CF:

The red shirt.



DD:

[laughs] Yeah, Ensign Who’s Never Been Here Before: he’s gonna be dead in about three minutes, unless he reminds Kirk of himself when he was younger. Then he gets to hang around for a bit [in Kirk-voice]: “You. Remind. Me. Of. A. Young. James. Tiberius. Kirk.” Or no . . . [Switches to Bones-voice]: “Jim! Who does he remind you of?!” [Back to Kirk-voice]: “I. Don’t. Know.”



CF:

[laughs] You watched a lot of Star Trek when you were a kid?



DD:

Loved it. The original. I still watch it and my wife doesn’t get it at all. But I’m always quoting lines to her.



CF:

What’s your sense of science fiction, how it works for us?



DD:

What I loved about Star Trek when I was a kid is different from what I love about it now. Now it’s nostalgia. So I need to get back to what hooked me in the first place. My mom and I used to watch it, and the shows always had a moral. For a kid, it’s fun to get the allegory, because you feel kind of smart. There’s a puzzle-gamesmanship in science fiction, and there’s no one right answer, so there’s a kind of Animal Farm quality to science fiction. And besides, it’s a good excuse to spend lots of money on special effects and create alternate worlds. And one of the great things about Evolution is that the design guys got to create an alternate evolution. That’s the appeal of science fiction: asking questions. What if we evolved from dinosaurs instead of mammals? Then you let the CGIs go crazy. And recent science fiction has replaced the Western, with the lone gunslinger fighting off the alien menace. It’s the cowboy stuff. We need those stories.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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