THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: HAVEN Co-Creator Sam Ernst Talks About Its Influence on His Work - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: HAVEN Co-Creator Sam Ernst Talks About Its Influence on His Work

September 11, 2013 by  

In honor of the 20th anniversary of THE X-FILES, I spoke with some of the television writers who have mentioned to me that they have been influenced by THE X-FILES to dig deeper into why this show resonated with them.

Next up? HAVEN co-creator Sam Ernst, who is currently also consulting on the new NBC series, CRISIS (which just happens to co-star former X-FILES star Gillian Anderson)…

When did you start watching THE X-FILES?
Sam Ernst: I think I started watching in the second season, and then went back over time [to catch up], though I am by no means an X-FILES expert. Though one of the co-showrunners on HAVEN and one of the guys who started with us as a writers’ assistant and is now a story editor are both X-FILES fanatics who do that things that X-FILES addicts do where they reference a line deep in an episode and they know what they’re talking about. I’m not quite at that level. [Laughs]

What do you most remember about the show?
SE: Two things, both of which played heavily into HAVEN. One of them, of course, is I liked having the perspective that they did sometimes of having the audience superior, so you were a little bit ahead of Mulder and Scully. You’d get those cool scenes where you’d be there when the crime happened and you’d see these weird things going on, and it’s not like you knew who did it — although sometimes you did — and then you’d go to Mulder and Scully and watch them peel apart the layers of what it was. I liked that a lot.

The other thing, the thing I found frustrating about X-FILES, is that I wanted more mythology, like all the other fans did. But that wasn’t really the style of the show. Now, I don’t think they would make that kind of show without doing more of the mythology and more of the explaining about what the heck is going on. But then it wasn’t the style and it drove me crazy. Which is good, because I kept watching.

I’d look at people tease stuff apart, and I’d go, there’s nothing there! They’d go over and over [details]. In the beginning, chat rooms were not quite as developed as they are now, but they existed, and the X-FILES fans on there, they would sift through the sand and find just the nuggets. I’m not that intense about it…but that when I understood the passion for the mythology. And that, connected to HAVEN, when we sat down to write HAVEN, to come up with it, we knew it was going to be the curse of the week. What would you call it for X-FILES?

Monster of the week.
SE: Yeah, a monster of the week. OUTER LIMITS had their monsters and TWILIGHT ZONE had their monsters, and of course, all comic books [do, too]. That structure was already there, X-FILES evolved it. And then we evolved it a different way.

When HEROES came out, I think we had already sold HAVEN at that point. It was called SANCTUARY at that time. And we sold it to ABC. And then we went on strike and HEROES came out. And I remember thinking, uh oh, HEROES is really good, and that’s sort of superhero of the week. And then it turned out it wasn’t the superhero of the week because it was much more serialized. There’s a lot of shows that circle that structure.

Since you were most drawn to mythology episodes in X-FILES, when you were talking about HAVEN with Syfy, was there ever any conflict with them wanting less mythology in your show?
SE: That’s always a challenge with serialized shows — bringing on new viewers. And nowadays — and I mean this minute, last year, the year before, maybe — the answer to that was the internet. And iTunes, Hulu, networks’ own websites, Netflix, and now Amazon Prime, where you can completely catch up if you get interested in something. They haven’t quite figured out how to monetize that, so it’s a little tricky. I mean, they have, but not as much as they might like.

Yes, there were discussions about the mythology, and we were — I would say [HAVEN co-creator] Jim [Dunn] and I were most interested in the mythology of anyone associated with the show. [Laughs] Because everyone was pretty set on the curse of the week structure and there were many people involved in the show, and everyone had a slightly divergent idea — which is pretty normal for television.

But the good news was, for example, something that Jim and I thought was absolutely essential to understand for the show of HAVEN, was one of our leads, Nathan, could feel nothing, except for the touch of our other lead. So that opened a can of worms and gave an interest to our mythology. That was in the pilot; we even shot it. But in the end, it was decided to not have it in there. And we eventually introduced it in episode eight of that season. And that’s because people didn’t understand how important that would be to the fans and how interesting it would be to add another layer to the show.

Now, when we introduced it in [episode] eight, it obviously landed a lot harder, because people who had been with us for seven previous episodes were much more impacted. It was much more impactful in eight, but it asked the question that should have been asked in [episode] one. And it’s those kinds of discussions that were ongoing in season 1.

By the time season 2 happened, we had been to Comic-Con, we had been online and spoken to fans, and we knew that the fans were doing exactly what they had done with X-FILES, which was they were talking about the creepy person of the week — or the monster of the week as they did on X-FILES — a third of the time, and two-thirds of the time, it was all about the characters and the mythology. So by season 2, we snuck in more and more mythology. And by season 3, everyone was on board that serialized stories are what everybody wants, and it got a lot more serialized. Though we still had the case of the week. And now HAVEN is finally coming to Netflix, and people will be able to catch up if they want to.

You’ve been upfront about knowing what you want the final scene of the series to be, but like X-FILES, you’re also in a position right now of not knowing exactly when the series is going to end. Is there anything you learned from watching how they handled their ongoing mythology that you’ve applied to your own show?
SE: Well, playing mythology by the seats of your pants is tricky, but I want to be clear: we don’t have every single thing worked out; we just know where we’re going. How we get there and where we go along the way, that’s a different thing. I think the thing is we understand our characters so well — who they are, and what their connections are and all that good stuff — that it really gives us the signposts that become the guide when we’re trying to break the season. And that’s the key. I think if you try and find what’s the coolest thing that can happen here, and work off of that, which shows do, I think that’s a mistake. Because really the question you should be asking is what’s the most important thing that can happen here and how can I make it cool.

It’s better to know where you’re going, of course, but you also have to leave yourself open to things that develop. The characters we put on screen, something might really pop, and we want to explore that and how they relate to our main character. And some of them don’t, and we had big plans for them, and they didn’t quite work, so they don’t get developed as much.

As good example would be Dwight. Dwight was created in season 2 for one episode, and now he’s on the cover of the season 3 DVD box set and there’s a lot of stuff happening with him in season 4. So you do have to leave yourself open for possibilities, but at the same time, keeping an eye on where you’re going.

Given that you’ve called X-FILES HAVEN’s mothership, what do you feel is X-FILES’ legacy today?
SE: I think X-FILES…that’s a great question. With legacy, one of the things that X-FILES did that was really great was with the character of Mulder, you had a broken man as the lead of the show. I’m not saying it’s the first time it’s ever happened, but in sci-fi, those are great characters. And I think there’s something about that kind of character that’s not overused on television, so that’s great.

And then you have a scientist who is a woman. I have two daughters, and I love that. I love that the scientist and the one that is questioning him constantly is a woman.

I think the most important thing with that is they were a bridge. They were a bridge of fully story of the week and serialized. They hit a balance that I like and in HAVEN, we evolved to something that is a little more serialized, but is firmly in the curse of the week. And so when we look at the evolution of these stories, we have TWILIGHT ZONE which was completely anthology, really, and there were no characters that carried over, and you keep going, and look at GAME OF THRONES which is completely serialized. They’re all sci-fi and supernatural shows, and that’s an evolution. And when you design a show, you can now say, it’s more in the TWILIGHT ZONE or more GAME OF THRONES or WALKING DEAD and it’s perfectly serialized.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another TWILIGHT ZONE again. I think that extreme is toast because for the fans now, it’s all about watching what your characters do. And I like TWILIGHT ZONE, but it was so standalone, it was hard to get invested emotionally.

The closest thing might be what AMERICAN HORROR STORY is doing with new stories every year.
SE: That’s a great example, actually, and that’s another model. And that show is great. It’s just a different way of getting seasons.

And the thing with HAVEN and other shows like it is you can check in for a season. If you miss three seasons, we’re going to tell a complete story in this season. And if you just watch the previously on in the first episode, you’re going to get enough that you’ll be able to follow along. And because there’s a distinct story for the season, there’s enough to hold on to. It’s not like jumping into GENERAL HOSPITAL or something…it’s really hard to jump into that show.

I want to tell you one more things that’s cool from THE X-FILES perspective: so I’m down at Comic-Con, and I’m consulting on HAVEN this year because Jim and I sold another Stephen King pilot to ABC. So we’re working on that, but while we’re working on that, we’re also consulting on a new show called CRISIS which is on NBC. And one of the lead of that show is Gillian Anderson. Really great people, and it’s not supernatural, so it’s great to stretch that muscle.

So I’m at Comic-Con to speak on the HAVEN panel, and I’m in the green room, and there’s Gillian Anderson! Now, I have my fanboy moment like everybody else. I had watched Gillian Anderson in THE FALL, which was her BBC show, and kept tabs on her. But now I have a reason to go over and talk with her because I’m a writer on CRISIS. So I get to have a conversation with her, which is great, and I don’t have to be a complete idiot and come over to her and be like, “I’m your biggest fan,” I can say, “Hey, I’m actually writing for you right now.” And I had spent the past few weeks writing a script for Gillian Anderson. Really powerful stuff, and a few weeks from now, I’ll be on set, and that’s fanboy nirvana, man!

Hollywood is such a crazy town. It’s all full-circle.
SE: Right? The only way it would get better would be if she was a lead of a Stephen King show I created [in the future] and I got to hire her. I’m taking this victory though. Hollywood does age you, it beats you up, but you get these crystallizing moments…that make all the silliness worth it.

Make sure to check back tomorrow for the next interview in the series!

(HAVEN’s fourth season premieres this Friday at 10 PM on Syfy.)


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One Response to “THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: HAVEN Co-Creator Sam Ernst Talks About Its Influence on His Work”

  1. Elisabeth Bodurka on July 9th, 2015 3:12 pm

    I have watched X files many years ago great show
    You write scripts for Haven now could you bring back Jennifer Mason (its haven anything can happen) as her twin sister who can help Duke she is also special but not troubled.Duke and Jennifer were a cute and comical couple would like to see
    her back.