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50 Things We Learned From Vince Gilligan’s The X-Files Commentaries

By  · Published on December 30th, 2015

Perhaps best known as the writer of Will Smith’s Hancock, Vince Gilligan previously found success on a little television show that few people thought would succeed. The X-Files ran for nine seasons, and he wrote (or co-wrote) thirty of the series’ 202 episodes.

20th Century Fox’s recent release of the entire series onto Blu-ray – available via a beautifully-produced box-set or as individual season releases – features the show in gorgeous HD, and while it includes a handful of new extras the vast bulk of the special features are pulled from previous releases. Multiple episode commentaries are available including three from Gilligan – “Small Potatoes” from season four, “Je Souhaite” from season seven, and “Jump the Shark” from season nine and recorded with co-writers John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz.

The X-Files returns in January for a six-part mini-series, but sadly Gilligan’s only role in the reboot will be as a fan. Also, I was obviously joking about Hancock being his best-known work. We all know he also wrote the Drew Barrymore/Luke Wilson rom-com Home Fries.

Keep reading to see what I heard on Vince Gilligan’s The X-Files commentaries.

“Small Potatoes” (1997) – Season four, episode twenty

Commentators: Vince Gilligan (writer)

1. Christine Cavanaugh plays the mother giving birth in the pre-credits scene. She’s best known as the voice of Babe in Babe.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

2. This was Gilligan’s first comedic episode. “I had bugged Chris Carter for a while to do a funny one,” he says. His experience prior to the show was writing comedy film scripts, but people who’ve seen Wilder Napalm might not agree.

3. The Weekly World Informer features a mugshot on the cover, and the man in the pic is actually an assistant prop-man.

4. Gilligan was originally against giving the babies tails – “I didn’t want the babies looking too creepy” – and instead wanted them to sport wings, but the wings were too much of a challenge to create digitally. “The truth is the tails are funnier,” he adds.

20th Century Fox

5. Star Wars is one of his favorite films. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. “George Lucas was very good about letting us refer to his creation.”

6. It took “a bit of arm-twisting” to convince Darin Morgan (the show’s only Emmy-winning writer, for the excellent “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”) to not only act in the episode but to play the creepy, shape-shifting, serial impregnator. Morgan had previously played the Flukeman in an earlier season.

7. The text at the bottom of the screen telling viewers where the characters are (ie “Office of Dr. Alton Pugh, OB-GYN”) is called a “legend.” Pugh was the name of a family who lived across the street from him as a child. “It stuck in my head for obvious reasons.”

8. The wardrobe department had loosened Morgan’s pants to aid in the reveal of his own tail stump, but during the scene where Mulder (David Duchovney) pulls Eddie Van Blundht’s (Morgan) pants back it showed far too much. “Shooting stopped for about ten minutes while everybody laughed vigorously,” he says. “I just about burst a blood vessel in my eye I was laughing so hard.”

9. Gilligan subscribes to the “rule of three” when it comes to jokes meaning you mention it three times and then never again.

10. “I feel bad for him personally,” he says about the Van Blundht character. He’s referring to the guy’s sad-sack lack of self-worth, but he acknowledges that Van Blundht is a rapist who deserves to be locked up.

11. Their Vancouver sound stages were originally built by Stephen J. Cannell for his numerous shows including The Commish.

12. The policeman’s piggy bank was a prop built especially for the episode so they could smash it against the cop’s head, and Gilligan says they cost nearly $3k each. You can’t see it, but the pig’s badge says “Vince” on it. The actor who gets hit in the head had to be paid “stunt pay” amounting to $400 per hit, and perhaps unsurprisingly Gilligan recalls him asking for repeated takes.

13. The “Seventeen Prospect Parkway” legend is a nod to Gilligan’s girlfriend’s childhood address.

14. He wanted Glen Morgan – fellow X-Files writer and Darin’s brother – to play the leaf-blower guy, but it didn’t happen.

15. They filmed a big foot chase (not to be confused with a Bigfoot chase, see “The Jersey Devil”) for the scene where Van Blundht pretends to be his own father before escaping, but it had to be cut for time constraints.

16. Duchovney ad-libbed the line “Do you think the fall killed him?” It’s Gilligan’s favorite funny line in the episode.

17. The episode was written in fourteen days, “which back when I wrote it was blazing fast for me.” Nowadays the TV scripts he writes require a much faster turnaround.

18. The woman’s voicemail message on Mulder’s answering machine refers to him as Marty which is an homage to an earlier episode called “Three.”

19. Gilligan didn’t think at the time that they needed a fish-eye shot of Mulder through the peephole, but he acknowledges how fantastic it is now.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

20. Gillian Anderson had concerns about the kiss between Scully and Mulder. “She had a very good point in that you don’t want it to come across that all it’s about is getting your inhibitions loosened up with a little bit of wine.” Gilligan saw it more as letting the duo’s below-the-surface emotions get a brief moment to breathe.

21. The “Cumberland Reformatory” legend refers to the county where Gilligan grew up in Virginia.

22. The episode’s message is summed up in Van Blundht’s comment that while he’s a loser by birth Mulder is one by choice.

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“Je Souhaite” (2000) – Season seven, episode twenty-one

Commentators: Vince Gilligan (writer)

23. This was Gilligan’s professional directorial debut. “I was nervous as hell going into this,” he says.

24. The title means “I wish” in French, “or so they tell me, I don’t speak French myself.”

25. Early iterations of the script’s idea featured an android inside the storage shed, but he dropped that idea “because an android didn’t feel like X-Files, seemed more to me like Star Trek or something.” He next pictured a small black hole inside with human teeth, “and I didn’t quite know what to do with that one.” It only became comedic once they settled on the idea of the genie.

26. Gilligan is a big fan of MadTV, and that led to him reading just about every cast member of the show for X-Files roles at one time or another. He specifically wanted Will Sasso for this role here.

20th Century Fox

27. The genie was originally written for Janeane Garofalo, but HBO commitments left her unavailable.

28. He was surprised that Fox’s broadcast standards people let them use that bikini & boobs remote control. “It’s the kind of thing you pick up at Spencer Gifts, it’s a little risque.”

29. The POV shot of the truck hitting the invisible man was done by having the truck hitting a giant mirror. It was an expensive shot due to a couple takes and the damage they did to the truck’s front-end. “It wound up leaking radiator fluid. Hitting that heavy mirror was definitely not what GM designed it for.”

30. Actor Kevin Weisman had an allergic reaction to the yellow make-up. “That was kind of a bummer.”

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

31. They had to pay a few thousand dollars so that Mulder could hum a few bars of the I Dream of Jeannie theme song.

32. Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of Gilligan’s favorite bands. The Dukes of Hazzard is one of his favorite TV shows.

33. Gilligan’s first cut of the episode was over by eleven minutes. “TV is sort of a Procrustean bed,” he says, in that a show needs to be a precise length. Procrustes was a Greek mythological figure who strapped people to six-foot bed, and if they were too short he’d have them stretched, too long and he’d have them lopped off. Gilligan credits Harlan Ellison with the phrase in regard to television.

34. The shot of the deserted downtown street (filmed in Los Angeles) was an accomplishment because not only is this kind of thing rare for TV but it was also filmed on a Sunday morning even though X-Files films Monday through Friday. It cost over $50 for those few seconds. He says his “hat’s off” to the filmmakers of Vanilla Sky for doing something similar but on a much larger scale.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

35. He recorded this commentary while in post-production on his second X-Files directing gig, “Sunshine Days.” He calls it the last “one hour” episode of the show, “ever,” as it was the last regular one before the two-part finale. Gilligan circa 2002 would be very surprised to learn what 2015 Gilligan has been up to.

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“Jump the Shark” (2002) – Season nine, episode fifteen

Commentators: Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz (writers)

36. “This episode was an elegy for the Lone Gunmen,” says Spotnitz, both for the short-lived show and the characters themselves.

37. They decided to make this a very special Lone Gunmen episode, and the way to do that was by killing them off and making it *the* Lone Gunmen episode.

38. They explain the title as originating from the classic Happy Days episode where Fonzie had to literally jump a shark and growing to mean “the moment when a TV show reaches its tipping point and goes from good to bad.”

39. “This is the second episode of The X-Files where we had to merge with another TV series,” says Spotnitz. “We did it with Millenium, and here we’re doing it with The Lone Gunmen.” Sure, unless you count Cops via season seven’s “X-Cops” episode or Law & Order: SVU via season five’s “Unusual Suspects.”

40. The “Hartwell College” legend is a reference to Gilligan’s girlfriend’s middle name. Spotnitz finds it odd that her name is College.

41. Gilligan recalls a conversation with a writer from King of the Hill who described a scene in one of their episodes before The Lone Gunmen even aired featuring an character in a t-shirt saying “Bring back The Lone Gunmen.” They were big fans of the characters and “had a feeling” about the show’s chances before it even premiered.

42. This episode almost never got made because there was zero support for it. “Less than zero,” corrects Gilligan. The trio fought to get this farewell, and they only got approval when they said they’d be killing off the gunmen.

43. The trio wonder aloud if we’ll ever get a DVD release of The Lone Gunmen, and they recommend people start a letter-writing campaign. “Yes, the three of you who are listening right now,” adds Shiban. Gilligan suggests the pilot won’t ever see a release thanks to its finale where a passenger jet narrowly misses the World Trade Center. Clearly the efforts of those three listeners worked as the series was released to DVD in 2005.

44. One of the gunmen, Frohike, was originally meant to be killed off in the episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” via a sniper shot to the head. This trio lobbied Chris Carter to keep him alive.

45. The man speaking during the hotel convention scene is played by Thomas Schnauz, writer of The X-Files, Breaking Bad, and The Lone Gunmen episodes, and he actually wrote his own speech for this bit. It’s difficult to hear, but Gilligan strongly suggests you give it a listen as it features a healthy amount of sexual innuendo involving missiles.

46. The character name, John Gillnitz, is used in several episodes as a nod to themselves. It’s a combination of all three of their names, and they still marvel at how long and how often they got away with it before anyone seemed to catch on.

47. Spotnitz mentions listening to the commentary on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and hearing how test audiences initially hated it ending with Spock’s demise but then gave much higher marks after a positive postscript (Kirk’s speech on the bridge) was added. “It changed the perception of the movie entirely,” he says, “and I’ll say looking back at this episode now that’s one thing I might have done differently, to have found some way to give you that sense of uplift at the end, because it is just grindingly sad at the end of this.”

20th Century Fox

48. They used the Los Angeles Veterans Cemetery as a stand-in for Arlington National Cemetery.

49. It’s possible Gilligan is crying while watching the end cemetery scene and the appearance of Agent Scully.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

50. “If anyone’s listened to my previous voice-over tracks you know they all suck,” says Gilligan, who really enjoyed doing this track with other people. I’m sure this was a better experience for him, and the others are fun talkers, but Gilligan’s two solo tracks are actually more consistent. There are some gaps here, even with three speakers, but Gilligan on his own keeps talking.

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Final Thoughts

I’m a long-time fan of The X-Files, and it’s great hearing people deeply involved in the show discuss it in depth like this. These tracks were recorded while the series was still happening (for the most part), and Gilligan offers plenty of fun tidbits both information-wise and anecdotal. I do wish there were more commentaries available, whether from him or other participants, but what we have is still a great listen.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.