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R.W. Goodwin—Alien Trespass—2/15/09

/content/interviews/277/1.jpgR.W. Goodwin is best known as one of the key creative talents behind The X-Files, in the roles of co-executive producer, executive producer, director and writer. Among his other projects as producer: life goes on, Winter of Our Discontent, and the Richard Donner film Inside Moves. Now he's the director of the feature film Alien Trespass, an affectionate homage to the mildly goofy science fiction films of the '50s. We spoke following Goodwin's unveiling of Alien Trespass to San Jose's Camera Cinema Club.

Groucho: So the longer I hang around you, the more I get to know: I just heard that you started in the mail room—that’s the traditional Hollwood story, isn’t it?

R.W. Goodwin: Well, yeah, especially in those days. I mean, at CBS they had a policy that you had to have a college degree to work in the mail room – for 65 bucks a week. I mean, you couldn’t live on it, but … And then they would always promote from within the company. So if you wanted to go to work there, you had to do that. And I went in, and of course I wanted to work in production like everybody else wants to. I worked in the local station – it was KNXT television, KNX radio, and Columbia Records were all in this one complex at Sunset and Gower. And it had all these great side benefits, because all the recording studios for Columbia Records were there. So as a kid out of the mail room, I was kind of invisible. I went and sat in the recording booth and listened to sessions with Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys and Little Richard and Johnny Mathis and—you know, I was there for some of the most famous songs ever recorded. I got to hear them being done.

G: Wow, that’s cool.

RWG: Plus, you know, I get into this job in the mail room thinking, "Oh, I’ve got it made now. I’m gonna move up real quick. And I find out that the three other guys who work in the mail room have all been there a year or longer waiting for their—and then, as it happens, three weeks later an opening came on the best show they had produced. It was a thing called Ralph’s Stories: Los Angeles, which won a bunch of Emmys; it was a locally-produced show. And I just fought and fought and fought until I got the job. And of course these poor guys in this mail room, they weren’t happy, but you learn something: survival of the fittest.

G: Yeah, you gotta hustle. I guess it was around that same time, then, when you were a stand-up comic. Is that right?

RWG: Yeah, actually it was just—while I was doing Ralph’s Stories at night, I would go out and work nightclubs like the Troubadour and the Icehouse and that sort of stuff and did stand-up comedy, yeah.

G: And you were on TV shows as well, huh?

RWG: I eventually got onto The Merv Griffin Show, and Donald O’Connor, who was a film actor, had a talk show for a while, and I did that, and I did—oh, Steve Allen had a new show I was supposed to be a regular on, but that never quite worked out, I don’t know why. But yeah.

G: What was your comedic persona like? What was your stand-up?

RWG: I would just do stuff like Newhart, where I’d do different sketches where I’d play different characters, and I’d do different voices, and things like that. The truth of the matter is I didn’t do it for a long time because it’s a brutal way to make a living, and I just realized that this is not for me . I was appearing in the main room of the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas and got fired after my second show, and I said, "I think I’m gonna quit doing this now." (Laughs.) I was doing stuff that was too intellectual for the crowd!

G: Sure. But, your sense of humor has held you in good stead, with your new film and everything in between. So about Alien Trespass: where did this script come from, and how did it get to you and how was it developed?

/content/interviews/277/2.jpgRWG: Well, Jim Swift is a good friend. We live up in a city called Bellingham, Washington, and we’d become friends and realized fairly soon—early—that we had attended the same elementary school and junior high school in Los Angeles at the same time. He was a year behind me...or two years, or whatever it was. He was clearly too young for me to pay any attention to. But both of us loved these sci-fi movies—we used to go the same theater in Englewood, the Ritz theater. We’d take the bus over there, and probably sat next to each other or a row apart or something. But he had a real fondness for the '50s sci-fi movies. He felt that the problem with them was that there weren’t enough of ‘em. So he was gonna make one more, and for years and years had been working on this. He had a story outline that he finally worked with a writer named Steven Fisher, who was a first-time writer, and had a few scripts—none of the scripts were very successful. But I really loved the story. He’d combined elements of the original War of the Worlds with The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space, which were three of the classics of the '50s. And, you know, there were enough elements of each to make it really authentically '50s, but it was still an original story. I’m not crazy about remakes, frankly. And I really loved it. I had long talks with Jim about how he wanted to approach it, because I had a clear idea in my mind, that I didn’t want to do a parody or a spoof or some kind of schlocky comedy; I wanted to do a movie that would be absolutely true to the style of the '50s.

G: A time capsule movie.

RWG: Yeah, exactly. And part of what really convinced me I wanted to do it was I revisited—I looked at some of those movies I hadn’t seen for a long time, realized that they were funny. Even though, when they made them, all of the people working on them were very earnest and very serious about making the greatest science fiction they could. But 50 years later, because the styles had changed so much and it was a totally different world, they were all funny! You know, they were inadvertently funny. And so, I figured if we did it right, we could make a movie that was intentionally inadvertently funny. You know, I didn’t want actors to try and make it funny; I wanted them to be true to the style and act serious. They’d be in the scenes and play the moments for real, with a slightly stylized [approach]. [This was] before Brando and James Dean brought in all the naturalistic style of acting—still, the actors in those films were really good actors, and they were doing their best to seriously play the scenes. They couldn’t help it that if you looked at it 50 years later, they’re funny, you know? So, it was hard! It’s a very hard chore to do, especially for the actors, because you want to try to be funny. But they all knew. So we all immersed ourselves in the '50s, we looked at all these videos and really knew about it, and I just said to everybody, we’re in 1957, we’re working within the confines of what we know from 1957, and that’s how we’re gonna do it. And, it’s wonderful for me to see it with audiences now because they just laugh, or they’re really scared or they’re really touched, you know? It’s got all the elements of the '50s movies, but with the added layer that it’s funny.

G: And of course, when you’re somebody like Dan Lauria or Eric McCormack, you’ve got those comedy chops, even if you’re burying them. You know, they say actors do all the research, then they "forget" it. But it’s still there.

RWG: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And that’s why Eric [McCormack] was my first choice, you know, ‘cause I knew he’s one of the funniest people on the planet, but I’ve also known Eric for years. He was trained in—you know, he did Shakespeare as a young man, and he’s done drama and he’s an excellent, wonderful dramatic actor. And so, when you have those together—and we worked together on the character to be sure we got the kind of tone and everything we wanted. He just was brilliant in it. And Dan Lauria, the same thing. Dan and I have been friends, we’ve worked together for years—I won’t even tell you how many years, ‘cause you’ll figure out how old we are—but, you know, when it came to that part—the casting director in L.A. for the leads was Susan Edelman—she just gave me this wonderful list, and I didn’t even look at it. I just said, find out if Dan Lauria is available. And you talk about actors who have these comedy chops—well, what few people know is that Robert Patrick is one of the funniest people on the planet! I’ve known Robert for years, and I did a comedy pilot with him, and unfortunately, it didn’t get on the air, but he is [a] genuinely funny man. And some of the biggest laughs I had—well, I can’t say that because I had so much fun from start to finish on this movie, but Robert is just so charming and so funny, and it was just wonderful to work with him.

G: You mentioned earlier when we were talking that Eric McCormack had a certain take on the role of Urp.

/content/interviews/277/5.jpgRWG: Well, the way he described it after was he said it was like learning to drive a car. He said, “I’m a very intelligent being, but I happen to be from another universe, and I’m inhabiting this human body, and I’m trying to figure out how it works,” you know? (Laughs.) And that’s kind of what the movie is about—he’s looking at the hands and seeing how they move and, you know, he comes into the kitchen for the first time and he sees—the character’s name that he inhabited, his name is Ted—and he sees Ted’s wife, and he says, “You’re Lana. You’re Ted’s wife.” And he kind of thinks, figuring it out, and he goes, “Ted loves Lana.” You know? And just all of these moments of discovery, which become so funny, but they’re funny because he plays it real. I mean real in the sense of whatever a real alien inside of a human being is. But he plays it really with a genuine, emotionally based and balanced performance. And then of course, we had Jenni Baird… oh my goodness, what a wonderful actress! Oh my gosh, she just nailed that. She’s just like Connie Stevens or somebody from the '50s: just this gorgeous blond, sweet, wonderful, and I mean, I can’t talk enough about the cast. You know, Jody Thompson, who plays Lana, the wife, I mean, is that the most perfect example of the drop-dead gorgeous '50s wife? She just got it down to every little nuance. It was wonderful.

G: Yeah, the nuances from those '50s films—and there was, as you say, a kind of a tier there. There were the "A"-list sci-fi movies, and there were the "B"-list ones. But those archetypal characters: it’s almost like dialect, you know?

RWG: Yeah. The old man who lives in a cabin and nobody believes what he says—yeah, I know. A lot of that—that’s what I love about the story and, ultimately, the script. It took us about a year, once I told Jim I wanted to work with him, and Steven Fisher—the writer has a wonderful ear for dialogue and character—and just a year of honing that and getting that right where it was… yeah, a lot of it was stuff you’ve seen before, just in a different context. Some of the movies were funny, you know. If you look at The Blob, Steve McQueen is brilliant. And that’s just about it.

G: Right. Right. (Laughs.)

RWG: If you look at the rest of the cast, they’re pretty wooden, you know what I mean? So, it was like a "B" movie with one "A" actor in it! But, a lot of the acting was very…mixed, let’s put it that way: a lot of the movies, you know.

G: Sure, right. You know, there were the specific films you referenced, the key ones that were the touchstones for Alien Trespass, but were there other particular moments that are kind of dear to your heart in the film that people might not immediately recognize as being “steals” from those films?

RWG: Well, we just—like I say, me, especially, I just immersed myself in as many of these as I possibly could, and I would just find moments here and there. If I thought something was amusing or charming or whatever, I would adapt that. I mean, I was watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers—which, for its time, had some great special effects, and it was Ray Harryhausen, I believe—but there’s this one scene where the flying saucers are attacking this Air Force base, and the three heroes are running away as this all is burning up all around them, And they’re clearly on a treadmill, and they can’t quite get the background in sync with the actors. Because that’s the way it was, they didn’t have CGI, they couldn’t, you know, make anything. So I stole that, and we have a moment in our movie where one of the characters is walking along—clearly, he’s on a treadmill—and he comes to a stop, and the background keeps moving for a little while! (Laughs.) You know? It’s that kind of stuff. So there’s a lot of different—I mean, the more you watch the movie, the more you’ll see moments that are—

G: Yeah, those are the days before you said, "We’ll fix it in post."

/content/interviews/277/3.jpgRWG: You couldn’t fix it in post! There was no way. And I’ll tell you, the funny part of it is that, Eric, who was our visual effects guy, who had to—because we shot all of ours on green screen, and then obviously shot all of the background plates—when he came to that moment, he was going to fix it, he thought that somehow, we’d made a mistake, because the editor, Michael Jablow, had done it the way I wanted it, to keep the background moving! And I casually mentioned how funny I thought that was, and Eric said, “Oh my God, I’m glad you told me that, ‘cause I was gonna fix it!” (Laughs.)

G: That is funny. I also want to ask you about The X-Files a little bit. You were executive producer for, I guess, the first five years, right?

RWG: I started three years as co-exec and executive for Four and Five.

G: Sort of the head-honcho show-runner of production, right?

RWG: Production in the not just physical, but also the creative look of the show, and the cinematic style of the show, and the directing style of the show: all of that was kind of my purview.

G: And you were hiring the directors, bringing them in and sort of establishing the style.

RWG: Yeah. And when you do a series, and you want it all to look like the same show, the executive producer is the producing producer, which, when I did, I would prep these directors. So we were very careful about storyboarding the big sequences, designing everything, being very clear about how everything was going to be ultimately realized, so that we had the style we looked for. And then, you know, frequently, I had to direct a lot of stuff that either got dropped or had to be redone or whatever. had a very distinctive look to it, obviously, and that was pretty much my job, because I was up in Vancouver, and Chris Carter had kind of given me the mandate, and I was the one that was gonna make that look like what it did, including the cinematography and the art direction and all that.

G: Sure.

RWG: I don’t know if you know the painter Caravaggio? Are you familiar with him?

G: Oh sure, yeah.

RWG: Well, Caravaggio was the guy who created The X-Files! (Both laugh.) Because I took some of his best paintings – the ones that were all the chiaroscuro, with very strong shafts of light catching different characters, and then deep, dark shadows all around them. And I mounted a bunch of these on a board, and I brought in John Bartley, who was a cinematographer, and Graham Murray and the rest of the gang, and I said, "This is what the show looks like." So, we can all thank a 17th-century painter for The X-Files.

G: "Steal from the best," that’s what they say, right?

RWG: Right, right.

G: As executive producer, was it your prerogative to snag a lot of the season finales and season openers for yourself, or how did that come to be?

/content/interviews/277/9.jpgRWG: Well, what happened kind of evolved, but in the first season—once we got picked up, past the initial twelve, ‘cause they only ordered twelve to start with—and we were filling out the schedule, Chris told me to put myself down for the finale, because it was the most convenient one for me to direct, because, as I say, I was spending a lot of my time prepping directors, right? So, there was no one to prep after the last one, so I could totally devote myself to directing it. And then, in the second season, I did an episode that was about a third or a fourth in called “One Breath.” It was an episode where Scully had previously been abducted [and] was the hospital on life support, and she had a whole series of near-death experiences. A very poetic—Jim Wong and Glen Morgan wrote this beautiful script. And it was one of our signature episodes, and it was so different… Scully’s mother started with us in season one. We had a couple of scenes in an episode called “Beyond the Sea”: opening scene with Scully’s parents leaving and the father dies, and then there’s this funeral. David Nutter was directing that episode, and he said, “You know, I think Sheila Larkin would be great for this.” I said, Sheila Larkin is way too young for the part of Scully’s mother. And he said, “No, she’s a young mother, she’s good, I want to bring her in.” I said, "Well, okay." Now, I happen to be married to Sheila…

G: (Laughs.)

RWG: And she and I had this pact for years and years that if she was going to audition for a show that I was producing, that I would not be in the room when she was auditioning because we made each other so nervous. And then, if she got the job, I would not be on stage when she actually worked. So [to] Chris Carter I said, "I’m not going to cast the part. If you bring in Sheila, I’m not involved." Carter cast her in that one show, and everybody liked her—the studio, the network and, more importantly, the producers. And so they kept bringing her back. Well, Jim Wong and Glen Morgan who are devils, told me, “We’re writing a special episode for you: it’s just amazing. You’re gonna be—it’s so different!" Well, it was this thing “One Breath.” And of course, there was—Mom was the biggest part, and I had to direct her. I mean, it’s hard to direct someone and not be on the same stage with them. That doesn’t work. So we made each other extremely nervous until we actually got to work, and then things were fine. But from there on we kind of mutually decided—because they wanted me to direct a lot of them, and I just—it was too hard because, especially in the middle of the year, when I’m directing, I’ve got to be prepping the next director. So eventually what happened, we got David Nutter first and Kim Manners, God rest him—we just lost Kim a couple weeks ago. He was a brilliant guy—worked so hard and was so talented, and we made him a producer. He did one episode. "Sign him," I said. "We’ll get him on as a producer and let him direct. It’ll take some of the load off of me," and the same with Rob Bowman. So what we would do then is if I was directing—like I would direct the season opener, which is what we ended up doing—either Kim or Rob or David would direct the second one because they didn’t need to be prepped. They knew the show. And I would be just as involved as I could be, but I didn’t have to be totally there.

G: And, I read that you used to greet directors at the airport, “Welcome to the hardest show on television.”

RWG: Oh yeah. We used to—the line was—we used to send them home, and all the directors got sent home in body bags. (Both laugh.)

G: And you said it nearly killed you doing the first season finale, which everybody thought might be the series finale, right?

/content/interviews/277/8.jpgRWG: Well, we kind of got it—by the end of the year we felt we were in pretty good—we weren’t a big hit or anything, but it was Friday nights at 9, and it’s not—you didn’t have to get a very big number to stay alive. And what happened was "Erlenmeyer Flask," Chris wrote that. And it was just a wonderful episode. It took about twenty years off my life directing it. And to their credit, Charlie Goldstein, who was head of production at Fox read the script and called me said, "You can’t do this in eight days. You’d better take an extra day or two." And I—I mean, this was the studio. It wasn’t me!

G: Yeah, even God couldn’t do it in eight days. (Both laugh.)

RWG: Well, I don’t know. I’m not going to ask him. Anyhow, it turned out to be a really exciting episode. It was the where the—they had all the aliens—naked aliens in the tanks—with all the tubes and everything—

G: Right. Right.

RWG: And apparently what happened was is a lot of people saw it. The word spread on it. And then during that summer when we reran that first season, a whole bunch of people who hadn’t known about the show came back and saw it because of that "Erlenmeyer Flask." So we opened pretty big the second season—from there on it was just all the way up.

G: And you directed the last episode in Vancouver, “The End,” and the crew took to calling it Bob Goodwin’s Gone With the Wind."

/content/interviews/277/7.jpgRWG: Well, it was huge, you know. The opening scene was a twelve-year old prodigy chess player playing a Russian master in the center of GM Place, which is their great big sports arena up there. It holds twenty thousand people, I think. And we put the word out: "Come be an extra in the last episode of The X-Files from Vancouver. They were lined up literally for miles down the main streets of Vancouver. We got fifteen thousand people and had to turn away thousands and thousands more, and they were there all day long, you know. The kid—in the scene, there’s a sniper up in the rafters there and he’s got the kid in his sights and just—the kid stands up to do a checkmate and the guy squeezes the trigger and the kid sits down. So he shoots the Russian guy by mistake—who collapses. And the audience just panics, and they all storm out of the room. And when you shoot things like that, you shoot many angles and over and over and over. So these fifteen thousand people just stayed all day long. Everytime we’d "Cut, cut. Go back to number one"—they’d get back to their original positions and it was wonderful. You could hear a pin drop when they’re waiting for the director to tell them what to do next. (Both laugh.)

G: Right. You were there at the inception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and you got kind of a raw deal there, but—

RWG: No.

G: But what happened?

/content/interviews/277/4.jpgRWG: I wouldn’t say I got a raw deal. It’s just that the studio tried to find a story that would work as a feature for years and didn’t like anything. So then they decided they were going to create a new network, and it was going to be one night a week to start with, with a two-hour movie and a new episode of Star Trek with the original cast. And they had everybody lined up. And then the network didn’t happen, and so the studio asked us to do a two-hour TV movie that we could then make as a sort of spec pilot and try to sell it to NBC or ABC or CBS. And I had this idea. I said to Gene Roddenberry, "You’ve never had Earth threatened. What if there’s this huge object coming through space heading right to Earth, and they don’t know what it is, but it’s clearly a threat. So they get the Enterprise out of mothballs and send the crew out to save Earth." And Gene liked it. And so I worked with a young guy named Alan Dean Foster, because I was not really a Trekkie. I mean, I liked the show, but I didn’t—I wasn’t immersed in it like a lot of people. But Alan knew it very well ,so we kind of sorted out the Trekkie stuff, and we developed a story. And then Gene brought me over to the studio—over to the executive building to pitch. And I pitched it, and by then it was pretty fleshed out. I had—it was like a half-hour pitch or something. We had every single beat. And there was a kind of a silence for a second, and I thought, "Uh oh, they don’t like it." And Michael Eisner went, "We’ve been looking for the feature for five years and this is it." So that became the feature. I stayed on for a year, and I sort of supervised building the Enterprise, and I helped cast the bald-headed girl, Persis Khambatta. And then Robert Wise came in to direct because they had let the director go—a television director—they felt they needed a feature director. And he kind of—for whatever reasons, all the credits got changed. So Gene Roddenberry, who had been executive producer, was moved to producer, and they asked me to take—I had been producer—they asked me to take a different credit, which I just didn’t feel was worth another year of my life. And—but it worked out well because Gene had a good friend that I’d become friends with, a guy named Mark Tans who was a wonderful guy—you know, a very successful guy in real estate—shopping centers and things like that. The day I decided not to continue with Star Trek, Mark called and he said, "I want to make movies." And so we formed a company, and we made a movie we called Inside Moves, which Richard Donner had done: it was his first movie after Superman and The Omen. And Lauren Shuler—she and I may disagree, but I do think this is one of his best movies. I loved Ladyhawke (laughs), but it was a very wonderful movie and a great experience. So it all worked out in the end.

G: Sure.

RWG: And, you know, the thing about the raw deal: I had an agent, Mark Rosenberg, wonderful, brilliant agent, who left right at the time I’d come up with the story idea to become the head of features at Warner Bros. So I had no agent. And I was a young guy. I was very young and very naïve and—I guess I didn’t understand that I should have asked for credit for the story, and so I didn’t get it, you know? You don’t ask for it, you don’t get it!

G: You forgot your ruthless lessons from the mail room. (Both laugh.) Well, thanks so much for talking to me. It’s been great.

RWG: Thank you.

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