Behind The X-Files Drags Dragons Into 2084 Britain
was never a science fiction fan as a kid, says Rob
Bowman, whose name is nearly synonymous with the genre.
And I was never a Star Trek fan as a kid,
but now Ive directed Star Trek and X-Files
and those are the two things on TV that people know me for.
Bowman directed a whopping 35 episodes of The X-Files
and 13 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation,
and in 1998 brought X-Files to the big screen
as his second feature. But like many filmmakers whose reputations
are built on tales of the fantastic, Bowman appears more
interested in storytelling than categorization.
it happened, those were the shows that I liked and they
offered me some creative latitude, he offers. With
Star Trek anything could happen each week, and
with X-Files every episode was a completely
different animal, so I was able to stretch. Those shows
are hard to pull off. They really challenge your storytelling
muscles because they can become funny and goofy and bad
very easily. So I had to be strict about my approach. I
really found it a challenge.
in Texas but reared in the media mecca of Burbank, Calif.,
Bowman started out in the Paramount mailroom before he segued
in 1982 to directing insert shots and second-unit footage
for A-Team producer Stephen Cannell. Making
his debut as episode director with a 1985 installment of
Cannells action series Stingray, Bowman
soon became one of the busiest hourlong directors in Hollywood,
helming everything from Alien Nation and Quantum
Leap to Baywatch and MacGyver.
Bowman received three Emmy nominations for his work on The
X-Files (he was also a producer on the series), and
made his 1993 feature film debut with the teen actioner
third film, Reign of Fire, is a futuristic thriller
starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Izabella
Scorupco. Set in 2084 England, the July 12 Touchstone release
depicts small bands of humans struggling to survive in a
world dominated by enormous fire-breathing dragons.
on a British fire chief named Quinn (Bale),
who is responsible for containing the firestorms precipitated
by beasts he inadvertently unleashed as a boy. Quinn manages
to keep a small community of survivors alive in an abandoned
castle. Van Zan (McConaughey) is a cocky American who comes
to England to prove he can kill the beasts and save mankind.
Scorupco plays a pilot and Bales love interest.
Focus spoke to Bowman about, among other things, why
he didnt covet the biggest stars for Reign of
Fire, how the films dragons are inspired by
his golden retriever, and how he hopes to top 1981s
of Fire seems to be a mix of genres. How would you
It has an aspect of fantasy because of the dragons
its about a world overrun by dragons, so I guess that
also categorizes it as science fiction, but it really is
a suspense thriller.
Bale said he agreed to make Reign of Fire because
he liked your take on the material. How did your vision
of the story differ from the original script?
Originally it was a very dense, exaggerated story, too much
like Independence Day. I said, First of
all, theyve already made that movie. Secondly, I dont
like that version. I told him Id rather make
it more atmospheric and suspenseful, with less focus on
the dragons and more on the characters and their day-to-day
it their day-to-day struggle that drives the movie?
What drives the movie are the two philosophies. Quinn is
a survivalist. He doesnt think people should be tangling
with dragons; theyre too overwhelming. So hes
dug in and is waiting for them to starve off. Van Zans
approach is: Dont wait for them to die, go out
and kill them. But there are too many. You cant
kill them all at once, so his plan is to figure out a way
to break their spirit by taking out their leader. Both characters
make sense; each is right and wrong in his own way. As long
as theyre both reasonable it makes for a good argument.
this central character conflict present in the original
script or was it part of your development?
It was already there, but I worked a great deal on each
characters traits. Quinn was originally very passive,
kind of a spineless wimp. Van Zan was a huge braggart, always
exaggerating the point. So I toned him down and made Quinn
very strict and just as much a man as Van Zan. I didnt
want Van Zan to be all about grandstanding because I thought
it hurt the chances of making the movie realistic. Each
character is more likable and reasonable now, and the audience
can say I understand his point of view. He makes sense.
terms of casting, what were you looking for in your actors?
I wanted Quinn to be intelligent, soulful and hardy. Van
Zan is an insane character but I wanted somebody who could
balance that. Matthew, born in Texas, a good ole boy
you know that no matter what his mission is theres
still a warm heart in there. Now hes a very mean,
focused character, Van Zan is. His mindset is that hes
not intimidated by the dragons. Hes the dragons
worst enemy or the dragons dragon. So it seemed
the right balance to have a guy with Matthews down
home sensibilities to play against Christians strictness.
roles they play are unusual for both of them.
Yeah, and you wouldnt recognize either one of them.
[McConaugheys head is shaved and Bale sports a full
you always have them in mind?
I had those guys in mind very early on, but at that point
in the movie, knowing the cost of the movie, of course everybody
wanted to put big stars in the film. But I thought, Look,
the movie is the star. I dont want a name actor to
take over the movie. If wed have gotten a huge
star then it would have just been that actor in this movie,
as opposed to a story with characters. Thats certainly
no slight to the stars. Theyve gotten where they are
because theyre good. In the end I just went for the
actors that I liked. I thought if one of them happened to
be a superstar, fine, as long as Anthony Hopkins or whoever
can be a chameleon and doesnt step in front of the
important is the look of the dragons to the film?
Critical. I spent months and months and months designing
them, figuring out their flight dynamics. The look of the
dragons is critical because if Im saying that Im
taking a realistic approach to a fantastic idea then the
dragons have to look as real as anything else in the scene.
The audience knows theyre synthetic and that they
dont really exist, but theyre hoping that Im
going to help them buy into the idea. So everything that
I could do to make them realistic I needed to do. And I
think we did it.
can we expect to see something new in cinematic dragons?
Youve never seen anything like it. The last bar was
set by Dragonslayer, which had a really great
looking dragon, but it was a puppet and [when using a puppet]
youre limited by the limitations of puppets. In Reign
of Fire we have full-scale live action. I can do anything
I can think of with these dragons. I can even change their
flight patterns. When a scene is shot with a puppet, its
shot. To change it youve got to re-shoot it. In our
case I can say I want the heads to do this and
we can do it.
that help make the dragons more frightening on-screen?
Yes. These dragons are some very, very nasty, tenacious
opponents. They love to fight. Their tails are wagging all
over the place because theyre so keen on conflict.
I think I got the idea for the wagging tails from my dog.
When I come home my golden retriever just goes nuts and
I thought, since the dragons cant smile or laugh,
it would be really cool if when a dragon is trying to kill
ya, hes having a good time! So their tails are wagging
all over the place. Its a way to get a little personality
into them. Its like theyre saying, Im
way in the zone. Youre way out of your league and
Im perfectly comfortable.
it difficult for the actors to play against CGI dragons?
It was tough in the beginning. A lot of it had to do with
showing them illustrations and animatronics of the dragons,
and the rest had to do with them trusting me. After a while
Id show them sequences, or Id show them dragon
animatronics cut into an existing scene, and theyd
say, Oh, I get it. OK, this is going to be cool.
worked with special effects and CGI before. How did this
The level of complication skyrocketed through the roof.
When youre creating a digital animal you create everything.
You create how it flies and how heavy it is and how fast
it goes and how wide itll turn at 150 miles an hour
and how fast it will stop. None of this stuff is like training
a pet, where it already has a lot of inherent capabilities.
Digital dragons have no inherent capabilities; you have
to make it all. The attention to detail thats required
is extraordinary, but that, in the end, is what will make
trailers and ads havent revealed the faces of the
dragons. Are you keeping their look a secret, a la Jurassic
A little bit. The problem with Jurassic Park
is you can go to a museum and see a dinosaur. These dragons
are my design and they dont exist anywhere else. Theyre
not completely different than anything youve ever
seen physiologically, but they are my version of a winged
serpent that blows fire. Its taken me a year in post
production to get the dragons done. Ive never done
of creating unique visual worlds, how much of the distinct
look and feel of The X-Files are you responsible
Well, I didnt invent it. I took [X-Files
creator] Chris [Carter]s lead. He just said dark
and creepy, but specifically how to do that, and what
my opinion of that was, is what I think I helped define
on the show. So I would say ultimately, certainly by the
end of the second season and into the third and fourth seasons,
a lot of it was me. But again, I didnt walk in and
say Its too bright. Im going to make it
dark. Chris said dark and creepy.
you were so close to the TV show, how difficult was it for
you to take the The X-Files from small to large
Actually it wasnt hard at all because I always thought
that it was a big screen idea, that we were just shooting
it on the wrong format. So when we finally got it on the
big screen I was very confident that the ideas that were
in the series were big enough to hold up on a big screen.
It just felt due, actually. When we finally did it I felt
like, Ive been waiting for this for three years.
you were preparing for the film did you do anything differently
from your series prep work?
I did watch Lawrence of Arabia at least twice
a month when I was prepping and shooting the The X-Files
movie, to make sure that I was thinking as big as I could
and about how to stage and compose for the big screen, what
lenses were appropriate and all that sort of thing. But
when I was shooting the series I used to tape off my monitor
top and bottom, so I was always shooting wide screen for
the TV show even though it wasnt aired that way. I
was always practicing my composition for the large format.
important is character versus visuals in your films?
Simply, movies are only about one thing and thats
people. Its a visual medium so its going to
be visual, and its better to show it than to say it.
Its also important for directors to find visual metaphors
to express ideas, and sets and lighting and wardrobe can
express themes in the movie, but youve got to have
characters first. Nothing else matters if you dont
films or filmmakers have most influenced you?
Victor Fleming, who directed Gone with the Wind
and The Wizard of Oz. Also, Ford and Huston.
In my teen-age years, Spielberg. Some of the Scorsese stuff.
Coppola. William Wyler. Billy Wilder.
been said that you like to keep your cast and crew comfortable
on the set. Does a pleasant atmosphere make for a better
Its not so much about being comfortable, but I think
people need to know that theyre doing something theyre
going to be proud of and Im in charge of that. One,
they need to see that I know what Im doing and I know
what I want and what I want is whats best for
the movie. And two, I live on movie sets. Im either
on a movie set or editing and I like my environment to be
healthy and creative. That doesnt mean there arent
days when I dont straighten somebody out who needs
it. Its just the environment that I like to live in,
and I find I get better performances. I get more out of
my crew because they enjoy being there and I think they
know that I respect them and appreciate their extra efforts.
So it seems like when the set is happier then the movies
better. Seems like a good formula to me.
did you get your first directing job?
I was in the mailroom at Paramount. I said I wanted to be
a director and was told You should start shooting
inserts and work your way up. So I was going to film
school at night, and in the daytime I was xeroxing scripts.
Eventually Steven [Cannell] said, Go down and shoot
me a newspaper headline. Go down and shoot me an insert
of a key going into the ignition. I just worked my
way up from the bottom.
film school did you go to?
All of them. UCLA, USC, Glendale JC, AFI. It was all weekend
and night school. I took the chance that if I was working
for the studio, once I was in the door I would figure out
a way to get to where I wanted to go. The problem with film
school is that you can get a masters degree in filmmaking
and you still have to get a job in the mailroom. So I figured
Id just do both at the same time. Id go to school
at night and be in the faces of the producers in the day.
Id keep them up to date on what I was doing, without
annoying them, and say Hey, Im not asking for
much. Just let me do the inserts.
first full directing job was an episode of Stingray.
Yeah, but by that point Id shot hundreds of hours
of second unit and inserts. Id say in two-and-a-half
years I probably worked on about 400 TV shows, shooting
inserts and editing, sitting in when they re-cut the show,
just learning about storytelling and editing. Both of those
things were incredibly desirable when I actually got my
first feature in 1993, Airborne, didnt
do as well as youd might have hoped. Why do you think
It was a little Disney-kinda-esque film. Again, it was me
trying to figure out how to get into the movie business.
Id say the movie is far better than the script was.
It was a great learning experience. I probably learned more
on Airborne than in the previous few years of
television directing combined, about lighting, composition,
story, what works on the big screen, what doesnt work.
It didnt do that well in the theaters because they
didnt market it. I have a feeling the reason they
didnt market it was because they were concerned about
the [downhill rollerblade] race at the end. Being an unprotected
race it was sort of irresponsible. I hold no guilt or regret
about it because I told them not to do it. I said, This
shot should be on blocked-off, abandoned roads. It
wasnt me I wont say who it was but it
wasnt me who said, No, its going
to be on unprotected roads because thats exciting.
I thought it should be exciting but I was also thinking
What if some kid copies it? So I think they
pulled back on the marketing because of that.
there anything you would do differently on any of your films
if you could?
I try to work as hard as I can and plan as hard as I can.
If Id have been a bigger bully on Airborne
it would have been a better movie if I would have
said the racing is going to be protected and theyre
going to wear their hockey uniforms so the audience knows
who the heck is who. I think you need to know when to protect
a movie and when to agree to let other peoples ideas
affect the movie. The one thing Ive gotten better
at is carrying a sledgehammer around so if somebody comes
up with an idea that I think is going to hurt the movie
I dont let them do it.
you like to write and direct your own original script?
You kind of do anyway; thats part of the directors
job. But I havent written an original for myself yet.
Ive just been too busy. I wrote a few of them a long,
long time ago, but these days I barely have time to hang
out with my girlfriend let alone write a script.
happened to Generation Ship and I Am Legend"?
I Am Legend [a vampire film based on the novel
by Richard Matheson] was too expensive. They decided not
to make it. Generation Ship is still in the
oven. Its not dead. ("Generation Ship is
based on the novel Phoenix without Ashes," by
Harlan Ellison, about the remnants of humanity traveling
on a spaceship looking for a new home world.)
there any more X-Files films in the works?
I think so. I only know what you know, which is whatever
weve read. Chris [Carter] hasnt called me, nor
has he invited me to direct it. If he does and Im
available I would love to do it, and if he doesnt
then I cant wait to see it, no hard feelings.
is your goal as a director how would you like to
I love movies and I want to enjoy myself and enjoy challenging
myself each time out. I want to make each job a new learning
experience, because you learn so much each time, and not
to repeat myself. People want us [filmmakers] to use the
available technology and hardware to put a good story up
on the screen, and they want it to be timeless and memorable.
Id like to be remembered as a director who told stories
about people that were entertaining, and who took audiences
on journeys where they got to see things in the theater
that they wouldnt get to see anywhere else.