When you think about some of TV’s hottest and most anticipated shows, alumnus James Wong’s ‘83 credits are certainly on that list. The writer/producer just finished writing and directing a new episode for a limited series of The X-Files, which debuts in January, and his multiple Emmy-winning show American Horror Story premiered October 7 with the new season “Hotel,” featuring Lady Gaga among a slew of returning cast including Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe. James spoke to us about his work, his inspiration and what he’s currently watching.
You recently completed the new The X-Files for FOX. The show was a huge phenomenon. How did working on this series shape your career? Up until The X-Files, I had been doing mainly dramatic shows like 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and The Commish. The X-Files allowed me to work in a genre I had always been interested in. When the show began, there was a program called The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. that was supposed to be the big hit that season. There were no expectations that were placed on The X-Files and we had the ability to make the show we wanted. That gave us the freedom to tell different kinds of stories without a lot of pressure from the network. And in success, it gave me confidence to know what I wanted to do was also what the audience wanted to see. And being nominated for an Emmy for directing The X-Files made it possible for me to direct my first feature Final Destination.
What is it like to work on a series that has been on a 13-year hiatus? It felt like I was coming home again. We shot in Vancouver during the years I worked on the show, and we returned there this time. I saw a lot of crew that I had worked with for many years. Of course, working again with David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan was a treat. Honestly it felt so familiar and comfortable; it was as if there wasn’t an interruption. Everybody looked older, which is startling because nobody felt that way. In terms of content, I don’t think The X-Files suffers by comparison to anything on the air today. It was a groundbreaking show back then, and the storytelling stands the test of time.
You wrote one of the most talked about The X-Files episodes, “Home,” which was the first episode to receive a viewer discretion warning for graphic content and was called “one of TV’s most disturbing hours” by Entertainment Weekly. Can you give us any tidbits about what to expect from the new season—will there be any recurring characters or themes? There will be characters coming back from the past. But this show doesn’t dwell on the past. It recognizes what had come before, but the stories we tell will move everything forward. Some of the issues left unresolved will be addressed. That’s pretty much all I can divulge. We are not shy about graphic content or subject matter, but The X-Files had never been about doing stories for the sake of shocking anyone.
The new season of American Horror Story “Hotel” is set around a series of brutal murders near the mysterious Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles. What is the process for deciding the story line behind each new series? The inspiration comes from writer/producer Ryan Murphy. Each season, Ryan and the writing staff will discuss possible arenas to set the new iteration of American Horror. Once an area is decided, then a lot of research will go into the specific topics we want to explore. Characters are created to populate the show. One of the advantages we have is the returning cast – we can write to specific actors knowing what their strengths are and how they want to be challenged. The next step is just the hard work of creating story and finding surprising ways to seduce our audience.
Many of the projects you work on have a pretty significant cult following. Can you share any fan stories? I am grateful for all the attention my work has gotten from fans. And genre fans are probably the most intelligent, and fervent fans out there. They are passionate about the work, and that can rub both ways – being loved and being hated. That kind of attention certainly keeps you on your toes. The beginning of The X-Files also coincided with the beginning of the popularity of chatting about the show after it aired. They were called newsgroups way back in the infancy of the Internet. I remember monitoring and talking with fans about the show and soon began to realize that a lot of fans were upset with Scully – the skeptical character on The X-Files. That feedback actually led us to write “Beyond the Sea,” the episode where Scully and Mulder change roles. For one episode, he became the skeptic and she the believer.
How did you become interested in working in the sci-fi/horror genre? I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid, not so much horror though who doesn’t love Stephen King. My interest in the genre is entirely related to telling great stories. You can’t watch The X-Files pilot without being intrigued and excited about the possibilities that show offered to tell unique stories. That was my entre into the genre. My inspiration comes from the mysteries that are all around us. Every day, things happen to people that are seemingly unexplainable, it just takes a little skewing of perspective to make that into a genre story.
You have worked on feature films but you primarily work in television, and now with companies like Netflix there are a lot more opportunities in that realm. What advice would you give current film students on how they can use their education to prepare them for the new frontier of content creation? Originality has and will always be the key to being successful in the business of TV and film. The burgeoning opportunities afforded by the new outlets will only place a greater focus on original content. The education that Loyola Marymount University provides will become a foundation that you can draw from as you enter the business. It’s not just the technical aspect of filmmaking that is important, learning how to learn, being curious and fascinated by the world, and developing a point of view are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education – those are the keys to creating original content. Believe it or not, my Religions of the World class helped me craft stories and create characters. My Philosophy class taught me how to look at issues from different perspectives. That’s the preparation everyone in the film school can benefit from as they go into this fertile landscape of being content providers.
What are you currently watching? Anything my wife wants to watch. But we both love Game of Thrones. Homeland. Walking Dead. Modern Family. And though it hasn’t aired yet – American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson will be amazing.