Luminary Week Day Six - Chip Johannessen Exclusive Interview!

Chip Johannessen was born in Detroit and educated at Harvard University, where he wrote pieces for The Harvard Lampoon. He later embarked on a short-lived career as a rock guitarist before turning his attention to writing. His past credits include; Beverly Hills 90210 and The Monroes.

Johannessen served as Co-Producer and staff writer for "Millennium" during its first two seasons, before executive producing the show in Season Three following the departure of Glen Morgan and James Wong. Chip is a true Luminary of the franchise: he was involved in all of the sixty seven episodes of the show and wrote no fewer than thirteen of them and was one of the few constants throughout all three seasons.

In 2009, Chip joined Season Seven of 24, serving as Consulting Producer and was also successfully elected to serve for 2 years on the Board of Directors at the Writer's Guild of America West. As Chip has never been busier it is with great gratitude that he took the time to speak to us. We thank Chip for his generosity and support and we wish him every conntinued success for the future. Read on....

MARK HAYDEN: Could I begin by asking you how Millennium came to be on your resume? Presumably there's a process of contacting individuals and their agents and outlining what the show was about?

CHIP JOHANNESSEN: Some time before Millennium, my agent got me a meeting with Chris Carter to talk about working on X-Files. I went in without story ideas, and with only the vaguest understanding of the show. Not only did nothing come of it, but Chris clearly thought I was wasting his time.

Maybe a year later I saw the Millennium pilot at the directors guild and was utterly blown away. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, by far, and I really wanted to work on it. Despite the bad meeting on X-Files, Chris was willing to try again because he was already hiring a friend of mine, Ted Mann, and Ted was suggesting that he give me a second chance.

Not wanting to blow it again, I spent a lot of time thinking up stories, and when I went in to talk to Chris I had a lot of material to present. But Chris always surprises. He said he didn't want to hear material. He just said "I like Ted and Ted likes you. Let's do this." And that was pretty much it.

MH: Millennium fans often refer to the thematic differences between the three seasons. As one of the few producers who worked on all three seasons, what was your experience of the changes in tone and how easy/difficult was it to adjust?

CJ: I was going to say I wrote the exact same kind of thing all three seasons but that's not really true. Things got more and more magical. And conspiratorial. And complicated, not necessarily in a good way. Probably we were all feeling the pull of The X-Files, I'm not sure. But I'm pretty sure we got away from Chris's original concept for the show which was to stay based in reality (unlike the X-Files), while imagining and depicting the different ways the world might be experienced by certain evil people.

These images of the world, which Frank Black was tuned to, were not supposed to be objective reality. They were highly subjective. In fact, in script, the shots were labeled "HIS INTERNAL POV" or "HIS SUBJECTIVE POV"
Already in first season there were some speculative episodes that were terrific (Lamentation; Powers, Principalities...) but keeping a lid on this would probably have been a good idea.

MH: We've been told that the time the show was cancelled the creative team had established a strong foundation on which to forge a fourth season of the series and that a vision was in place for where to take the show next. Can you tell us how you envisage a fourth season of the show would have proceeded?

CJ: We'd had a bad start at the beginning of season three, with some personnel changes that put us behind schedule. Also, I was mad at Jim and Glen for having burned the house down with their pandemic, but in retrospect it would have been smarter to have honored where they left us off instead of trying to work around it. In any case, season three had been a scramble and by the end we were kind of tired. Ken Horton and I were basically partners running the show at that point.

We felt like we'd had some hits and some misses, but were excited about getting a good start into a more coherent fourth season. We were really trying to make sense of what it all meant, especially as we were now heading toward the actual millennium.

I wrote a ten point "manifesto" for the Millennium Group which I no longer have. But I remember the first point was "We are rushing toward an apocalypse of our own creation." I don't remember the rest exactly, but it tried to honor Chris's original idea that the various forms of evil present on this earth are connected, and that they were coming to a boil. In this, the Millennium Group saw itself as a vanguard, the only people who could see a clear path to the future. Since the group's goal was basically the protection of humanity, that might justify practically any means.

In any case, we were cancelled. What would probably have made more sense would have been to get rid of the Millennium Group mythology entirely, and do a heightened, sometimes speculative crime show. That would probably have been closer to what Chris had originally envisioned and, who knows, might still be on today.

MH: Ten years later...a campaign is in full swing, appreciation for the show has never been higher, the thirst from the cast to revisit the franchise shows no sign of abating nor does the esteem with which the show is regarded. Are you surprised by how enduring the franchise is and can you conceive of the possibility of it returning in some format?

CJ: Anything that Chris writes and Lance is in would be awesome.

MH: How much did life change for you when you were appointed Executive Producer for Season 3? Did you have more responsibilities for budgets, meetings with Fox executives and similar considerations?

CJ: Running Millennium was a vastly bigger deal than my second year involvement, which was writing a few scripts. Shortly after we started third season I rented an apartment a block from the studio because I was leaving so late every night, then coming back early the next morning. For a while there, I never really got home. That said, the nature of the work didn't really change because of the unusual way that Chris runs shows.

Unlike most shops, he really encourages writers to step up as producers. If you're willing to be as obsessive about quality as he is, he gives you a lot of freedom. So by the time I was Executive Producer I already had experience with most aspects of making tv thanks to Chris.

MH: Can you tell us anything about Virginia Stock, with whom you co-wrote Bardo Thodol? Millennium fans are particularly appreciative of her work and that episode yet the internet is peculiarly non-informative?

CJ: Virginia Stock is my wife of 20+ years. We have a daughter named Martine; one of her first words was ouroboros. Bardo Thodol started with an image Virginia had -- the tiny hands discovered in a cargo hold. She contributed to many other episodes, but I think that's the only one with her name on it.

MH: 'Luminary' is an episode that garners a high degree of admiration and appreciation from fans of the franchise. Could you provide us with a synopsis of the evolution of that episode from the concept to the screen? When we spoke to Tobias Mehler he implied that his character was an 'angel' and many fans have debated whether it was Alex's 'organic' body that Frank Black found floating in the water for example.

CJ: Luminary has a lot of influences and makes my short list of favorite episodes. So I'm going to make this longer than you probably want. At the time, I was working on a pilot called Vanishing Point with John Hulme and Mike Wexler. It was based on a series of radio plays they had done about an odd dropout culture hidden in plain sight. Our "bibles" were books like Blue Highways and Into the Wild, which was at that point relatively unknown. So the character in Luminary was not supposed to be angel. He was a seeker, abandoning material possessions, looking for a more magical existence.

Ken Horton suggested this kind of guy could be the basis for a cool episode.
That was the foundation, but there were other influences. I had dinner with Megan Gallagher who turned me on to the whole astrology convergence theme. She asked if I could possibly fit it in somewhere and as it turned out it was just what I was looking for.

Other elements are taken from an organization I belonged to in college -- the Harvard Lampoon. Also, Darin Morgan gave me the younger brother with the telescope, and for some reason insisted that when the plane flies off with the injured boy at the end, that Frank had to squat at lake's edge. Finally, I was reading some book at the time whose title I've forgotten, but I'm pretty sure that the idea of the stars matching to houselights on earth came from that. Other stuff, too.

So there were a lot of thoughts floating around and I was up in Vancouver on a location scout for some other episode, and I was obsessing on that kid, and when I stepped off the bus I thought of those lines he says toward the end about what you should do with your life. Something like -- think if you could drop into a past life, what would you like to find yourself doing there? What would charm you, make you proud? Then the question of what to do in this life becomes simple -- just do that same thing.
Anyway, when that thought appeared it was time to start writing. The production was mainly charmed (though Lance can tell you the water was crazy cold). The weather forecast said storms but when it came time to land the seaplane there were beautiful sunny skies.

Normally I leave Mark Snow to his own devices but I was listening to a Finnish women's vocal group at the time which felt perfect for the piece. He graciously adapted it for the score.

MH: Could we ask what fans of yours can keep their eyes and ears open for with regards to the continuing career of Chip Johannessen?

CJ: Right now I'm on 24 with other alums of 1013 Productions: Howard Gordon (who's running it), Alex Gansa and Patrick Harbinson.

MH: Please accept my thanks on behalf of all the fans of Millennium for taking the time to talk to us and for making such an enjoyable and respected contribution to something we cherish!

CJ: My pleasure Mark.

If you've enjoyed this interview, and this week of themed Blog entries, please do the most important thing you can to display your appreciation and support for the campaign and the cast and crew like Mr. Johannessen who have so graciously given of their time. Send this postcard to Steve Asbell at 20th Century Fox and make a difference, today. This is who we are!

28 Responses to "Luminary Week Day Six - Chip Johannessen Exclusive Interview!"

Jósef Karl said... October 11, 2009 at 5:23 AM

Great interview, it was a pleasure to read. I always wish they were longer, but we savor what we're given.

Thanks Chip, thanks Mark.

Can't wait for that panel discussion podcast...

Will Music Monday be something else then? W***** Wednesday? :P

Cheers from Iceland!
- Jósef

Simon said... October 11, 2009 at 6:57 AM

Congratulationa to Mr. Johannessen on his appointment to the Writers Guild. What a wonderful achievement. I found the Luminary part to be very interesting. I never realised how a little suggestion here, an influence here, a request from a friend and so on would all build to form a story. Evidently the work of a writer is to soak up every little morsel of interest and weave it into the fabric of an overall tale.

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Johannessen's work. Luminary, in particular, is one of the finest episodes of that show and despite the problems at the onset of Season Three, which Mr. Johannessen acknowledges, by the time they had found their feet it was a wonderful body of work.

So, to Chip Johannessen. Millennium was all the better for having you.

Laurent. said... October 11, 2009 at 7:39 AM

WOW! One of the best interview so far. It gives a better understanding of what we got and a stronger longing for what could have been (and hopefully will be soon)!

Thanks to Chip for the great discussion!

And, hoping Chip eventually reads the comments: His episodes were, in my mind, the ones that were the most consistent in tone and most of them are my favorites of the series. Sense and antisense had so much potential for a bigger story (feature film or two-parter), and his episodes in season three were definitely the highlights of the series (skull and bones, bardo thodol). I just wish he could have contributed more to The X-Files after MM cancellation (Orison was a pretty good start after all). I think his writing would have fitted perfectly in the darker eight season.

Anyway, it was good to hear from him!

Tim said... October 11, 2009 at 7:43 AM

Amazing interview. Thank you for the insight!

FoxyWonder said... October 11, 2009 at 8:11 AM

♥♥Chip Johannessen is a wonderful storyteller. All his episodes stand out in all the seasons he wrote for and it is a real pleasure to read his thoughts. I wish him every success for the future and thank him for all that he gave to Millennium. It has brought me many hours of happiness.♥♥

Sean Stubblefield said... October 11, 2009 at 8:21 AM

what a cool reading. i really enjoy behind the scenes perspectives. great insights into the nature of story telling. reminds me of an observation by Wil Wheaton: a writer is always writing-- even when he or she isn't actually composing words. ideas and inspiriations are general part of a writer's life. input comes from all manner of sources.
it may look like they are sitting there doing nothing, but they are actually thinking, considering, imagining.

in a way, I'm glad there wasn't a fourth season because the series should naturally have progressed with "The Group as vanguard" theme, not as a crime drama. plus, we wouldn't have gotten the awesome VS4.

Viivi said... October 11, 2009 at 9:22 AM

Absolutely one of the best BTFB interviews so far. Thank you, Chip!

Wave_Crest said... October 11, 2009 at 9:33 AM

Excellent interview. Really enjoyed reading that, especially the long answer, which was an enthralling read. What fascinated me was thebit about the houselights and the stars.

Very nice postcard for Luminary by the way!

George said... October 11, 2009 at 11:33 AM

One of the most enjoyable interviews I had read for some time. Like Sean, it put me in mind of a quote, "There are two kinds of writer: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder" (Brian Aldiss). Chip's work has always imparted that sense of wonder for me, "Bardo Thodol" being a prime example of a narrative that mutates with every viewing.

A wonderful writer and one who deserves every accolade he accrues.

Thank you so much for stopping by.

Paul said... October 11, 2009 at 12:13 PM

Arguably the best interview to come from the campaign so far. So enjoyable to hear his perspective on things especially as he was Millennium's constant, seeing the show through all its changing incarnations and creative teams. A very gifted writer and The X-Files' loss was most certainly Millennium's gain. Thank you Chip, for everything.

Darlene said... October 11, 2009 at 1:13 PM

What a pleasure it was to read this interview. I so love Chip's work and Luminary is one of my favorites. My congratulations to his appointment to the Writers Guild. He has always been one of my favorite writers on the show. My only complaint is the interview wasn't long enough, and I agree with Josef, "we savor what we're given."

Landon said... October 11, 2009 at 2:21 PM

I am a huge fan of Chip Johannessen's work on Millennium. A truly gifted writer who created some of the most enjoyable stories of the Millennium canon. Long may he reign and thank you for bringing his thoughts and words to fans of the show.

Spooktalklaura said... October 11, 2009 at 2:23 PM

Aw,Mark, you always have the great questions to ask, just what the reader wants to know! :) I think I might have to take some tips from you. :) Good interview, enjoyed reading it. :)


Michael said... October 11, 2009 at 2:37 PM

Chip's the king - no doubt about it!

Marin said... October 11, 2009 at 6:06 PM

I have to say that I agree with Sean. As things were I believe that Millennium ended when it was right and proper that it should end. I loved it, that is without question, but a continuation of the story as it was did not appeal to me. Virtual Season Four took the show back to the eminence of Season Two and more than made up for any erroneous judgements in Season Three. Saying that, I admire, respect and enjoy Chip's work, particularly Luminary, and thank him for his time and openness. A very interesting, and debatable, read.

Vicente said... October 11, 2009 at 6:26 PM

Back2FrankBlack doing what it does best. Thought you guys were losing your touch but this gives me hope. More Back2FrankBlack and more Millennium and let's hope there's more Chip as well :)

T.L. Foreman said... October 11, 2009 at 10:13 PM

umm..Vincente? Losing our touch? Please elaborate. I'd be curious to hear this explanation.

Bayles said... October 11, 2009 at 10:31 PM

Great insight! It was interesting hearing about ideas for season 4. I really liked the breakdown of some of the inspiration for Luminary as well.

Thank you Chip and thanks again Mark!

Graham Smith said... October 12, 2009 at 1:37 AM

Thank you for such an outstanding and informative interview! Enjoy every sentence of it, excellent questions and considered answers, it was obvious that Chip has a real passion for the show, what it stood for and what it still means today.

Thank you Chip, I know you will get 24 back on track!

Sarah said... October 12, 2009 at 7:56 AM

What a thoroughly enjoyable read. Well done BackToFrankBlack and well done Chip!!

RSWehman said... October 12, 2009 at 10:42 AM

Thanks so much for a great interview. It is very enlightening. Mr. Johannessen has many achievements to his name but the one I am most interested in is Millennium. His talents are endless.

I especially like Luminary :) and most of you already know why. Also, Sense and Antisense...Wow.. some wonderful ideas from an incredible talent.

I can't wait for the next offering from BTFB...

This Is Who We Are!!

James McLean said... October 12, 2009 at 4:20 PM

Thank you so much Chris - I've been waiting, hoping we could grab you for an interview, and you've not disappointed. Truly super!

Anonymous said... October 12, 2009 at 6:20 PM

Excellent interview! Chip is one of my three favorite writers for the show, every one of his episodes is a gem. (I especially enjoy Maranatha and Exegesis, which I often use to "convert" friends to the show.)

Chip's work on the seventh season of 24 was among the finest of the entire show, which is saying a bit... The season was amazing and I know much of it has to do with his work. I am greatly thankful to him and I cannot wait to see what he has written for season 8, which I am sure will be even better.

Congratulations on his election to the Writer's Guild! In my opinion, it's never been better deserved.

Such a shame that we can't read the full ten-point "manifesto"! In that answer Chip gave some of the most interesting insight into the third season I've read in a long while. I count myself, like Troy, among the lovers of season 3, so I really appreciate the way Chip & Co. steered the boat, I always got the sense that he really "got" the show like no one else.

Very interesting anecdote about having to rent an apartment near the studio - an excellent example of how devoted 1013 alumni are. When you work that hard and put so much effort into something, the results are bound to be brilliant, as in Millennium and 24. (I do hope to see a Johannessen-scripted movie some day!)

Oh and thank god for the long answer on Luminary - we needed that! Haha. I always thought Megan was particularly good during the 'astrology' scenes in the episode... now I can see why! :) (And Chip's given me even more reason to believe Darin Morgan is the genius behind everything that's memorable and enduring in the world... if there's one shot I always remember from Luminary, it's that shot of Frank squatting as the plane flies off.)

Thank you very much Mark for bringing us a fascinating and endearing interview, and please forward my deepest gratitude to Chip for every single word he has written.


Anonymous said... October 12, 2009 at 6:33 PM

Absolutely loved this episode. It's such a change of pace and yet still feels exactly like Millennium. The scenery and music are simply breathtaking. The voiceover from the missing boy is touching and not in the least bit sentimental (when it easily could have been). The plot mirrors a lot of real-life instances of men abruptly leaving comfortable lives and well-paid jobs to spend the rest of their lives alone in the wilderness, in no more than an old caravan or a hut. Some of the new-agey philosophy was perhaps a bit aimless and wishy-washy but it added a personal touch to the boy and his desires to find his "true nature". And it effectively develops Frank's difficult relationship with the Millennium Group itself.

To me, "Luminary" is really moving, inspiring television; it gives me a similar feeling to the "Inner Light" episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I can't explain why exactly - it just does.


Aliatope1013 said... October 13, 2009 at 6:13 AM

One of the best interviews I've ever read, thanks Chip and Mark!

Ben Lundy said... October 22, 2009 at 5:55 AM

Thanks for this great interview. Luminary has been a favorite episode of mine and my mother's as we both have some personal connections to Alaska. We never thought we'd end up seeing Frank there!

Kimon said... October 23, 2009 at 8:08 AM

Great interview from who I consider to be one of MM's greatest assets, with Carter and Morgan & Wong! Now all I'll think of when I hear season 3 is that ten-point manifesto... I can see what he means with X-Files being an influence on them at that time, be it subconscious. They definitely had something going with point #1 "Apocalypse of our own creation". If season 3 was a messy proving ground for Johanessen and Horton, season 4 would have been a coherent story. But I guess you don't get many second chances in showbiz.

@Diego: he actually wrote one and co-wrote another (with Alex Gansa) episodes of 24's latest season. But as with all 24 episodes I can't really feel any stylistic differences between them.

IHaveGoodInstincts said... June 18, 2010 at 10:15 AM

I would love to hear my favorite Millennium writer on a BTFB podcast!
This interview was really nice. I like to hear from, and about the folks behind the camera.
If Chip wrote for the X-Files in the last few seasons with the quiality of stuff he wrote for Millennium, I think we would all have the X-Files DVD sets for seasons 10, 11, and 12 in our collections!!!

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