David Duchovny on his pandemic-era novel, working with Meg Ryan and why he'll always be interested in more 'X-Files'
David Duchovny had a front row view of life in New York City during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. While other New Yorkers left Manhattan for more open air areas in the winter and spring of 2020, The X-Files star stayed in his high-rise apartment that overlooked Central Park. "My son was a junior in high school, so we weren't going anywhere," Duchovny tells Yahoo Entertainment now about the mood of New York in March 2020. "There was this very real quiet that would be punctured by ambulances, but otherwise there was very little ambient street sound, which you don't realize how overwhelming it is until it's gone." (Duchovny shares two children with his ex-wife, Téa Leoni.)
That's the version of Manhattan that the author and actor recreates in his just-released novella, The Reservoir. Set during the initial months after COVID-19 made landfall in New York, the narrative follows an ex-Wall Street bean counter named Ridley, who passes the long days alone in his apartment by taking time-lapse photos of the park below. Estranged from his ex-wife and adult daughter, his life is absent of any other human contact — that is, until he notices a flashing light in an apartment window across Central Park that may be another lonely soul seeking a connection.
"I'm always amazed at how human nature can acclimate to the strangest circumstances and soon after that, it's the new normal," Duchovny says of how he burrowed into Ridley's solitary state of mind, which goes to some increasingly strange places as his obsession with his unseen neighbor grows and cabin fever sets in. "Before anybody really knew how the virus was transmitted, we were all very superstitious and we must have all been really afraid. The danger is now that we've come out of it a little bit, some of us have come to think: 'Oh, that was a hoax' or whatever. But it wasn't.
"I get pissed when people say: 'Fauci backtracked on the math,'" Duchovny continues, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has overseen America's response to the pandemic. "That's how science works! They proceed by trial and error — it's not a lie if he changes his stance. It's that we have more information. My pet peeve is when people label the scientific process misinformation. Of course, they don't know [everything] right off the bat: They're figuring it out and that's going to involve some mistakes. The stakes are high and that sucks, but that's not the fault of scientists."
In a wide-ranging conversation, Duchovny discusses how he came to feel sympathy for the flunky financial world he created; collaborating with Meg Ryan on her upcoming feature, What Happens Later; and how he feels about Gillian Anderson's very public creative complaints about the most recent X-Files revival.
Social media became an outlet for younger people in the first months of the pandemic, but Ridley doesn't express an interest in any of those platforms. What was his media diet in your mind?
Well, I think what's interesting about Ridley — at least to me — is that he's not young enough to live and breathe the air of social media. He hears rumors of it, but he's not savvy enough to take part in it. As I executed the book, I wanted to work my way into a sympathetic relationship with people whose beliefs in misinformation, I think, are trash. There's a beautiful human desire to want to know the answer, and we live in a world now where a figure like Q is supposed to be the key to everything.
Part of me gets pissed off, because misinformation is lethal in many ways, but the other part is completely sympathetic and understanding because humans are pattern-making animals. We are the ones that try to solve the puzzle or that see the world as a puzzle. So even though Ridley doesn't get sucked into the new iteration of that puzzle making, which would be Twitter and Facebook and all that, he still has that in him. And he pays for it in many ways.
To that point, do you think he would have fallen in with the QAnon crowd or become an anti-vaxxer as the pandemic continued?
I haven't thought of that, so I don't know if I believe this answer. [Laughs] But it's related to my previous answer: When I'm writing a story, I'm always trying to figure out why the story interests me. I don't write thrillers or potboilers, but I do like plots and I trust myself to know that if I'm drawn to a plot, there's something underpinning it. With this book, it was the relationship between Ridley and his daughter and the intensity of the emotion that Ridley's been repressing over the pandemic, because he can't see her or can't make up with her. That emotion is transmuted into this kind of false quest for the answer to everything else.
We've hit these points in our recent history where we've been driven so tragically and desperately inward and alone that we are also driving outward to reach out to other people. That was the case after 9/11, but with the virus, that outward drive was taken away. There was nowhere to put it because you were alone, and the antidote to your loneliness was going to kill you. It was this terrible bind that we got put in: The feeling that you're going to die if you actually try and have a human connection with someone else.
Your own daughter is grown now: Did you draw on any of your own experiences as a parent for the book?
Not specifically, but just the bare fact of being a father and having the recognition that when you have a child, you're balancing the desperate need to protect them with the understanding that you can't keep them safe every moment of their life. It's a devastating kind of love, but one that's a big one. So, I don't draw on my life specifically, but I draw on it historically, keeping an eye on my own soul and it's trajectory throughout this whole thing.
There's not a lot of sympathy among the general public for Wall Street employees these days. Did you feel sympathy for Ridley as you were creating him?
It's funny, the reason why I made Ridley a Wall Streeter is that I didn't want people to have sympathy for him. I didn't want to have sympathy for him! [Laughs] I wanted to satirize the kind of person that thinks he's an artist because he's able to buy a bunch of art. So that was really the beginning of it: me saying f*** you to these guys that think they can own art and somehow that gives them credibility. But as the writing went on, Ridley started to push back against me. He was like, "Hey, stop — I'm not one-dimensional." Then things got complicated, and I'm always overjoyed when that happens.
Ultimately, I came to think of Ridley as an artist without hands. He does have a certain sensitivity to him, but he has no talent and no way to express it regardless of this time-lapse business that he's up to. So I have great sympathy for that because any artist feels that we're always falling short, and that everything we create is a failure. It's never this great triumph that we're led to believe when we see it celebrated on awards shows or whatever. I guarantee you, when you go home with that award you know how bad your thing is, and how it's not what you had meant it to be! If you have an artistic soul, but you can never even get close to expressing yourself, that's a tragedy worth investigating to me.
You're currently adapting one of your other books, Bucky F*cking Dent, to the big screen. Are you enjoying the process?
It's been interesting. I had originally written it as a screenplay, but was unable to get it made back in the day. So now I've re-written the screenplay with aspects that grew in the process of writing the novel. And when we shoot, there will be other demands of the form, because moviemaking is affected by a million things that writing isn't affected by, you know? Movies can be affected because of weather, because of sickness or because of a bad lunch. [Laughs] Whatever happens on those days happens, and you have to kind of allow magic to happen or disaster to happen, which isn't so much the case with writing where you're really in total control.
The Reservoir references Alfred Hitchock's Rear Window several times. If you were to make this book into a film, is that the model you'd use?
It's a great question because I have thought about how this film could potentially go in many different directions. There's the Spalding Gray version, where I would be sitting at a table as Ridley reading the story, with bits and pieces dramatized. But I've also thought of it as more of a thriller where the mystery neighbor is fleshed out with more backstory. I mean, there's only two pages of dialogue in the whole book, so the story could be told in lots of different ways. There's the straight pandemic tragedy, there's the surreal, magical kind of tale. It's exciting to think about, although I doubt it'll ever get made!
You're currently collaborating with Meg Ryan on her new film, What Happens Later. I feel like they missed a big opportunity by not bringing her back for Top Gun: Maverick. Carole Bradshaw should have been in it!
I'll let her know! [Laughs] Working with Meg has been a pleasure: We're not shooting the film yet, but talk about someone who has an artist's soul and the ability to execute. I've really enjoyed working on the material with her, and listening to her vision for the film. She's pursuing an artist's life: She happened to be a huge movie star, but she's always been an artist.
Your X-Files co-star, Gillian Anderson, recently expressed her disappointment with how the revival ended with Scully being pregnant again. Did you know at the time that she wasn't happy with that storyline?
No, that was the first I'd heard of it. Personally, I don't like to air creative grievances like that in public, so I was surprised to see it actually.
Are you up for more X-Files if the opportunity presents itself or do you think the most recent series was enough?
I thought the first seven years were enough! But I'm always up for more, clearly. Someone sent me a clip of Joel McHale from the 2016 episodes we did, and it's a spot-on description of where we're at six years later. I don't think [X-Files creator] Chris Carter gets enough credit for being [prescient]. Forget about the ins and outs of plots and who gets pregnant or who gets shot. I mean, every show turns into a soap opera, so you have limited options. People are going to die or get pregnant or go to prison, right? Or become president.
I think like it's a little bit in the weeds to worry about character's fates, when you realize that Chris somehow made a show in 1993, and again in 2016, that predicted what 2022 would be like. If he wanted to do more, I'd certainly listen to him. I'd say, "What have you got?" Because I want to know the future, too, you know what I mean? And not denigrating Gillian's feelings about Scully being pregnant or the character. I certainly had misgivings about my character throughout the run. It's in the nature of a long-running thing. But to take the long view, what that show is able to embrace thematically is really the key to its longevity, and if we were to do it again, it's just a question of: "What have we go to say."
The Reservoir is on sale now at most major booksellers, including Amazon.