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!