Life & Culture

The X-Files director: ‘conspiracy theories are now costing reputations and lives’

American Jews are caught between the horrors of the conspiratorial right and the woke left, says TV mogul Daniel Sackheim. My escape is photography


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It was Jerry Springer who posited the idea that The X-Files was partially responsible for the conspiratorial direction America has, over the last decade, headed in.

It seems a little harsh to pin the blame on Daniel Sackheim, who directed several of the opening episodes of the hit show about government conspiracies as well as produced the first movie. But as he’s here, and bewailing the state of his home country to me, it seems like a good question to ask.

“I’ve never really linked the two but certainly The X-Files made people more aware of conspiracy theories,” ponders the Emmy Award-winning director and producer. “I am not much of a conspiracy theorist myself – mainly because I think the government is just terrible at keeping secrets. Terrible. There’s no way they could have hidden aliens on this planet. But there is a passion, an obsession with conspiracy theories in the States and they are dangerous to the point where they are costing reputations and even the lives of innocent people.

“I am sort of amazed by what I perceive to be a level of gullibility on the part of a large section of the American people who, if they are told something, however crazy, believe it.” A native of Los Angeles, where his father too was a top producer, we are speaking at a London hotel. The producer of hit Cold War drama The Americans as well as Ozark and True Detective, Daniel admits he feels things are so bad in America that part of him wishes he could permanently move to the UK. The problem he sees is one of extremes, both of the conspiratorial right and the demands of the woke left.

“There’s that expression that history doesn’t repeat itself but I worry that what we are seeing now in America is a strong desire for authoritarian leadership,” says the father of two. “All the blame for our troubles is put on immigrants and it feels like an ancient story that Jews know only too well.

“There is this very, very vocal right wing in the States – a Christian evangelism – and they are pushing their narrative very hard, which will cause problems for anyone who is not Christian. What is odd is that the US has become more conservative as a country not less. And, on the other side, we are seeing that in a country which prides itself on the notion of the First Amendment and freedom of speech, books are being banned in libraries and classrooms. It is a very unsettling time.”

For Jews in America, both sides are problematic and he sees that affecting his industry too. “This extreme wokeism where everything has to be renamed and everyone is fearful of saying the wrong things – I think people in the television world are scared of controversy. If you look at some of the very impactful films of the Seventies and Eighties – from The Rocky Horror Show to Last Tango in Paris – they wouldn’t make those films today, they are way too risky. “Anything dealing with sexuality, race, they don’t want to make those films now. They are nervous about it. It is no wonder that we are retreating into escapism and seeing so many superhero films.”

Daniel, 65, chooses to escape in another way – through stunning photography, which is the reason we are speaking. He is one of 15 photographers including Terry O’Neill and Norman Parkinson exhibiting at a city-inspired exhibition, Bright Lights, Big City, at the Iconic Images Gallery in Piccadilly until the end of May. His work, a film noir project photographed in Los Angeles, is as dramatic as you would expect as someone whose main life is in the world of film.

“I started a photography course when there was a Writers’ Guild strike in 2008 and everything effectively ground to a halt for 100 days. I had always loved photography but before then didn’t have any sort of education into it.

“Film noir is something I have always loved and I realised I could tell stories of big cities and urban jungles using my cinematic approach to storytelling. I always think the most successful photographs are ones that have questions of the viewer; what is happening in this scene? What happened before the shutter was pressed and what happened after?

“In television or motion picture you tell the story with a beginning, middle and end but with photography you jump right into the middle of the story.”

Entering the world of fine art has been a separate education, he admits. “There are unwritten rules in any given business.

“With film you learn on the job, it is a highly competitive business and it is very much a collaborative process where you need lots of people working with you that you can trust.

“The difference in the art world is that you often need just one person, a big gallerist or collector, who can help situate you within a market. It is a little ephemeral – what makes something successful – and part of that success is down to rarity too, which is very different to the film world.” Having a London exhibition is no mean feat and Daniel, now a success in two very different industries, shows no sign of slowing down.

In 2020 he set up a production studio, Bedrock Studio, which is partly owned by ITV and he is currently in talks with his friend from The Americans, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, to make a series of crime capers based on the Junior Bender series by Timothy Hallinan about a thief who helps catch other thieves.

It is humorous, which is something Daniel believes we need more of at this moment. “It is fun entertainment,” says the producer.

And, you’ll be pleased to hear, there isn’t a conspiracy in sight.

Bright Lights, Big City is at the Iconic Images Gallery in London’s Waterloo Place until May 25

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