The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, move over ... there's a new found footage film opening today in theaters that takes a real-life UFO mystery and spins it in an X-Files-esque fictional mystery surrounding the disappearance of three teens.
Phoenix Forgotten is a story that has brought some huge sci-fi movie producers and writers together, including producers Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), Wes Ball (The Maze Runner) and co-writer/producer T.S. Nowlin (Pacific Rim: Uprising) to make something special, said co-writer/director Justin Barber in an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire.
On March 13, 1997, in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the most widely witnessed UFO sightings in history took place. The unexplained phenomenon involving mysterious lights that moved oddly in the night sky became known as the Phoenix Lights. Phoenix Forgotten is set in the desert landscape of Arizona as three teens head out to investigate the lights and vanish. Decades later, the sister of one of the missing teens decides to make a documentary to see if she can find out what happened to her brother and his friends ... only to uncover the astonishing facts of what happened to them.
Justin Barber chatted with us about directing his first major film, about the real-life mystery that drew him to this story, and why he's "ready for something bigger next."
What was it about the Phoenix Lights UFO mystery that made you want to take on this material?
I was the same age as my main character, Josh, in 1997. I was a high school kid when the Phoenix Lights happened. At the time it was a peak time for X-Files, and the '90s was big for UFOs. I was always drawn to that material and those types of stories. Like a lot of people who loved sci-fi, growing up as a kid in the suburbs of Florida you just want the world to be more exciting, more fantastic than it is.
And now flash forward all these years later. I had been working in visual effects with a guy named Wes Ball and another friend of mine, T.S. Nowlin, who is the screenwriter. We all went to Florida State University together. We were friends in school. And this idea originated with them, the idea of doing a cool found-footage close encounter.
At first it was just a UFO story not connected to a real-world event. Around that time I had been doing a lot of documentary style work in the commercial world and they thought of me because they envisioned a movie that was a documentary at first then goes off the rails and becomes the found footage ride. And then when I came on board I thought what better way to bring authenticity to the story than to set it against a real world event ... the Phoenix Lights, which is the story that sprang to mind because it was really one of the biggest events in recent memory. Sort of an urban legend of the American Southwest.
It's an interesting backdrop to film in because of the desert location which just seems endless, beautiful and scary.
There are other UFO stories out there. I think we all wanted to make an iconic UFO movie and the desert landscape is particularly scary. The desolation of it and the fact that they're out there alone we found to be very unsettling. And also just the desert itself is a mysterious place traditionally. Different cultures like Native people who live out there in Arizona, they have all their own mythology, like what lights in the sky are. And there's a ton of military bases in Arizona and Nevada because the sky is so clear and the big open spaces, it's a great place to test aircraft. For whatever reason the desert is particularly important when it comes to UFO lore.
What was the biggest challenge in putting the story together and filming this?
I loved the original Blair Witch Project. It's very authentic and now twenty years later we live in this age where this genre space of found footage movies, there is a lot of saturation with movies like that and I think more often than not they don't quite have the same authenticity that progenitor had. We really just wanted to nail that in this movie.
The challenge in making a documentary with actors is getting them to perform and behave the way that real people do in a documentary. It's just a different performance style. But then real people tend to underplay everything, but then the hazard there is that we direct our actors too far in that direction and then we lose all that energy. So coming up with performances that felt believable but also helped move the story along and hit the story beats was challenging ... We wanted to leave room for improvisation. We wanted the dialogue and a lot of the scenes to feel off-the-cuff conversational, as they would in a real documentary. And so the writing process never really stopped from when we wrote the movie, shot the movie and edited the movie, we were kind of writing it all throughout and the actors had a lot of input. In a lot of ways it was great, the collaborative nature of it all. But that was also challenging.
What was the biggest surprise, the thing that you weren't expecting that popped up?
I honestly was just blown away by the cast I had. I just really feel like I hit the jackpot with these actors. I had two great casting directors, Fern [Champion] and Sharon [Chazin], and we looked at a lot of kids. I really wanted young faces. I really wanted it to be the kind of movie that if it's high school kids, I wanted them to look like high school kids as much as possible. We tried to cast as young as we could and we saw a lot of people. And also I wanted documentary faces. I just gravitate towards off-beat characters and they found these three kids, Luke, Chelsea and Justin. The funny thing is that when we put them together for a chat, within like a minute of hanging out together they already felt like they had known each other, like they were friends. I was just blown away by how great a job they did. There is a lot of things they wrote themselves that made it into the movie. Luke is holding the camera a lot of the time, and then Chelsea's performance speaks for itself.
I thought the people that you cast as the parents and family of the missing kids were particularly good. They seemed like actual people who lost their children and you can feel their hearts breaking.
They all drew on their own experiences. Clint Jordan, who plays the dad, is a real standout and he, as an actor, really genuinely feels what the character is feeling. It's very impressive.
I think that adds to the undercurrent, especially in the beginning, of what's going on. It makes it feel authentic.
When you look at E.T., when you look at Close Encounters, there's just enough family drama. There's just enough interpersonal turmoil to draw you into the characters a little bit so that later when they're on the found footage ride, it's more impactful because you actually care about them more. That was a big goal. A lot of these movies are horror movies. I remember the suspenseful situations and the scary monster, but less so the characters. And I just wanted to make a movie where the characters were more unique and memorable.
How is this different than other found footage films? What makes it special in your mind?
I watched a lot of found footage movies to prepare. I was not only inspired by The Blair Witch Project but also Werner Herzog and Errol Morris documentaries. What elevates it to me is that I have the device already of a documentary that becomes the found footage, but that still has a found footage execution throughout. In other words it's still shaky camera throughout. And I think we're in a bit of a documentary renaissance right now in terms of how popular some of these, Making of a Murderer and The Jinx on HBO have been. And what I've not really seen yet is somebody making them in a contemporary style.
The first half of the movie is made by this 26-year-old young filmmaker, but it has editing. It has music. It's just more in the style of a cinematic documentary and it's got that commitment to authenticity. That character, she doesn't entertain the idea at first that her brother was taken by aliens. She is interested in interviewing the law enforcement and interviewing the family around it. I think that's what sets it apart somewhat. When you make a found footage movie, you want to try to do something new with the device, but don't necessarily want to reinvent the wheel. I think we landed in a good place.
And I think the other thing that separates it that there are real people in the movie too, with that goal of authenticity in mind. Some of the people interviewed in the documentary were just everyday people, actual eye witnesses or the law enforcement characters, a real crime investigator and a real search and rescue pilot, and I just made them a case file. I found the people in Phoenix and I made a fake case file for them about the case of the missing kids. I had them study it. And then when we shot those scenes, Florence Hartigan, who plays Sophie in the movie, is actually just interviewing them as her character and they're just leaning on their real law enforcement background to answer questions. Hopefully all that stuff we did is what elevates it and sets it apart.
You've got some amazing producers and a co-writer who have really impressive sci-fi movie backgrounds. What was it like with this production team behind you as a new director?
I feel very fortunate. It's another area where I feel like I hit the jackpot. And honestly the way this all got started was that T.S. Nowlin, the screenwriter, was at Scott Free Productions for some other project and happened to find himself in a room with Ridley Scott and mentioned this idea to him, pitched it and Ridley really liked it. Obviously the subject matter appealed to him, but also even the very iterations of the story ... the very suspenseful ride, it felt like a noose tightening around the necks of these characters, and it built to this big finish. And I think they've been wanting to play in the space of these low budget movies. And so, he liked it and decided it was something he could get behind.
He wasn't on set. That would have been very intimidating, but he did offer his insight and the producers at Scott Free were very supportive. What drove us day to day among the cast and the crew was we wanted to make something that he would like and sign off on, and that was a great driving force for everybody just knowing that Ridley would feel good about putting his name on this film.
What's the thing you couldn't do with this movie and the thing that you really glad you could do with this movie?
Everyone was really supportive. When I said I wanted to blow up a trailer, they were like, okay (laughs). So, I guess what I couldn't do ... I started out my career as a digital effects artist ... and then later doing larger special effects. What's challenging is that now as a director, I can't work on all the digital shots myself ... I did do some shots for this movie myself. It's a different skill set though to now manage a team of digital effects artists and so that was challenging. We did try as much as possible to use practical on-set effects, like old school Close Encounters-style effects. That is really where I wanted to invest in the movie, but you always want the ship to look better. We don't have a budget of Arrival. I was just trying to make something as big in scope as we could, and there are ways where we didn't get there, just to be frank, I guess. But maybe it's part of my perfectionism. I just always want it to be even better.
What does that mean to you and for Phoenix Forgotten to be your entry into directing?
It evolved a lot over the course of the making it and everybody had input. It was a real team effort. I love it because it's the type of movie when you look on the other side of it I can see bits and pieces of everybody I worked with in the movie and that makes me feel really good. It was a collaborative experience for everybody. But then it also has enough of the DNA we originally imagined to where it's like, yeah, this is the movie I wanted to make. I wanted to do right by documentary filmmakers that I know, but I also wanted to provide enough of an exciting suspenseful ride for the everyday theater-goer. I feel like we did that. I feel like it's a solid movie. I'm a perfectionist. Like anything I've ever made I wanted it to be better, and that is the case for this movie too. But in the end it's like, yeah, I feel like we did a solid job for people, and I hope they appreciate it. I've been working in the commercial world for a while and it's nice to be able to expand your horizons with a bigger project and really just keep challenging yourself. And so now I feel like I've just increased my capability by having gone through this and ... I like that. I like that, I guess. I'm ready for something bigger next.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I just hope everybody likes it and if enough of your readers like the movie, maybe they will let us make a sequel.
Phoenix Forgotten opens wide in theaters across the country today.