You have to love the Freedom of Information Act. Since it was enacted in 1967, citizens and journalists have used it to probe and poke government agencies to fork over documents about what they've really been doing. It's all in the name of transparency ... including getting details about once-secret programs like the infamous "Project Blue Book."
If you know anything about UFO investigations, then you'll recognize that "Project Blue Book" was the top-secret United States Air Force investigation project that followed up on civilian sightings of the unexplained from 1952 to 1969. Its cataloged lore of thousands of cases has inspired everything from the 1978 TV series Project U.F.O. to Chris Carter's seminal The X-Files. And now Project Blue Book is a Robert Zemeckis-backed scripted series from HISTORY revolving around the life and investigations of astronomer and "Blue Book" consultant Dr. J. Allen Hynek (Aidan Gillen).
In an exclusive sit-down with SYFY WIRE, Gillen and co-stars Michael Malarkey (as Captain Michael Quinn), Laura Mennell (as Mimi Hynek), and Neal McDonough (as General James Harding) talked us through the pilot episode with series creator David O'Leary and showrunner Sean Jablonski.
**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Project Blue Book pilot "The Fuller Dogfight" below**
Let's start with the dynamics of the series. In the pilot, we definitely get a sense that Quinn is assigned to close cases, and Hynek wants to research until there is a definitive answer. Is the season about them coming together on how they approach these investigations?
Aidan Gillen: Yeah, I guess what we get to, even by the end of Season 1, isn't where we're gonna get to ultimately in terms of our relationship, or in terms of Hynek's journey from skeptic to non-skeptic. You get a hint of it. You gotta let people know that that's where it's going, without it going all the way. So there's way more way to go to tell, but you can kinda see where we're going.
In terms of playing the Hyneks, what were some of the biggest touchstones that you used to craft your performances of Allen and Mimi?
Laura Mennell: It was getting to speak with Paul and Joel, our consulting producers and the sons of the Hyneks. Though it was a little confusing at first for me, because they were describing their mother and who she becomes. She was a very social woman, like a pillar of society. But then I was lucky enough to be introduced to Roxanne Hynek, who was the daughter. There's quite an age gap between Paul and Roxanne, about 16 years, so they have different versions of their mom. The boys had a very different version of her, where she was more introverted. Being an extrovert was something she had to cultivate and work on. So that was the perfect jumping-off point for me. Little tiny things like that, I thought, were really helpful to make creative choices.
Gillen: I like to think I was leaning towards every aspect, and just trying to meet halfway in terms of the person he was, but then there's the person of my own personalities. You gotta use your own stuff, and then you just try to find common areas. And the prime things that jumped out of the research to me was that he was a warm, family person. I think everything in his career, his endless wonder of the universe, it all came back to that it was related to the family unit, and to his kids, and the wonder that the world was not just outwards. Now, that may not be true, but that's what I had in my mind. And as I'm talking to the kids, it seemed like there was some truth in that.
Michael, the strait-laced military character is familiar in film and TV, but you bring some cheek and curiosity to Quinn. Where did you pull from to craft your approach to him?
Michael Malarkey: I wanted to really get a sense of what it's like to be in the Air Force for that long, and the sense of what made a good captain. I have a friend, Jeff, who's a flight doctor, which is a very high position in the Air Force. I was just picking his brain about stuff without letting him know I was studying his mannerisms and things. He gave me this study on common character traits in pilots, which was really interesting. But then obviously there's the real-life character, Edward J. Ruppelt, who he was initially fully based upon. He was the one that was actually in charge with the project during the Golden Years, when everything was most efficiently run. He had a technical brain. He was very intelligent, and not just a meathead Air Force dude. I think that's what set him apart, especially to his superiors, that he would be a good person for this job. I studied a lot of what he did and wrote, especially the report on unidentified flying objects, which is so extensive.
Neal, your General James Harding is based on different commanders who oversaw the "Blue Book" program. What did you specifically use to inspire Harding?
Yeah, the real man was an American patriot. When they appointed him to be one of the heads of Project Sign, which was the first [program], he knew what was going on. He knew that the public could not hear the truth of this situation, so he needed to find someone, like Hynek, to make sure that the public was kept at bay. And I firmly believe that is the right thing to do as a character.
You know, I've played so many bad guys, in so many different productions, on the first day of set I called Sean up and I'm like, "Look what's my, from good guy to bad guy? Where am I? Am I the villain, or am I the good guy?" He's like, "You're really right in the middle. You're the audience. You're the everyman, but you have a definitive agenda, and that's to protect the American people."
Was there a key moment in the pilot for you to land, David?
David O'Leary: I think the recruitment scene is a scene that we always talked about as being such an important moment for Hynek, being in the Blue Book office, wondering what is this? There's UFO photos and articles all over the wall. This job is something that can really speak to you, and you're a scientist. Don't you want to go out there and just, as a scientist, explore the wonders of what we're dealing with while doing your patriotic duty as well?
Malarkey: It was our audition scene as well.
O'Leary: Yes! I think it's the statement of the thesis of what this show is going to be. You see that there's one man who's driven by science, and the search for the truth. And one man, who's driven by military duty, but then he'll also have these raw, gut instincts about what might really be going on. He's his own man as well. They make this perfect odd couple coming from two places.
What's a favorite scene for any of you in the pilot that helped define the series for you?
Mennell: I'd say for Mimi, both "Project Blue Book" and her relationship with Susie, the lovely Ksenia Solo, are both catalysts for a lot of change within her, which is really exciting to see where that goes.
Malarkey: In the diner scene, Aidan's sitting there and I go up and put a quarter in the jukebox. Little did I know this was a working jukebox. Every time I hit the buttons nothing would happen, but this particular time I heard a disk go, and I was like, "Oh s**t, I wonder if that's gonna play?" We sit down, we start the scene. All of a sudden Stevie Wonder bursts out.
Tell me it was "Superstition"?
Sean Jablonski: Of course it was!
Malarkey: We kept the camera rolling. We had a little dance as we had to wait for the end. It was a particularly stressful week as well. We're getting the show started. Everyone's intense.
Gillen: It was a good moment. It was an ice breaker.
Lastly Sean, if we start with your version of the Gorman Dogfight case, where does it all lead towards by the end of Season 1?
Jablonski: We start out with a singular, incredible witness and then it gradually builds to there were two people. Then there is a group, and then somebody with way more credibility. And then by the end of the season, you have a mass sighting in the nation's capital. It's a nice arc from what feels like a very small story into a much larger one.
For more about "The Fuller Dogfight" episode, listen to the debut episode of SYFY WIRE's official Project Blue Book podcast:
New episodes of Project Blue Book air Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT. For more information on the series and cases explored, check out HISTORY'S Project Blue Book.