R.W. Goodwin—a former producer, writer and director on The X-Files—has taken his love for 1950s sci-fi films and invested it into Alien Trespass, an independent movie made as if it were a rediscovered remnant from the Red Scare glory days.
Goodwin produced and directed Alien Trespass, which is set in 1957 and begins when a fiery object from space crashes into a mountaintop in the California desert. Out of the flying saucer escapes a murderous creature: the Ghota, which is bent on destroying all life forms on the planet. A benevolent alien from the spaceship, Urp, inhabits the body of Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), a local astronomer, who with the help of Tammy (Jenni Baird), a waitress from the local diner, sets out to save mankind.
Goodwin screened a featurette for Alien Trespass last Sunday to an audience at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, then sat down with SCI FI Wire for an exclusive interview in which he talked about the artistic and technical challenges of making the movie. He also discussed finding the right folks to help him bring '50s sci-fi back to life. Following is an edited version of our interview. Alien Trespass opens in select cities on April 3.
Robert, just to get started, maybe you can talk a little bit about where the idea came from for Alien Trespass.
Goodwin: My partner, Jim Swift, who I produce with, it was his idea originally to do something like this. He's a big sci-fi fan and wanted to try and re-create a new '50s classic. He gave me the story idea, and I thought it was a great idea. He had a couple of scripts that didn't really work, so I picked the guy who had written one of his scripts, a guy named Steven Fisher, who had never written before, but he had a good feel for dialogue and character. We spent a year and came up with what I thought was a really strong script, and went with a casting director who gave us a list of 50 names for the lead, and they were just all great names. I said to myself, none of these people are ever going to do this, so I said, "If none of them will, I might as go for my top choice." My top choice was Eric McCormack, because I knew he had to play two characters and it had comedy, but it's subtle comedy. We got the script to Eric, and within 24 hours we found out that he was just crazed about it. That was it, so we just ran with it and made it.
Because '50s science fiction films are less sophisticated than contemporary ones, did that make it tougher or easier to maintain a sort of structural integrity for this idea?
Goodwin: In some ways it's more of a challenge, because what I always say about these '50s movies—and I was a big fan when I was a kid—in the better ones the actors, the directors, were really trying really hard. They were really earnest about making them really scary sci-fi movies. But it was in the '50s, and the styles were all different. When Jim suggested this, I hadn't really watched a lot of them for a while. So I started running them, and they were really funny. They didn't mean for them to be funny, they were like inadvertently funny. I mean, some of them were just hysterical, and that's what I liked about them. I figured if I really stuck to my guns and made it truly in the style of the '50s, it could be really funny.
Does the limited technical proficiency of those movies make it cheaper or easier to conceive now?
Goodwin: I have a friend named Russell Johnson, who was the professor on Gilligan's Island, and Russell was second lead in a whole bunch of those movies, including It Came From Outer Space. He told me the way they would shoot those things: They would go to the desert and they would shoot two or three days of wide shots, and then go back to Universal and spend 10 or 12 days shooting the close-ups, so that nothing ever matched. That's all of the stuff that I had to re-create. More importantly, in the '50s they just used whatever they had; the cars were the cars, the clothes were the clothes, and they didn't do anything. We now had to re-create that, so that was a big challenge. I had a really incredible team, the production designer, the costume designer, the picture cars, the props. I mean, everything had to be created or found, and that was a real challenge.
How easy was it to acclimate the actors to this sort of theatrical, anachronistic acting style?
Goodwin: Well, if you look at the really good ones, like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Michael Rennie was an A-list actor. He did a really good performance. They were seriously good actors, but it wasn't a hyper-naturalistic style. It was a little bit of a heightened style, and it's a very difficult, very fine line to reach, because you don't want it to be hammy and over the top. You want it to be as if you were living in 1957, and you're an actor and you've had all the training, but that's how you have to act. It was a challenge in the concept of it, and it was my job to keep a kind of even keel with everybody to make sure that everybody was on the same page. We all kind of immersed ourselves in these '50s movies so that me as a director and they as actors all had a real basis [in the period].
Was the goal to create an accurate portrayal of the filmmaking of that era more so than just telling an authentic, genuinely evocative story?
Goodwin: Well, we wanted to do both. Everything about it, we were very strictly adhering to the '50s style. The way it looked, we used color, because War of the Worlds and The Blob and a whole bunch of them were in Technicolor, but at the same time the story itself really does hold up. There are characters you really get involved with, and you really care about them. There's a scene where a human says goodbye to an alien, and it's really touching! Last night, when we ran it at our premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival, you could hear the whole audience, who had been laughing their heads off through the whole movie, when she says to him, "Will I ever see you again?" They all went "Aww!"