On the night of March 13th, 1997 two major UFO sightings occurred over Phoenix. Collectively they have been known has “The Phoenix Lights” became the most widely seen and documented UFO sighting in history. A new film is coming out that tells a fictional story framed against these events. We had the chance to talk to director Justin Barber about what to expect from his upcoming thriller “PHOENIX FORGOTTEN”
You can listen to the interview in its entirety on our podcast channel, or read excerpts from it below:
TCF: For people that don’t know what the story is, or haven’t seen the trailer – what is this film about?
Justin: The Phoenix Lights was a huge UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona in 1997. Hundreds – some people will say thousands of people saw this formation of lights in the sky, that appeared to hover over downtown Phoenix. It lasted so long, that some people did manage to film this. There’s some iconic video of this formation of lights. If you Google “Phoenix Lights,” you’ll see it. So a lot of people are familiar with this UFO sighting, but fewer people are familiar with the person who shot this iconic footage. And it turns out it was filmed by this high school kid, named Josh Bishop. And 6 weeks later, after filming this huge UFO sighting – he disappeared, along with two of his friends from high school. They just drove off into the desert one day, and they have never been seen again.
Our movie follows the story of this character’s younger sister, 20 years later, who’s now all grown up. She returns to Phoenix to make a documentary about what happened to her brother. What was the nature of his disappearance, and was there some connection between his disappearance and the UFO sighting?
Your film takes place in modern time then?
It actually takes place in two timelines that are inter-cut. This modern day story of the sister digging into the mystery is inter-cut with Josh’s own footage. The story in the 90’s is Josh’s film – the main character. He films the Phoenix Lights. Then the next day, his footage and films are featured on the local news. And that kinda causes him to kind of get the bug. He decides he wants to do his own investigation of the Phoenix Lights, and he starts making his own documentary – as a high school student would, with a small camcorder.
We see in the 90’s, him getting obsessed with the Phoenix Lights, and start to dig into that mystery. And we see how he ropes in two of his friends from high school into this. And that’s inter-cut with the modern day footage of this documentary character exploring that mystery as well. She essentially uses Josh’s footage in the movie she is making. So the first half of the movie is sort of inspired by like a Herzog documentary. One thing I kinda kept saying to myself early on was “I want to make Grizzly Man with UFO’s.” And so the way that movie’s structured, like they return to Alaska, and they talk to modern-day characters who were connected to this person. But they also show that character’s footage from the 90’s, as they build up to the terrible thing that happens to him.
Halfway through our movie, there’s a big twist and the style kinda shifts. What was sort of a more contemporary documentary becomes more of a found footage ride. So from the mid-point of the movie on we get to watch what actually happened to these kids.
What would you consider the “truth” or fiction ratio in this film? Which is kinda tricky since “the truth” is subjective in this area.
Justin: Yeah, exactly. At the outset of the project, I really wanted to treat it as real world material. My mandate really was to at first try and make a documentary about the real event and use that as a backdrop and a jumping off point for a fictional story that we tell. I tried to be very objective and very true to what’s actually out there about the Phoenix Lights but then insert our fictional characters, and tell a story from that point on.
In other words, Phoenix Lights is the real event. But this character, Josh Bishop – who filmed the lights, is fictional. And his sister is fictional. Although – although the first half of the movie is executed, this – it is the real people.
Do you personally believe in aliens? Do you think that these lights were aliens, or something else?
As far as the broader concept I subscribe to the idea that mathematically, they have to be out there somewhere – based on the size of the universe, and the age of the universe. The Phoenix Lights itself, it’s tricky man. There’s a breakdown into two different kinds of thought for me.
There’s the photographic evidence like I mentioned, people filmed this. And then there are the eyewitness accounts. The photographic evidence to me is actually not very strong. I look at the photographs and the video, and I think it actually seems to be what the official explanation is, that it’s military flares. So these illumination flares dropped from military aircraft.
That’s what it looks like to me. I think they hang there. There are no points of reference, ’cause there’s so much blackness in the frame. I think that’s what it is. However, the real eyewitnesses swear that they saw something much more dramatic than that. They say that the formation of lights flew directly over their heads. When the formation flew overhead, there was blackness between the actual points of light that blocked out the stars. They couldn’t make out a ship of any kind or anything. But it felt like there was a large object there that blocked out the stars.
It’s hard to resolve what people – they seem like normal, sane people – who believe they had this experience. Chances are what they say they saw is what I see in the photographs and video. One thing I would be open to – and this is something that someone in Phoenix mentioned to me. What they think was that there was a giant UFO. Some people say it was like a football field in size. Some people say it could’ve been a mile wide. But there was a ship and the flare drop was a diversion.
In other words, people did film a military flare drop, but that was happening over here – and there was a giant UFO kind of over here in the other place. So I think that’s possible. I certainly don’t believe the official story on anything these days.
Was this your first feature film?
It was my first feature as a Director, yes. I started out as a graphics guy, and then later got into digital effects. Then I started directing TV commercials.
I did produce a film called, “Medicine for Melancholy” which was Barry Jenkin’s first feature, he later directed, “Moonlight.” Barry went to my film school at Florida State. And a lot of people on my crew also went to Florida State. And we’re just sort of a tight-knit community. But that was kind of the last feature I was involved in with in a big way before this one.
How was the experience directing your own first full feature film?
You’ve really got to put on a different hat when you’re coming from a commercial world. And then also coming from the independent film world– Barry’s movie is about a couple in San Francisco. In a way, it’s very simple. It all revolves around these two characters. A lot of scenes with just those two characters. It was shot for very little money and very little time. For this movie we still had to treat it in a similar sense. It was not a lot of money, and not a lot of time. But coming off of Barry’s movie, I thought, “Oh I know how to make a movie.” Like, this is going to be easy – guerilla style. But this movie ended up being so complicated and layered, because of the multiple timelines because of all the characters and because of the device. These sort of shifting devices in the movie.
So in a way, I think it definitely was more complicated than I thought it would be at the outset. But in that sense, it was a great challenge, and I think all the actors felt the same way. It was just different. Different styles, and making them in different ways than what a lot of the actors were used to. So we were all kind of learning on the fly and working together. And that is really exciting. Something special for sure, and challenging.
It sounds awesome. I’m really looking forward to seeing it! Again, thank you, Justin, for discussing your film with us.
Yeah Kevin, thanks for your interest, and I hope you like it when you see it. We tried to make it as good a movie for you as we could. So as a Phoenix resident, I hope you enjoy it!