Out in theaters this weekend is Phoenix Forgotten, the new docu-style film from Justin Barber that explores the possible alien sightings that happened back on March 13th, 1997 in Arizona, that still have yet to be answered to this day. Co-written by T.S. Nowlin and Barber, Phoenix Forgotten follows three tenacious teenagers who set out to find the truth of the Phoenix Lights phenomenon one fateful night, only to disappear without a trace, leaving their friends, family, and authorities perplexed about what happened to them after they ventured into the desert in search of the truth.
Daily Dead recently had the chance to speak with Nowlin about Phoenix Forgotten, and he discussed the origins of the project, the challenges that come with creating a movie based on real-life events, why he enjoys the sci-fi genre as much as he does, and more.
Great to speak with you today, T.S. I’d love to start by hearing what you saw in the Phoenix Lights occurrence that made it the perfect thing to explore in this cinematic way?
T.S. Nowlin: The way that the movie started off was from a conversation between [producer] Wes Ball and myself, who’s also the director of the Maze Runner movies. It really just started as the idea that he thought it would be fun to bring a documentary approach and a kind of real authenticity and realism to the subject matter of movies that we grew up on, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even Poltergeist in a way. We knew just from that starting point that we wanted to center the story around a real-life UFO sighting, and the Phoenix Lights gave us everything that we were looking for in that. We knew that we wanted to set the movie in the 1990s, and we knew that we wanted the movie to take place around the Southwest, somewhere in the desert.
Then, when we started doing research, it was clear that it was by far and away the most famous and convincing account of a UFO sighting in American history, and one of the reasons why that’s the case is because unlike a lot of other sightings, it’s one that takes place over a densely populated metropolitan area, so you didn’t have just a few people reporting having seen the lights. You have thousands of people who all reported seeing close to the same thing or the same formation of lights, and to this day, there really hasn't been a credible explanation to discredit all of these eyewitness accounts. And so we just thought it was the perfect incident, a perfect real-life sighting to center the movie around, where hopefully people could see the movie and go and do their own research and come to their own conclusions.
Yeah, I have to admit that as soon as I finished watching it, I immediately went online and started digging around. Not a lot of movies can do that, and it almost reminded me of The X-Files in that way, and I also appreciated the film’s nod to the series, too, because that definitely hit my nostalgia buttons.
T.S. Nowlin: Yeah, I think in a movie like this, where there is that documentary approach, where we try to blur the line between fact and fiction as much as possible, I hope people are encouraged to go and look and see what’s real, and what we added to the story. Whether or not you believe that there are aliens, the Phoenix Lights were something very real and they have their own kind of legacy that goes back over 20 years now. I hope this film reignites some interest in the sightings.
When you’re making a movie that has these kinds of real-life aspects, is that more challenging to you because there’s a responsibility that comes from having to be true to the incidents, but at the same time, you also want to make a compelling movie?
T.S. Nowlin: Oh, yeah. It gives you things that you're not allowed to change, that you're not allowed to mess with. We didn't want to alter the basic facts of the Phoenix Lights in any way, but that really is just kind of a jumping-off point for our story, because the idea is that this kid, Josh Bishop, gets a little bit of a glimpse of them. He gets a little bit of footage of them early, early on in the movie. Then, the idea is that he's kind of one of those sci-fi obsessed kids, like someone who was really into The X-Files back then. He just gets a little taste of something paranormal and goes down the rabbit hole with this obsession to try to get the best possible footage of these strange lights in the sky that he can. From that point, the story kind of goes off on its own. From there, we could chart our own course, and once we were out in the desert, we could just make up any kind of interesting encounters that we could come up with.
You have worked a lot within the sci-fi realm with the different Maze Runner movies, the upcoming Pacific Rim sequel, and now Phoenix Forgotten. Is there something in particular about science fiction that you ultimately find is fun to explore as a writer?
T.S. Nowlin: For me, science fiction is such a dynamic genre. When you tell me that something is science fiction, that actually doesn't tell me much about what kind of story it is or what the tone is. It’s such a big tent in terms of the different types of stories you could tell. What I found from modern science fiction over the last seven or eight years, from the Maze Runner movies forward, is that you never really have to repeat yourself. You can tell so many different types of stories within that sci-fi space, and you have so many avenues to explore in our current world in this speculative, imaginative way. I love the genre, and I don't feel burnt out on it at all, but at the same time, I think that it would be nice to branch out and try a different road, too.
As you were going through different aspects of the Phoenix Lights phenomenon, was there anything that you discovered that you thought was really surprising, or maybe you hadn't known going into this?
T.S. Nowlin: We always knew there was going to be the section of the movie where we wanted to give a voice to the skeptics. We wanted to have a section where we'd be able to go through the different theories and ideas of what those lights might have actually been, and I was surprised by how few credible theories there really were. The most common one that you hear is that it was flares, that it was a flare drop or a training exercise at the Air Force base near there.
It's kind of hard to imagine flares flying in perfect formation over a span of several hundred miles, but I was a little surprised given how many people saw these lights and how much footage there is that you can go find of them, how there just doesn't seem to be much of a credible explanation for what those lights were. That was what definitely intrigued me about the process.