If you're a big fan of alien films like Fire in the Sky, then you'll want to keep an eye out for Beyond the Sky, which explores the eerie subject of alien abductions. Ahead of the movie's theatrical, VOD, and Digital HD release on September 21st from RLJE Films, Daily Dead had the chance to catch up with Beyond the Sky director Fulvio Sestito for our latest Q&A feature, in which he talks about researching alien abductions, working with talented cast members such as Dee Wallace and Peter Stormare, and what projects he has on tap.
Can you tell us how you first got involved in this project?
Fulvio Sestito: The idea started with wanting to tell a very personal story about a documentary filmmaker whose childhood memories shape his view of the world and drive him to explore the alien abduction phenomenon.
I knew right away that this story could not be simply written, it had to be experienced. I travelled to several UFO-themed conventions and met one-on-one with people who honestly believe in the phenomenon or profit from it.
I interviewed and later became friends with many abductees who shared their experiences, down to their most vulnerable emotional traumas. Soon, the story of the film started carving its own thematic path, dealing with universal themes of how our memories can define and shape our reality. But the deeper I would dig, the more questions I would find. Clues led me to experience strange sightings of my own and to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Needless to say, what started as a research trip turned into a transformative spiritual journey that questioned my own beliefs on the subject.
Why did you want this to be your first feature film?
Fulvio Sestito: Before Beyond the Sky, I was developing other features that, because of creative or financial issues, were not quite ready to go. That’s when, in order to clear my mind and find fresh inspiration, I decided to embark on the research trip that became the base of the film. Before that trip I didn’t really know I wanted to make a film about alien abduction, but after what I have experienced, I knew I was hooked and needed to tell this story.
This movie revolves around alien abduction and trying to disprove it. Would you say that you're a skeptic or do you believe that alien abduction is happening around the world?
Fulvio Sestito: I definitely started this journey with similar views as Chris’ character in the film. Not necessarily as a full skeptic, but approaching the subject from a very scientific, objective point of view. When I first started meeting those who claim to have had experiences, it was clear why the phenomenon gets mopped by many into tacky and goofy territory. A big percentage of what you hear as you scratch the surface does not make sense or is clearly used to make a quick buck. However, as you keep filtering the noise out, you discover a side of the phenomenon that is difficult to disprove and makes perfect scientific sense. Travis Walton, one the world’s most know alien abductees and the base of the film Fire in the Sky, was one of this exception. While talking to him, reading his book, and considering the hard facts, it was clear that his story holds up to any skepticism you can possibly throw at it. Being true to my scientific method, I believe that if a theory cannot be disproven, it is real.
At some point I was talking to a PhD astrophysicist and his response to skeptics was pretty convincing: utilizing the well-known Drake equation that tries to attempt to calculate the probability of alien civilizations, and taking into account the latest discoveries of thousands of exoplanets by the Kepler missions, the results are pretty convincing. From a pure probabilistic point of view, the chances for Earth to host the only civilization in our galaxy for all time, are about 1 in 60 billion. This figure implies that it is highly unlikely that Earth hosts the only intelligent life that has ever occurred. So, when it comes to math and probability, we are definitely not alone. Now, does that mean that those civilizations have found a way to travel across millions of light years and come visit us? It’s plausible, but we can’t quite prove it. I know I can’t. All of this brings me to the belief that at its core, this phenomenon is much more than objective truths, but touches on questions of human faith and our timeless wonderment with the mysterious. In short, I “want to believe.”
What kind of real-world research did you do into alien abduction cases, and has that made you more or less of a believer?
Fulvio Sestito: I took my research seriously and over the course of about one year. I read pretty much any book I could find on the subject, interviewed all kinds of individuals, from hardcore conspiracy theorists, to journalists, ex-government employees, scientists, and so on. It was a journey that definitely challenged my beliefs.
What do you believe is the most compelling alien abduction case you've come across?
Fulvio Sestito: Definitely Travis Walton. His story is the first one that made me realize I honestly could not find any hard proof that could make me disprove it. It all made too much sense not to admit that this could actually have happened. Since then, we became good friends with Walton and he ended up having a cameo in the movie as well serving as a consultant.
Can you talk about developing the story with your co-writers?
Fulvio Sestito: Because I had so much material to work with from my own experience diving into the world of alien abductions, I knew I was too close to the story and needed a fresh perspective for the script. We initially wrote a detailed outline with producer Rebecca Berrih, who helped me focus the story. I later met with different writers, but the team of Rob Thomas and Marc Porterfield struck me the most. They immediately understood the core idea of the film I wanted to make, and loved the challenge of exploring the complex phenomenon of alien abductions. We spent countless hours just drafting ideas and defining the spine of the film as seen from our main characters. Working together allowed the initial idea to take on its own life and become what it is today.
What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Fulvio Sestito: After experiencing the striking beauty of the New Mexico plains and the timeless textures of the Indian reservations during my research trip, it was clear the visual structure of the film was going to become a character in the story. In a quest for authenticity, we ended up shooting in 13 different locations across 3 states and with only 22 days of principal production—a quest that proved to be a logistical nightmare. Although I love the way the film looks because of the stunning locations, I think looking back I was too naïve and optimistic on how much time that would require. We ended up spending lots of time moving things around and less time making sure each shot was as perfect as it could be. If I were to do it again, I would either fight for more shooting days or merge some of the locations together to maximize shooting time.
Another major challenge was the ambitious amount of visual effects that was required to bring the entire third act to life. That’s when my extensive experience in VFX came very handy. I knew I had to maximize every penny and make sure that every single drop of sweat ended up on screen. To achieve that, I spent countless hours with my good friend and production designer, Kino Scialabba, talking about ideas and coming up with a very precise visual style. Knowing exactly what we wanted allowed us to put all of our efforts into achieving just that, rather than trying things out and making costly changes.
Can you talk about working with the cast, including acting veterans such as Peter Stormare?
Fulvio Sestito: It was clear early on that this was going to be a challenging story to pull off. The subject of alien abductions touches on very deep emotional and physiological issues. As such, I knew that the reins of the movie were in the hands of the actors who would bring that emotional connection to the screen. We spent quite some time with both leads, Jordan Hinson and Ryan Carnes, talking about the phenomenon in general and what I had learned from my experience in talking with the real people behind it. When I was visiting many UFO conventions, what struck me the most was the huge spectrum of flamboyant and interesting personalities those events attract. It was important to me to convey that aspect into the movie, so I took a lot of care casting every role, even the minor ones, with the right actors.
There were two roles in particular that needed to communicate a great deal of subtext in a short period of screen time. Chris’ father, Peter Norton, played by Peter Stormare, is one of them. We open the film with a very emotionally charged and traumatic 8mm film from Chris’ childhood. This laid out the foundations for Chris’ motivation to embark on his journey. Peter understood the role right away. His ability to create a deeply flawed but realistic character in a short time is unrivaled.
Another important part is the owner of the Seti Alpha Five store played by Dee Wallace. Her character plays a pivotal role in the film, somewhat holding the keys to the rabbit hole Chris is about to tumble into. In the conversations we had with Dee, I mentioned her character was like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, and she immediately got it. She created a wonderfully off-beat character that is one of my favorites in the movie. Ultimately, I feel fortunate and extremely grateful to be able to work with so many talented artists, including Martin Sensmeier, who plays Kyle, Don Stark in the part of Bill Johnson, Claude Duhamel for Brent, Milton Chee (a real-life Indian shaman) for the part of Greatbear, and everyone else who helped me bring this movie to life.
With Beyond the Sky about to be released, do you have a next project lined up? What can you tell us about it?
Fulvio Sestito: I’m currently working on a documentary series on Afro-Latin religions that dives into the mysterious and mind-bending world of occult practices. I’m also working on two feature films. One on a similar subject, about a woman who, in order to save her marriage, moves to Colombia hoping for a fresh start, but gets entangled in a terrifying web of modern-day witchcraft. The second is a sci-fi psychological thriller with veteran producer Marianne Maddalena about a family living in isolation in an outpost at the outskirts of our solar system.