(By Robbie Graham for Mysterious Universe)
In the movie, Derek (Alex Sharp), a brilliant college student haunted by a childhood UFO sighting, believes that mysterious objects reported at airports across the United States could offer proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. With the help of his girlfriend, Natalie (Ella Purnell), and his advanced mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson), Derek races to unravel the mystery with FBI special agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) hot on his heels.
In this exclusive interview with Mysterious Universe, writer/director Ryan Eslinger talks about the inspiration behind his movie, its production process, and simulated universes…
RG: Did your inspiration for ‘UFO’ stem from a general interest in the subject, or from a particular UFOlogical event?
RE: I had heard about an incident at O’Hare Airport, where all of these pilots and ramp mechanics saw something hovering over the airport. Usually it seems like it’s somebody alone in the woods or driving along some desolate road at night. But with O’Hare, it was the middle of the day and it happened in a location surrounded by devices and structures that could potentially be used to prove or disprove their stories in a very real way (i.e. Could the people in the tower have actually seen the object based on its position in the sky and the angle of the windows in the tower?) I found all of this fascinating as used it as a starting point for an otherwise fictional story.
I’ve always loved All the President’s Men and the idea that these two people with nothing more than pencil, paper, and telephones could bring down a corrupt White House. Similarly, in UFO, the story is about group of college students who, using nothing more than pencil, paper, and calculators, try to prove one of the greatest mysteries of all time: Are we alone in the universe?
RG: How long did ‘UFO’ take to produce, from concept through to completion?
RE: I heard about the O’Hare Airport incident in 2008 but didn’t start writing the script until 2010. I continued work on the script up until we shot it in 2016, then there was a year of post-production after that.
RG: What kind of research did you do for the movie?
RE: NARCAP publishes technical reports on UFO sightings, including the O’Hare Airport sighting, and I also came across declassified documents that the NSA published online concerning potential methods of communication with other lifeforms. One document in particular talked about using things like the Fine Structure Constant in our communications, which informed the decoding of the signal. I also consulted with an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, Paul Sutter, who fact-checked the script (as much as you can fact-check a movie called “UFO”!). During our discussions, the idea of using binary as a method of communication came up.
RG: How did X-Files icon Gillian Anderson and dramatic heavyweight David Strathairn come on board? Did either of them share with you their own thoughts on the UFO enigma?
RE: Although I was aware of Gillian’s role in X-Files, I did not follow that show as closely as I did her other show, The Fall. In it, she has a way of speaking some lines so quietly that the microphones barely pick it up—but this gives the audience the sense that these are thoughts and ideas not necessarily beholden to actorly constructs of projecting. In a movie like ours, where the characters are deeply engaged in considering evidence and figuring things out, the characters’ dialogue with themselves is just as important as the dialogue with others, and Gillian is a master at this. In regards to David Strathairn, I had been familiar with him throughout his career as well, ever since his roles as Whistler in Sneakers. In that movie, his excitement is palpable when he and River Phoenix use the decryption device for the first time, and, to me, the genuineness of his reaction is what sells us on the advanced nature of the technology and the story as a whole. He has an incredible way of buying into these concepts and bringing us with him. To my recollection, I never spoke with either of them about their beliefs/disbeliefs in UFOs or extraterrestrial life. If it had been useful for their scenes I might have brought it up, but the movie isn’t so much about people’s beliefs as it is about what we can prove or disprove in an objective way.
RG: Did you consult with any government bodies during the production? The FAA or the DoD, for example?
Aside from the documents and research I mentioned earlier, I did have the chance to speak to airport officials when we were location scouting. My interest was in the details of how they would handle a potential situation like what happened at O’Hare, and many of these details informed the story. Everything was in service of creating as realistic a world as possible—from the actions and response of the airport officials, to the computer programs featured in the movie, down to the nitty gritty of the equations used to arrive at the story’s conclusion.
RG: What’s your favorite UFO/alien movie?
RE: Contact. I love the moment when Jodie Foster is traveling through the wormhole in the ship and sees a foreign planet and the lights of an alien civilization; the shot is probably only three seconds long, but the minimalist approach of our introduction into this alien world had a lasting impact on me.
RG: Yours isn’t the typical Hollywood UFO fare reliant upon scenes of large-scale invasion and destruction. Given a larger budget, would you be tempted to invest in spectacle, or would you still opt for a reserved, character-driven approach?
RE: It might be tempting to show more spectacle, but it would be equally tempting, if not more so, to find even more time with the actors. More room to play, try out new ideas, new approaches to scenes.
RG: What are your thoughts on UFO origins? Are you a proponent of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis?
RE: Whatever we’re expecting, I think the reality is probably going to be so far beyond anything we could possibly imagine. Somebody said that at a certain point, it would theoretically take more energy to travel these great distances in space than it would to simulate the universe in some sort of advanced computer. So maybe if there is other life out there, they’re simulating the universe without ever going anywhere.
RG: What else are you currently working on? Do you have any other movies in the pipeline?
RE: UFO was such a long process that working on faster, shorter projects is very appealing at the moment. I’m working on a few different things, but it’s too early in the process to talk about them as real, tangible projects.
RG: When and where can we see ‘UFO’?
RE: It’s coming out in September on digital platforms.