A new found footage film was released this past weekend into theaters, Phoneix Forgotten. The movie focuses on the real events of March 13th, 1997 when strange lights flooded the sky over Phoenix, Arizona! This phenomenon could not be explained and is referred to as “The Phoenix Lights.” It is said that this incident remains the most famous UFO sighting in our history to date. So what do you think? Quite frankly the film looks spooky, that is the best way I can describe it, whether you are a believer or not, this movie is going to be a lot of fun. Sinful Celluloid had the privilege to speak to director Justin Barber about his new film. We discuss his opinion on the mysterious lights, the cinematography, and Justin’s involvement in Hollywood leading up to Phoenix Forgotten. Enjoy!
PHOENIX FORGOTTEN tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed…
Interview With Director Justin Barber
Ryan T. Cusick: Congratulations on your film. You know it was real exciting to see that this movie was released in local theaters where I live.
Justin Barber: Cool, where are you at?
RTC: I’m over in Lancaster the tail end of LA County.
JB: I know that very well, we did some shooting out there actually.
RTC: Yeah, a big ole desert!
RTC: Can you tell us a little bit about your start that led you into filmmaking?
JB: Yeah, sure. When I was in high school, I was into journalism, and I wrote for my high school newspaper. I remember writing an article about the Phoenix lights and what happened. I was in high school at the time just like the main character Josh. When I was younger I was into journalism, and I thought that was going to be my career path, and then The Matrix came out and it blew my mind and that is when I decided that I wanted to get into film. But around that time in high school, The X-Files was on the air, and I was a huge fan of that show, and I always gravitated towards that type of material those type of stories, that is where I liked to escape, I guess. And then all these years later when the opportunity for this movie presented itself. The initial idea started with my producer Wes [Ball] and Screenwriter T.S. Nowlin it was not initially tied to a real UFO event, it was just this UFO story about these three kids. We then realized that we wanted it to be a documentary that goes off the rails and be a found footage ride, the Phoenix Lights event sprang to mind. I remember it from when I covered it for my high school paper; it was a cool world event that could be used as a backdrop.
JB: I started out in my career doing visual effects, and I had went to film school, that is where I met Wes and TS and then early on in our career in Hollywood Wes, and I worked as graphics and effects artists and at a certain point he was able to start doing the Maze Runner movies and I started directing commercials. A lot of the commercials work that I did documentary and nature and after that TS & Wes thought that I would be a good fit for this movie.
RTC: From A Cinematography standpoint, did you use any other influences from other films?
JB: Yeah, we did in an effort to capture the authenticity there is some material that is used that is licensed from existing news clips and existing archival. And then also we created a lot of that. But I was very adamant about at least having some shots in there that would anchor that stuff and that we could build off of. So there is some real world material used in the movie. But for various reasons the footage of the Phoenix Lights that Josh, the main character filmed, that initial sighting scene, we did recreate that, it was created from scratch we needed more control over it. The photographic evidence, the video, and the stills. When I look at the photographic evidence, it looks like Military flares to me. I wanted my characters to be a little bit more on the fence about the Phoenix Lights were so we created our own footage of the lights so that it could be a little bit more mysterious and look a little bit more like a giant UFO.
RTC: Well, that is good, adding to the suspense of the story. I actually had never heard of the Phoenix Lights until recently when I discovered this film. Your film might open up the door for other UFO films, maybe that will be the new trend.
JB: Yeah, someone recently coined the phrase for me “Historical Science Fiction” This is something you hear about in terms of movie development, historical fiction, base the fictional story off of the real character. You find kind of real sci-fi events throughout history and then tell the story based on that. Yeah, someone recently coined the phrase for me “Historical Science Fiction” This is something you hear about in terms of movie development, historical fiction, base the fictional story off of the real character. You find kind of real sci-fi events throughout history and then tell the story based on that. I didn’t put on my documentary filmmaker hat as much as possible, the beginning of the movie is trying to depict the bottom of the actual event. I was a little concerned of, “Am I muddying the water for people to take this event seriously?” But other people that I have talked to in the field really do appreciate that. At the very least you’re drawing attention to it.
RTC: Definitely because it is hard for me to believe that back to 1997, it’s been 20 years already, it just doesn’t seem that long ago. Re-surfacing the story and the event, I think that could be a good thing. Since the event did take place a couple of decades ago, did you have to age any of the film to make it look more authentic?
JB: Yeah I experimented a lot early on trying to make it authentically look like a nineties movie. All the footage in the nineties should look like The Blair Witch Project, that is when that movie came out. I did look at cameras of that era, the issue there is that it is actually hard to find stock, it’s actually hard to find enough tapes to shoot freely. So ultimately what I did was, I shot on a modern day camcorder in HD. Although I did pick one that was sort of the same weight and size of the older camcorders and then when the movie was blocked we washed all that material through a VHS deck and then put it back into the movie. In film school, you always hear about when we watched Citizen Kane at the beginning there is like a newsreel and the story you always here is how they ran that footage through cheesecloth to potentially make it look like an older newsreel. And it’s kind of funny because we are kind of doing things similar now.
RTC: That is awesome, when I had first seen the trailer the movie for me seemed like it is going to be kind of spooky, it had that spooky vibe to it, so I am really excited to see it. Since this is a found footage film, did you have any concerns with receiving any negative flack?
JB: Yeah, there is going to be a backlash. The Blair Witch twenty years ago still might be the best-found footage film ever made. Now it is kind of a saturated genre staple with movies released every year. I think the device is particularly suited well for this character in the story because it is not a normal UFO sighting film. The device is really applicable for this story and this character, the camera is very pinacol to this quest in a way I wouldn’t be sure how to make a found footage movie about time travel or some other subject. So we thought it was validated in that sense. We did try to elevate it the best as we could. There have been Phoenix Lights movies made there even have been Phoenix Lights found footage made, I avoid watching those, although I kind of did get up to speed on those Paranormal movies, in sort of a way to prepare myself in making this movie. We tried to offer something new with the device and use it with the story of The Phoenix Lights, and this is kind of just our take on it. Yeah, I am aware there might be backlash because it is a found footage movie and it is being marketed in the way The Blair Witch was. Our approach is pretty unique I think for the first half, and our characters are unique. It seems like there is a backlash about anything these days.
RTC: Yeah, I totally agree. You can’t please everybody. Personally, I don’t mind found footage films. I think that some story lines such as this, it is essential. It makes it more realistic, and I know a lot of folks think that they are easy to make, and from my understanding, they are just as difficult to make because of all the different camera angles and everything that goes along with it. Did the cast carry the camera or did you have a camera operator?
JB: It was a mix of both. The majority of it, my cameraman Jay Keitel is being Josh. However, I did have Luke the actor that played Josh just stand behind Jay and move with the forms with his head as close to where Jay’s head was. In a found footage movie you don’t have the advantage of editing.
RTC: Thank you for speaking with me today, I really hope that I get to talk to you again soon Justin about your future projects and everything else.
JB: Thanks, man I appreciate it.
RTC: No problem.
*The following interview has been edited and condensed. *