How true does a movie have to be in order for it to merit the label “based on a true story?” What if the truth is subjective, with a few true believers stacked up against skeptics, as is so often the case with tales of alien abductions? Phoenix Forgotten tests the limits of the label, telling a fictional story of three teens abducted two weeks after the Phoenix Lights, one of the most prominent UFO sightings in recent history.
On March 13, 1997, people within a 300-mile radius of Phoenix, Arizona, reported two abnormalities in the sky: a triangular formation of lights, several football fields in size, flying over the state and blocking out the stars, and a stationary group of lights shining over Phoenix proper. The events of that night have come to be known as simply the Phoenix Lights. No one was abducted or hurt, but it is one of the most widely studied UFO events in history and has merited several documentaries and fictionalized narratives. Phoenix Forgotten is just the most recent venture down the Phoenix Lights rabbit hole — uh, wormhole.
Directed by Justin Barber, the film follows the story of Josh, Ashley, and Mark, three fictional teens who witness the Phoenix Lights and wander into the Arizona desert to find out the truth behind the phenomenon. They’re never seen again, but years later, Josh’s younger sister Sophie uncovers the “truth” of what happened to her brother and his friends with the help of miraculously recovered footage from that night. The answer turns the story into a full-on sci-fi thriller.
Barber spoke with Inverse about his thoughts on the Phoenix Lights and the fictional events he concocted to frame and “explain” what went down on that real night in 1997.
The tagline for the movie is “based on shocking untold true events.” How true are these true events?
We tried to be as true to that real event as possible, but we insert fictional characters into the story, and then the story continues from there. I went to Phoenix, I did a lot of research and contacted a lot of eyewitnesses. I talked to actual experts. I’m really trying to get to the bottom of this by myself. And so, the idea of the movie would be in telling that historical story, but then it becomes more of an exploration and adventure. Just to get the backdrop and see what happens at that point.
The movie is based on a widely-known phenomenon. What did you originally intend to accomplish when you set out to make this movie?
At first, we actually didn’t speak of it as a UFO story about three kids. We just thought we wanted to make a cool documentary version of what was encountered. That was the initial inspiration. But then we realized we wanted to make it a documentary that goes off the rails and becomes an adventure. We wanted, in a way, to bring some authenticity to what happened, sort of against the real-world event.
So, why the Phoenix Lights in particular?
It jumped out from my mind because I remember it from when I was a kid. I was the same age as the main characters in the movie in 1997. I remember it being a big story. I remember reading about it and seeing it in the news. And also, even at 17 in Arizona, it was just a great opportunity for … the desert landscape is inherently mysterious and scary. Just the idea of being out there alone, where no one can help you, or hear you.
Are you convinced it was aliens?
I try to get to the bottom of it. And here’s what I think: There are two areas to look at. There’s eyewitness reports and then the photographic evidence. Now, I think the photographic evidence, the video, and the still actually look like what the official explanation is, which is military flares. However, what people actually tell you they saw that night is different from what was filmed. People couldn’t see any structure, but it was clearly some big, dark object that blocked everything behind it. I can’t quite reconcile some of the eyewitness accounts with the photographic evidence. There was also a military flare job, and the flare job was an intentional diversion, something to get people to look over here to distract from the craft. I guess that’s why I didn’t come down on either side.
Do I personally think it was an alien craft? No, I still don’t know. I’ve talked to people who were very genuine, and I really wanted to believe what they had to say, because of their eyewitness account. And if what they described is true, that it was this big, if they did not believe whatsoever, then that sounds like something true. But, on the other hand, I did talk to other eyewitnesses who were clearly just telling a tall tale and were surely involved with every question I asked them. So I can’t say honestly. I’m not sure if we’ll ever really know. There’s just so much difference in opinions and information out there about it.
Was any of the footage in the film taken from footage of the incident?
Yeah, we did license some footage here and there, because there is some real-world footage in the movie. But then Josh, the main character, his footage of the Phoenix Lights is fake because they needed more control over how it was involved in the scene. And also, because like I mentioned before, I think when you actually look at the real-world footage and find the best shot, when you see it — in the documentaries and news reports about the event — they’re showing very small clips of that footage.
And when you watch all of it from certain footage, it actually looks even more obviously like military flares. So, for Josh’s footage, I needed it to actually feel a little bit more like a UFO, so we created some tracks because we wanted the characters to be more on the fence about whether it was a UFO or something that was more of a terrestrial explanation. But we did license whatever footage we could throughout the movie just to help the authenticity of it all.
Have you received any backlash from believers or witnesses to the event?
No, not really. There’s a woman in Phoenix, her name’s Lynne Kitei, and she made a straight-up documentary trying to get to the bottom of it. I talked to her when we were making this movie, and I thought that she would be a little bit awkward about what we were trying to communicate and with us fictionalizing it a little bit, but in the end, she wasn’t really that offended by it. So, I have yet to experience the backlash. We’re not trying to say that it was one thing or another. We are examining all the different opinions in that the movie does sort of feature what the different theories are. But in the end, we offer something that’s different altogether from both.
Phoenix Forgotten is now playing in select theaters.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.