Throwing out the playbook: Justin Barber and T.S Nowlin re-format found footage in their new alien abduction film “PHOENIX FORGOTTEN”!


Hitting theaters today, the Ridley Scott produced, alien-abduction genre bender, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN, is unlike any found-footage film in recent times. With nods towards MAKING A MURDERER, BLAIR WITCH, and THE X-FILES, the film blurs the line between fact and fiction in a fun and entertaining way.

Directed by first-timer Justin Barber, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN uses a clever combination of documentary-style storytelling, found-footage realism, and real news clips to tell the story of the abduction of three high school students. Co-written alongside genre screenwriter/producer T.S. Nowlin (PACIFIC RIM, MAZE RUNNER series), Barber and Nowlin re-imagine the fascinating and incomprehensible events of March 13, 1997, or otherwise known as the Phoenix Lights; the most widely viewed UFO sighting in history.


FANGORIA: So why the Phoenix Lights?

JUSTIN BARBER: It just stuck with me from the night it happened; it was such a good story. I was in high school at the time and I remember seeing it on the local news and reading about it. And we tried our best to be true to the events of that evening, but then we started creating characters that are fictional and have a fictional story. But it’s absolutely set against a real world backdrop.


FANGORIA: If you’re characters are fictional, how do you incorporate the reality of the event?

JUSTIN BARBER: Yes, the main characters are completely fictional but at the beginning of this project I kind of put on my documentary filmmaker hat and wanted to investigate the Phoenix Lights and try and get to the bottom of it. So, actually there are some of the real people in the movie and in the first half of the movie real people are interacting with my characters while still playing their characters; they’re giving you their take on Phoenix Lights. Also, outside of what you saw in the movie, I definitely did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, actual eyewitnesses. I really wanted to get to the bottom of what happened that night and then continue the story on our own.

T.S. NOWLIN: We had an idea of who these characters would be and what the dynamic was going to be between them but we hesitated to define them too specifically on the page until they were cast. When you’re incorporating real life footage, real interviews, and real people in the movie, it sets a bar for authenticity that the rest of the movie has to match. So, it was important that we found actors who could bring their own personalities and their own voice to these characters and create a dynamic among themselves and we can just be there to witness and to capture.

FANGORIA: So how did PHOENIX FORGOTTEN come about?
T.S. NOWLIN: The project started with myself and one of the producers watching the movie CATFISH back in 2011 and just debating whether or not it could be real. We thought that it would be fun to just kind of bring that authenticity and more of a documentary approach to the subject matter of movies that we grew up on; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or POLTERGEIST.

JUSTIN BARBER: And when we first conceived the movie it was not actually tied to an actual real life event. But, after we developed it and realized we wanted to make a found-footage movie and realized we wanted to make it a documentary in the first half that goes off the rails, what better way to bring out the that authenticity to it then to base it off of actual events.

T.S. NOWLIN: Then in 2012 I found myself in a room with Ridley Scott and pitched the concept and it turned out that he wanted to be involved in something like that. So, when he came on as a producer I think that was the moment where where it stopped being a conversation amongst friends and started to feel like a real movie.


FANGORIA: How did the decision to sort of re-format the found-footage structure go down?

JUSTIN BARBER: I think this is a story where it works really well given the characters and the story they’re telling. It’s about a kid who films a UFO and then that is the incident that sets him on this journey that he eventually never returns from. It’s about characters trying to capture evidence on camera and it works really well in a found-footage film.

T.S. NOWLIN: I think the idea was more melding of genres. It starts more sentimental and more emotional about these missing kids and the toll that their disappearance took on their family and their friends and the community in general. Then, gradually the story would become a little bit more sinister and a little bit more kind of into that sci-fi/horror space as we uncover this footage and then go more that found-footage direction.

JUSTIN BARBER: It really was a fulfilling challenge and I really did luck out with the cast I had. Movies work best when the style and performance and the dialogue is conversational off the cuff as it would be in a real documentary. So, with that in mind, we only scripted about half the movie and improved the other half; it was really a mix of styles and that was a cool challenge.


FANGORIA: Half of the film was improvised?

T.S. NOWLIN: Most of the dialogue was kind of written on the spot. We had a script that was kind of like a 70 or 80 page script which was more of a guide. The characters seem like real people and not just archetypes in a horror movie. That was something that Justin really delivered on as he cast the movie and worked with the actors.


FANGORIA: How did you approach the horror element of the film?

T.S. NOWLIN: We didn’t want to do anything so outrageous that we lost the reality. So, it was important to kind of throw away the horror movie or the found-footage playbook; it’s important that the movie completely follow its own rhythm.

JUSTIN BARBER: I wanted an iconic, desert UFO movie. I just associate UFOs with the desert, it’s just that’s where a lot of things happen. There’s just something really scary about being out there in that desolate place and no one being able to help you.

T.S. NOWLIN: It was important that we spent enough time, not only developing the characters, but building up a mystery of what might have happened to them. That just meant taking the time to really develop that mystery and let the movie follow more of the rhythms of a true crime story like MAKING A MURDERER and let the movie take a bit of a sharp left turn into the horror territory in the end.


FANGORIA: And the end was pretty awesome. Any feelings on a sequel?

JUSTIN BARBER: If the movie goes well we’ll make a couple sequels. [Laughing] We definitely thought about it. The movie has a very bold ending and we definitely thought about what happens to the characters after the last time you see them in this movie. 

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is a film well worth watching and even interesting enough to watch again. And, of course now knowing that half of the movie is improvisation, I’m absolutely going back for round two.

Check out the featurette on the film and trailer below:

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

For more information on the real events of March 13, 1997, head on over to the film’s interactive site http://www.phoenixforgotten.com/

About the author
Adam Lee Price
Adam Lee Price has an intense love of horror films and has since being a child. This love of horror has led him to focus on a career in writing films for the next generation of genre fans. Adam has recently completed writing his first feature length horror screenplay entitled THE MASQUERADE. Now, he looks forward to the next chapter of his life working alongside great writers in the horror industry and at FANGORIA Magazine.
Back to Top