Phoenix Forgotten: 20 years after three teenagers disappeared in the wake of mysterious lights appearing above Phoenix, Arizona, unseen footage from that night has been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition.
Genres: Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction
Release Date: April 21st, 2017
Runtime: 80 minutes
Recently I had a chance to prescreen Phoenix Forgotten and then talk with the director, Justin Barber, about his experiences making the film. He gave some interesting answers, and I enjoyed getting to know a bit of the behind the scenes details. I hope you enjoy it as well!
Interview with Phoenix Forgotten Director Justin Barber
Sci- Fi & Scary (S&S): I noticed that T.S. Nowlin has a Thanks credit listed for Medicine for Melancholy, a film that you produced. Now, the two of you share writing credit for Phoenix Forgotten. How did you come together for this film?
Justin Barber (JB):TS and I were in the same film school class at Florida State, along with Barry Jenkins who directed Medicine for Melancholy (and later, the Oscar-winner Moonlight). At the time, I had put all the money I had into the production of that movie, and was living on TS’s couch in Los Angeles.Around that time, my day-job was as a graphics and VFX artist working with Wes Ball, a producer on Phoenix Forgotten, and another FSU alum. We all just ended up hanging out a lot, seeing movies together, talking about the things we wanted to make, and this project grew organically out of those experiences.
Around that time, my day-job was as a graphics and VFX artist working with Wes Ball, a producer on Phoenix Forgotten, and another FSU alum. We all just ended up hanging out a lot, seeing movies together, talking about the things we wanted to make, and this project grew organically out of those experiences.
S&S: You have mostly Producer credits to your name, bar directing the short Leaving Baghdad (which you also had writing credit on). What was it like moving from producer to directing a full-length film in Phoenix Forgotten?
JB: As a producer on small movies I had to be very focused on the logistics of the shoot, the realities of the production, and that eventually boxes in the creative ideas in the show. It was hard at first to let go of that and just focus on imagining the best sand castle I could, irrespective of the sandbox I was playing in.
Ultimately being a director is more fun but I have this lady on my crew Aggie who is my costume designer – she has been around, did costumes back in the day for big movies like Beetlejuice and The Color Purple – she says producers always have the best wives so take that as you will.
S&S: Why did you make the switch from producer to director? Do you think you’ll swing back and forth or is this the direction you permanently want to head in?
JB: I just want to work with talented people, and help them get their visions made. Yes, I have my own stories to tell, but if I could help the next Barry Jenkins get his/her work out there – that’s important to me. And ultimately all directors end up producing on their own shows somehow. Orsen Wells not only directed and starred in Citizen Kane, he also produced – crazy!
S&S: Did you learn anything unexpected from your feature-length debut?
JB: I learned a lot about the desert, about how to search for missing kids, but specifically regarding the craft of filmmaking this was a lesson is seeing the forest for the trees. Before making this movie I had directed a lot of commercials, and in that field you become hyper-focused on details – handfuls of individual frames. But the director on a feature needs to be able to sit back and keep the overall experience for the audience in his mind.
S&S: Given that you have a bit of Star Trek on your CV, and the subject of Phoenix Forgotten, one must ask… Do you truly believe in the existence of aliens?
JB: I haven’t seen enough hard evidence to hang a belief on. To quote X-Files, I WANT to believe they’re out there, but I’m waiting to be convinced.
I enjoy reading about the Drake Equation and the movie Contact hits on it – the idea that the universe is so big and so old and we know there must be X amount of habitable worlds out there… But on the other hand, there are the issues in the Fermi Paradox – if that’s the case ‘Where are they?’ as Fermi himself said. Did they all blow themselves up with nuclear weapons before they could call us?A lot of people say that aliens have visited them, but with how little we understand the human mind it could be just as likely these people are having some sort of collective psychological experience, or are just crazy. At the end of the day, the photographic evidence doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny IMHO.
A lot of people say that aliens have visited them, but with how little we understand the human mind it could be just as likely these people are having some sort of collective psychological experience, or are just crazy. At the end of the day, the photographic evidence doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny IMHO.
S&S: Was it intimidating, helpful (or both) having Sir Ridley Scott attached to the film as producer?
JB: It’s only intimidating when you throw his knighthood around like that. Otherwise, he’s a really lovely, insightful man. He wasn’t on set day-to-day, but he did offer his advice and the producers at Scott Free were very supportive. Myself, the cast and crew, we were all just motivated to make something that was of the quality of his own work. We were all really driven to make something that he would like and sign off on.
S&S: How long did Phoenix Forgotten take to film from pre-production to finished film?
JB: We shot and edited the movie together over time. We started shooting in December 2015. We shot for about four weeks, then we worked on a rough-cut. Once we had that, we shot for one more week, filling in some holes, and then at that point we had a cut that we all felt could work and moved towards finishing the movie. We shot a day or two here and there after that, getting odds and ends and VFX plates, and really only put the finishing touches on the movie a few weeks ago.
S&S: Phoenix Forgotten has a strong found footage element. Many people feel that this particular style has hit its saturation point. Do you think this will work against you with Phoenix Forgotten’s general reception?
JB: That was definitely something we were mindful of, but the found footage device works particularly well for this story, for these characters. It’s about a kid who films a UFO sighting, and then catches the bug – he sets out to investigate what it was and film it again. So the camera is a part of the quest here in a way it wouldn’t be in a movie about time travel or something else. It’s particularly suited for this story.
And then also the first half of the movie is more in the style of a cinematic documentary, like Making of a Murderer, or any Errol Morris or Werner Herzog film. So it’s not shaky-cam from start to finish, it’s a mix of styles that’s justified by the story.
S&S: Many of your credits on IMDB are documentary associated, even if you weren’t attached as producer or director. What draws you to working on these types of films?
JB: When I was in high school I wanted to be a journalist. I just gravitated towards writing and graphic design, I liked getting out into the world and discovering things. And then the first Matrix came out, and that pointed me towards Hollywood from then on. But even when it comes to fiction I have a journalistic approach, I do a lot of research and I find real-world models for fictional characters. Not sure why that’s the case, it’s just my process. As they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.
S&S: Do you think you’ll work with any of the crew members (be they cast or otherwise) in the future?
JB: I was very blessed to have such a talented bunch of weirdos forming my cast. Truly, they brought so much to the movie in terms of creativity and hard work. If enough of your readers see the movie, I would be happy to make a sequel and continue their story! I was very blessed to have such a talented bunch of weirdos forming my cast. Truly, they brought so much to the movie in terms of creativity and hard work. If enough of your readers see the movie, I would be happy to make a sequel and continue their story!
S&S: What excites you about Phoenix Forgotten?
JB: In a lot of ways it’s auto-biographical. I was into all this UFO shit when I was Josh’s age, and if I had filmed a UFO myself, and my footage appeared on the news, I would be as excited as he is in the movie, and would have pursued the lights in the same way he does. What these three kids experience is exciting, and I hope the audience shares that!
S&S: Do you have any projects in the hopper now?
JB: None that are far enough along to discuss, unfortunately. BUT I hope you’ll hear from me again soon!