An interview with director Justin Barber, director of "Phoenix Forgotten" by Jeff Mitchell

In March 1997, a mysterious set of lights appeared in the Phoenix, AZ sky, and this famous UFO sighting is known, naturally, as the Phoenix Lights.  Twenty years later, that onetime phenomenon continues to baffle eyewitnesses and give hope to UFO believers.  Director Justin Barber – fascinated by the story as a high school student in 1997 – has now made a movie about it. 


“Phoenix Forgotten” is a fictional thriller, and Justin features the lights as the picture’s main platform.  The Phoenix Film Festival did not see the film at the time of this interview but enjoyed chatting with Justin about his new movie!   Justin talked about his belief in UFOs, the documentary style of the picture, some places that he filmed in Phoenix, and more.


“Phoenix Forgotten” arrives in theatres on Friday, April 21.


PFF: I was living in Phoenix at the time that the Phoenix Lights phenomenon occurred, but sadly, I was cooped up inside watching television that night – probably “Seinfeld” – and completely missed the lights.  Did you interview Valley residents who claimed to have seen them in preparation for the movie?


JB: I did, and I tried to approach the movie with a mindset that this was real world material.  I did spend a lot of time in Phoenix trying to track down real people, eyewitnesses and experts to get to the bottom of (the lights). 


(When the Phoenix Lights happened,) I was in high school at the time, living in Florida and remember hearing about them through the news. Twenty years ago, I (wrote) an article for my high school newspaper about them.  It was cool when (making) the movie to go back and pick up that thread again, and yes, I did find that people who had actually seen them.  Some of those people are interviewed in the movie.  The movie is a mix of real people and actors.  Yes, I tried to get to the bottom of it myself and go to Phoenix, the scene of the crime. 


PFF:  I like that you wrote a paper about the Phoenix Lights in high school.  That’s pretty amazing, and here you are and just directed a movie about it.


JB:  Yes, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess.  The interest has persisted.  It was such a big story, and it remains such a big story.  It’s a modern urban legend for the southwest.  For a lot of people, we remember it 20 years on, because it was such a bizarre event, and a lot of people think that it has not been fully explained. 


PFF:  I’d like to believe in UFOs and apt to believe than not believe, but I’ve heard friends and colleagues - over the years – discount UFO sightings, because they occur in small, remote places, where hardly any witnesses are present.  Is that what makes the Phoenix Lights so unique?


JB:  I think so.  I think it’s the sheer number of eyewitnesses.  Some people say hundreds of people saw (it), and others say that thousands of people saw (it).  People were able to film it!  There is that iconic footage of the formation of lights, and you see them in other movies.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002), there are images of lights in the sky that the characters see.  That’s inspired, I think, by the Phoenix Lights. Yes, it took place over a populated area, but there is footage of it as well. 


That’s where our story begins.  Like I said, I approached this as real world material, but our movie has fictional characters.  It is historical fiction past a certain point.  A lot of people know about the Phoenix Lights and recognize this footage.  Fewer people know the story of the kid who shot it.  It was shot by Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), a high school kid in Phoenix, and six weeks later, he disappeared with two of his friends and was never seen again.  That’s the story that we are telling.  What happened to these three kids? Was there a connection between their disappearance and the Phoenix Lights? 


These are the fictional characters that we are inserting into the real life backdrop of the Phoenix Lights event.


PFF:  Should I assume that you used the actual Phoenix Lights footage for the picture?  If so, how much cleanup was needed to properly insert the footage into your movie?


JB:  My main character, Josh, films the Phoenix Lights, and one of the big scenes early on in the movie is the sighting.  (He and his family) are having a backyard barbeque in Phoenix, and Josh is tasked with filming the event.  The Phoenix Lights sighting happens in the middle of it, and he spins the camera around and films the sighting from the party.  We recreated the Phoenix Lights sighting from scratch for this scene, using the actual Phoenix Lights footage as a reference. 


The reason is because we sculpted a scene around (the party) and needed a lot of control of how the sighting unfolded.  There is a lot of real world footage in the movie, because – for the most part - the movie is treated as a documentary, so I did license actual footage here and there, but this key footage of the Phoenix Lights that Josh films, I did recreate from scratch (using) visual effects.  Although, it is in the vein of the actual Phoenix Lights sighting. 


The other reason is when I really dug into this material and looked at the photographic evidence, (the lights) actually look like - to me - the official explanation, that they are military flairs.  Eyewitnesses describe seeing something really different from what was photographed.  I think there could have been more than one thing happening. 


People claim to have seen this ship, but there is this footage of - what to me - looks like military flairs.  I wanted my main character, Josh, to be a little bit more “on the fence” than myself.  It needed to look more like a UFO, because when I looked at the real footage, it didn’t look that otherworldly to me, honestly.  So, I recreated the sighting.  The way it moves.  The way it appears and disappears. I wanted a little more control of it as a director.


PFF:  Do you believe in UFOs?


JB:  I don’t know where I stand on the Phoenix Lights, except to say that the footage looks like flairs. That being said, a lot of eyewitnesses say that they saw something totally different, and the footage was not necessarily what they saw.  They describe looking up at a formation of lights that flew overhead, and it blocked out the stars.  They couldn’t make out any structure, but they could definitely tell that there was an object up there, between these lights connecting them that seemed to block out what they could see up in the night sky.   Some people will tell you that the flair drop was a diversion from this actual craft. 


As far as actual UFOs, I do think there is life out there.  I think statistically the universe is so big and so old, that I subscribe to what Carl Sagan would say.  There are so many worlds out there, mathematically, there is bound to be life. 


There are so many people who claim that they had experiences on our planet with spacecraft or strange beings.  There is either something going on, or there is some sort of collective psychological experience that (they) are all having, but that’s what so interesting about it.  These experiences haven’t been explained yet, really.  It just comes down to: do you want to believe, or do you not want to believe?   


PFF:  I assumed that you filmed in Phoenix.  If so, are there certain landmarks that Arizona residents be on the lookout for?


JB:  Yes, I hope that Phoenix residents appreciate how much we were able to shoot in Arizona.  I did have to shoot in California for a lot of the movie, but I was fortunate that the producers let me go to (Arizona).


I think people who know Phoenix will recognize different places.  We went to the Phoenix Public Library.  The Botanical Gardens are in there.  A bulk of the early part of the movie has Josh setting out and making his own documentary.  He hits the streets in Phoenix and talks to as many people as he can.  I think that you will recognize parts of town in that respect.


PFF:  It’s funny, when people think about crime or violence, they immediately point to large metropolitan cities.  On the other hand, a classic staple of horror films is a remote location, a cabin in the woods or places in the middle of nowhere like in “Friday the 13th” (1980), “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).  Josh and his friends head out to the remote desert to follow the lights, so what makes remote locales scary and downright eerie?


JB: Well, there’s no one there to help you, when things go south.  I think that’s what it comes down to.  For me, I remember one of the first times that I drove across the United States. You hit a patch in Utah and see a road sign that says, “No gas for 150 miles.” 


You are in the middle of nowhere, and that’s an unusual experience when you grow up in the suburbs or live in a big city.  Now, I do like getting out to those parts of the country for fun, but yes, you are on your own.  If you are in trouble, it is up to you to survive.  Essentially, the last half of the movie is a survival story. I think that’s part of it.  I think also there is a lot of lore about the desert, specifically.  There is character in the movie who is an Apache storyteller.  Native people have their own lore about lights in the sky.  We explore that in the movie.  What is it about the desert where there are so many UFO sightings and strange things happening?  It’s just a mysterious place, and our characters try to get to the bottom of it.  


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.