I recently had the opportunity to view the highly anticipated film, ‘UFO’, starring Gillian Anderson, Alex Sharp, Ella Purnell, and David Strathairn. The film released on September 4th on streaming platforms and on DVD. It was written and directed by Ryan Eslinger. Here is a brief synopsis of ‘UFO.’
Derek a brilliant college student, haunted by a childhood UFO sighting, believes that mysterious sightings reported at multiple airports across the United States are UFOs. With the help of his girlfriend, Natalie, and his advanced mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks, Derek races to unravel the mystery with FBI special agent Franklin Ahls on his heels.
In this exclusive interview, I was able to catch up with writer/director, Ryan Eslinger, about his career as a filmmaker, his research and experiences on writing and directing ‘UFO’, and his personal thoughts on the mysteries that lay somewhere in the skies.
RS: So before we even get to your current film, ‘UFO’, can you tell us what made you decide to become a filmmaker?
RE: I was always interested in drawing, music, and story as a kid. Film seemed like a good way to combine these interests, and I love letting them bleed into one another. For example, in the movie (spoiler!), the total number of bits in the signal is a semiprime number, meaning it only has two divisors: 61 and 43. The composer, West Thordson, layered polyharmonic rhythms into the soundtrack and used instruments and sounds inspired by the electromagnetic sounds of planets, comets, and satellites. So the key to cracking the signal is actually layered into the music throughout. We did similar things with the visuals as well, where we layered story elements into the backgrounds, the costumes, the props, everything.
RS: Could you perhaps tell us a little about your other films?
RE: I like to think that my movies each deal with a different aspect of the mind: Madness and Genius is about intelligence, When a Man Falls is about our subconscious (specifically dreaming), Daniel and Abraham is about pain, Colorless Green is about language and communication, and UFO is about our beliefs.
RS: What inspired you to write this film about UFOs?
RE: I heard about the O’Hare UFO sighting, and I found it fascinating that people online were using math and physics to try and determine the size of the UFO, whether or not the people in the Tower could have seen it based on its position relative to cloud cover, and so on. I had always wanted to do a process-driven movie like All the President’s Men, where our heroes use simple tools to uncover vast conspiracies (in that movie, they used pencil, paper, and telephones to bring down a corrupt White House). In UFO, they use pencil, paper, and calculators to try and answer one of the greatest mysteries of all time: Are we alone in the universe?
RS: Your main protagonist, Derek, had a childhood UFO sighting that sent him on a path to learn more about UFOs, which is strikingly similar to my dive into this world and many others. Do you find that most people interested in UFOs have had an experience of some sort?
RE: I did not find personal stories to be a common factor; rather, it seemed a common factor was the consideration, awareness, and interest in how big the universe is. Arthur C. Clarke’s quote always gives me chills: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
RS: Having worked on Broadway for the past eight years, I was very surprised and excited to see Broadway actor, Alex Sharp, playing your main protagonist. And obviously, it was exciting to see Gillian Anderson and David Strathairn. How much influence did you have with casting?
RE: I wrote letters, auditioned, or met with each actor before casting them. So I was very involved with casting, but I didn’t make decisions in isolation: I had many discussions with the producers and Sony about each of the roles.
RS: Are there any similarities between Gillian Anderson’s character of Dr. Hendricks and her iconic role as Dana Scully, or did you try to get as far away from that as possible?
RE: My interest in her as an actor was not so much predicated on the X-Files (I was aware of the show but wasn’t a devoted follower of it) but rather The Fall. So I didn’t use the X-Files as any kind of reference point for UFO.
RS: Did any of your cast and crew have any personal UFO stories to share on or offset?
RE: Outside of a discussion with one producer, I don’t believe I ever solicited anybody’s personal experiences with UFOs. I would never have brought it up with an actor unless I felt it was appropriate for the scene, and I find tangentially-related experiences to be much more helpful when discussing scene motivations rather than overtly similar experiences.
RS: For those who heavily research UFOs, the trailer for your film shows us an event that in some way mirrors what happened at Chicago O’Hare airport in November of 2006. What compelled you to use this scenario as your catalyst?
RE: The probability of elements of the sighting is what primarily drew my interest to the O’Hare sighting. At an airport, there are so many reference points that allow one to determine a wealth of information about a possible UFO. It’s not one subjective experience of a person alone in the woods, but many firsthand accounts against the backdrop of visual reference points, radio recordings, and other technology.
RS: A big aspect of the film seems to be the involvement of the FBI and intelligence agencies covering up the UFO activity being witnessed. What type of research did you do in terms of the UFO coverup angle and do you actually believe this happens within the real world?
RE: During location scouting, I spoke to many airport officials in order to learn what their response to this type of event might be. I also read declassified NSA documents, which discussed how we might go about communicating with an extraterrestrial civilization (that’s where the inspiration to use the Fine Structure Constant came from). I would not be surprised to learn that the government has covered up events and sightings, but I don’t necessarily want to color the perception of the film by overlaying my own beliefs on it.
RS: The UFO topic has been ridiculed ever since the modern UFO era truly began with The Kenneth Arnold flying saucer sighting and the Roswell UFO Crash. Do you see that changing as more literature, television shows, and films cover the topic?
RE: I think an interest in space and what’s out there is definitely growing. However, I don’t think ridicule in any form, about any subject, is diminishing. Even if there was objectively provable evidence that other life existed in the universe, I’m sure a contingent of people would not believe it. Also, our ability to discern rigorously researched articles from total fabrications without sources seems to be diminishing for a variety of reasons.
RS: Do you think the public will ever know the truth about what the government knows about UFOs?
RE: At a certain point in the future, anything not lost to bad record keeping will probably be made available to the public. The government has already shown signs of declassifying old investigations and materials, even ones including embarrassing and unethical activities because the people that would be affected by these revelations have died or left office. We might not know the truth in our lifetime about things happening right now, but future generations probably will.
RS: Would you ever cover the UFO topic again in terms of a film project?
RE: I would not rule it out, but I have no plans to do so in the immediate future.
RS: What do you hope viewers will take away from watching ‘UFO?’
RE: If one single person feels inspired to go on YouTube and use math and physics to try and prove/disprove some UFO video, I’ll consider the movie a success.
RS: Are you working on any new films that you can talk about right now?
RE: Everything’s in early stages, but I’m experimenting with writing something I don’t direct, directing something I didn’t write, or maybe writing a book or play. I’d like to shake it up a bit.
‘UFO’ is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and download via digital platforms.
Ryan can be found on Instagram @ryaneslinger
Watch the official trailer for ‘UFO’ below