UFO Abduction now more commonly referred to as The McPherson Tape is a ground breaking science fiction horror movie shot in 1988. Set in 1983, it concerns the McPherson family who, while celebrating a child’s birthday party, find themselves under siege from alien beings.
The film has a strange and chequered history that is perhaps befitting of such a weird and wonderful film. With Jordan Peele’s recent chiller Nope once more peaking our interest in ominous forces from above, Patrick Wray chatted to UFO Abduction‘s enterprising director Dean Alioto about its long journey toward being acknowledged as the first found-footage horror film.
First up Dean, How did you get into filmmaking?
I am a product of two film schools that I dropped out of; the first one was San Francisco State School where I just couldn’t learn quick enough. Everyone was all about Spielberg and that was where I was at. E.T. had just come out, Spielberg was my idol from Jaws really, but then of course Close Encounters was what got me visually interested in UFOs. After seeing those I realised I needed to be at USC (University of Southern California) because that’s where George Lucas went and it was touted as the most successful film school.
So I took a year out as I didn’t have any grants or scholarships to go to USC. I paid for a semester of film classes and I had the screenwriting guru Robert McKee as one of my tutors; he was a real character!
So I did that for a semester and then I realised that the best thing for me to do was to move back to San Francisco where I’m from and to attend seminars and workshops while working as a PA. I figured I’d work as a PA in every single department, so I’d know what everyone’s job was. So I’d work on commercials as well as feature films when they came to town. I worked on The Doors and The Dead Pool and I also got to hang out with Spielberg shooting behind the scenes stills for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So I got to work with some of my idols.
How did you arrive at the concept (in terms of ‘found-footage’) for UFO Abduction?
I kept creeping up in age and I had to make my first feature film by the age of 25 because all of my filmmaking idols had done that.
A fellow student told me he wanted to be a film producer and I said ‘‘Great, I wanna make my first movie, let’s do it together!’’ and I was like ‘’What kind of budget are you thinking?’’ and he said ‘‘Well, I’ve got around sixty five hundred bucks.’’ I laughed and kind of said we could maybe do a wedding video for that amount, which was something else I was doing on the side, so I kind of blew him off.
Then I read the book ‘Communion’ by Whitley Strieber and that terrified the hell out of me more than any Stephen King novel. Then I was flying from San Francisco to LA at dusk to do a pitch for something else and the sun was setting and hiding behind the curve of the planet and I had the thought, ‘what if this is the last time I saw the planet? That I was being taken away and abducted?’ and so when I landed, I called my buddy and said ‘’Hey, I have an idea, we’re gonna literally do this as a home video and we’re gonna make it the most terrifying sci-fi horror movie of all time because we’re gonna put the audience right in the middle of it and it will be like this video was filmed and left behind.’’
Are you a horror/sci-fi fan or was your decision to work in the genre more pragmatic, in that you had hit upon a concept with UFO Abduction that you could potentially make very cheaply?
To be brutally honest I looked upon it as a combination of three things. Number one, it would allow me to make my first feature before I turned 25. Number two, it was in a genre that I liked which was sci-fi horror and three; I thought it would be a really cool gimmick to allow me to do all those things.
UFO Abduction in my view is the first found footage picture as we know the genre today. People often state Cannibal Holocaust as the first, but I’d say that is more of a forerunner. How do feel about having invented a genre/sub-genre?
I remember showing it to a buddy of mine and he said, ‘‘Do you get what you’ve done?’’ and I said ‘’Yeah, I made my first film!’’ and he said ‘‘No man, this is something completely new; this is like a new narrative in filmmaking!” and I thought he was full of shit and I said “It’s just this gimmick thing that I did, that I was inspired to do creatively and out of desperation to get a career going.’’ He saw it way in advance that it was something special!
A few years later, I taught an advance directing class and two students were talking about my film. They were arguing about it and one of them was saying ‘‘Your film is the first ‘found-footage film,” and I said ‘‘Yeah, it might be!’’ , the other student said ‘’Well, there’s Cannibal Holocaust.” And the other one said “Cannibal Holocaust is about a film and it’s scripted, and then it’s a film about these characters trying to find out about what happened to these other characters who went missing.’’
That in itself is its own genre, films where people try to retrace the steps of other people, the only difference was they have some footage of what these guys had shot; so it wasn’t ‘found-footage’ as I understand it, which is footage that was shot and left behind, ideally not edited. It was what was left behind and found, hence ‘found -footage’.
The story of UFO Abduction is basically an alien invasion picture, it was your approach that gave it some originality. Were you influenced by any of those fifties pictures like It Came from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars, made around the time when UFOs first became a cultural phenomenon?
I’m sure, buried in the fabric of my imagination were all of those titles from the fifties, sixties and seventies. It was mainly inspired by supposedly real UFO cases. I remember reading about the Kelly-Hopkinsville case, which was a family who had been terrorised by these beings that looked like goblins. They pulled out shotguns and they shot one of them, but they were terrorised for a whole night. So that story was an influence and also the movie Ten Little Indians where everyone is picked off one by one, so it was kind of like an amalgamation of those things.
So you have a genuine interest in UFOs then?
I always had an interest in things like reincarnation and the Loch Ness Monster since watching ‘In Search of…’ with Leonard Nimoy as a kid, but I don’t take them as seriously as I do UFOs and aliens because in 2018 I got invited to the UFO International Congress Convention for a 25th anniversary showing of UFO Abduction and I met all these people who claim to be alien abductees, but they now refer to themselves as ‘experiencers’.
Then I went to two experiencer support group meetings which freaked me out because one thing I know is that; you cannot fake PTSD and these people had it, and they were all such credible people. They were doctors, lawyers and supervisors for homeland security. All of them highly functioning and intelligent people.
How did you go about casting UFO Abduction?
I hired improvisational and local, no name performers. When I auditioned them I just had them tell me a story and that was the interview. I said tell me a story about something fantastical and they were encouraged to incorporate things that were fictional as well. The irony is that the woman who plays the mother (Christine Staples) in the movie actually had a UFO sighting. So her interview was actually her unpacking her story of a close encounter of the first kind. She was on her porch and saw this light striking this property about a mile away. She saw this craft moving from left to right with a beam coming out of it and then all of a sudden it took off. Anyway, she told it in such a compelling way that we hired her on the spot.
The acting in UFO Abduction is all quite loose. Was it scripted or did you tend to just give the actors scenarios to work within?
Yeah, I had all the beats for each part of the story mapped out, then I wrote everyone’s backstory and they created their own backstory as well. I play the youngest son who is the one videotaping on his new video camera. That put me in a great position to be able to control the narrative and more importantly to control the pace of the film, so if it got a little stagnant in one scene I could lead the actors to say something that would cue them or I had a headset on and I would cue my assistant director and say “Cue the red UFO light in the sky,’’ and someone would have a light and they would pan it over.
It was shot in one continuous take wasn’t it? So the process was similar in some ways to directing a play?
We did two takes. We did one and then came back and did the second one a week or two later and then Frankensteined the two takes together. The second half was too dark, so that had to be redone but essentially it was all conceived to be done in one take.
Were there things you didn’t let the actors in on in order to create genuine fear and surprise?
Yes! I saved that to the very end. They knew that there was gonna be an invasion of these beings coming at them, but I didn’t tell them when, so at the climax of the movie , they’re all sitting around, freaked out, trying to create a sense of normalcy by playing a game of cards. And remember there is a five year old girl who’s birthday it is, which was the conceit of why everyone shows up, that it’s this little girls birthday party, so they are trying to keep calm for her as well so they’re just going along and kind of chilling and I waited for a kind of lull and then I sent them (the aliens) in and the screams you hear are the actual screams! When the mother and the actress playing her daughter look up and shriek they blew out the mic on the camera, which was all the way over the other side of the room!
The film benefitted from some proto-viral marketing when it found its way into the UFO community didn’t it?
I wasn’t that clever in the areas of marketing to have conjured up what happened. What happened was that the distributor had sent out a few copies to video stores. Then he told us that his warehouse had burnt to the ground and we had lost our master and all our artwork; so I thought that was it. I didn’t know that any copies had got out and so I just kind of put the flowers on the grave of the movie and moved on with my career.
Then I heard someone had edited off the credits and sent it into the UFO community and it had been spinning around for about a year or so before I heard about it. I think a few advance copies got out there. I’ve never found the patient zero who edited off the credits and put it out there. It could have been someone who worked in a video store who looked at it to see if they wanted to order it. I’m not sure, it’s still a mystery to me!
How did you come to discover that UFO Abduction wasn’t completely lost after all?
In around 1993 I received a call from this character who had just been at the International UFO Congress Convention and he informed me that my film was presented there as the real deal; real footage of a family being abducted by aliens and it was authenticated by UFO researcher Tom Dongo and retired colonel lieutenant Don Ware who had been an intelligence officer in the air force.
So both of them claimed it was authentic and then all of these new sources like ‘Unsolved Mysteries’, ‘Hard copy’ and a Fox show called ‘Encounters’ all wanted to do a story on it so that’s how I learned about it.
As far as you were aware up until that point the movie was completely lost? Or were there still copies that you had access to? Either way, it must have been pretty demoralising?
I had the original unedited material so I knew it could be reassembled, but all the promo artwork is gone, so I was kind of discouraged and I didn’t try and reissue it; I just decided to move on. But yeah, it really felt like the film Gods were pissing on me. Also, I had showed the film to a woman, who was the mother of one of the actors, who had been one of our casting directors. She was the first person I showed it to and she loathed it, she just though it was amateurish with its handheld camera. She thought it was jarring that it had people talking over each other, ‘‘I can’t hear anything!’’. All the things that people appreciate about it now were shouted down by this woman, so I kind of thought that it was maybe a blessing in disguise that the film was destroyed.
After the false start of the 1989 release, where only a few promo copies really got out, how did it come to be finally officially released?
After I had done the remake and it did well, the internet kept throwing up clips of the original and I was contacted by this Japanese company in around 2000 who wanted to run a story on it and they said “We want to interview some of the actors who were in it and we want to interview you.’’ So they interviewed them, but when they came to interview me, they kind of blew me off and fled the country and I thought, ‘well, that was weird? What the hell was that all about?’
Then I talked to the two actors and they said, “They kept wanting us to refer to ourselves as the characters.’’ So they perpetuated the mythology of this and then when it got released in Japan and Asia and other territories it really started to build. Then I got a call from from Joe Ziemba at AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) who are partnered with Alamo Drafthouse and they reached out and said ‘‘We want to distribute this and we wanna premier it for the thirtieth anniversary at Fantastic Fest.’’ So that kick-started it and so the recent DVD release is the widest it’s ever been distributed.
What prompted you to remake it as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998) which was also ahead of the ‘found-footage’ curve by coming out a year before The Blair Witch Project (1999)?
What happened was the head writer on the Stephen J. Cannell crime series I was working on at the time had heard about this strange little UFO movie I had made and he really wanted to see it and I kind of shunned it and said, “No. I don’t want to show it to you, it’s handheld, it’s just too weird!’’ And he said ‘‘Shut up and get me a copy, I want to see it today!’’ So I managed to find a copy and showed it to him and he said, ‘‘I can get us a TV movie deal with this,’’ and I laughed and said ‘‘Yeah, okay Paul, if you do, I want a ‘story by’ and you can write the script and I’ll direct it.’’ We ended up writing it together but anyway, he calls me the next day and tells me we have a meeting at Dick Clark productions the following week.
So we went in and showed them this segment that was done for the show ‘Encounters’ that was about six minutes long and the guy who was the head of TV movies laughed and shook our hands and said, ‘‘We want this.’’ and that was my first Hollywood movie deal and it’s never been as easy as that ever again!
This was around the time of ‘The X Files’. Was that one of the reasons why they were interested in a story like Alien Abduction?
I’m not sure that was a factor in why they were into it. We went to UPN, Paramounts new network at that time and they hadn’t set up their TV movie department yet. When we were in the room, the head of the studio was there, Dick Clark was there and about ten other people. Everyone was in hysterics going ‘‘Oh my god, this is fucking nuts! This is so great; this is ‘War of the Worlds’ on videotape!’’ So it wasn’t tied into any trend, it was this weird thing that they just got. It had its own force and energy.
This was just before Blair Witch came out and caused a sensation. Did it annoy you a little bit that the filmmakers of that were kind of getting all the plaudits for this innovative approach, which in fact you had pioneered around ten years earlier?
It feels great to have been a part of creating a new narrative in filmmaking, though I’m not sure what that gets me, but I’m genuinely entertained by what other filmmakers do with it.
I definitely wish I had submitted through film festivals as they did so well at Sundance. Their online campaign was great, but we actually did an online thing where at the end of Alien Abduction there was an online poll that asked ‘Do you believe whether this video is real or not?’ Back then there weren’t as many choices for cable channels so our viewer share was in the millions; it was UPB’s highest rated Tuesday night programming of all time at that point. Anyway, the poll said that 49% of the public thought it was real, so that’s around half of the viewers. Even after seeing credits that say alien one played by so and so, they still believed it was real.
Have the makers of Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity ever acknowledged any debt to your film?
No, but I don’t know if they saw my film or not. I do know that there were two movies that came out that were a little bit too close for comfort for me. One was the JJ Abram’s film Cloverfield because I had the year before shown my movie to Bryan Burk, JJ Abram’s partner and he loved it and thought it was great; then I went to special screening of Cloverfield and I was like ‘Wow! It’s a gathering, it’s a special event, there’s a blackout, they go out to investigate, it’s the same basic beats, they made it into this Godzilla type thing, but it was still an alien that was attacking them so I was a little bummed that I hadn’t been invited to redo my film.
Then there was M Night Shyamalan’s Signs which was equally similar; even more so in some ways because it was a single parent with children who are out in the woods who get attacked by these beings. In fact there is one shot that is identical where you see an alien climbing into a second story window and you see the same shot in mine, so there might have been some nicking.
I do know that the Vicious Brothers, who made a movie called Grave Encounters, paid homage to me by naming one of the characters McPherson. They took me out to pizza, so I got a pizza for inspiring them which was really nice.
Alien Abduction has a slicker look that UFO Abduction and the acting and scripting seems a bit more formal. Was that a conscious decision?
No, I had nothing to do with that decision. I’m not a fan of that film! There are certain elements that I like, certain performances, but all in all the film is a fail. Though there is a fan base for that one because a lot of kids saw it when they were really young. I get emails all the time from people saying it scared the shit out of them!
My conceit was to shoot it on home video and they made the mandate,’’ Well this is a network so we do this at a higher end’’ and I was like,’’ Well that’s antithetical to why this works so much.’’ In fact, I was promoting just showing my original and they were like,’’ No we’re gonna do it like this.’’ And now my budget was like $1.25 million and we shot it in Canada so it was actually more like $1.5 million and so I couldn’t spend it all. We actually came in 500k under budget. I got the guys from the ‘X-Files’ to the ship and the aliens.
It was decided that it was gonna look brighter and we were gonna use this high end digital camera and it was actually the first digital TV movie ever made. The actors looked a little too good. They were all a little too handsome and pretty looking. I begged the executive producers at Dick Clark Productions to give me one take where I could shoot it all on a home video camera and take out all the lights, so it was just lanterns and stuff like that, but I was not afforded that luxury. So all those things about it looking quite slick, I felt tarnished the credibility of the film.
Your recent horror film Portal (2019) looks at fly on the wall ghost hunt shows so it has elements of proto-found footage films in its DNA like Legend of Hell House (1973) and the TV plays ‘The Stone Tape’ (1972) and ‘Ghost Watch’ (1992). These films and TV plays show technology associated with ghost hunts such as cameras and microphones onscreen which kind of broke the fourth wall a bit, lending them a kind of Meta aspect to the story. That’s something which is present in found-footage films.
I didn’t write Portal. The script is mostly Peter Duke’s and I did some of the background to the characters. What I liked about Portal and what drew me to it was the humour which the script had. My feeling was that I wanted to be involved with an out and out horror film, something which would enable me to create some pretty horrific images.
It was fun to do and the actors were terrific. That house there was where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck used to live and where they wrote Good Will Hunting. Portal was shot in twelve days for 140k, so it was a tight-ass schedule but it was really fun. You don’t have much more fun than doing a horror film!
What projects are you working on at the moment?
So I’m currently working on a science documentary to do with UFOs and aliens. It’s a whole look at the phenomenon that has not been presented before. I’m also developing two feature films that are to do with aliens. It’s funny because I look back at everything I’ve written, around forty scripts, TV pilots and a book (‘Domestic Disturbances’) and a third of them all have to do with UFOs and aliens!
Patrick Wray is an artist and writer based in London. He recently published ‘Ghost Stories I Remember’ with Colossive Press.
The McPherson Tape is now available to buy from AGFA