Even if you haven't heard his name, chances are you've seen Keith Arem's work. After directing voice acting and motion capture for dozens of the biggest games, including the Call of Duty: Black Ops and the Saints Row franchises, Arem makes his film debut with The Phoenix Incident, out now on Digital Download and released on DVD on the 7th September.
Based on real sightings and a missing persons case from 1997, The Phoenix Incident is framed as a documentary expose of a US military cover-up of UFO encounters. Here's the trailer:
I'm sure you're asked this all the time, but having such an extensive career in the games industry, what prompted the move to film?
The inspiration for this film came from several different experiences, my background in games and my history growing up in Arizona. I spent the early part of my life there and when I moved into the games industry in Los Angeles I had always wanted to go back and share some of the experiences of growing up there, some of the amazing things we saw. There were always lights in the desert and unexplained things but in California no-one ever believed you. When this event took place in 1997 and so many people saw it, I was working with military consultants and private investigators who were consultants on the video games I was working on. They would share their stories of what was happening on the military side and some of the other investigations that were happening around the events that took place around the Phoenix Lights. So working in video games and working with actors and working with all these new production techniques I wanted to use my experience to develop a motion picture to pay homage to the world I knew growing up in Arizona and these very scary events that took place there.
There's an element of conspiracy and whistle-blowing in the film which is very relevant right now, did that inform the direction you took the project in?
Absolutely. The amount of evidence and eye-witness testimony and material supporting the fact that there was some sort of cover-up for the sighting that took place there was overwhelming. When we began receiving footage and speaking with many of the police and military and civilians who witnessed it, there was an abundance of similar information. As we worked on the film we actually went to Phoenix, to the mountains where those sightings took place, and we met with the Vice Mayor and we met with all of the people who had taken and licensed the footage in the film. We incorporated a lot of the military footage that we were able to get hold of, bringing that into the film to show that the evidence points towards this actually having happened.
There's an interesting blend of fact and fiction – did you meet any sort of resistance in clearing these real clips and photographs?
Surprisingly, we didn't. We were in constant conversations with our attorneys because we were concerned there would be some retaliation. We were approached by the Justice Department - they threatened us at one point when we had launched some of our material online and we involved our attorneys to negotiate our ability to keep it online, and that was very early on in the production. So we were concerned that the film would have some backlash from the military or the government and surprisingly we've been approached by many people in the military and the government who are supporting us in our cause to bring disclosure to the public. We feel that historically other countries, including the UK and Canada, have been very open about their documentation of encounters with unexplained phenomenon, or extra-terrestrial craft, but the United States have been historically very closed about it. We're hoping that with this film we can bring it to the public's attention. We want to have disclosure and we want to have an open discussion with the government to reveal their records of any encounters that have taken place, to understand what's happened.
How do the audience react to the film? Do they treat it as all fiction or does it provoke people to find out more?
Our theatrical screenings have been the best experience; it works incredibly well in theatres because of the visceral nature of the film. What's amazing is that many people were not aware of the events, so not only does this educate and inform them but there is a blurring of the line between what was recreated and what is the actual footage. We've been very inspired to see the audiences be both excited and terrified during the screenings of the film.
A lot of the cast have backgrounds in games. Did you know them before the film?
The characters in the film were inspired by actual disappearances that happened in Arizona. We were wanting to basically recreate the relationships and the background of many of the men that we were bringing together and fictionalising in the film. I had worked with all of these actors on Call of Duty and my other video games doing motion capture and other types of performances. And in recreating some of the footage that we weren't able to get, we had to not only recreate those experiences but also explore where nothing was available. So I wanted to work with people that I was very familiar with and be able to incorporate their personalities and our working background into the production process. Many of the ways that we filmed their scenes were identical to the way we do motion capture scenes for larger video games - we have 360 degree environments, except we were actually filming in the real locations where the sighting and encounters took place. It was very inspiring but also intimidating to be actually in the location where these sightings had been and be shooting this similar events to what were reported.
Is there a lot in common between directing games and films?
My focus as a director is to find the best performance within the actors and to inspire and guide their choices, so working in games my job is very similar, to be able to bring out those performances and make those very realistic and naturalistic performances come to life. It was very gratifying for me to be able to see these actors bring their performances and their fantastic backgrounds as actors into the film medium, when most people knew them for doing motion capture and voice.
Did you ever get the actors to operate the cameras themselves?
We created a special camera rig where our cinematographer would actually wear a camera system that would be broadcasting the signal back to watch the action. The lead cast, specifically Yuri Lowenthal whose character has the camera for part of the story, he would actually go alongside the cinematographer. They would orchestrate this amazing dance to be able to capture what Brandon Cox our cinematographer was capturing as well as Yuri's performance with the other actors. It was some of the most complicated acting and cinematography I've ever witnessed because of this orchestration of their movements, but it worked very well for the film.
We don't ever get a very clear look at the aliens, but they have an interesting beast-like design. Were there any specific influences for that, and what was the process for designing those?
Because much of the footage wasn't available for the events of that night, at least from the ground, we were using a combination of previous eye-witness accounts of what had been very similar sightings as well as our inspiration of what we wanted to bring to the picture. We worked with the animation team that does the dragons from Game of Thrones to model and create the creatures in the film and I'm very proud of their work because when you actually get to see it, and we intentionally hid that – my feeling is that what you don't see is more terrifying than what you do see – however when you actually do see these creatures and the models they created and the actual animation, it's terrifying. What we're hoping is that in the future pictures and other incidents that were witnessed we'll be able to show more of them because they're absolutely horrific and terrifying to watch.
Does that mean there are follow-up films in the works?
Absolutely. This was based on obviously the largest sighting in the United States, however there were nearly identical sightings that took place in Russia and China and Belgium and South America, many other countries. We're looking to explore many other incidents around the globe and not necessarily as a documentary or combination docu-thriller, but maybe as a narrative, and we're also looking to explore this through a television series and an app that's coming out next year as well.
Are you working on anything else, in games or graphic novels?
I'm working on a few new graphic novels that will be coming out: a new book called Frost Road which we are also in preproduction on making a motion picture for right now; and a sequel to my first graphic novel, Ascend, which will be finished later this year. Then I'm working on several new games, including the new Ghost Recon game, and several titles that have not been announced that will have games coming out later this year. So it's going to be a very good year for us.
What films or TV shows do you think get it right about alien encounters, or what misconceptions are there spread by film and TV?
I think that audiences have seen films like Independence Day and other films that have dramatised the idea of an alien attack, but I grew up watching films like Ridley Scott's Alien. It's very similar to the approach we take in this film, where you didn't actually get to see the alien and you felt the presence of something that was so foreign and that we couldn't relate to organically or emotionally - it's purely terrifying. I think that our culture very much embraces the idea that there is life beyond this Earth, and I personally believe there's no way we're alone in this universe, but what those creatures would look like or how we would perceive them we can't even begin to fathom. So I think that there's been this very Hollywood look at aliens as a threat to us simply because they are foreign and not many films have explored the idea that maybe they've been observing us or hadn't intended to be a threat until we provoke them. And actually from the evidence we've been finding just making this film, sometimes we shouldn't be stirring up things we don't know about.
The Phoenix Incident is out now on Digital Download and will be released on the 7th September on DVD. You can find it at Amazon.