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Lights, Camera, Aliens! Hollywood Filmmakers and Their UFO Obsessions

Hollywood’s love affair with aliens dates back almost as far as the birth of the modern UFO phenomenon in 1947. It was just three years later in 1950 that the industry began producing its first movies and serials explicitly exploiting the public’s growing hysteria surrounding flying saucers. Aliens in one form or another have been a mainstay at the box-office ever since. Over the years, numerous Hollywood professionals have expressed a personal belief in a truth behind the fiction—names like Dan Aykroyd, Shirley MacLaine, even ex-B-movie-star (and ex-President) Ronald Regan spring to mind. Those behind the camera have been similarly fascinated by the mystery of UFOs. Here are just a few of them…

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Robert Wise (Right) and Jerome Robbins displaying their Oscars for West Side Story at the 1962 Academy Awards.

Robert Wise

One of Hollywood’s most accomplished craftsmen, director Robert Wise won Best Picture gongs for his work on West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Long before his Oscar glory, Wise had already given us what is still widely regarded as one of the best and most UFOlogically authentic science fiction films of all time—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In my book, Silver Screen Saucers, I present detailed circumstantial evidence that the CIA may have played a covert role in the production of Wise’s movie. Its production chief, the legendary Darryl Zanuck, was a CIA asset, and its producer and screenwriter both were trained as propagandists during their time in the Army Signal Corps. More intriguingly, Robert Wise himself claimed to have received multiple set visits during the shoot from scientists and engineers in Washington who expressed a keen interest in the content of his movie. Wise told this story to his friend, the filmmaker, Paul Davids, many years later.

“Wise told me he absolutely did believe that the saucers were real and that some of them were extraterrestrial,” recalls Davids. “He believed it not because he had seen one, but because of all the information that had come to him while he was making The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Wise told Davids that the men from Washington had taken him aside during filming and talked to him about UFOs. “What they told him convinced him that the government took this really seriously,” says Davids, “that some of these craft were visitors from space.”

Two decades later, Wise would give us more aliens (this time of the microbial variety) in his taut and methodical adaptation of Michael Crichton’s thriller, The Andromeda Strain, which sees a group of government scientists desperately attempting to study and contain an extraterrestrial contaminant.

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Stanley Kubrick

In 1968, cinemagoers were wowed, infuriated, and perplexed by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. That same year, Kubrick sat for an interview with Playboy magazine, in which he revealed his active interest in UFOs. The director spoke of Project Blue Book and the Condon Committee that ultimately ended the USAF’s UFO investigations. Kubrick told Playboy that he was “really fascinated” by UFOs and that the phenomenon was worthy of rigorous scientific investigation.

It is well known that Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had a joint ‘UFO’ sighting three years prior to the release of their epic movie. The event is described by Paul Meehan in his book Saucer Movies:

One night in 1965 Clarke and Kubrick were kicking some screenplay ideas around when they went outside on the balcony for a break. Gazing up into the night sky, they spied a UFO-like light moving slowly, high in the heavens. Clarke could not explain the light with his knowledge of astronomy, so the two duly filed a UFO report. After checking with some of his contacts at the local observatory, Clarke was able to ascertain that they had witnessed a transit of the satellite Echo 1.

The object was terrestrial in construct, then, but the sighting impacted Kubrick nonetheless as the director grew anxious that extraterrestrials would make themselves known to us before his movie was released, thereby invalidating its premise of post-millennial contact. Kubrick even approached Lloyds of London hoping to insure his movie against the possibility of alien contact, but changed his mind when presented with the tremendous cost of his plan.

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Steven Spielberg

More so than any other filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has moulded our expectations of otherworldly visitors. His films teem with iconic alien imagery and, between them, have grossed far in excess of a billion dollars. And that’s just his directorial projects. As producer, Spielberg’s alien-themed credits include Batteries Not Included (1987), the Men in Black franchise (1997–2012), the alien abduction mini-series, Taken (2002), the Transformers franchise (2007 –), the alien invasion series, Falling Skies (2011–2015), Cowboys and Aliens (2011), and Super 8 (2011). That Spielberg continues to make movies about alien visitation is not just down to good business sense, but is due in no small part to his own childhood fascination with UFOs—a fascination that would intensify into his late-twenties and culminate in his cathartic production of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In 1977, after his production had wrapped, Spielberg told Sight and Sound magazine what had inspired him to make a film that dealt seriously with the UFO issue. “I realized that just about every fifth person I talked to had looked up at the sky at some point in their lives and seen something that was not easy to explain,” said the director, “and then I began meeting people who had had close encounters… where undeniably something quite phenomenal was happening right before their eyes. It was this direct contact—the interviews—that got me interested in making the movie.”

Spielberg’s interest in UFOs even extended to a belief in an official cover-up. “I wouldn’t put it past this government that a cosmic Watergate has been underway for the last 25 years,” Spielberg remarked during a Close Encounters promotional interview in 1977, “eventually they might want to tell us something about what they’ve discovered over the decades.” During the same interview, the director spoke with relish of “rumours” that President Carter was due to make “some unsettling disclosures” about UFOs later that year. Needless to say, no such disclosures were forthcoming.

The decades since have given rise to conspiracy theories surrounding Spielberg and UFOs: “How much does he really know?” It’s impossible to say for sure, but certainly Spielberg has enjoyed cosy get-togethers with a number of US Presidents, including Carter, Regan, and Obama, and he counts the Clintons among his personal friends. He’s also received formal honors from the White House and Pentagon for various causes. There were even rumors Spielberg was a Bilderberg attendee in 1999. True or not, it’s fair to say the billionaire director walks in elite circles. Still, it seems highly unlikely that classified information on UFOs would be shared with a mere movie director… at least, not officially.

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Roberto Orci

One of the most sought-after screenwriters and producers in Hollywood today, Roberto Orci has liaised closely and officially with the CIA and Pentagon for most of his career. His credits include Alias (2001—2006), Mission Impossible 3 (2006), Transformers (2007), Star Trek (2009), Fringe (2008—2013), and Cowboys and Aliens (2011), among others. Many of his productions have ‘benefitted’ from the involvement of various three-letter agencies, and his screenplays are notable for drawing significantly from UFO mythology—from an MJ-12-style alien control group in Transformers, to Ancient Astronauts and Anunnaki references in Star Trek Into Darkness and Cowboys and Aliens. Orci himself has made no secret of his personal interest in the UFO subject. In 2011, the writer was asked by The Wrap if he believed in life elsewhere. He replied in the affirmative and added: “I think the evidence clearly indicates that the government’s lying about what the hell’s going on.”

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Andy Fickman

With a string of family comedies to his name, including She’s the Man, You Again, and Game Plan, director Andy Fickman’s sci-fi credentials are limited, but he had the opportunity to geek-out in 2009 when Disney offered him the chance to helm Race to Witch Mountain, in which beautiful blond aliens crash-land on Earth and are mercilessly hunted by sinister men in black. A self-described UFO ‘buff’ born and raised in Roswell, New Mexico, Fickman took pride in infusing his movie with UFO mythology. In a 2010 interview, Fickman explained to me that the majority of the film’s UFO content had been shaped by him from the outset and that he had personally schooled his cast, including Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and Carla Gugino, in UFO history: “I would spend time with my actors literally just going through ‘UFO 101—we’d watch every DVD that was out there, every documentary; I would give them book, upon book, upon book.”

Fickman was keen to “engage the UFO community.” In a scene in which the characters attend a Las Vegas UFO convention, the director went so far as to populate the set with real UFO researchers and enthusiasts: “Almost every extra in there was someone from the UFO community,” said Fickman. Among these people, most notably, and visibly, are Whitley Strieber (whose 1987 book Communion played a huge role in popularizing debates surrounding alien abductions), the late Dr. Roger Leir (a medical doctor known for specializing in the removal of alleged alien implants from abductees) and William Birnes (former editor of UFO Magazine). Fickman also told me that the character of Dr. Alex Friedman (played by Gugino) was partly inspired by famed UFOlogist Stanton Friedman, and that the name of another character in the movie ‘Pope’ was a reference to Nick Pope, a former head of the UK government’s official UFO desk.

Bizarrely, Fickman’s movie appears to have received covert assistance from the CIA. In a highly unusual production arrangement, Fickman claims he and his crew were closely assisted by an active employee of the Agency whose advice extended to designing the alien writing seen in the UFO during the film’s climactic scene. Fickman’s advisor—who he secured through “back door channels”—also recommended that certain UFO-themed content be removed from the script and even accompanied Fickman on a private tour of NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility where they chatted with military top brass. “All of a sudden I was in places that I don’t know I would have been had I gone through normal channels,” Fickman told me. “I don’t think there was anything abnormal about what they were doing, I just think it was [that] phone calls were being made and doors were sort of opening.”

Ridley Scott & Engineer

Ridley Scott chats with an ‘Engineer’ on the set of Prometheus (2012).

Ridley Scott

One of Hollywood’s greatest ever visual stylists, director Ridley Scott is perhaps most famous for his sci-fi masterpieces Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). His prequel to the former, Prometheus (2012), divided critical opinion (a shaky screenplay and stunning aesthetics make for a frustrating mix), but the movie was certainly interesting from a UFOlogical perspective. Ahead of its release, Ridley Scott ‘outed’ himself as a proponent of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis when he told Empire magazine:

In the ‘60s there was a guy called Erich von Däniken who did a very popular book called Chariots of the Gods?, and he proposed pre-visitation, which we all pooh-poohed. But the more we get into it, the more science accepts the fact that we’re not alone in this universe, and there’s every feasible chance that there’s more of us, not exactly as we are, but creatures that are organically living in other parts of this particular galaxy.

When asked by Empire if he personally believes Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials in its ancient past, Scott replied:

I think it’s entirely logical. The idea that we’ve been here three billion years and nothing happened until 75,000 years ago is absolute nonsense. If something happened here two billion years ago, if there was a civilization at least equal to ours, there would be nothing left after two billion years. It would be carbon. We talk about Atlantis and cities under water that have long gone, long submerged, but they’re in the relatively recent past. I’m talking about one-and-a-half-billion years ago—was this planet really empty? I don’t think so.

Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies, and editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (forthcoming), a collection of original essays on UFOs and UFOlogy by progressive and iconoclastic thinkers.

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Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit robbiegraham.uk
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