The most fascinating film I saw at Sundance, THE VISIT, declares itself to be a documentary about something that has yet to happen. If extraterrestrial creatures were to visit our planet, how would we respond? More specifically, the film looks at all the various governmental and global agencies poised to handle this unique event, and posits the question to the people on their teams. What scenarios do we have in place? What organization takes the lead, who is sent to make contact? Do we keep it secret?
A captivating SciFi doc, THE VISIT mixes interviews with what I will call dramatic pre-enactments as well as mesmerizing footage of our world from an outside, possibly outside our world, source. Sitting down with an impressive cross-section of scientists and experts from places like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the British Government and Military, SETI and NASA, director Michael Madsen has created the most serious examination of the possible future encounter between man and alien yet. The film, which made its world premiere at Sundance in January, plays in SXSW’s Festival Favorites section on opening night. I sat down with director Michael Madsen at Sundance to ask him about the film, and if he, like me, was a ‘believer.’
BEARS: How did you pitch the project to the scientists? What did you say to them about what you wanted to ask them, how you wanted them to be on camera?
Madsen: First of all I tried to get the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, because I knew that would be the blueprint for the other experts to participate in this, you can say, thought experiment.
BEARS: Were you concerned they would think you were some wacko filmmaker or conspiracy theorist?
Madsen: There is no empirical evidence for these things and they’re basically putting their professional reputation at stake. I told them that I know this will be the case for you, but this is not a film about UFOs, this is a film about, I think, ourselves. It’s a mirror.
BEARS: As in Space, as the final frontier. Our confrontation with what is out there.
Madsen: I think that all space exploration is about ‘is there life out there?’ And I’m interested in the questions to human self-understanding that such an encounter would [cause to]arise. Because I’m interested in scientific thinking and scientific world-understanding which I think to some extent is dogmatic. And I’m interested in what’s beyond, what’s on the other side. And such an event, I think, would be a leap into the great unknown. And that’s what I tried to craft a film about, a probe that could somehow travel into those questions, into this scenario and this situation of an alien encounter.
BEARS: That would be an event that would permanently change human civilization.
Madsen: I think so.
BEARS: Even in the way you crafted the film, where they don’t really have all that much interaction with the aliens. It’s just the idea of 1st contact that can change the world.
BEARS: So clearly you believe there’s something else out there, or at least you’re open to the possibility?
Madsen: I think that I’m open to the possibility. But I think that, since the universe is so immense, I think we should talk about it that way, it would be strange if there would not be something else there. But I’m more interested in what this something else could spur in terms of our perception of reality.
BEARS: Each scientists that you interviewed, including one obviously from the SETI Institute, probably have very specific thoughts on this possibility, the idea that we are not alone. Were there any that, when you told them the premise of the film, they said ‘I don’t think this will ever happen?’
Madsen: Actually I think it’s common sense, I’d almost say, among present-day scientists. It’s unbelievable that there shouldn’t be life up there, given the size of the universe. So, it’s more a question about the level of those life forms. For example Chris McKay, the astrobiologist from NASA, said initially when I approached him, “Well, I look for life yes, on Mars, I do believe we can find fossilized life there, there has been life – but I’m talking about bacterias.”
BEARS: So TOTAL RECALL is in fact, not history?
Madsen: That’s sort of the level that he was ready to talk about. But the real reason why he sort of stays on that, you can say, primitive level of life, is that anything else would provoke the type of questions that ‘The Visit’ tries to enter into. Which are much, much more difficult to handle than a lifeform which you essentially kill every morning when you brush your teeth, in your own mouth.
BEARS: Let’s talk about the visual style, and all the extra material, slow motion shots of crowds and going down in the sewer and stuff like that. How did you develop that look and what were you aiming for?
Madsen: I think that the problem for all documentary film-making in my mind, potentially for all film-making, is how you create images that transcend themselves. That is something more than what you see. And since I think that such an encounter would create a whole new perspective on life, I thought, ‘I need the film to operate within such a different and outer-worldly perspective.’
BEARS: So the camera becomes the aliens… as they explore our world.
Madsen: The whole film is seen through the eyes of a visitor from elsewhere. Because then I could create the interview situation, where these experts and scientists talk directly to the camera, and perhaps in some sense transform the view into an alien, de facto alien. This is also what’s called, you know, alienation- Entfremdung- it’s a German term. It’s a common narrative device trying to create a different perspective. And to overcome the problem in documentary, which is I believe, that you’re all submerged into this reality.
Madsen: Some have said that we [humans]are condemned to meaning. And that this is actually, this is how we understand reality. We have a kind of matrix, and it has to fit within that. So no matter what you are shown, more or less, in a film, you will try to extract meaning.
BEARS: And in many cases, we have no where to fit some of these issues we are experiencing, we are judging them against past experiences.
Madsen: And in this case we are trying to explore an event that has never taken place. Of course there’s a whole scenography within people’s minds about close encounters from all the popular culture which is very well known to everybody. There were already images, I think, within people, the audience, that I could sort of draw upon. It was a difficult film to make because there is no aliens, there is no such event, everything is in a way, is crafted from talking heads. People imagining, ‘What would I actually do? What kind of clothes would I wear? And so on.’ And then this alien viewpoint that comes to this central city, in the heart of Europe, which once used to be sort of the backbone of western civilization.
BEARS: It almost might be more effective if the viewer doesn’t know the city, which you never specifically reveal. We are experiencing the city like a tourist somewhat, although focusing on the strangest things.
Madsen: I would myself wonder if I came to another world, ‘what does all this mean? Why is the architecture different here? What’s the significance of this?’ And I wouldn’t know it. But I would most likely try to make some comparisons. And that’s been the driving idea behind the development of the visuality in this film. … This film is all about how we see our reality, how can I then create a different perspective? So that was the attempt.
BEARS: One of the things that came up at the Q&A at the world premiere was that THE VISIT is a very ‘western’ film. Obviously, this scenario would have played out much differently if the Alien ship had landed in like the middle of Africa or Mongolia.
Madsen: I think that this scenario that I have created is, you know, the ultimate, perfect scenario, the ideal scenario that allows me to bring real expertise and real responsibility to come into play.
BEARS: So you sort of self-select the scenario, because it’s much easier to quantify what, say, the U.N. response would be… I mean, you could go in there and ask them. Which you did.
Madsen: I do believe that if a craft landed on Earth, it might, very likely, unfold in a totally different way if, for example, it were to land in Africa, in you know, in a small city, or in a on a farmer’s field. And the unpredictability there would be the same as if it landed in London. But the nature of the first contact with a farmer, of course, would mean something different. But I’m trying to gain as much validity to the scenario, by having people with real responsibility, and also, knowledge with how to tackle a thing like that. Because after the farmer this would move on to the things that I am discussing in the film. But I am not an African person, I am also not a Chinese person. I am a Westerner. So this is of course, also a reflection about how I think about these things. And that’s why I signed the film in the beginning. It’s my signature behind the film, because this is my personal understanding about this. It is not an objective film.
Madsen: Yeah, the problem with making this film is the same problem as with any other sort of SciFi endeavors. I think the only thing to say for certain about such an encounter is that it will be beyond what we can comprehend. It might be a life form that we can’t even perceive because it might have a lifespan of 10,000 years or 100,000 years. So, the problem is, if it’s something beyond what we can perceive, if it’s so strange that we can’t understand it: yes, then how do you craft a narrative that you can perceive as a human being?
BEARS: And the film captures that, the sort of inability to truly find a mutual understanding, a common language.
Madsen: I’ve talked about this film to the whole crew, and said, ‘You know, this is a film that this entity would take back to its own world. It’s a documentary it would take back from our world and show back home.’ — To follow that idea in extremis, which would have been quite interesting. It might have been a completely different film if it was truly filmed by aliens. But we wouldn’t probably be able to relate to it.
BEARS: They would have a different structure that was meaningful to them.
Madsen: Exactly. And that’s the problem about SciFi. That you have to create this, you know, for your audience you have to tell them this is something that’s very sort of alien, but it can’t be too alien, because then they can’t relate to it anymore.
BEARS: So how did the interviews work when you sat down the scientists? Did you feed them any responses, anything you wanted them to cover?
Madsen: No. They were all improvisations. Of course, I’ve done some research, in respect to what — I mean, the astrobiologist, his interest is, is this a second genesis or not? Is this independent life from what we know from Earth, or a branch of life from here? So, I knew these things of course. But, essentially, the film was made without any script.
BEARS: So what DID you tell them?
Madsen: ‘Imagine that you’re in a concrete situation. There is something sitting in front of you, it can speak English by chance. For the sake of argument, it’s also intelligent; it has self-consciousness and so on, all the things that we attribute to a higher life form on Earth. What would you actually do?’ … Of course I knew that they would be talking about certain things, but I was, in a way, much more interested in where these questions begin to mean something to these persons. May that be of course on a professional level: ‘Are you a different type of life than we are?’ But also things like, you know, ‘How is your mind composed? How do you think, do you know what’s good and evil?’ and so on. Because, this is where I think something fundamental is revealed about us humans.
Madsen: Yes I tried to make a film about the unknown, because I think that’s what would be the implications, and how far can you get into that? And what can you retrieve from that? That was the intent.
BEARS: So, after you did the interviews, did the scientists say it was fun to think about these things? Because I would think that you have this skill set as a scientist, and that a lot of your knowledge is untapped by what’s actually happening. Or rather not happening.
Madsen: It’s untapped, I think, because to a certain extent you’re operating within certain restraints like empirical evidence and so on. You know, Doug Vakoch [director of Interstellar Message Composition from the SETI Institute], whom you would believe would be the first person who would say, “Yes I would like to participate in this film!” He had hesitations all the way through because he was so afraid this would be like a UFO mockudrama – just you know, a stupid film in a way. He said afterward ‘this was one of the best interviews I ever gave.’ Because he was put in the actual situation.
BEARS: It’s like in a job interview where they say “What if…?” but obviously a lot more fun than that. But your mind just doesn’t work like that until you are given the opportunity.
Madsen: And I also think these people understood that, yes, this person, Michael, has convinced the United Nations to actually participate in this. It is recognized within the UN, it has been discussed that yes, it would have tremendous impact on human society. These things are real. So this is valid to discuss. I think it was simply a tremendous relief for them to go within that framework of a film and try to go all the way.
BEARS: I feel like your film has the potential to be rolled out and studied if and when something like this actually happens. Or be used as a teaching tool – when these institutes scenario-plan.
Madsen: I’m interested in what a documentary is and, in particular, can be. Because I think that you know, the content and the form of the film,it has to mirror each other. .. When we talked about the film, [we said]this should be like the manual. I mean, if this happens, you should be able to go to look at the film.
Madsen’s THE VISIT makes its next terrestrial landing at SXSW next week.