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Short Films in Focus: Visitors

I believe in aliens. Perhaps they have already visited us, or perhaps they’re on their way. I really hope they wait a few years. 

Nothing compels me to believe this, other than documentaries about UFOs, a trip to Roswell I took a few years ago, and a general desire to believe “we are not alone.” It’s a harmless belief. I could be wrong, but no one can prove to me that I am, just as I cannot prove I’m right. The people who populate Scott Lazer’s documentary “Visitors,” however, are certain the aliens have called upon them. Who are we to judge?

“Visitors” takes place in remote Rachel, Nevada, not far from Area 51. If you're ever curious to take the drive, every bit of research out there will tell you that the journey is fraught with peril and should not be taken lightly. As someone says in the film, fuel can be hard to come by and if one were to have an accident, it could be a long, long time before anyone would discover you. You’d have better sense to just spend the afternoon looking at alien museums in Roswell.

Not these people. They have a mission. It is not entirely clear what that mission is, but they all believe (as they often do) that there will come a sign. They fly their alien flags, wear alien masks, and talk of the possibility of someday having a “unitopian society.” What will it look like? It has to be better than what we have now. 

Lazer keeps a neutral stance and depicts his subjects without judgment. He and cinematographer Taylor McIntosh underline these people’s commitment by emphasizing the vast emptiness of the landscape and highlighting the punishing heat. The film itself looks otherworldly and Jeff Melanson’s score does a fine job of getting into the headspace of these people who seem truly enlightened by what signals they have intercepted in their brainwaves. 

Lazer ends the film at a curious spot, a place where the beginning of another movie could take off. But it works. The short is like a companion piece to Mark Borchardt’s similarly themed short “The Dundee Project.” Both films depict citizens who would have fit right in on Art Bell’s show, but who also believe what they believe. In a weird way, I kinda envy them.

Q&A with director Scott Lazer

How did this come about?

When the Storm Area 51 Facebook event went viral last summer with a date and location in the middle of the desert in Nevada attached to it, I called my friend and cinematographer Taylor McIntosh to see if he’d be down to go out there together and film whatever was going to happen. He was game, so I booked our travel pretty much immediately. A couple months later, we flew to Vegas from New York, picked up a converted sprinter van I’d rented (which served as transportation, lodging, and a production office), and headed out to Rachel, NV where this was all set to take place. When we got there, we just started talking to people and filming.

How did you decide on the look for this film? It seems otherworldly in itself.

Aesthetically I wanted this to sit somewhere between sci-fi and Western, which happens sort of naturally when you shoot in the desert. But what gave it that rich, almost sepia-like quality was all the filters we had to use with the lenses to knock down the exposure because it was so bright out there. There were some unforeseen color values affected like certain shades of black tinting red, for instance. Incidentally, neither me, Taylor, or our colorist, Derek Hansen, could figure out why some of the light was reacting like that, but it made for a fitting look.

The music sounds like it's in the headspace of the people, very peaceful and without underlining any kind of judgment. What was the collaboration like with your composer?

One night during production while Taylor and I were waiting for our footage to copy over in the van, we were scrolling Instagram and saw a video that our friend, composer Jeff Melanson, posted on his stories of him improvising some amazing, otherworldly sounds on a new synthesizer he had just bought. It sounded exactly like what we were feeling being out there, so we called him and asked him to save whatever he was doing on his stories for us to use in the film. He eventually wrote one long composition in that same vein called “Rachel, Nevada in Three Parts” that he sent over as we were editing, which editor Nico Bovat arranged into the film.

The film ends where many films would begin. Without giving too much away away, can you explain how you landed there?

There’s a thematic cycle to this film that’s tracked by the man in the alien mask (whose real name is Seth). Seth was someone we’d seen throughout the week because he was wearing an alien mask and cape and walking around all by himself, carrying an intense and palatable energy. Each time we saw him, we’d pop a shot of him. By the end of the week, we had a bunch of shots of Seth from all over town. Then right before we lefton a Sunday morningwe stopped to get some shots of the defunct Rachel Baptist Church. A group of young men had gathered there to worship out front on the patio, and once again, Seth pulled up. What we learned about him then confirmed our earlier instincts about him (which you’ll have to watch the movie to see what I mean). It closed the loop of our mystery with Seth and felt like the right place to end the film. But, no, I don’t feel particularly motivated to extend "Visitors" into something longer or create any sort of spinoff based on any of the characters. 

Did you find yourself starting to believe or at least consider what anyone was saying that you had never considered before?

I have never (to my knowledge) seen a UFO, but before this, I had also never heard someone tell me they’d seen a UFO either, and in those moments when someone is telling you something they swear they saw, it’s quite stirring and difficult to refuteeven internally. I’ve long believed that aliens and UFOs existed, but hearing these personal accounts further emboldened my own suspicions.

Did you take the “free DVD about E.T.s”? If so, what was it like?

I did take the DVD (and accompanying pamphlet) but I don’t have a DVD player. I’ve actually been meaning to order one so I can watch it, so thank you for reminding me. 

What’s next for you?

I have a few projects that are all at various stages of productionnothing I’m ready to share just yet, though.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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