There’s a lot of mystery and wonderment that permeates the night sky. Opportunities and potential seem to be woven into the very fabric of the darkness itself and it’s a fascination that has stood the test of time. Along with this seemingly endless interest comes seemingly endless ideas of what could be lurking behind those twinkling stars. Dan Myrick, famed Co-Writer and Co-Director of 1999’s iconic The Blair Witch Project, has also pondered such things and has once again taken up the camera to tackle this timeless subject. His latest project, Skyman offers a fresh new addition to the sci-fi genre and an intimate glimpse into the idea of abduction and obsession.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dan (and his totally awesome 14-year old son Tucker) during the 6th annual Idaho Horror Film Festival in Boise, Idaho. During the festival, Dan participated in a screening of The Blair Witch Project, as well as treated attendees to a very special test screening of the upcoming film Skyman. Dan, Tucker and I spoke about the film, the Hollywood machine, aliens, Dan’s unique approach to filmmaking and how exactly Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins got involved with the project.
“part of your job as a filmmaker is communicating with your audience […] we’re doing something that we’re passionate about, but ultimately we want people to respond.”
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: I’d love to start off talking about the test screening process. Once you get a look at everyone’s thoughts and comments, how do you as a filmmaker balance your own artistic vision with these audience responses or expectations?
Dan Myrick: That’s a great question. You know, part of your job as a filmmaker is communicating with your audience. As an artist, you don’t work in a vacuum. Yes, we’re doing something that we’re passionate about, but ultimately we want people to respond. So, a lot of what I get out of these screenings is some of the themes and nuance that I know is in the film, and that I’ve built into the film…is it coming across to the audience. Are they picking up on those cues? Am I being to ambiguous or too subtle? And then there’s just sort of the visceral response. You can kind of gauge it pretty easily when you’re sitting in the theater, feeling people, how they’re responding to the movie and how it’s playing on the big screen, that’s really important as well. Even the body language you can observe, that’s really important.
My wife was with me last night as we were reading through all the comment cards and fortunately, this go around, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. And I was a little concerned as this was primarily a horror audience, and Skyman is more sci-fi/docu-drama. But the response was really positive. There’s always a few that don’t like it, whatever it is you do, but overwhelmingly it was positive. So that tells me, ‘Ok, I’m on the right track.’ There are some things that are common denominators, common things that people were having issues with. You see that stuff rising to the surface and so you go, ‘Ok, I should address this’ because everyone is kind of commenting on this one scene or this one character. So, I need to take these things into consideration and really try to be as objective as I can be about it. But you know, at this stage in the game, every cut hurts. Every excise is like cutting a piece out of your own flesh so you have to be objective and honest with yourself. If a lot of people are saying the same thing…there must be something to it.
NOFS: Tell us a little bit more about the backstory of Skyman. Why is this a story you wanted to tell?
DM: When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s things like UFO’s and Bigfoot were really in zeitgeist and were a really big deal back then. I had a subscription to UFO magazine and I had a UFO club when I was a kid, not much younger than him [Tucker]. We’d go out at night to look up at the stars (and we still do to this day), and before there were 10,000 satellites flying around in the sky, back in those days if you saw something it was, ‘Oh! That could be a UFO!’ We were really intrigued at the possibility of there being intelligent life elsewhere. So, I read testimonials and abduction stories, everything from Betty and Barney Hill to the Gifford story. And then Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out. That had a big influence on me and I’ve always wanted to do a story from the experiencer’s perspective. What is like from an individual’s perspective if they saw something that they absolutely believed they experienced, and how they would handle it, and how that would effect their life. That was the inspiration for the movie.
The premise in a nut shell is about this guy named Carl Merryweather. He’s a working class guy, has a little bit of Asperger’s and is on the spectrum. And he claims that he saw this alien that they call the ‘Skyman’ when he was 10 years old out camping in the desert with his father at their bug-out shelter. So now, 30 years later, he’s got this reemergence of this obsession to have a reunion with the same alien. He’s convinced his sister and his best friend to go out to this bug-out shelter with him so he can have this visitation again. Of course, there’s sort of a humor in him to kind of go along for the ride, and I won’t give the ending away, but weird things start to happen.
NOFS: I have to tell ya, I thought the actor Michael Selle who played Carl did a really amazing job.
Tucker Myrick: I got to meet him and he was really cool. I had the opportunity to stand around and watch some of the film being shot and it was so cool. Some of the beginning shots with Young Carl I got to see and I actually got a cameo once! It’s on the edge of the screen!
DM: We did some pickup shots in Venice Beach where Michael Selle lives and Tucker is in one of those archival shots. My daughter, drew the alien drawings in the film, so it was a whole family affair.
“My daughter, drew the alien drawings in the film, so it was a whole family affair.”
NOFS: Oh wow! Tell me more about the alien design. Aliens have been portrayed in so many different ways since we don’t have any solid proof on their appearance…yet anyways. How did you decide on what your alien would look like? Was that your daughter’s conception?
DM: No, I did give her instructions. What I didn’t want it to look like was the standard ‘Gray’ design with the big almond eyes that we’ve seen a million times. A lot of people think the book Communion kind of popularized that look, so it’s hard to determine now if someone has a visitation by an alien and it looks like that cover of the book, were they influenced by the book that popularized it? Or did they really see something that looked like that? So I wanted to avoid that connection and that debate and have just a unique looking alien. And that also reinforces, ‘Well, maybe Carl saw something.’ Because this is completely unique, this is not an alien that maybe he might have seen and then copied from somewhere else. So I came up with this hammerhead idea and then conveyed it to Abby. Then, I went online and downloaded a lot of artistic rendering of animals and such. I made this sort of, collage of what an alien would look like, gave it to her and said ‘Draw that.’
TM: Actually, I remember that. I remember Dad walking down the stairs and asking Abby, ‘Do you think you can draw an alien with this kind of top half and this kind of bottom half with skinny legs?’
DM: Yep, and Abby was like, ‘OK! I’ll do it!’ And I paid her, I think I gave her like $5 so she has an official contract. (laughs)
NOFS: She’s a professional artist!
DM: Yep! This was her first paying gig. She went off, started drawing and before I knew it I had like, 20 drawings! And I was like, ‘These are perfect!’
NOFS: As an avid film score lover, I was surprised to see Billy Corgan from The Smashing Pumpkins is attached to the project. How did he become involved?
DM: Well, Don Miggs is my composer and he’s out of Tampa. He’s a musician, composer himself, has a band MIGGS that he tours with, and he also owns a record label so he does a lot of recording with some big names. Everyone from Billy Corgan to Eddie Vedder and he said, ‘You know, Billy Corgan is a big UFO buff. He might want to get in on this.’ So we sent the script to him, and we had a sizzle reel trailer we sent over to him and apparently Billy responded. So, next thing I know, Don is putting together tracks with Billy and Billy was sending over some stuff and writing some music for it. How cool is that!? He’s like the perfect guy to be doing this. And the plan is to expand it and make an actual Skyman soundtrack with him doing some stuff on it. He even hinted at the idea of, when we do our UFO festival tour with the movie, that he might come out and do a live show. Which, that would be off the hook. I can’t make any promises, and we even said ‘Did you say that in passing or did you mean it?’ because that would be too cool. I feel very fortunate that we even got him at all, but that would be such a great way to finish off the UFO tour, with a live Billy Corgan performance. We’ll see.
NOFS: Alright, question for you both. Do you believe more in UFO’s and extra-terrestrial life now after you’ve spent some time researching the topic for the film?
DM: It’s the same thing like when you get asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ At first you have to define what God is. You have to define what UFO’s are. Technically, unidentified flying objects are flying around all the time, right? But then there’s the UFO that’s the little green men who come out of the flying saucer, land in your backyard and whisk you up and take you for a ride. That’s a bit of a stretch for me. But, and Tucker and I have talked about this a lot, when you really do the math statistically, about how many Earth-like planets that we’re discovering in our own backyard, extrapolate that to the number of planets that could have life out there, and then intelligent life, it starts becoming overwhelming. That if not in this very moment in time, sometime in the last 14 billion years there could have been intelligent life? That seems like a high possibility to me. And if they’re able to traverse time and space, and if they have some sort of quantum drive or propulsion system that can skip through wormholes or whatever, I mean, who knows? I can’t say with all assuredness, there isn’t intelligent life out there. I love the idea and the possibility that they might exist and this is sort of what Skyman touches into.
TM: Honestly I think that, despite how big planets seem to us, they’re kind of small. I feel like there should definitely be aliens out there, and maybe we’ll find them eventually, but I don’t feel like they’re going to just come on to a planet and whisk one farmer up or kill one chicken and leave. It would be bigger and more people would know about it. They wouldn’t be secretly hiding in the desert. If there was an alien that actually did come here it would probably have like, hands. Even if it’s a really smart alien, it’s got to be able to build a spaceship and be in a form that allows you to build a spaceship. I remember seeing Arrival but wondering, ‘Wait…how did they build the spaceship?’
DM: There’s one thing that underpins a lot of these explorations into the subject matter. It’s that we as a species are very prone to want to believe. We want to believe in witches, and we want to believe in the supernatural and Bigfoot, and I find that fascinating. What is it about our psyche and our nature that propels us to want to believe in this kind of stuff? But, for every 1000 sightings, while most might be in someone’s imagination, there’s always the one or two that you can’t explain away. There’s some famous photographs that I have in the movie of the Trent farm (which is the inspiration behind the McMinnville UFO festival), and those two photos were famous back in my day and were taken in the 50’s. As a former photographer, when I look at those photos and the neg’s of them…if that’s a hoax, it’s one of the best hoaxes in the history of hoaxes. It’s absolutely convincing that that disc, or whatever it is in those photos that flew over that guy’s field, that’s hard to explain away. So, that keeps the door cracked open for me.
“I love the idea and the possibility that [Aliens] might exist and this is sort of what Skyman touches into.”
NOFS: Skyman is filmed as a documentary following Carl around. This docu-drama style is a very close neighbor to the style of found footage which you are so famous for. What about this style of filmmaking attracts you and how do you think it benefits the act of storytelling?
DM: I really love the style because it’s very freeing. It’s interesting, because I was struggling with the approach early on. I had 3 versions of the script. One version was strictly found footage, all Carl’s perspective and as if he shot the whole thing. And that’s a different take on how it gets presented. And then there’s the version that just straight-up narrative. Well lit, actors that we all know, etc. And then there’s the version I ultimately chose which I consider sort of a hybrid. It was told from my perspective as a filmmaker, which gives me some of that creative license because I’m interpreting his story. I’m also embellishing a little when I think it’s appropriate by throwing in a drone shot here or there that he wouldn’t do necessarily. And, I can put in some music to underpin or cue something here or there that he maybe wouldn’t have done. I get the best of both worlds.
I have the freedom of what a documentary would give me, but I also have the narrative control. I really like that. I like having that creative license, but also operating with a very small production footprint which allows the actors to really play around and really get into their characters. I wish I could shoot all my movies that way, and invariably people are going to make comparisons between this and Blair, and it’s certainly taken a page from what I learned from Blair, but I’m hoping it’s not just like, ‘Oh, he’s just trying to do Blair Witch again.’ I really wasn’t. This is just an approach that I find liberating and I very consciously chose this format with me, technically as a character, to show Carl’s story from what I feel is a more authentic perspective.
NOFS: I can honestly see some people thinking this is a real documentary.
DM: I think that documentary aesthetic works in a different part of your brain. And there’s something about that, that fascinates me from a storytelling perspective. When you’ve got the right actors, and they have to be the right actors…and we grappled too with getting recognizable actors. But, I really wanted to go with unknown’s because if it was a face you recognized, you immediately know it’s fake. It’ll come out eventually, and the word will get out, but right now we’re sort of in this area where people have never seen this guy before and this guy could be totally legit. Carl could be real. It’s fun to be able to play with that, that sort of fact or fiction space.
TM: I can see people thinking it’s real. The drone shots, someone could have totally done those afterwards, but the rest definitely seems real.
NOFS: You have such a unique history with your approach to filmmaking. How do you think your out of the box thinking, with everything from financing to logistics, has benefited your work and you personally?
DM: I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I was in the Hollywood mix for a while. We spent 20 years in LA, did movies for some of the studios, and I was on that treadmill for a long time. But, one of the most frustrating things as an artist is when you have this head full of ideas, and you want to see them get made, and 90% of your time is spent dealing with the aftermath of getting rejected. You know, you go into a room with a bunch of middle-manager lieutenant executives and you’re trying to convince this person who doesn’t have a creative bone in their body that you’ve got this great idea. And then they have to run it up their flagpole, and you just have to hope that one day it’ll spark the money to get your movie made. I just got tired of that.
It seemed like just a hopeless kind of process. So for me, I was like ‘Look. I’m gonna make what I wanna make on my own terms.’ And if I just keep my expectations in check, and keep my ideas containable, then I can go out and raise the money on my own and shoot the way I want to shoot. That’s how we did Blair! So, it just kind of came full circle. And personally, I like the freedom that I have to spend time with my family. I can work from home, my edit suite is at home. I travel a lot, but I am at home for the most part and I’m not working on some mind-numbing situation at the studio where I’m having to live on the back lot all the time. It works for me. It’s not for everyone and there’s certainly people who are good at working in that studio space. My wife is a writer too and spent time in that world, but we like the balance we’re able to strike now with these kind of little movies and really just have fun with it.
TM: Hanging out on the weekends is great. I get to hang out, watch movies and play video games with my Dad.
NOFS: You also get to peer into this whole process and probably get to see some pretty cool behind-the-scenes stuff happening.
TM: Yeah, I got to see an earlier cut of Skyman and I just sat in my Dad’s editing office with the headphones on and I could see all the editing and color grading stuff, and then I could see the one monitor with the movie on it. Watching it was really fun, I enjoyed that.
NOFS: What’s next for you both?
TM: Actually, there’s a little bit of a school project coming up where we have to make films and I think I’m going to get Dad to help me.
DM: That’s cheating! (laughs)
TM: I think we can blow everyone else away. It could be epic.
“I have the freedom of what a documentary would give me, but I also have the narrative control. I really like that. I like having that creative license, but also operating with a very small production footprint which allows the actors to really play around and really get into their characters.”
Skyman had it’s official world premiere Sunday, October 27th at the Austin Film Festival. For more information on the film and upcoming screenings, make sure and check out the website which you can find here!
Are you a believer in all this extra-terrestrial? Will you be catching a screening of Skyman? Let us know your over on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!