Justin Barber on his career and his first feature film, “Phoenix Forgotten”

"...That's something that Spielberg does so well in ET and Close Encounters. There's just enough family drama to make you care about the characters so that later when you follow them through this genre adventure,.."

Justin Barber is a commercial director and VFX artist in Los Angeles. Phoenix Forgotten is his first feature and will open in theaters nationwide on Friday April 21st. He previously produced Medicine for Melancholy, directed by Barry Jenkins, and is a partner in the commercial production company, Strike Anywhere. He is a graduate of the Florida State University School of Motion Picture Arts.  Wanting to learn more his background and Phoenix Forgotten, Barber allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Phoenix Forgotten by checking out its homepage and following the film on Twitter at @Phoenix_Forgot.

Nicholas Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to have a career in the entertainment industry?  Was there a specific movie that inspired you to pursue this field?

Justin Barber: When I was in high school I wanted to be a journalist.  I worked on the school paper.  I just gravitated towards writing and graphic design.  And then The Matrix came out and blew my mind.  From then on I just wanted to be part of something like that.  I started running around with my friends, making our own little movies.

My Dad worked with computers, we always had one in the house and so I grew up playing with them.  I ‘borrowed’ some early-days VFX software from somebody and added a very small budget, but it could still add a cool morph effect to a piece of video – I made one of my regularly-dressed friends morph into a suit-clad ‘agent.’  We played it for the other kids in homeroom.  Despite the effect itself being way worse than what you see in The Matrix, it was cool to see other kids in class react to it.  I guess that’s what did it for me, making something that got a rise out of an audience.

Yanes: Of all the jobs you’ve had in film and TV production over the years, which ones do you think have helped you the most understand the responsibilities of being a director?

Barber: Certainly producing gets you pretty close to the action, but on the other hand the producer’s plate is pretty full with that particular role’s responsibilities.  Really, I had more opportunity to observe directors and actors working when I was a 2nd Camera Assistant.  During the take, unless you’re pulling focus, you’re really just waiting, watching, and listening.  And then other than that, working as an editor is a great way to examine the craft.  You see ALL the takes, not just the ones that make it into the movie.  So you see how the scenes are built on the day, the different choices the director and the actors make.

Yanes: You have spent years working your way up from the production ladder in order to become a director. Can you take a moment to describe out great it feels to finally become a director of a feature film?

Barber: I just feel very fortunate and grateful for the opportunity.

​[L-R]: Co-Writer & Producer T.S. Nowlin, ​actor
Chelsea Lopez​, Co-Writer & Director Justin Barber, and ​actor
Luke Spencer Roberts on the set of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN

Yanes: What was it about Phoenix Forgotten that attracted you to the project?

Barber: I grew up on X-Files and Spielberg’s Close Encounters.  I was always drawn to those types of stories. I guess when you’re growing up in the suburbs in Florida, you just want to believe that the world is more fantastic than it is.  That’s just where I went to escape.  Who doesn’t want to take a ride on a spaceship?  So this movie was a chance to make my own X-File.

And what also interested me was that the movie incorporates different styles of filmmaking.  During the shoot, one day I’d be interviewing a subject as you would for a documentary, and then the next day we’d be blowing stuff up on a soundstage.  It was really challenging, but ultimately really fulfilling.

Yanes: At its core, Phoenix Forgotten is, to me, a story about how we deal with loss. How did you balance the family’s emotional narrative with the science fiction elements of the film?

Barber: That’s something that Spielberg does so well in ET and Close Encounters.  There’s just enough family drama to make you care about the characters so that later when you follow them through this genre adventure, those scenarios are more impactful because you care about the people in them.  So I looked there for inspiration.

Also we wanted the first half to feel like a real documentary made by the character in the movie.  These are the issues she is working through, the tragedy that wrecked her family.  As she begins her investigation into her brother’s disappearance, she assumes he was kidnapped or murdered, or just got lost in the desert.  She doesn’t even entertain the idea that Josh was abducted by aliens.  That’s crazy!  But then over the course of the first half, she starts to question that thinking.  She starts to go down her brother’s rabbit hole.

Yanes: Though the found-footage/documentary genre has plenty of entries, Phoenix Forgotten feels fresh. How did you go about structuring the film so that it felt unique?

Barber: I think a lot of that has to do with the characters. We just tried to make them a little off-beat.  And also the interjection of real people helped.  A lot of the supporting characters in the first half are real people, appearing as themselves but interacting with my actors who are playing their parts.

I have already seen the approach in the genre of a documentary that becomes a found footage movie.  BUT the ones I have seen tend not to employ more creative techniques that you see in contemporary docs.  Like, they are still hand-held from start to finish.  They still have this found-footage mentality throughout.  We tried to do things with the camera, with the edit that Errol Morris or Werner Herzog would do.

Yanes: Movies like this tend to have strange things that occur when filming. Were there any odd things that happened on set?

Barber: Not really. All the weird stuff that happened was by design. We did encounter some interesting real-world characters, and incorporate them into the movie. I wanted to get some real UFO eye-witnesses into the film.  One guy we talked to described driving through the desert one night and seeing two huge triangle shaped forms moving over the landscape as if looking for something.  Another guy described seeing an angel flying around in the sky.  But I didn’t see anything like that when I was out there, unfortunately.  We were too busy, I guess.

Yanes: When people finish watching Phoenix Forgotten, what do you hope that they take away from the movie?

Barber: I hope they invest in the characters and, throughout, are genuinely wanting to know what happened to these kids.  I hope they experience some suspense, and feel like they’ve had a good ride by the end.  And I hope their minds are opened up as to what the Phoenix Lights might have been.

Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Barber: If everyone reading this goes to see the movie, we can make a sequel, and continue the story!

You can learn more about Phoenix Forgotten by checking out its homepage and following the film on Twitter at @Phoenix_Forgot.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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