Justin Barber was obsessed with The X-Files growing up in Florida. So, when Valley residents witnessed what they call the “Phoenix Lights,” Barber zeroed in on what he calls an “urban legend.”
“It was a big story that reached far and wide,” Barber says. “I remember writing the story for my high school newspaper about it. It stuck with me ever since.
“It’s a modern urban legend for the Southwest because it happened in such a populated area. Twenty years later, people are still talking about it.”
As a result, Barber wrote and directed the 90-minute Phoenix Forgotten, a part documentary, part drama that opens in theaters Friday, April 21.
“As we developed it, we realized the best plan was to have a documentary at first that goes off the rails,” he says. “The Phoenix Lights originally came to mind as something to use as a background. We’re telling a story about fictional characters, but we treat it as real-world material.
“I went to Phoenix and I did speak to eyewitnesses and people who have studied the event. I tried to be as true to the events as I could in the beginning of the movie.”
Barber was fascinated by what he heard from eyewitnesses. Some said the lights were as wide as a couple football fields, while others eyeballed it as a mile wide. They described it as bright lights, flying in a formation. They didn’t see a structure that connected them, but when they flew overhead, it blocked stars. It made no noise whatsoever.
“The first thing I thought of was, ‘You mean The X-Files is real?’” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to make a movie with the authenticity that people in Phoenix would appreciate.”
Inspired by the Blair Witch Project, the film is the first movie that Barber has directed. He calls it a collaborative process between himself, the cast and crew.
“I wanted to be open to everybody around me to make the movie,” Barber says. “I had to have a strong vision. I just can’t underscore enough how great the cast and crew was.
“There are a lot of movies made at this point in this genre. It’s a somewhat saturated genre. My one observation, though, is people don’t remember the characters (of other movies). I wanted to elevate the storyline to make sure people cared about the character. So, whenever we see them in a situation, it’s more impactful. I have the cast to thank for that.”
In the end, he hopes Valley residents will like the movie.
“Even if you know the Phoenix Lights story, I want to lend something new to the conversation,” Barber says. “I think we did that.”