Rendlesham Forest is a site that has been long-discussed by UFO enthusiasts after a reported incident that took place in Suffolk back in 1980. Now the topic of an upcoming feature, titled The Rendlesham UFO Incident, we were lucky enough to get some time with director Daniel Simpson and producer Laurie Cook to discuss the project. Before we get to the meat of these interviews, though, here’s our review of the upcoming film.
THE RENDLESHAM UFO INCIDENT / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: DANIEL SIMPSON / SCREENPLAY: DANIEL SIMPSON, ADAM PRESTON / STARRING: ROBERT CURTIS, ABBIE SALT, DANNY SHAYLER / RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 6TH
The UFO sightings and an encounter with a landed craft, made by US military personnel based at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, in late December 1980 is regarded as Britain’s equivalent to the famous Roswell UFO crash case that occurred in the USA in 1947. These cases are similar because they both started as rumours, and over the years new evidence, eyewitness accounts, and promises of more revelations have been wheeled out by the believers that an exotic event occurred in Rendlesham forest, and by the sceptics who think it is a load of tosh.
The Rendlesham incident made its first mainstream appearance in the News of the World on October 2nd, 1983, with the front page headline of “UFO lands in Suffolk – and that's official”. The first encounter was on Boxing Day, when three security men from the airbase went to investigate lights in the forest and saw a metallic triangular object in a clearing that slowly flew away through the woods. Later, one of the witnesses said he touched the craft and telepathically received a binary code from it that so far has failed to be decoded. Two nights later, Lt. Col. Charles Halt, the Deputy Base Commander, explored the locality with several other servicemen who took Geiger counter readings and viewed unusual lights.
In 1983, a memo to the British Ministry of Defence, written by Halt two weeks after the UFO sightings, was made public and a year later an audio tape of his trip into the forest was distributed amongst the UFO community. Since then there have been numerous arguments about the chronology and accuracy of these sightings and a falling out between the main protagonists. Halt believes that these UFOs were extraterrestrial visitors, whilst others have considered the possibility it was a craft piloted by time-travellers from the future.
Sceptics argue that a combination of Soviet satellites re-entering the atmosphere and three bright fireball events over the Christmas period could have triggered the initial sightings, and that the Orford Ness lighthouse was responsible for the lights seen moving inside the forest. Other explanations range from a farmer burning rubbish, a practical joke staged to scare the guards at the East Gate of the base, that it was a story to scare rookies, or a misinformation campaign to cover-up a nuclear incident.
No amount of debunking has had much impact on the belief in the exotic nature of this event; instead with every passing year it seems to have a tighter grip on our imaginations. Underlining this point is the release of The Rendlesham UFO Incident, which is the first feature film to explore this subject. As Nick Pope, the former head of the Ministry of Defence’s UFO Project, notes, “The fact that the Rendlesham Forest incident is referenced in a sci-fi movie shows how firmly this classic UFO encounter is now embedded in the public consciousness. We've seen the same thing happen with the Roswell incident, and with Area 51, in America. Rendlesham Forest has been dubbed ‘Britain's Roswell’ and I think this film shows how appropriate this label is.”
The film cleverly uses the ‘facts’ from the Rendlesham case to weave a story around three metal detector treasure hunters. It starts with the audio recording of Halt’s real venture into the forest followed by the rest of the film that consists of fictional footage from a stolen laptop computer. The treasure hunters are Sally (Salt), her boyfriend Gus (Curtis) and their friend Jake (Shayler). Gus is mainly focussed on searching for Saxon gold, the buried wealth left behind hundreds of years ago, whereas Jake is more interested in the possibility of extraterrestrials in the heavens above, which represent the future and spiritual values rather than material wealth.
As they enter the forest their mood, along with the weather, gets increasingly dark and foreboding. Military aircraft frequently fly overhead as if they are tracking them and they come upon a field of dead horses. Once they enter the forest they decide to wait until night time to make their search as this is private land and they don’t want to be caught trespassing. They are obviously not aware that marching around a forest at night with camera lights and head lamps makes them much easier to spot by any angry landowner or alien forces that might lurk amongst the trees. It certainly cues the opportunity to feature lots of creepy footage of them talking to camera as they get more tired and confused.
The group get glimpses of a UFO, but the rot sets in the next day when they find their car has been stolen and they soon get lost trudging around the forest because their GPS stops working. The trappings of technology let them down and they are left to their own devices to get themselves out of this situation. The woods are a primal wilderness away from our normal, rational, orderly habitat that we can control and organise. As UFO commentator Peter Rogerson puts it, the wilderness “is the world of untamed nature outside the boundaries of habitation, the domain of the unknown, of passion and sexuality, of ‘the unconscious’, the secret heart of things, chaos, disorder and the ‘supernatural’”.
The treasure hunters literally walk into this nightmare scenario where everything is strange and unexpected. The UFOs haunt the skies at night and in the following day they find an abandoned U.S. Air Force Installation where the secrets of Rendlesham spill out like an overflowing toilet. Like the case itself, the film explores and takes you ever deeper into our fears and aspirations, and is enigmatic to the end. An astonishing and mind blowing journey into the heart of a world famous UFO hotspot.
And now for the interviews. First up, director Daniel Simpson:
STARBURST: When did you get involved with this project?
Daniel Simpson: The project started in the summer of 2010, when I moved to live in Suffolk and discovered Rendlesham Forest and the historic events connected to it. By December of that year the first draft of a loose story outline was being drafted up and a 2-minute teaser had been shot and edited to help with the funding.
What are your favourite alien/UFO movies, and which films have had the most impact on you and your career?
Looking back, there are several that I have adored. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an all-time favourite, and I think of this film more as a 'UFO' film rather than an 'alien' film. Another favourite is Alien, which of course is an 'alien' film rather than a 'UFO' film. I make this distinction because The Rendlesham UFO Incident was always designed to be a 'UFO' film – it's all about the mystery from the the human perspective. One UFO film that did have a profound and long-lasting effect on me was the 1993 film Fire in the Sky, directed by Robert Lieberman. This was also a film based on a real story.
Do you have an interest in real UFO and alien reports?
My interest in the subject has dramatically increased over the years it took to make the film, yes, but I have always had a fascination with the subject since childhood, so it was an obvious choice for me when looking for a new film idea. I have attended a couple of conferences on the Rendlesham case and met with some of the world’s leading investigators into the world-wide phenomenon of UFOs. It's very hard not to take these people seriously as many have devoted much of their lives to the subject, and the wealth of evidence that they have amassed is simply impossible to ignore.
Did you do much research into the actual Rendlesham story before co-writing and filming? What elements of it did you want to include?
You have to know your subject, so yes we did research what happened back in 1980, and as the production grew I got drawn into it ever more deeply. There was always the need to respect the facts presented within the original story and the USAF witnesses who supplied the information. Filming on location, where it actually happened, was a must. Using visual references and drawings from real life witnesses. Using the real life recording made by Lt. Col. Charles Halt. The primary element we wanted to include, therefore, as much as possible was the truth.
The story about the treasure hunters was made up, did you consider doing a more documentary-type coverage of the events?
The idea was to make the first full-length movie surrounding the famous event as there had never been one made. In our research we were fully aware that dozens of documentaries had already been made, and a TV movie also. If it were a documentary that we had decided to produce, the question to ourselves as filmmakers would have been 'what is it that is new that we can bring to this already saturated topic?,' and since new evidence is extremely hard to uncover, we opted for a fictional feature film approach that would hook into the original story at the same time as being contemporary.
Have you included any specific incidents or features from the real events into the film?
The entire film was shot on location in and around Rendlesham Forest where the famous story unfolded. It was also filmed in the former USAF airbase Bentwaters, which is close to the forest and which was home to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, who together with the Security Police witnessed the UFO landing at Christmas in 1980. So the film has all these wonderful atmospheric locations at its heart, it couldn't have been achieved any other way. Specific incidents and features associated with the original story include a drawing of the UFO craft seen by one of the witnesses, and the front cover of a national newspaper that reported the incident when the story broke in 1983. Former USAF Security Police witness Larry Warren was responsible for bringing the story into the public domain and he went on to co-write a Times bestselling book entitled Left at East Gate, which brilliantly documents the whole 1980 event. Within this book is presented the fact that the twin airbases, Bentwaters and Woodbridge, that are either side of the forest are connected by a secret underground complex, and this is a theme that is explored in our film in some detail.
Have you got a favourite scene?
My favourite scene that I can mention without spoiling is about 30 minutes into the film, where the protagonists run into a clearing in the trees and see red lights moving behind the clouds above the tree-line.
Was it scary shooting the scenes at night in the forest? Did you need to put the actors in the right frame of mind or was the creepy setting enough?
Because filming took place over nearly 2 years, we gradually got more used to it. But at first it was creepy, and there was the added fear of getting lost, which didn't help. It also depended on how many of the crew there were filming. On one occasion I returned to the forest at night with just the actor Danny Shayler. It was below freezing and we were running around doing all kinds of crazy filming, trying to capture anything that might be scary or interesting. I can say that the only times I got sightly freaked out up there was when we sensed there might be other human beings that we didn't know lurking in the shadows. To get the most out of the actors we literally blindfolded them and dumped them in the middle of the forest at midnight, left them alone for hours lost in the dark, then secretly hunted them down with masks on and hurled missiles at them, tripped them up with trip-wires and played terrifying sounds through speakers. Whatever it took really.
What sort of special effects did you use to create the UFOs shown in the film?
Some of the VFX were created by myself in After Effects, but most were created in London at two VFX company's using Nuke software.
What do you think actually happened at Rendlesham? Do you think US military personnel actually saw an alien spaceship?
It is my belief that the USAF did actually see something that is from another world or dimension. Former witness Lt Col Charles Halt has gone on record to state this also.
Does your film provide the answers to what was seen at Rendlesham?
The film raises more questions that it does provide answers. It clearly shows that what was seen was not a lighthouse 6 miles away, as some would like you to believe, and that it was in fact extraterrestrial. But in terms of how other more conventional-type films would have everything neatly wrapped up by the end, then no it does not.
Why do you think the Rendlesham incident still strikes a chord with skeptics and believers?
It's one of, if not the, biggest UFO incident ever recorded along with the Roswell case and it took place over 3 consecutive nights. I think that the fascination in the case is amplified as a result of the witnesses being multiple USAF personnel, with the addition that one of those people was a Lieutenant Colonel who made an audio recording on a dictaphone as the events unfolded. Whatever one believes happened, it remains a great mystery that deserves a valid response. This is a subject that refuses to rest, and hopefully one day we may know the truth.
Do you intend to write or make any UFO related movies in the future?
I hope so. I have learned so much about this fascinating subject and it was an enormous pleasure making The Rendlesham UFO Incident. Personally, I would love a fantastic script to land already written on my desk for me to direct. Trouble is, they're hard to come by.
And now for our talk with producer Laurie Cook:
STARBURST: What attracted you to this project?
Laurie Cook: The pitch was very simple and pure: Blair Witch meets aliens. It was high concept, low budget, allowing for both creepy scares and some choice VFX adding scale. I then discovered the original incident and thought it was such a great mythology to tap into
Had you heard of the Rendlesham Incident before?
I hadn’t, but you only have to type “Rendlesham” into Google and be inundated with UFO-related sites. There is so much information to be found, and it was such a credibly documented event that it was surprising that no one had used it in a film before!
Was it easy to get financial backing for it?
It was, comparatively. Partly because we were asking for such a small amount of money, and combined with the pitch and concept it was too tempting for financiers to pass up!
Did you do much research into the Rendlesham story before filming?
Yes, myself and Dan did a lot of research into the original incident, but also the forest itself. Dan lives near the forest and we walked it endlessly looking for locations and interesting backdrops. We shot some of the night scenes near the “UFO trail” but didn’t consciously try and replicate anything of the original incident – apart from the screaming animal noises, that was just too creepy not to include.
Were there any particular problems with planning and developing this production?
We had no script! We wanted a really natural feel to the film, given the “realistic” nature of found footage, so we would give the actors a brief for each scene and maybe some key words, but then would let the actors improvise and “find” the scene during the process. Sounds fun but it meant we had over 100 hours of footage by the end of the shooting process.
Are you planning any future UFO-related film projects?
I’ve produced another Alien film called Outpost 37 (or Alien Outpost in America). This takes place after a UFO invading force attacked earth – we defeated them but they left thousands of soldiers behind. The Outpost is the last defence against them as the second invasion is planned…
The Rendlesham UFO Incident is at select UK cinemas on February 6th and DVD February 9th.
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