If Super 8 was a little too dark for your tastes, then you are probably looking forward to Relativity’s next alien-related movie, Earth to Echo. Much more akin to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Earth to Echo provides a new approach to a storyline that we are all familiar with and love.
In a recent interview with Henry Gayden, the screenwriter and creator of the concept for the movie, we gained an inside perspective on UFOs, conspiracies, and how hard it is to actually get Hollywood to make a kids’ movie.
Alejandro Rojas (AR): I find that writers sometimes give more insight into the heart of what their movies are about when they describe it. How would you explain what Earth to Echo is about?
Henry Gayden (HG): It is about a bunch of kids who receive a message on their phone. In fact, a whole neighborhood does, but no one really pays it much mind but them. They soon discover that it is some kind of cryptic map that wants them to go out far away from people. So, after their parents turn them down and don’t listen to them, they decide to take matters into their own hands, and behind their parent’s backs. They follow the map, and what they find is far beyond their craziest imaginings, and some of them are pretty crazy. It is something that needs their help and takes them on an adventure that takes much longer than they thought it was going to take, and it ultimately changes the course of their lives.
AR: I hear that you are interested in the topic of aliens and UFOs. Is that true?
HG: Yeah, that is true. I was kind of unwittingly scarred, lovingly so, by my mom as a young kid. When I was like seven years old, she told me that she saw a UFO when she was younger. She told me this very detailed story. She was out in a cabin in the woods, and she was with my aunt. I think my dad was there too, but he was asleep. She was outside with my aunt, and they saw this sort of disc, or light, in the air. It sort of flew through the air and stopped in the middle of the night sky, just stopped in midair. And, from inside of it a smaller UFO flew out in one direction, and the larger one flew off in another direction.
After that, I spent a good part of age seven to twelve or thirteen in grave fear of the aliens. So much so that I was on a track and cross country team as a young boy, and every time I went running at night I was looking up at the sky to see if I was going to be abducted. Every movie about that stuff scared me. I had a little window, and I always tried to keep it shut. It would never shut, and I always thought there would be aliens out there. I was mostly scared, and then two things happened.
First, when I was twelve, my mom found out, and she said “Look if they wanted to destroy the Earth, or you, they would have done it already, so relax.” Second, my mom subsequently passed on, and I met my aunt for the first time a couple of years ago. I said, “Hey! I need to ask you about this story.” I told my aunt the story, and she smiled and said, “You know, we did a lot of drugs that night.”
So, I definitely lean towards believing it. I think 99% of the stories we hear out there are probably just noise, but I am definitely of the mindset that it is possible. I even took a SETI class in college. It is an interesting subject matter to me.
AR: In the movie, the kids’ parents are dismissive of the mysterious messages they receive on their phones. Do you think this is how adults in general react to this topic, and, if so, why?
HG: I think it is because when you are old, and especially when you have children, you have a job, you have children, and you hardly have time to sleep. You don’t really have time to consider it. Some adults do, but most don’t have time to consider the kind of crazy conspiratorial possibilities around you. It is just too much. I think when you are a child you have all of the time in the world to consider those probabilities. I mean, as a kid, even if I saw a strange truck parked outside on the curb, we would have a hundred theories on why that truck was there at that time. An adult would pass that truck and not even think about it.
Generally, I think that unless we have real probable cause to think about it, most adults don’t linger on that kind of stuff. If their phone is screwed up, they want to get it fixed. They will call the phone company to get it fixed. If a kid’s phone gets screwed up, they want to find some secret reason. Not only because their imaginations are firing off on all cylinders, but also because as a kid you’re trying to make sense of the world and you are not told everything all of the time—because adults can’t tell you everything. Maybe you shouldn’t know some things, and so I think they are always trying to figure things out. Even if you have to kind of make things up to figure it out.
AR: Do you think kids have less discernment, or just a bigger sense of wonder?
HG: Well, they actually do have less discernment about what’s real and what’s not, scientifically. There have been some really interesting studies, especially with children’s art therapy. Kids draw how their imagination sees it. That is why it is so outsized and exaggerated. Not taking into account that they are not good artists. Then, only around the age of ten to twelve does the imagination start to shrink a little bit, and their perception of reality becomes more realistic. I think there is a lack of discernment, not in a bad way, but I think their imagination does see the world how they want it.
AR: In the film, the government takes the situation seriously and tries to capture the extraterrestrial. Do you think the government would cover-up the truth in the scenario presented in the movie?
HG: Although the movie hints at the government’s reaction to such an event, there is a much larger story in play. . The movie is from the perspective of the kids, not the government. Given the scenario that is put forth in the movie, which is a projectile that hurls towards Earth, I do think that the government would respond with great urgency. The government would want to recover whatever landed on Earth immediately. If some kids took it, they would want it back.
Now, whether the government would go about it in the same manner that they do in the movie, I can’t speak to. But, that is how we do it in our movie, mainly because the government guys in our movie are connected with the reason that the projectile makes its way to Earth. There is a larger mystery involved.
AR: Do you think there is a real UFO cover-up right now?
HG: I think there are a lot of interesting stories out there, and I don’t know which ones to parse out and say are real. There are a lot of interesting stories of pilots and people in flight control speaking about the exact same scenario, and then it is immediately covered-up or called something else by the government. I would say if any of those things are real, it would make sense why they would want to cover it up. And I don’t know why it makes sense to me, but it does. It is an easier thing to accept something and move on with life then to suddenly tell everyone that all of that is real.
AR: Some people who read our magazine speculate that the government is trying to get people ready for the eventual disclosure of UFO secrets. They will think this film is part of a program to desensitize kids to the idea that extraterrestrials exist. Because this is your script and your idea, what would you say to those people?
HG: Is that a real conspiracy theory? That the government is using Hollywood? What about movies like Aliens and Fire in the Sky that are not in any way trying to make it nice for us?
AR: That is a good point, and I have talked to others in the entertainment industry and asked what they think, but you actually came up with the idea for this movie, so how would you respond to that if someone asked you?
HG: Well, I work for the government, and I am trying to get people ready. It is all real, man. No, I am kidding. I think that is an amazing theory, but it doesn’t really hold any water. There are more horror films about aliens than there are friendly films about aliens.
AR: I think some people don’t know a lot about how the creative process works, so they assume there are a bunch of guys in smoky rooms coming up with these ideas.
HG: Yeah, it is interesting. There is a movie called Wavelength from 1983. If you do some research, you will find a lot of conspiracy theorists who believe the movie is an absolutely real story. They believe in the conspiracy because one guy that works for the government during an interview, offhandedly, said that the movie depicted a true story. Anyway, it all takes place in my neighborhood, weirdly, in Hollywood. I went down a big rabbit hole about how that movie is based on a real story, and all of these sorts of things seemed to make sense. I wanted them to. The Wavelength filmmaker has since died, but in all of the interviews before his death, he said, “I made it up. This is how I made it up. Quit calling me.” It is all because one guy in an interview said it seemed like it was based off of a true story. Part of me really wanted to believe that for years, but it’s not true.
So, I get it. It is more interesting to believe that this is part of a larger government program, but it is not. My wife always says something interesting about government, which is that it cannot control even the simplest things on a large scale. Just look at how Social Security is failing and how a lot of stuff is going on. To imagine that the government has this massive, perfectly executed, elaborate cover-up that is peppering clues for us to follow until they finally give us this big revelation is really giving them a lot more credit than I think they are due. I would love for it to be true because it sure is fascinating.
Actually, this is no insult, because I have believed in a lot of those things. I think it goes back to when you were asking me about the child discerning between what is real and what is not. When you are a child you are trying to figure out the world, and you aren’t told everything. Because you aren’t told everything and you know you aren’t told everything you start to make things up to fill in the blanks. I think there is a similar impulse that is the foundation for these theories, crazy or not. Because we live in a world where you are not told everything, and there are all of these instances happening that can’t be explained, some people tend to just fill in the blanks. But the particular theory that I work for a government program is not true.
AR: A lot of movies about the paranormal these days use the found footage model, i.e. the story is told through a finding of camera footage that was found subsequent to the events. Why do you think paranormal topics in particular are done this way so often?
HG: I think the first reason is budget. On a pure business level it is a cheaper form of narration. I also think people are drawn to it and it continues to work, even though people start to complain about it. Why it works in horror movies is because it creates a first person experience. The story becomes more vicarious, like the viewer is actually inside of the story. I think it makes the threat more real and scary, like it is almost something that could be happening to you.
For our movie, what was appealing for us about a found-footage approach is there are filmmakers in the past that have shot parts of their movie from a child’s perspective. E.T. did it very well, where literally the camera is almost at the child’s height level. And to have a movie shot by kids, where we are seeing the movie from their eyes, literally, changes it. That is one of my favorite things when we started screening the movie for kids. They immediately felt ownership. I think that is why it worked for us and our movie, and why we wanted to do it that way.
AR: A lot of the media has picked up on similarities between your movie and sci-fi classics of the 1980s, such as E.T., Explorers, and Flight of the Navigator. The extraterrestrial in your movie even kind of looks like the owl from Clash of the Titans, but sounds a little like R2-D2. Is that on purpose? And, do you mind people making those connections?
HG: Totally! We never talked about Bubo the owl (from Clash of the Titans). We went through all of these reference pictures, and we found these adorable pictures of baby owls. I think if you Google a picture of a baby owl you will see it. It is one of the first that shows up. That was one of the five reference images for what we wanted the alien to be. We wanted it to be this thing you could hold, cup in your hands, like this baby owl. It had big, expressive eyes. It is funny when people compare it to Clash of the Titans because it is not us trying to pay homage to that, but it is a homage to a baby owl.
The movies you mentioned are movies I grew up with, and I love those movies. I think as you grow up you see some are more flawed than others. I think E.T. holds up incredibly well. That movie is a masterpiece. I loved Flight of the Navigator when I was a kid. There are still scenes in that movie I love now. So it wasn’t like we sat down and tried to make a pastiche of that.
When we have gone around and pitched other projects, everyone says they want to make an Amblin Entertainment movie, but they really don’t. Everyone is kind of afraid to make a movie with only kids. What happens in that process is that they say they want to make an Amblin Entertainment movie, but can we have Woody Harrelson in it? I mean, I love Woody Harrelson, I am not putting him down, but they need a star to guarantee money, which I get from a business standpoint. They need to guarantee seats. So everyone shies away from a real Amblin Entertainment movie in the end.
Because of our budget, and what we are doing, we were able to get away with it. I think there are certainly similarities that people see, and there is no fault in that. But, I think one of the reasons we are getting all of those comparisons is because there really hasn’t been a movie since the 1980s told from the perspective of kids only, which was the heyday for those type of films. I know there was Super 8, but it was also about the dad from Friday Night Lights and the coach, and it had all of these adult stars to allow adult viewers to connect with the movie. So I think we are getting a lot of those comparisons for a good reason because there is an alien, kids, and bikes. But I think the underlying cause for the comparisons is that I don’t think there has been a movie that has really kind of gone for broke like that, like Amblin Entertainment did back in the day. So, yes, I love those movies, and I am not in any way offended to be compared to them.
AR: Given those similarities, what do you think is unique about this movie?
HG: Honestly, the one thing I will say that makes it stand apart for us and why we love the story, is that in making the film we took a lot of courage from Stand by Me. We didn’t want to make a movie that’s about an alien. We wanted to make a movie that featured an alien, but was about the kids. So, when you see the movie you will see that really it’s about what is going on in the kids’ lives. Initially, when we were putting the movie together, Echo (the alien) was a smaller unseen part of it. Then, when we saw Echo and saw the kids interacting with it, we thought it was great. We have got to build this out. But when it comes down to it, it is really the story of these two kids and what they go through interpersonally in their lives on that night, sort of like the film, Stand by Me. So, we wanted to make a really honest movie about kids that kids could relate to. I am not saying those movies in the past didn’t accomplish that, but we just wanted to do it from a modern perspective where kids today can see themselves in it, just like we did in the 1980s. We just wanted to make a movie about kids and tell it through the story of an alien.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Open Minds Magazine. The print version of this story incorrectly labeled EARTH TO ECHO as a Disney film, when in fact, the studio releasing the movie is Relativity. Relativity’s EARTH TO ECHO, a family film, opens in theaters on July 2.