A child experiences loss at a young age and then finds herself in a community that may or may not have her best interests at heart. Also, that loss was because of aliens. And the community appears to be a cult.
This is the plot of “Cosmic Dawn,” a Colorado-backed film playing now at the Denver Film Festival. Director Jefferson Moneo says he used his own childhood encounter with a UFO as a jumping off point for the story. Denver7 asked him about that and more ahead of the movie’s first screening at the Denver Film Festival.
Q. I jumped on your IMDB before this and the sole trademark listed for you is "silky smooth jumper."
My jump shot is wet, my friend. Nothing but swishes.
Q. How did that get on there?
I have no idea. I was a good basketball player when I was younger.
Q. The other thing that comes up under trivia is that you had an experience with extraterrestrials. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, so I grew up in Saskatchewan. And my grandparents lived on a ranch in southern Saskatchewan. So very kind of like, Badlands sort of feel to it.
I was staying with them, and one night, there I was in bed. I looked over, they had like one of those old sort of digital clocks, and it was 11:32, and there were lights outside. I thought maybe it was like farm machinery or something outside. And I got up. My grandmother was outside in her housecoat. And there were like lights in the sky. And I was like, ‘What? What is it?’ She's like, ‘I don't know,’ and then we just stood there.
They kind of went colorful, and just went and disappeared. I came back in the house. It was bizarre. I remember when I laid back down in my bed, the clock was now at 11:24. So, for some reason, the clock went back eight minutes. And then that's really the totality of the whole thing. And then my grandfather, who was sleeping at the time, didn't believe that any of it happened. I mean, that's all it was. I wasn't abducted by aliens, but a strange phenomenon in the sky that I couldn't explain. That my grandmother couldn't explain.
Q. This movie is also about trauma. Where exactly did that come from?
I think most dramatic stories, you know, it's either you have characters that are apart, and they come together or characters that are together, and they sort of get pushed apart. I mean, that's sort of like the nature of all dramatic work. They tend to have that kind of structure. And I was always sort of interested in, you know, UFO phenomenon and stuff like that. I started researching different people's experiences and a lot of that got woven into the story. But really, it was about somebody trying to figure out what had happened when they were younger, because nobody ever believed me. I mean, nobody believed my grandmother, and I just said it must have been Northern Lights, or it must have been like, a plane or whatever. Nobody believes you. If that ever happens to you, nobody will believe you. I'll just say that right now. It’s also about human connection. I think in a lot of ways trying to find a way to connect with people in a meaningful way.
Q. A community.
Yeah, community. Right. Also, I was living in Vancouver at the time when I was working on this and there’s a lot of really kind of new age cults in British Columbia. I researched a lot of that stuff and then a lot of that sort of fed into the sort of dynamic of the cult. Obviously, there’s other stuff in there like Source Family and Heaven’s Gate. Stuff like that.
Q. You’re jumping through time a lot in this movie. I noticed you had some visual devices to help people stay on track, but did you want it to be somewhat disorienting?
A little? No, I did. I did. And then I screened it for some people, and I did not get the response that I wanted. I think it was difficult. We really tried to signify when we were going back and forth. I mean, originally, we didn't have the sort of date stamps in there. But we felt like we kind of needed those anchors, you know, we start to use the camera wipes as a signifier. There's like an audio cue that is sort of a signifier to help people kind of know I’m watching something different than what came before.
Q. But you didn’t originally want to go that route.
I don’t know. I was curious whether or not it was going to work. And it did not work. There’s a difference between being ambiguous and being confusing, and I didn’t want to be confusing.
Q. This movie is playing in the Colorado Spotlight section of the festival. What’s the Colorado connection here?
All the producers are from Colorado. Patrick Hackett, who produced this, is a Denver-based producer. Our executive producers, Louisa Law, Chris Law — they’re real patrons of the arts here in town. Dan Futa, who's also an executive producer on this film, is local. We ended up shooting in Canada because it was advantageous for budget, and tax incentives and stuff like that. But really, it was developed in Colorado.
Q. You must have been working on this for a long time. How many years of your life did you spend on this?
Probably five years, I would say. I think maybe 2014, I really started working on it. And then other things come up. I was working on other projects sort of intermittently in between. But yeah, for five years, from the time the first draft was done until we were on set rolling, was about five years.
Q. You’re getting an in-person screening tonight (Note: Those in-person screenings will have passed by the time you read this but you can still stream the film as a virtual offering from the festival). Are you excited or nervous to sit back in the theater and watch how people react?
I probably won't watch it. Well, actually, I probably will. I'm curious to see how audiences respond, because I think that's rewarding. But a lot of the time, I mean, maybe other filmmakers are different for me, I just sit there and I'm like, maybe we should have cut there a little bit, or there's this technical thing doesn't look quite right. And I never really enjoy it. And plus, I've seen it way too many times.
Q. I don’t think many people enjoy the experience of watching what they’ve made.
I mean, maybe people like to sit and watch their own thing. But I don't imagine a lot of musicians are sitting around putting on their own LPs. Maybe some people do. I don't. Like Paul McCartney sitting around listening to Beatles records…
Q. Well, they are pretty good.
They are pretty good.
Q. Were there certain movies or anything you were looking at when you were making this (Kaufman’s 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' 'Mandy,' and especially 'The X-Files' feel like obvious reference points)? 70s paranoia movies really came to mind for me.
A little bit, a lot of sort of late 70s, 80s stuff, which is kind of my stylistic wheelhouse. That’s the stuff I gravitate towards the most. But nothing really specific. We would definitely talk stylistically about, like, camera movement and stuff like that. I’m a big Brian De Palma fan, so we talked a lot about how to use the steady cam to tell the story.
But no, I don't really approach filmmaking that way. I’m much more influenced by music, or books, or art and stuff like that. Like James Turrell, I think, was probably a bigger influence on this film than any film was honestly. I never sat down and was like, I'm going to make a film that's kind of like this film. A lot of filmmakers do, but I'm not like that.
Q. What’s your hope for this movie?
Hopefully we find an audience. It kind of seems like we are a little bit by tracking what's going on online. It's going to be released in February in the United States, and in Canada, I think it's February. I think we're going to do some theatrical dates before shifting into streaming and all that stuff.
Q. What comes next for you?
I'm in the middle of getting a like an erotic horror film going in Mexico at the moment. We’re hoping to shoot that in probably spring. I would say spring might be a little bit ambitious. Maybe we'll have it closer to summer.
Q. More erotic horror movies, please.
Yeah, man. I'm telling you. It's an untapped market right now.
"Cosmic Dawn" is streaming virtually as part of the Denver Film Festival. You can buy tickets here.