Byron Yee, a first-time filmmaker, grew up in Oklahoma, moved to San Francisco to pursue stand up comedy, and later headed to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Getting tired of waiting for Hollywood to create interesting roles for someone like him, Yee decided to write his own film. His new release, The Aliens, is a film about a UFO believer who must choose between the aliens above he has never seen or the mysterious guide who appears at his campsite week after week.
NELSON: The Aliens is a film, at its core, about humans who are looking for a sense of belonging and happiness in their own lives. What was the inspiration for you creating The Aliens?
BYRON: The Aliens was inspired by the actual site where people believed UFOs would come. I was scouting for a short film I was producing and I needed a desert location. I ended up in Yucca Valley near Joshua Tree and stopped into the California Visitors Bureau. The volunteer pointed me towards Giant Rock near Landers, CA and handed me some photocopied information about the area.
Giant Rock itself was purported to be a sacred Indian meeting site. A German immigrant, George Critzer, lived out there in the 1930’s where he was looking for mining claims. He actually dug out an apartment underneath Giant Rock, taking advantage of the rock’s solar heating during the winter and the underground coolness of the summer. When WW II broke out, San Bernardino deputies showed up to make sure he wasn’t a German spy. Critzer was a bit of a nut and barricaded himself in his underground bunker. The deputies wanted to get him out so they threw a smoke grenade inside. What they didn’t know was that Critzer kept a fare share of dynamite in the bunker for his prospecting. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Critzer had a friend, an aeronautical engineer by the name of George van Tassel who took over the area. He constructed a small airfield there and the legend is that Howard Hughes used to fly into Giant Rock so that he could have a piece of pie made by Mrs van Tassel.
It was the late 1940s and the UFO craze started to occur. We now know it was top secret Air Force programs including the Blackbird SR-71 and probably the U2. But people didn’t know what they were seeing. Van Tassel claimed to have had an alien abduction experience at Giant Rock where he levitated into a hovering ship and communicated with alien beings.
As the story of van Tassel spread, he became one of the leaders of the UFO movement and he began to hold conventions at Giant Rock (with a fair amount of promotion, I might add). In 1957, LIFE Magazine sent photographer Ralph Crane to take pictures and LIFE ran an article mocking the two hundred plus that came to hear testimonies, sell books, and be with the other believers.
The article had the opposite effect. The next year, over ten thousand people showed up at Giant Rock to attend the UFO Convention.
As I stood out on this abandoned old air strip that sits upon a dry lake bed, I couldn’t help but feel the loneliness of such a desolate place. It’s a harsh environment. Sixty years ago, there were ten thousand people here who believed. I thought, “what if?” What if there was one person left who still believed and came out here? What if he’s waiting for the aliens to come and an illegal alien walks into his camp? And from there, the writer in me took over.
Do you believe in UFO’s and intelligent life beyond our planet?
I believe there is intelligent life out in the universe. I don’t think they are here yet. I am a skeptic. But too often in stories, the UFO believer is treated as a nutcase or a crazy. The story is not about whether or not UFO’s exist, the story is about a believer whose faith is challenged and the consequences of what happens if he changes those beliefs.
Your film has a diverse cast with both an Asian and Latino lead and yet this film is less about their race, and more about their human condition. How important was it for you to showcase the diversity in the film? How were able to able steer clear of falling into the trap of stereotyped characters?
One of the reasons for making the film is that a part like this would never have been written for someone like me so instead of being a “woe is me” actor, I just went out and did it. Showcasing diversity is more of a byproduct of trying to tell a compelling story. My creative career has been about reversing the stereotypes. I just happen to be a first generation Chinese American who grew up in Oklahoma and didn’t leave that part of the country until my late 20s when I moved to San Francisco to pursue stand up comedy.
And when I showed up in San Francisco, I certainly didn’t fit in there as much as I did in Oklahoma. So I’ve always been on the outside looking in and that’s been my creative voice. If you’re a guy waiting in the desert for the aliens to come, the color of your skin is secondary to what it is you want and desire.
As for the Latino characters and trying to avoid the stereotypes, that’s really the writer trying to create compelling and authentic characters. The writer in me is always asking “why?” And it’s also in the casting. The “bad guy,” Mauricio Zatarain, is someone I’ve know for a long time through our beloved acting coach, the late Cliff Osmond. So when I created the role, it wasn’t a bad guy that I was creating but I was writing specifically for my friend Mauricio. The bad guy never believes he’s the bad guy — he’ll always believe he’s in the right and everyone else is wrong.
I was very, very fortunate to find really wonderful actors for the other main Latino roles. My co-lead, Stephanie Arcila, will be breaking out later this year and is supremely talented. You’ll be seeing big things from her in the future. Castulo Guerra was in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Usual Suspects in key and memorable roles and he absolutely knocked it out of the park in the very essential Diego part. And I was so lucky to find Mike Gomez and talk him into playing the Sheriff. I’ve had friends amazed that I was able to get the “leads” guy from The Big Lebowski.
I think that they took on the parts because they were well written and had depth and dimension. Too often, the stereotypical roles are just sloppy storytelling. I know, I’ve read for them my entire career. In fact, my disastrous audition for a wacky Chinese restaurant owner in Grumpier Old Men became my own rallying call and I wrote my autobiographical one man show Paper Son because of it.
The characters themselves are shown as feeling alienated from their own lives which makes the film work on multiple levels. You started creating the film before the current political environment. Have you received any criticism about The Aliens having the undertone of illegal immigration?
It wasn’t my intent to make a comment about the current political environment but once I put this story out into the world, it’s really for the viewer to decide what the story is about. Certainly there are filmmakers out there with an agenda. The only thing that I care about is a story well told.
Also, because of Paper Son, the experience of the Chinese coming to America absolutely parallels the illegal immigration debate that occurs today and that’s reflected in Maria’s story. But only a few people, and that’s including Americans of Chinese descent, truly have an appreciation and understanding of the Chinese experience in America.
I was one of those who didn’t have a clue about the history of Chinese in America. As I was developing Paper Son, I discovered my father’s interrogation file in the National Archives of the United States. A story that went with him to his grave when I was twelve was now alive in these documents that are the property of the United States of America.
My father came to this country as a paper son, a son of someone on paper only. He was a true illegal immigrant. He lied and beat the system to make a new life in America. And I am a byproduct of that lie.
The current political climate is the same as it was over a hundred and twenty five years ago when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in full effect. It’s just that today, the color of the skin has changed. America is such a powerful idea, a chance for a better life, that people will risk everything to come here. I thought that was a powerful backdrop to juxtapose the world of a UFO believer.
Was the father character in the film, who does not speak a word during the film, representative of your own father who never talked about his own history?
In Paper Son, I was able to explore in depth the relationship with my father which was a memory story since he passed away when I was young. In The Aliens, I wanted to portray a different side of the Chinese American father-son dynamic, particularly the ideas and beliefs that are passed along, especially to the first born (or in this case only) son.
On many levels, the film keeps the viewer guessing how the story will unfold. Each character has their own quirks, were any of the characters based on people you experienced in your own life?
The characters are a byproduct of myself and my imagination. It’s my artistic voice given a megaphone.
I was a stand up comedian for many years which gives you a lot of freedom, so many of the things I wrote, I couldn’t help but find the humor in all of it. Humor in a way is nothing more than the hurt over magnified.
As an actor and a writer and now as a filmmaker, I observe people all the time and wonder deep down, what is it that they want and what is it that they need? Often, those two things are in conflict. What is it that I really want if I’m that character? As I said before, I wrote many of the character specifically for friends of mine and their strengths as actors. So as the writer, that’s how I see them.
Why was it important for you to tell this story? What sort of response have you received from screenings?
I am not a religious person. And I’m not particularly a person of faith. But in a way, this film is my own personal examination of belief. As a creative voice, I want to know why people believe in what they believe in the face of skeptics and critics. These are all very personal things that can be dismissed by those with little empathy or even fear of that other person. And when a person stops believing, there is a great personal cost.
As a storyteller, I wanted to explore an idea that we’ve all seen parts of, but maybe not in this exact scenario. There was something interesting about a guy waiting alone for aliens and into his camp walks this mysterious Mexican coyote guide.
In independent film, you have to be ambitious and tell a story without many resources. But your biggest advantage is to activate someone else’s imagination. We all watch movies and television and all sorts of stories. We consume them all the time, sometimes as comfort food, sometimes to find something new.
As a first time filmmaker, I had to make something personal and hopefully original. I’m hoping that my storytelling sensibilities will find an audience and the next time around, I can talk someone into giving me a bigger budget so I can tell a little bigger story.
When I was a comic, the response was immediate. Either a joke worked or it didn’t. Filmmaking is so much tougher. Things I wrote years ago, I don’t know if they’ll eventually work. And you can’t go back and change it.
The audience response so far has been very gratifying. Much of the humor comes through and more importantly to me is that I “have story.” Films when they fail always comes down to the fact that the story doesn’t work. If you have story, then your film has a chance to succeed.
I had a chance to talk with someone after the premiere in Roswell. He was expecting one type of film based upon the title and the poster and what little information there was about the film. But he told me that the film was not what he expected. It surprised him. And it got to him at a deeper level. That it touched him about his own beliefs about UFOs and feelings of isolation and loneliness. As a filmmaker, that’s a big win. I did my job.
You recently screened The Aliens at the Roswell Film Festival and you came away with the festival’s Best Actor trophy. What was that experience like?
It’s always nerve wracking to see how an audience responds to something that you’ve been working on for years. You get so close to a project that you lose your objectivity. Luckily, there was lots of laughter early on and I could sense the audience being pulled in as the story progressed.
I was very fortunate that the Roswell Film Festival selected the film and it was kind of natural because of the title and subject matter that it play there. Great people and my crew had a great time there.
To be honest, I’m a little self conscious about winning an acting award. Acting is what I wanted to do as a kid and I identified as a drama nerd in high school. But as is common for many first generation Chinese Americans, there was great maternal pressure to go into STEM so I ended up with a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma. But my heart wasn’t really in it and stand up comedy was starting to explode so after graduating I started to do open mics and pursue my creative ambitions.
It was only much later after I had established myself as a successful comedian in San Francisco that I took an acting class. And I realized that I had all these other creative muscles that I had to exercise. Acting is about find the truth, mainly the truth about yourself. As the writer and director, I certainly knew what my strengths were but also I was able to push myself further than my comfort zone would allow. That’s something that I also did when I performed my one man show Paper Son.
Winning an award is really about having something in which to promote the film a little more. Perhaps it gives the film a little more credibility than any random content that you might find online. It’s a small piece of vetting that maybe it’s worth spending some time with this story. I’m very flattered by how some people have viewed my performance. But in the end, it’s about the overall story, the overall filmmaking that matters. And I hope people will take a chance and see what I’ve created.
Where can people see The Aliens? Are you hoping to get more screenings at film festivals?
We’re in the brave new world of indie film distribution. Anything is possible but every film’s path to the viewer is different. I’m certainly hoping that this film will be accepted to a few more festivals and I’ll be going hat in hand to sales agents and distributors to get the film out there. I’m very optimistic about the film’s international prospects. Certainly there should be interest from Latin America over the subject matter. Europeans have this love affair with the deserts of the American Southwest. And I’m hoping there will be interest in the Asian market.
At some point, this film will show up on Amazon Video, iTunes, and Google Play and further down the line on Amazon Prime and Netflix. A distributor will put this out or yours truly will go DIY distribution. In most cases, theatrical distribution is a loss leader to get reviews and awareness and the true monetization of content is in streaming. It’s a new way of doing business and the rules change every day
There has been a lot of coverage about Asian Americans in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera. The fact of the matter is that if supporters want to see faces like mine in front of the camera, they need to support stories like mine. But as a filmmaker, to me it’s more important that people truly enjoy the story and not because they “have” to. There’s no greater power to a little movie like mine is if someone can see it, to recommend it to their friends and families. I’m just hoping people will take a chance and see for themselves.
People can sign up for the email list on the website and I’m on all the usual social media channels. Sharing and liking helps enormously to sales agents and distributors.