'Roswell' and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Davids
The 'Roswell' writer/producer talks to Robbie Graham about UFOs, Hollywood, Vincent van Gogh, and life after death...
|Davids in his office with the star of his 1994 'Roswell' movie.|
“My daughter screamed at me: ‘Daddy, get upstairs! I see a flying saucer!’” Even by phone, it’s clear that Paul Davids is almost reliving the event. On February 25, 1987, the author, screenwriter and producer was at home in his office, hard at work on the script for what would become Starry Night – his whimsical fantasy film about Vincent van Gogh.
“My daughter was in her room on the second floor. My son was home. She was nine. He was six,” Davids recalls. Perhaps understandably, his daughter’s initial flying saucer alert was dismissed out of hand, Davids envisioning a Good Year Blimp sailing blandly over the valley – he was far too busy for blimps. His daughter became hysterical. “She said: ‘Daddy, get up here! I mean it! It’s a flying saucer, I mean it! Get up here right now!’ He did as he was told.
Before that day, Davids had not been a believer in UFOs. “It wasn’t until the moment that I set my eyes on it that I took anything seriously about this at all. But when I saw it, my reaction was ‘Oh, my God.’” Davids and his children stepped out onto the roof together, awestruck. “It was there,” he says, “descending from a high dramatic cloud. It approached us when we were out on the roof. And then it hovered above our two front trees out over the road in front of our house. It was at least the size of the cockpit of a helicopter.”
Disc-shaped? I ask. “Yes. Absolutely classic saucer. Very clear. It was sort of a dull grey, and it had a dome on top meeting like an upside-down plate. No portholes. It did not make a sound.” Davids and his children watched the object for several minutes and felt that whoever was piloting it was staring right back at them: “It seemed to be aware of us by its movements,” he explains. “It took a position in a little space between the leaves of the trees, but there was still eye contact. It seemed deliberate, and it hovered there.” The object came to within 500 feet of their position before it “swooped down” across the valley. “Then, in the blink of an eye it was gone... It just wasn’t there anymore.”
Fate had dealt Davids his hand. “That was how it started,” he says, “that day, at four o’clock, my life changed.” His sighting that afternoon would start a seven-year chain reaction involving long-buried truths and Hollywood legends, and that would eventually play a major role in the popularization of a word that has since captured the imagination of millions: “Roswell.”
Paul Jeffrey Davids grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, watching sci-fi B movies and making amateur sequels with his friends using 8mm movie cameras. “When I was young I never really had any belief that there were extraterrestrial craft visiting Earth,” he tells me, “but I was an avid science-fiction enthusiast and loved movies like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, War of the Worlds, and The Thing from Another World. But I never read the UFO books when I was younger.”
In 1969, Davids graduated from Princeton University with a major in Psychology and immediately after became one of the first fifteen students chosen to attend the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies in Beverly Hills. He spent two years there alongside future Hollywood luminaries Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Paul Schrader and Matthew Robbins. Later, Davids began working for the famed talent agent Paul Kohner: “I was involved with people like William Wyler, Charles Bronson, and John Huston – right at the twilight of the old Hollywood. I was right in the middle of that,” he reminisces, fondly.
With the 1980s came the Transformers, and Davids worked as a production coordinator and writer on the popular animated TV series that ran from 1984 to 1987. He points out that his name is on more than 75 of the original Transformers cartoons and he is clearly very proud of his role in helping shape the mythology that would give rise to one of the most popular franchises in movie history. His work on Transformers had just wound down by the time of his UFO sighting in 1987 and the time was ripe for a new project – though he could not have known then just how historic that project would turn out to be.
“I couldn’t dislodge it from my mind,” says Davids of his saucer sighting. “It became a focus of my attention for the months that followed. By the end of that summer I think I had bought and read a couple hundred UFO books.” Not content with consuming the literature, Davids also sought direct input from those in the know, including Robert Wise, the legendary director of the 1951 flying saucer classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. “He met with me in his office in Beverly Hills,” Davids recalls, “and he wanted to hear all about my sighting. He told me he absolutely did believe that the saucers were real and that some of them were extraterrestrial. He believed it not because he had seen one, but because of all the information that had come to him while he was making The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Wise told Davids that scientists and engineers from Washington had taken him aside during filming and talked to him about UFOs. “What they told him convinced him that the government took this really seriously,” says Davids, “that some of these craft were visitors from space.”Though he didn’t know it yet, Davids was already on his personal road to Roswell. For further input about his sighting, Wise referred him to his friend Roy Thinnes – the star of the iconic 1960s UFO-themed TV show The Invaders: “Bob Wise told me that Roy had developed a personal interest in really investigating UFOs in the course of playing this role. So the next thing I know I’m talking to Roy Thinnes.” The actor duly prepared a report about Davids’ sighting and sent it to the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies in Chicago where it was received by UFO investigator Donald Schmitt – one of only a small handful of people in the world at that point (including pioneering UFO researcher Stanton Friedman) who were taking an active interest in the long-dormant Roswell case, which involved the alleged crash and retrieval of a craft of unearthly origin in the deserts of New Mexico in early July of 1947. The Air Force had officially explained it away as a “weather balloon,” but the residents of Roswell had for years been whispering a rather more interesting story.
|Behind the scenes: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)|
“Don came to visit me on his next trip to Los Angeles,” Davids continues, “and he told me that he and his friend Kevin Randle were going to reinvestigate the Roswell Incident – go down to Roswell and try to get to the bottom of it. And they asked me: ‘are you interested in a movie deal about this?’” It turned out Schmitt and Randle had a seventeen–page treatment for an unwritten book about the Roswell Incident. The book, they said, could be movie gold if only someone would option it. A mere $25 sealed the deal between Schmitt, Randle, and Davids – a deal that provided for payment of “real money” once a network or studio became involved, if ever.
Davids accompanied Schmitt and Randle on a number of their visits to Roswell to interview the town’s old-time residents. “I drove them from witness to witness,” he explains. “I heard from the townspeople; from the former military people, from the people who’d been involved in the radio broadcasts at that time; from people who knew the rancher Mack Brazel [who discovered the wreckage]. Believe me, it’s convincing. It is really, really convincing that a flying saucer from another world did crash in Roswell in 1947 and the people there were coerced into silence.”
|William "Mack" Brazel and Don Schmitt at the debris site in Corona, New Mexico. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Randle.|
Schmitt and Randle’s groundbreaking book, UFO Crash at Roswell, was published in 1991, by which point Davids had already spent two years pitching his movie adaptation to studios and TV networks. “Everyone said no,” he sighs. I enquire on what grounds the suits were rejecting his pitch. “A lot of them said ‘this Roswell Incident never could have happened or I would have heard of it.’ They also were afraid of getting egg on their face, so to speak. And they were afraid somebody connected with it would say that it was all made up. So they backed away and wouldn’t give us a deal.”
Finally, after around forty rejections, David’s Roswell pitch was picked up by HBO, only to be dropped again after 18 months of script development by Arthur Kopit – one of Davids’ co-writers on the film. As the production moved into its casting stage, the plug was unceremoniously pulled. Davids and his core team were summoned before HBO bosses and told: “Sorry guys, we gotta let you know we’ve decided not to make the movie.”
Davids was dismayed at HBO’s reasoning: “They were going to make another flying saucer movie – a remake of The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, starring Darryl Hannah – instead of Roswell. That was the wisdom of HBO at that time.” But where one door closed, another one opened as the premium cable network Showtime enthusiastically added Roswell to its production slate. “And that was the turning point,” says Davids, “because they really wanted to make it, and they poured resources into it. It was fabulous.”
Davids played a major role in shaping the film’s narrative structure, central to which are themes of time and memory. “I came up with the whole concept about this being a reunion at the military base – it would all be done as a flashback. Jesse Marcel [the original Roswell whistleblower], all these years later, he’s going back and meeting with all the different people he knew then, trying to put together pieces of the puzzle.” A formulaic approach, perhaps, but, in the reliable hands of director Jeremy Kagan (and old friend of Davids’), it served well the complex and controversial source material. For Davids, the purpose of his Roswell movie was not just to entertain, but to educate – to bring the Roswell Incident to wider public attention in a powerful and comprehensible form.
The production process itself was relatively smooth, although not without its share of intrigue. Suspicious happenings were evident even before Showtime accepted the project. “While we were under development at HBO, I began to notice strange goings-on with my phone,” Davids explains. “Weird clicking during conversations about the film; on several occasions obvious sounds of a third party being on the line; and, most notably, a call being abruptly disconnected during a conversation about the evidence for alien bodies.”
Don Schmitt had told Davids at the outset he believed his line was tapped, and Davids felt that he, too, had become a surveillance target: “The weird phone activity seemed to spread from Don to me and others involved in the film.” More troubling to Davids were the inquisitive strangers: “There were people who ‘popped into my life’ trying to become new close friends as quickly as possible who seemed to be trying to lift sensitive information about the production from me in suspicious ways.” On one occasion, some strange men in a car snapped some “quick stolen photos” of Davids and Schmitt while they were driving together. “These were not paparazzi,” he says, “the circumstances were suspicious yet done in an obvious way as if someone wanted us to know we were being watched.”
This is juicy stuff, and I’m hungry for more production anecdotes. I note that the lead actor in Roswell, Kyle MacLachlan, had already dealt with the UFO topic in season two of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which featured a plot strand about Project Blue Book. The film’s other star, Martin Sheen, meanwhile, has always been known for speaking his mind on controversial political issues. Did these men share with Davids their personal perspectives on the Roswell incident and UFOs more generally?
“Neither of them is a good poster child for the UFO cause,” he replies, disappointedly. “Kyle kept his personal opinion separate from the character that he was playing and he didn’t engage the subject. He never came forward and said ‘I believe this is true.’ With all respect to Kyle, you kind of felt he’d been coached not to say something that could turn him into a kook.”
And Martin Sheen? “Wonderful man, great actor, wonderful to work with,” Davids enthuses. “His main interest at that point, as far as I could tell, was Catholicism and the Marian sightings – the apparitions of the Virgin. He spent more time talking to me about that than I could talk to him about UFOs.”
This line of conversation prompts Davids to recall an awkward exchange he once had with legendary sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, who he describes as “an arch skeptic.” Davids was sat next to Bradbury at a luncheon when Ray Harryhausen got his star on Hollywood Boulevard. Both Rays had agreed to help Davids in the production of his documentary that was to become the 2006 Saturn Award-winning The Sci-Fi Boys, but Bradbury was displeased to learn of Davids’ involvement in another movie: “When he heard that I had made Roswell he started yelling at me! He started attacking me! Saying ‘what are you doing making a piece of fiction like that and trying to pass it off as something that’s true?’ I was so taken aback. I said ‘Mr Bradbury, with all due respect, have you heard what the witnesses really said? Do you know the case?’ He said, ‘I don’t have to now the case – I know it didn’t happen!’ And I said, ‘Mr Bradbury, can I ask why you’re so sure?’ He said, ‘Because I’m Ray Bradbury! They would have told ME! You think this would have happened and they wouldn’t have told ME!? You’re crazy!’” Davids chuckles and sighs: “Pride and ego.”
Today, the Roswell Incident of 1947 is considered by UFO researchers to be the most significant event in the history of the phenomenon, and it makes sense that it has permeated our cultural fabric in the form of movies, TV shows, comic books and video games. But are there any other historical UFO-related events that would lend themselves particularly well to a Hollywood dramatization? Davids certainly thinks so, with one case in particular standing out as a yet-to-be-made movie classic: “I think that the untapped gold would lie in Rendlesham Forrest.” He is, of course, referring to the Bentwaters case, which, although featuring no UFO crash/retrievals, involved multiple military personnel – including a Lieutenant Colonel – witnessing spectacular UFO incursions at a highly sensitive US military base on UK soil over three nights in December, 1980.
Our discussion about unproduced UFO movies reminds Davids of his own project in this subgenre that failed to launch. He had a long-term working relationship with the outspoken Mars anomalies researcher Richard Hoagland: “We wanted to do a film about the face on Mars and we had a deal at RKO to do it, I was going to direct it, it was far along in development.” Unfortunately, the creative director at RKO with whom Davids and Hoagland had been working left the film company unexpectedly. “All of the films he’d been developing were dropped,” says Davids, in a sharp tone of frustration. “So we did not get to make that movie.”
I offer that perhaps this was a lucky escape on his part – Mars being perennially toxic at the Hollywood box-office. “There have been a lot of problems,” Davids acknowledges. “John Carter! I don’t think anyone now is racing to make another Mars movie.” He does, however, hope that cinemagoers might someday see a movie about the famous UFO contactees of the 20th Century, such as George Adamski and George van Tassel, who claimed personal interactions with enlightened space folk bringing messages of peace and brotherhood. “I would have loved to have been the one to make that,” he says, wistfully. “It would be wonderful to have a film about Adamski. It would be a great subject matter and it could be done.”
Our conversation shifts now from the past to the present and to Davids’ latest TV project – a documentary feature for the SyFy channel. “It’s called The Life After Death Project. I think it is the most sophisticated look at the evidence for life after death that has been put together so far in a film.” This is a deeply personal project for Davids, who has always been fascinated by the idea that our life-essence survives beyond corporeal death. “It’s based on a real case involving one of my mentors, the late Forrest J Ackerman, that touched my life very, very deeply,” he tells me. “In the old days they called it spiritualism... getting messages from the dead, and it was all dismissed as hokum. But they threw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s a lot of real data there. There is a real psychic effect. The case is made that there is something in our personality that survives.”
Though very few in the UFO community are aware of it, Davids’ other great passion in life, besides film, is painting and drawing, and he recently launched a new website – pauldavids-artist.com – showcasing his artistic accomplishments. “There’s about 25 years of work on there,” he notes. “A lot of my earlier paintings have been in exhibitions, but my last ten years of work has not yet been seen. Now it can be seen online.”
Davids has been painting for as long as he can remember, but it was not until the late 1990s that he truly threw himself into it. In 1999, he directed Starry Night – the van Gogh film he’d been penning at the time of his life-altering UFO sighting. The iconic Dutch painter lodged himself deep in Davids’ psyche: “He just caught hold of me,” he says “and I just started painting and producing a large body of work.” Starry Night sees Vincent van Gogh – unappreciated in his own time – drink a potato potion he acquired when painting ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which causes him to return to life in modern-day California where he discovers that his paintings are revered as masterworks.
Today, as a filmmaker and artist, Davids shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m still operating with the same pace and energy and excitement as I did when I was 35 or 40,” he declares, with the vim and vigour of a 35 or 40 year old. “Nothing’s changed for me.” His fascination with the UFO enigma is also as strong as ever. Davids’ sighting that fateful day in 1987 opened his eyes to a world hidden from public view, buried beneath sixty years of government denial and ridicule. “When will they ever decide to tell us? What will it take?” he asks, rhetorically. The culture of secrecy still agitates him: “I think the whole cover-up is a disgrace,” he fumes. “I’m opposed to it from top to bottom. So that’s why I made the film.”
The film, it should be noted, was a huge success, both commercially and critically, not only significantly increasing Showtime’s subscriber base, but also garnering a Golden Globe nomination for best television movie. “I think the impact was considerable,” says Davids of Roswell. “It was enormous. Millions of people saw it. Millions.”
I ask if the word ‘Roswell’ would be so culturally resonant today had he not so memorably contextualized it in his 1994 TV movie. “Not as much,” Davids replies, without hesitation, although he acknowledges that the immensely popular TV show The X-Files, which premiered a year before his movie, also played a major role. “But The X-Files wasn’t just about Roswell,” he stresses, “it was all over the place dealing with a lot of different things. Roswell was just a little part of it.” Other entertainment products throughout the 1990s also were contributors to the popularization of the Roswell story, most significant among which, according to Davids, were the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, the Dark Skies TV series, which ran from 1996 to 1997, and the instantly iconic 1997 Will Smith vehicle Men in Black. “By that time, Roswell was a national institution,” Davids observes. “If it’s a myth – which I don’t believe it is for one minute – it is now a national myth massively engrained into the public consciousness, as much as any other story from the history of our country.”
It’s hard to argue with that statement, and it’s harder still to underestimate the seminal role Paul Davids played in that engraining process. Almost twenty years after he produced it, Roswell – a film that very nearly never was – today stands as testament to the fact that the right movie, at the right time, can help redefine popular understanding of historical events long shrouded in the fog of official obfuscation.