No one in director Jake Van Wagoner and writer Austin Everett’s creative community were left behind in the making of this heartwarming Sundance film.
You know how you can’t just call some people by their first name, you have to say their full names? Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out is a movie title so good, it’s practically mandatory to say all 11 words.
Set in the fictional small town of Pebble Falls, Utah, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out (see?) tells the story of two teenagers who are outsiders for different reasons.
Itsy (Emma Tremblay) is a native New Yorker and aspiring journalist mad at her oddball parents for moving the entire family to the sticks to flip a teardown. And Calvin (Jacob Buster), her neighbor and classmate, is certain his parents (comedian Will Forte and Elizabeth Mitchell of Lost) were abducted by comet-riding aliens when he was a child. Calvin’s odd quirks (and his fervent belief that he’ll join his parents in space when the comet returns to Pebble Falls) ensure his social pariah status amongst peers and teachers.
Their worlds collide when Itsy decides to secretly befriend and interview Calvin to get a spot in an NYU summer writing program. Afterall, the essay prompt is ”What’s the strangest thing in a your home town?” and what’s stranger than Calvin? But as the comet draws closer, the pair’s budding friendship leads to revelations both Earthbound (like just how complicated human beings can be) and out of this world.
The film does a lot in its brisk runtime of 87 minutes, exploring who and where home is in ways that both warm and break the heart. Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out’s charm is a byproduct of its creators’ friendship and mutual love of 1980s family-friendly adventures like The Goonies, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back to the Future. Director Jake Van Wagoner and screenwriter Austin Everett talked to us about how the longtime friends became first-time creative partners.
My first question is how does it feel to have the best film title at this year’s Sundance, according to me?
Austin Everett: It feels great! We also like the title. There had been a random assortment of people [who were] like, “It’s a little long. I think we’re gonna have to change that.” And from the beginning we were both like, “We’re not changing it. That’s the title.”
How did you two meet?
Jake Van Wagoner: Well, I was a very sweet second AD [assistant director] boy on a Nickelodeon pilot, and Austin was the production coordinator. We were actually filming in Park City, right near Sundance. It was very fun to go back there and be like, “Hey, this is where we met.”
I would come into the office and ask for specific kinds of pens and Austin would roll his eyes at me.
Everett: Because we had a drawer full of pens! But the joke was on me, because now those are my favorite pens as well. If I'm gonna write with a pen, it's gonna be one of those. [Ed. Note: Fellow pen lovers, the pen in question is a TŪL retractable gel pen.]
So how did you guys go from sharing pens to collaborating on this film?
Everett: We stayed in contact for a long time and would work on various things together. Commercials... Was there anything else other than a commercial?
Van Wagoner: There was a Hallmark movie.
Everett: A Hallmark movie! We did a Hallmark movie together. I had graduated from production coordinating to writing full time in L.A. It was actually around this time two years ago that I got a call from Jake out of the blue.
Van Wagoner: I had the opportunity to direct a feature. Jeremy Prusso, who’s a producer on the movie, and I had raised some money from an investor who really gave us carte blanche and was like, “I believe in you as filmmakers. Here’s some money.” He wired it to our account and then we were like, “Oh, shoot. Now we need a script.”
So I went to Austin and I asked if he had anything in this family friendly, four-quadrant realm. And he was like, “I have R-rated comedies or a serial killer movie.” I didn’t want those, so I went and talked to some other people. But he came back and [said], “Oh, I have this idea for a title.” And I was like, “Let’s do it. That’s amazing.” He tried to continue with the pitch, and I was like, “Buddy, I don’t need it. Just go write it.” And so he did.
We brought in all of our friends as the crew members and lead talent.
It's funny that you guys met at Nickelodeon, because I felt like this was such a throwback to teen programming from when I was coming up. What were the inspirations that you drew from to tell this story in this nostalgic way?
Everett: I was trying to think about the kind of movies that Jake and I grew up on, that we love, and that we wanted to emulate—but also join in and do do some things a little bit differently.
Van Wagoner: From everyone that we've talked to, that's a pretty universal statement: “Man, this reminds me so much of the movies I watched growing up. Where are those movies? They don't exist.”
We feel the same way. There's clearly an appetite for it, but it's just not being done. I think in Hollywood you find something that works, and you're just like, “Oh, we have to do this now for 10 years.”
For us making this was like, Yeah, let's do a throwback. We don't need to set it in the ‘80s, but we can have some of those themes and we can have that feeling. Hopefully that came through.
It definitely did! How did you guys build the team you needed to take the script to the big screen?
Van Wagoner: When Austin was writing the script, having worked in production and being a director [himself], he was very smart about, This line that I’m writing right now equals X amount of people to pull it off. And I’ve been all the way up the production ladder, so I immediately went and did a budget based off of what I knew we could pull off with this much money. I knew we could do this many shooting days and we could have a crew that’s about this size. Then we started pulling people together, scheduled the movie, and brought in all of our friends as the crew members and lead talent.
I’m buddies with Will Forte. We met like 10 years ago on a Jared Hess [director of Napoleon Dynamite] movie when I was a second AD and we worked together again a few years after that. And then we got Elizabeth Mitchell through a friend who was one of our producers. We got so lucky having her on board because she really makes that character.
I appreciate the transparency. I hate when people are like, “I just woke up and Will Forte said, ‘Sure, I’ll do your film!’”, so thanks for sharing. What was it like shooting something locally for you, Jake? Is that rare?
Van Wagoner: It is. I have done plenty of things here in Utah but I do tend to travel all over the world, so doing something locally was like a real breath of fresh air. We wouldn't have been able to do it anywhere else because of all of the people we pulled into it. I have relationships with all of the crew and was able to pull favors left and right. And same with Austin: There are a lot of people on the crew who were like, “I want to do this for Austin.”
What did collaborating look like in postproduction?
Van Wagoner: My editor was in L.A. and I live here in Utah, so we did a lot of stuff remotely—like, 95% remotely. We used Dropbox Replay: The film was playing while we were watching it together and we could pause, type in a note, and she knew right where we were at and what we were talking about. That feature to me is insane. We use Frame.io and Evercast as well, but Replay was the way to do it where we could leave notes and then have those notes be executed later.
What’s something that you learned in the process of making this movie that you’d want to share with other creators?
Van Wagoner: I'm a little bit of a people pleaser, and want to make sure people's feelings don't get hurt. Someone gives an idea and I'm like, How do I make that work? I had to find a good balance—like, Oh, that doesn’t work. This is the vision, and this is what I'm trying to do. Having a vision and then feeling confident in what you know the end result needs to be helps.
Everett: I've written a number of scripts. I sold a script to a major studio in 2019. This is the first movie that has gotten produced since then—and it's not from a lack of trying.
It really came down to us just being like, we're gonna make this regardless of what we have or don't have.
Will Forte was the first person that we talked about as playing the dad. We would have made the movie even if he had said no. The whole thing of trying to get movies made? It's really hard. It's really hard. But at the end of the day, some of the shackles that you have on are kind of put on by yourself. And so I feel very proud of Jake, because this has been his dream for the longest time to direct a movie and to have it premiere at Sundance.
And I’m also proud of myself. We didn't ask permission for somebody to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to write this script—I just went and wrote it. We didn't want to take this movie and go and try and shop it around to the various financiers and studios. We just wanted to make it.
So even though there is the often-told advice of just go and make your movie, turns out, it's true. You’ve just got to go and make your movie because at the end of the day, the only person that's going to do it is you.
Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out premiered Friday, January 20 at The 2023 Sundance Film Festival. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.