Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with director Jake Van Wagoner and actors Will Forte and Elizabeth Mitchell about the Sundance indie, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out.
Certain films stir a specifically odd sensation within the viewer. How should I be feeling right now? Or, better yet, how does the filmmaker want me to feel right now? These questions usually spring from films that slide up and down the tonal spectrum, movies that drift back and forth between comedy and drama.
Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out, which recently premiered at the Sundance film festival, operates in this cloudy condition. Director Jake Van Wagoner embraces Austin Everett‘s exceptionally strange screenplay and leans into its emotional see-saw. Putting his faith in his performers, Wagoner worried little about whether or not the film would hold onto its audience. As long as they made it to the end, he felt confident the climax would win them over.
Years ago, when a noisy disturbance interrupted their bonding session, Calvin (Jacob Buster) was stargazing with his father, Cyrus (Will Forte). While the kid didn’t see his folks beamed into a UFO, he interpreted the events as such. Now a teenager living alone with his grandmother, Calvin is the high school weirdo who catches the attention of the new girl, Itsy (Emma Tremblay). Together they attempt to solve the riddle of the title and find a mom (Elizabeth Mitchell) who may be much more painfully terrestrial than desired.
Wagoner has watched too many movies involving teens where the plot fails before the actors ever went before the cameras. The director firmly believes in the adage, “directing is ninety percent casting.” As long as he put the right folks inside the characters, he believed they could achieve the film’s slippery vibe.
“It definitely helps that we have two of the best actors in the world,” says Wagoner. “Emma and Jacob were so good. That was obvious from the auditions. It was very important to me that one, we cast people that were actually the age of the characters they were playing because a lot of times, we see twenty-nine-year-olds playing sixteen-year-olds. I really wanted them to be the right age, and they both were.”
Mixing tones is where Wagoner has the most fun in storytelling. He also suspects a weird cocktail like Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out are more honest than those stories that stick to their lane. Life rarely maintains a single speed or genre.
“I guess tonally for me,” he continues, “I really love projects that are not the same all throughout. I really love to see a shift. I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without these two. The humor, the emotion, and the heart. That’s interesting to me. To tie them together because that’s like what life is. The tone of life is never the exact same.”
For Will Forte, managing tone is not an issue. He listens to his director, and he sticks to the script. He doesn’t worry about it, choosing to trust those around him.
“The tone is kind of just baked into the good writing and the directing,” says Forte. “Jake really, really just tells you what he needs. Anything that looks like I’m doing a good job in this film is just a testament to how well it’s written and how they put it together editing-wise because I’m sure that I did a job where they were probably shaking their heads. It’s crazy how, with a little bit of music and the right editing, some piece of crap job by an actor can look pretty passable.”
In the Zoom room with him, Elizabeth Mitchell lets out an exasperation during the casual dismissal of his own talent.
“Will genuinely doesn’t know how good it is,” she says. “But that’s okay. It’s good you don’t know it.”
Forte tries to back up his previous response. He doesn’t want to sound like he’s phoning it in, but he needs her to recognize how out-classed he feels around her. In the dramatic world, he’s in a constant educational state, and his masters are everyone around him.
“No,” says Forte, “I’m not the worst actor in the world. I’m always learning new things. Elizabeth, you have to watch her. She puts on a masterclass. She is just so good. You saw her scenes. They’re filled with intense emotion. Getting to work with her was really, really fun.”
Elizabeth Mitchell shares the film’s central powerhouse sequence with Jacob Buster and Emma Tremblay. It’s difficult to discuss without ruining a significant revelation, and Mitchell is very concerned with keeping mum on the details. Keeping mum, though, also relates well with where her character is in that particular moment and how Mitchell connected with her.
“Without spoiling it,” says Mitchell, “because it’s such a fun reveal, but I am a mom. Life is all about choices. We make good ones, and we make terrible ones, and we make irreparable ones, and some are made for us. I could connect to it pretty deeply. The writing was really beautiful and spare and not overwritten. So for me, it was an easy one to hold onto and to get to the place that we’re talking about that’s secret, and we can’t tell anybody. It felt pretty darn connected to me.”
Wagoner is equally in awe of Elizabeth Mitchell’s skill. The actor had very little time on set. She had to enter the narrative, take over, and provide a necessary anchor. If her scene faulted, whatever tonal wizardly the movie desired would immediately crumble.
“Elizabeth is so amazing,” says Wagoner. “She was there for forty-eight hours. We got her on board right away. She came in and just crushed that. I would go, ‘Hey, what if you do this?’ And she’d be like, ‘That’s great. I love that. I’m going to do it.’ And then she did it a million times better than what my direction was, and I was like, ‘That’s so good.’ That scene was tricky. To find that balance between the emotion and the realness. It’s a very heart-warming scene, but we wanted to not just feed the audience, ‘You’re supposed to cry now.’ We had to find the balance.”
Once again, leaning into the situation became the key to unlocking it. Mitchell was the outsider. That’s the truth of her character, and that’s the truth of the performer. Mitchell amazed her cast with how fast she connected to her mother’s perspective and allowed the uncomfortable air between all parties to land the required balance.
“Emma and Jacob and I,” says Wagoner, “we were all buddies at this point. We had been on the film for a few weeks. We had done rehearsals; we had done everything. So, to have Elizabeth come in as this character who nobody knows, and these two actors don’t know her at all, I think that was interesting. They were really just playing off of, ‘We don’t know you.’ You can feel that there’s no closeness like Emma and Jacob have throughout the movie.”
Ultimately, for Wagoner, the connection between the characters is the film’s blissful gift, whether it lasts beyond a moment or two. When these characters briefly pass each other before they take the time to get to know one another, they easily label and ignore each other’s humanity. The recognition ignites possibility when they pause and allow the other to enter their space.
“I really love the theme of hope,” says Wagoner. “I feel like these two characters, Itsy and Calvin, learn to be comfortable with who they are and where they are. Calvin is unapologetically an odd duck, and I really, really love that. Also, the idea that there’s hope, that things aren’t exactly how you thought they would be, but in the end, if you push and work together with the people in your little circle, that there’s hope that things will turn out.”
Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out is a jumble. And for a good chunk of its runtime, it’s happy to keep you guessing how you should feel. When the characters eventually collide with each other, they don’t let the resulting bang halt their journey. Instead, their connectivity propels them into new, impossible directions. The director and his cast would like those viewing to follow their lead.