Director Jennifer Stein Talks Aliens, UFOs, and Distributing to Niche Audiences on the Forward Filmmaker Podcast
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews director Jennifer Stein. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Max Sanders: Jennifer Stein is an award-winning, self-taught filmmaker whose work focuses on UFO sightings and alien abductions. Based in Arizona, she began her filmmaking career in the 1990s while running nonprofits and raising two children. In 2015, she released the documentary Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton about one man’s 1975 alien encounter. On this episode, we’ll delve into the mysterious, fascinating world of UFO sightings. We’ll also hear about how she gets her films distributed to alien enthusiasts worldwide. Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Jennifer Stein: Thanks for having me, Max. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Max Sanders: It’s such a pleasure because this is a field – an area of expertise – that I don’t know much about. You made Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton, which brought to life one of the most well-documented alien encounters of the last half century. And this is a project that combines your passion for filmmaking and your heavy involvement in the UFO community. How did you get turned onto the story?
Jennifer Stein: I met Travis at a conference that I was helping to run as an assistant in Roswell, New Mexico, the very famous Roswell UFO Conference, which happens every year. And Travis was there as one of the speakers, and I had dinner with him and realized how significant his story was, certainly in comparison to the Roswell UFO story. And I also realized a decent documentary had never been done – only a Hollywood film that sort of fictionalized the real facts of the story. And to me as a filmmaker, it was just a great opportunity awaiting me.
Max Sanders: So for those who don’t know, you’ve always been fascinated by UFOs and aliens. Tell us about that part of your life.
Jennifer Stein: Yeah. I had an early sighting myself at 19 years old, also in 1975, which is the same period of time when Travis had his encounter. In fact, I had my encounter before his, and it was a very profound, close encounter that was less than 500 feet away. And it was a 90-foot rectangle of odd white light that I really didn’t understand. And I had been journaling, so I journaled about it. And 25 years later, it came to my attention that someone else in my house at the same time had the same experience. And we had never talked about it at the time. And that really freaked me out around 2000, 1999 or 2000, when that happened. And I just decided to give myself permission to start to explore this personal history of my own and other people’s personal histories. And that led me to reading books, going to conferences, meeting people. Eventually, 10 years later, I was running the Roswell UFO Conference and met Travis and the whole thing unfolds. But it’s something that people really need to begin to wrap their brains around because, in my opinion, it is one of the most critical existential questions facing humanity and the evolution of consciousness – the fact that we now know we’re likely not alone as a living species on a planet that circles the sun that’s in the habitable zone. We’re likely been visited by other intelligent species, for probably thousands of years. It’s where our religious and biblical histories come from. And as somebody begins to digest this, it’s not something you can get by reading one book or watching one film. It takes a lifetime to digest this reality. And as a filmmaker, I thought if I could make contribution in helping to crack that door open just a little more than I would have done something worthwhile with my life. And that’s partially what led me to make the Travis film.
Max Sanders: Yeah. It was wild, seeing all the lie detector tests they all passed and also opening into this world and community of people like Travis who don’t seem like they wanted attention or spotlight.
Jennifer Stein: You’re right, Max. I mean, this event ruined their lives. And I’ll say, I think the reason that the Travis film did so well in the film circuit that I put it into – which was really mainstream film festivals; it won over 28 film festivals – and I think the reason it did is partially because of the excellent editors that I had to work with. Namely one, my nephew, Adam Stein, who is well known now for his film called Freaks, which has been out on Netflix and has done really very well. It’s kind of like a sci-fi futuristic film. But Adam really helped me edit this into a personal story and a personal journey of these men and how this event affected their lives. So it wasn’t a typical UFO know-everything-you-can-about-the-field type of film that’s out there. And there are many out there, which are excellent. And I’m friends with many of the great filmmakers like James Fox, who’s done Phenomenon and Out of the Blue and I Know What I Saw. They’re all excellent films. But they’re UFO-focused films. And this film, the Travis Walton story, is really more about the personal journeys and how this event really ruined the lives of all of these loggers and still continues to pit them at times against one another. And it affects people who watch it because they understand this is not an easy subject to digest.
Max Sanders: Right.
Jennifer Stein: And I think it really brings you into their lives, especially people who watch it feel like they really get to know Travis, who had the most significant aspect of the story, being missing for five days and coming back with a memory of an encounter with two different types of species. So it’s really a significant story.
Max Sanders: It’s so interesting that you say in this community, there’s a lot of different films. Can you explain what it’s like to be in this just large community of people?
Jennifer Stein: Well, in some ways it’s wonderful because you feel like you can let your hair down and really explore the edges of your own consciousness that you as a filmmaker, and as an experiencer, have contemplated and explored. So in one way, it’s great because you feel like you’re in a community of like-minded people. On the other hand, I will tell you, you leave yourself open for a huge amount of ridicule, not only from the broader community, because it’s like, once you step into it, it’s like, oh, you’re part of that other group.
Max Sanders: Right.
Jennifer Stein: You are always the victim of ridicule and possible discrediting, and you can have the same, similar, type of shunning maybe from the mainstream community that these boys had, that we capture in the film. You really have to wear two hats. Or, what I like to say is you have to know what the firm ground is under you. You have to be very confident and very self assured to step forward in this field.
Max Sanders: Would you say there’s diversity within the group?
Jennifer Stein: Oh yeah. Every walk of life of different types of personalities that you run into in the mainstream world, they’re magnified in the UFO community. You’ve got the weirdos coming out of the woodwork, and you’ve got real serious researchers as well. And the outside world has a hard time telling the difference between the two because they discredit the whole subject. So, it’s complicated.
Max Sanders: Yeah. It seems like it. Was your hope to, when you made this story, are you trying to get people more educated about the field?
Jennifer Stein: Yes. I had a multiple set of goals, Max. One was to, in one way, attempt to vindicate the lives of these loggers and to finally, for their own communities, bring back to, say the Show Low and Heber, Arizona and the Overgaard area and Snowflake, Arizona [communities] – to bring a film maybe even to mainstream theaters there where people in the community could come and see it and say, “Wow, I lived here. I knew this. I used to think that, and I really misjudged these guys, or I discredited them in a way that I shouldn’t have, and maybe I should have been more open-minded.” Because now we’ve actually had mainstream disclosure. We’ve had the Pentagon come forward and say, yes, there are objects that fly and outmaneuver our own jets. We’ve had many pieces of footage released, like GOFAST videos, right. And the Gimbal videos, which detect F-16 fighters capturing the stuff on their gun camera footage. That’s significant. That’s huge. If that had happened in 1975, the ridicule these boys went through, they wouldn’t maybe have had to go through like they did. I was looking to vindicate the boys in this group, and I was also looking and hoping that people in the business communities in these three small Northern Arizona towns that form a triangle with each other, that they might decide it was worthy of them to screen this film and do it as a fundraiser or host a UFO conference. But I still can’t get the local chamber of commerce to decide they want to back or support a film or underwrite it, or even print posters or brochures, or even get the local press to come out and cover a conference that we’ve run there. So there’s still a resistance amongst, certainly more religious groups, and that entire area is really Mormon. But I’ll tell you, the chamber of commerce in Roswell gets it. They’ve built more hotels and more restaurants in Roswell than they’ve ever seen. And certainly in the years when we could have conferences, before COVID, it was the biggest financial boom that regional area ever anticipated happening. And they never thought that would happen around this UFO story that they all attempted to hush and cover up.
Max Sanders: Right. Are there any other UFO or alien stories you want to tell, imagining time and money aren’t roadblocks?
Jennifer Stein: Well, if time and money weren’t roadblocks, sure, the sky would be the limit. And any filmmaker will tell you in investing in a film is a lot more risky than even buying a house and renovating it. There’s so many loose ends with a film. But yes, there are other films I would like to do and other stories I would like to explore in more depth. There’s ancient history that we have yet to really fully understand. And I’ve been privy to travel with some of the best researchers in the world, like Robert Schoch and Linda Moulton Howe and Brian Foerster – many, many people who are really taking a part in uncovering human history and ancient sites around the planet, which have yet to really fully have been explained or explored. And there are artifacts coming out of the ground that just defy explanation, that show advanced technology in the ancient ancient world. Putting those together and putting some archeological history together, and putting other experts together who are now understanding astronomical events that have happened that we still don’t know about in our ancient past – so sure, there’s lots of films I’d like to make.
Max Sanders: Is there a golden chalice item that you really want to dive into when it comes to ancient history?
Jennifer Stein: Gosh. Egypt is a gold mine. So is Peru. So are parts of Southern Africa and Turkey.
Max Sanders: So with editing and directing these docs, what’s your favorite part of putting this whole process together?
Jennifer Stein: Oh, as an editor, it’s really wonderful when that right, sweet moment happens where you look at various footage and you say, “Oh, let me try this. Let me put this in the beginning and that in the end and reverse this around. And, “Oh, let me not give them that much information yet. Let’s just dribble this out here and then really wham them at the end.” So being able to shift around what you present and the way you present it, and then the finishing touches, like the finishing painting that goes on a Rembrandt or something, it’s like, “Oh, let’s add the sound, let’s add this music. Or let’s add this little under effect here, or let’s just add this pause where people can digest what was just said. Let’s put in a great visual.” It’s really a creative process. And that’s what attracted me most to it. And I also love the fact that when you make a film, you can always pull it out, put it in your player, or pull it up on your hard drive, and watch it again. Whereas many things we do in life are events that happen, and they’re done and gone. And you can’t reinvent that dinner party you had or that wonderful vacation you had. And pictures sort of do it. But a film is a unique composite of a collection of moments and history and imagery and sensations and feelings and emotions altogether that stay that tight little compact thing for the future. Future filmmakers certainly have a responsibility – if you’re a documentary maker – to really create and organize these pieces of history into moving forward the narrative of our understanding of our human history on a topic like UFOs and whether or not other species exist and whether or not we’re interacting with them and will be interacting with them in the future.
Max Sanders: Well, it’s wild to think, when you’re talking about editing and putting all this stuff together and future generations of filmmakers, in the early 90s, you had no filmmaking experience. You had no formal training – and now you’re talking about cuts, about putting the sound in, making those last aha moments for people in films. What made you start making films in the 90s?
Jennifer Stein: Well, I actually had an event coordination business, because I was involved in nonprofit organizations that were trying to raise money. And when you try to raise money, you have auctions. You have fundraising events. You have dinner parties. And I ended up starting to film some of the events that I had set up and created, because I was a natural entertainer and naturally very social and could see bigger pictures that were affecting communities and societies for women and children and schools and education and the environment and different charitable organizations in my community I got involved with had needs. One thing led to another, and once I started to film some of the events that I had produced, and then I started to edit them. And I used to edit with a home video camera and a sophisticated VCR with a jog shuttle where you could lay down footage and lay down the soundtrack and then jog shuttle your frame rate back and then lay new footage and lay new footage and lay new footage. But if you made a mistake, you had to go back and lay everything again. It was a training for me that I learned how to appreciate what digital editing could provide. And when it became available, and when my jog shuttle VCR died, I just stepped through the next doorway and got into editing film. And then I just realized that that gave me a powerful tool to do more for the future for consciousness and for shifting people’s perspectives and for educating people than doing events to raise money for the next cause. It was even a more powerful tool. And one of my first documentaries was about a friend of mine who was killed in a terrorist bus attack in Israel. And I felt that if I could do something to help both the Israelis and the Arabs, something that could help build a bridge to better communications going forward, then I wanted to do that because that had been an ongoing issue for certainly the last 400 or 500 years in the Middle East. So I raised money to build a legal aid bureau that would support women and children in my friend’s memory in Karmiel, Israel. And we raised $100,000 from the making of that first film and built a center in Israel. And that was really my first film. Still done with the VCR and the jog shuttle.
Max Sanders: Yeah. It’s crazy, with all this learning, I heard Travis was actually initially called, well, you changed the name from Travis to Alien Abductions. How did that happen?
Jennifer Stein: Well, actually that was because I was having a hard time getting a distributor. I had many people approach me, but the contracts they were offering me were seven, eight years. They had the rights to the film. And they weren’t obligated to do anything with it. And they had the rights to take almost all the profit in those first seven or eight years. They had no commitment back to me. They only said they would try to sell it. And so [a distribution company called] Distribor said to me, “If you make a film and you name it with the letter starting A, or the first two words in the film starting with A, it’s going to come up top of the list in any list you put it in, and your film is going to do much better.” So it occurred to me, “Wow, I should have named the film Alien Abduction rather than Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton.” So I went about just literally reediting the film with that as the title and that in the credits. I had to create a new IMDb setting and relist the film. If people come across it and watch it under that title, it’s still the same film.
Max Sanders: Yeah, no, t feels much more like a character study how he digested his life, how the community treated him. Even his friend, Steve, it took him 20 years to deal with his wife and his kids. I thought it was very moving. And it was definitely more than an alien story.
Jennifer Stein: Yes, yes.
Max Sanders: I gotta ask this now: With other alien stories that you’ve seen, what fictional film do you think achieves the most accurate depiction of aliens?
Jennifer Stein: Gosh. Well, I don’t know since I’ve never met one, but I’ll tell you what – one of my most favorite films is: Avatar.
Max Sanders: Yeah.
Jennifer Stein: I think what that film captured brought us into an understanding of a species living on a planet that they are connected to. They were a highly evolved species that thought deep and hard about what they did. And they had telepathic abilities, which many people who have contact claim they are in contact with beings that telepathically communicate with them. That could very well be an inkling of where we need to go in the future in terms of our integrity and our self respect and our ability to listen to our intuition –
Max Sanders: And listen to the world around you.
Jennifer Stein: Yeah. Stay connected with the world around you because you live as a member of a group. We don’t get to live on this planet just solely by ourselves, and only thinking of ourselves. And if we did, we’d be long gone from this planet.
Max Sanders: Do you think that your involvement in the UFO community has made you more connected to everything around you?
Jennifer Stein: Oh, absolutely. It continues to challenge me to be a deeper thinker, to be a more respectful human, to have compassion for the things that people have been victim to in their lives, not just in the UFO field, but in the grand scheme of life. Few of us get through life uninjured or unhurt in one way or another. And it is only through those tragedies and through the mistakes that we make that we learn how to be better, and how we’d wished we had been better in certain circumstances. So of course, if we don’t grow, what’s the point of living?
Max Sanders: I’m just going to take a long, cold shower later and just think about my life. Jennifer, where can people find your work?
Jennifer Stein: Probably the best place to find information about the Travis film is Travis WaltonTheMovie.com.
Max Sanders: Well, I just want to say thank you for opening me up to a new world and a new experience with your movie and your passion.