Director Keith Arem’s The Phoenix Incident Revives Local UFO Mystery

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Q&A Issue: March 2016
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The Phoenix Incident / Courtesy Fathom EventsOn March 13, 1997, thousands of people reported sighting a triangular light formation in the skies over Phoenix and Sonora, Mexico. Local police stations were flooded with calls. Numerous witnesses photographed the object, which reportedly moved south toward Tucson. Four men disappeared while off-roading in Estrella Mountain Park, never to be seen again. It was a night straight out of The X-Files.

Military officials reported the lights were from training exercises performed at Barry Goldwater Range. But not everyone believed their story.

Writer-director Keith Arem, known for his work on video games such as Call of Duty and Prince of Persia, revives the mystery of the Phoenix Lights in his new sci-fi thriller, The Phoenix Incident, opening at select U.S. theaters in March. Arem had just come back from visiting family in Tucson in 1997 when the event occurred. “Many of our friends in Arizona witnessed the sighting,” he says. “While I do believe there was a military presence that night, there are too many eyewitness and documented accounts for this to be dismissed only as flares.”

The Phoenix Incident focuses on the disappearance (and potential abduction?) of Glenn Lauder, Mitch Adams, Ryan Stone and Jacob Reynolds—the young men reported missing from Avondale the day after the mysterious event. Bone fragments later found in the area led to speculation that the men had been killed in an animal attack.

Described as a hybrid of recent invasion flicks District 9 and Cloverfield, Arem’s film is fiction peppered with a pinch of truth. The disappearances were real, the sightings confirmed, and interviews with Arem’s military contacts inspired his quest to gather evidence of alien activity in the Phoenix skies.

We caught up with Arem prior to the nationwide Fathom Events release of The Phoenix Incident on Thursday, March 10. Here’s what he had to say about the controversial nature of the case, his research and the possibility of a Phoenix Lights video game.


What was your personal experience with the Phoenix Lights?

I grew up in Tucson during the time when tensions with the Soviet Union and Iraq War were at their height. There was a tremendous military escalation during the early ‘90s and a constant air presence over Arizona, so many of us were accustomed to seeing lights in the sky.


How did the idea for a Phoenix Lights film project come about?

I’d written a few stories about the encounter, and through the course of my research and relationships with many military consultants on the games I directed, several of our advisors shared their personal accounts of unusual sightings. Many of them described encounters and combat missions with unidentified craft, and this inspired me to explore the evidence behind the Phoenix case.


Writer-director Keith Arem / Courtesy Phantom EventsWhat were reactions like when you questioned officials (and witnesses) about the Phoenix Incident?

When I began my investigation and research, I met with hundreds of eyewitnesses and most were eager to share their experience with me. Some military divisions and political leaders were hesitant to discuss the case, but surprisingly many retired veterans were very forthcoming about their information. We heard several reports of pilots that were scrambled to intercept the lights, and jets challenging unknown crafts. Although many of the witnesses presented detailed and credible accounts, I felt it was best to approach the film from a fictional standpoint and allow the audience to make a decision for themselves.


During the writing/filming process, what was the most surprising piece of information you learned about the Phoenix Lights?

The two most fascinating aspects of the story, besides the proximity to the Hale-Bopp comet and the Heaven’s Gate suicides, were the rumors about Operation Snowbird and the suicide of Captain Craig Button following the encounter.

Operation Snowbird, commonly known as a training joint exercise with the Maryland National Guard and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, was described as a “distraction operation” to avert the public's attention from the mass sighting. The theory was that flares were deployed over civilian airspace to distract attention away from the actual engagement over the Estrella Mountains.

Although we don't explore much of his story in the movie, Button was an A-10 Thunderbolt pilot from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base [who] unexplainably broke formation from his squad and purposely crashed his plane into the side of a Colorado mountain. Rumors have speculated that Button may have been involved in Operation Snowbird two weeks earlier, and had threatened to go to the press with his story.

I don’t know if either of these rumors [are] true, but they were fascinating to learn.


Would you consider creating a Phoenix Lights video game?

I would absolutely love to develop a Phoenix Incident game. So many members of our cast and crew come from the game industry, and I think we would all be up for creating a game based on this event.