The second part of our coverage of director Dean Alioto’s two groundbreaking found footage films focuses on Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1999), the remake of UFO Abduction.
The backstory behind Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County continues where UFO Abduction left off. Even though ten years have passed since the first film, the allegations of an actual alien invasion and government conspiracies have followed Dean Alioto through the remake of his seminal film.
Not since Orsen Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show has the general public been so convinced that a purely fictional work was founded on an actual alien invasion.
Recap: On episode #80 of Found Footage Files Podcast we interviewed Dean Alioto and discussed the genesis of UFO Abduction (1989) and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1999) and all of the craziness that followed. This article is a distilled version of the podcast and includes additional information provided by Dean Alioto.
This part of our story focuses on the 1998 remake, which consequently was released a year before The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Pitching the Idea: Dick Clark Productions
FFC: How did you come to make Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County?
Dean Alioto: I was working on a crime series around 1995 and the head writer of the show says, “I heard about this crazy UFO thing you made.” He said, “I want to see it.” I said, “No, It’s handheld. It’s video. It’s not representative of the directing that I want to do.” Then he goes “Dude, just show it to me.” I showed it to him and he said alright, I can get us a TV movie deal. The next day he set up a meeting at Dick Clark Productions. We walked in there, met with Neil Stearns, the head of the TV department and we didn’t say anything. We just put in the three-and-a-half minute segment from Encounters that they had done on me and the movie. He shook our hands and said that’s it. That was the easiest movie deal I ever made since.
We got the guys from The X-Files to do the ship and aliens
We had it at Showtime and had it turn around and end up at UPN. Now the budget is $1.25 million, which I’m freaking out about because I’ve only done it for $6,500. They were going to shoot it in Vancouver, which means it’s probably more like $1.5 million because of the money being much more at the time than the U.S. dollar.
We got the guys from The X-Files to do the ship and aliens. We gave ourselves a week to shoot instead of a night. We scripted the whole thing. I co-wrote it with my partner Paul Chitlik, and he and I directed it. We still came in $500,000 under.
The McPherson Tape: Genesis of a Name
FFC: How did the name The McPherson Tape come about?
Dean Alioto: The origins of the name “The McPherson Tape” came about because it had the pronunciation of “Fear” in it—McPHERson. The original name for Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County was “The McPherson Tape” all the way up until we got back from shooting the TV movie and the new heads of UPN, who took over while we were shooting, decided to go for the unimaginatively blatant “Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.”
FFC: Both UFO Abduction and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County are both often referred to as The McPherson Tape. Can you clear the air?
Dean Alioto: It’s riddled with conspiracy theories and everything else thrown in. There’s only been UFO Abduction followed by The McPherson Tape which was the working title—then that ultimately became Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. It’s kind of confusing because it gets described in both versions. I’ve kind of enjoyed people trying to sort it all out, to be honest.
Casting Alien Abduction
FFC: What went into the casting and acting in Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County?
The hardest part was telling the actors you’re gonna have to keep your back to the camera. You’re not going to be able to play to the camera
Dean Alioto: The direction that we got was that this is TV and Hollywood so we had to amp things up and hire actors that are leaning more towards the good looking side. So we had actors that were terrific and they happened to be good looking. It didn’t detract from their performances. But it was much more polished.
The hardest part was telling the actors you’re gonna have to keep your back to the camera. You’re not going to be able to play to the camera. You’re gonna be able to talk over each other and mumble. We had to do all of that. Plus, we had a Canadian crew. Every time they mispronounced “about,” “mom,” and “house” we fined them a buck. I walked away with maybe $200. It was pretty nice.
It’s funny, when we did the final scene when the brothers are gone and they don’t come back, we had shot it and we ran out of time and it didn’t work. It didn’t work because the actors knew that the guys were not coming back so they played it as such. And I said look, there’s too much of you guys being hopeless. You have to in this desperate moment believe that they are going to come back. I begged the cast and crew to give me one more take and they did it and that kind of kept the audience thinking that they may actually come back as well, and then dread sets in.
Stretching the Boundaries of TV: Nudity
FFC: How did you arrive at the decision to add the tiled/pixelated nudity scene in Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, a made for TV film?
In order to sell the reality of it, [the nudity] needed to be in there
Dean Alioto: The actress Emmanuelle Chriqui (later a member of the ensemble cast of HBO’s Entourage) was hired knowing that nudity was part and parcel with the role. The night that we went to shoot she was in tears saying that she didn’t want to do it. Word got to me on the set. My partner wanted to go out and show her the contract and point it out and say, “No, you’re doing it.” I had to ask myself at that moment as a filmmaker, is this going to further the story or not—otherwise, let’s lose it.
She was uncomfortable. I always want to make a set as safe for actors as possible because you want to get their best work. Looking at it again, I realized it needs to be in there. We really needed to sell that this is real and that this kid is very invasive with the camera, and that it’s new to him and so he wants to wield it around like a new toy. In order to sell the reality of it, [the nudity] needed to be in there.
I came to her trailer and listened to her story and she said her father would be very upset—she’d promised him and everything, and I wasn’t about to go into why she signed the thing. I said alright, why don’t we come up with these pasties that we’ll put over your nipples, and she’s like, “you can do that?” I said yeah, and we brought the wardrobe person in, and we’ll just darken it a little bit so that it so that it kind of looks like where your nipples would be, and so we’ll just do that and I can make this work. She says okay.
What you think that you’re seeing that looks like real nudity are actually pasties, so she was never technically naked and didn’t reveal her breasts. For camera, we tiled it so you can just make out some shading. It totally played fine, so we were able to come up with a compromise that worked for both of us.
Stretching the Boundaries of TV: Swearing
FFC: Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is a made for TV film, yet there’s an abundance of swearing that was “bleeped” out. Was the inclusion of swearing used to make the film appear more authentic or were there plans for the future video release of a more explicit version?
The swearing signatures it that this is real. Oh, now it’s real because their bleeping
Dean Alioto: The swearing had to be in there. It was in the original (UFO Abduction). My character (Mikey) in UFO Abduction says “holy shit” something like twenty times. I guess that’s my go-to swear word.
There was an actor who we auditioned. He was really good, but couldn’t say “shit” or the “F” word. He couldn’t bring himself to say it because he had done a lot of TV. I told him in the audition to cuss, “cuss for me right now.” He said okay and he did it. I said okay, let’s do the scene again. We’re gonna roll it and do it again, and he kept saying “freekin, freekin, freekin,” so I freekin had to cut him.
FFC: What were the studio’s thoughts on adding swearing?
Dean Alioto: The studio embraced the swearing one-hundred percent. The network embraced that because for them, they were very excited about the project and figured if they were going to buy a ticket, they wanted everything. They wanted to push it. And as much as we threw stuff in they were embracing of that, unlike the new regime that came in. To their credit, they were ahead of their time. They said, “yes, let’s do this.” No one had done anything like that in films, let alone TV, so UPN has to get a lot of credit for that.
The swearing signatures it that this is real. Oh, now it’s real because their bleeping. Oh, now it’s real because there’s nudity. Now it’s real because these guys are running away from the camera and they’re not playing to camera, and the camera’s having to find them not the other way around.
Expert Interview Segments
FFC: Can you discuss the interview segments in the film?
Dean Alioto: The interviews were in the two-hour version. The North American version (not including Canada) was one-hour. The two-hour version was the one that went out to the rest of the globe and was on SkyTV and Canada—that’s the one we did [with the interviews]. The one-hour version was cut down and a reporter was brought in—a woman who’s frantically trying to meet people and ask them stuff—Paul and I had nothing to do with that, it was an add-on.They still kept a lot of our experts in the one-hour version. In the international version, I’m actually in the film as a special effects director.
FFC: Your interview segment was great. You broke the fourth wall in that scene by endorsing the authenticity of your own film.
Dean Alioto: Very narcissistic.
FFC: In your interview segment you said, “It’s unnerving because if it’s a hoax, I should have been the one that directed it.” Can did you come up with the dialog for that scene?
Dean Alioto: I had this whole thing written out and I was just failing at it take after take. And it was embarrassing and I was starting to sweat and I was really nervous. And then my first assistant director said alright I’m going to direct you. And I said “great” and he grabbed my script and threw it away and said, “you know what you’re trying to say, just say it.” And it was like “oh okay” and I just got it in on that one take. I’m gonna credit Garrett with getting that performance out of me as minuscule as it was. The joke is that if someone is going to make this it should have been me. That little smug silly smile.
Working with the Studio During Filming
FFC: For UFO Abduction, you were pretty much in control of the entire production. For Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County you shot the film for a studio. Was there anything you really wanted to do in the remake that the studio pushed back on?
I knew that no matter what we did, what we put in it, the actors were going to be the ones who were going to sell it and their performances had to seem genuine
Dean Alioto: To be honest I was in shock when I pitched them. I said why don’t you just show the original. Just save some money and show the original. [The Studio] was very supportive and championed it as much as we did. I knew that no matter what we did, what we put in it, the actors were going to be the ones who were going to sell it and their performances had to seem genuine. At the end of the day my battles are always to keep the performance going and everything else is supporting that. I didn’t have to make any creative compromises with the studio.
The network was very supportive. I said here’s the design I have for the ship. Here’s the design for the aliens. It was great. Here’s the second half of the script that we had to write on the spot. What do you guys think? If they had notes, they were all productive. It was the least amount of notes I’ve ever received. I was spoiled. I thought that’s how it was going to be from then on.
Studio Bureaucracy and Production Issues
FFC: What kind of production issues did you face while shooting Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County?
Dean Alioto: We were right in the middle of shooting and everyone at UPN got fired. The whole company got gutted. The head of the TV department, who was the supervisor, he remained. He was the only inside guy.
We were right in the middle of shooting and everyone at UPN got fired. The whole company got gutted.
We came back from Vancouver with our movie that everyone was excited about beforehand—this was like a new frontier. This was a couple of years before The Blair Witch Project (1999). The new regime looked at it and said “what a colossal piece of crap. Thank God we’re here to save the network. This is their first TV movie? This is what they’re doing? No!”
They decided to cut it down to an hour (from two hours). They kicked us off the project and found someone else to cut it. They aired it and it got the highest ratings for Tuesday night prime time. They put more footage in and aired it again and it got even better ratings. The poll that they did online said that half of the people who watched it thought it was real, and the other half didn’t—and all this even though the credits said “Alien 1 played played by so and so, and Alien 2 played by so and so.“
The head of the network at the time said that the show will never be on his damn network again because he was kind of pissed off that it did so well after he had been trashing it, which was a little vindication for the cast and crew. Then the weirdness set in.
More Conspiracy Theories
FFC: Did anything strange happen after Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County aired?
Dean Alioto: All of a sudden the Internet, which in 1988 wasn’t really around to any significant degree, blew up with conspiracy theories. My favorite is that I work for the government and that the original UFO Abduction was real and was found out about through the International UFO Congress Convention, and I was hired by the government to remake it as part of a big disinformation act.
Unhinged Fan Mail
There’s one woman who said that when she was pregnant she almost had a miscarriage.
FFC: Can you describe some of the fan mail you received?
Dean Alioto: The thing that was most disturbing for me, especially as a father, was that the when Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County came out, regardless of the quality and whether it was too slick for the genre, all these kids were allowed to see it. I’m mortified that these parents let them see it. I would get emails from across the country from kids that are now grown up now saying that they still sleep with the light on. There’s one woman who said that when she was pregnant she almost had a miscarriage.
I would apologize to them, and they all said the same thing when they hit me back, “No I love it! Because of that I’m into horror films or I’m into sci-fi.”
Alien Ship and Creatures
FFC: Were you able to preserve the alien ship and costumes?
Dean Alioto: Somewhere between Paul and I we have one of the heads, I think. The production accountant at Dick Clark Productions was really depressed and sad that we destroyed the ship because we spent $40,000 on this thing. It was beautiful, it was gorgeous, but there was nowhere to put it. He’s like shit I would have put it in the backyard and let my kids play with it. There may be a head that he’s got. Nothing else remains. I think Dick Clark had the other head. There were three of them. I’m not sure. I’m really sad about that.
Prelude to Alien Activity: Video Artifacts
FFC: UFO Abduction and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County may be the first found footage films to introduce static or visual artifacts whenever the antagonist is near. This technique is used in just about every found footage film involving paranormal or supernatural activity. How did you come up with this technique?
Dean Alioto: We put that in post. I don’t know if it was in the original script or added it in editing. If you’ve seen the movie Jaws, you’ve got the John Williams score—it’s a precursor. If the shark wasn’t working, you would play the score and bring the presence of it.I wanted to do that whenever there was fear around and you thought something is happening here. Whenever it popped up, subconsciously it would hit you. It was just kind of a device.
Introducing the Confessional
FFC: Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is very possibly the first found footage film to include a character self-confessional. What was the motivation for adding that scene?
Our 90-page script came in at 45 minutes. Half the time. We literally had four days to write a whole other script because it needed to be 90 minutes
Dean Alioto: The funny part was we went out to shoot this thing and we timed it. That’s when you have all the actors together or usually there are companies that do this. They act out the whole movie and rough it out to see if the timing plays. Well, our 90-page script came in at 45 minutes. Half the time.
We literally had four days to write a whole other script because it needed to be 90 minutes for the actual feature length version. I came up with 20 new scenes and hand them to paul and we split it up. I wrote half of them and created the confessional scene which is when the cameraman goes into the bathroom and sets the camera down and does a confession.
I hadn’t done that in my original, but it felt like it would be something that would be kind of like organic to what’s going on, fearing this or that. He’s recording because he thinks this is the only documentation left and it seemed to make sense. That’s now par for the course whenever you do a found footage film—you’ve got to do a confessional.
Kitchen Appliances Run Amuck
FFC: Was the scene where the aliens made the kitchen appliances randomly turn on an homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)?
Dean Alioto: Yeah. That was an homage unabashedly so. There was some stuff that we added when we extended it for the two-hour version. One of them was the burning sensation and the little tattoos. I think the nose-bleeds we had in there. The appliance stuff we had fun with. The special effects guys rocked that.
Reviewing the Footage
Sometimes when you get a remake of a film you’re able to improve upon it
FFC: One scene that stands out is where the protagonists return to the house after seeing the alien spaceship and tell everyone what they witnessed. Everyone in the house thinks they were playing a joke. At that moment the camera is shut down so the family can review the footage. When the camera turns back on everyone has a melancholic look on their faces. There’s a complete change in their demeanor—a great contrast.
Dean Alioto: Sometimes when you get a remake of a film you’re able to improve upon it. That was one of the questions I had. I guess you could have played it back through the eyepiece in the original film—of course you didn’t have a TV that was working because the electricity went out. I’m glad that their performances worked for you.
Is a Bluray Release Coming?
FFC: You mentioned that you have behind the scenes footage from Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County?
Dean Alioto: I will tell you that I have tons of behind the scenes footage from that film. I guess it’s my own personal archive stuff, or maybe they could take claim to it—I don’t know how that works. I need to look into that. That’s why we’ve been pushing to get a new release.
The idea is that if there’s something similar that I do that carries some weight to it, we would revisit it and do a proper bluray with behind the scenes footage. I did my own confessional every night. I videotaped the shooting myself talking about the shoot and everything. I don’t remember any of it now, but I have it all on mini-DV and that would be fun to incorporate into a new release.
We’ve asked Dick Clark Productions many a time and the distributor they worked with—I think it’s called Shout! Factory—and they say “we’re not sure about this.” I’ve got thousands of emails from fans, and it hasn’t swayed them.
FFC: You also mentioned that you’re considering adding a clean copy of UFO Abduction as a bonus to a re-release of Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County?
Dean Alioto: I’m getting tired of shutting down YouTube sites that have been pirating UFO Abduction. I like that my work is getting out there, so some of it I’ve taken my time with shutting them down. At some point, hopefully soon, I want to do a special release. Ideally, the remake Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County would make a nice Bluray. Then [UFO Abduction] would be a supplement that might be part of it, otherwise, this would be its own separate thing because I do own the rights to this one, but not http://foundfootagecritic.com/alien-abduction-incident-in-lake-county-1998-aka-the-mcpherson-tape/alien-abduction-incident-in-lake-county-1998-the-mcpherson-tape-review/Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.
Dean Alioto: A Founding Father of Found Footage
FFC: You created UFO Abduction and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County well before the explosion of found footage films. Do you feel like one of the founding fathers of the genre?
Desperation causes you to sometimes do creative and inventive things and that’s how this was birthed
Dean Alioto: Well I would say it’s a huge compliment first off. It was something that was really designed just to be a way to make my first film. I didn’t think about the genre—I really didn’t think about anything other than getting my first film done in my twenty-fifth year. Everything since has been icing upon icing.
The fact that it’s become a new narrative in storytelling is something that I’m proud of. I try to remind myself that you can’t really design things—you have to open yourself up to the universe and have it be a creative partner in all creative endeavors.
I spoke with Bryan Burk, J.J. Abrams partner on Cloverfield (2008). He saw my directing reel with Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. He called me back and said “I really dig this, it’s fun. Can you send me the film?” I sent it to him and then they ultimately did Cloverfield (2008). I remember at the time going, that’s pretty close to Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County—it’s an event, a party or get-together, there’s a blackout, and then the stuff happens.
You have to love seeing where people take stuff. Everything to an extent is borrowed and used and improved upon hopefully. I felt Cloverfield (2008) took and ran with it to a new level just like all the other [films] we cited here.
Virtual reality is going to be a whole other avenue for [found footage] big time. Because UFO Abduction came about really organically, I don’t feel comfortable taking any kind of credit for it. Desperation causes you to sometimes do creative and inventive things and that’s how this was birthed. I’m grateful and hoping to work in the space again myself and look forward to more found footage films.
Favorite Found Footage Films
Paranormal Activity (2007) scared the crap out of me. That was a perfect example of how audio can really be used to engineer fear
FFC: What are your favorite found footage films?
Dean Alioto: The Blair Witch Project (1999). I enjoyed the shaky cam—it was something that again was improved upon later with each of these films. People see things that work and don’t work. That worked really well with leaving I to the imagination—that was the most amazing thing about the film. I also like that they mixed it with 16mm film. I thought that was great.
Paranormal Activity (2007) scared the crap out of me. That was a perfect example of how audio can really be used to engineer fear. I saw that in a theater alone in the first showing of it and it scared the crap out of me. It takes a lot to scare me and I really enjoyed that.
I enjoyed Cloverfield (2008) and some of the other Paranormal Activity films—some of the follow-ups were good. Yeah, there’s been so many films, that they’re all running together in my brain.
- UFO Abduction (1989) Movie Review
- UFO Abduction (1989) Movie Trailer [EXCLUSIVE]
- Fox Network Encounters Segment on UFO Abduction (1989) [EXCLUSIVE]
- Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998) (a.k.a. The McPherson Tape) Movie Review
- Audio Interview of Director Dean Alioto (Episode #80, Found Footage Files Podcast)