One of the most exciting things about starting each year with the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. Captivating stories, soon-to-be iconic shots, and timely cinematic conversations are all cornerstones of the 2023 Festival slate — and those are all birthed from the hearts and souls of these filmmakers. That means that this year we have the privilege of being introduced (or reintroduced for returning filmmakers) to the artists behind 111 features, 64 shorts, and four indie episodic projects.
And while we learn a lot from the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about these filmmakers as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our Backstory questionnaire!
“I’m the cliché story of the kid that has been making little movies since he was young,” admits director Jake Van Wagoner. “A lot of the people in my family are performers, and growing up I would reenact movies or plays with my siblings, and we would film it on my parents’ VHS camcorders. As I got a little older, in high school, I started paying more attention to how movies were made. I’ve been a fan of those ’80s and ’90s films for forever, movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and E.T. and The Goonies.” Van Wagoner may be all grown up now, but he’s still making films for families.
Van Wagoner’s latest family-friendly project premiered at 2023 Sundance Film Festival and arguably had the most memorable title of the whole program: Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out. And though the film screened as part of the Festival’s Kids section, Van Wagoner doesn’t want grown-ups to miss out on the fun. “This film is for everyone. It’s meant to be enjoyed by all ages.”
In the film, teenage Itsy (Emma Tremblay) is less than thrilled when her family moves to the tiny Utah town of Pebble Falls. A writing competition dangles a chance to return to the big city, so Itsy chooses the strangest subject she can think of for her exposé: her classmate Calvin (Jacob Buster), who wears a homemade spacesuit to school and sincerely believes his parents were abducted by aliens 10 years prior.
Below, discover Van Wagoner’s inspiration behind the story, one of the most memorable moments during filming, and why the director believes filmmaking is important.
What was the biggest inspiration behind the film?
The biggest inspiration behind the film was our love of all the nostalgic movies from our childhood. We wanted to make a movie that could be enjoyed by everyone, and we felt like those ’80s and ’90s movies that we grew up on were the perfect examples of “family” films that everyone can enjoy. We felt like we need more of that today.
Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?
We want people to connect with the film, to see themselves in Itsy or Calvin, or even Evan (Itsy’s younger brother). We want people to recognize that everyone is different and to be OK with that. I love that Calvin is different from everyone around him and gets teased or looked down on, but he doesn’t care, he’s different and he knows it and he loves it. I think that’s a powerful message to people out there that are trying to fit in; be yourself, be confident.
Why does this story need to be told now?
There are so many amazing films and TV shows out there right now, and perhaps not as many of them leave us with the hope and resolution that our film does. We think it’s important for everyone to hear this message, that things are hard, people are mean, but there are people in your corner and there is alway hope. It’s very easy to get caught up in “keeping up” with others and fitting in, but when you find the people that you truly connect with, those things don’t matter anymore.
How do you want people to feel after they see your film?
We hope that the journey that our movie takes will resonate with our audience and leave them feeling uplifted and hopeful. We want people to be a little kinder and to hold onto the people in their circle a little tighter.
Your favorite part of making the film? Memories from the process?
I remember being out in the middle of the night shooting the climax of the movie. We had special effects going, stunts, special effects makeup, two cameras, huge lights, a crane, in the not-easy-to-access forest, 7° temperature. The fog machine we needed broke in Utah the day before, so one of my best friends in LA drove through the night to bring us another one. We had to shoot like 10 pages. It felt impossible. But as I looked around at 3 a.m., everyone was there. They were happy, laughing, doing their jobs and doing them really well. I felt like the luckiest director on Earth that night. Truly could not have done this movie with anyone else.
Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?
Film can be such a powerful medium. Combining the imagery with the music and the performance. I feel like films have the power to change people, to shed light on things, and to bring people joy. My singular goal as a filmmaker is to entertain. I think it’s so important for people to experience the joy that you get from watching a well-crafted film, and I want to be a part of bringing that joy to others. To escape from your everyday life into an adventure or comedy or action or drama, to be entertained, that’s one of the necessities of this life.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?
I’d be a teacher. I feel like a lot of the same can be said of teaching: It changes people’s lives, you have the ability to affect people and bring them joy and to entertain. There’s a lot of overlap in my opinion.
What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to be better cinematic storytellers?
Honest and authentic storytelling will always win.
One thing people don’t know about me is _____.
I have a wife and 5 kids, and they are everything to me.
Early bird or night owl?
Night owl, for sure. Mornings are for the birds.
What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?
Looooved Napoleon Dynamite. That film is a vision board film for me. I remember watching that movie alone in a theater on my lunch break as a news camera operator in Grand Junction, Colorado, and dying. I’ve been a fan of the director, Jared Hess, since then. I loved Palm Springs. Gimme any sort of “have to repeat the same day over and over” film and I’m gonna love it. I loved Brigsby Bear. Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary did an amazing job with that one.