INTERVIEW : FLORENCE HARTIGAN – PHOENIX FORGOTTEN
Phoenix Forgotten is based on the shocking, true events of March 13th, 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona. This unprecedented and inexplicable phenomenon became known as “The Phoenix Lights,” and remains the most famous and widely viewed UFO sighting in history. The film tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town and were never seen again. Now, on the 20th anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition.
Florence Hartigan, known for her work in Entrance, The Witch of Portabello, and the upcoming animated feature, Malevolent starring William Shatner and Morena Baccarin, tells us about the experience collaborating with producer Ridley Scott on the spooky sci-fi movie.
GTN: Why movies? What was it about film that had you jumping through fiery hoops to be a part of it?
Hartigan: I love movies, and always have. I even studied film theory in college. I actually did a class on representations of AI in film, and wrote papers about Blade Runner, so obviously the fact that Ridley Scott was involved in this project made it pretty appealing to me! I also loved that going into this project I knew the aim was to make it feel like a real documentary, as unscripted as possible, and so there would be a lot of improv. I trained in improv at UCB and The Groundlings here in LA so it was cool to be able to flex those muscles in a sci fi thriller environment.
GTN: Did you find it relatively easy to break in?
Hartigan: I shot my first movie when I was 16, I played a foul-mouthed chain smoking small-town girl in Hokitika, New Zealand so I think starting young helped – even just in giving me the confidence to know I hadn’t just imagined acting was something I not only loved doing, but that I could do well enough to be paid for doing it on a big huge screen. Coming to LA it’s a pretty different environment though. There are so many more opportunities, but a lot more competition too. In the end I think it’s all about doing what you can do to keep feeling inspired and having fun, and keep on keeping on.
GTN: You have to have a thick skin, if you’re working in the business, I imagine. How do you handle the ups, downs, rejections and disparagement that the game brings?
Hartigan: Yeah that is hard because as an actor I think one of your main tools is that you do have a certain sensitivity, and that’s definitely been a learning curve for me. I think honestly what’s helped is that I had the big disappointments you have – getting close to a dream role and then having it go to someone else, that kind of thing – all that stuff happened to me in my teens and so I got that stuff out of the way! Now I know I can survive all that stuff and I have tools to deal with it. I really wanted the part in Phoenix Forgotten, but I knew if i didn’t get this one there’d be others. I made a list of all the things that were in my power to do for my career that I would do if I didn’t get the role, and that’s what I always do now. It’s just good to remember there will always be another audition.
GTN: You clearly like to be involved in all facets of filmmaking – is that why you prefer to get involved in indie projects?
Hartigan: Yeah – I love that we live in an age where if you have an idea, there’s really nothing stopping you. People shoot movies on their phones, I mean, it’s incredible what you can do. I write – I’ve written plays and short films and sketches (you can see some of my stuff on Funny or Die), and I love being able to make stuff and put it out there with the only barrier being my time and motivation to do it. But I don’t necessarily prefer indie projects. It’s obviously awesome to work on a project with money behind it, and there are some clear advantages to that. But in the end it’s totally possible to make an amazing film with a few thousand dollars, and it’s totally possible to make a terrible film with 50 million dollars, it’s all about the idea and what you do with what you have.
GTN: Do you feel it’s a little unfair that the big award shows don’t recognize independent films more?
Hartigan: I wouldn’t say that statement rings true for me actually – Moonlight was a 1.5 Million dollar indie and it won 8 oscars including best picture! Sundance and SXSW are now major tastemakers. I think this is actually a great time for independent films – you don’t need to buy film stock or process it any more, digital filmmaking has made it just so much cheaper and there are so many more avenues for people to see your work on online platforms.
GTN: Even the major press shies away from indie films. Has it become less about what the readers might want to read about and more about who will keep them in business?
Hartigan: I don’t really know much about the world of the film press. but I think we do live in a clickbait culture, so I can see where the point you’re raising comes from. Personally, I feel like I hear about indie films all the time – maybe that’s because that’s the world I live in and those are my peers – but I think it’s also because social media has the ability to democratize transcend other media outlets in terms of promotion for stuff like that, so maybe the major press matters less if you have an indie on your hands.
GTN: They say ‘TV is where it’s at’ at the moment, do you agree?
Hartigan: There’s definitely great TV at the moment. That’s not to say I haven’t seen some great film this year – I just saw “ingrid Goes West” which is awesome and frankly terrifying, and we had “Get Out” and “Wonder Woman” this year which were probably my top three so far. But I think we’ve seen some exceptional TV this year too – I think it’s been really interesting to watch the power shift out of the hands of networks and advertisers and watch this subscription model really start to thrive. I think it allows for riskier and more exciting choices, and for shows with smaller but loyal audiences to survive. I’ve really enjoyed seeing new seasons of fan favorites that got cancelled – I’m not so secretly hoping there will one day be a final season of an HBO show I loved called Carnivale, which was abruptly cancelled at what I felt was its zenith! If you haven’t seen it, check it out, it’s a supernatural horror situation but the setting is a circus in the dustbowl during the great depression. It’s so good.
GTN: Would you like to explore television?
Hartigan: Yes I’d like to be in the third season of Carnivale, please! Haha. But failing that, I’m by no means a purist when it comes to film or television, I love it all. And there’s such wonderful TV out there, and amazing roles for women – I’m loving the Handmaid’s Tale, and The OA was incredible. I also have a comedy background so I’d love to do a Veep or Silicon Valley type show. I love it all.
GTN: Box office receipts are down – do you think that’s because of all the great television, or increased theatre prices? Or maybe something else?
Hartigan: I think prices go up when attendance goes down so it’s a feedback loop. And I think we have so much stimulus and stress in our everyday lives I think it’s harder now for people to make the effort to go out and see a film, especially when as we’ve discussed, there are such great TV options. And not only TV – let’s not forget we also live in an age where you basically have every movie ever made at your fingertips 3 clicks away! But I’ll never stop seeing films in the cinema – there’s nothing to me like going to the movies.
GTN: Tell readers why they need to seek out your film! What will they get from it?
Hartigan: What I like about our movie is that it blends fact and fiction. Our director, Justin Barber, approached it like a documentary in a lot of ways. There’s real footage in the film, of a real UFO sighting, and we interview real people about their experiences and real jobs. I think that blurry line between reality and fantasy is fun. I also think the mystery of the whole thing is engaging, so if you liked Serial or S-Town or if you’re at all a fan of Werner Herzog (who we were very influenced by in making this) I think it will appeal to you. And it of course also lands in that genre film area, so there are some thrills and spills for you as well. It’s a really cool little film, in my humble opinion!