Showtime will examine the fascination surrounding unidentified flying objects with its new four-part documentary series, UFO, premiering Sunday (Aug. 8).
The four-part limited docuseries, executive produced by J.J. Abrams, Glen Zipper, Mark Monroe and Sean Stuart, examines the history of UFOs through cultural and political touchpoints, including testimony from eyewitnesses across the country. Ignited by the 2017 New York Times story revealing the Pentagon had been secretly tracking UFOs for years, UFO looks to find the truth behind the phenomenon, according to Showtime.
I recently spoke to Zipper about the series, the appeal of UFO-themed content as well as his own thoughts and beliefs about the phenomenon in a wide-ranging interview, an edited version of which appears below.
Picture This: What influenced you to develop the series?
Glen Zipper: I’ve always had an interest in UFOs but I'm a very pragmatic and practical thinker. I think I fell into that ‘I want to believe’ category, but not necessarily the ‘I believe’ category. When I surveyed all the content that was out there about UFO's and unexplained phenomena, the majority of it seemed to be sensationalistic and trended toward what you would come to expect of the National Inquirer. But then when the New York Times and the Washington Post started to cover the UFO phenomenon, I thought the time was right for us to take a closer look at the topic in film and television. But we wanted to look at it through the same lens that the New York Times and Washington Post were viewing it and to give a really credible, wholesale look at UFO phenomena, from the beginning of our fascination with it up to the present day.
PT: What is it about UFOs that continues to fascinate the American public?
GZ: Well, there's the entertainment factor -- we've been conditioned to enjoy science fiction and horror content, and every time you go see a scripted film or watch a scripted television show about aliens, they are usually here to kill us. I think that in some measure has stoked the flames of our interest in the UFO phenomenon. But I think on a more thoughtful level UFOs represent the unknown. If UFOs exist, that means that there's a lot more out there than we understand. If there's more out there than we understand, there's also the potential for more hope that if something bigger than ourselves arise, perhaps that could help us with the issues that we're suffering through here on earth. That could include cures for diseases, or maybe the fractures between us as a society and as a world start to heal once we see that, relative to an alien species, we’re all brothers and sisters. So when you combine those two things there’s an irresistible pull toward UFOs.
PT: You mentioned the New York Times and Washington Post stories on UFOs. Did those stories aid in getting this series developed and picked up by Showtime?
GZ: The inception of the project was a meeting between myself and (Showtime Networks EVP, Nonfiction Programming) Vinnie Malhotra. We were trying to find something to collaborate on and we both were interested in UFO's. Once we started to do the actual work the New York Times story became very much the spine of the entire series. We have Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal who were two of the reporters involved in that [New York Times] story participating in our series. They are really credible, persuasive and thoughtful voices in the space.
PT: What, what are you hoping to accomplish with the series?
GZ: I don't think we're going to convince anyone that UFOs exist or don't exist. That was never the mission of the series. I think it was about presenting UFOs and unexplained phenomena through a different lens. What you'll see in this series is that civilians who have claimed to see these phenomena for decades are often subjected to ridicule. I think what we want to do is slide the conversation to a place where it is no longer living in that context. We want to be able to have thoughtful conversations about the UFO phenomenon and be open-minded about it, and allow people to express their views without fear of ridicule. When you watch this series there are dissenting opinions as well and they're treated with equal respect. So I think it's about leveling up the conversation to a different place that allows for a better and more thoughtful dialogue.
PT: Do you foresee the opportunity to maybe extend this series beyond the episodes that you currently have if the government continues to release more information about UFOs?
GZ: That’s an interesting question. I think when we started this series, myself, [J.J. Abrams’ production company] Bad Robot and Showtime viewed it as a one off limited series. Once we started to turn over some rocks and to see how many stories there are to tell -- not just as it pertains to the UFO phenomenon but what you also might consider about paranormal activity, whether or not there are multi-verses, and life after death, it really gets interesting. In researching UFOs, these other threads started to reveal themselves internally. I’m not speaking for Showtime, but we were very curious about maybe continuing on and exploring some of these other themes and storylines, and having something that was much more akin to a documentary X-Files series.
PT: You started out by saying you weren’t necessarily a believer in UFOs. Once you completed the show did that change at all?
GZ: I think that I feel more comfortable believing. But I'm one of those people -- and I think there's probably a lot of people that are like me -- who aren't really going to believe until [extraterrestrials] show up and shake our hands, literally or figuratively. It’s just one of those things where I'd be far less surprised now if that happened then I would have been before I produced the series.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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