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Jake Van Wagoner’s second feature film, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Kinda Feel Left Out, made its debut at Sundance this year, and introduced festival-goers to Itsy (played by Emma Tremblay), a teen girl starting the school year in a new town. Harboring big dreams to one day work for the New York Times, Itsy believes this new start in a small town may be the end of her world as she knows it. When a friend suggests she enter a writing contest, Itsy’s world does change, but for the better.
Based on a screenplay by Austin Everett, Aliens Abducted My Parents doesn’t maintain the typical coming-of-age tropes for long. Hoping to cement her escape to NYC, Itsy decides to do an exposé on the town’s oddball, Calvin (Jacob Buster), whose fixation on outer space weirds out his peers. As it turns out, Calvin believes his parents, played by Elizabeth Mitchell and Will Forte, were abducted by aliens when he was a child, and he’s holding onto the hope that he’ll reconnect with them again someday.
For the film’s world premiere at Sundance, Collider’s Steve Weintraub was able to sit down with the writer, Austin Everett, director Wagoner, and cast members Forte, Mitchell, Tremblay, and Buster at the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water in Park City. During their interview, Wagoner justifies the movie’s lengthy title, the cast share what drew them to this family-friendly project, and Forte and Mitchell discuss how they got involved. They share the film’s surprisingly short film schedule, how they pulled off a Sundance film on a budget, and what it was like getting those calls. Forte reveals details about his upcoming movie, Coyote vs. Acme, with John Cena, Tremblay recalls her childhood roles alongside stars like Academy Award-winner Meryl Steep and Robert Downey Jr., and Buster shares what it was like moving to New York for his role in Let the Right One In. You can watch the interview in the video above, or read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: Did you get any feedback saying, “Hey, do you feel this strongly about the long title?”
WAGONER: For sure. The thing about it, though, is that when Austin pitched the movie to me – Austin wrote the movie, and when he pitched it to me, that’s all he said, was the title. And I don’t know, I mean, that’s the log line. You know everything about the movie from that. So, we were like, “Well, we can’t change it.” I mean, it sticks in your brain. So, people have been like, “I don’t know, maybe we workshop it a little bit.” But Austin and I have always been like, “No, that’s it. That’s the title.” We don’t care about the Steve’s of the world.
Right, or the websites and SEO of the world.
WAGONER: Right. I think, yes, that was a little bit of a misstep. So, maybe we do care about that.
When you hear the title, you know what the movie is. So, congrats for being part of Sundance, but everyone watching will not have seen the movie yet. So, I guess, Austin or Jake, who wants to bite the bullet and explain how you’ve been describing the film to friends and family?
WAGONER: Austin does.
AUSTIN EVERETT: I start with the title. I say, “Well, it’s about a boy who believes he saw his parents get abducted by aliens, and he’s not even mad about it. He’s just kind of bummed that they didn’t take him with him. And then in walks Itsy, this girl from the big city, who meets this boy, and they share this similar want, which is to get out of this small town and go and do something else. And that’s–
WILL FORTE: Basically, everything is a spoiler to a degree.
WAGONER: That’s true.
EMMA TREMBLAY: The title is a spoiler…
EVERETT: Everything apart from the title is a spoiler.
I’m a big fan of Will’s work.
And why wouldn’t you be? So, how often on set did you quote MacGruber or talk about MacGruber, or any of Will’s past work?
WAGONER: Here’s the beautiful thing. We made this movie in such a quick amount of time that Will came in and out in a blink of an eye, and we had 80 pages to shoot while he was there. So, there was so little time to quote MacGruber. But what I will say is that while we–
FORTE: There also were a lot of kids.
WAGONER: I mean, it’s a kids movie. But we went to his trailer once, and he showed us some scenes from the MacGruber TV show that hadn’t come out yet. And that was the highlight of the movie for me.
ELIZABETH MITCHELL: I heard you guys laughing.
One of the things about this film though is it’s appropriate for all ages. Anyone can watch it. And so for the actors, is that one of the things that drew you to the project?
JACOB BUSTER: Yeah, I think, for me, I loved that family-friendly aspect, but I feel like a lot of those films push aside emotions, which I feel like a lot of kids do feel. But this one dives into that and dives into the loneliness, and really shows kids that they have more to offer than just the people around them and whether they’re there or not.
TREMBLAY: For me, it was the comedy of it. I’ve never done anything so comedic as this movie, and I learned my flaw [is] that I can’t keep a still face in a scene. So, I ruined so many takes by laughing because everyone here is just hilarious.
For you guys, what was it about the script or story that said, “I want to do this.”?
FORTE: I got to know Jake over 10 years ago, he was a PA on the movie Don Verdean, and there was a day that I think the schedule changed around. And so we ended up just walking around the streets of–
WAGONER: Tiniest little tiny town in Utah.
FORTE: And then, years later they invited me to do their show, he and Maclain [Nelson], called Show Offs, and I became friends with them. And then I came and did Studio C, both of them for BYUtv. And so, at that point when we were doing Studio C, he said, “Do you want to be a part of this movie?” I didn’t know anything about the script at that point, I think I just said, “Yes.” Because these guys are great, and it was the experience of working with them.
I’ve done a lot of very dirty stuff in my life, and I just had kids, and he’s very amazing at creating this very… it’s a type of clean absurdity that’s so fun and interesting. I have a lot of respect for it because it’s hard for… You take away the dirtiness from stuff and sometimes, I don’t know, I don’t have much. So the fact that he can do such funny stuff in a clean way is very exhilarating. And I was just excited to be a part of it. And I have two little daughters now, so it’s fun to be in something they can watch.
MITHELL: Clean absurdity. Do you love that? That’s your new thing. You can describe yourself that way.
EVERETT: I can listen to you guys talk about this movie all day. Great question.
MITCHELL: My friend Bob called and said, “Do you want to work with some of the greatest guys in this business?” And I said, “Sure.” That was it. And then I read the script and it was so quirky and charming, and true and lovely, and I felt like it was a gift.
You have a big scene. I would imagine this is one of these things where you are in and out of this project, and you have a big scene in a diner, and I’m curious, what is it like when you’re stepping foot on set where everyone’s been shooting already, and you need to do it all, everything about your character, in a short amount of time?
MITCHELL: Oh, I loved it. I mean, it was the most welcoming set. You guys were spectacular. I came to set, I got hugs, I got, “Oh my gosh, we’re so happy you’re here.” I heard “we’re so happy you’re here” probably 15 times with hugs, with, “What can I get you? Would you like to sit here?” And I was like, “This is nice.” I have a teenager at home. I’m not treated like this. So, I thought it was great. And the character was so beautifully drawn. It felt like a joy.
One of the things I also liked is that Itsy’s parents are very supportive. It’s unusual. So, can you talk about that aspect, if you want to talk about it?
TREMBLAY: Yeah, it was really fun to work with the parents themselves, and then to also build that relationship with them really fast, too, because they were also in it and out of it pretty quickly. So, it was really fun to get to know them, and then get to know Itsy and how she has so much range of what she can do. She gets grounded, and then she’s leaving because she’s never been grounded. She has her life to herself, and they’re just watching her. And so that made a movie.
WAGONER: I think, also, we wanted to make the parents feel like ‘80s parents. We didn’t want the parents to be… The story’s about these two teenagers, and so we wanted to have the parents be there as much as they needed to be parental figures. But also, the idea was that the movie’s about the kid. And so we’re letting them just come in and out, and be supportive, but also be a little bit aloof like we saw in those ‘80s movies.
Oh no, 100%.
EVERETT: And the parents just love each other so much. They’re so obsessed with each other. A lot of the time they are on their own, having their own little adventure. And we liked having parents that love each other, and they’re in their own little world. And that was fun for us, rather than having parents that are just fighting or having conflict all the time. It felt natural to have these parents be so excited about moving to this small town, and doing the fixer-upper dream. So, that just worked on its own.
I’m curious about the spacesuit and when you first saw it, wearing it, and also the lab.
BUSTER: Yeah, so that spacesuit is pretty dang cool. It’s got tons and tons of layers, a bucket that was sawed out, so I could put my arms through that comes over and has little buttons on it. And then it was like a biker helmet that was painted, and that was pretty fun. Also, the goo, that was fun, and I got so much… it was [Landry Townsend] that I got that all over. That was a very fun scene. And that suit was definitely physical comedy, I think is the best way to put it.
Yeah. Is it one of those things where you tried to borrow it from set and people said, “F that.”?
BUSTER: You know, I wish I could. Because imagine if you could go snowboarding in that. Just slap that on, put on your helmet…
WAGONER: Well, I think, to be honest, it was a snowboarding suit that was converted into– Really, it was, it was a one-piece snowboarding suit that was converted into that, yeah.
BUSTER: Yeah, it was a white snowboarding suit that got dirtied up.
But that’s called having a budget, and that actually is my next thing. So, obviously, this is not a Marvel movie. You have a finite schedule and a finite budget. What ended up being the toughest stuff to pull off with what you were up against?
WAGONER: Well, I mean we were really shooting a lot of pages every day. We shot the film in not a huge amount of time.
We’re talking 14 days, or 25?
WAGONER: 15. 15 days.
Got it. Exactly.
WAGONER: Yes, exactly. And so truthfully, when Will and Elizabeth were there, we had to pack in every single scene that they were in in those two days. And so that was probably the toughest thing. I will say though, that the crew that we have, we shot this locally in Utah, and the crew we have are so inventive, and they’re just so good at being inventive. And they begged, borrowed, and stole things from other sets and from other things that they had done. So, we were able to put a lot of stuff on the screen that way.
This is another director question, and I apologize.
WAGONER: Well, I’ll take it from here, guys.
I’m obsessed with the editing process because that’s where the film comes together. So, how did the film change in the editing room in ways you didn’t expect? Or, did you show the movie to people, and they said, “Oh, you need to fix this.”?
WAGONER: Yes, I mean, there was nothing egregious that people were like, “Uh-oh, this doesn’t work.” The first cut I got back, though, was like 74 minutes, and I was like, “Oh no, what have I done?” And it just took a little bit of finessing and pacing. It was just a little bit tight. And so we just opened it up a little bit, and I think that was the biggest thing, is making sure that the pacing was right. Because there are such heartfelt moments in the movie, and there are also comedic moments. And so, that was the biggest thing, is finding the balance and the transitions in and out of those scenes to make sure we weren’t like, “Whoa, this is all over the place.” It flows a little bit more.
You guys are obviously part of the Sundance Film Festival. Oftentimes you find out at the last minute, or you find out way in advance, enough to keep the secret. So, for all of you, when did you find out, and how long were you not able to tell anyone?
WAGONER: I mean, because I got the call first, I’ll just start, and then I’ll be quiet the rest of the interview. I was on another movie in Ireland in December and got a phone call at three in the morning, and didn’t get it until I woke up. I texted the number because I didn’t recognize it and was like, “Hey, sorry I missed your call. I’m awake now,” or something. And then it was [Kim Yutani], the senior programmer for Sundance, and she called me right away and was like, “Hey.” It was midnight for her at that point. And she was like, “I just was so excited, I wanted to tell you.” And I was all alone in this room in Ireland and was just shouting and screaming and was like, “This movie, alien movie?” And she’s like, “Yeah, we loved it.” And so then I got to call the other producers on the film and wake them up, and Austin was… I kept calling and texting, and he’s like, “I’m in bed.”
EVERETT: Because it was midnight. It was midnight. And so, I’m in bed and my phone starts buzzing, and I look, and it’s Jake. And so I silenced it and put it back down because I wasn’t going to answer it. So, he calls me again.
WAGONER: Wow, right?
EVERETT: And again, I silenced it, and then I hear a text and I read it, and he goes, “Are you awake?” And so I texted him, I was like, “No.” And I put it back down, and then he calls me. When he called me the third time I picked it up, and I literally sat up, and I was like, “I think we just got into Sundance.” And so I answered the phone, and I was like, “Do you know that it’s midnight?” He goes, “I know buddy. But the Sundance Institute just called, we got in.” And then we just started laughing. We just started giggling.
WAGONER: It was a lot of laughing.
TREMBLAY: It was like noon for me, but I was still sleeping, so I also got woken up.
WAGONER: That’s true. We texted her, and we’re like, “Hey, can we talk?” And she’s like, “Well, yes.” We FaceTime her, and she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know this was happening.”
TREMBLAY: My hair is messy. I’m still in bed. And they tell me, and I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” And then I hang up, and I run, and I tell my parents, and I didn’t keep it a secret. I told everyone I knew.
I don’t know if you’re supposed to do that, but next time.
BUSTER: Yeah. I pretty much found out around noon as well. Just got a text being like, “Hey, could we hop on a Zoom?” Got on and found out that way. Just a random day…
FORTE: I was about 11:55 AM, probably the first. Sounds like the first.
WAGONER: He was, yeah. Does sound like you were the first call.
FORTE: I was just so excited. I didn’t sign up for this thing going, “Oh, this is an obvious Sundance movie.” It was just so great because like she said, everyone who’s a part of this was just so welcoming, inviting, good at what they did, and I was just so happy to be a part of it. And just to know that this came out of it, I was just so thrilled for everybody.
MITCHELL: I found out after everyone else, way after. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m going to say it since you were first, I get to be last. It’s something. And I was on a set and I got a text saying, “Pick up your phone.” Same thing, right? And then Maclain called and said, “We got into Sundance.” And I was like, “Wait, wait, what?”
WAGONER: What movie?
MITCHELL: They were like, “No, really. Sundance.” And I was like, “For our little sweet movie?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Oh.” And then it was late, and it was a quiet night, and I started dancing around in the street and the little security guy’s like, “You can’t do that.” Okay. But there was joy. There was real joy.
Will, I have an individual question. I’m so curious about Coyote vs. Acme. It’s CG, live-action, you’re doing something with John Cena. So, what can you tell people about it? Because it sounds like it could be cool.
FORTE: I mean, it was so fun to make this. It came out of this article that I think is decades old. Wiley Coyote is suing the Acme Corporation because of all the different contraptions that have exploded in his face, and stuff like that. And so, I get to play Wiley Coyote’s lawyer, and it’s a mixture of animation, and it’s like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? style movie. And yeah, John Cena is so great in it. Lana Condor is in it. It was so much fun making it, and these guys who are making it are so smart. Because you’ve got to figure out where this animated character is going to move to. It was amazing to be a part of it. So, I’m excited to see how it turns out because, of course, I’m acting with a tennis ball a lot of times. There’s a tennis ball for an eye-line, and it’s moving around. So, yeah, I think, I don’t know how much more I can say about it, but I’ve blathered on for a while.
It’s interesting because Roger Rabbit is such an amazing movie, and recently, [Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers] came out, which is fantastic if you haven’t seen it on Disney+. I’m glad that this genre is being further explored rather than being pushed to the wayside.
FORTE: No, I mean there are so many different characters from that universe that are involved. It was a real honor to get to act with all these beloved cartoon characters.
Elizabeth, I have to ask you, when you signed on to play Mrs. Claus, did you ever think, “This is really going to be something I play for a while.”?
MITCHELL: 20 years. Yeah, 20 years. I didn’t, no, not at all. I was so excited to do it. It was one of my first big movies, and I thought, “Well, yay. Yay.” I didn’t think about it for a second. So, 20 years later, it’s wonderful.
If we had more time, I would all spend a lot more time talking about The Expanse. I’m just going to say how much I love that show, and I’m going to move on. So, I believe, and I could be wrong, that you recently worked with someone named Meryl, or am I getting this wrong?
TREMBLAY: Meryl Streep when I was nine.
MITCHELL: Cool, that’s amazing!
TREMBLAY: But that wasn’t too recent.
WAGONER: Are you not 11? How old are you?
TREMBLAY: Just a little bit older than that.
What is it when you work with someone like that, and when you’re at that age, do you realize who you’re working with?
TREMBLAY: Not at all. And it’s so weird because when I was a kid, I did these huge movies back to back, and I was clueless. The only person I knew was Robert Downey Jr. because it’s Iron Man. But it’s only now that I can be like, “Oh my god, I worked with Robert Downey Jr. and Meryl Streep, and I didn’t even know, and they were just in the corner and I was doing whatever.” So, it’s weird. It’s really weird, but it’s an interesting story, and it’s so weird to look back and just be like, “I had no clue what I was doing.” But yeah. It’s cool.
It has to be, yeah, it just has to be a very weird a thing.
TREMBLAY: Yeah, no, it’s so weird. And Jeff Bridges was a part of that movie, too, and I didn’t know who that was when I was nine, and I should have, but I didn’t.
No, but you shouldn’t.
WAGONER: Yeah, exactly, no, you shouldn’t know.
TREMBLAY: So, it was weird, and it’s really fun to look back. Sometimes I’ll watch the movies just to be like, “That actually happened. That’s so weird.” It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense.
Someone was also on a show called Let The Right One In, which I believe the whole first season is wrapped, or is the last episode coming?
BUSTER: Yeah. No, it’s completely out. The first season is completely out.
So, talk a little bit about the experience of making that, and also, is there any word on doing another season?
BUSTER: Yeah, so not quite sure about a new season, but that was a big experience because right after finishing this film, I turned 18, moved to New York alone, and did my first prosthetics role where I was a vampire, and a lot of crazy stuff. Very different from this film, I will say. But it really was such a blast. And I actually worked with Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter, as my sister. So, that was really such a blast, just being able to work with so many phenomenal people across the US.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, MOU Footwear, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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