When my friends, Thomas Negovan and Aaron Shaps, announced a while back that they had filmed a short film in the Weird West genre, reminiscent of ’50s Westerns and science fiction, I knew that it would be something special indeed. Knowing them both to be deeply knowledgeable in a variety of areas, ranging from Art Nouveau aesthetics to the black and white cinematography of directors like John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde to the pulp horror magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, I knew that the product of their collective imaginations would be visionary and unique. The film is then unsurprisingly inspired by a wide array of literature, films, and television, but it is also inspired by a real historical incident surrounded in mystery and contention. If anyone could create an engagingly told and beautifully shot film, they could, and they have with Aurora.
XUL1347’s extraordinarily Gothic poster for “Aurora” featuring the Fledermaus pilot and hints at the horror and science fiction elements of the film.
The Aurora Incident of April 17, 1897
The first alleged UFO crash was not in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 as many would have you think, but rather it occurred a whole fifty years earlier in Aurora, Texas on April 17, 1897. In 1896 and 1897, there had been many sightings throughout the United States of a strange metallic aircraft, but no one knew just what it was. Reports were conflicting and many come from the Southwestern states, such as California and Texas, and over 100 of those reported sightings occurring within Texas alone. There were also sightings in Washington, Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan, and Illinois. While most accounts said that the aircraft was cigar-shaped and metallic, other reports made the historic first claims of having seen a saucer-like airship, eventually giving rise to the now commonplace term of “flying saucer“. There were even reports in certain regions from witnesses who claimed to speak with the crew members of the aircraft.
From page 5 of the Dallas Morning News, “A Windmill Demolishes It”, posted on April 19, 1897, and written by S.E. Haydon.
As dubious as the story appears, there are as many facts to back it up as there are to dismiss it, which leaves the debate ongoing as to the truthfulness and accuracy of the original newspaper story. The accepted narrative is that on the morning of April 17, 1897, a large, silvery, metallic craft in the shape of a cigar was seen flying over the town of Aurora, Texas, at a low altitude. The craft seemed to be experiencing mechanical troubles (indeed, there are reports that a trail of smoke followed it as it descended on the town, though these reports vary). It was then said that the craft collided with Judge J.S. Proctor‘s windmill, that it exploded, scattering metal and molten debris, and leaving behind the burnt corpse of its pilot. This corpse was identified as being “not an inhabitant of this world” by T.J. Weems, the town’s blacksmith and U.S. Signal Service Officer, who said that it looked like “a native of the planet Mars.” The bulk of the aircraft debris was hauled off to an unknown location and it was said that Proctor dumped the remainder of the metal debris into his well.
Aurora is a small suburb located about twenty miles North of Fort Worth, Texas, and is part of Wise County, Texas. In the late 1890s, the population of Aurora was about 370 some odd people, and it would remain as such for over a century. Arid and hot, suffering from disease, and plagued by infestation, Aurora was by all accounts a struggling town, full of hardship and toil. Many thought it was a dying town, too far gone to be saved without some dramatic change, and it is based on this that skeptics point to the initial article as being part of a hoax, an attempt by community members within Aurora to give their town some press in the hopes of revitalizing it.
To determine whether or not it was a hoax, whether there was a crash of some kind or an incident at all, and whether the cause of that crash was an alien aircraft or some advanced technological man-made aircraft, requires a great deal of research and investigation. Numerous UFO hunters and investigators have attempted to either validate or debunk the story, but because the incident happened so long ago, and most of the interest drummed up about the alleged incident began in the 1970s, over 70 years after the incident occurred, there are few original witness testimonies to rely upon and even less in the way of material evidence.
Naysayers and skeptics have dismissed the story as a “typical Texas tall tale” or as “old timer’s folklore“, but many of the arguments used to disprove the incident have themselves fallen under scrutiny and called into question. There were numerous claims that Proctor never had a well or a windmill, but recent excavations of the site have shown that not only is there still a well that’s over a century old, there are also posts that ran into the ground on four different points surrounding the well, indicating that there was either a windmill or a derrick and windlass for hoisting water from the well.
Some have claimed that S.E. Haydon was a practical joker and that he may have written the article out of jest or to gain the town attention. However, there were numerous mentions of Texans witnessing the flying craft between the 15th and 17th of April, and if indeed the goal of the article was to attract attention, why was it buried in a small portion of page five of the paper. Surely, the announcement of extra-terrestrial life forms with advanced technology would have been placed on the front page, if the reason for writing the article was to earn the town tourism or press attention.
Others have accused the local law enforcement agencies of a cover-up. In the Aurora Cemetery, where the aircraft pilot’s body was said to have been buried, the stone that once marked the grave was removed and all requests to have the body located and exhumed have been refused. The plaque that commemorates the cemetery’s history, and the many veterans buried there, alludes to the incident of 1897, but also dismisses it as local legend.
Aurora Cemetery plaque.
What we have learned in the 40 plus years since these investigations began is that the site of the alleged incident did and still does have debris matching the description of an aluminum-like metal. Numerous samples of this metal have been found and sent in to a number of labs for analysis. The results show that the fragments found contain primarily aluminum and iron, but in higher quantities than is standard practice for aluminum manufactures. Normally the amount of iron found in any aluminum alloy is less that 1%. In the fragments found near the supposed crash site, the aluminum contained about 5% iron, far beyond what would be accepted. Also unusual is the fact that most aluminum alloys contain more zinc than that found in the samples. Adding to the mystery is that aluminum during the 1880s and 1890s was very costly and to create an aircraft of the size and dimensions described in eye witness accounts would have been impractical as well as outrageously expensive.
What’s remarkable about the story, regardless of its status as fact or fiction, is the accurate description of a successful man-made, heavier-than-air craft, not a balloon or a dirigible, but another manner of flight vehicle altogether… over six years before the Wright Brothers’ famous first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.
Science Fiction And Fact Become Legend
Thomas Negovan grew up with two television series as the progenitor of his pop cultural fixations: “My favorite TV shows as a kid were The Twilight Zone and The Rifleman, so while there are a lot of other genres I’m anxious to explore, this movie represents my personal origin as far as interest in film and television.“
Thomas Negovan appearing in his stylishly anachronistic Western attire.
Most children who grew up in the ’70s or earlier can recall playing as cowboys and Indians, as sheriffs and deputies fighting off bandits, as cavalrymen protecting innocent townspeople from bands of raiders, as lawless gunslingers dueling each other in the dusty, windswept streets of some Southwestern town or hamlet. Or they played spaceman and went to strange planets where they encountered hostile alien species. Some children did both at the same time and would continue to do so on into adulthood. Thomas and Aaron had the unique opportunity to live out these imaginary adventures, to bring their childhood fantasies to life on film, and to share them with others as adults.
Aaron Shaps wearing his cowboy gear during the production of “Aurora”.
Over the course of its five seasons, The Twilight Zone revisited the Western genre in a series of Weird West-themed episodes, among them of which eight stand out from the rest: Mr. Denton on Doomsday, Execution, Dust, The Grave, Still Valley, Showdown with Rance McGrew, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and Mr. Garrity and the Graves. With these episodes, the tropes and traits of the Western were commingled with those of the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres, bringing necromancers and traveling salesmen together, sending bandits into alternate timelines to face justice, and sending gunslingers into graveyards from which they’d never return.
In “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, the third episode of the first season of “The Twilight Zone”, Al Denton (portrayed by character actor Dan Duryea) is a former gunslinger and the town drunk, driven to drink by years of guilt and existential depression, who is given a second chance at life and the opportunity for redemption when a man named Fate comes to town.
“Execution” the twenty-sixth episode of the first season of “The Twilight Zone” featured a tale of a gruff, lowly criminal about to be hung, who just before the moments of strangulation who is transported into the modern world, where his the repercussions of his sinful past follow him.
In the third season’s seventh episode, “The Grave”, broadcast in 1961, both Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef appeared on “The Twilight Zone”. The two actors were already veterans in the Western genre and would continue to be icons for future generations on the silver screen.
One of the most acclaimed episodes of “The Twilight Zone” was based on a classic short story by Ambrose Bierce entitled “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, and was strangely enough the only episode not written or produced for television. It was a French short film made two years earlier in 1962 that Rod Serling wished to expose to American television audiences… and so he did.
Another classic example of the Western on “The Twilight Zone”, season five’s “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” saw a fraudulent traveling salesman sell his services as a necromancer and raising a small town’s population of corpses. However, it’s all revealed to be a ruse to get the townspeople’s money, until it turns out that his abilities of resurrection are less fakery than he realizes.
With a Western and a science fiction anthology series established as a jumping off point, Thomas and Aaron created their own out-of-this-world tale with Aurora. But the expanse of strange and eclectic influences went far beyond the creative output of Rod Serling and John Ford. Drawing themes and narrative techniques ranging from David Lynch‘s early films to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, comic books and pulp fiction magazines to the Universal Monsters, they began to formulate a story that would build off of its real-life historical framework, but within certain limits. As the evolution of the narrative developed, it spiraled outward to incorporate UFO conspiracy theories, and it pulled in new elements, such as time traveling Nazi test pilots and cryptid monsters, and yet it would still have to return to its roots as a historical Western in the end.
A shelf of varied inspiration.
Thomas describes the challenges of telling an imaginative story of speculative fiction while fitting within a real historical framework: “We knew we had the start of the story, and we knew that the end had to match the newspaper reports and the historical research. What we did in between was try to take it as far out as we could and still end up matching the ‘true’ story. The best part of creating these stories is, for me, when we are trying to outdo each other in the course of a conversation. The Mayor has some dialogue in Aurora that was absolutely Aaron trying to make me laugh; T.J. Weems gives a speech about Mars that I came up with in that same conversation because of a chapter on Mars in a 1905 schoolbook that I have. So the idea of the Aurora incident was all Aaron, I just loved it and the next thing I knew we were building a huge web of eccentric theories as to what it might have been.“
In describing the different works that formed the basis of the aesthetics and themes found in their film, Aaron opined, “It’s really incredible when you work with people who have such a similar frame of reference for just about everything. Certainly not everyone in the world was obsessed with Hammer horror or In Search Of… with Leonard Nimoy when they were young; not everyone knows Jodorowsky’s films or Steranko’s comics or Lovecraft’s writing.“
A consortium of cowboys and cryptids… Aaron Shaps, Pango the Cryptid Monster, and Thomas Negovan pose with pride on the set of their new film.
“I loved the Weird Western Tales comics, Jonah Hex, and pre-code horror, which had a lot of Western-themed stories,” Thomas told me. In regards to the collaborative writing process, he offered, “I think the Nazis might have been my contribution and then the monster Aaron’s.“
Behind The Scenes Of A Weird West Film
Sometimes the day-in, day-out events that occur off-screen can be just as memorable, if not necessarily as entertaining, as what audiences see on-screen. Nonetheless they give a fascinating and often illuminating insight into the process of filmmaking. This is especially true on an independent film where the budgetary restrictions ensure that every member of cast and crew is delegated multiple functions on and off the set. This was evident when Thomas explained, “I shoveled horse shit out of the road between shots. It can honestly be said that I took part in every single aspect of this movie-making experience.“
Some of the cast and crew on the set between takes.
Aaron agreed and expounded upon this, saying, “Tom wore so many hats throughout the course of making this movie; producer, art director, casting director, et cetera.” Thomas and Aaron would share writing and directing duties together, each utilizing their unique accumulation of academic learning and experiential knowledge to complement the strengths of the other, and in so doing freeing one another to pursue different aspects of the production. When asked about the collaboration process, Aaron explained, “Because Tom and I are on the same page creatively, to an uncanny degree in many ways, the two of us would talk about a scene, or a sequence, or a particular moment ahead of time, and then I would plan out the way I thought we should capture it and present that to Tom. At that point we would fine tune everything together. Because he has been so immersed in the world of fine art for so long, Tom has an incredible eye, and he’s a great photographer, too, so he has excellent instincts for things like composition and lighting; by trusting me with the broader strokes of the visual storytelling early on, he was able to focus on other things until the time came to really refine the visuals on the day.“
Obviously for an independent and self-financed film, you have to work within very tight budgetary constraints, and yet at the same time, Thomas and Aaron are striving to let their imaginations run wild. So many genre films these days focus on expensive CGI and visual spectacle, but there’s always been a special place in the hearts of many genre fans for films that operate on a micro-budget focusing on story and character, and utilizing more affordable practical effects. Balancing characters, narrative, themes, and visuals on a tight budget without any studio support is a challenge. Inevitably the financial limitations can pose problems, but they also can inspire creative decisions that encourage people to think outside of the box and often improve the final film.
In describing how the film’s independence from the studios and its micro-budget affected the creative approach, Aaron said, “It really goes back to The Twilight Zone influence, and studying the way that show told such far out stories on a shoestring budget and with incredibly primitive special effects. There’s no doubt that, had we decided to shoot the movie in color and try to give it a contemporary feel, in terms of camera work and editing and special effects, it would have failed. It would have been ridiculous and it would have looked cheap. We just tried to do as much of it in the same way that it would have been done on television in the 1950s: we use expressionistic lighting; we tell a lot of the story through sound; we heighten the atmosphere with things like flashing lightning and howling wind and pouring rain, and with music; and for the most part we only show quick glimpses of our monster, or we keep him shrouded in shadow. We also put a lot of thought into when we should use the Steadicam, when we should use sticks, and when to go handheld, so that each scene or each particular sequence featured camerawork that enhanced the overall vibe of that particular point in the story.“
The cryptid monster from “Aurora” affectionately dubbed Pango.
In recalling the spirit on the set and the sense of good-humored camaraderie in the face of challenges, Aaron recalled, “We definitely had a very dramatic learning curve when it came to directing. Tom joked on the last day of shooting that we were finally ready to make a movie. “
Sometimes even a villain is just too darn lovable. Writer-director-producer Thomas Negovan and actor Robert Boulter (the Fledermaus Pilot) in costume and on set.
Speaking on the closeness of all involved and how the set really resembled a kind of communal family, Thomas offered, “Dave McKean was a huge inspiration. He talked about Méliès working with his family and friends to make movies, and that was the seed that lead to the production structure of Aurora being all close friends. We wrote this around Rob Boulter, a really close friend of mine, and the [cinematography] was done by John Terendy, who I’ve known since we were kids. Aaron is like my brother and my Dad was on set cooking for everyone. This was completely a family affair.“
Dave McKean’s poster for “Aurora” features the injured Nazi test pilot of the Fledermaus, as portrayed by Robert Boulter, in the town’s local jailhouse.
How To Show Your Support
Aurora is about 99% completed with all principal photography wrapped and majority of post-production also finished. But in order to ensure that post-production is finished and that the film is released, Aaron and Thomas need your help in funding the final stages of the process. It goes without saying that a film of this kind and caliber is rarely produced at all, but much less do you see the kind of love and creativity shown within a major studio film, and the reason is that stories like this aren’t mainstream and would be dramatically altered by studio executives to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, all to ensure financial success. Such success is never guaranteed, but one hopes to see what they put forth artistically into the world experienced by the people who will embrace it on its own merit, to accept it, love it, and support it. So, with great creativity and originality of vision comes great risk, and independence from the studios comes at a cost of its own. Thomas knew that to create his art, this extraordinary piece of entertainment, he would have to turn to fans of a like mind. “It would be impossible for this movie to be profitable, but without this Kickstarter campaign it will take another two years to get everything for this movie finished.“
All that in mind, we can make this happen, all of us… if we come together. And it is vitally important right now, at a time when media giants merge constantly and churn out entertainment that appeal to the lowest common denominator, that independent voices continue to be empowered and heard. There will always be a place for artists and for innovators, but there must always be people there with open minds and hearts willing to receive their creations, and by supporting these artists through funding platforms like Kickstarter, you are actively helping to ensure that unique and diverse talents are fostered and given the opportunity to reach their potential.
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Awaiting the next shot on set in Arizona.
Camaraderie between director and star.
Thomas discusses the details of a specific shot.
Being on the set with horses doesn’t mean horsing around.
Robert Boulter’s Fledermaus Pilot examines a coffin (one that he himself may occupy).
The incredibly detailed “Aurora” poster by Jeremy Bastian (2017) combines Gothic horror with Western style..
A retro monster movie-styled poster for “Aurora” by Andrew Ritchie (2017).