In November 1975, a group of loggers in Arizona watched while their colleague Travis Walton was seemingly abducted by aliens. Despite their outlandish explanation for his disappearance, the local townsfolk initially thought the team had murdered him. But a few days later Travis was found alive – naked, confused, and saying that he’d been beamed onto a spaceship and undergone extra-terrestrial probing.
The controversial global incident became bestselling 1978 book The Walton Experience and 15 years later, producers Todd Black and Joe Wizan decided to adapt it into a movie called Fire in the Sky starring Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) as Travis’s best friend and boss Mike Rogers, DB Sweeney (The Cutting Edge) as Travis, Henry Thomas (E.T.) and James Garner (The Great Escape) playing the detective trying to solve the case.
We spoke to Patrick and director Robert Lieberman, as well as Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) FX artist Jeff Mann, producer Black and co-star Scott MacDonald about the film.
As Told By
Todd Black (producer): I remember reading the book and loving the mystery of it. I remember meeting [the] people [involved] and I just was in shock at how believable they were, how real they were.
Robert Lieberman (director): Travis Walton, I mean, he’s a total enigma, right? I haven’t seen him in all these years, but when I met him, he lived in north-western Arizona in a town called Snowflake and he was a foreman in a wood-milling factory that milled moldings. You don’t expect a guy who spent his life inspired to stand in a factory and supervise a bunch of guys doing molding to be very interesting. This guy had a MENSA-size IQ. He was probably one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. Very weird. He would send me emails and there would be vocabulary in there that I would have to go look up. He had like six or seven kids and was very religious and a super-nice guy.
Scott MacDonald (actor; Travis’s brother Dan Walton): I went out to dinner with Travis and I just asked him questions. Something happened to that guy. I don’t know what, but something happened.
I don’t think it’s this hoax that some people claim. He told me that his eyeball had punctures in it that our modern science was not capable of producing when he was examined after the fact. And there were several wounds on him they could not account for.
Robert Patrick (actor; Mike Rogers): [Mike] was telling the truth based on the incidents that had happened to him, and then he’s tried in the court of public opinion. And that was what I thought was fascinating and what I personally hung on to while we were making the film. It wasn’t about alien abduction, from my point of view, it was about, ‘This is what happened to my friend and you don’t believe me and it hurts.’
Robert Lieberman: They were giddy that a movie was being made about it because in a way I think the whole event was something theatrical for Travis Walton. Internally, I had my own reservations about the truth of it all. My gut feeling had it that Travis was so much smarter than those other guys, that it started out as a gag. They probably laced their beer at the end of the day with a little acid or something and then they put on a show for these guys and they believed it.
Robert Patrick: In real life, Mike did not know these guys on this team. There were a couple of guys that had worked with him before, but not everybody on this crew that he put together. So why would he tell these guys we’re going to cook up this elaborate scheme and you got to all go along with it for the rest of your life?
Todd Black: We didn’t pitch it as sci-fi. It’s still not sci-fi to me. This was a guy coming home from work.
Building the Crew for Fire in the Sky
Scott MacDonald: I was in this big play that started in Seattle and came down to Los Angeles. I had literally been up until three in the morning filming another movie and my wife tapped me awake to say there was an audition. I had to pick up the script and then look at it while I was driving. I had three-day growth and no idea what I was reading for. Rob [Lieberman] said I was pretty good, but ‘Those guys will make the decision.’ I looked around and all the producers were in the room, I had no idea because they were behind me. They said, ‘We’re looking at two actors to play the lead – one of them looks like you and one of them doesn’t.’ So just as I was walking out the door, I looked at all those producers and jokingly said, ‘You know that guy you’re considering who looks a lot like me, he’s a great actor.’ They all laughed.
Robert Lieberman: Putting Henry Thomas in [as one of the crew] was a very pointed idea that I had. Because unconsciously everybody would go, yeah, he knows aliens.
Robert Patrick: I couldn’t get work after T2. T2 jettisoned my face into a globally-recognizable face, but there was no connection to an actor because that actor was an unknown guy. No one knew who Robert Patrick was. And no one knew what to do with me, including me. The only things that seemed to be coming my way were more retreads of the T-1000 or robots. It seemed like that was now my career – I was going to be a robot. So I kind of dug my heels in and turned down a lot of fairly lucrative opportunities. And I didn’t work for about a year and a half.
Robert Lieberman: The casting people tell me they’ve got this actor and I see him as this liquid metal man in Terminator. And that’s like the stoic kind of thing that has no expression, is relentless. And I went, not so much. I mean, this guy’s got to have pathos, he’s got to have all kinds of emotion and depth and gravitas and I don’t know that this actor has it. They went, ‘I think he does, you should see him.’ I went, ‘Alright, I’ll see him.’ The door opens to the casting room and this guy comes in and he’s totally effusive! And I fell in love with the guy.
Robert Patrick: I decided to grow my hair long and gain weight and just really hide from the physical recognition of that [Terminator] character. And it worked because I went in to read for Rob Lieberman and he didn’t know I was the guy from The Terminator. It was a very emotional audition. I had the cook up some tears. And he believed it.
Robert Lieberman: He said, ‘Did you know my cousin is Mike Rogers? I was driving out here from New York and I stopped in Arizona to meet with him, to talk to him about it.’
Robert Patrick: I had taken the script to the Grand Canyon camping. My wife and I left the Grand Canyon and went to Snowflake, Arizona. I went to the phone books, looked up Travis Walton, found his address and we drove to his address and observed him in a very voyeuristic way. We watched him rake his front yard with his children. We later drove to the [where the movie is set]. It’s a very spooky place. It feels like aliens are going to come down there, tied in with the fact that there are Mormons involved.
And lo and behold, when I contacted the Mormons in my family, I found out through marriage, I am related to Mike Rogers. And I was like, ‘I am?!’ I called him, we spoke, [and] I asked him specifically about how he was feeling during all this. I wanted to know his emotions. And he said to me during the abduction and the subsequent conversations afterward, that he could not control his emotion. And I tried to utilize that during the film.
Robert Lieberman: I talked to a lot of people about DB Sweeney and they didn’t speak highly of him. He was kind of difficult and he was somewhat problematic and so on and so forth. So I passed on him. We went up to Oregon to start prepping and [production boss] Brandon Tartikoff left the studio. Sherry Lansing came in and she called me up on a Thursday. We’re supposed to start shooting the following week. And she said, ‘I’m sending DB Sweeney up to Eugene, Oregon and you should meet with him. And the deal is this: if you want to make the movie with him, you’re making the movie. If you don’t want to make the movie with him, you’re not making the movie.’ So it was like, you either buy this guy or we all go home.
Todd Black: The studio definitely wanted DB, but if we didn’t want DB, it wouldn’t have been DB, trust me.
Robert Lieberman: I thought about it long and hard and my wife at the time, she dropped me off at the hotel. And he came down very nice, shook his hand and I said, ‘You know, DB, I’ve heard some mixed things about you and this is going to be a really difficult film to make. And I need somebody who’s going to be my partner on this thing. If I buy into you, you’ve got to tell me you’re going to be my partner in this thing to make it together. I’ve been told that if I don’t cast you, I don’t get to make my movie. I’ve spent a year getting it to this point. We’re supposed to start shooting next week and I’m prepared not to make my movie.’ And he went, ‘You got it, I promise you.’ And he was a man of his word.
Scott MacDonald: It was really amazing for me. I recognized Robert Patrick from The Terminator and I knew DB Sweeney’s work. I didn’t really know [fellow cast member] Peter Berg at the time, he was about to have some big skiing movie come out. Of course, I knew Henry Thomas from when he was a boy in E.T.
Robert Lieberman: Peter Berg was just a super great guy. His character in the movie is named David Whitlock. And every day he’d come to me and say, ‘you’ve got to do a sequel to this movie, The David Whitlock Story.’ He was always selling me the sequel he was going to star in.
Creating Mr. Fitz and the Aliens
Todd Black: When you watch the film to this day, that sequence is pretty amazing. I don’t think it looks dated.
Robert Lieberman: It came to me in a dream. It came to me as vivid as what you see in the movie. I can attest to it because my ex-wife is Marilu Henner who has the most extraordinary memory. I couldn’t write it down because it was in the middle of the night, so I woke her up and told her the story because I knew she would remember the whole thing.
Jeff Mann (ILM Creature Supervisor: Alien Sequence, Puppeteer: Alien Sequence): It was all done on two of our stages, not very big. And all done pretty much in-camera. I thought the work was really good.
Todd Black: It was a decision [to do it practically], a lot of time went into that. We didn’t want to make it look CG. I remember all of us talking about it – it’s got to stand the test of time. You watch certain movies of that time period and they just look shitty. I’m really happy that’s not the case with ours.
Robert Lieberman: In Travis Walton’s book, he describes his abduction as they walked him into this geodesic dome that looked out onto the stars. He describes the aliens [as] being seven-foot-tall, Aryan-looking, [with] long blonde hair. I went, ‘I can’t have Dolph Lundgren playing the alien, man, they’ll laugh me out of the theatre.’
Jeff Mann: I mean, [it] was all just wood and tin foil and painted and you had to figure out how the puppeteering was going to happen. Someone’s going to be riding on that with a camera or someone’s going to be zooming by the camera, you had to figure out all that stuff. It became more than just your hand inside something. It was a whole set-up of action that had to be worked out with the stage and the camera and the grip department and electric and model-makers and creature makers that have built this character. How does it work within the set and how does it interact with the light as it goes by?
Robert Lieberman: Mr. Fitz was the alien that was Mister Fire in the Sky. All the UFO groups and conventions and websites and all that stuff, they don’t like my movie because they don’t believe my aliens are true to form, you know? And I thought, no, I’m not buying into that. I got to make an alien that has certain qualities. One is it can’t look like a person’s inside it, right? Now, on a couple of occasions, I had little girls, little ballerinas in costumes, like when he’s being dragged along.