Visitors from Outer Space

INTERVIEW. How would we react if we were visited by aliens? Michael Madsen, who is delighted to see his award winning documentary "Into Eternity" moving into real political power forums, continues his speculative reflections in his next project which tests our imagination with a story of humanity's encounter with alien intelligent life.

One of several recurring hatches in the UN Office in Vienna. Photo from "The Visit", by Magic Hour Films.

Michael Madsen recently went to Moscow to present his film Into Eternity at a science film festival. In France the radioactive waste management agency, Andra, has asked the filmmaker to start a think-tank focusing on how to communicate with the future about radioactive waste. At the University of California Madsen recently gave a lecture in conjunction with an interdisciplinary course entitled Speculative Futures. And in New York his film was shown at the UN as a precursor to a summit on nuclear safety.

"The visual concept in 'The Visit' will either be shit or gold. But it's never been seen before, I'd say."

"I got an email from my American distributor saying that Into Eternity was on Hillary Clinton's desk. It's interesting to me that the film is starting to move into real power circles. That's necessary, of course, for anything to happen," Madsen says. "The film lives as a phenomenon out there, and I find that real-life dimension exciting."

Beyond winning a string of awards, Madsen has managed to raise awareness among central decisionmakers with his film that looks at the problems of storing nuclear waste, focusing on the construction of a Finnish repository that is supposed to last for 100,000 years. At heart, "Into Eternity" is propelled by philosophical wonder at humankind: What does our attempt to master a time horizon of 100,000 years really say about us?

Madsen brings a similar sense of wonder to his next project, "The Visit", which turns science fiction into reality with a single intriguing question: How would we react if we got visitors from Outer Space? In fact, the premise is not just science fiction. The UN has an office in Vienna who ultimately would be the ones dealing with an alien visit.

"My project is a partnership with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs which thinks up scenarios for a visit to Earth by intelligent extraterrestrial life," Madsen says. "It took my producer, Lise Lense-Møller, and me four months to get our first meeting with them, because they took us for ufologists. When they realized that we were actually looking to showcase their knowledge, they wholeheartedly came on board.

"The interesting thing for me is to explore what an encounter with other intelligent life would mean to humanity's self-image," the filmmaker says. He wants the film to take a square look at such an encounter: How would we receive them, speak to them, treat them? If we were to give them an Essential Guide to us and planet Earth, what would be in it?

"We are planning a visual setup creating a kind of pseudo-3D-effect. This is to the matise the different view of reality that such an encounter would entail," Madsen says. Coming from a visual-arts background, he always makes experiments with form central to the experience of his films. In the same vein, Madsen has just completed Denmark’s first 3D documentary, The Average of the Average, on objectivity versus subjectivity.

"The visual concept in 'The Visit' will either be shit or gold," Madsen adds wryly. "But it's never been seen before, I'd say."

"The Visit" is produced by Lise Lense-Møller for Magic Hour Films and is pitching at FORUM.