Jay K. Raja’s The Bumbry Encounter is riveting tale of paranormal experience, conspiracy and racism.
Set in 1961, the short film shares the story of a mixed-race couple who appear to have encountered a UFO. They report their experience to local law enforcement, who bring in a psychologist to assess the situation, but it soon becomes clear that ulterior motives are at play.
Director Jay K. Raja joins us to talk about The Bumbry Encounter following its premiere at the 25th Palm Springs International ShortFest.
Q: This story of racism and manipulation feels like it could be the basis for the next Jordan Peele film! What led you to write the ‘The Bumbry Encounter’?
A: I’ve been a UFO buff ever since I’d read conspiracy books as a child and scared myself silly. We had done multiple science fiction projects in the past but never quite broached the subject of paranormal encounters with extraterrestrials and this seemed like a good hook to do so.
Funnily enough, it started out as simply a one-take monologue to be done as a scene study for an actor. But the more I got into it, the more it expanded, and once I cracked the social commentary to give the story some meat, I felt like it had to be something bigger.
Q: 1961 was obviously a time of UFO suspicion and even greater racial tensions. Were there other reasons why you wanted to go back to this period for this story?
A: We were inspired by the true life story of Betty and Barney Hill, known as ‘The Hill Incident.’ The Hills were a mixed-race couple that claimed and appeared to be abducted by aliens in 1961, the details of which came out during hypnosis sessions and would go on to set the narrative of UFO encounters for the years to come.
While our film does not follow the actual events, it was a launch point for our tale of government conspiracy.
Q: What was it like trying to capture the 1961 feel from a technical point of view (in particular set design and costuming)?
A: The challenge of doing a period piece is we can’t take anything for granted – Production Designer Micah Embry Wilmott, Art Director Justin Wilmott, and Set Decorator Kendra Bradanini designed, built, and dressed an apartment from the ground up, basically constructed wall to wall in a small studio.
Every choice had to pass a veracity test for the period, and since it takes place so early in the 60s, we embraced a 50s aesthetic for much of it, down to clothes and hair and make-up. Costume Designer Ashley Elieff and Hair/Make-Up Artist Dalina In did extensive research and camera tests to capture the proper look while also expressing the character qualities through their appearance.
Q: I wanted to compliment you on the brilliant shot where a divider makes it look like Jackie character is in confessional while being questioned by Ross Turner’s character. How did you find the challenge of creating interesting visuals and avoiding stagnation in these single-room scenes?
A: So glad you like that shot! Honestly, that divider was the most expensive flat and piece of set in the entire movie. Cinematographer Jerome Stolly and I came up with the confessional idea while developing the camera movement and blocking to make sure each part of the conversation has a different location and ramps up the tension.
We didn’t anticipate it being so complicated, though – the material for the divider screen was real wicker and required Art Director Justin Wilmott to drive all over town to hunt it down and purchase it. I wonder where that piece ended up, I could have sworn I would keep it…
Q: How did you work with Lauren McFall and Ross Turner to create this tension between their characters?
A: Thanks to their performance prowess, it was fairly simple – we were able to focus on using blocking to build tension and rely on Ross’ towering stature to make Lauren feel small.
Q: Can you tell us about your with Roth Rind and what makes you such a good fit as collaborators?
A: I think it’s because both of us can quote Jurassic Park by heart. Makes for easy communication! But seriously, both of us operate on extraordinarily high standards for our work, and that keeps us constantly challenging each other to tell the best story possible.
Open communication is always key – we equally call out things we don’t like and boost up things we do. It’s mutual trust that makes that work, and we’re lucky to have that.
Q: ‘The Bumbry Encounter’ will premiere at the Palm Springs International ShortFest. What are your hopes for the film on the festival scene?
A: I just hope people watch it and enjoy it! The festival circuit is a fun experience and watching films surrounded by fellow cinephiles and cinephages is unbeatable.
Q: What is next for you?
A: We have a few projects brewing although we haven’t quite figured out which one we’re hopping to next. I’ve always dreamed of adapting Gex 64: Enter the Gecko; that seems like a natural choice after this movie.