Utah filmmakers make it to Sundance, with a family-friendly story about aliens

The director of ‘Aliens Abducted My Parents ...’ aims to make a movie everyone can enjoy.

(Steve Olpin | Sundance Institute) Itsy (Emma Tremblay, right) tries to learn about her space-obsessed neighbor, Calvin (Jacob Buster) in director Jake Van Wagoner's filmed-in-Utah comedy "Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Left Out," an official selection of the Kids section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Jake Van Wagoner grew up on movies like “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies” — coming-of-age stories that, as he put it, didn’t talk down to kids and didn’t pander to adults.

Van Wagoner has directed what he hopes is that kind of movie — heartfelt and with humor, something everybody can enjoy — in “Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out.” The movie, filmed in Utah, is being screened in the Kids program of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and is scheduled to have its premiere screenings over the weekend in Salt Lake City and Park City.

The movie follows Itsy (Emma Tremblay), a teen who has just moved into a small town. An aspiring journalist, Itsy sees a news story in her classmate and neighbor, Calvin (Jason Buster), who’s obsessed with space — and is convinced his parents were abducted by aliens. The movie is loaded with wholesome humor, and touches on themes of friendship, family and imagination.

It’s also a movie that benefits from its Utah ties.

(Steve Olpin | Sundance Institute) Itsy (Emma Tremblay, left) and Calvin (Jacob Buster) in a scene from "Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out," an official selection of the Kids section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Wagoner is a veteran director of “Studio C,” the BYUtv sketch comedy series — and Kaleidoscope Pictures, the company behind “Studio C,” is one of the production companies making the movie. That’s also where Wagoner previously worked with producer Micah W. Merrill, cinematographer Jeremy Prusso, editor Whitney Houser, production designer Ashley Cook, and other crew members.

Another of the producers is Maclain Nelson, known for directing the Latter-day Saint girls’ movie “Once I Was a Beehive” and its sequel, “Once I Was Engaged.”

Van Wagoner isn’t from Utah, but moved here with his family because, he said, “the industry here in Utah is always booming. I’ve had a lot of success working here.”

(Others would seem to agree with him. This week, MovieMaker magazine added Salt Lake City to its list of the “best cities to live and work as a moviemaker,” ranking Utah’s capital 15th nationwide.)

Before becoming a director, Van Wagoner said, he worked as a unit production manager, production assistant and other jobs on shooting sets — and built relationships by working on other people’s projects.

“Having that relationship with crew was crucial for the movie to happen,” Wagoner said. “We made it on a lower budget than what you would make a $50 million movie for, and Utah was really the only place we would have been able to do that.”

(Steve Olpin | Sundance Institute) Director Jake Van Wagoner, right, talks with actor Thomas Cummins before filming a scene in "Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out," an official selection of the Kids section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

The production filmed all over Utah — from tiny Wallsburg (population 301, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures) to Midway and Heber. The more intense outdoor scenes were shot at Wasatch Mountain State Park, near Midway. The crew even hit Palmyra, a small town between Spanish Fork and Springville.

One poignant scene was filmed at a diner in Kamas, just two days before it was closing for the season. For Van Wagoner, it was a moment that has stuck with him from the shoot.

“It worked out very perfectly for us,” he said. “We didn’t have to pay for them to shut down, it was a perfect diner, and that was awesome.”

Another Utah touch came in the movie’s soundtrack — which includes “Faint of Heart” by The Strike, a band from Provo, and “UFO,” by the Utah-based folk-pop band The National Parks.

“UFO,” Van Wagoner said, felt like it had been written for the movie. The cinematographer, Prusso, had worked on a few of the band’s music videos, so they looked over the band’s songs for one they might use, and happened upon “UFO” on the day it was released.

Van Wagoner said that when he got the script from screenwriter Austin Everett, he put together a playlist that had an ‘80s vibe, coining himself the film’s official music supervisor. “I wanted the movie to have a hint of that, and the songs that I was listening to really informed that the further we got into editing,” he said.

Discounting “Aliens Abducted My Parents …” because it’s in Sundance’s Kids program, would be a mistake. It’s a strong movie that builds on the childhood senses of wonder and believing the best in people around you.

Van Wagoner said he takes it as a compliment that everyone, of any age, will be able to watch the film and enjoy it. “That says a lot about the movie,” he said.

He said he also knows he’s in lofty company, playing at “the premiere independent film festival.”

“I would say the 99% of the movies that we see at Sundance are these amazingly well-written independent, super well-acted and well-directed movies,” Van Wagoner said.

But a lot of them cover some heavy topics.

“For ours to be accepted, for everyone to come and watch the movie, you’ll leave the theater feeling so good,” he said. “It is such an uplifting story, it’s not cheesy. It’s grounded and it’s heartfelt, but it’s humorous.”

(Steve Olpin | Sundance Institute) Jacob Buster, Emma Tremblay and Kenneth Cummins, from left, on the set of "Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out," an official selection of the Kids section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

“Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out” is scheduled to have its first screenings Friday, 6 p.m., at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, Salt Lake City, and Saturday, noon, at the Redstone Cinemas in Park City. It also will screen: Monday, 9 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City; Tuesday, 6:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 1:30 p.m., Megaplex Theatres at The Gateway, Salt Lake City. The movie will be available online, on the festival’s web portal, on Tuesday only. For ticket information, go to festival.sundance.org.