[Interview] Jefferson Moneo for COSMIC DAWN

[Interview] Jefferson Moneo for COSMIC DAWN
Courtesy Cranked Up Films
After witnessing an alien abduction as a child (and subsequently being told she’s crazy for most of her life) Aurora, now a young woman, joins the UFO cult The Cosmic Dawn after discovering a book written by the group’s leader, Elyse. Aurora’s time at the cult’s remote island compound is marked by miraculous revelations, consciousness-expanding flowers, and a burgeoning friendship with Tom, the resident cook. When a fellow cult member starts to display increasingly bizarre behavior, Aurora begins to question Elyse’s sanity (and her own) and starts looking for a way out.

Years later, after the dissolution of the cult, Aurora has moved on with her life. She leads a quiet and seemingly normal life. But when Elyse resurfaces in a mysterious video, Aurora is forced to confront her past. Together with Tom, she pursues the ultimate truth about The Cosmic Dawn. Does Elyse really have access to another dimension? Or do her prophesies truly point to mass suicide amongst the surviving cult members?

For the release of COSMIC DAWN, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Josh Taylor spoke with writer/director Jefferson Moneo about his film, and dove into a discussion about his own experience with strange lights, the rabbit hole that is cult-based research, and more!

In writing and directing this story, what drew you to talking about aliens, UFOs, and that phenomenon?

Jefferson Moneo: When I was 12, I lived in southern Saskatchewan. I grew up in the Canadian Prairies and my grandparents had a ranch in southern Saskatchewan. I’d go down there and spend summers at the ranch so, I’m kind of like a country kid. One night I was staying out at a ranch and I was there by myself with my grandma, and I woke up in bed and there was this light coming into the room. I remember I rolled over and looked at the clock and was 11:32 at night. Then I went downstairs and went outside and my grandmother, she was out in the yard. There was all this light coming from above and we stood there looking at it. It was this brilliant sort of swirling light. Then all of a sudden it just went and disappeared.

We went back inside and she woke up my grandfather, and my grandfather thought it must have been northern lights or something like that, but I’ve seen the Northern Lights. Growing up where I did the Northern Lights are pretty frequent. This definitely wasn’t Northern Lights. There was no other explanation for it. It was there for a brief moment. Who knows how long before me, but I think I saw it for only 10 seconds. I went back up and got into bed just trying to process it, and then I remember looking at the clock and it said 11:24. The clock had moved backward eight minutes. It was very strange. I’ve never been able to explain it, and everybody that you tell this story to tries to rationalize it, but in this area of the country that is not something that you would see frequently. It’s just kind of this weird little thing that happened when I was quite young. Anytime I tell people about it, I think it’s probably similar to when people say they see ghosts or whatever. People are always skeptical or try to find a reason for it. Then there are some people who kind of believe in it. So that was part of why I wrote it.

The other part of it, in writing the actual script, I was wanting to do something with cults because I was kind of interested in why people believe what they believe and why they’re prone to believe in certain things, and what role belief plays to fill in their life. I was gonna write something about Satanists for some reason, I don’t know. That’s just what I was attempting to do. I was living in Vancouver at the time and I would go write at a coffee shop. I’m like a stereotypical unemployed screenwriter writing at a coffee shop, but I noticed this woman would come in all the time. She was maybe in her early 40s, and she would always sort of introduce herself and invite herself to sit down with different people. It was clear to me, you know I’m always sort of observing who’s around, she didn’t really know the people that she was sitting down with, and the people she was always sitting down with fit the same profile. Someone in their early 20s, maybe late teens, generally quite young. I noticed over time, sometimes this conversation would end in tears and she would be consoling them and hugging them.

One day she came and asked to sit down with me. I was curious what the deal is was so I let her. I found out that she was from a group called Radiant Rose, which is a group in Vancouver. A very sort of new age-old culty type of group. That led me down a rabbit hole., they had this weird belief system that involves light swords. I know a lot of people are interested in Star Wars, but there’s a lot of stuff in Star Wars just in researching for this film that comes from this New Age philosophy. These new-age groups have logos that look like the Rebel Alliance logo. So anyway, that led me to all that. I thought I could draw from my past experience and use these new-age things. So that’s how all of this came together.

[Interview] Jefferson Moneo for COSMIC DAWN
Courtesy Cranked Up Films
Speaking of cults, in most films, automatically they’re the antagonists. They’re seen as monsters, and you’ve gone out of your way in writing this film to keep a mystery about the cult. You give these characters a sense of humanity, and we empathize with them. What drew you to the curiosity and the mystery in empathizing with a cult?

Jefferson Moneo: I don’t know how deep the thought really is. I’m always interested in well-rounded characters, and I was interested in why people believe what they believe. But more than that, I think a lot of movies that involve cults show them as being very brutal. There are many cult movies that have dirty hippies living in a shack, and you need to be initiated to be part of the cult. It is really abusive, right? I didn’t want to do that at all. I’m just not interested in working with that stereotype. I’m interested in making films that are fun or that are fun to make. Dealing with super heavy material is not something I’m really interested in.

That was part of it, but the other part is that people have a need to believe in certain things, right? Why is that? In the case of this story, there is someone who had an unexplained encounter when they were younger, and because they were so young it is explained away and adults rationalized it. She’s left to operate with your rational mind. So I was interested in a group of people who all have these objectively irrational beliefs. What draws them all together? I was more interested in the sort of mystical experience than in somebody who came from an abusive household and the cycle of abuse continuing in a cult. There’s an emotional need to be filled. It’s a need of belonging and to not have that need of belonging flagrantly betrayed right off the bat.

There’s a camaraderie family dynamic that comes across and one of my favorite scenes in the whole film is this big song and dance number with an old Carpenters tune called “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.”

Jefferson Moneo: Everybody says The Carpenters and the funny thing is that I know that as a Klaatu song. I was unaware that The Carpenters had done a cover of this song until way too late. I knew when I made this film, but I didn’t know it until later in life. I definitely had that record on vinyl when I was probably 18 or 19 years old. It’s a really great song. And I mean it, honestly.

Courtesy Cranked Up Films

It fits and adds to the ambiance that you’ve created for the film, which has this synthesizer sound to it. The opening credits have this 80s vibe to it. Even the costuming to this film and the colors involved in all of their suits have this retro feel. Obviously intentional, but how much of that did you want to bleed through into this story?

Jefferson Moneo: I like to make films that are not really set in a specific timeframe. When you start doing that it dates your films fairly quickly. I’m just interested in making films that exist outside of time. They exist in their own world, in their own universe. Dating it can lead to a lot of annoying comments from people about a flip phone. Or why are they whatever…It just drives me crazy that somehow I have to introduce texting because someone will ask about why they aren’t texting. Making it timeless is just a reason to not deal with that. With the costuming and the colors, they are all based on the old cult color scale. There’s a purpose behind decisions in terms of color and all that stuff.

Also, I like films that are bold with their use of color and style. That all fed into how the film was conceived stylistically. I think when you get locked into specificity in terms of time period, it doesn’t reflect life. Life is not time-specific. People wear clothes that they bought five years ago, they have a couch that’s 15 years old, and they drive a car that’s 12 years old. One thing that annoys me when I watch period films is when everything is set in 1984 and every single thing is from 1984. Truthfully in 1984, they were driving cars from 1974. You know what I mean? Life is a little more abstract in terms of time specificity.

There’s this blurred line of where Aurora, our protagonist, exists. Sometimes I feel like the movie takes place in reality and sometimes it feels like a daydream and nothing’s as obvious as it may appear to be. Was that a cult-like influence about brainwashing or was it truly more intergalactic?

Jefferson Moneo: You’re asking a deeper question. Like, what is the reality of this cult? I want to experience it through the way that the cult members experience it. I like films that are not predictable and films that take me to someplace I wasn’t expecting to go. I really value films that are not monotone all the way through. I tried to do that to keep it interesting. The song and dance is a strange sort of interlude in the film. I don’t think enough films have those moments that you aren’t expecting. As a filmmaker, you can get locked into like being a slave to the narrative and trying to be stylistically consistent all the way through. Some people may criticize the way this film careens into different styles and different tonalities, but those are the type of films that I like.

COSMIC DAWN is in theaters and available On-Demand today. To learn more about the film, check out our review!

Josh Taylor
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