It is impossible not to think about aliens and crop circles, among other things, whenever someone mentions UFOs. Sure, the term may have had its origins steeped in extraterrestrial panic, but the term “Unidentified Flying Object” is really just a broad term used to explain the phenomenon we can’t quite explain at that moment. The term was coined by Dr. J. Allen Hynek after he was hired by the government to investigate these incidents. He compiled them all into what we now know as Project Blue Book.
HISTORY’s latest drama, Project Blue Book, brings to life the real-life investigations from the book, but adds extra details that were still considered classified at the time. The show stars Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen alongside The Vampire Diaries’ Michael Malarkey, and includes Laura Mennell (Van Helsing, Man in the High Castle) and Michael Harney (Orange is the New Black). They each portray real people who had a part in the real Project Blue Book. Co-writer/Executive producer Sean Jablonski brings this drama to life using recently unclassified documents and interviews with people who were there, like Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s son, Paul Hynek.
Project Blue Book is a complex show that walks a tight rope between X-Files stylization and historical drama but ultimately leaves it up to the viewer to decide based on the facts they have just learned. We sat down with the cast and creative team behind Project Blue Book to talk about real UFOs, the existence of extraterrestrial life, favorite sci-fi films, “Disclosure”, and more.
The Young Folks: The actual Project Blue Book was born as a way to investigate UFOs, but to debunk the claims. Have you ever had any UFO encounters that you couldn’t explain away?
Sean Jablonski: I did when I was a kid. I grew up in New York City and I have a very vivid memory of walking to the deli and I remember looking up and seeing these hexagonal shapes that were in this odd pattern. It was one of these things where I remember going, “That’s odd, it’s flying low. It’s definitely not a plane.” I remember thinking, “Is it a blip? No, it’s not a blip. Is anybody else seeing this?” Obviously, it’s something that has stuck with me.
Laura Mennell: My boyfriend is a huge UFO enthusiast. Him and David O’Leary, the show’s creator, were inseparable at our wrap party. They just kept talking and I couldn’t pull him away, even at four o’clock in the morning. He will see things constantly and it drives me nuts because I’m like, “Why can’t I see these things?!” But there was one point when we were in this alley–I won’t tell you why we’re in an alley, it’s not that kind of story–we were looking up at the sky and there was a bizarre object that didn’t have the blinking lights of the plane or an engine sound. It was sort of moving but then it would hover and stay in one spot. I kind of thought that could be one and my boyfriend said it totally was. I know there are moments like that that a lot of people have experienced.
TYF: So when people think of UFOs they think of extraterrestrials and spaceships. After working on Project Blue Book, do you think they’re wrong to consider that a possibility?
Michael Malarkey: Not at all. I mean anything’s possible when you know what it is. I think people make the mistake of thinking of aliens as just little green men or these bizarre looking humanoid creatures. We don’t know for sure if there are aliens or what they would even look like, or if they would even visit Earth in the first place. Maybe they’re already here? The thing that happened around the time the show takes place is that the media started cartoonalizing aliens and making them something camp and hokey. That was part of the problem, actually, is that it wasn’t taken seriously.
SJ: The actual very first report of a flying saucer that made the paper was in North Dakota. He explained it as a dinner plate and the press picked it up and they wrote “flying saucer”. That’s where we get the term for it which, in itself, sounds sort of silly. It wasn’t until J. Allen Hynek came along and dubbed them “UFOs” that it at least became something more credible sounding.
TYF: Speaking of aliens and spaceships, what are some of your favorite films or TV shows on the topic?
Paul Hynek: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is similar to this show, where it takes a lot of real events from the book my father wrote. That’s how Spielberg was able to provide that kind of verisimilitude and ground it in reality. It was a really fun project that my father was a little bit nervous about before him, because it’s Hollywood, but it was a very respectful approach to the phenomena and really made it in the ’70s more acceptable for people to talk about. That’s what I’m hoping this show does. This show stretches reality, but it still really strives for that sort of authentic core of what my parents were and how they would have reacted in some of the more exaggerated circumstances. I met Spielberg when I was a kid and Close Encounters was just a really interesting take on the subject. I think Project Blue Book is sort of its offspring.
MM: For me, it was E.T. since that was my childhood. A huge part of that is the score actually. That’s one of the best hooks. I’m also a musician so that’s very important to me. Another one is Arrival that I really enjoyed, and the score is definitely one of the stars.
Michael Harney: I’d have to say Starman with Jeff Bridges. I really dug it because there was such an innocence to his discovery process of becoming human and I think there is a purity to it, and what I’ve been looking at in terms of extraterrestrials.
JB: I’d also have to say Close Encounters for sure. It’s funny, the first thing that came to mind for me was Alien. It’s such a great movie and it’s something that I think the show captures to a degree, too, is the atmosphere. Oddly enough, I have to add Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I really loved the first 45 minutes where it just felt like this chaos of your world getting turned upside down, and that the aliens were already here. I must have seen that 15-20 times because I think there’s something relatable, human nature-wise, about just needing to run because there’s something coming after you.
MM: I’m not sure why no one has mentioned Mars Attacks yet. A little left-field mention, I know.
TYF: Yeah, first contact didn’t go too well in that movie. What if first contact were to happen in the US today, how do you think that would go?
LM: Hmm, I don’t know. Could we handle it?
MM: I think that’s the big question. Can the public handle all that information if it were to be released? The whole reason behind Project Blue Book was to hold back information as opposed to giving it to the masses and create panic.
PH: In UFO believers circles it’s called “Disclosure”. There’s a widespread belief that they’re here and there’s sort of public relations grooming exercises leading up to a potential Disclosure as soon as next year.
SJ: The thing I think that will blow people away is from a religious standpoint. What does that say about your religion, God, or belief system if you have to then somehow incorporate aliens into those origin stories if your religion make no mention of God in that way? Then you’re faced with a real dilemma that could just undo a lot of the things that kind of hold us together in a way. There’s also the school of thought that this could unite everybody as well.
PH: You know the Catholic Church is already getting out ahead of it. They’ve already put out a paper saying that there is extraterrestrial life dealt with in the scriptures.
MH: Paul and I were talking yesterday and one of the things we discussed was with all the information that’s come out.
TYF: The idea of aliens has been in pop culture for over 50 years at this point, so you would think people wouldn’t break out into mass hysteria if it was to happen. When it came to character development, how much did you use Paul as a resource?
LM: Paul and his brother Joel were amazing resources, especially for the cases because these are real-life cases that were classified by the government at one point. At first sight of the script, my character did seem a little bit different from what they told me their real-life mother was like, but getting to know about the Hyneks and their lives through their sons’ stories and wonderful pictures, I was able to infuse it within the story. It was really helpful and beneficial for sure.
MM: I’ll speak for Aiden [Gillen] since I have to listen to him dribble on at other events. He said the family photos were one of the biggest sources because he was able to kind of see the family candidly. He could feel the energy of the family through the little snapshots of moments in history that were real.
MH: For my character, I looked at a lot of footage of several guys in key positions in the government and military at the time. Oddly enough, I would watch their movements and physical movements and I got a lot of information about their person. Reading a lot of interviews with people helped, too. There were interviews of people that had achieved high-level security clearance with the military.
TYF: Time for a serious question: So working with Aiden on set, how often would you all ask him questions about Game of Thrones?
LM: Because he was playing my husband I couldn’t. I just did not want to see him like that. People would ask me, “Are you watching Game of Thrones like crazy now?” I’m like, “No!” That’s the last thing I want to see him as.
TYF: What message or lessons do you think the show offers contemporary society?
SJ: First of all, I think that it was a government agency designed to put out fake news, which I think is relevant to the time. Even more so, I hope it opens people’s eyes and makes them question. If anybody is a skeptic about the phenomenon, the evidence is out there. Honestly, you’re able to prove that with the number of eyewitnesses and physical evidence out there. It’s a little hard to dispute so I’m hoping people will watch it and have their eyes opened and then go do some research and see that the world’s bigger than just ourselves and our politics.
Project Blue Book premieres January 8th on HISTORY at 10/9c.