Imaginative Short Shows How 'War of the Worlds’ Blurred Fiction and Reality
Orson Welles' controversial radio hoax is funny now, but caused widespread panic at the time.
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On Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a radio performance of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. Welles staged much of it as a series of news bulletins, so it’s remembered for causing widespread panic among listeners, who believed an actual alien invasion was underway. In a new science fiction film, titled Embers & Dust, filmmaker Patrick Biesemans samples from Welles’s infamous dramatization to create a creative and mesmerizing riff on an alien invasion.
In the short film, a rural couple listen to Welles’ broadcast on the night of October 30, 1938, while their son wanders in the woods. Unaware that the broadcast is a carefully crafted fiction, the parents grow frightened and venture out into the woods to find their son, who may actually be encountering some sort of alien species. While the film is a love letter to imagination, it is also a story about a father accepting and encouraging his child’s imagination and where it may take him, and a great tribute to Welles’ genius.
“I think there was a lot very well-crafted storytelling in the same era, but nobody put it to use the way Orson Welles did,” Biesemans tells The Creators Project. “He knew he was manipulating the audience, which he admitted to some years after the broadcast.”
“I very much wanted to explore the world Welles created but I didn’t just want to adapt the radio play into a film,” Biesemans says. “I wanted to adapt the feeling I got when I listened to it, and capture the same feeling I had as a kid when something creatively inspired me. I’d just want to run around the woods and pretend it was filled with stormtroopers from Star Wars and sentinels from the X-Men, and tell my own stories.”
Welles’ broadcast is public domain, but the radioplay itself is still owned by the estate of writer and longtime Welles collaborator Howard Koch. To be on the safe side, Biesemans contacted the estate and, for a fee, got permission to use a portion of the broadcast.
Biesemans describes the screenwriting as the most laborious and frustrating part of the filmmaking process, as he had to come to terms with the fact that he needed to be his own writer. Because of this, Embers & Dust began as a sentiment or poem rather than a concrete concept.
“I knew I wanted it to be meditative and a bit meandering, not so linear and action oriented,” he explains. “I just thought what I would do if I were a kid at that age during the broadcast and what all that meant.”
After he nailed down the story, he began assembling a team of filmmakers. He storyboarded everything and had an extensive treatment to fall back on if the team were ever lost in the dark. Biesemans achieved the fantastic cinematic quality with an ARRI Alexa Mini digital camera with Cooke lenses. For most of the film Biesemans was the steadicam operator, which allowed him to capture the dream-like atmosphere for the scenes in the woods he had envisioned.
Though Biesemans second-guessed decisions over and over again, he said there were a lot of personal breakthroughs on the set of Embers & Dust. The most important of which was the realization that he could conceive of, write, and execute his own story from start to finish.
This unity of vision shines through brilliantly in the final product. It is a highly creative and technically executed, yet highly personal science fiction short—an indie film with blockbuster sci-fi DNA.
“I want people to be taken away for a moment, maybe evoke a feeling or sentiment toward their imagination they might have let go dormant,” Biesemans muses. “Imagination is an incredible gift but I also think it’s an incredibly wasted or underutilized skill—usually reserved for people with ‘creative’ in their job titles. Everyone can stand to be a bit more creative or imaginative as an adult, doesn’t matter what your job is, and I hope this sparks that in them.”
Click here to see more of Patrick Biesemans’s work.