isIf you were to contact extraterrestrial life, what would you say? How would you make yourself understood? Which context is universal? For John Shepherd, these are more than assumptions; they were choices with clear and practical answers. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Shepherd led ambitious and bespoke solo attempts to send a message to the stranger from his home in northern Michigan. The universal context, he decided, was the non-commercial music – afrobeat, jazz, reggae – projected into space through an elaborate collection of machines that looked like a spaceship slowly engulfing a cottage.
In John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, a tender and based short film premiering on Netflix this month, Shepherd reflects on his decades-long infatuation with the potential of space – a search for meaning carried out, at least partially, in his little corner of Earth. The 16-minute film, which won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance in January, finds Shepherd at his home, still in northern Michigan, surrounded by machines that now seem more comfortable in a parody of a 1960s sci-fi movie. “And I’ll start it,” he says, sitting in front of a wall of buttons. He is bearded, hair in a loose ponytail, equally shy and impatient. A few turns of the dials, a few wavy lines, an electric drumming drum, and the search resumes.
Shepherd was, it seems in the film, somewhat of a local media star in the era of sci-fi movies and space capers, having attempted to contact (the keyword in the title is “try” ) extraterrestrial beings. Adopted and raised by his grandparents, Shepherd was interested from an early age in what could be there – an interest that, when articulated, resembles the aspirations of many others closer to Earth. “My interest is to discover the unknown, and the unknown is just that – the unknown,” he says in an old news clip that appears in the credits of the film. “And you search, and you keep searching, because of your desire, because you know there’s something out there.
Shepherd began building electrical equipment – square, tall, adorned with dials and screens – as a teenager, with help from his grandfather. Soon, the equipment, which Shepherd called “Project Strat” (Special Telemetry Search and Track) occupied an entire bedroom, then the living room. An old photo captures the comedic significance of Shepherd’s work: the right half of the photo could be a NASA lab – Shepherd with its back to the camera, turning the dials on a wall-length machine whose activity doodle screen – while in the left half, her grandmother knits while her grandfather is lying, as if there is nothing to see here.
It was the photo that first captured the eye of filmmaker Matthew Killip. He was reading a book on UFOs, and was struck by the contrast of the Shepherd house – a contained part of an American comfort scene, an ambitious part in space. Killip, a British film editor living in Brooklyn, pieced together Shepherd’s long history of space research through YoutTube research and old newspaper clips. Soon he was on a plane to northern Michigan. “I just packed my camera and left,” he told The Guardian. Working alone, with no budget or a distributor set up, Killip began filming within hours of meeting Shepherd.
Killip was less interested in extraterrestrial life as a scientific investigation than in a cultural phenomenon – “if you’re making a movie about someone trying to contact extraterrestrials, there’s an inherent narrative problem, which is that they do not contact extraterrestrials, ”he says. But he found Shepherd’s lifelong interest in contacting someone, or something, in outer space to be “deeply romantic,” and more universal than a guy faking thousands of dollars in. radio and electrical equipment in the living room of his grandparents might seem. “We’re all sending a message hoping someone else will pick it up, understand us and understand who we are,” Killip said. “We are all trying to make contact.” John’s story therefore brings “the search for love, or a place in the world, or a partner who recognizes you, or a family who recognizes you, in a sort of cosmic context”.
“Sometimes following the course I have in my life the path maybe looks like a lonely mountain road leading to higher peaks to see the view, to check out something most people don’t see. Shepherd says in an interview that airs halfway through the film, at the height of his radio in space. “So you tend to do more on your own.” Despite the film’s brevity, Killip captures the arc of Shepherd’s search for love on Earth – how, in his youth, Shepherd realized he was gay; how his introverted existence in a small northern town and his carefully nurtured obsession with space made the possibility of meeting a life partner as distant as a foreign contact. “Finding someone who’s on the wavelength I’m on, and being able to share my life with that person in some degree or way, is next to impossible,” he says in an older clip, “though I believe it exists. I believe that for everyone there is someone.
Eventually, Shepherd met his match: a mirror himself also named John, also bearded and with long hair. The two still live in northern Michigan, and although radio broadcasts in space have ceased in recent years – the equipment is expensive, Shepherd’s interests are closer to Earth – his sense of curiosity remains intact. .
Much like Shepherd’s intimate and expansive sense of hope, which feels as poignant in 2020 Hellfire as it does in archival footage of Shepherd calling out the unknown (“If you’re the aliens, we’d love to you tune in again tomorrow night at 9pm for more cultural music, ”Shepherd once signed into the void using radio towers and enough humor to imagine aliens tuning into a radio show on time from the east). Shepherd’s story offers hope, Killip said, that “whether it’s on Earth or in space, you can connect in a meaningful way in your life.
Thirty years of trying to contact aliens left him with “little hard data,” Shepherd admits in the film, but the process itself was sufficiently creative, generative, and connective. “It has filled my life,” he says. “It gave him something, meaning.