CONFRONTING THE PAST TO FACE THE FUTURE
Richard Bakewell’s intimate sci-fi drama ROSWELL DELIRIUM evokes 80s nostalgia
What if the past you remember didn’t really happen?
That’s the simple premise of filmmaker Richard Bakewell’s character-driven, science fiction drama, ROSWELL DELIRIUM, which centers around a young woman who survives nuclear disaster and alien encounters, only to slowly discover that the events she remembers are distorted by her traumatic experiences. The result is a powerful and compelling blend of genres, set against the backdrop of an alternate history of the 1980s. “At it’s heart, it’s a mother daughter story,” says Bakewell, suggesting the film is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” meets “Terms of Endearment.”
In “Roswell Delirium” (written, directed, and produced by Bakewell), we witness some of the key events in the life of the young heroine, Mayday “Firefly” Malone (winningly played by Kylee Levien as teenaged Mayday, and Ashton Solecki as the grown-up version). Living in New Mexico in the 1980s, with her emotionally distant father employed by NASA and not always home, Mayday is obsessed with ham radio and satellite communications. But in 1986, the US and USSR devolve into nuclear war: rural areas are unscathed but the resulting years of radiation poisoning mean a new existence where sudden illness, death, and decay become a way of life. Moving between an older, radiation-sick Firefly as she puts her belief into the healing powers of the “Space Rock” at Area 51, and the younger Mayday as the events of the world spin out of control, the film sees the events of this alt-history through the eyes of a smart, determined young woman who slowly comes to realize that all is not as she remembers. With a supporting cast that includes Anthony Michael Hall, Lisa Whelchel, Dee Wallace, Sam Jones, and Reginald VelJohnson, the film evokes it’s alternate-1980s setting with loving precision and eye for detail.
“It started as a short film,” explains Richard Bakewell, “just eight pages long, and we were going to film it in March 2020.” For Bakewell, a veteran cinematographer, camera operator, and narrative filmmaker, the story was inspired by the unexpected emotional trajectory of his own life and career. Growing up in northeastern Ohio, Bakewell was the neighborhood kid obsessed with movies, television, and pop culture, reveling in the storytelling traditions of the 1980s and dreaming of becoming the next Steven Spielberg. After beginning his studies as a director at Columbia College in Chicago, Bakewell quickly realized that directing wasn’t the best career path, and shifted his passion to working with cameras as a cinematographer. “I felt that directing was either in your blood or not, and needed a skill I could rely on before eventually moving into the world of directing.”
An internship led to a job, which resulted in Bakewell relocating to Los Angeles in the 1990s, just as the reality TV world was exploding with work. “I started on soap operas, but quickly found a niche in reality TV.” Key to this part of his career was working on the iconic program “Cops” for two seasons. “We had no formal training for that job, our only job was to go after the story,” he recalls. “People don’t realize it, but we’re basically doing what the cops are doing: we had to intervene in fights, ride along in high speed pursuits, avoid getting shot, go into family homes where terrible things had just happened. It really shapes you as a storyteller and a producer, as you are constantly working with people – in this case, people who are criminals, in prison, or just tried to murder someone – and had to look them in the eye and ask them to sign a legal release.”
Like many who work in that area of the profession, Bakewell started to burn out. “That world became very fake, just holding onto a camera for long hours, I started to hate it.” But with an impressive show reel, he could move into corporate commercials and quickly developed a new outlet. With his company and team behind him, Bakewell has produced dozens of major commercial, promotional, and industrial efforts working alongside and/or interviewing the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Gordon Ramsay, Tyra Banks, Prince Harry, Mark Wahlberg, and Ringo Starr. His camera work has also been seen on dozens of television programs like “Beat Shazam,” “Last Chance U,” “Cheer,” “World of Dance,” and Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word.”
While this proved more tenable as a career than reality TV, Bakewell admits things weren’t right. “It turns out I had severe PTSD after ‘Cops,’” he explains. “I didn’t understand it, but I would find myself in long crying sessions, unable to focus on my work.” He initially translated these concerns into a feature length film called “Officer Down” which he wrote and directed in 2013. Subsequent shorts “Postpartum” (a horror film made in 2016) and “The Rabbit Hole” (a drama from 2019) also used trauma and recovery as the backbone of genre-based stories. “Roswell Delirium” came out of the same curative impulse.
But the March 2020 filming was not to happen – and the ensuing pandemic provided even more fuel for Bakewell to expand the project to feature length. It’s not a coincidence that many of the challenges faced by the survivors of the nuclear war in Mayday’s world bear an uncanny resemblance to global life in the early 2020s: masks, the fear of disease, indiscriminate death, government overreach, political paranoia, and the desperate need for salvation and redemption. Bakewell produced no fewer than seventeen different drafts over the course of the next two years. Because part of Mayday’s story is her increasingly passionate belief in alien contact, the filmmaker began to interview more people who share that belief to gain perspective on her character; and, the more his own memories of the 1980s began to surface as critical creative material.
“The 1980s feels like home to so many people,” Bakewell says today. “From the beginning, I wanted to have an ensemble 80s-style film, because that decade represents so many things that we care about and want to be a part of. It makes people feel good about themselves to remember that time, everything felt safe and fun.” Indeed, the film is littered with sly references to catch phrases, films, and speech patterns of the 1980s that are more than mere “Easter Eggs” for those who happen to remember the decade in such detail: in the post-nuclear war landscape of “Roswell Delirium,” those references become crucial touchstones for us to put together an alternative history that feels believable and authentic. Perhaps this is captured best by one of the film’s most dramatic turning points, when Mayday and her high school class witness the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle: her own connection to NASA through her father makes this a critical point of memory as she processes her trauma as an adult.
Bakewell had worked with both Kylee Levien and Arielle Bodenhausen (who plays Mayday’s mother) in “The Rabbit Hole” and knew that they had the talent to anchor the film, but from the outset was determined to increase the 1980s vibe by casting performers who were well known for their work in that era. First to hop on board was Sam Jones, still well-remembered from starring as “Flash Gordon” over four decades ago. Then, Dee Wallace (most notable as the mother in “E.T.”) came aboard in a critical role of a grieving grandparent. “That really gave the film a heart,” remembers Bakewell, who repeatedly watched “E.T” as inspiration. She was followed by “Facts of Life” veteran Lisa Whelchel, who plays Mayday’s teacher struggling to keep her students focused amidst the ongoing crisis; her agent helped get Reginald VelJohnson (“Family Matters”) in another critical supporting role.
From the beginning, however, Bakewell had been thinking about “The Breakfast Club”: though a far cry from his sci-fi drama, the film had the sincere heart and respect for life-changing moments that also anchor “Roswell Delirium.” Fortunately, he found an ally in “Breakfast Club” star and 80s icon Anthony Michael Hall, who plays the present-day therapist attending to the unusual case of Mayday. “Anthony had his own belief about the story, about aliens, and wanted to be part of the film in any way possible,” recalls Bakewell. Eventually, Hall agreed to produce the film as well as co-star, helping Bakewell secure the resources to get the film in front of the cameras.
“Roswell Delirium” is ultimately driven by intimate human drama and not outrageous special effects or jump scares with grotesque alien monsters. Mayday’s emotional, physical, and intellectual journey as a victim of nuclear war and global trauma provides a roadmap for viewers to reimagine the way in which we valorize the past in order to cope with the pain of the present and the fear of an unknown future. Even in the making of the film, Bakewell couldn’t shake the present-day fears of so many: casting the film in early 2022, he couldn’t find a casting director who was ready to hold in-person auditions, which he considered essential to the process.
With an original score by “Queens of the Stone Age” guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, exquisite production detail that captures the pre-internet technology of the 1980s (so critical to the films referred to by the characters), and a story that makes bold connections between trauma, memory, history, and redemption, the result is an original feature that will impact audiences in unexpected ways. “Roswell Delirium” is likely to not only evoke nostalgia for a certain kind of character-based fantasy filmmaking that peaked in the 1980s with filmmakers like Spielberg and Joe Dante, but also remind us that our own present-day existence is troubled, difficult, and harrowing – and may be creating traumas that we won’t fully understand for years to come.
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