Erin Ryder changes 'Destination' to 'Chasing UFOs'

Erin Ryder, courtesy NatGeo

If the truth is out there, a team from the National Geographic Channel might be the best shot there is of finding it. But the network’s new docu-series, Chasing UFOs, ups the ante in the search for answers from The X-Files believer/skeptic duo of Mulder and Scully, and adds a third character – the “skeliever.”

Enter Erin Ryder. Haling upstate New York, Ryder has an extensive resume of producing shows that range from topics such as parkour to Pussycat Dolls to, most recently, the paranormal. She is a skeptic who wants to believe – and might have enough reasons to do so after the first season of the NatGeo show, which premieres with a two back-to-back episodes tonight at 9 p.m.

Ryder is already known to fans of the unexplained by her work as co-executive producer and on-camera adventurer on the Syfy monster-hunting show Destination Truth (which debuts its fifth season on July 10 at 10 p.m.). But in Chasing UFOs – also from Truth production company Ping Pong Productions – Ryder takes the lead as her team looks to the skies and into the shadows.

Along with UFOlogist James Fox and skeptical scientist Ben McGee, Ryder serves as co-executive producer and field researcher in a pursuit that often takes them into a dark territory of extraterrestrial sightings, alien abductions and government conspiracies. In the first episodes alone, the team heads to Texas and encounters a town where more than 30 residents claim they saw mysterious lights flying above them. Then there are is the retired military brass who warns that a large-scale cover-up is in place – a warning that hits close to home when the team believes they’re being followed. And yes, there is a lot of investigating and running around in the dark - which is a fun draw of the show.

But instead of only pursuing theories and eyewitness accounts - and playing with lots of cool gadgets - Chasing UFOs also attempts to pursue the science behind E.T. experiences. For instance, the show is working with SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) to send an outer space, crowdsourced reply to the "Wow! Signal" of 1977.

Erin Ryder joined us to discuss her leap from monsters to aliens, and open up about the science, skepticism - and lots of bleeped-out swear words - of Chasing UFOs, along with some inside info on the new season (and future) of Destination Truth. (After the jump...)

Q: Obviously I know your work on Destination Truth, but how do you go from producing sports shows to chasing monsters to UFOs?

A: I’ve had a love for travel and adventure since I was younger. Anything that’s allowed me to do that, in terms of producing, has been fantastic. That’s why Destination Truth has such a place in my heart. I’ve been fond of UFOs since I was little; I’m definitely a sci-fi geek at heart. I’d say the [mass] sightings in the Hudson Valley were kind of something that affected my family. They would talk about sightings. It was so intriguing and I wanted to see something for so long. And I actually saw something. You’ll see it this season on Destination Truth. We saw something in Kazakhstan that I really cannot explain. And that just kind of revved up this love again.

Q: Since Chasing UFOs and Truth are produced by the same company, did this sighting in Kazakhstan lead you to pitching them a show or was this already in the works over at Ping Pong and it was just serendipitous?

From left: Eyewitness Constable Leroy Gaitan, Fox
McGee, Ryder. Courtesy NatGeo
A: It was serendipitous. It was one of those things where the guys are heavily into cryptozoology and paranormal. UFOs are just an extension of that just in the field of mystery. Those guys are kings of it. They had wanted to do something. Josh Gates [the host of Destination Truth] and I calling from the road saying, “We saw something” - who knows if that sparked anything? I do know that the timing just couldn’t have been more perfect.

Q: You grew up in New York and then went to school in Syracuse, so did you ever see anything in the skies about the UFO hotspots of the Hudson Valley?

A: No, I wish I did. Obviously the mass sightings took place, around ’82 to, people say, ‘95. And that is definitely while I was there. I had my uncle who saw things and my grandfather, and it was so something that I wanted to happen. Obviously, it doesn’t always work like that.

Q: What is the transition between pursuing these creatures on DT to UFOs?

A: Luckily, there’s a lot of similarities so it wasn’t something that took a lot of changes - aside from the better vehicles because we are in the United States. And luckily we were renting vehicles that actually and heated seats. If you’ve seen the DT vehicles, they barely run. The way we do things is very similar. What Josh and I do, and what James and Ben and I do, is going out and saying, “if this does exist, is there some sort of scientific way to prove it?” And that’s deep down what we’re trying to do. There are a lot of similarities. On DT, we jumpstart getting in a little bit more into UFOs and aliens this season. So I did have a little foray into that. But staring at the sky is definitely something new for me. The lenses and the telescopes we had at our fingertips were incredible. It makes the universe seem a little closer than it probably should.

Q: As a producer, is there ever this moment where you’re like, “Okay, we got to make this more exciting because we’re just looking up into the sky?”

A: You know, in the beginning before I went out, I will say that was something I was nervous about. But when you go out there - and you film as long as we do and then you have to cut that down with into 42 minutes - you realize that a lot of that boring stuff hits the cutting room floor. Once it’s not diluted, it is action packed.

Q: How would you say the show is overall different from a lot of other paranormal investigative shows out there?

A: I would say the one thing I hope people see that sets us apart is that we do have three completely different points of view. Ben is an open and honest scientific skeptic. Deep down he does want to find something but, until we do, he does have to take a real strong scientific look at everything when we go out there. James is on the other end of that spectrum and he is a true believer. He’s had sightings of his own. He’s spoken to government officials and astronauts and collected so many sightings and stories that it’s hard for him not to believe. Then I kind of land somewhere in the middle because I have had a sighting, I have talked to these people and felt that they did see something. I want to believe same as all three of us. We get these ranging points of view and we don’t come to one conclusion at the end of an episode.

Q: You go to a town hall, talk to an entire community, and then get a lot of eyewitness accounts. Is there a concern people are just telling you the coolest stories and saying they saw something just to get on TV – especially when the elements of eyewitness stories are so familiar and easy to draw from?

A: Absolutely. Absolutely. The one thing that we pride ourselves on is that we seek these people out. Very rarely do we talk to anyone that has sought us out because we want to speak to the people that have a lot to lose. We don’t want to talk to these people who want the fame and attention by getting their story out there. We want to talk to the people that have been hiding for years and years and years. And we have to pry the story out of them. Because for me, there’s real honesty in that. In Texas, the town hall meeting that we threw, yeah, you have to worry that these people are coming because they want to be on TV. But at the same time, once you’re there, you realize the comfort level changes once one person shares a story. You see the other people nod their heads, and then stand up and say, “Well I didn’t ever want to share this, but now that other people are sharing these stories, I don’t think I’m crazy anymore.” … But yeah, you’re going to always have to be wary.

McGee, Ryder, Fox. Courtesy NatGeo
Q: When you encounter overenthusiastic believers of any phenomena, does it sometimes make you more skeptical? Like you’re less likely to buy their story?

A: Sometimes. You know, I think you just have to take it case by case. There’s sometimes where that enthusiasm and that love can really taint a point of view. You just have to be careful of that. That’s what I love so much about James. Yes he’s been studying this forever, and yes, he will come out and say he believes UFOs exist. But at the same time, he doesn’t let it taint his point of view. When we go up and speak to someone, he’s almost the first person that will call, “bullshit.” And he’ll be like, “I don’t believe that guy.” And I think that’s what makes me so fond of him - he’s not going out preaching.

Q: Well, speaking of bullshit, you like to swear - or maybe it’s just natural…

A: I tease that I was raised by longshoremen in a fraternity. My mom isn’t too fond of that. I would fill a cuss jar in a minute. It’s just something that’s a part of me. I feel bad that people are offended by it. I’m so happy that I get bleeped because I know there are a lot of kids watching. And I do want to be a role model. I don’t want them to follow that behavior. But when I hit a certain level of excitement, it’s just, I can’t contain it. A lot of times it’s just a streaming cuss line that comes out. It’s been like that forever.

Q: A recurring theme of the show involves government cover ups, and that people should be allowed to talk about these experiences openly without fear of reprisal. But when a witness like a retired colonel goes on camera, talking about cover ups and how the government wants to take him out, does that not, in fact, destroy the notion of a cover up? He’s talking and hasn’t been taken out by a sniper rifle, you know?

A: I thought that, and I was always kind of suspect of that. But when you talk to people around the time the government stopped being involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life - when they closed Project Blue Book - what happened was they turned to this new method of making fun. So anyone that believed was immediately crazy. It was so wild and so out there. I believe that’s what they do with people that come forward now. They don’t need to silence them. They let them talk. But they just promote the fact that they think that they’re crazy.

Q: In the second episode you pretty much trespass on an airfield. If you guys were really coming close to something real, wouldn’t they want to shut you down? We wouldn’t even be having this conversation because the show would never get picked up or would never air, right?

A: Right, and that’s the thing. That’s why I walk away from Fresno and I wonder if there really is something to the underground bases conversation [in the second part of tonight’s two-hour premiere]. When you do get too close, you know that you get too close. You know. Anyone who’s tried to get too close to Area 51 knows that. There were times that the Coast Guard would come out after us. There were times that the military would send out warnings and helicopters and cops, flashlights, all that kind of stuff. There’s always that first level warning. We know to be careful, as producers, as investigators. We know not to push it because we have National Geographic’s reputation on the line, we have our reputation on the line. We don’t try to go much further than we really have to. But yeah, you know when you do. You know when you’ve crossed the line.

Q: In episode four, you visit Roswell, right?

A: We do. We headed to New Mexico. We were at White Sands Missile Range and throughout the area. And I’m happy to say we found something there. We found physical evidence there that defies anything I thought that this project could come up with. You have expectations, and what we found superseded those expectations. It was just beyond words. I’m really excited for people to see that episode. I think Roswell is a famous site for a lot of reasons and something happened there. I’ve always believed something happened there, and now I’m believing that there may really have been a cover up.

Q: I often think everybody knows some of the classic stories - the Travis Waltons, the Roswell, the Area 51 stories. Have you encountered people that are like, “No, I don’t know the story of Roswell”?

A: I think Roswell’s a difficult one, but we do meet with Travis Walton this season. And yes, because it wasn’t of their generation, [people] didn’t really know who he was, what potentially happened to him. And yeah, I think this is something that is a part of our culture, of everyone’s culture. You can go to any country and everyone has their sightings. I think that that’s what is fantastic. It’s one of those things that’s a common thread from culture to culture.

Q: Did Josh Gates give you any advice when you set out to do this?

A: His one piece of advice was, “Try not to fall too hard.” He knows that I’m an extreme klutz and I think that was one of his biggest concerns. No, he was really happy and just said to go out there and give it my all. That was really important for me to hear from him because Destination Truth is where my heart is, and doing this without him was really hard in the beginning. There’s no one that does it better than Josh Gates. Getting his blessing and going out was really important to me.

Q: So does that mean that your time on DT, if it returns for another season, is officially over?

A: No, Absolutely not … I wouldn’t want to part with that because it is so close to, it has everything that I love. It just really does, and I think no one does it better than we do. It’s just a feeling that I have. I truly hope that this isn’t the end of Destination Truth, for Josh, for the show and for me.

Q: You said you were a sci-fi geek growing up. What were the kinds of things that you were into?

A: Ray Bradbury, God bless his heart, who just passed, I have every one of his books. That’s been a major passion of mine since I was younger. The X-Files has always been something that just – everything that I could want in terms of a producer, an investigator, that’s everything. That has it all. That show is incredible. But, comic books, oddly enough, I’ve fallen in love with that. I don’t keep up with it as much as I probably should. Now that the Green Lantern is coming out gay and whatnot, I feel like I need to get back into it. But it’s definitely something that a lot of people don’t know about me. But it’s definitely something that has made me who I am in terms of someone who wants to explore this particular genre.

Q: What’s your favorite alien movie or favorite episode of The X-Files?

A: Well my favorite alien movie, and it’s not fair because Travis Walton is going to think that I’m cheating, but Fire in the Sky is a pretty well-done movie and it’s really creepy. If you haven’t seen that one in a while, watch that movie. It’s very, very eerie. Favorite X-Files: There’s so many because I love all of them … "Fallen Angel" is incredible. Deep Throat's back in that one. I especially love the UFO fanatic guy in that, too … But it’s hard to pick favorites. I really don’t have favorites in terms of anything. The fact that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson could do that for so long and keep us interested for so long is beyond me. They’re magicians at their craft.