Around the hotel offices of a visiting ABC film crew last week, production assistant Susan Merson was distributing what looked like a photo of a flying saucer. It wasn't really. It was a coffee maker's magazine ad, showing a large, blurry disk-shaped object hovering over a coffee plantation with the caption "We know why they're here."

Still, everyone got the point. "If you'd been here a month, you'd understand, too," said assistant director Yudi Bennett.

The flying saucer has become the unofficial motif for a TV movie, being filmed here in the Peruvian Andes, of actress Shirley MacLaine's spiritual odyssey, the one she wrote about in "Out on a Limb."

The book isn't about creatures from another planet, though they're mentioned. It's a personal story about psychic travels that MacLaine embarked upon a decade ago. Her search for herself -- which took her to London, Stockholm, Hong Kong and Hawaii -- climaxed in an Andean mineral bath where, guided by her painter-poet friend David, she felt her spirit float out of her body, then return. The experience, MacLaine wrote, lifted her to a higher astral plane and began to change her perception of, well, just about everything.

But it's the outer-space stuff that lately has attracted all the controversy and caused some static with Peru's National Institute of Culture. Attempting to re-create her leap into another spiritual dimension, MacLaine is finding that it may be trickier just to move from First to Third World on Earth.

Beings from another planet may be standard fare in Hollywood and in MacLaine's imagination. But local authorities took offense at suggestions in the original script that other-than-earthly forms may have been responsible for the construction of the ancient mountain city of Machu Picchu and for the patterns drawn in the desert at Nazca.

The government threatened to suspend permission to film, and several passages of the 500-page script were quickly rewritten. References to ancient ETs were muted, and explicit credit was given to the Incas for their magnificent -- if still not fully explained -- construction exploits.

But MacLaine and others involved in the ABC Circle Films production haven't given up imagining that extraterrestrials once roamed these parts -- and are still around.

"Whether we capture one on film, we'll see," said director of photography Bradford May with a grin. "We have several days of filming left."

Frustrated at being refused interviews with MacLaine -- who, as a policy, doesn't talk to reporters while on a set -- the Peruvian press played up the clash. Some papers went out of their way to make the blue-eyed, strawberry blond actress-author-activist-feminist look like a kook.

"I am the reincarnation of an Inca princess," blared one headline in the Lima tabloid Expreso, attributing the line to MacLaine (who does in fact believe that souls keep coming back into various bodies). The paper claimed to have spoken with the actress, but the people at ABC said no such encounter ever took place and that the quote was fabricated. MacLaine has scheduled a press conference Saturday in Lima before she leaves the country.

Controversy or no, the farmers and craftsmen around here don't have much of an idea of what the movie is about. Most don't go to the movies or own television sets. But they do seem pleased to be part of the action.

For one thing, it's profitable. The 600 Peruvian extras in the film each receive $10 to $40 for a scene. Two dozen others are earning much more than that as drivers for the crew. Another 10 or so are serving as translators. The dollars will go a long way in this impoverished agricultural region.

What has really wowed the Indians, though, has been the technical feats of the visiting Americans: building sets and setting up lights so the cameras can roll in the wilderness.

Take, for example, the case of three plump Peruvian peasant women who had their first sulfur pool experience last week, courtesy of ABC. For logistical convenience, ABC built a replica here of the original pool that MacLaine used near Huancayo.

Judging from their wide-toothed grins, the bathing ladies clearly loved every minute of the soothing hot-water swim. The problem was how to get them out of the water -- at least for a while -- when the production staff decided to take a break.

"How do you say 'Hit your mark' in Quechua?" said assistant director Bennett, momentarily perplexed. "Hit your mark" is Hollywoodese for remembering one's position on a set when a break is called. Quechua is what's spoken in the Peruvian highlands.

"We kept telling them, 'Don't look at the camera,' but they didn't know what a camera was," recalled Bennett, who has coped with translations from English to Spanish to Quechua and back in the three weeks since the crew has been here. "I don't think there's even a word for 'camera' or 'movie' in Quechua. Lord only knows what they think we're doing."

Indeed, the most visible aliens in these parts lately have come not from outer space but from ABC, equipped with prop trucks, wardrobe buses, electrical generators, cameras and even a caterer.

"I would have never dreamt of working with Hollywood, or of Hollywood coming to me," said Dr. Abel Toledo, a Lima physician hired to treat the crew for the inevitable ailments: altitude sickness, upset stomachs, common colds. "It's very impressive. For people here, it's like something coming from outer space."

Actually, reports of UFO sightings are not uncommon in this mountainous area. On the road from Lima to Huancayo, as MacLaine mentioned in her book, a sign at 16,000 feet reads: "Flying Saucers Do Exist. UFO Contact Point."

"At these altitudes, strange things sometimes happen," said a Los Angeles lawyer who once served as a Peace Corps worker in Peru and is here helping ABC clear its gear through customs.

"It doesn't matter to us if people have contact with extraterrestrials," said Oscar Nunez del Prado, local representative of the National Institute of Culture. "What does matter is whether someone tries to profane our historical monuments with the idea they were made by extraterrestrials."

An elderly, slightly built man who teaches anthropology, Nunez del Prado was the one who sounded the alarm about the MacLaine script. He believes there is an international "neo-Nazi campaign" to discredit the achievements of the Incas, Aztecs, Egyptians and other ancient civilizations by attributing their technical feats to extraterrestrials.

As an example, he cited the book "Chariot of the Gods" by Erich von Daniken of Switzerland. The book and subsequent movie suggest that the Nazca lines were the work of creatures from another planet. Scientists say the lines date from around 200 B.C. and were probably religious symbols associated with agricultural rites. Mysteriously, the elaborate desert markings are visible only from the air.

Nunez del Prado said he did not think MacLaine intentionally meant to harm Peru, but he had feared her film, as originally written, would encourage those intent on denying Inca achievements.

Still, the film's producer, Stan Margulies ("Roots," "The Thorn Birds"), regards the government's intervention as an intrusion on artistic freedom. Speaking of Machu Picchu, Margulies said: "How did they get such enormous flats of stone up to that height, without iron tools and without the wheel? It isn't known for sure how they did it, and that leaves room for speculation.

"We told the government the dialogue in the film between Shirley and David speculating about extraterrestrials was just one man's and one woman's opinion about what might have happened. We weren't implying that the Incas were incapable without the help of ETs.

"Matters of historical and archeological fact are one thing," Margulies went on. "But the realm of speculation, that is not something the government ought to control. That's a matter of artistic freedom."

Said Nunez del Prado: "A person certainly has the liberty to speak, but not to insult someone else. That was my criteria."

In the original version, speaking of Machu Picchu, Shirley asked David, "Are you saying extraterrestrials helped?" Answered David, played by John Heard ("The Trip to Bountiful," "Cutter's Way"), "That's what some writers think." In the revised version, David replies, "I'm not saying that."

In the original, David spoke of a "haunting feeling that the stones were lifted by ships by means of a magnetic process." This was rewritten to read "lifted through some mysterious process."

At another point, while circling the Nazca lines, David asks Shirley, "Don't they look like airstrips of some kind?" As first written, Shirley's answer was, "I guess so." Now she replies, "I guess not."

Deleted altogether was a section in which David wondered what kind of craft could have used the lines, and Shirley speculated, "Maybe these are the landing strips for those crafts they talk about in the Bible, like in Ezekiel."

Having bridged the culture gap with Peruvian officials, MacLaine and the ABC team now hope to bridge the imagination gap with a U.S. audience. The two-part, five-hour film is scheduled for November.

"To my knowledge, no one has tackled the subject of a spiritual search before," said producer Margulies. "There's a big audience out there for the idea, but it's normally not what you'd expect a major TV network to attempt.

"In order to write the book in the first place, Shirley went out on a limb, going against the advice of those who told her not to expose herself. She just feels strongly that, to complete the project, she has to go out on a limb again."

How does MacLaine, who will be 52 in April, feel being back in Peru?

"The hardest thing she has had to do in this production," said Margulies, speaking for the temporarily press-shy star, "is to remember how she was when she was here 10 years ago. She has had to recapture that initial innocence."