There’s no other way to describe it: The Signal is a crazy movie.
What begins as a road-trip movie quickly transforms into science fiction nightmare as the young heroes encounter something… out of this world… and find themselves held captive in a government facility and interrogated by a mysterious scientist (Laurence Fishburne). From there, it becomes something else altogether. It’s so nutty that you don’t even notice that this is a low-budget production from a second-time director. Once it starts moving, it never slows down and constantly finds new ways to top itself.
We sat down with director William Eubank to discuss the film as it continues to expand in limited theatrical release. Topics of conversation included Stephen King, “cool” body horror and the gravitas of Laurence Fishburne’s voice.
Movies.com: The film begins very differently than it ends. How do you build a mystery like this?
William Eubank: In this situation, you know where you’re going to end up. You just don’t know how you’re going to end up. I wanted it to be such a ridiculous contrast between the opening and the end that, if you bought into it, you went on a crazy journey. Hopefully, when people are driving home they’re wondering, Is that an origin story of some sort?
Movies.com: When it ended, we could have easily watched another hour of what happens next.
Eubank: I read a lot of Stephen King. I’ve even read his book On Writing twice. It’s so great. It’s not a screenwriting book, but it’s great.
Movies.com: Everyone has to read that book.
Eubank: Isn’t it great? I love it when he talks about how he sometimes just allows characters to go where they’re going to go. It’s like a treasure hunt, where you’re just digging and the characters hit something and you keep digging and you hit something else. And he is surprised by what they’re discovering! The characters begin to do their own thing and it’s like you’re watching it as opposed to writing it. It’s a strange process.
Movies.com: It’s funny you bring up Stephen King since the movie starts like one of his novels. It feels like a fairly standard horror movie and you steadily ratchet up the craziness.
Eubank: That’s a combo of a lot of things. I don’t think that, when you’re writing, stuff is that weird. But then when you start filming, it takes on a life of its own. Actors like Robert Longstreet and Lynn Shae just owned those characters. I gave them pretty extensive backstories on where they came from and why they’re there and their current state of mind. They really brought it to a crazy state. I remember driving home after doing one of Robert’s scenes and thinking, whoa, that got extremely Lynchian. It did that on its own! I wasn’t even trying to do that! My editor worked for Lynch, his first assistant editing job was on Blue Velvet and he cut a lot of Twin Peaks, so he has that in his genes. After seeing how these scenes turned out, I knew he was going to go crazy with this stuff.
Movies.com: You’ve mentioned Stephen King and David Lynch, but the film itself directly quotes Philip K. Dick. What cocktail of influences inspired The Signal?
Eubank: A lot of Twilight Zone, a lot of Outer Limits, even something like Lost. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury growing up. I’m also obsessed with anime. I’m a big fan of [Ridley and Tony Scott] and their visual style. I study their shots a lot. I love Man on Fire, True Romance and Alien. If you watch my action scenes, I’m not doing slow motion because because I want to be the “slo-mo guy.” I’m doing the slo-mo because it’s my way of getting feeling and intensity without having much money. You only have to shoot a little bit and there’s emotion and drama! Some people may think it’s over-the-top, but the truth is it’s because I don’t have enough money to put together an entire crazy action scene. So I’m just showing you pieces of it and you have to fill in the rest.
Movies.com: The later action scenes really feel like anime.
Eubank: In anime, they’re not going to draw 10 zillion things. They’re always trying to figure out how to get the most out of this frame. Anime action is actually really lean if you study it and break it down into shots. I’m always trying to figure out how to get that lean feeling without having six cameras and Michael Bay-ing it. That’s what anime does. I want to keep exploring and pushing that stuff.
Movies.com: Everything in The Signal feels planned. Every shot, even in the action, feels purposeful. Was that a smart use of money in addition to just being creative?
Eubank: When you decide to make that leap from the script to the screen, you have to figure out what all of those shots are going to be. Especially if you don’t have much money. When you’re on set, you’re brain is so fried and so gone that you have to have a cheat sheet. What I do is buy a big book and draw every frame in the movie. God forbid if this book ever got out. All of my influences, homages and rip-offs are in there! It’s a crazy process, but it’s satisfying. It’s really hard to be looking through that book and seeing how hard everything will be to shoot, but on set, you have your plan and know how you’re going to fit the movie in that crazy box, which is the budget and the number of days you have to shoot. It takes me about four to five months to draw the whole movie out.
Movies.com: In the past few months, Brenton Thwaites has popped up a lot. The Signal, Maleficent, Oculus…
Eubank: Brenton is amazing. He works so hard, he’s so talented. He’s about to explode. He works super hard. In his heart, he really is that character, Nic. He really is a good dude. I knew I needed that for all of these kids. Olivia Cooke is also doing really well and blowing up from Bates Motel. We got blessed with the coolest kids, man. They were able to just be friends. We literally hung out every night of this film. We shot the opening road-trip stuff at the end, so by then these were real relationships.
Movies.com: They really do feel like friends. It hurts a little when things go so badly for them. But you also have Laurence Fishburne. When you put someone that commands so much respect in your movie, you start completely buying even the craziest things.
Eubank: It feels that way on set. You wonder if you’re doing the right thing and he just starts talking: “Yes. Yes we are doing the right thing.” What really blows me away about Laurence… in addition to being a wonderful human being, he was in that suit in 100-degree weather. He is a champion. He is an ox. He has this gravity and presence, but he also gives a crazy sense of confidence to every line. He can get away with saying some pretty wild stuff. He can say these crazy things that would have been so flat coming out of someone else’s mouth.
Movies.com: Was the part written for him?
Eubank: We wrote the film and I hoped we could get some cool people to play the different roles. It wasn’t like “Oh, we can get someone really great for Damon!” To be completely honest, I don’t even think of actors when I write. I just think of characters. With Damon, I was always thinking of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Someone who was just deadpan and had presence. Laurence has that presence and that weight. You hear that the script is being sent out to people and you think “In my wildest dreams…” You never expect people to actually read it. He said that when he started reading it, he couldn’t put it down. He called me when he finished reading it and told me he couldn’t stop turning the pages because he wanted to know what was going to happen.
Movies.com: There can’t be a better feeling for a filmmaker.
Eubank: My ear was getting pulled toward the receiver because there was so much gravity in his voice. Oh my God! This is Laurence Fishburne! Or at least someone who is really good at faking being Laurence Fishburne!
Movies.com: There’s a certain amount of body horror in the movie, but it’s never truly Cronenberg-ian or disgusting. It takes body transformation and says “this could be kind of cool…”
Eubank: I never wanted it to be repulsive, I wanted it to be intense. When the dust settles, it’s definitely pretty cool. When designing these things, I wanted to come up with something that could be chic to a certain degree. Not sexy, but somewhat attractive looking. If there was an action figure of this, it would be cool. That was an important part of the sketchbook process.
Movies.com: What are you up to now?
Eubank: I have a lot on my plate. I’m pitching for something, so we’ll see what happens there. I’m also aggressively writing two other projects and have one finished screenplay. They’re all very different and I don’t know which one will be next. One is a military-drone thriller, a “loss of innocence” type of thing. I wrote that in preproduction on The Signal. I would go to coffee shops on the weekend and write and since I was in New Mexico and not L.A., I wouldn’t look like an idiot. I’m also working on a Scottish highlander fantasy film. It’s full of badass warriors but it’s a simple story at its heart, sort of an Unforgiven thing. The last one is about a mine collapse in South Africa, but after the first act you learn it collapsed because they hit something really nuts.
Movies.com: Are you content to keep working on your smaller movies and hitting the festival circuit or do you have bigger aspirations?
Eubank: I love [Godzilla director] Gareth Edwards and [Jurassic World director] Colin Trevorrow. I love their first films and they deserve those bigger movies. For me, unless something ridiculous came around, I’m just happy to tell my stories. I have about 17 or 18 characters in my head who need homes. They are people who need to be adopted and they need to get into movies or they’re going to die! I need to get them out of my head! They’re all really cool people who are worth knowing.
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