In The Signal, Nic (Brenton Thwaites), his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) and their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving cross-country to move Haley into her new college when they make an impromptu stop to track down a hacker who has been antagonizing Nic and Jonah online. Tracing him to an isolated desert area, the three friends black out and wake to find themselves prisoners in some sort of laboratory installation, with the enigmatic scientist in charge (Laurence Fishburne) asking more questions than he is willing to answer.
The Signal is the second feature film from director and co-screenwriter William Eubank, whose first feature, Love, was an experimental sci-fi film made for just $500,000 in conjunction with the band Angels & Airwaves. Armed with that experience, as well as his work both as a director of commercials and an imaging technician at Panavision, Eubank is one of a vanguard of new directors bringing big science fiction concepts to smaller, independently-made movies.
Den Of Geek spoke with Eubank by phone about making The Signal, his love of sci-fi and the changing technology of filmmaking.
Den Of Geek: What inspired the movie?
William Eubank: I was finishing editing my last film, which is kind of a weird crazy science fiction film as well, and I was talking to a friend about an idea I had of these kids on a road trip and something sort of crazy happening to them almost like Catfish, but it gets a lot crazier. Something that felt really real at first and then just sort of exploded into something way different, you know. I really wanted to jump into that. There was a specific idea but I couldn’t say it without totally destroying the film. But there’s like a one sentence line about like hey, I want to make a movie about this. And that’s how we got into it. But I don’t want to say it because it sort of like gives away the whole film.
I like the idea of these kids tracking hackers and mysterious signals. It seems like it’s so more prevalent than ever because of the way we’re connected via the Web nowadays. You don’t really know who you’re following.
There’s a lot to that and obviously you take some of the earlier stuff that influenced me like Twilight Zone episodes and all the questions of like what is really going on here and where is reality based out of.
What is your background in science fiction as a fan? What were the things that sort of informed your approach to this genre?
Growing up, my dad would take us tuna fishing and I was like a really bad fisherman. But the boat we would go on had this old crappy TV that was held down by a bungee cord. And all that was there were these Twilight Zone tapes. And so I’d spend an entire day watching Twilight Zone episodes over and over again, you know. And somehow that burned into my brain. Some of them particularly were just so crazy and I remember watching them was so exciting. Time would evaporate even though I was out on a tuna fishing boat. Super random but that kind of stuff I think always kind of stuck with me.
(I was also) a huge fan of both version of Solaris and Kubrick and a big fan of David Lynch in general. Especially David Lynch, he would make stuff that I didn’t even necessarily like. I’ve got to admit when I was a little kid and I watched Eraserhead I did not like that movie. But it stuck in my brain and there’s a point when you realize it has been in your head for so long that you’re just like “God, it’s a good movie.” It all felt so like sort of disorientingly fresh, you know. And as a person who consumed a lot of comic books and a lot of stuff like that I was always just sort of searching for new ideas and new ways to see things. A lot of science fiction writing always gave that to me.
What’s the trick, in terms of budget and time and resources, to making your movies look as big as you want them to look?
I mean in terms of making them look big, that’s just how I think. I’ve been trying to do it now since I got out of high school with the language of telling stories, the actual technical language. I always tell people I’m a huge fan of the Scott brothers — Tony and Ridley Scott. Technically those guys are incredibly, you know, profound with their work and Tony, you know, with Man on Fire he just crushed it with the lens choices he made and all the technical work on that film. Then to mix that with things like I love like a lot of animation like Evangelion and Akira, those types of things. Japanese animation or anime in general is often kind of lean in the amount of shots that they put into their action. But they know how to make the shots count so that it feels bigger than it is. And so I’ve always enjoyed like kind of studying those templates and how they do that kind of stuff.
I’m really obviously still learning but I think I look to a lot of that stuff to see how to take the close up shots and get the emotional stuff that the Scotts were always really good at. Movies like Black Hawk Down and stuff. So I’ve studied those films and then tried mixing those with the leanness of the action in anime. It sounds weird to put all that stuff together but those are things that I sort of look at when trying to figure out how to do an action scene or something big without a lot of money.
We’re in an era of indie sci-fi movies that have interesting ideas but are being done without throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the screen.
Yeah. I wonder what that is? Honestly I’ve been thinking about that a lot because they were talking about that at Sundance a lot this year…I honestly I don’t have an answer to why we’re doing that. Maybe it’s the fact that all the tools, the technical tools are getting into our hands easier, and earlier?
How did you shoot The Signal? On hi-def video?
Yeah, high def. I tell people I was literally on the cusp of HD because I was at Panavision right when the F900s had come out and I had worked at Panavision for a long time and I built an editing system with something like 14 or 17 hard drives to capture F900 footage in full HD on an old G4 Mac. And like I remember at that time that was insane. That was like, “Oh my God, we are going to have personal real filmmaking.”
How important is it to have a cast that’s really game for what you’re doing, whether it’s somebody like Brenton who’s relatively unknown or somebody like Laurence Fishburne?
It’s so important. We had sort of a great perfect storm. We had a legend like Laurence Fishburne come in and just crush it and give us a feeling that we were making something that was up to a certain standard. But on top of that you had people like Brenton Thwaites or Olivia Cooke or Beau Knapp who as kids they were all willing to go crazy and do sort of unconventional filmmaking — in some respects to really make sure that the film had life, you know, and had soul. At one point Brenton, Olivia and I were filming at a fair in the middle of Indiana just sitting on swings. No crew, nothing. It was just shooting. If they were super movie stars I don’t know if they would have allowed me to do that.
Your next project is a military thriller, but is sci-fi a genre you’d like to return to?
For sure. I was telling someone the other day that I have too many movies to get them all done in my lifetime, so I’m just trying to figure it out. But science fiction to me is always going to be at my core because as a kid it’s the type of stuff I enjoyed reading the most. So that will always be there. But I want to always explore different mediums and different sort of genres. But yeah, hopefully I can continue and make different things. I have one monster science fiction thing that when I heard Interstellar was coming out, I was so deathly afraid that they had stumbled upon my sort of big science fiction idea. And thank God theirs is nothing like mine. I’ve got a good one but I’m not going to be able to make it until people are willing to give me a little bit more money. So we’ll see what happens.