What begins as a naturalistic road trip movie about relationships and the limitations and fears of our own desire and insecurity, William Eubank’s The Signal, swiftly transcends into something else entirely, morphing into a sleek and disconcerting sci-fi movie in just moments. After premiering at Sundance in 2014, the cinematographer-turned-director returns to follow up 2011’s Love with a refreshing new film that follows a guy named Nic and his best friend and girlfriend who find themselves lured into an isolated area in the desert by a computer hacker. As things take a turn for the worst, Nic awakes to realize he’s fallen into a nightmare.
Without divulging more, a few weeks back, I got the chance to chat with Eubank about the origins of The Signal, his great young cast, and the films that informed his own style.
So, I saw the film at a New York screening with a large public audience. As a filmmaker, how is that experience of taking the film around and seeing how it plays to different audiences?
You can feel the real audiences watching it; it’s not like a Sundance audience, which is awesome in and of itself, but it’s very different. It’s a lot of fun to listen to people gasp. As a filmmaker it’s the coolest thing. It’s the most rewarding thing you can do, to get a response. The critics in Philadelphia were going nuts, and it was so much fun listening to them saying “fuck” at the screen.
Can you tell me about your background as a director and what led you to making this film?
I came on as a cinematographer, and was always trying to be a director, but just didn’t get film school. So I went to work at Panavision as a camera tech and learned the camera, just to learn the visual language of telling a story. Like, I would watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but I wouldn’t know exactly why they were going into those tight shots and cutting and exactly what it’s doing. Film is sort of invisible before you know the language of how it’s made. My film school was trying to learn the techniques at Panavision, who I owe so much because they’ve given me so many cameras over the years. And then also just watching a lot of movies, being a fan of a lot of movies. I kept working there and shooting for other people on the weekend. I finally got an opportunity to do my first film after I did a YouTube competition for a Red Hot Chili Peppers video that never got made but got the attention of Tom Perond, and he decided to finance my first film—which was originally gonna be a bunch of music videos for them, but we turned it into a narrative eventually.
And how did The Signal come about from there?
When I was finishing editing I was just like, “Okay, what’s my next one gonna be?” I’d always had the overall idea for this film and I felt like there was probably a way to tell it that would be contained enough to attract some financiers. So from there I pitched it to a guy named Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and he said that sounded really cool and that I should write it, and if it works, we’ll make it. From there there was probably one or two ways to make it. We could either find the right amount of money to do this or we could do it with a little bit of money, like $3 million, which I know I could find right away. I figured let’s make it that way. Let’s not wait around. And I talked to him about the budget, and I’m glad I made that decision.
What was the genesis of this particular story? Was it an idea that you’d been developing for a while?
I thought I could make a film where, instead of coming out of the gates being like, “Oh, this film is about a government facility or Area 51,” that those things just sort of offered up an answer later in the story, or people seeing it are driving home thinking, “Was that a horror story?” I like movies that get to an answer in a roundabout way without coming out of the gate saying, “This is this type of film.” And it doesn’t—being a fan of genre and those types of things I don’t really feel—I actually had never heard the term “genre-bending” before people started saying, “Oh my god, it’s such a genre-bender.” I guess I never really though of it that way. The thing with the story is it has to fit certain genres and if I have a story I want to tell, I tell it. If it ends up crossing genre lines, I guess it’s a good thing? I don’t know. I guess it just comes from being a fan of different kinds of films myself.
I enjoyed how the film began as a relationship-based road trip movie and then really swiftly shifted into something else entirely. Was that an idea you wanted to play with—being able to move between genres and tell multiple narratives in one film?
When you’re doing a story you’re always channeling particular things. The first act I was channeling Catfish and Like Crazy, which is a very emotionally raw film that I’m a fan of. And then suddenly it gets kind of Blair Witch, which is a film that I loved and was influenced by. So I thought, let’s shoot it similar to that when we get to that point and make people have that same feeling that I had when I watched that. Then I want to channel some of that early science fiction that I love, whether that’s Kubrick’s 2001 or THX, movies that have a facility, they’re clean, and the camera’s locked down, and we’ve lost all that organic beauty at the start of the film. So I laid all these things out early on. I got a thick book that I’d get into and lay out all the tones. And then I just try to stick with them while I’m making the film.
As someone who began as a cinematographer, I imagine the visual aesthetic is very important to you. Was there a particular way you wanted the film to be shot to fit its tone?
Yeah, the tone in the second part is very THX, very locked down. In the third part, I’m probably stealing camera angles and shots that I love that the Scotts always use. You know, Tony Scott, Man on Fire. There’s a lot of influence from the Scott brothers and even anime like Drangonball Z and Evangelion or Akira. Anime has always told action really lean and on a budget. When you don’t have much money, it’s important to tell your action lean but still get the emotional part of it down, and I think anime has always done a great job with that, so I steal a little bit from that.
How did you go about finding the actors to fit these roles?
Casting was by Mary Vernieu who did all of Darren Aronofsky’s films. She’s a very talented woman. She really gets people and they put me in front of a lot of really talented kids. We just needed people who could be friends and were really honestly good people—that you could really see being on a road trip and being honest like that. So I met Brent and Olivia and I knew that they were really talented and good folks at the end of the day. As a director you see, in the back of their mind, these are real people, these are those kids, they could go on a road trip and all be friends. So you’re trying to get that. The Laurence Fishburne part of it, I feel like you need someone with gravitas and power, and they sent it to his folks. I guess he just picked it up and he called me and said, “I read it, I couldn’t put it down and I wanted to know where the story went.” He said he thought it was really cool. To get that call was just a moment of “Oh my god!” But he brought such power and legitimacy to that role that I couldn’t have dreamt of having, so I’m very lucky to have him.
Were there any other films or filmmakers’ work that you looked to for inspiration in bringing The Signal to life?
I like The Twilight Zone; things that make you question what’s going on around you. I’m a big fan of movies like Chinatown, where you see the movie from one perspective and you’re looking for points of view to go on one character’s journey and see it how they’re seeing it. The idea of never leading a character is very important to me, to experience the movie from the world of their viewpoint. To never cut into the world before Gittes goes into the room. We go with him. That was important to me with Nic, this idea of anticipation or claustrophobia. I wanted the audience to kind of be like Nic—“What the heck is going on?” I did want people to feel that. So basically, I guess my visual style moved around a lot because I have so many different world’s viewpoints. But I want to tell the story and have the core perspective over the main character’s shoulder, so you connect with the character. That’s always really important to me. In terms of narrative, do you show a lot? Not necessarily a lot, but It took me on a pretty wild ride for a while there. I was always wondering. I love keeping them guessing. It’s an enjoyable experience for me as my own audience.