If you were lucky enough to have caught The Signal at our screening a few weeks ago you were probably left with more than a few questions. Well the film finally opens this Friday and I got a few minutes after checking the film out to chat with the director and co-writer William Eubank about what is honestly one of the best indie sci-fi films I have seen in a while.
Just a warning, if you haven’t seen the film you should probably not read this Q&A since it’s really hard to really talk about the film without going into spoiler territory.
So what was the germ behind The Signal? I know you were writing it as you were finishing up Love.
This will only be my second film and it’s always a trick to try and find the financing and make a contained film. So originally I wanted to make a film that was stuck in an environment where we could shoot most of it in one place and that was the facility, so that attractive to investors.
At the same the time, the seed of the movie was I wanted to make two things. I am always attracted to a story where there is a big idea. The big idea is the kids are abducted, but they don’t know they’ve been abducted. I always thought that was interesting to create a unique alien experience, which we are having trouble understanding that till the film ends. I also wanted to make a character that is like me, who struggles with being emotional and embracing that.
Love dealt with similar themes isolation, loneliness and stress also in a sci-fi setting. What is it about these themes in particular that interest you as a filmmaker?
I guess when I make a movie I go about making something I would want to watch and wonder about when I am going through it, like what’s going to happen and sort of that personal journey. This film, even though Love is a very, very different film, this film is a more intense personal journey to a certain degree. When you are watching it in the particular perspective of one character it tends to be isolation and isolating in general.
Maybe that is how it happens I am attracted to that point of view of usually one character and I am trying to show that experience on screen.
When you were writing the script was Laurence Fisburne who you originally had in mind for the Damon character? I really felt his presence alone elevated the film to a whole new level because just the connotation of his voice alone brings so much to the table.
I didn’t know we were sending it to him, so I wasn’t thinking of him. But obviously he has such a gravity to his voice and his presence, that to get and use that was a dream. He originally read it and said he really enjoyed it. When I originally wrote it, I was originally thinking of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, not that that’s what came on screen.
I was curious about Nick’s character, I remember reading somewhere that Nick had M.S. but that isn’t actually outright stated in the film what he’s suffering from, what was the reasoning for that?
Its not really the focus, its meant to be in the background. Its why I opened the film the way I do because I want people to see that is not what defines him as a person, its more of an afterthought and that is what he is working with. His disability isn’t him, it might be something that hides in the back of his mind sometimes and compels him to act certain ways or say certain things, but he know he is not defined by his disability.
I wanted the film to get into it without making it a big deal. It is based on something but not the point.
You use hacking in the film as a plot device, but its grounded and feels a bit more authentic then it does in most films. Did you do any research at all to get those things right? Was there any significance of making them MIT students?
My cousin goes to MIT for computer science and he is just finishing his thesis. He studies AI and computer simulations that learn gene mapping, I talked to him a lot and I knew MIT and Caltech were good schools and had friends that went to Defcon.
I knew onscreen in terms of doing some of those things on screen, like tracking someone would take a long time to do, but you have to get those bolts in there so it looks it should.
You’ve definitely had a different approach to becoming a filmmaker, you started out working for Panavision and were actually rejected from film school. Any advice you want to give to filmmakers out there to get their voices heard?
Honestly, most people just say go out and shoot stuff and while that is true, I want to say based off my own experience I didn’t start shooting stuff until I understood enough of how to at least get the bones down. I was doing a lot of studying on my own and learning the lenses, because you don’t have help when you are starting out. You have to do a lot of studying and breaking down.
For instance I have a book of trailers, when I find a trailer I like I get my journal and its full of mapping out the act structure of trailers, the ups and downs. We actually just got nominated for a golden trailer award, so that is pretty exciting, but we are up against Gravity for best thriller. So it’s an honor to be nominated. I take pride in that and Focus was nice enough to let me help out with ours.
But I really put a lot of effort into breaking down all the shots, all the moments, the rises and falls and feeling how these things effect me and trying to technically figure out why they effect me like they do.
Now you’re a very visual filmmaker, do you have the visual set pieces in mind first and craft the story around those like Ridley Scott or do you start with the written word and work from there?
While I am writing, when I think an idea will be more visual I will track that. There were definitely a few key scenes that I knew how they were going to play out on screen when I was writing them. But then when the script is done I will get a big graph paper book and I will start to draw the movie frame by frame and that is where I wrestle with committing to all the crazy stuff I wrote. That is the process where I sort of do the Ridley Scott take, and I have looked at his storyboards and tried to emulate that, but he’s a madman.
Back to The Signal, while you briefly touch on it I have to ask does Haley have an ability and if so what is it?
Yes, yes, yes. She does have an ability and there are small representations of what ability each kid has. Unfortunately the reality of it is I wasn’t really able to by the end flesh out what I wanted to do with her. But I did make a conscious choice; because I know even when I was filming I wasn’t going to show her ability, I wasn’t going to show that thing on her back.
But I started to lean towards it while I was filming because what if I get to do something extra in this world? I am really going to regret as a filmmaker not planting that seed. So I decided to do it, even thought I know folks would want to know. But it may be a DVD extra or if I get the chance to make a sequel.
I have to ask about the scene with the cow….
There is a character back there in the room that opens up. They are hoping to test him on the cow. It’s one of the few times where I break my own rule of following a perspective of the character, when we are REALLY supposed to be running around with Nick. There is always that debate when you are in the editing room when you asking will people get this or understand it. It’s just too great and the cow’s performance was so strong, I needed it in there.
There is a character in there that breaks out.
Finally, the ending, I have to ask why you do answer MOST of the questions there is still quite a bit of ambiguity is that on purpose?
Yes, it’s meant to leave the why ambiguous and I would like to think that possibly some ideas are SO big that to get to the why is almost impossible within the novella that is a movie. Also the why I kind of feel, if something like this were to happen we would never really know.
Do you have a story in mind for the sequel?
I do, I do. My brother actually came up with most of it so we will see if that happens.