Arriving in theaters this weekend is the sci-fi drama The Signal, a carefully designed, character-centered piece of entertainment. Premiering at Sundance, the story follows Nick (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp), MIT students with a talent for hacking who decide to take a cross-country road trip to attend a Def Con Hacking Conference in Vegas, alongside Nick’s girlfriend Hailey (Olivia Cooke). They distracted by the antics of a rival hacker who goes by the name Nomad and revealing anything else would ruin much of the fun.
We had a chance to speak with writer-director William Eubank, whose last feature was the Angels & Airwaves-backed cult hit Love, also in the sci-fi genre. Our discussion involved that feature, as well as David Lynch stories, his Sundance experience, not revealing everything up front, Stanley Kubrick influences (or the lack thereof), expectations, casting, and much more. Check out the full conversation below, which picks up as soon as Eubank jumped on the phone.
William Eubank: Hello?
The Film Stage: Hi, how’s it going?
Good man, how are you?
Good, congrats on the movie.
Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you.
So, I saw it at Sundance and I think I’d only seen a logline and a still and I kind of had no idea what to expect. I was really pleasantly aback when it goes to the places it does. Can you talk about that experience at Sundance and the premiere and maybe expectations and if they succeeded your expectations?
Oh, man. That was a dream. As a filmmaker you always kind of hope that that’s possible, that you’ll go to Sundance. And then there’s even a fear, that yeah, maybe you’ll make it into the commercial world, but you’ll never have gone to Sundance, which you feel is part of the merit badges you hope to get as a filmmaker. You know?
So that was cool, and I used to go there a lot as a technician for Panavision. It was a lot of dreaming. I’d be up there, when they used to have a digital center, which they really kind of turned into New Frontiers. But they used to have a digital center and I would sit up there and tell people about Sony F900 cameras and stuff and Panavisions they were using and whatnot. I’d see these premieres and things and I’d be like, “Oh my God. I hope someday I’m here.” So to actually have a film go there was a really big win, emotionally. It was very satisfying.
But yeah, the screening went really well and I feel like each screening got progressively better from the midnight screening. Which was kind of cool, perception seemed good.
Just seeing so many sci-fi films, I feel like the bigger ones have to put up all their ideas up front and then you know where everything is headed. I really loved how your point-of-view is with the main character the whole time and you keep guessing. When you were developing this project was that your initial idea?
I’m glad that you saw that, because I preach that a lot to people. I have a hard time understanding films, or how to tell films, unless I’m chasing that point-of-view. I always tell people, I always chase the Gittes point-of-view, the Chinatown idea that Polanski set up, which was never pre-lead your character. You’re always going to follow him from over his shoulder. You would never cut a camera into a room before Gittes gets in there, you know what I mean?
Because you are unraveling the mystery with him. And I feel as an audience member that produces that really indelible — well, for me it’s enjoyable because I’m guessing with the character and I’m identifying with the character and he and I, we’re all questioning this together. It makes the film a lot more interactive in a way to me.
While this is an original story, which I found refreshing, there’s definitely a few nods to some other films. I would say the casting of Laurence Fishburne reminds me of one of his most iconic roles and maybe some Dark City or Chronicle in there. Can you talk about any influences you had going in?
Yeah, Dark City. That was a huge one, that’s one of my favorite films ever. You know, a lot of different wide, different stuff. Visually, I always tell people I try and steal a lot from the Scott brothers, their lens choices and their colors. I’m a huge fan of anime. I’m really big fan of how lean anime action is and yet how intense it is. I’ve always sort of turned to that for a blueprint of how to create action sequences with not very much money, you know?
Because when they are drawing those cels, they can’t draw a million different cels and put cameras willy-nilly everywhere so they are forced to make these really cool, lean action scenes. So in terms of editing, that’s always been a really big thing. But just in terms of narrative, I guess all of the usual culprits, David Lynch, [Stanley] Kubrick, all those masters of films that get in your mind. I was talking the other day, some of David Lynch’s stuff, when I was younger, I really didn’t like at all. I was like, “Ugh, this is so weird and disturbing, not something I can understand what was happening.” Then the problem is, the film sticks in your brain. You can’t get it out and then it will just be there for years and you’ll always go back to it and then I realized, one day, oh, I really do like the movie Eraserheard. It’s crazy how that can happen.
Your editor worked with David Lynch, right?
Yeah, he did. Brian Berdan. He tells the best stories about him.
I was going to say, is there anything in the editing room where you had a break?
He tells me David Lynch used to draw on these pieces of tape and he’d just make old doodles. Brian would divide his desk with tape or something and then David Lynch would doodle on it all day. [*Does David Lynch impression*] “Now Brian, if you want to be the best filmmaker, you better listen to me! And hear what I have to say.” And he was doodling on his desk and he so desperately wishes he kept all that tape.
Oh, man. That would be in the archives. That’s awesome.
It’s funny, with David Lynch, there’s an interview somewhere and someone’s like, “Tell us about yourself.” And he’s like, “Well, I’m an Eagle Scout and I’m from Montana.” And I’m actually an Eagle Scout myself so I like to feel like I’m a kindred spirit in a way. My family used to take these crazy motorhome trips to the southwest and we used to go dinosaur bone hunting and stuff, super crazy. I feel like all that stuff, growing up, got my brain thinking in different directions to make all this weird shit.
Nice. Yeah, I actually caught up on Love right before this. It’s one of my friend’s favorite movies and he kept urging me to see it and so I saw this film at Sundance and then I thought, “Now I have to see this.”
Oh, cool man.
That was really impressive. You definitely have a precise visual style. Was that something that you do pre-visualization and storyboards? It seems like you do.
Yeah. If people really knew how that film happened, they wouldn’t… The other day somebody was going on about, “What a dramatic rip-off of 2001!” I was like, “Are you crazy, man?” 2001 wasn’t even remotely in my mind, like making the end of that film. It was funny though, looking back at it, I was like, “Ah. He is wandering around like at the end of 2001. And he is in space like at the end of 2001.” So I can totally understand why someone could say that, but that totally wasn’t even my point at all. I feel like the messages are so different. Mine is about lack of communication. But looking at it, I guess in that sense it does kind of do the same thing at that point. That was never remotely the point. That was just because we’d get a location and be like, “Oh, we have this location. We can shoot it.”
Or like the end when all the water is wrapping around him and the bubbles. That was just because, digitally we finally added more to that, but the first few shots were because I was using a Maxibrute that looked really cool with garden hoses. So a lot of that is actual, practical water. It just looks that way. I guess what I’m saying by all of this is that Love was born out of what we had available to us and then later we got a little more money to do some visual effects sequences at the end, so to wrap up a crazy story that’s really a big metaphor for human connection and the idea that if you don’t have somebody to talk with or bounce yourself off of or to communicate with, then whose to say you even existed in the first place? Love is really all about maybe someday here on Earth, life will be gone. Then what kind of story is going to be left to go somewhere? So the movie is sort of about a guy who becomes humankind’s last curator of a bunch of stories. I’m really proud of the film, but it’s obviously kind of a nutty film.
With The Signal, I was surprised because it has a very epic scope, but you shot it in 30 days, which is wild for this kind of movie.
Oh, thanks man.
So what did you learn most from Love? It also sounds like you had to keep the same DIY mindset.
Yeah, a lot of do-it-yourself. A lot of pre-production. All that boarding you’re talking about. I really forced myself, as a director, you try to hold decisions off. Your human want is to push decisions away as long as you can so you can make a stronger decision later. But what you really need to do is to make those decisions early, as uncomfortable as that is. So that way you can plan and adjust and actually get something done on a short schedule like that. So I always do a bunch of storyboarding and really confront my story technically. That’s shakes all the crazy monkeys out of the tree, you’re able to see where they are.
Is there anything you had to sacrifice because of the short shooting schedule?
Oh my God, yeah. Every single day you’re sacrificing something. But even when Jonah is going crazy there at the guard station. I had a crazy set-up for that. My brother and I built all of it and we had it all planned out, but we got hit by a sandstorm that was so crazy. We couldn’t shoot all day. We got a little opening to get a shot and it worked out, but holy moly, man, it was nuts.
As this film gears up for a summer release it seems like it’s a perfect anti-dote to a film like Transformers 4. I’d recommend something like this, an original story with a lot of heart of it, over that. Working with Focus Features, are you excited about the possibilities that this could kind of be a break-out hit in the summer?
I don’t know, I guess as a filmmaker you’re always thinking about the next stuff. Yeah, you just hope that you can do well. But these guys are so wonderful and they’re so creative. I was so blessed with such a cool freaking cast and really good kids and Brenton [Thwaites] and Olivia [Cooke] and Beau [Knapp]. And then to have someone like Laurence on top of that just gives it a standard. I hope people who are fans of him will just search it out to see another kind of unique role. It’s so weird, when he was asking about the script. He was like, “So, wait. Am I in this thing the whole time?” I’m like, “Yeah, man.” He’s like, “That’s cool.” [laughs]
So when you cast Brenton this was before Maleficent and The Giver?
Yeah, it was before The Giver. He had just done Son of a Gun with Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander. I knew he was good, but it was when I met him and realized how nice he was and such a cool dude he was that I knew that was what I needed for a film like this because we really had to stretch ourselves sometimes. It just worked that he was such a good dude. Everything’s kind of moving in the right direction so I guess we just have to see how it goes.
The Signal hits theaters on Friday, June 13th.