It’s tough to talk about The Signal without giving away too much.
The indie film, which drew a lot of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is one of those films that’s best to go into cold. Any reviews or interviews read beforehand may foster some preconceived ideas on what the film is or is not about that could spoil the experience. So take this intro as a warning before you read further.
Here’s what we can tell you: The sci-fi film revolves around three college friends on a road trip. Along the way, they make contact with an elusive computer hacker that lures them to a rural location. While investigating a house in the middle of nowhere, shit hits the fan, the film goes to black, and when it returns, you see Laurence Fishburne in a hazmat suit.
That’s all you really need to know.
William Eubank, the film’s director and co-writer (he shares credit with his brother, Carlyle, and friend, David Frigerio), takes an ambitious turn for his second feature film (his first was 2011’s Love). Influenced by The Twilight Zone and wanting to explore the themes of logical versus the illogical, emotion versus intellect and technology versus the human condition, Eubank takes the audience on a frightening journey through the eyes of Nic (Brenton Thwaites), a college kid with a form of muscular dystrophy. Nic, along with his friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke), take one wrong turn that changes all their lives forever.
And that’s all we’re going to say about it.
Eubank spoke to Script while in Austin, Texas, promoting the film.
WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So I saw The Signal last week and I had no preconceived idea of what I was about to see. I didn’t read any reviews from Sundance. I went in completely blind, but I was thoroughly impressed. After walking out, I can’t even remember the last time this happened to me, but I walked out and I honestly had to think to myself: is this real? Where am I? And I went up to the receptionist at Focus Features to get my parking validated and I said, “Man, that was a trip.” And she’s like, “You saw The Signal, huh?”
William Eubank: That’s so funny, man. That’s so funny. I appreciate the kind words. You never know exactly what you’re going to get at the end of the day making a movie. But it feels good to be at this stage and to have people get into it. It’s the best feeling.
Well, the film is great. I really enjoyed it.
Eubank: Everyone thinks it puts so many gray hairs on your head and you lose a little bit more hair each time, but you’re just thinking about how people are going to react. And honestly, being on the road right now and having these screenings and sort of watching it with real audiences and hearing gasps and laughter, it’s the best feeling in the world.
It was a fun experience. So I guess my first question to you is where did the story and concept come from? What inspired this?
Eubank: I’ll try to avoid giving away too many spoilers, but… I kind of wanted to make a movie that had this crazy Twilight Zone aspect to it. I really like when you get to an answer in a roundabout way, especially if it has to do with something that you might know about, like say Area 51. I love the idea of coming back around to Area 51, making a movie about Area 51 that doesn’t necessarily say it’s about Area 51. And then whether or not it really is about Area 51 or not. I love it being part of the structure. I love people leaving the film thinking: was that an origin story? Was that like a really weird, small, crazy, origin story?
I had the idea for the big idea and then I probably have 15 or 20 characters in my head that have yet to populate movies or anything. They’re just characters that I like or want to put in movies or things like that. So these kids, Nic (Brenton Thwaites) especially, was a person that I ended up deciding to pull from the shelves to put into this particular story. And my friend David Frigerio and my brother Carlyle Eubank, who I wrote with, we were spit-balling ideas and we knew where the ending was and where the big idea was. Then it was about trying to decide how far do we go in terms of exploring that world and what route we were going to take to get there. I guess it was probably 2011 when we started finally writing it.
When did you actually get into production?
Eubank: We started shooting at the end of April 2013, I guess. April-May. We shot for 27 days and it’s below $5 million (laughs). At the end of 2012, I moved out to Albuquerque for about five months. Really low budget prep. They got me a little apartment out there and even before all that, I’d been working on some of the effects with my little brother. Like the Jonah (Beau Knapp) sequence and all the trampolines I used in the ground slam and that kind of stuff. Small effects like that. I like to try to come up with practical ways to do them.
So going back to the story, it seems to me you took this known entity, Area 51, and turned it completely on its head. Almost a complete reinvention. Forget the history, forget what it is, because you made it your own. That’s pretty brave when you think about all the preconceived ideas that can come with something like that. Was there any hesitation on your part to do that?
Eubank: No, no, that’s what I’m excited about. I love that stuff in filmmaking. I love when a story doesn’t tell me in advance what it is or what it’s about and then some trope that I have in my head is served up as an answer. You know what I mean? I like to tell stories like how Polanski did it in Chinatown, where you really for the most part, as much as possible, try to stick with one perspective. This movie is Nic’s perspective. I like things that come out and left hook you later and you’re like whoa, is that what that was? Oh my God, what a crazy way to tell that story, you know? That’s why there are a lot of crazy things. If you were to think about the whole movie that way, you’ll actually get to a bunch of weird discoveries that maybe people will never get on a first viewing. I read a lot of Far Side growing up and there are a lot of cows ending up in places maybe where they shouldn’t be. I took a lot of clichés and tropes from the idea of this, like aliens have been abducting the wrong people forever. They’ve been abducting cows. I don’t know how much you can learn from cows. Anyone who says they’ve been abducted is like some meth-head from Roswell or is in the middle of nowhere. And I’m of the mindset that aliens have been abducting the wrong people this whole time. They probably think we’re crazy, you know? So these are all the people that populate this area and the aliens finally realize they’ve been abducting the wrong people. Like, there’s all these other smart people! How do we abduct the smart people?
Eubank: Other people never get that! It was always a cool idea and I populated the film with all these little tropes and clichés and maybe on the second or third viewing, somebody will be like, wait a second, there’s cows in this movie and there are crazy meth-head people (laughs).
From the writing perspective, and you kind of touched upon it already, the idea of telling the story through one character’s perspective, the audience is discovering just as Nic is discovering. Was that always the way you were going tell it?
Eubank: I think I have a hard time telling stories other ways. It’s very difficult for me to break out of that, especially if I’m going to try to inject some emotional or core value to something that a character is going through. There’s sort of a theme in the movie about your emotional self versus your logical self and it’s something I think about a lot. Like, logical decisions are yeses or no’s and they seem stronger. I heard this great quote one time. I don’t know if it was Carl Sagan, but it was the idea that basically the universe will be littered by one world graves because cultures or societies decided to make the logical decision to not go into space. And they will be explored and studied by all of the cultures and societies that decided to make the illogical and economical choice to go out and study things in space. It’s the idea that humans have this emotional need that sometimes make us make decisions. I have this underlying thing going on where Nic is afraid of his emotions. He’s afraid emotionally of where he’ll end up with Haley (Olivia Cooke) and all these things that he’s scared of doing. Nic feels logic is a stronger choice. It’s a yes or a no. It’s a bolder way to act and it’s probably going to lead to a stronger life. But by the end of the movie he’s forced to make that emotional decision because logic says no, you shouldn’t do that. So I’m trying to argue that our emotional side can be just as strong, if not stronger. By that long-winded explanation, what I’m trying to say is it’s hard to for me as a writer to explore that through more than one viewpoint.
I like the choice you made to give Nic a handicap, because in the beginning you really sympathize with him. When he falls in front of people, we can understand the embarrassment.
Eubank: As a character, I think it’s important because those people don’t allow those handicaps to define them. You know what I mean? Which is why I do it in a roundabout way. We don’t really get directly into his handicap because I don’t want you to feel like that’s defining him and yet you know it’s there. And you know that uncertainty is affecting him emotionally. That’s why he’s putting up those emotional walls because he’s afraid of where Haley and his relationship is going to end up. But I didn’t want you to feel like he’s allowing this to define him. It goes unexplained in the movie because it’s just a part of who he is. It’s definitely taken into consideration and it might be in the subtext in the back of his mind, but I felt it’s not what defines him.
Yeah, you did an excellent job of doing that and conveying in such a subtle way that it wasn’t rubbed in the audience’s face. It was just there. So the payoff at the end when the climax hits, it’s almost rewarding in a sense. It’s pretty fun to watch.
Eubank: I really appreciate that. I hate to say it, but I’m a fan of my own movie too, and I feel the same way. The other night I had a couple of beers during the screening and I went to watch it and I still get that feeling of, “Hell yeah, man!” (laughs) I get that feeling too when he goes for it. I like that feeling.
I only have a few minutes left with you here, but I wanted to ask because you keep referring to this as an “origin story.” I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t perceive it like that walking out of it, but now that you’ve said it a few times, I easily get it. At the end, you want to see more. I was like, seriously? The camera’s going to pull out and they’re going to show that?
Eubank: (laughs) I know, I know, I know.
I’m like, are you kidding me?!
Eubank: I was talking to someone the other day and they’re like, you know, I would have gladly sat through another two hours if the movie had kept going. But who knows? It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to do another story or anything like that, but it’s primed to be one if we ever wanted to. My brother Carlyle came up with a great sequel idea that uses an idea that I was constantly foreseeing as this concept of emotion versus logic and tech-based beings versus emotional-based beings. So yeah, there’s a lot that could be done there, but who knows? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The Signal is now playing in select theaters with plans to expand on June 20 and June 27.
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