Meticulously and passionately pursuing your dreams, no matter what physical and emotional obstacles stand in your way, is a powerful theme that drives the new sci-fi thriller, ”The Signal.” Not only did writer-director William Eubank relentlessly work on all the visuals and emotional motivations for the story, from the sets and props to the genuine relationships between the actors, but the characters also refused to relent in their search for the entities that have taken control of their lives. The film provides a captivating examination into what happens when people refuse to give up on their goals, in pursuit of answers and their dreams.
”The Signal” follows friends and MIT students, Nic and Jonah (Brendon Thwaites and Beau Knapp), who have become entangled in an online altercation with a hacker known as Nomad, who began causing trouble for them after he found his way onto their network and destroyed some servers. While driving Nic’s girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) from Cambridge to Caltech, where she’ll be attending for a year, they get a lead on Nomad’s whereabouts. The two convince her to take a detour from their trip to track the hacker in the desert.
The three track Nomand’s location to an abandoned shack that holds signs someone was recently staying there. Before they can figure out what’s truly happening, strange things start to happen, they all lose consciousness. Nic, who’s coping with the early stage of MS, awakes in a sterile facility, and is unable to feel his legs.
While he’s unable to locate Jonah and Haley, Nic is tended to by silent workers in hazmat suits. The workers are led by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who attempts to calm Nic’s anxiety. The only thing he’ll reveal is that Nic and his friends encountered an EBE-an extraterrestrial biological entity-that dangerous outside the facility. While Damon insist his secrecy is upheld for a good reason, Nic immediately becomes suspicious of him, and tries to break free to find Haley and Jonah.
Eubank generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Signal’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how knowing he was going to helm the film allowed him to write as freely as he could while working on the script, and he began pondering what he could actually shoot with the budget and schedule he had as he got closer to filming; how he saw many talented actor during the audition process, but knew he needed people like Thwaites, Knapp and Cooke who were believable, in terms of their on-screen relationships; and how the film’s acceptance into this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a dream come true for him, because he always wanted one of his movies to play there.
Question (Q): You co-wrote the script for the sci-fi thriller ‘The Signal’ with Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio and Sebastian Gutierrez. How did you all come up with the idea for the film, and what were your working relationships like as you were penning the screenplay?
William Eubank (WE): We wanted to put this group of kids in this story that was a mix of a road trip and an alien invasion, and then flip it on its head at the end of the first act. I wanted to make a movie that started one way, and then quickly exploded into a different type of story.
I like the idea of taking the audience in one direction, and then yanking them out before they realize what’s going on. I like when they peg it as one thing, and then all of a sudden it becomes something else.
I really got into that process with my friend David, and then pulled my little brother, Carlyle, on, as he’s the perfect writer. We all wrote together, and it was pretty involved and wacky. (laughs) There was a lot of going back and forth on things, but we knew where we were going.
Q: Besides co-writing the script, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to also helm the movie as you were writing the script? How did working on the screenplay influence your directorial duties?
WE: I came up as a cinematographer myself. I wrote, directed, shot and built everything for my first film, ‘Love.’ Like the whole space station was built in my parents’ backyard. I come from a very visual standpoint, so when I’m writing, I’m comfortable visually thinking about how things are going to work and look.
Knowing I was going to direct the film left an element of trying to write as free as I could. I wanted to keep the filmmaker part of me out of it, so I wouldn’t hinder the writing. But after a certain point when you’re done writing, you have to put the film inside the box with the budget and days of shooting. That part is always extremely scary. When you sit down and come face-to-face with your film, you wonder, “How am I actually going to pull this off?”
I usually buy a big book and start to draw everything-I do shot maps. I force myself, as painful as it is, to spend four hours a day drawing out and realizing the film.
When you see the visual effects you need to come up with, you need to come up with creative solutions on how you’re going to create them. That’s the part where I wrestle with the film, and that process usually takes about four months. All my influences are put in the storyboard book, so when I get to shooting and I’m stressed, I can always go back to it. I can see what I was thinking in a calmer state of mind, and see the motivation and subtext.
Q: ‘The Signal’ is the second feature film you both wrote and directed, after the 2011 sci-fi drama, ‘Love,’ like you mentioned. Were there any lessons you learned from shooting ‘Love’ that you brought to, or influenced the way you made, ‘The Signal?’
WE: Yes, I learned that sometimes the cheaper answer is the more creative and best answer. Being forced to work within certain bounds is actually a positive thing, because it forces you to find fresh ideas to solve a problem, and ‘Love’ taught me that.
‘Love’ also taught me that you don’t always have to build every inch of something. I built every inch of the space station, even I probably didn’t need to, but I didn’t realize the camera wasn’t going to see everything.
It also taught me to honor the soul of the story you’re trying to tell, even if that means you have to sacrifice something visually cool. You have to sacrifice that visual if it will help viewers remember the heart of the story. ‘The Signal’ also taught me so much, and as a storyteller, you continuously evolve.
Q: What was the casting process like for Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp, who played Nic Eastman, Haley Peterson and Jonah Breck, in ‘The Signal?’
WE: We had great casting directors in Mary Vernieu and Venus Kanani. They’re really talented, and cast Darren Aronofsky’s films. They put a lot of talented kids in front of me, but at the end of the day, I knew we needed people who were believable, in terms of their relationships. I wanted actors who I could be friends with to play the characters.
All the kids they brought in were great, but we needed actors who also had the likability and charisma that makes you want to follow them on their journey. At the end of the day, that’s what Beau, Olivia and Brenton all had. I think their great charisma is the reason why they’re doing so many great things now. Olivia and Brenton are doing really great stuff, and Beau recently got a role in a really big movie.
I think their personalities made them attractive at the end of the day. They all became truly great friends. By the time we got to the road trip scenes, which we purposely shot at the end, so they had spent all this time together, they were honest friends.
Q: What was it about Laurence Fishburne, who has previous sci-fi experience in such films as ‘The Matrix’ trilogy, that convinced you to cast him in the role Dr. Wallace Damon in ‘The Signal?’
WE: Laurence brings so much power, and Damon needed to be someone who was powerful and had a sense of be all and end all. Laurence not only brought a sense of insane legitimacy, but he also made every line seem honest. It didn’t matter if he was saying the word quack or Nic’s name, there was always a presence to it. To get someone with that much weight in his acting was huge.
He’s also a wonderful human being who works incredibly hard. He’s in this suit throughout the whole film, and it was over 100 degrees in New Mexico, where we shot, and he never complained. He brought a professionalism and talent to the movie, which I think inspired everyone, from the production designers to the cinematographer. Everyone was motivated after seeing how hard he was working.
Q: Lin Shaye, who played Mirabelle in the film, had some comical moments. What was your experience of working with her on the set? Did you allow her, and the cast in general, to improv at all?
WE: On the page, her lines were pretty insane, but she always brought it up a notch. The magic of her character, as well as Robert Longstreet’s character, James, is that they believably took on these characters, who have intense backgrounds. I filled them in on their characters’ histories, which are also somewhat sad, and they brought the characters to life.
Like Lin would wear these crazy red cowboy boots and dress. She took it and made it her own, and that’s all you can ask for in a film. As much as it’s comic relief, it’s also oddly realistic. As a filmmaker, you hope that actors will own something like that. When a characters written on the page as being weird, you’re worried the actors will just phone it in, and not have a sense of soul to it. Lin’s so terrific at making it so much more, and we were very lucky to have her.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal time with the cast before you began shooting?
WE: We had a little bit of time to rehearse-maybe about a week before we began to shoot. We scheduled the project to be that we would shoot the facility scenes first. I wanted to give the kids time over the course of the movie to get to know each other. By the time we got to the film of the film’s shoot, when we were doing the road trip, there was this honest relationship that had grown between them.
At the end of the shoot, Beau had to leave to work on another project. But I was able to get Brenton and Olivia in a car, and along with my friend Liam, we drove to St. Louis. He shot a lot of those organic shots along the way. So there was a lot of true-to-heart filmmaking, where it was just me, a camera and the kids. I feel that led to a lot of honesty.
Q: What was the process of creating the stunts and action sequences for the film?
WE: I love to build certain things, so my brother and I came up with this trampoline system during the fist smash. But I had a really talented stunt coordinator, Mark Rayner. He’s a great guy who has worked for Christopher Nolan on a bunch of projects (‘Inception,’ ‘The Dark Knight Rises’). He’s such a good stunt coordinator he knows everybody.
We also had all these really talented people coming in to help us. Nash Edgerton, Joel Edgerton’s older brother, is a great stuntman and filmmaker himself. He came out and played Jonah’s stunt double. We had all these talented stuntmen helping us, who were bigger than this film. But since Mark is such a great guy, we had all these other great people also come on board.
Diz Sharpe, who’s one of the greatest stunt riggers of all time, was doing our stunt rigging for us. He’s done the James Bond movies and ‘Inception,’ and he’s insane. So we had a great time of creative people.
In terms of choreographing some of the stunts, my background as a cinematographer makes the frame really important to me. Not having a lot of money to do crazy scenes, each scene is very important.
Q: ‘The Signal’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. What was your reaction when you heard the movie would be playing at the festival, and what was your overall experience screening it there? How did audiences react to the movie?
WE: That was a huge moment. Filmmakers always dream about going to Sundance, and it’s something I’ve wanted my entire life. I used to go as a camera technician for Panavision, and I went four times. I always thought, I hope I get accepted here with one of my films one day.
Getting in was a huge moment. I remember when I found out the film was accepted, I was at a sandwich place with one of the producers, Bailey Conway, as we took a break from editing. I was like, “We got into Sundance,” and dropped to my knees. I was so excited, and her mouth dropped open. Everyone started clapping, as they thought I proposed. (laughs) I was like, “I didn’t propose, but you can keep clapping, because it’s just as good. We just got into Sundance.” It was a pretty awesome moment.
Obviously, the screening at midnight was really cool, especially since it was a packed house. I was so nervous, but it was great. It was a dream come, and to have Sundance welcome us was a dream come true.