Finding THE SIGNAL: A Q&A with Director William Eubank

Focus Features 04.15.2014

Q: What was the genesis of this particular movie, especially as a narrative feature? You wrote THE SIGNAL with two other screenwriters...

William Eubank: Well, my last feature film, Love, was a more avant-garde project. But I'm a big fan of The Twilight Zone, of what Rod Serling used to do as a storyteller, and I always wanted to do one of those -- a story with intangibility and strangeness that makes you say, "What the heck is going on?" I'd been thinking about the concept of an individual thrust into a specific and extreme situation, the true nature of which this person would have to uncover. What I enjoy about movies such as Logan's Run is that the main character is like the audience, sharing your point of view; the moviegoer feels connected, especially if it's a likable character. I also admire Roman Polanski's concept of, as much as possible, being "over the shoulder," where you're discovering and reacting to things along with the main character, and the movie is becoming more interactive for you. So while I was finishing up the editing on Love, I was talking with my friend David Frigerio and we hatched the idea for THE SIGNAL; we started writing the new script before editing was even done. Also, I wanted to make something that was going to be seen by a few more people than Love! [Laughs]

Q: And your brother, Carlyle Eubank, started working on the script, too.

WE: He got involved from the get-go. We work well together; ironically, when we write, I tend to think in more linear terms and my brother tends more towards off-the-wall with his ideas. He's the yin to my yang.

Q: THE SIGNAL explores the aesthetic of "antiquated methodologies." Right away, there's contrast between high-tech and low-tech. There's tracking where anyone can be gotten to by way of a computer in this day and age -

WE: And there's someone working with a legal pad and pen, which gets commented upon; with those, there's an element of role-playing for the character making use of them. I find myself getting wrapped up in thinking about how certain technologies lead to other technologies, and yet we can all get in a rut using the same things.

Q: In conceiving this movie, did any directors' work inspire you?

WE: Visually, I think so: ones whose work I look at and say, "Here's what I feel this guy is up to." I wanted THE SIGNAL to have a grounded, slice-of-life opening so that we could then go directly into a weird groove - one with as Stanley Kubrick a style as possible where everything has lines, and is grounded and sharp. Later - and I don't know how it happened - things go David Lynch. [Laughs]

Q: Were there any low-budget or low-fi sci-fi films of more recent vintage that inspired you? Pi - Darren Aronofsky's first movie - or maybe Christopher Nolan's Memento? In terms of, challenge-the-mind movies?

WE: Pi I always think about, because I love the fact that it's a mind-twister that occurs mainly in a room. Memento is a good reference but I never really thought about it while doing THE SIGNAL. I do tend to think about small sci-fi a lot, like Duncan Jones' Moon; stories where you're forced to create a story that starts within a room and then break out after that, having the walls evaporate because you're so concerned about what's going on with the characters. THE SIGNAL is different in that it starts out in the open and then pretty quickly goes somewhere else; we're forcing the audience to be detained with Nic. The character goes from freedom to imprisonment. I thought about Vincenzo Natali's Cube - and any movie that puts a character, where they don't understand what's going on, into containment.

Q: Well, that road leads all the way back to the work of one filmmaker who has been an influence on everyone since - Alfred Hitchcock. It turned out that you had someone visiting your movie set who had worked with him...?

WE: Yes, and I was told that Hitchcock when filming was very business-like and on point; sat down, knew exactly what he wanted, got what he wanted, and left! This came from a camera operator with us for a few days who had been an AC [assistant cameraman] on [Hitchcock's 1976 movie] Family Plot. We spoke one day over lunch, but I sensed something was up before because there had been this shot tracking the characters and he had worked out for us an old-school move to follow them that was more than just a tracking shot. It didn't make it into the movie, though.

Q: There is a composed elegance to the lensing, which looked to be widescreen.

WE: Yeah, we shot it 2:40 [widescreen ratio]. No other ratio allows you to stare right into an actor's eyes; the performance can erupt. It helped with other aspects of the film, like the shots of New Mexico and of driving down the road with it coming up at you. This is only my second feature, so I'm learning stuff about myself as I go. Everything for me tends toward being very visual. I came up as a cinematographer, and always felt that was the way to enter the forest of filmmaking. For close-ups, I do think that faces look better on-screen when you're cropping their heads and chins off -

Q: Yes, Laurence Fishburne is an iconic actor and presence, and you're frequently bisecting him into face and voice; he's imposing, and yet you're making it about being above the neck for him in THE SIGNAL.

WE: Well, he knows how much weight his voice gives to scenes and knows how to use the slightest expression to the utmost extent. But the first time we met, he asked me if he had to wear his character's [protective] costuming the whole time. I said yes. He said, "Are you sure?" "Yes." "Okay, I'm on board; I just wanted to make sure." He explained to me that his concern was how sometimes you can lose the nuances of a performance. I told him I agreed but that the way I'd be filming, I'd be getting up real close to him - probably too much of the time! I told him I'd make sure his nuances were getting on-screen, and he trusted me. Then, on the set, there'd be moments where he could hardly see because I had the camera right in his face... But this was Laurence Fishburne, so I wanted to get right into it. That was an artistic choice and also a necessary one; combine those, and we're getting at his character. Having made those decisions, I did then have to figure out some issues relating to sound recording. But the power he brings tended to cut right through.

Q: What is his process like?

WE: He's very exploratory. He'll ask to try it differently, or to add a little something; sometimes these things made it into the movie and sometimes they didn't. He loves getting into a character, past the point where some actors would go; he's unafraid and bold about his character choices, and so they work. I hadn't worked with an actor of his stature before. He took a risk in saying he loved the script and wanted to do the movie. On the set, he'd come up to me and compliment my eye for detail. To get that confidence from him...what a cool guy.

Q: What was the casting process like for the other roles?

WE: I prefer finding actors who are their characters to begin with. That is important to me. Brenton Thwaites was in Australia working on something, and I was in New Mexico -- half-an-hour late to our Skype meeting. But he was such a nice guy, and I saw a genuine quality that I wanted Nic to have...and, if Brenton wasn't happy about me being half-an-hour late, then he was doing a damn good job of convincing me that it was no big deal. I thought, "Win-win!" [Laughs] Brenton turned out to be hard-working, putting exactly what I wanted to convey with this character on-screen.

Q: Does that running start with their personalities make it easier for you to interact on the set?

WE: Yes, because then any time you hit a wall creatively you can think about the actual person being in this situation; "What would Brenton do?" That helps the directing process because you're diving into somebody they already are, although sometimes it's hard to convince an actor that they're basically going to be themselves. But I feel it brings more authenticity.

Q: Although, both he and Olivia Cooke are not American actors; he's Australian and she's British.

WE: Yes, and they both hide their accents well, except for the occasional take where somebody slips. I really like Olivia's natural accent, but I thought it would be unfair to them to let one of their characters have an accent and not the other.

Q: You did have Olivia get dragged around a lot in this movie...

WE: Oh, she's such a good sport! I've been on film sets where actors are tough to work with and shut down the process before you can get to what is needed. What I loved about Brenton, Olivia, and Beau Knapp is that they always felt they could do better, and I always feel the same way -- wishing I had more time. It may feel [that it came off] perfect, but, what if it's not?

Q: But, when making an independent movie, budget and schedule necessitate moving on, don't they?

WE: Of course. On THE SIGNAL, we had a 28-29 day shooting schedule. We were ambitious for our budget; for example, we had the Legacy creature FX house's prosthetics. I helped on the design of those pieces; Legacy came in and crafted them for us and just crushed it. Then, when we had to make [deadlines on] a 12-hour shooting day out in a desert sandstorm, we had to try to figure out how to put on make-up and prosthetics. I'm very hands-on - and have a hard time letting things go. After prepping for two years, it was like, "Here's the target and you've gotta hit it!" When you get into shooting, there's so much stuff happening that you have to have your creative thoughts ready earlier, when you have had time to breathe. Hopefully, you have the creativity in there already so you can handle all the other things coming your way.

Q: What is the craziest thing for you about finally making the movie?

WE: That we did it in such a small amount of time. Plus the wind and rain in New Mexico, and our shutting down of the Taos Bridge like Terminator Salvation did -- but for a movie of our size!

Q: Going back to the necessities of creativity and also planning ahead, did working on a small budget encourage you to take more chances, encourage your storytelling and visual ambitions? Or did it inhibit that? Or a little of both?

WE: Going into it, you know the creative challenges - framing it, for example, on such a low budget. But, first off, it's about trying to create things that resonate and that maybe haven't been seen before which can be achieved on the budget. I'm extremely hands-on with what I shoot and the way that I shoot, so I'm always trying to think of effects and how to do things. I do tests with little video cameras beforehand. For some of the crazy moments with Jonah [Beau Knapp], my brother Carlyle and I did so many tests and worked it out with trampolines. Then we were out there on the day of the shoot rigging it all. Secondly, you're always trying to surround yourself with as good people as you can. At the low-budget level, if you don't have a ton of money to do things you can still gather a good creative family around you. On THE SIGNAL, we got Mark Rayner as stunt coordinator; he had worked with Christopher Nolan on Inception, so having someone like that doing planning with me was hugely fortunate. That led to Nash Edgerton come in as a stunt double -and he's someone who is a talented filmmaker himself - and Darrin Prescott doing water safety with us because he is friends with Mark. Because of Mark, we had the cream of the crop.

It's particularly important to work closely with your AD [assistant director] a lot. On THE SIGNAL, Jim Grayford pulled off so many miracles for us. Then the editing process is where interesting things unfold. Our great editor, Brian Berdan, started out with David Lynch, on Blue Velvet and then worked on Twin Peaks. Brian's sensibilities are different from mine; on my first film, Love, I realized that Brian had another way of looking at things than I did. I've come to appreciate his perspective, his fresh viewpoint, so much. What he lays down can be so out-of-the-box! I have these journals that I write stuff down in. Everything goes into my journal -- pre-planned, drawn, schematics included. When you're talking about making a movie, you're talking about two years of lines of thoughts...

Q: Are there also drawings in these journals?

WE: Yes, I use graph paper. When I begin work on a project, I have different layers in mind and I have "early journals" that I carry around with me so as not to lose ideas. When I push into the writing phase, there's usually another journal for that process. When people finally say "we're going to make this movie," I go buy the big Moleskine -- exactly like Matthew McConaughey's character in True Detective. But mine ends up looking a lot gnarlier! It's the one where I storyboard most of the film, actually tackle all the scenes, come face-to-face with the movie from a shooting perspective. I draw it all out in pencil, do diagrams, write down my thoughts on the characters in each scene. That takes me almost as long to do as it takes me to write the script. I take this big journal to the set, where it ends up getting fatter and fatter.

Q: So it's always a work in progress?

WE: Always, yeah. I leave extra room in the big one because I keep working in it during the editing process. On The Signal, there were a few sheets in there about doing the trailer. All kinds of stuff ends up in there; someone stepped on it, so I left the shoe print in...

Q: How was the experience of unveiling THE SIGNAL as a world premiere at Sundance? This wasn't your first movie, but did you feel there was a sense of discovery for you there as a filmmaker?

WE: I actually used to go to Sundance -- I went 4-5 times, as a camera tech, for Panavision; I would basically sit and talk up digital cameras. The early ones, like the F-900 that was used on Collateral. I would see the other stuff going on all around me, and would dream of being able to go. When I was off work, I would go to movies there. My granddad lived in Salt Lake City at the time, and I would take him out to dinner on Panavision's dime; he had been a cinematographer in the Navy. He would say to me, "Some day, you're going to go to that Festival!" He passed away a couple of years ago, so he didn't get to see me finally go. It was really special to be up there, thinking about him. Sundance was just a dream. I was overwhelmed to get in. It felt like getting a star; if filmmaking is a progression, then Sundance is a level you hope to get to. I don't know if any of my other movies are going to be "Sundance films," but this experience was incredible, feeling the energy of all the people. Getting to share my film with them was next-level, and it was so well-received. Every screening got progressively better. I feel that I played the volume too low at the first screening even though everyone said it was great; I kept turning it up at every showing after. Watching the film with an audience, it was a treat to slowly learn where they'd respond. The Q&As were fun; with Brenton, people would gasp when he spoke since they didn't know he was Australian.

Q: Was it Brenton's first time at Sundance?

WE: It was. And Beau's, too. Unfortunately, Olivia couldn't make it.

Q: And you all stayed up late for the world premiere at midnight...?

WE: Yeah, not too much sleep! The show was sold out and the energy level stayed high.

Q: Even for you, Brenton, and Beau doing a Q&A at 1:40 AM?

WE: Oh yeah. We had some crazy questions. There were little kids running around; I couldn't believe their parents had brought them and let them stay up!

Q: What's up next for you?

WE: There's lots of stuff in my brain. There's the military action thriller I'm finishing writing with [THE SIGNAL co-screenwriter] David Frigerio. I'm also working on a period piece that has a 1% element of fantasy.