The Signal is a mind-bending (and genre-bending) film that lures its characters and its audience into a fantastic — as in strange and, perhaps, wonderful — world. Nick (Brenton Thwaites) is a partially paralyzed young man who is driving his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) across country with his best friend Jonah (Beau Knapp). This road movie, however, is interrupted when they stop to retaliate against a hacker named Nomad who has infiltrated their computer system. Suddenly, The Signal turns into a horror film with the guys breaking and entering a remote house in Nevada. What happens next takes the film in an entirely different direction that is best left for audiences to discover. Suffice it to say the plot involves Nick encountering the signal of the title and Damon (Laurence Fishburne), who questions him about his experiences.
Film international spoke with director/co-writer William Eubank about his intriguing film.
Let me start with some control questions, as Damon does when he meets Nick. Do you have 10 toes?
I have ten. Yes, I do.
Are you from Earth?
I think so, but some people might disagree.
When did you first encounter The Signal? And by encounter, I mean when you could say when you came up with the idea for this film?
It’s been an idea in my head for a long time. What finally solidified the idea of crossing the genres was when I came up with the end. You have movies that bake in your head for years and years and years. You get this epiphany about where the story is supposed to go, or where it is supposed to end, and I cracked it.
You wrote The Signal with your brother, Carlyle Eubank, and David Frigerio. Can you discuss how you worked together?
It was a really collaborative process — a lot of back and forth between what the story is going to be and how the story is going to go. But it’s always a healthy back and forth. A script is like a novella, especially if you hope to make it into a movie. You have the confines of getting producers to like it and fund it. There are a lot of What Ifs? And so, to have other writers to go to battle with and figure out what you have, it helps to bounce ideas off people.
Your film has many ideas. Why did you string together so many genres in one film?
Honestly, the movie just does what it does. There are movies that I have watched that were a little bit of an inspiration, like Catfish. I wanted to do something that was going to take it up a level when I was going to go there. But I’m not really thinking genres. It’s not like I’m thinking, “we’re going to go horror mode. We’re going to go sci-fi mode.” It’s whatever fits the story and inspires me. It’s usually the best of these little bits of different genres. I was inspired by Blair Witch, and I thought they did that really well. So I wanted to capture some of that feeling. I’m a fan of applying whatever tools I enjoy to my own film. I love Kubrick’s disappearing lines, and a strong, bold camera — no movement, structure — here’s the shot.
How did you decide to let the information that Nick learns in the film unfold as it does? It’s a bit heady!
For me, the journey is Nick’s journey. I’m a big fan of being over the shoulder of one particular viewpoint for the most part. So in Polanski’s Chinatown, you would never go into a room before Jake Gittes goes into that room. I break my own rule a few times. Nick is a character who is trying to put up these emotional walls, and he’s afraid of where he’s going to end up — he’s afraid of losing everything. So he decides the stronger choice is the logical choice, almost like a computer. He decides: I’m going to be more like a computer, and only make binary decisions — yeses and nos. At the end, he realizes that that logic has brought him to a place where he can’t make a decision based on that. He’s forced to let his emotions drive him and inspire him. It’s that gray area that he has to make a decision.
The film addresses issues of mind/body as well a human/technology. Why do these ideas interest you and where do you align yourself?
I want to make movies about this. But I want to make it entertaining, and have people enjoy it. So I’m constantly trying to find this filter for my idea. I feel humans are going to become so computer based that, [I wonder] are there going to be enough of us left to have soul, and have heart? Some of the greatest things human beings have ever done are based on emotions. That was the idea. I really want to make movies that are about an idea or a concept that are filtered through a story.
You’re using science fiction, like Under the Skin does, to show the organic vs. inorganic. The science fiction elements play into it…. On another note, you deliberately do not indicate exactly how Nick lost the use of his legs. It’s implied but never specified. I like that decision. Can you discuss this?
He’s a kid struggling with a future that he’s not sure what’s coming. That scares him. That’s why he’s pushing Haley away. I based his [disability] on an actual thing. I wanted it to be extremely challenging and weigh on every move [Nick] made. And it’s something you would bottle up.
What can you say about presenting a physically challenged character at the lead for your film?
It was tough. You don’t want to portray that incorrectly. That’s why I never identified [his disability]. I have not been through that, but I have spoken to people who have. I don’t want to represent them in the wrong way. I wanted to show you are as enabled as you enable yourself. That’s the attitude I got from most of the people I spoke to about it.
The opening scene shows [that] Nick’s disability [exists], and we’re not making an issue out of it. Originally, that wasn’t before the credits, but I ended up moving it there to make sure you absorbed him and got to know it before the opening credits.
Jonah describes Nick as determined, ruthless, and competitive. How would you describe Nick, and what qualities describe you?
I think Nick is a person who knows what the right thing to do is. He feels buttoned up and needs to lash out at [Nomad]. He’s using that as an excuse when he [breaks] into that house, or pushes Haley away. In his heart, he’s a good guy. He’s a little insecure in where he is going to end up.
I tend to be a person where the second I encounter something that emotionally exposes me, I pull away from it. I hate the feeling of things going bad. When you are emotionally exposed because someone you like is leaving you, it takes up a lot of your brain power. I wrote Nick in the way I feel. If I’m so scared of losing this person, I’ll push them away instead. I wrote a character motivated by the same feelings I have.
The space in the film is practically a character, with clean rooms and both expansive desert and tight confined spaces. How did you work on the visual representation of the characters’ environs?
The space around the characters is going to motivate and sink in to the subtextual experience of the film, whether you realize it’s happening or not. With Damon, all you can focus on is the color or a chair, and everything else is white. That draws you to the detail of his face. You’re not just imprisoned by the room, but by the fact that there is nothing there. There are no answers, and you are questioning everything. You are questioning this mask talking to you. It gives you a sense of anxiety.
My body language is really tense and tight. I’m just one of those people. I tend to muscle my way through things, whether it’s shooting, or getting a script done. I get my head down and bulldog through. I do it with a smile. But it’s tough to get a movie made.
Likewise the facial expressions of the character are critical, especially since Fishburne plays almost his entire role from the neck up. You also have Haley and Nick conversing in close-up as well as scenes of Nick trying to chat through the vent in close-up. What can you say about this technique?
I want to show the emotion of something and show where they are. That’s why you have those huge wide shots. Shots where we are real big. And then tight shots — just the emotions in the eyes. It sort of goes back to Spaghetti Westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars.
We were lucky about getting Fishburne. I was writing originally about a character like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. When we got Fishburne, and he was into it, and used the gravity in his voice. I suddenly saw Damon. Before he was even in the suit, I knew that there would be weight in him. So to have him come on board and work with us was exciting, when you’re a newcomer like me.
What about the special effects, which include what I’m sure is some pretty complex CGI?
It’s a lot of pre-production. You draw them out, design what they look like. I begged Legacy with all my heart — they did the Iron Man suits — to jump on board and do these things for a real cheap price. Then we sent those models to Spin visual effects, who try to figure out how to bring them to life. Then I work with them months in advance on the exact shots I am going to do so I can deliver shots that are going to be not just correct, but done in a way that won’t increase the value [cost] of the shots.
If I heard right, in Nick’s speech, when he had the colors and shapes, he slips and mentions Nomad not Jonah. Was such a slip a clue?
I wanted people to remember…. He still thinks Nomad is some other hacker. I wanted to get the audience extremely close to an answer without giving it away. It may be playing Russian roulette, but I wanted to remind the audience of things.
I detected some religious overtones in the film, not just the Jesus loving Mirabelle, but even the Jesus sign in the Nomad house. Can you discuss any religious idea you had in mind?
Yes. Religion can make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s usually one or the other. For me to play to that is slightly gratuitous, but I think it builds up characters. We get more of a sense of Mirabelle (Lin Shaye), where she was from, by seeing these artifacts around her and how she feels about things around here.
Are you religious?
I was raised a Christian and I believe in something, but I don’t know what I believe in. It’s a big world, man, with a lot of mysteries. So I am constantly trying to solve the mysteries in my own head. It’s tricky. As you grow, you change your feeling about what you believe it.
I think Nick is like that. He’s not sure what’s happening. He has to keep recalibrating what he’s thinking. What can you say about the flashbacks and dream sequences as well as the freaky scene with the signal and the mind-bending ending? I like that you made a film you almost have to see again.
I’m one of those people who watch a film — and I don’t necessarily like it — and then I catch myself days later or a month later, and I guess I really liked that film. That’s what happened to me when I saw Eraserhead. I watched it and I didn’t like it, and one day I was like, “I can’t stop thinking about that film.”
What is your strategy with storytelling?
I have a lot of different stories in my head, and a lot of different characters. And there is definitely a fear that I will not get all the stories out. Hopefully, I’ll get all the characters out. If I run into trouble or run out of time, I’m going to try to take all the characters that are left over together and put them into one big film.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.