Growing up, I was told that most people who choose to become artists end up working at CVS, eating cans of expired cat food, and dying a young and methy-death. That’s why I found it so interesting that The Signal, an independent sci-fi thriller that made it to Sundance this year and that will be opening up nationwide on June 13th is director William Eubank’s second feature. Typically it takes years (if at all) for a full-length to get anywhere, and while Eubank has an extensive resume as a cinematographer (House of the Rising Sun, Crave), it’s always nice to meet a young artist who’s found success/isn’t downing a can of Seafood Medley in the back of some Sunglass Hut.
The Signal is a sci-fi thriller that feels equal parts IFC matinee and AMC midnight feature (You can find my review here tomorrow). The film is able to build its suspense precisely because it transitions through so many genres – starting in indie drama, moving to low-budget horror, and ending up as a sci-fi action thriller. And while I really wanted Eubank to flesh out his storytelling, I was impressed by the level of club drug thrills he was still able to generate. With a budget of just $2 million, it’s always impressive to watch people who are so technically skilled they can produce real results with few tools (Speaking of, I’m watching my plumber snake my sink drain with a crazy straw right now, and he is KILLING it). The film was beautifully shot using a mostly widescreen lens, and sitting in the back row, it felt great to be able to watch a movie with all the Godzilla thrills, minus the Godzilla script.
Eubank and I sat down to discuss his vision for The Signal, his interest in visual poetry, and Scientology (obviously). He’s just thirty-one years old, and as someone who may/may not be in the same age range and may/may not have once aspired to be an actor, it’s always impressive to meet an artist this young and successful, warm and upbeat, not dead. Read on to learn more Eubank’s path to indie-commercial-mish-mash success.
Heather: So this is your second full-length feature film, and it’s been doing really well. How’d you get to this point, and what have you been doing since?
William: It’s definitely been a hell of a journey. Some people are like “Oh man, how did you get The Signal going?” When I made my first movie, Love, it was financed by a rock group called Angels & Airwaves, and I just think people responded to what it was about and the mantra of it, which was a crazy visual poem. And from that, I got representation and they were like, “Alright, what are some of your other ideas?” And I knew I couldn’t make a visual poem and continue going, you know? I wouldn’t find the money to do that, so I was like, now I need to come up with something a little more… marketable-ishesque? You’re just trying to think of which of your ideas are more palatable to a wider audience.
And so I just had this one idea [The Signal] and my reps were like, “Yeah we really like that, we’re gonna put you in a room with somebody that we think who would be interested in it,” and it was Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who had done Paranormal, Insidious, and those movies. And my film definitely wasn’t in quite that same wheelhouse…
Heather: It wasn’t a visual poem. Which, I imagine, would be kinda hard to market.
William: Which is hard to get people behind you.
Heather: I remember a line at the end of The Signal where Laurence Fishburne says to Nic (the protagonist): “Did you learn what you came to learn? Find what you came to find?” And I was like: “I don’t know. Did you?” How do we leave Nic at the end?
William: I don’t want to give a spoiler away but, Nic’s put in a position where logically, he should say: “No. If you do this you will die, or you can’t do this because you’ll die.” And I feel like human beings, throughout history, if they always sort of obeyed their logical self, then we wouldn’t do all the extraordinary things that we do. I think there’s a quote, and I honestly don’t know who said this, so I gotta stop using it, but it was along the lines of, “The universe one day will be littered with One World graves of civilizations that made the logical choice to just stay and not go into space, and they will be studied by all the ones who made the uneconomical, illogical choice to venture out into the great void.” You know? And I just love that, it’s really, it might be Carl Sagan but I don’t know. You can fact-check that one, I’m probably wrong.
Heather: Sounds like a Scientology quote gone horribly wrong (Editor’s note: This sounded less douchey in person, I promise). But I get it now. Because at the end, I wasn’t quite sure how he was feeling…
William: I mean he wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m empowered now!” But he was. He was driven by something other than a yes or no answer, you could say. But at the end, there’s a whole another thing that’s going on there, but I can’t reveal what –
Heather: Yeah, you can’t reveal that. (Editor’s note: This one, unfortunately, did sound as douchey as it looks on the page. Sorry, William). So I have a sort of a selfish question to ask. I saw from the notes that you were really influenced by The Twilight Zone. And as someone who grew up watching that marathon every New Year’s, I was really interested in how the show influenced the feelings and construction of [The Signal]
William: The Twilight Zone to me was always one of those things, especially as a kid, where it’s just like, eating a chocolate sundae. There’s all these different parts and eventually you’re gonna get to the cherry that you’ve been saving. The whole time you’re like, “WHAT is going on?” And I love asking that question, I love it. Like to me, when I have no idea where I am in a story, and then I get to kind of be over the shoulder of the main character, where our perspectives are shared? I love that feeling. In filmmaking, I’ll always want to follow that singular perspective as much as possible because then you’re filtering the audience’s mindset through one character. And Twilight Zone was always, in a weird way, following that Chinatown, Gittes idea where you were never gonna cut into a room before your main character goes there.
Heather: . . . Well, I definitely thought the movie got more paranoid and anxious as it went along. It starts off with that small sense of Hitchcockian anxiety, and then later, it explodes.
William: Thank you. I’m a big fan of trying to really realistically go a certain way and then make people go, “Oh, this is what I’m watching” and then go somewhere else. It’s one of my favorite things. And The Twilight Zone always did that to me growing up.
Heather: It went with a formula but then bent the formula enough that it actually kept you engaged. And what’s interesting is The Signal doesn’t fit into your standard, mainstream commercial fare, and it doesn’t quite feel like a total Sundance indie either. What kind of audience do you think you’re gonna get for it?
William: Gosh, man, that is a good question. . . . It’s funny because that probably defines me to a certain extent, I’m not exactly the arthouse crazy guy, but then I’m always trying not to be the most cookie-cutter whatever, so what you’re left with is me (Laughter). What’s kind of cool about The Signal is that there’s certain people that are just fans of thrillers and suspense things and those people get into it, and it doesn’t matter, age or group or anything like that. And then I feel like people who are fans of outside the box science fiction really appreciate it because they’re like, “Whoa, that’s different.” To answer your question: I have no idea. But it feels pretty broad, from what I’ve experienced – all different kinds of people.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.