The Signal is a surprisingly stylish sci-fi film that brings to mind 2011’s Another Earth in its ability to instill an art house sensibility into a rather tired genre. Cinedelphia recently spoke with director/co-writer William Eubank who began his career in Hollywood as a cinematographer and has only one previous independent feature as writer/director to his name…
CINEDELPHIA: Is this the first time that you’ve done a press tour?
WILLIAM EUBANK: It is, man, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. And it’s cool at the end of the day, it’s nice to get out and spread the word about something that you’ve had in your head for so long, y’know?
C: You have a background in independent filmmaking, do you consider The Signal to be your first foray into Hollywood?
WE: Yeah, first foray into sort of real projects that hava a proper origin and completion. My first film, Love (2011), was a very small film about an astronaut who gets left in space for seven years. For that I built the sets in my parents’ backyard, constructed and shot all of it myself, I wore a lot of hats on that one. It was such a different type of experience than a real movie like The Signal in a sense that this had more funding and more people involved, Love was a very lonely project.
C: Did you at all miss having complete control over The Signal as you did with Love?
WE: No, not yet anyway, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to shooting my own stuff. I had a great cinematographer on this one, Dave Lanzenberg. I came up as a cinematographer, I broke in through the technical side of filmmaking. It was funny meeting with cinematographers to do this film, a lot of them had seen my stuff and said it was really pretty, but they’d say that I’ve gotta give them their space. I really wanted to work with someone collaboratively, when I met Dave he was very warm and said that he really liked my work and couldn’t wait to work with me to discover what we could do together. That felt very inviting to me, he did a killer job.
C: Your technical background really shines through in this film, the subject matter could have been approached from a number of stylistic directions, such as a found footage film.
WE: I do a lot of pre-production and I study a lot of films. You’ll see a lot of influences in there. I was talking to somebody the other day about spaghetti westerns and they were saying that I do a lot of closeups and then real wide shots, closeups and real wide shots. I love those, especially when you’re on a budget and want to commit to telling a unique story. That technique really gets the core point of the emotions across, it gives you everything you need to know. Big wides kind of create a driving force for things. It wasn’t that I was creating an homage to the spaghetti western, I just studied the techniques behind them and wanted to convey the same emotion. I do a lot of that, stealing techniques from what I love. The Blair Witch Project is a very scary film to me and I didn’t see why we couldn’t take one of those moments when some scary stuff is happening. That was one of the few times when I argued with our cinematographer, he said “You can’t do that, it’s gonna feel different, the structural nature of the film won’t hold up when you cut from one thing to another like that.” But I was really banking on if it felt emotionally right then it would work. I love hearing the audience’s reactions at that part, it shows that I did my job right.
C: Was this financed by a studio?
WE: This was independent, but at a scripted level Focus Features came on for distribution, it wasn’t a guaranteed number of theaters or anything like that. Most of the money came from private financing, Tyler Davidson who did Take Shelter and Compliance, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones was kind of the mastermind who put everyone together, he did Paranormal Activity and Insidious. Everyone was really great, it was a really different experience for me as a cinematographer as the people involved were really energized by it, it wasn’t people who were making a movie just to make money, they were really into the story.
C: With Focus involved, were there any people you had to answer to or argue with in order to maintain your vision?
WE: Not really, Focus was so cool, their notes were always super constructive and were always “we think this, but you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to”. I’m not afraid of the hive mind by any means, I like to combine the minds because at the end of the day we’re all just trying to make a good movie.
C: Where did the germ for this film come from? Did you start with the basic sci-fi concept and build from there?
WE: Yeah, I wanted to make a movie and I had this big idea, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to populate it yet. Most of my ideas come from a character, in this particular case it was the other way around, and then I was trying to figure out how to populate it. I like movies where you draw something from it later and it’s not in your face going into it. My brother and David and I just started getting together and working on an outline for it. It came from a concept that I felt would be very Twilight Zone, a cool story.
C: What’s interesting is that it feels like a fully fleshed out world that could spawn further adventures.
WE: You never know, I guess that would have a lot to do with box office. Actually that’s something my brother really championed a while back. He sent me a document with an idea for a follow up that took a lot from some concepts that I instilled into the movie about technology and this crazy otherworldly place and expanded it into a pretty enticing sequel.
C: A lot of modern movie fans will immediately try to pigeonhole you as a genre/sci-fi director, is that the direction you hope to go in?
WE: My influences are all over the place, from genre films to spaghetti westerns to anime. I love the Scott brothers, True Romance is one of my favorite films. I’m all over the place, the next two films I’ve written, one is a military drone movie that is a very fast 24 hour film about the JPAC talking to his drone pilot in Las Vegas and it’s a very different type of film, sort of a loss of innocence story told in a unique way. And then I have another film that’s a kind of Scottish highlander film, the bearded Braveheart-y dudes in kilts. This stuff is so different. I sometimes have too many characters in my head and don’t know how to get them all out. I may have to do one big mash-up movie at the end of my career to fit them all in.
C: I think a lot of young filmmakers are more gimmick or genre driven than character driven.
WE: Yeah, I miss a lot of those big character-driven epic pictures, y’know like The English Patient. Not that my film or any of them are like The English Patient, but I like movies that get you into the soul of somebody so deep that you can’t help but want and need for them. I think people are making movies these days that make the world, but aren’t sure what to put in it so they just drop in some cookie cutter platform.
The Signal opens Friday, June 13 at the Ritz East and other area theaters.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.