By Alex Gibson
Usually closed to the general public, the gate leading to the hospital wing of Eastern State Penitentiary is marked with a red cross. When I visited, the already creepy historic site was made even more unsettling by the rain dripping into the crumbling hallways and forming puddles amidst tangled, rust-covered hospital beds. It seemed perfect place to sit down with William Eubanks, director of The Signal.
The Signal follows three MIT students – Nic, Haley, and Jonah – on their road trip to California. On the way, Nic and Jonah are enthralled by a rival hacker and decide to track him down to a small house in the desert, only to find a chillingly decrepit empty shack. Before he knows it, Nic wakes up in an underground hospital with no memory of how he got there or where his friends are. His only clues lie in his interviews with Damon, the mysterious scientist running the facility. Nic’s journey towards finding answers is as spine tingling as it is perplexing.
In the film, Eubanks melds various cinematic styles elegantly to illuminate the characters’ backgrounds and keep the audience in as much suspense as Nic. As Nic uncovers more and more about his predicament, Eubanks poses questions that you’ll be contemplating about long after the credits roll:
I really want to make a story without, getting into it, where I want people to go, oh, I’m gonna watch a relationship story, then turns into something else, then turns into something else, and hopefully a day or two later, they’re still thinking about it…it’s [the film’s ending] meant to leave the why [of what happened to Nic and his friends] ambiguous a lot and I think some ideas are possibly so big that to get to the why would…is almost impossible in the novella that is a movie.
The film lends itself to a range of audience reactions as spectators experience the twists of the story along with the main character. As I watched the film, gasps and words of warning rippled through the packed Cinemark theater, and I wondered if hearing the audiences’ reactions – from Philly to Sundance and beyond – was a fun experience for Eubanks:
It’s really exciting. There’s nothing better than hearing an audience laugh or gasp or ‘oh no!’ or ‘don’t go in there!’ It’s the best feeling you can get as a director, as a filmmaker. You really are doing it for them in the end. You’re not making a film so it can live somewhere on a dusty shelf. You’re really making a film for an audience to watch it, but to hear the audience engaged is like the best feeling ever. It’s interesting because it will drive me further on the road when I’m making other films. I’ll remember the moments – I know the moments. As a filmmaker, you’re like, I made the moment for that part, for people to gasp and go ‘oh no!’ And then, it gets addicting to want to create those moments.
The Signal stars Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, who play Nic, Haley, and Jonah respectively. Joining the Hollywood newcomers is veteran Laurance Fishburne as Damon. When asked if he always pictured Fishburne in the role, Eubanks said:
He was always a powerful person. I usually think of characters from particular movies when I’m doing a character. The truth is, when I was originally writing Damon – and I wrote the script with my brother and friend, Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio. – I always think of Damon as like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, just in terms of power and presence. So then, when it comes time to cast, you’re like ‘Who can we get whose in this realm and who can bring that gravity and that weight?’ You go out to these people and you pray and you hope…and he really enjoyed reading the script and he came on board. And we were really fortunate to have him.
The film was also fortunate to have a trio of young and very talented actors to lead the cast.
Basically, Mary Vernieu cast the film with us. She’s great. She does most of Darren Aronofsky’s films. She’s very trusted. Anyone she’s bringing to you is a talented actor… She got us to Fishburne, and he read it and loved and he brought us all that great energy and that stoicism that is Laurence Fishburne that really gave the film meat, presence, gravity. But these kids, what was special about them in the end, and trying to decide between all these talented kids, it really got down to. ‘who could I see truly as being my friend, or who do I find myself drawn to as a human being,’ because at the end of the day, I knew that they just needed to be friends and they needed to be realistic in that sense…. I wanted it to be just feel authentic and real and I got so lucky with that in a sense that his was right at the cusp of them breaking. And that’s a testament to how great and nice these kids are.
The Signal is Eubanks’ second feature film, his first being 2011’s Love. He switched to directing after working as a cinematographer on a dozen other projects, and his background and study are evident in The Signal. When asked what advice he would give to burgeoning filmmakers, he said to learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking before starting:
Based on my own experience, I didn’t even start shooting stuff until I thought that I understood enough of at least how to get the bones down… So doing a lot of studying on my own, learning about lenses…You don’t have help when you’re started out, so you need to help yourself, and in order to do that, you have to do a lot of studying… For instance, I have a book of trailers. When I find a trailer I like, I grab this journal, and it’s full of mapping out trailers, the act structure of trailers, the ups and downs… I really put a lot of effort into really breaking down all the moments, all the shots, all the rises and falls and sort of feeling how these things affect me and then trying to technically figure out why they affect me and I think that’s really important, even the Spaghetti Westerns, talking about close ups and wide shots, you know, watching that, I understood how that works, how that affects me, to go to the super tight and go to super wide and that’s a piece of this language I talking about, so the studying aspect and the learning aspect…
And get your lighting from Ikea.
Check out Eubanks’ Golden Trailer nominated trailer HERE. The Signal opens June 13th nationwide.
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