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Sourcing 'The Signal'

William Eubank flips the switch

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 13, 2014

Sourcing 'The Signal'

Ask writer/director William Eubank to describe his new science-fiction puzzle, The Signal, and he thinks of a Russian nesting doll. But it's in reverse, as if the audience sits at its smallest heart, and the world expands around them. Even when it is all opened up, he said, "There's so much more to see."

Eubank's debut film, Love, is a touchstone of indie sci-fi. A zero-budget, five-year, personal filmmaking odyssey, shot in part in his parents' backyard, it melds Civil War narrative with near-future space exploration in a dreamlike exploration of human connections. Eubank calls it a "visual poem," explaining that "I didn't really know how to write something with a beginning, a middle, and an end yet. We fell into what we were doing, and I just ran off."

His studio debut, The Signal, is equally eclectic in its influences, but more linear in its narrative. Three computer scientists – Nic (Brenton Thwaites of Maleficent and Oculus), Haley (Olivia Cooke from Bates Motel), and Jonah (Beau Knapp from Super 8) are road-tripping through the American Southwest. Their final destination is Haley's new college, but they diverge to hunt down a hacker who has been plaguing and testing them. This opening evokes the new wave of lo-fi sci-fi, as epitomized by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's Another Earth, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, and the upcoming Coherence. Yet it soon takes an avowedly X-Files-ish feel as the three question the nature of the hacker. That's when Eubank expands the world to touch on classic metaphysical science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and a particular personal favorite of his, THX 1138, before a manic third act tips its hat to smart action pictures like Looper and District 9. If those influences show, Eubank isn't worried. "Making choices like that is about being a fan of those films, and wanting to make people feel the way that those films made me feel."

There's even a fairly direct nod to The Blair Witch Project, although that was almost a step too far for Eubank's crew. He says, "I would argue with my DP [David Lanzenberg], who's the sweetest guy in the entire world. He'd say, 'You can't do that, man. You can't just cut to a shitty camera; it'll ruin it.' I'm like, 'I think it'll be OK because if we do it right, it's going to feel intense, and people will just be drawn into that.'"

He's quick to praise Laurence Fishburne, as the enigmatic Dr. Wallace Damon, for helping the audience through the tempo changes. "We were so fortunate to get him," says Eubank. "He brings gravity to everything he says, and makes you believe it. Even if what he's saying is vaguely ridiculous, it comes out with such presence that you can't help but be, 'This is serious.'"

Eubank does not shy away from comparing The Signal to earlier films and filmmakers. In fact, he's the first to point out and praise his predecessors. "There's a part between the script and shooting," he says, "where I buy a big book and I draw out every frame in the movie, and I write out all my influences for these shots. ... That's why I feel comfortable flipping around genres." That book became invaluable when he was no longer working on his own clock for Love, and had to fit into The Signal's more conventional and constrained shooting schedule. "You can't make a movie in 27 days," he states. "You have to make a movie over years, and Love taught me about that. We'd just be like, 'Oh, that doesn't work; let's do it again.' You don't have that ability on a film like this. You better have sussed out those things ahead of time, so that when you do finally get there, it's all about execution." That's where that early pre-planning, and all those sketches and references and notes became vital. He said, "You open that book, and you return to a more peaceful time, when you were thinking clearly, and you remember, oh, this is what this scene is about; that's what I'm trying to get done here."


The Signal opens in Austin on June 13. For review and showtimes, see Film Listings.

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