An interview with The Signal director William Eubank
Can you keep a secret? Indie filmmaker William Eubank can. His writing-directing debut was an ambitious but little-seen sci-fi drama called Love. It got next to no distribution here in the United States, but it led to his follow-up effort, the slightly higher-budget sci-fi drama The Signal. This mysterious mind-bender about strange goings-on in the desert Southwest attracted a familiar cast (including Brenton Thwaites from Maleficent, Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel” and Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne). It also attracted a major distributor, Focus Features, who’s sending the film nationwide just five months after its buzzworthy debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Eubank shot The Signal right here in New Mexico, utilizing iconic locations like the Sandia Tramway and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos. Alibi took the opportunity to chat with the up-and-coming auteur about his secret-filled script, his time in New Mexico and his friendly battle with a bigger budget sci-fi film.
The Signal is a difficult film to talk about. I can’t even mention films that it might resemble without spoiling the surprises. How do you talk about it?
I end up just telling people what the experience is like a lot of the time. I tell them it’s a slow burn. It starts off making you think it’s one thing, and then it gets to a point and flips on its head. I usually just tell people, look it’s this movie about these three kids on a road trip who are tracking this computer hacker before, suddenly, they disappear in the Southwest. And when they wake up in some sort of government facility, they’re told that something crazy has happened. ... I think that’s part of the joy of the film: not knowing.
It’s one of those rare films where going into the theater as “cold” as possible is best.
Yeah. I think we were able to get that done for the most part with the trailer—leave it enigmatic and really try to seduce people into wanting to see what this is all about.
What were you drawing on when you put this together? What was in your head?
I’m a big fan of a lot of stuff. I feel like I’m a fan of a lot of highbrow stuff, and I’m a fan of a lot of lowbrow stuff. I’m a fan of everything from Solaris and A Space Odyssey to cartoons like “Dragon Ball Z.” ... My taste is just splattered against the wall like a Jackson Pollock painting. When I’m writing out a film and I’m getting in that place between writing it and preproduction, I usually split the movie up into sections. And I go, OK the first part of the movie I want to feel like these movies. In this case there’s a great little organic film called Like Crazy. It was a really authentic-feeling relationship movie. I wanted the start [of The Signal] to feel that organic. Loose and bright and free. Then the second part [I wanted] to feel a little more TXH 1138, a little more [Stanley] Kubrick. Locked down and tight, a whole different style. And then the third act, I wanted it to just blow open. For that I looked to filmmakers like the Scott brothers [Ridley and Tony] and movies like Man on Fire and Black Hawk Down. They’re action movies, but they’re done with a little bit of soul.
This film is a mix of intelligent, “Twilight Zone”-style mind-flippery and all-out action. Was it a conscious decision to lure both of those audiences?
The action is unique in a way, in that I draw a lot from anime. Anime for me is a great blueprint for how to do lean action. They don’t draw that many frames. This is such a low-budget film, in the sense that it’s under five [million dollars]. I’m not able to shoot all the crazy action that I’d want to. So I have to find other ways to execute that and tell the story. So anime was always a way for me to go, oh, well they kind of did this. So that’s why there’s all the slow-mo and different weird pacing techniques. But I wasn’t intentionally trying to make a movie that gets all actioney. It’s just when you’re trying to shoot the moment, you’re trying to make it feel big.
You shot most of the film here in New Mexico. I always have to ask: What drew you to our state?
No matter what, it needed to happen in the Southwest. New Mexico is obviously that place where a lot of [the film’s] “lore” is from. It was my dream to shoot there, first off. But you always run into that thing where, can we do it here cheaper? Can we do it there cheaper? There’s always that careful balance. So I drove out [to New Mexico] with a friend of mine, and Ann Lerner [head of the Albuquerque Film Office] ended up taking us around. I was really trying to make the argument that we should shoot the exterior stuff there, but I didn’t know if we could do the interior stuff there. Then we found I-25 Studios, which ended up being perfect. It looked exactly like what I was looking for in terms of those [government] facilities. The funny thing is, the same thing happened to [director] Wally Pfister when he was out there [shooting the $100 million sci-fi film Transcendence]. He loved the hallways at I-25 too. But we had already been there [at I-25 Studios] and couldn’t afford the stage space, so we had locked down all the hallways. Our deal was for just the hallways. So when [the producers of Transcendence] moved in and they found out they didn’t have the hallways, they were like, “What the? That’s the only reason we’re here.” So we ended up bartering with them. We traded the hallways for some big fans and stuff. It was cool being a small film [shooting alongside Transcendence]. At times it was a little daunting because their mills were running 24 hours a day. But at the same time, it was kind of inspiring seeing a big film in action.
You were all over the state as well.
Yeah. Cochiti Reservoir. We were up in Taos at the Gorge. We were down in Los Lunas. We were up by Double Eagle Airport a bunch.
Did you get out in the city and state on your own at all?
You mean, just to go run around and have some fun? Oh my god, yes! Are you kidding me? I lived there for six months. It was so much fun. Honestly, I miss it. I was frequenting all the Satellite Coffees. Flying Star. I was fly fishing on the upper Rio Grande past Santa Fe. I lived over in Nob Hill. Every Sunday, I’d be hanging out at Kelly’s Brew Pub. It’s funny, when I was hanging out at Two Fools Tavern, they gave me this whiskey. It was made by this company called High West, which I realized was out of Park City [Utah]. And I was afraid that drinking that whiskey was gonna jinx my ability to get my film into Sundance [Film Festival]. I was like, guys, I don’t want to be thinking about Sundance. I ended up drinking it, and we still got into Sundance. Then it was so special being able to go to the High West Distillery and be like, I was introduced to this whiskey in New Mexico!