Interview: Will Eubank on His Intriguing New Sci-Fi Thriller, The Signal


It’s exceedingly hard to talk about Will Eubank’s movie The Signal without giving too much away, since it’s one of those truly unique science fiction premises that benefits from not really knowing much about it going in to see it. On the other hand, it’s such a low profile movie compared to other summer blockbusters, it needs all the help it can get and that makes it even harder NOT to talk about what happens in the main plot and what makes the movie so cool.

The Signal starts off as one thing, almost like a found footage film that follows three young people–played by Brenton Thwaites (Oculus, Maleficent), Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel,” The Quiet Ones) and Beau Knapp (Super 8)–as they’re on the road looking for a mysterious hacker. Something happens to them as they get close and they wake up as prisoners in a government facility being questioned by Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). From there, it’s pure science fiction and the action builds to a finale that’s pretty amazing for what must have been a fairly limited budget.

Although we can’t say much more about the movie’s plot, The Signal adds to the growing number of original science fiction films being produced from larger blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 to lower budget sci-fi like Duncan Jones’ Moon and Mike Cahill’s Another Earth. Aspects of the movie will appeal to those who enjoyed the likes of the original Terminator movie, Blade Runner and other vintage sci-fi that really stood out when they were released by being so different from everything else out there. spoke to Eubank a couple of weeks back and it took us a few minutes to get past the elephant in the room that was hard not to address e.g. “How do you talk about ‘The Signal’ without completely ruining everything that makes it such a unique experience… while still making it interesting enough to convince people to see it?” (Unfortunately, our plan to run this interview before the movie’s release on Friday was waylaid, but it’s still playing in select cities and will expand to other theaters in the coming weeks if you’re intrigued by what you read.) Your movie premiered at Sundance and I stayed away from any reviews to see it fresh so I really didn’t know what to expect at all. I knew from the title there was some sort of signal in it, I guess. It’s almost hard to talk about the movie because you want people to find out about things for themselves.
Will Eubank:
Sure, yeah.

CS: What made you want to delve into the world of science fiction first with “Love (Eubank’s first movie) and now this? We don’t really see that much really original science fiction these days.
Thanks, man, I appreciate that. Just growing up I was a crazy fan of just all kinds of science fiction, hokey TV shows like early “Twilight Zone” episodes, anything that really pushed questions in what I was watching where I just felt very much like, “I don’t know what’s happening right now but I’m on a ride to find out,” you know what I mean? That kind of stuff was always filling my brain and then behind all that there were all the classic science fiction like obviously I’m a huge fan of “Solaris”–I loved both “Solaris” movies–things that make you feel like you’re not sure where you’re going but you hope you end up there safe.

CS: I used to love shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” where you expect one thing and then there’s a twist that really blows your mind, and this film is similar. What originally got you going down this particular road in terms of the seed of an idea?
Unfortunately, the initial idea is the one that really destroys the movie and I won’t really say it, but I was interested in making a movie about some characters where something like this happens to them but they don’t know it. That’s a terrible way to explain it. (laughs) It’s such a simple concept that gave me the idea for the movie but you don’t want to say it because then it totally gives it all away. But I always thought that idea would be cool but “How would that work? Where would they be kept?” All those things lead to assumed questions that eventually lead to a script.

CS: I was curious whether or not you would describe this as an alien abduction movie?
Growing up, there were movies that really affected me when I was a kid. I remember watching–this feels like it might blow it for people–but “Fire in the Sky” was just so bonkers to me when I was a little kid. That was just horrifying. But yeah, probably. I’m trying to think of other films that don’t give away the movie, something like “Dark City.” That was a movie I just loved visually and I loved the concepts that it pushed. I think that’s one of the joys of the film and one of the parts of the film is not knowing what’s happening. Movies like “Dark City” function that way, they function on the unknown and what is the bigger picture here?

CS: So you’ve essentially made a movie that’s impossible to market because the people who might want to see an alien abduction movie can’t know about that aspect of the story beforehand.
It’s funny because I was always saying that the movie is about three kids on a road trip who wake up in a government facility and that they may or may not have had contact with aliens. They’re not sure, but they just need help remembering what happened to them. To me, it may have to do with aliens, it may not have to do with aliens. In the movie, that is really the journey of the film, so I was never afraid to bring aliens into that conversation.

CS: It’s easier to talk about the first half of the movie for sure, but there’s still a lot of questions when the movie ends where you want to go back and watch it again. There was a recent movie called “Under the Skin” which was like that, too.
Oh, I love that movie. That movie is so beautiful. What a great movie, it was such a treat. I saw it a couple weeks ago in L.A. and I was blown away. It gave such a cool female perspective.

CS: It probably had a similar budget as your movie, but you have a lot more action and special FX in this, so when you wrote this, how did you know you were going to be able to do some of the things with the budget you ended up getting?
I came up as a cinematographer so technically to plan pretty well. It’s not like I spent a lot of money or anything like that, but I’m able to go, “Okay this is probably going to be the best way to do this all with what we have.” That is always on my mind when I plan something out or I have a bigger idea. I know that we won’t get much for this so how can I build what I want to do, and that comes with a lot of begging, too. The Legacy guys who built the Iron Man suit came on board and helped with that and same with the VFX, and they did a really, really great job. My first film “Love,” which is a really crazy avant-garde, almost like a poem type of thing, that whole film is set in a space station that I built from scratch and it took me like three years. I kind of have a little bit of a carpentry background, some crafting ability. (laughs) I think that’s why I get some good visuals.

CS: When did Focus Features become involved? Was that after it played at Sundance?
They got involved before at a script level and they were into the story, which is really cool, because we had their support going into it and they believed in the project from the start, which as a filmmaker, coming into your second film, it feels good having that support even when it’s a little outside the box type of movie. They came in at the script level and gave us distribution. We were still independently financed through some other folks–Tyler Davidson and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones were the original script producers. They did Jeff Nichols’ film “Take Shelter” so really proper cool producers, so they got together with Focus and we all set off to make a crazy movie.

CS: What was the general timeline in terms of when you started writing the script?
A long time I guess. I had just finished editing my first film, and when I hatched that idea (that we’ve gotta find some other way to say) I thought, “This would be really interesting to tackle this concept.” I knew it would be a much more mainstream thing than my first film, which was really born out of different circumstances. This film I was like, “All right, I’m going to approach this on a story level first and see if I can get people brave enough to make it.”

CS: You put together a pretty decent cast of young actors who seem to be on the verge of breaking out including Brenton Thwaites and Olivia Cooke.
Yeah, isn’t that crazy? We never knew when we cast it and all the producers and everyone involved in casting was chasing the same thing. The cool part is those kids, Brenton Thwaites, Beau Knapp, Olivia Cooke, they’re all such wonderful human beings and such great kids that it’s so easy to them being the actual characters in the movie and that was sort of my secret weapon the whole time–these kids are so cool I’d want them to be my friends, so I’m just going to cast them and channel that. Yeah, the breakout thing is crazy but that’s just because of their skill and how good they are at what they’re up to. When we were just starting out, we didn’t know that Brenton was going to be in all these great things like “The Giver” and all that stuff, and “Bates Motel,” at the time, wasn’t even something I had on my radar. At the time, we were just casting people you really liked and then the universe is working when everyone is doing well and moving forward. When we were filming, Olivia told me she had filmed “The Quiet Ones,” but when you’re filming and people are talking about other movies, it’s almost like white noise to you and you don’t know exactly what they’re talking about and you don’t have time to research what it’s about. I was aware of “Oculus,” but I wasn’t aware of what that meant or whether it would be a bigger or smaller film, so you never know with these things. You just go with your gut about who will be the best to serve your story and then these other movies help that and that’s like a huge bonus obviously.

CS: You also have a commanding presence in Laurence Fishburne, who is back in Morpheus mode in some ways, and it must be great hearing your words through his mouth.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s so awesome, man. It’s so awesome. Even when he called me to say he read the script and really liked it and just kept questioning everyone towards the end. God, it was such a fun ride, and I’m looking at him and going “I can’t even hear what you’re saying” because his voice is so deep, it’s like pulling me into a zone. I was like, “This is amazing! This is Laurence Fishburne reading my story.” (laughs) The fact that he’d be so willing to play such a unique character in sort of unique circumstances shows how cool he is, period. So we were really, really lucky to have him, and it just felt good to have him. I guess we’re all kind of newcomers–Brenton and Olivia and Beau (Knapp)–and to have this legendary character actor around and fusing our story together, he couldn’t have given a better energy on set, let me just tell you that. He was great.

CS: As I mentioned earlier, I was impressed with the scale of the movie considering its relatively low budget, but was that the same bridge from “Terminator: Salvation” on which they shot in New Mexico?
Yeah, you got it, that’s the same one. We were shutting that thing down and they put me in this crazy helicopter. It was pretty nuts what we were doing, but yeah, we just went for it. We were like “Okay, here’s the parts, just go for it.” We had to shut down traffic on that bridge and it was a couple really wild days, but we did it.

CS: What surprises me about the movie is that it seems fairly low budget as it begins, but by the time you get to the second half, it starts looking like a much bigger budget movie.
Thanks, man. That’s just careful planning and trying to go, “Okay, we’re just going to make the scope wider and wider.” That’s what you sort of set out to do, you just try to keep your budget close in areas so you can spend it in others.

CS: I also want to ask about the film’s score. I’m not familiar with Nima Fakhrara who did the score but it’s also very distinctive and sets it apart from other films.
Nima is a really, really, really cool dude and basically I would just go sit at his place and we would work through sections and talk about movies that we liked, moments we liked in other films and we’d sit there and think about what’s channeling that. He’s such a talented musician that we’d established sounds early on and then he literally made a bunch of really crazy instruments. He went to the junkyard and bought all these pieces of pipe and what he’s done is that he makes all these really wild-looking instruments, then he samples all the sounds and puts them together on his keyboard and then any sounds he didn’t get, he can fill them in based on that. He gets all these really unique sounds and his office in Culver City in L.A. is so cool. It has this big old smashed piano and it’s just wild. But yeah, he crushed it, he did such a great job, and it’s such a joy to work with him and having him on the team to make music. As a filmmaker, that’s the best part, the collaboration with others artists who can do something you know you’re not good at but you can still eek out this part that you love of filmmaking.

CS: I thought it was pretty impressive considering I’d never heard his work before.
Thank you, man, he would be overjoyed to hear that.

CS: Is there going to be a soundtrack release?
It comes out really soon, so they sent me some album artwork from it the other day and I think there’s going to be a limited edition vinyl pressing for the whole soundtrack.

CS: Have you figured out what you want to do next? The film itself is such a great calling card as a director, so are you developing other things or are you getting sent a lot of scripts to direct?
My God, yes, there’s probably 16 different movies in my head of all different sizes and budgets. Obviously, the bigger they get, probably the more the mainstream in some ways the stories are, but let’s just say that I will not live long enough to make all the movies in my head, I know that for sure. Sometimes that’s kind of scary, but at the same time, it gives me purpose. You’re like “Okay, should I potentially make this many films in a certain amount of time than these are the ones I should channel into.” So yeah, absolutely cool stuff coming up. Brian Kavanaugh-Jones optioned right at Sundance one of my next ones. It’s a little bigger. It’s 1% fantasy sort of loosely based on the Norman Invasion of England I guess, a super crazy story but cool with genre-bending elements to different worlds

CS: I’m not sure anyone needs to be worried about getting too old to direct when you have Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood still going strong.
(laughs) Yeah, I just want to keep making them, man, there’s nothing better, but who knows? Maybe I’ll get smaller budgets, but as long as I’m working I’ll be happy.

CS: Are you mainly trying to get some of your own projects going? I’m sure some producer out there will see this movie and want you to direct something else for them.
There’s a little talk here and there about some different stuff. There’s a couple unique projects that I am truthfully chasing but can’t really talk about them, but yeah, there might be a point where that might be a cool thing. I’m one of those types of people who has come up in a way that you just make your own stuff and then if someone wants to make something with you then that’s great. But in the meantime, if that doesn’t happen, no worries because you have your stuff that you have been working on, so who knows? We’ll see. What feels good at the end of the day, too, is to kind of go, “I know this because I created it,” but that said, obviously you can take a number of interesting things and then fill them out.

The Signal is now playing in select cities and expands to further cities on June 20 and 27.