The last time I spoke with Will Eubank three years ago, he was sitting in his parents’ house, or at least what was left of it. It was on the eve of the premiere of his first feature “Love,” an epic, outer space-set extravaganza he pieced together with funding from the band Angels & Airwaves, who envisioned it as the basis for a concept album, and the rest essentially with his own two hands and those of his younger brother Carlyle, excavating his family’s backyard to build a convincing space station over the course of four years. The film was a visually dazzling debut, filled with grand, sweeping shots of the galaxy and bringing up even bigger questions, such as what is our place in the universe and could Eubank possibly make something even more impressive with better resources than the pizza bags and 19,000 furniture staples he used for “Love”?
That has now been answered definitively with “The Signal,” which per Eubank’s wishes is only a slight step up in terms of budget, yet delivers the kind of big moments and thrills largely absent from most of its summer brethren. For a filmmaker who honed his craft from a different angle than most, getting to know camera equipment and lenses intimately during the eight years he worked at Panavision just as the film industry was beginning to fully embrace digital, there’s something that feels suspiciously personal about the story of Nic (Brenton Thwaites), a computer science wiz who can navigate the world of ones and zeroes with remarkable ease. But while Eubank is unencumbered as a storyteller, Nic has more trouble in the real world, where a degenerative disease has robbed him of his legs and left him resigned to the fact that when his girlfriend Haley (Olivia Cooke) leaves for CalTech, she’s going to be gone for good. Still, he presses on with a road trip aimed to deliver Haley to Pasadena with their friend Jonah (Beau Knapp) when the trio are disturbed to discover they’ve been tracked by a hacker seemingly bent on their destruction. That in turn raises the curiosity of a hazmat-suit-wearing investigator named Damon (Laurence Fishburne, clearly relishing the part), leading Nic to wonder whether he should trust his considerable intellect or his emotional instincts as the situation spirals out of control.
Partly inspired by the road trips Eubank took in his family’s motorhome as a kid across the desert where there was no shortage of conspiracy nuts around the purported location of Area 57, the film also takes its influences everything ranging from lo-fi indies such as “Like Crazy” and “Catfish” to the highly stylized anime of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and steampunk. However, in just two films, Eubank has distinguished himself as a truly original voice, able to create immersive, visceral experiences that tackle what it means to be human in an increasingly digital world on an enormous scale. Shortly before “The Signal” hits theaters, he took the time to talk about how his films have been family affairs, considering the great beyond and working with the legendary sound designer Ben Burtt.
You were a one-man operation on “Love,” and from what I’ve heard Beau say about how you would sneak off on the weekends and shoot additional footage, it sounds like you tried to keep a little bit of that spirit while shooting this, a larger production. Did you find a happy medium between doing it yourself having have invite other people in?
I like to hope that I did. It’s always a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction to go shoot on your own, because when you have to go shoot on your own to grab something, it usually means you know the timing of the movie and all the elements it’s going to take. You’re not going to be able to get everybody together to go get a piece that you know you need for the story, so if I can do it with a crew and do it properly, I probably would. But this was still small enough budget that it just called for running out and grabbing it when we could. But working with Meghan Rogers, the production designer, and Dave Lanzenberg, the cinematographer, it was really cool to let go of certain things and only focus on particular things.
It’s funny, I was talking to Gunner [Wright, who starred in “Love”] the other day about how when I would shoot by myself [on “Love”] and he was just sitting on the other side of a wall in the space station and I’m shooting through a hole or something that we’d cut to get the shot, the first three or four takes, I really wouldn’t be engaged with what he was doing. I was more just making sure the lighting was okay and what I was going to do with the camera. This was nice [on “The Signal”] to just focus primarily on what the actors were doing, which was super liberating.
A key theme of “The Signal” is how its characters balance logic against emotion when dealing with forces they’ve never encountered before. Did you feel the same way in making the film since you’ve obviously mastered the technical aspects of creating something that’s visually stunning but then to get the performances that you did and tell a story that would move people?
The cool part about technical stuff is it’s never a Hail Mary. It’s usually like, “Here’s the nuts and bolts. They’re going to go together this way and as long as we’ve done our homework, it will be there on the day.” With a performance, it’s much different. It’s very like, “Shake out the willies, don’t focus on anything and just listen [to each other].“ What was really great about working with these kids is they’re so talented and all the performances right off the bat, you feel “Whoa, that was convincing! Holy moly, I felt that!” It’s such a great feeling to realize that all the performances are feeling like you would hope things are supposed to feel in the movie, but then you’ve got to focus on making sure the performance is where it needs to be in the movie. That’s the real trick that I learned on this particular film was that, “Whoa, we’re shooting it so out of order. Even though all these performances are great, I need to make sure that they track correctly from scene to scene.” That was exciting. I really learned that it’s not so much managing the performance, but managing the correct performance. In a weird way, it is very emotional dealing with these performances, making sure that, “Yeah, that was a great performance, you dropped a bunch of tears there. But that’s the wrong place to be right now. We need to figure out how to get to this place.”
Is there a touch of you in Nic, the lead character? There’s that wonderful opening scene in the film where Nic is shown working out the exact angles for the random kid playing the claw machine, trying to pull out a plush toy and it seemed not only a great way into the story, but of how you might look at mundane problems yourself.
Yeah, totally. There were so many things I wanted to do with that opening scene. I really wanted to throw away the idea of the crutches. I really wanted to show how Nic was smart, but in a way that was applicable to everyday life. I also remember being a little kid and not having money and playing these claw games or at least thinking like I’m playing them with some kind of strategy. It’s not like anyone ever walked by me and was like, “Hey man, here’s a dollar, here’s how you do it.” But I think as a kid I would’ve loved that. I used to literally go to the arcades and stare at those things all day long and be like, “Gosh, if I could just get the money, I could totally get that one thing right there.” So there’s a lot of personal experience put into that scene minus the crutches part. But the crutches part was something I really wanted to move into the film and say that this isn’t something that defines this character.
Is there something about the great beyond that’s of continuing interest to you? Both this film and “Love” toy with the notion that we’re not alone in the universe.
For sure. Perspective is a huge thing to me because I think that we gather information not only based upon what we see and smell and see on TV in the news, but that a lot of our choices we make are based upon the amount of time that we’re here. We live for about a hundred years or less, so every choice we make is concurrent with the idea that we’re to live about this long. It interests me to think that perspective-wise, maybe in the future, we’ll live way longer and how will that affect our day-to-day choices and how we emotionally connect with people. I’m pretty positive that out there in the universe, there are people or things who probably can live for a crazy long time. That interests me a lot. Even something as simple as a satellite will outlive us by a long shot. In a weird way, that thing has its own life and it continues to gather and look around. I wonder if that’s what we’re eventually going to evolve to, where something crazy [happens like], “We’re loading up to go to Alpha Centauri” and nobody pats anyone on the back. Once the people get there, they don’t even get excited. It’s like, “Okay, we’re here. Great.” That’s why the perspective of time is really interesting to me.
The funny thing is, my next movies are probably not going to be in this realm at all. I’m probably going to do a couple movies that are simple stories. I think my first two films are very different [from one another], but I think some people will say they get too heady and I was hoping with “The Signal” that people would just have fun with it. My ultimate be-all-end-all film, the film I need to make before I die, which I won’t make until I’m able to get a little more money and have some more experience, is when I will come back to sci-fi, but it’s probably about two films away. The next couple ones are not going to be sci-fi.
Still, it seems like you got a stamp of approval as a director within the genre since I’ve heard that Ben Burtt [the legendary sound designer behind “Star Wars”] handpicked “The Signal” to work on. Did you actually submit the film there and have your fingers crossed?
I actually did not seek him out. When I heard about it, I was like, “What the heck?” We had a connection at Skywalker [Sound] somehow. I don’t know if it was [“The Signal” producers] Brian Kavanaugh-Jones or Tyler Davidson had a connection, but Skywalker is starting to do a few more indie projects up there and I think when the projects come up, they go, “Okay, we’re just going to do this one.” I guess Ben Burtt saw “The Signal” and he called up and was like, “I want to do this one for you guys.” He really championed it and went the extra mile for it. We could only afford so much on this type of thing and he was constantly making bigger and better stuff happen. It’s so tough when there’s all this amazing equipment, but you only have so much available to you, but more stuff kept opening up I think because they were so excited. He saw I was genuinely nerding out after that. [He would say,] “Well, let’s do this! Oh my god, we got to go watch it in this theatre!” A really cool man and a really cool process.
It was very different [from “Love”]. We actually won a Motion Picture Sound Editors award for the first film, but it was just Robert Kellough and I in his home garage making cool stuff. Then Brian Berdan, who edited “Love,” is really great at premix sound, so he does the sound mix while he’s editing. But it was just so lucky to get somebody like Ben Burtt who knows how to deconstruct every sound. If you show him a sound that you like, he knows how to find or make something that is basically that sound, which blows my mind.
When it comes to conceiving these movies, do you still really hatch them inside your family? Of course, you co-wrote this film with your younger brother Carlyle [along with David Frigerio] and I even noticed your mother Patricia was credited as a storyboard artist.
I’m really lucky to have a lot of great people around me like that. We grew up all just big dinners and sitting around the table and doing these trips where we’d be all packed in the motorhome together. My mom is very artistic and always was about imagining stuff and this is awful to say, but it’s very easy when you’re making a film and you need all this help to go to your family and the people that supported you when you were young. For instance, with my mom, we couldn’t really get a storyboard artist, but she just loved [“The Signal”] so much, she was happy to do it. She became friends with Laurence Fishburne on the film because she was out there so much. [laughs] I think they were staying in the same hotel and they’d see other every morning on the way to work and back. He was really funny. He’s like, “Your mom is so great!” So it’s not a family matter, it just happens that way.
For smaller films [like “The Signal”], you need so much help from every different angle. Like [using] the 5D [camera] that [allowed me to shoot] a lot of stuff on my own. The hack had just come out for the 5D, [with] the ability to make it shoot RAW. And I’m like, “Oh my god, I need get that!” But then I ran into the budget. My dad actually heard about it, and before I knew it, I had it in the 5D my dad got for me in the mail. I just got an e-mail from him right now because it’s my parents’ wedding anniversary. He was just saying he couldn’t think of a better present than having sons with a film in actual theaters that critics are getting in a tuffy about. That’s pretty cool. Good folks.