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How ‘The Signal’ Director William Eubank Flips Audiences on Their Heads

The Signal William Eubank Interview
Focus Features

Everything we’ve seen so far from the new thriller ‘The Signal‘ merely grazes the surface of what’s in store for audiences. The trailers and few brief clips that have been released show a trio of young kids — Nic (up-and-comer Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp) and Haley (Olivia Cooke) — who encounter…something. After this “something,” Nic finds himself in medical robes facing down a hazmat-suited Laurence Fishburne, who repeats the question, “Are you agitated?”

Suffice to say, details are vague, but that’s exactly what excites director-screenwriter William Eubank. “I don’t wanna know what’s gonna happen,” he said, speaking for himself as an audience member. “I think about myself sitting there in the theater and pegging a movie and thinking it’s [one] way, and then going, ‘Holy crap!’ That to me puts a grin on my face.”

When it came time to make ‘The Signal,’ the 31-year-old’s sophomore effort, he played his cards similarly close to his chest, armed with a marketing campaign that understood the nature of his particular beast — the less an audience knew, the more they’d want to watch it.

‘The Signal’ opens with a road trip — Nic, who’s suffering from some sort of muscular deterioration that will eventually confine him to a wheelchair, is helping his girlfriend move to college, while at the same time attempting to emotionally distance himself. His best pal is along for the ride, but events take a sharp turn when Nomad, an infamous hacker who’s been toying with them online for some time, makes contact. As the story usually goes, these young teens make it their mission to track him down, which leads to a seemingly abandoned shack in the middle of nowhere. And that’s when things get interesting.

“I really wanted to make a film that flipped on its head,” said Eubank. “I really wanted to make a movie that was going to challenge what you thought it was.”

As a young lover of science-fiction, Eubank grew up reading Ray Bradbury, and watching the ‘Solaris’ films and works by David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, always gravitating towards “the big-stage stories,” as he calls them. While this vast library of fantastical stories surely inspired portions of ‘The Signal,’ a uniquely specific work that influenced his new world was the nine-minute documentary (with the long-winded title) by Charles and Ray Eames, ‘The Power of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.’

Shown above, the documentary begins with an innocent image of two picnickers in a park as the camera slowly continues to pan out and up, revealing more and more of the surrounding world, eventually zooming out until Earth itself is but a speck in the galaxy. “As a kid, that hit me really hard,” he said, and it’s this principal — of slowly peeling back the layers of the world around you — he applied to ‘The Signal.’

Eubank drew from his love of science and the “grander stage” in making his first film, ‘Love,’ which told the story of a lone astronaut sliding to the brink of insanity as the International Space Station he’s aboard loses contact with Earth. Given his incredibly low budget, however, he was essentially confined to his parents’ backyard — he actually built the space-station set at his parents’ house in Santa Ynez Valley, California. But with ‘The Signal,’ a sci-fi indie with a larger budget, he was able to further push his creative limits.

“I basically wanted to make a movie about some kids that are on a road trip who are being challenged with stuff in their personal lives, but reach a point where some crazy stuff happens to them and you’re left reeling from that ‘cause you thought you were doing one thing and then the movie erupts into another thing.”

It’s incredible to watch what Eubank can create given a budget, and his next project, a “1% fantasy” that’s been optioned with ‘The Signal’ producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones attached, is on an even larger stage. “For me, storytelling is storytelling,” he said. “I just have a bunch of characters whose stories I want to tell. At the end of the day, worst case scenario, if I don’t have enough time in this lifetime to make all the movies I want to make, I’ll probably end up cheating some of my characters and sliding them into some of my other films so they can all live.”

‘The Signal’ opens in limited release this Friday.

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