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William Eubank’s second film, The Signal, may be his most ambitious. The story of three friends on a road trip across country who make the mistake of taking a slight detour, the film is a sinister sci-fi adventure that’s more than just gadgets and gizmos; it’s an emotional and layered journey saddled with twists and turns — and okay, some pretty awesome prosthetic work. Eubank sat down at the Waldorf Astoria to chat about his filmmaking process, working with prosthetics, and Laurence Fishburne.

What was your creative process for cooking up a story that had so many otherworldly, sci-fi elements?

It always comes with the inception of a small idea, and then you’re going to chase sort of whatever happens. Usually I have about 15 other movies in my head right now, and what happens is I either think of a character I really want to trace, or I think of characters I really like and I don’t know where I want to put them yet — or in this case I wrote with my cowriter David Frigerio and my brother Carlyle Eubank and I’ll have this idea about this situation that people will be in and we’ll go back and say ‘What is the most interesting way of exploring that concept?

And we arrived at The Signal, with Nick and Hayley and Jonah on a road trip. So yeah, in terms of the process, there’s usually some crazy idea I have. In this situation I was finishing editing my first film Love which was financed by [the band] Angels and Airwaves. That movie was really cool, a little esoteric, almost avant garde, almost a visual poem, I want to say. I was so proud as a director, and I decided I wanted to go into more mainstream channels next. And that’s how The Signal was born. It all blurs together. If you ever had to sit down and say “Okay I did one movie and now I’m doing another movie,” there’s probably a mistake happening somewhere because it’s all just one big idea.

You just keep one big running tab of your ideas?

Oh yeah, it’s crazy, with Pinterest and all that; it’s really kind of cool now as a filmmaker, you’ll see something that gives you inspiration and you’re able to just kind of catalog stuff and cross reference stuff. Pinterest now allows you to do secret boards, so god forbid everyone tries to get access to my Pinterest boards now (laughs). But i’ll have these crazy cool cross-sections of stuff I’ve compiled.

Aside from your Pinterest boards, did you have any movies or media you drew inspiration from?

I’m a huge fan of the Twilight Zone, and sort of early pop science fiction and mind-bending things. Like I’m a huge fan of Dark City and David Lynch stuff. You know it’s funny, I remember when I was really young I remember I saw Eraserhead and I was like “I don’t like this, I don’t know what this is about blah blah blah” and the funny thing is you realize one day that you’re still thinking about that movie, and you’re like “Wait, does that mean I did like that movie? What does that even mean?” You’re still thinking about that movie you watched at one point. And then suddenly you find yourself, whether or not you liked the movie, suddenly you’re a fan.

David Lynch was always that way with me; any David Lynch movie I watched I found myself thinking about later and mulling it over in my head. And then you see little things, even when rewatching episodes of Twin Peaks, when they’re just drinking coffee and eating pie. Why does this speak to me? There’s nobody you would probably ever interview who wasn’t a fan of Kubrick. It’s funny, the older you get, the more influences you realize you’re going to get, whether it;s from artists or filmmakers. But yeah, up until now, my main ones are Twilight Zone, Rod Serling…all that.

The Signal has that paranormal, alien undercurrent. Have you always been fascinated with the unknown? 

I grew up in LA, but we would travel to Salt Lake a bunch because we had relatives there, so we would travel through the southwest a lot. It’s funny, one of the most intense memories of my life comes out of New Mexico, and i’ll never forget this. We were in Santa Fe, and I grab ahold of one of those hanging chiles, and I was shaking them around, and all of the seeds fell into my eyes (laughs). I’ll never forget that, I’ll never forget Santa Fe, it’s burned into my mind. The southwest especially, my granddad especially, was very into Indian culture. My dad would do dinosaur bone hunting and we would go look for fossils in riverbeds in the middle of nowhere.

And I think all of those experiences — also I was a boy scout, like David Lynch, I was an Eagle Scout. I think that’s so funny, every time he’s interviewed he’s like “well, I’m an Eagle Scout. But I was growing up out there, doing all these cool things with my family, like my brother Carlyle, sitting out under the stars — you’re like ‘Woah, wouldn’t it be cool if things started happening?’ The imagination is set loose there in the southwest.

Did it help being able to write with your brother, Carlyle Eubank?

Yeah, both the writers, David and Carlyle. It’s fun to sit in the room and spit ideas around. It’s not quite as lonely as sitting in a room by yourself and figuring out characters by yourself. I think that the important part when you’re writing with other people is do parts of it solitary so you make sure that the singular voice is still there and real, so you don’t feel like you’re just regurgitating something sort of vanilla. But to work with them was great, because you can just bounce everything around.

Despite this being an independent production, the film employs a ton of special effects and elements that make it seem big budget. How did you pull it off? 

Lots of begging! Photography wise, I got together with David Lanzenberg (Director of Photography) and he was stupendous, such a sweet human being and then working with production designer Megan Rogers. My first film Love, the Angels and Airwaves movie, everything I made myself, but it took two years. I did it all in my backyard and it took me forever. And so kind of having that background of building and shooting things, I’m kind of decent to a degree of going “oh, these are the elements or the ingredients we need,” and that also helps when it comes to the bigger boy aspects like prosthetics…I think i’m pretty good, or at least I’m willing to put the time in when it comes to storyboarding so you have a specific number of visual effects. It can be really tough because you’re sitting there looking at a piece of paper that you’ve drawn two shots and you’re only going to get time to do one, and so that’s where the business-hat wearing filmmaker comes in. You try to make those decisions before the day comes so that you have time to make the one shot better.

Legacy did all the Iron Man suits and so I was begging them “Please, please, please make these prosthetics for me” and they were so cool; they did some really great work for us for nothing almost, and then Spin VFX in Canada did the crazy effects for us, and came down and worked with us.

Was it difficult to work with the actors using prosthetics?

It’s tricky, definitely a little break-in period there. I think in a normal movie you would definitely have a representative with you who deals with the prosthetics, but we couldn’t really afford that (laughs). It was definitely tricky, the poor makeup guys, on top of everything else they had to do. It was definitely a tall order, but worth it in the end. I tried to jump in and help with a lot of stuff, like with the texture you see on his shirt, I’d kind of obsessively get in there and try to help and try to put more texture on the screen.

I think it speaks to the cast how well they were able to adapt. 

Olivia [Cook], and Brendon [Thwaites] and Beau [Knapp], they’re all just wonderful human beings. Especially in a movie where you want to identify with them. To me, that was awesome. You have small budgets, and you have these kids believing in me and allowing me to go shoot them in crazy situations and we have Laurence Fishburne on top of that, just really bringing this solid base to the whole thing. They’re all wonderful people, and you hear these horror stories on these indie things, but I miss it. I would love to go back and do it all again. So much fun.

Can you speak to the Laurence Fishburne experience? 

Gravity. Weight. He has so much presence, it’s insane. I remember when he called me, he said he had read the script and he really liked it and wanted to do it, his voice on the phone…I was just blown away. I just wanted to suck my face into it. It was such a unique role, and so different, I just couldn’t believe he wanted to do it. I just thought, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” It’s so much fun to make a character, and then get someone like Laurence Fishburne to bring him to life. He brought so much to the project, I don’t even know what to say. I was lucky.

Everyone is going to be talking about one big shocking scene — how were you able to set up such a huge, emotional reveal?

Obviously you have your twists, but no matter what, you’re trying to figure out how we got here emotionally. And to me, if we don’t have that emotional point, that emotional filter to experience a big idea or a twist then you really don’t have anything. And to me, to watch [name omitted] arc out, to decide “You know what, I’ve been trying to think logically about this the whole time and trying to sure my logical emotions and always been trying to run away from my emotions, here’s a situation that says logically I shouldn’t do this or I’m at great risk if I do this, so logically I should do nothing.”

And he decides to do something, and to go for it, and he embraces it.