At first glance, The Signal feels akin to a lot of movies released (or, rather, thrown at) summertime audiences: A group of attractive, roughly college-aged friends depart on a road trip. More specifically, a trio of friends: a pair of troubled lovers (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke) and their beloved, bespectacled buddy (Beau Knapp). They’re all very attractive, sure, but they’re also smart (computer-hacker MIT smart), and an obsessive pursuit of a “showboating” hacker quickly takes the characters off course and into the middle of the New Mexico desert.
Up to this point, the audience has interacted almost solely with the film’s protagonists, all from the limited perspective of a subtly shaky handycam — but then things change. In a scene that’s as unnervingly fluid as it is jarring, the tone and the story hook a hard left, anchored only by the intimate feelings conjured in the first act.
“The reason [for using the handycam] is because when I think of a scary film, the scariest stuff that I ever watch is this new stuff,” remarked cowriter, director, and Santa Ynez native William Eubank. “It makes me feel like I’m really watching something authentic.”
In a hospital or research facility echoing the mid-century aesthetic and emptiness of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film makes its shift. The rooms and halls are sterile and cold, made sickening by an orange-yellow hue. This is where Laurence Fishburne (who Eubank at one point refers to as “Larry”) powerfully lends his commanding voice and presence, almost single-handedly shouldering the film’s sci-fi lean with his Vader-esque shadow. It’s also where we get a glimpse of the beautifully orchestrated, full-frame shots emblematic of the visual sensibilities that set Eubanks apart early on when he worked as a camera technician and directed commercials while attending UCLA.
It’s that feeling of authenticity, or rather the pursuit of that feeling, that seems to define Eubank’s growing filmography. In Love, Eubank’s stunning full-length debut, which premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2011, audiences were pushed to find meaning in pure feeling. Love is “the ability to feel and find complete communication without words or touch,” Eubank said in a 2011 interview. “It’s the ability to find an understanding on nothing but a sense.”
In both The Signal and Love, Eubank’s adept use of perspective helps to foster those senses in his audience, and his perspective isn’t just limited to the trembling camcorders, off-camera screams, or even the artful full-frame shots for which he is routinely praised. In conversation, Eubank routinely points to his varied sources of inspiration, which range from Lord of the Flies to the Japanese anime cartoon Dragon Ball Z, which made its way to the States via Cartoon Network in the late 1990s. Even the decision to use the super-wide 2.39:1 theatrical anamorphic format was one Eubank made based on feeling, citing the perspective’s ability to allow actors to look directly into the audience’s eyes.
After getting the green light, it was Eubank’s gut that told him to move forward with an immediately available $3-$4 million, rather than wait for years in order to secure a larger budget. (It would have been in the $10-$12 million range, according to Eubank.) It was also Eubank who chose to cast actors he felt a personal rapport with in the hopes of constructing a dynamic and intimate group, rather than a collection of talented individuals.
On set, those gut decisions combined with Eubank’s unorthodox (read: youthful) method of filmmaking, which meant shooting over the course of several small-scale weekend trips into the desert, where the crew would set up shots in parking lots and alongside random desert roads. Looking back on the experience, Eubank says that setting The Signal in New Mexico contributed greatly to the film’s style and feel.
“Being in Albuquerque definitely brought something different,” adds actor Beau Knapp. “It’s an eerie place, and it’s also alive with dust storms and all of these things.”
Despite being featured in one of The Signal’s most riveting scenes, Knapp points elsewhere when asked what his favorite experience was from filming.
“The Area 51 scene [lead actor Brenton Thwaites] and I did in the kitchen — I was almost hyperventilating because it was so hot and my suit was so heavy,” recalls Knapp. “It brought a physicality to the character that I couldn’t have brought myself.”
While the suit was surely hot and heavy, it’s difficult to imagine any of The Signal’s performances being the same in a different environment, an environment fostered by the still-young Eubank’s willingness to push the limits and defy his — and our — expectations.
The Signal is out now. For movie times, click here.