William Eubank Hacks "a Little Magic" Into a Classical SciFi With The Signal


William Eubank is very social...with his media. The people milling around the press tour for his film, The Signal, are comparing the instagrams they took with the writer/director. These social butterflies are mostly publicists, people who’ve been photo-bombed by bigger names (Ted Danson and Tom Hanks come up a lot), but Eubank conjures excitement and that’s news indeed. He feels, they suggest, like a discovery.

Eubank’s feature debut, Love, never got a theatrical release but you can find it on Amazon instant—while you’re there you can find the soundtrack by his old pals Angels and Airwaves. A classically built science fiction film, Love was shot in a space station Eubank built in his parent’s backyard. This production story sounds like a white plastic version of James Cameron’s pitch to direct Aliens. (Hollywood lore says Cameron crafted the alien “mother” out of garbage bags and broom handles.) Regardless, there’s something romantic about the ingenuity and self confidence this story seems to reveal—what bird whispered such far flung ideas in his ear? Maybe it wasn’t a bird at all.

Eubanks affection for traditional science fiction is evident in The Signal, which comports itself like a high-speed update to the “man vs. society” speculative films so popular in the 1970s. “I secretly want people to leave the theater asking if it was an origin story. ‘Was that the birth of something?’ I like movies that get to a trope or an idea in a round about way.”

In the film, coeds Nic and Jonah are driving their friend Haley from MIT to Cal Poly. They conclude the hacker who recently infiltrated MIT servers is sending his signal from somewhere in Nevada and so hijack the road trip to find him. Nic’s been expecting the end to his relationship with Haley since the accident that left him permanently handicapped. Now that she’s taking an offer to go to school across the country, he’s distancing himself. Eubank says, “Honestly the story is about dashed dreams. You lead your life believing it’s going to work one way and then it doesn’t. Young love is a real limiter that way. I remember the first girl I really cared about. I was like “this is everything to me,” and the fear of losing that was so gnarly. Our character is trying to make a logical decision based on that fear.”

With the exception of Laurence Fishburne, (as Dr. Damon), Eubank cast unknowns who promise not to stay that way. Beau Knapp (Jonah), the child actor who played Breen in Super 8 is unrecognizable here; you’ll see him in five films coming out this year, among them the star studded You’re Not You. British actress Olivia Cooke just starred alongside Richard Harris in exorcist horror The Quiet Ones and has a recurring part in the popular A&E series Bates Motel. The star is Aussie heartthrob Brenton Thwaites, whom the world met as Prince Phillip in Disney’s mega-production Maleficent just two weeks before he’s Nic, the recently handicapped MIT genius and would-be missing link.

When the coeds reach the source of the signal, the film enters Blair Witch territory. Single shooter styled camera jitters with the fluctuating light and people fall in the darkness, forcing audiences to scan the screen for information while figuring out what’s happened behind the lens. Nic wakes up in a maze of computerized laboratories. Dr. Damon (Fishburne) interrogates him with eerie calm and frustrating superiority. The tests reveal little and the outcomes inspire fear. Nic finds Jonah and they plot to escape, dragging the comatose Haley along, but something is different and it might not be safer outdoors.

“At its core,” Eubank explains, “The Signal is about organic systems versus robotic systems, emotion versus logic. Computers are binary—ones and zeroes—and they have the edge of being concrete, and can last and last. Organic things are more fleeting and vulnerable. So if technology lasts longer it must be more powerful. Nic wants to be logical because he thinks that’s stronger, but by the end he embraces his emotional side and can make a choice that logic would contradict. That’s uniquely human and organic. Being able to conjure a feeling out of thin air will drive technology further than it could go on its own.”

Eubank grew up in a ranch north of San Diego, watching Anime and Dragonball Z—he calls it “ridiculous” but the “magic” in those shows clearly influenced his storytelling. “I love the idea that you can be surprised by what you’re in—or that you can choose, after the fact, what you saw. Science fiction is a stage that lets you put something human and identifiable in a really bodacious place. [You can] arrive at the same place while journeying differently, so your endpoint is a surprise.”

Eubank seems to think the surprise isn’t just on the screen. He references David Lynch totemically—this is discomfiting since Lynch is possibly cinemas worst interviewees. “Lynch says he won’t answer questions because he feels the engagement to ask the question is what is giving the film life in the first place. If you answer a question for one person you destroy it for 10.” But that doesn’t mean Eubank won’t discuss, he just has boundaries. “Certain question I won’t answer. If you really want to know you can contact me directly but I don’t want to destroy this for the 10 people out there who were really certain they knew what the movie was and where they were.” Eubank means it when he says you can reach out to him—his instagram is lousy with updates and you can find him there, and on Twitter @superswift. It’s ironic how interested he is in socializing online when his film could be read as a story about Internet terrorism.

But Eubank, whose next film is a parable about fatherhood set in the time of Scottish Warlords, encourages questioning and participates. “I think engagement is what makes a film cool. If you don’t want that engagement there’s plenty of stuff out there but not enough of movies force you to ask. “

And that film about Scottsmen? “It’s about fatherhood and how badly we want to pass on only our better parts and not our bad parts. I can talk about parts of that film and get teary eyed. There’s a little magic in that as well.”

The Signal hits theaters June 13. Check #TheSignal and #RUAgitated

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