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The Making of The Signal: An Interview with Director William Eubank Part 1

William Eubank

We’re consistently impressed by the ingenuity of filmmakers. Boy, the things they must do to make an affective film within time and budget constraints. It wouldn’t be fair to say that that’s the real magic of movies, but sometimes it is. Take for example director William Eubank’s new movie The Signal. It’s economy and visually dramatic impact will impress you.

We recently spoke with Mr. Eubanks at a round-table interview in Boston, where we talked about topics from how working at Panavision in Los Angeles afforded him opportunities akin to film school, to the influence of anime on The Signal.

Participating in the interview with me was fellow Boston Online Film Critics Association member, and Diabolique Webcast guest, Brett Michel.

DIABOLIQUE: I have to ask, you worked at Panavision for…

WILLIAM EUBANK: .. a long time, yes. A really long time

DIABOLIQUE: And you were able to go from working at Panavision to being a director. It’s sort of like going from being a construction worker and then, like, designing the building.

EUBANK: Really I was trying to get into film school, but didn’t get into film school. I did two years at UCLA, but didn’t make it into their program; which I still feel … I had a terrible interview. I still blame myself. But then I went to the Brooks Institute of Photography, and at the time I just started interning at Panavision. And I didn’t finish Brooks either, because they weren’t going to take some of my General Ed from UCLA, so … it was like is a disaster. School was a disaster for me. But Panavision sort of became my school. I really I owe so much to Panavision because they let me take cameras out on weekends, and Bob Harvey [EVP of Global Sales and Marketing at Panavision] was sort of like my godfather of film over there. He and Alisa Shamosh [executive assistant at Panavision].

They hooked me up on so many different occasions with cameras [he laughs]. So, basically during the week I was working [at Panavision] as a tech. And it was right at sort of the inception of the turn over to digital, which was a really crazy time to be working there. The F-900 cameras had just come out and Star Wars had just started to shoot with these things, and you know, the industry was definitely starting to go digital. And at that time I built a system with an old G4 Mac to capture the footage from one of the F 900s by drilling holes through the back, and like putting all these hard drives together. This was before SATA drives and I remember at Panavision they were like, ‘Oh my God! This is insane! You can like edit HD on a personal computer?’ You know? And that was like when we all knew that the industry was going to really change.

But they sent me out on a lot of shows, and they really sort of supported me shooting on my own on the weekends. And that’s how you do it, you know? It’s like more I’m there working and learning and maybe getting onto a few sets though being a Panavision camera tech, I’m seeing how of how things are done. And then they’re allowing me to be creative by certainly supporting me with the equipment on the weekends, and eventually I had a reel that I developed, which was like my business card I guess you could say.

thesignal

DIABOLIQUE: Did you always have an interest in science fiction? This is something that you would be into regardless of working on films?

EUBANK: Yeah, I was really into Twilight Zone stuff when I was growing up, and Ray Bradbury, and some Stephen King stuff. I don’t know if it was specifically that I was into sci-fi. I guess I like crazy ideas, and often those crazy ideas can take place on the stage of science-fiction. The universe is a pretty big place, and sort of everything that we do from a story perspective occurs here on earth, but it just seems like there’s just so much possibility. And when you get into science-fiction the stage becomes so gigantic that it’s really fun to contrast that against a simple story and or human story or something that has some soul. So yeah, I’ve always been a big sort of genre or science-fiction fan. I guess I never really thought about it like that. I guess both my films at this point are sort of science fiction. Whether or not I’ll keep doing that, it’s hard to say.

JOURNALIST: What was your inspiration behind this film?

EUBANK: I wanted to make a movie that kind of offered-up … you know, like when you get into this movie …. is it going to be a movie about [SPOILER REMOVED]? If you know that going into it, then you’re suddenly pulled all into the social preconceptions we have about [that] and you’ve already put the film in a box. I wanted to make a movie that has to do with some unknown government stuff and it really doesn’t tell you that that’s where things are going to go. And so you really get into the film in an entirely different way … you’re being offered up these little bits of information, and you’re like going ‘Whoa! That’s interesting! Wait, is this movie about that?’

I like making movies where you kind of are defining them later in the game, rather than earlier in the game. To me, those are always the the strangest of things. So, I had the end game in mind. I knew where I wanted the movie to go. And I had the characters I wanted. And then, at that point it was just allowing the characters to do what they do within the story.

BRETT MICHEL: And you have the freedom to really sort of make the end result you wanted?

EUBANK: Yes.

MICHEL: I mean, I look at a big studio picture like Oblivion, and clearly there was a voice-over that was added after-the-fact that pretty much sinks the film.

EUBANK: Yes, right.

MICHEL: Because all of the big reveals are given to you at the beginning. And there obviously should not have been a voice-over. It’s kind of like what happened with Blade Runner.

EUBANK: Yeah, it’s different. When you’re on a smaller film obviously there’s a lot more sort of creative freedom to get nutty.

MICHEL: They trust you.

EUBANK: Yes, and the bigger you go the more dollars are on the table and your sort of forced to make your creative box a little smaller, so that some more people can understand it if it needs to be marketed super-wide.

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MICHEL: Did you have to scale back any of your effects ambitions in this picture?

EUBANK: No. You know, when writing a film, I [imagine it] like this box that has the days that you’re going to have to shoot it, and the budget. And as a filmmaker you need to come to terms with that and quickly make choices. I think a lot of people – and I have this feeling thing in me all the time – you don’t want to commit to certain choices because you’re thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know yet.’ But it’s so important to commit to things, especially on the smaller budget, because then you enable yourself later to get a stronger product because you’ve already thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it this way, and I can now start the process of figuring out how I’m going to do it this way.’ Whereas if you were like ‘Oh, I’m going to hold off. I don’t know how I’m going to use that tool.’ Then all of a sudden you get to the end and you’re sort of screwed. So I always feel it’s important as writer/director, that, before you start directing, there’s this whole phase of story-boarding. It’s so important. I have this book, and I basically break the entire movie script down shot-by-shot … shot map it all … and then I’ll draw [sketches] with certain things. That way, by the time I’m shooting it and frazzled onset and I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore, I can just open my book [to a scene] and be like, ‘Oh! That’s what I was thinking!’

DIABOLIQUE: Would it be incorrect to assume that there’s a graphic novel influence to some of these shots? I imagine that there is.

EUBANK: Yes, sure! Thanks, man.

DIABOLIQUE: Very cool, sort of anime-like.

EUBANK: Yeah, I’m a huge anime fan. In a way, some will say [there’s] anime [elements in The Signal] like Evangelion or a lot of people mention Akira. It’s not Akira by any means. It’s definitely like there’s a guy in a hospital gown and he’s screaming a lot. But [he laughs] it’s like … it’s funny, the reason is I like to shoot in ways that pay homage to the way [Ridley and Tony Scott] have always used color and lenses, like the end of Man on Fire, and those kind of things. Emotionally. Like, these really cool sort of tight, gritty-feeling shots. But, when it comes to action, when you don’t really have money to shoot something, you have to try to really make it impactful in another way. And for me, that’s usually center-framing or almost graphic novel-like shots. And with anime, especially from a editing perspective, they are really lean with how they show their action, and get it so intense. They’re lean because somebody’s having to draw all this stuff. So they use all these editing techniques and pasting techniques and ins and outs to almost intensify action without that many shots. I like to study that a lot because, on an indie level, if you’re trying to make action feel big, I feel like the answer to that is in the anime. Anime has a way of shooting fewer shots, or showing less, but it feels bigger. And so I’ve always tried to sort of channel that.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

The Signal opens in theaters today, June 13th 2014.
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About Stephen Slaughter Head

Stephen Slaughter Head was co-editor of the Star Wars website TheForce.net, co-founder of the much-loved movie news website IGN FilmForce, and editor of the movie section at AOL’s Propellor.com. As a film journalist he has more than 2,000 published articles at IGN.com. His work has also appeared on AOL.com, and in Esquire magazine and the Boston Phoenix. Stephen hosts the Diabolique Webcast.

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