Genre filmmaking is often a more welcoming playground to fresh new talent than more conventional drama, and, arguably next to horror, science-fiction allows filmmakers the opportunity to leave their stamp on tone and visual schemes unlike almost any other narrative category. With the striking, stirring “The Signal,” director Will Eubank certainly does that. Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Eubank one-on-one for ShockYa, about his sophomore film, his myriad influences and debuting his movie at the Sundance Film Festival. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: “The Signal” is very experiential. Can you speak some to your pre-production process, because I feel like you had to have made a lot of tough or very specific decisions then that allowed you to be as ambitious as you were on the limited budget and schedule you had.
Will Eubank: It’s tough, man. There’s always that place where you’re trying — well, it’s actually even before pre-production, or at least it is with me, because I know even when I’m writing that I’m going to have to eventually face the reality of figuring out how to make the script fit within the time and the budget that I’m going to have to shoot. And what I do, even a little bit before I know what those confines are going to be, is buy a big book, almost like Matthew McConaughey had in “True Detective” — although mine looks a lot gnarlier when I’m done with it, I was a bit disappointed his didn’t look super-gnarly — and basically draw out most of the movie. I do shot maps, I paperclip in images from other movies that are inspiration — and that’s really where I base the reality of the project. From there, that gives me a really good communicative stepping-off point for dealing with and talking with other creative (folks), like the production designer Megan Rogers, the director of photography David Lanzenberg. And it’s easier to get at the same page versus just staring at words. That’s always super-tough, and that’s where you usually do all the crazy breaking down of what’s going to be visual effects and what’s not — you start to really push and try to understand how much money you’re going to have for certain set pieces so that that way I can go, “Okay, do I need to come up with a different way to tell this part of the story, or do I need to just show a moment?” And a lot of people think that I’m kind of the slow-mo guy, and that all I do is shoot slow-motion. I’m not doing that to just be fancy, I’m doing that because it’s a really economical way to add gravitas to an action scene or emotional value to a scene that I wouldn’t normally be able to get, because I don’t have enough cameras and I don’t have enough time to shoot it five times over, and with six cameras. So in that pre-production stage I’m stealing a lot from anime and other influences that I think take the action in a different direction but still keep it intense and engaging.
ShockYa: You’ve worked as a cinematographer and shot your own things, and obviously have, I think, a very developed visual palette. Had you worked with David before, and was it difficult to pass the baton off and resist the urge to go back and tinker (and micro-manage)?
Will Eubank: My first film, “Love,” which I still think is very beautiful, is like a visual poem almost. And it’s funny because I remember the first few takes of every shot, there would always be a couple throwaways where I wasn’t even engaged in what was on camera or what was happening with the character. I was always thinking, “Oh, well, what’s in the shot? That thing or light is bothering me.” The first few takes were always me in my own head, looking at the visuals. And this movie, it was great to have somebody else to manage that beforehand and let me let go of that stuff and just focus on the story and only be worried. It was funny to sometimes watch David squirm, and be like, “Oh, I have to fix that light!” And I could care less at this point — I’m thinking, “Oh, give me a few more takes to get the emotion right, or get the story right.” What I want to say about David that makes him such a special human being is that he’s so collaborative. I had never worked with him before, but I would meet DPs who would be like, “Hey, I’ve seen your work, I love it, but I want to let you know that I need my space and I need you to allow me to do my work.” And I would immediately be like, “Okay, next guy.” And David was the first guy who was like, “Hey man, I’ve seen your work and love it — I can’t wait to work with you and collaborate and create some cool stuff together.” That’s when I knew he was the right dude for this.
ShockYa: “The Signal” I think has very solid, streamlined character set-up, but it was also no doubt shaped a bit by a limited amount of resources influencing some creative choices early on. It’s shot through with mystery and dread more than action and horror… how do you maintain that less-is-more approach moving forward, on other projects — or do you look to?
Will Eubank: You know, I don’t know. I guess… the reason people maybe feel that this film is such a genre-bender in some ways and a patchwork quilt of different things is because I’m a fan of so many different kinds of things. I love John Hughes films — “Uncle Buck” is one of my favorites, I love “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” I love “Dragonball Z” and “Akira” and I love almost every “Twilight Zone” episode. I don’t know if there’s one I don’t like. So my taste is all over the place. And my favorite film of all time is “Casablanca.” So I think my future things are going to be extremely different. It’d be cool if people were a fan of my work, or at least the visuals or characters that I help create, and then they wanted to jump on a different type of ride. My next stuff isn’t necessarily very sci-fi, it might be very different. And I just hope people go, “Oh, man, I enjoyed the lens that Will showed us that type of story through, I want to experience that type of treatment on something else.” But we’ll see.
ShockYa: You worked at Panavision for a number of years, but also as a cinematographer and second unit director, among other jobs — what did you learn from bad directors you observed, if anything?
Will Eubank: Oh God, there’s probably a lot of things. I felt like I was always taking things and locking them away, and maybe it wasn’t always necessarily the bad directors, but the good moments I saw where people executed good decisions. You know what — this is a weird thing, but it was when I was working on “Love,” I just didn’t even really know how to make a movie, and yet I was doing it. Obviously I’d shot other people’s films, where you’re pointing the camera and trying to make the image pretty, but you’re not really always engaged in anything. And I remember feeling when I was making my first film that I was making things and building something I wanted to watch. I just knew that I wanted to watch it, and that… sometimes I would do a take and another take, and then we’d do a magical take where I would feel bad for [the character]. It was weird — I was watching my own movie before it was put together, you know? And moment by moment, I was loving it, and at the end of the day you go to sleep so happy because you’ve gathered all these little treasures. Whether it was a shot or a character moment that was a treasure, I remember feeling that if I went to sleep feeling that 90 percent of the day was awesome, that was a brand new feeling for me. And in the end it just came out better than anything I’d ever worked on, and so I just knew that that was what the key was — to love what you’re making and love the journey that you’re going on. It doesn’t seem like it should be that simple, but it is really is.
ShockYa: What was the experience of taking this film to the Sundance Film Festival like?
Will Eubank: To me that was a big full circle — it was very legitimizing, I guess is the best way to describe it. It was sort of like earning a merit badge, because I’d been so many times for Panavision. Early on, back when the industry was turning digital they would send me there with digital cameras to talk about them, in the Digital Center, and I would sit there across the street from the Egyptian Theatre — there’s a tunnel that goes under the street, actually, from the Egyptian Theatre to where I was, at the mall across the way — and I remember all day I would try to hustle extra tickets from all the people I talked to, just to try to see movies. I used to dream of one day getting to go (with a film I directed), and my granddad lived in Salt Lake at the time. He was a cinematographer in the Navy, and I used to always go down and take him to dinner on Panavision’s dime. (laughs) And he’d say, “Someday you’re going to have a film there.” So I finally got one there. Unfortunately my granddad passed away a couple years before, so he never got to see it. But for me it was just a big point in my life, to be able to go and actually be a filmmaker there.
NOTE: “The Signal” opens in theaters on June 13, from Focus Features. For an interview with Beau Knapp, click here: http://www.shockya.com/news/2014/06/04/exclusive-beau-knapp-talks-the-signal/. Also, check back later this week for more interviews with cast and crew, plus a review of the film.
Written by: Brent Simon