Interview: Director William Eubank Talks ‘The Signal’, Casting Via Skype and Working with Laurence Fishburne

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The Signal is a really fun and engaging new sci-fi film that about three MIT students on a road trip across the Southwest part of the United States. Along the way, they’ve been trying to track a computer genius who’s hacked into MIT. They find his IP address, located in a remote area of New Mexico, and decide to follow his trail.  All hell breaks loose and the gang is caught and captured. When Nic (the teriffic Brenton Thwaites), finally realizes what is happening, he tries to find his friends and escape the nightmare.

Director and co-writer William Eubank crafts a story that is almost like the origin story of a super-hero and it has an ending you won’t see coming. Starring Thwaites, Beau Knapp, Olivia Cooke and Laurence Fishburne, the film has twists and turns and plenty of what-the-heck moments that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.

I got a chance to talk with Eubank recently about the film, working with Laurence Fishburne, casting his leads via Skype and his casting director Mary Vernieu.

The Signal is in theaters now!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.

Doing the research for this last night, I saw you’d mentioned that you wanted to write a kind of Twilight Zone-esque story? And then as soon as I read that I was like, “Oh, ok. Yeah.”

William Eubank: [laughs] Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sort of a modern Twilight Zone I guess you could you could say. Born of indie films and kinda comes out comic book style on the other end perhaps.

My friend David Frigerio and my little brother Carlyle [Eubank], we all wrote this together and we’re all fans of that stuff. So this was a case of having sort of an ending and knowing where we wanted to go and then working backwards from there to unravel it. But, yeah, big fan of Twilight Zone.

And before the actual ending, it kind of struck me that this could be the origin story of a superhero.

William Eubank: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I wanted people to even… that’s… yeah. I’m glad you felt that way. I was… that’s the type of thing I hope people are thinking about on a drive home going, “Is this something bigger? Is this sort of a very indie origin story?” I think that’s fun. I feel like an origin story almost should be indie in a weird way. You know? If it’s a real, honest one.

How did you guys come up with the story? You said you had the ending?

William Eubank: Yeah. Had the ending and had these characters, this trio, and really sort of kind of… there’s a weird thing, I read Stephen King every now and then and I read one of his books on writing and he talks about how characters sometimes just start writing themselves in his own books and I was like, “That’s impossible.” And yet somehow that started to happen in this script where we knew their motivation so well that you almost couldn’t choose anything other than what these characters would choose.

And that was really weird. It felt like it was the first time I had experienced what Stephen King was talking about where a character starts sort of choosing their own steps, which I found really interesting.

I think Laurence Fishburne is freaking great. How did he come to the part?

William Eubank: He read it I guess and he called me, he said, “Man, I really picked up your script and I couldn’t stop reading it, which let me know that this is a good film. I wanna do it.” I was like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.” So that was just really darn exciting.

I’d never met him so I didn’t know exactly what this entailed and we were gonna have him for quite a while for the movie and he ended up being just a real lion hearted person. Just a really strong, great dude who worked so incredibly hard and brings so much presence to everything that he’s saying or doing, every little eye twinkle or twitch is pretty… he knows what he’s doing. It’s rare to see something…

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Thought it out before hand?

William Eubank: Yeah. He has this really sort of clever control of everything that I found so… yeah. I know what you say, it’s almost mesmerizing to watch it. You have the earphones on, you’re standing at the director’s monitor, it’s a strange experience. But really stoked we got him and that he kinda legitimized our film in that way. Pretty cool.

Is he walking around in that mode of being in character? Or does he kind of pop in and out?

William Eubank: No. He does pop in and out. He’s so powerful in his presence that it’s almost like there is always the Laurence Fishburne presence, which is a real stocky, powerful looking guy. And that inherently works its way into his character, Damon. Yeah. He’s a really good dude. But he goes in and out of character.

The very first day, are you like, “Oh, shit. I’m about to direct Laurence Fishburne.”

William Eubank: Oh, yeah. Yeah, but you don’t actually even think you’re going to direct him. He’s such a great actor that… and this was true to all the kids. Mary Vernieu and Venus [Kanani], who cast the film, terrific folks. They put really talented people in front of me.

And at the end of the day they were all really great human beings. They were all really good people I could see being friends like that. You know?

And talent is one thing and how effective they are, but at the end of the day you could really just let them get into their characters because this is kind of who they are inevitably. They really are sort of these kids. I mean, granted Olivia is from Manchester and Brenton is from Australia, so there was an accent thing that they had to overcome. Not overcome, they did a great job. But… but I feel like as a director and with Laurence, you’re really, on an indie film like this, you’re shooting so out of order. The first order of business is just getting the cast set up.

Second order of business is not managing performances because they’re all so talented. It’s really just making sure everyone knows where they are in the film at any given point. And managing sort of the whole forest. Because it’s easy to get confused what scene you’re coming from and what scene you’re going to, especially when they’re all occurring in crazy hallways and white rooms. It can get confusing real quick. And you might have a great performance, but maybe that performance doesn’t seem right leading into the next one, which you’re not shooting next anyway. You’re gonna shoot it a couple of days later. So as a director your primary job is managing where you’re going and where you’re coming from.

And then lastly, the last thing you manage is the performance. So I really like kind of tried to take a page from Woody Allen’s book where it’s not like you’re not really directing the actors. You’re letting the actors act and you’re really just managing pacing and so forth, the overall structure. To me, that… if you cast it right, it’s really empowering.

How did you go about casting the younger actors?

William Eubank: You know, the… yeah. Just Mary Vernieu and Venus, they put these kids in front of me. I, unfortunately, was in New Mexico a lot so I had to do it through Skype occasionally. It wasn’t such a big deal.

Do you get the same feel on Skype as opposed to being in person?

William Eubank: Yeah, it doesn’t bother me. You’re seeing them, you’re feeling it. You know? It’s still like… you’re gonna watch it on a screen anyway. So you put your earphones on, you’re talking to them, you’re engaged, and as long as you’re not being disturbed you’re pretty much there. And so it works. I didn’t find that so bad. I would usually try to talk to them again later and just kinda get a sense of who they are.

Make sure they’re not jackasses.

William Eubank: Yeah, what they’re about. It wasn’t so bad. I thought that was gonna be tricky, but it really wasn’t.

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I don’t know how many people you talked to for each role. But when you talked to the final 3, was it pretty spot on? You were like, “Oh, this is the guy,” or, “This is the girl.”

William Eubank: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know kinda at a certain point, especially after you’ve connected with them. You’re like, “Oh, this person is this way, this person is this way.” You can tell who you think is gonna be trouble and not be worth something or who’s gonna lend you more of themself.

And in this film, I knew we really had to go the extra mile in the sense that Brenton and Olivia, for instance, let me take them on a quick road trip at the end of the movie for a few days and I drove them from Cleveland to St. Louis and we were shooting some of those shots on the fairgrounds and just very cinema verite stuff. And some actors would not have been cool with that. They would’ve been like, “Oh, I don’t wanna shoot on the weekends,” or, “I don’t wanna do that.” And these kids just were all kinda coming up and trying to make our way and they were stoked and very gracious about all of that. So I got really lucky with them.

The scenes where they were in that white room, just Laurence Fishburne and Brenton in the room, I’ve seen scenes like that in a million other TV shows and films and they’re just kind of routine. Man, you had the tension, you had everything in that. Did that take a lot of rehearsal for actors and you figuring out what camera angles?

William Eubank: It’s a careful collaboration between good camera angles and the camera being at kind of the right distances away sort of intensity and stakes. I think it’s pretty easy to be 4, 5 feet away and just kinda feel like suddenly you’re in a TV show and then at a certain point you get close enough or use a certain lens, it adds a little bit of that special sauce on top and you just feel like…
Even the use of silence you had too.

William Eubank: Yeah, yeah. You know, that’s… it’s a 2 part process. It’s how you shoot it. 3 part. How it’s delivered with their acting, how you shoot it, and then how you’re gonna edit it later to kinda create that power and the delivery and the moments.

And Brian Berdan who cut it, he was the editor on Natural Born Killers and came up through David Lynch, so his first job was an assistant on Blue Velvet. Did a lot of Twin Peaks. He just… every time I watched what he cuts, I can tell people, “Oh, I’m a good shooter. I have a good eye.” And I feel like I do. I can safely, confidently say that. But I’m not a great editor. I just don’t know all those tricks. I’m always in awe of how Brian puts all that together in terms of the pacing and whatnot.

But, yeah, when you’re shooting it, they’re both there. I shoot always both cameras on one person at a time. And you would think you would do cross cover to kind of speed things up and usually that is good. It’s just hard to shoot good looking coverage when the cameras can get in the way of each other. And it’s also nice to just focus on one performance at a time. I think that that’s a big… that’s really valuable. And when you do get a good performance, you have it from 2 different angles so you can really utilize it. You know?

So we did a lot of that, but it was tough. It’s a white room and it’s just dialogue, so the AD doesn’t wanna make that any easier on me so he’s like, “Alright, we’re gonna shoot 10 pages today.” You know? Which gets really brutal. It’s like somebody asked me the other day, “Oh, was it easier when you actually get to relax and go to the white room and do that kind of stuff?” I’m like, “No.”

10 pages?

William Eubank: Yeah, because this is a white room and they’re just sitting across the table, so suddenly the page count on that day has just gone through the roof. You know?Are you guys sticklers where they have to have every single word correct?

William Eubank: No, I’m not. No. I just want it to feel right. And you can tell when it feels right. So definitely not. The words do not need to be right on. I want it to feel right. And you can tell when you’re sitting there whether it feels right or not. You can kinda watch other people. There’s so many people watching you can kinda see when people are also gathered around the video monitor when they’re reacting.

Filmmaking is a strange, strange job, man. Very immersive on a lot of different levels. Lot of fun.

Did you guys rehearse at all?

William Eubank: Not a ton of rehearsals. They would rehearse right before they would shoot just to make sure they kinda had the lines so that they were right there, but didn’t get too much time. Nick and Beau were in the same hotel, so they were able to get together and rehearse on their own occasionally. Same with Olivia and Brenton for a couple of their scenes. They would go off and kind of rehearse them or dramatic stuff together. You don’t get too much time to sit together and do a table read or something like that on a movie like this. So it’s pretty crazy how it all turned out.

As a filmmaker, how do you find a casting director?

William Eubank: You know, Brian [Kavanaugh-Jones], the main producer who kind of championed the film in the first place, brought her in. He just said, “Hey, she’s great,” and I looked her up and she’d done all of Darren Aronofsky’s stuff. I had kind of a meeting with them and they liked the script and they said, “We’ll do it.”

Kinda that easy?

William Eubank: Yeah. I mean, yeah. It’s a number of things happening at once. It’s like they looked at my last film probably and they said, “Oh, this guy could be somebody maybe and the script looks good. And yeah, we’ll cast it.” Because they put a lot of time and effort into that. And there’s a lot, lot going on.

I mean, it’s a hard job. It’s really hard. But the cool thing is this, you hit a desert of performances sometimes where you’re like, “God, is this right? Do I like that one more? Is this right?” It’s almost like when you go to get your eyes tested and you’re like, “Was that sharper or was this sharper?” It’s really tricky back and forth. But the great thing is, finally that one hits and you’re like, “Woah, that was crazy,” and you re-watch it again and you’re just blown away and you’re like, “Woah, that’s right.” You know? So it’s interesting how that can work out. You know when the flag pops up you’re like, “Oh, there it is. There’s the lightbulb.”

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