This directing trio tells us how they brought the year's most iconic cult hit to the big screen
"We actually had to put a disclaimer on the film that says: 'May cause bowel movements. You will pee and poop.' All I can say is, if you are prone to loose bowels, you may want to stay away from this movie." - Jacob Gentry on The Signal
The Signal Interview Transmission III: Bringing Total Chaos to the Art House
How many directors does it take to helm the most original horror film seen in a decade? Three. The combined forces of Dave Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush have come together to create a true cult classic with The Signal. The film sees the town of Terminus being terrorized by a foreign signal that is transmitted via every cell phone, television, and radio transmitter. This alien frequency causes mass hysteria amongst the populace, infected the townsfolk at large with "the crazy".
What these three directors have created is a genuine fright classic. It is going to become a true horror staple in the forth-coming years. A decade from know, it will be as widely regarded as Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Signal is made of three chapters, each directed by one of the film's creators. These three separate stories work as one cohesive narrative beast, telling a story that is as unique as it is horrifying.
"Transmission One: Crazy in Love" sets up the story by introducing us to the film's two lovers as they are greeted with "the crazy" on New Year's Eve. It was written and directed by Dave Bruckner. "Transmission Two: The Jealousy Monster" introduces some genuine comedic elements amongst its chaotic wreckage, giving us insight into a spurned husband that must deal with his own loss of sanity. It was written and directed by Jacob Gentry. "Transmission Three: Escape from Terminus" concludes this trilogy of personal stories by seeing our heroes to safety. It was written and directed by Dan Bush.
To celebrate the release of this truly beefy blood-red piece of cinema, we sat down for a chat with Bruckner, Bush, and Gentry. Here is our conversation:
This first question isn't really meant to be funny, and I'm not trying to be a dick. But when I heard you guys in the other room talking about this film's love triangle, thoughts of Popeye came flooding into my head.
Jacob Gentry: A.J. is Brutus!
Dan Bush: Ah, that is amazing.
Jacob Gentry: I think a lot of that stuff is subconscious. Popeye is a fantastic movie. Definitely underrated. It is a Robert Altman classic. Maybe. You know, Paul Thomas Anderson brought back that music with "Punch Drunk Love". Remember, "He needs me, he needs me, he needs me." I can think of Olive Oly singing about A.J. "He's large and he's got money."
There's also that song, "I'm mean, know what I mean?" That totally fits the character of Lewis. I didn't know if that connection ever came up on set while you were making this?
Jacob Gentry: We cut all of the musical numbers.
Dave Bruckner: The subconscious does some very strange things.
Dan Bush: And Justin does look like Popeye, doesn't he? He's got that chimney sweep/sailor look. He even has a sailor's coat on (laughs).
Jacob Gentry: We always said that he looks like a chimney sweep. We thought Ben was a character from Mary Poppins.
Dan Bush: We should have had him eat some spinach at the end. Then he wins.
I know this was made before the American "The Office" came out, but the love triangle here also reminds me a little bit of the one on that show. The thing they all have in common is the beard. Do you think the beard is important for the villain of the love triangle to have?
Jacob Gentry: A.J. doesn't want anybody to know this. But he has a horribly disfigured chin. He has to have a beard to cover it. He tries to play that off like it was a character choice. But it's funny that all of his character choices involve a beard. I don't know.
A.J. is kind of sensitive. Isn't he going to get upset when he reads that in print?
Dan Bush: Yes, but we are doing him a favor in the end.
Dave Bruckner: He really needs to learn how to deal with this stuff.
Jacob Gentry: We are letting his demons out of the closet.
Now, my own interpretation of The Signal after I watched it last night, was that those who were immune, or somewhat immune to the transmissions, were still holding onto some semblance of the emotions associated with love. Is that a correct assumption?
Dan Bush: I don't know if anyone is immune to The Signal. That is an interesting connection. I think our one character, Ben, is pretty disposed to see past The Signal, because he already mistrusts most of the trappings of the media and our society. He is already an outsider of sorts. He is above it all. There is that closed circuit signal that he has a direct correlation too. The way he receives the signal is in contrast to how the others perceive it.
Jacob Gentry: Well, it is that mixed CD that gets them through. Their desire for each other is more powerful than anything that is trying to get at them. I don't think we are trying to say, "Love conquers all." But I do think there is something in the sincerity of their relationship that will keep them together in the end.
Dave Bruckner: I will also throw this out there. The film does contain a slavery/freedom motif. That is clearly between Lewis and Ben.
Jacob Gentry: In trying to find Mya's character, one of the things we played with was that this signal amplifies your fears and desires. So we had to start from who she is. We had to look at the afraid, passive personality that she has. That's what causes her to make certain choices in her life. We almost wanted to create the argument that The Signal is a good thing for her. It sets her free in a way. I always thought The Signal worked in this way: You look at it for a minute and it may affect you in a certain way. But if you stared at it for twenty minutes or someone duct tapped you to a chair, you would become completely overwhelmed by whatever it was pecking at in your brain. You would kind of go off the deep end. I think she gets hit a little bit. That sets her free. It sets her off on this journey, and she has to make a decision. She blindly walks to Terminal 13, and follows this hypothetical idea that Ben threw down. And hopefully she will find him. Hopefully a miracle is in the works. And that she actually makes it there.
Working from three different perspectives, how did you guys get this into such a cohesive form? Because it completely works as one straight narrative through line.
Dan Bush: Number one? We all loved our actors. We sometimes forget to talk about them. But it was the actors that were able to bring continuity to all three visions. As far ranging as the visions were.
Dave Bruckner: They kept the train on the track. The drive between the characters, and having to come and go between these drastically different tonal shifts. A lot of it also had to do with the music. That covered a lot of the blemishes.
Jacob Gentry: We also photographed each other's transmissions. There is an aesthetic to the look of it. It goes in different directions, of course. Each director has his own aesthetic. But it all has one look.
Dave Bruckner: It was about the device of perspective. We had three different writer/directors, so with that came three very different perspectives. The way the film is set up really allowed that to happen.
With the actual transmission itself, did you ever test out how long someone could sit there and watch it before getting up and leaving the theater?
Jacob Gentry: Oh, yeah. Eight minutes and twenty-three seconds. The Signal is real. This guy name Mike McReynolds, a designer we worked with, put it together. He was testing certain frequency modulations. There are things in there that will actually agitate you. We tried to get you as close to pee and pooing your pants without actually having you do that. That is what we were trying to do in creating this thing. The first night we watched it, all of the lights were out. We watched it for about ten minutes, and then we went outside and had this very bizarre conversation.
Dave Bruckner: It brought us to a very scary place. Here we were, making this movie, and suddenly we are wondering, "Is it possible to actually create a frequency to agitate someone? To the point of altering their behavior?"
Jacob Gentry: Yes. It is.
Dan Bush: We looked at the science of E.L.F.s and different frequencies. We looked at the non-lethal weaponry that is being created out there.
Jacob Gentry: We also used the Brown Note in the frequency of the sound that is used in the movie. Do you know what the Brown Note is?
Jacob Gentry: It is the sonic equivalent of Olestra. It gives you a loose stool. This is true. We actually had to put a disclaimer on the film that says: "May cause bowel movements. You will pee and poop". All I can say is, if you are prone to loose bowels, you may want to stay away from this movie.
Dave Bruckner: It will make you go. That is no lie.
There were two eighty year old people sitting behind me last night.
Jacob Gentry: Well, hopefully they had their Depends on.
Midway through the movie, the lady was kicking the back of my seat. She seemed to be getting quite agitated. Now I know why.
Jacob Gentry: That is too awesome.
Have you guys ever heard about the sonic testing they do past Burbank? These sound waves come up through the ground late at night. It makes the sidewalk vibrate.
Dan Bush: What? Really? That is crazy. But I believe it. I know there are different people testing stuff. The French are doing a whole lot of testing. The are using these E.L.F.s. That stands for Extremely Low Frequencies. They cause nausea. When the guys in the movie are talking about calcite-ions popping out of your brain, that is all very real stuff. That is an actual thing.
Dave Bruckner: That's not just the characters rambling.
Jacob Gentry: I am glad you said Extremely Low Frequencies out loud. Cause at first it sounded like you were talking about Elfs. You just can't say that out loud. I was worried about that.
Dan Bush: The U.S. military just built a beam that sits on top of a truck. It shoots a heat wave at you. You have to get out of the way. Or it will make you "uncomfortable". It is like a microwave that is concentrated. It essentially just gives you a bad feeling. It is just a wave.
Now, I want to ask you about "the crazy". Driving around Los Angeles, it looks like everybody has "the crazy". People just lose their shit in their cars. Have you guys experienced this type of stranger rage since you've been out here. And was that type of "road rage" ever reflected back into your film?
Jacob Gentry: See, they think they are right. And you think you are right. That's where our film lives. That is the world our movie takes place in. These people think that these acts of madness and violence are justified. With this violence that they are committing, they think they are in the right. That they are making a rational decision, and that these other people are crazy. It couldn't possibly be "me" that is crazy. That's what's so scary about this movie. It's about: "What if I'm the crazy one?" People then start asking their own questions about their insanity.
Dave Bruckner: It's a rational decent. It is a rational process. They aren't zombies.
Did you ever take this behavior directly from some of the things you've seen around you?
Dan Bush: Jacob, weren't you saying that you were in a Starbucks one time, and everyone got pissed because you didn't know the name of the drink?
Jacob Gentry: Yeah. That's the thing about society. I don't go into Starbucks a lot.
Dave Bruckner: And they all attacked you.
Jacob Gentry: Everyone that goes there has their own routine. They just need to say the first three letters of whatever it is they want. They know exactly how they want it with the milk and the cup on the side, this thing, that thing, and the foam. I said to the cashier, "Um...What is a Macchiato?" And everyone standing behind me got so mad. One guy yells, "Come on!" I'm still standing there, "Vinte? What is that? Why can't you just say small, medium, and large." I didn't understand what anything was. And they were all getting mad at me. From my perspective, they were all insane. But to them, they were justified in their madness. They were simply saying, "Com on, buddy. Get it together." One of the taglines of the film is "Do you have the crazy?" And it is about insanity. But we didn't want to treat any of our core characters like they were crazy. That would have been dismissive. Your question about where it came from is more about where it got to. We just wanted to stay inside their shoes. Maybe, given the circumstances elsewhere in the world as a result of this signal, they are right in getting behind what they are doing. They have to think, "Is this a rational decision that I am making." And take that course of action to a point of violence. Suddenly, they realize that they are part of the problem. If we can follow through their decision making process, then it all makes sense.
Did you guys ever have a problem with making the Lewis character not so likable? Because he is set up as the villain, yet he is very sympathetic.
Jacob Gentry: The second transmission is really told from his perspective. We get inside his head and see how he is rationalizing the things he is doing. We see what he is seeing, and how the signal is affecting him. We see that he is hallucinating, or seeing things that may or may not be there. We get to see him rationalize these violent acts. Plus we start the movie out showing you that he is a cuckold. He is being cheated on. That in and of itself, depending on who you are in the audience, is going to give you a different take on Lewis, and how you personally feel about him. Some people feel that he is irreparably evil. Some people feel that he is very empathetic or unjusted. Is Unjusted a word? I think I just made a new word up.
Dan Bush: I think it is very sad when he...Ah, I don't want to give a spoiler away. But, I think he is sad. His character is sad.
Jacob Gentry: What Dave is basically saying is that we have to shoot Old Yeller at the end of the movie. The dog has to die. The guy must get shot.
But he could come back, right? There is no rule saying that Lewis is out for the count.
Dave Bruckner: I will tell you about the sequel. Lewis fuses with The Signal and he takes over Terminus.
Dan Bush: He becomes a ghost. In the sequel, Lewis takes over Manhattan.
I overheard you guys talking about the fact that you have set Terminus up to be this J.R.R. Tolkien like world. And that you guys are coming back to it at some point.
Dan Bush: Yes. We are trying to figure out by what degree we will be returning. Is it "The Twilight Zone"? Or, to what degree is it Gotham City? I don't know. We are discovering this world as we go. As well as the mythology. We are just starting to crack into it ourselves. I say that because we are telling the story from the perspective of these characters. We almost don't know any more than they do. Does that make sense? There are a hundred thousand stories to tell in the city of Terminus. This is something that is interesting enough that we would love to go back there and elaborate on some of those stories. And we want to start talking about what this signal looks like. We want to see what Terminus looks like two weeks after it has been hit by The Signal. We could just keep telling these stories. Yes. There will be more transmissions.
I thought the press notes that came out with this film were really interesting, because you guys actually wrote them. They weren't written by some intern in an office somewhere that doesn't have a connection to the film in any way. Each little essay that you guys wrote about the movie was very interesting. Do you guys have any plans to put out a joint book about the making of the film?
Dan Bush: I don't know. That would be cool. There has been an ongoing documentary about this whole process. It is being made by a friend of ours. He has interviewed us. There is a history here. Dave and Jacob have known each other for years. I met them half a decade ago. We have all been making movies in Atlanta for decades. So, I don't know. There are a ton of stories there.
Are you guys at all surprised by the way this film is being perceived right now? It hasn't even been released, and it has taken on this life of its own. Everybody that has seen it is in love with it. It is iconic in the same way as "Evil Dead".
Jacob Gentry: Wow. That is a lot to live up to.
The younger kids that see this today are going to hold it in a special place. Are you prepared to be talking about this film for the next ten years?
Dan Bush: I would love to be talking about this film for the next ten years. But, God, I hope I make some other movies, too.
Jacob Gentry: I'm not skeptical about that at all. When we are talking about sequels and those types of things, a lot of that has to be rooted in what we feel the story is, and how the audience perceives it. If there were another movie, it wouldn't be because we had to make a buck on it. Nothing like that. Time is the real sign of quality in a film. You know? The best films are the ones we still love. There are films that make a ton of money on their opening weekend. They seemed to be the most popular movie in the world on that opening weekend. But five or ten years later, they are not talked about as much as the film that came in fifth or sixth as far as grosses for the weekend are concerned. It is these sorts of film, the ones that resonate, that will be around for a long time. If you are right, and we did create something like that, it would be such an amazing thing to be a part of. That would be better than doing something just one-off.
Dan Bush: Can you imagine? In ten years, two twenty-eight year olds arguing about The Signal? That would be awesome.
Jacob Gentry: God, if we had that kind of impact...
I can already feel that from other people, and then having seen the film myself...
Dave Bruckner: We are a little bit out of the loop. So, that is great to hear.
Well, going back to this film's tenth anniversary. Do you think it will even be a possibility with 2012 coming up?
Dan Bush: Ah, because of the Mayan Calendar and the End of the World?
Dave Bruckner: One of the fun things about working on The Signal is that we didn't have to make a whole feature film. Each one of us had a lot of help. A lot of people put this thing together, so we could divide up a lot of the responsibilities. Instead of putting out a tenth anniversary disc with a lot of material on it, I would rather go and create three whole new transmissions. And take it in a new direction. I want to rebuild the idea. We have so many ideas, and this is so expansive. There are so many places in this world that we could go to. These are really interesting places, and the foundation for that is here, in this first movie. There are seeds in this first movie that can grow and go a long way. I would like to carry a lot of those things out. If the film has any success, I think we will have that opportunity.
Jacob Gentry: I think we made it a point to ourselves to start talking about where this story can go, and how we can expand this world, even before the film has a chance to come out. That way, we are not swayed by anything anyone has to say about it. Then we can just make that world as expansive, and go in as many different directions as Dave is talking about.
Dave Bruckner: And who is to say that our film doesn't take place on New Year's Eve, 2012?
It could. I understand how important a piece of art is to an artist. Is the merchandising something you don't want to see because it might impose upon the integrity of the art itself? Or are you welcome to the idea of action figures and T-shirts in Hot Topic?
Jacob Gentry: That would be great.
Dan Bush: That would be cool.
Dave Bruckner: I am not against that type of merchandising at all. I think that is neat.
Dan Bush: I would love to play The Signal video game. I think you should be able to design your own avatar in the world of The Signal, and wander around, finding a way to accomplish your goal. And it is a lucky day if you run into Hedgeclipper Steven.
Jacob Gentry: And we will all be playing it while we are wearing The Signal Pjs.
Dave Bruckner: If that were the case, I would have my own Avatar, and I would be trying to build an army in the Terminus airport. I think this could take on its own mythology. I think there will at least be some graphic novels. The worst thing about a movie is that it is over. You have to find another way to draw off that experience. Sometimes you want to find a different way to immerge yourself into that world. I think a video game and some action figures would be a pretty neat way to do that.
The Signal opens this February 22nd, 2008.