We speak with the Jealousy Monster about this horrific cult classic in the making
The Signal Interview Transmission I: The Jealousy Monster Speaks
The Signal is another cultural milestone. Some movies are good. Some are great. And then there are those special stretches of celluloid that pull you out of your seat and into the screen with them. They transcend the art form and become almost like an out-of-body experience. The Signal may not crack the box office when it hits, but mark my words; this movie is going to be around for a very long time. The eight year olds that see it now are going to worship it and love it as much as we worship and love Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. The Signal will be held in the highest of regards. It is that rare breed of horror film that will win a strong and loyal fan base throughout the coming years. It is in the upper echelon of cult cinema, and is set to stand beside recent landmarks such as Donnie Darko, The Big Lebowski, and Napoleon Dynamite. It is only a matter of time before the local Hot Topic becomes inundated with The Signal merchandise. Which I can't wait for. The action figures are going to be pretty darn neat.
The film was directed by a trio of new comers. David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry each created one of the three "transmissions" we see sewn together throughout the narrative of the piece. Told from the three different perspectives of its main leads, the plot revolves around a mysterious transmission that invades every cell phone, radio and TV. This pulsating frequency soon turns the populace into a group of crazy killers. The Signal is a perfecting look at Stranger Rage in glorious red hues.
At the heart of the film is a stinging love triangle between an unfaithful wife, her lover, and her loyal husband. When the Transmission interrupts their lives, the three are thrust into a horrible nightmare of bloodlust that might just herald the apocalypse. I recently met up with the folks behind this fine piece of horror cinema. I first talked with actor A.J. Bowen who plays the bearded Lewis; exterminator and devoted husband. While trying to fend off the brain-melting powers of The Signal, he discovers that his wife is having a torrid love affair. It was an honor to sit with A.J. and discuss this truly original masterpiece and cult classic in the waiting with him. Here is our conversation:
There seems to be some controversy over your beard. Is this your trademark look?
A.J. Bowen: Oh, no. Not at all. I don't always have one. Usually it is just for work. I had read that someone wasn't pleased with my lumberjack qualities. Fuck that guy. When I got out to Los Angeles, I had a beard. When I started doing auditions, I noticed that everyone was trying to look like a soap opera actor. So, having a beard led people to mistaking me for a serious actor. I haven't had any problems getting work out here as long as I have had the beard. I actually have it grown out again for a role I have coming up. So, I don't know. I guess there are a lot of people that feel guilt about not being able to grow a beard, even though they want to.
Maybe. I thought it was weird that people were picking on your beard. I overheard the directors in the other room talking about this film's love triangle. An image of you popped into my head. And then, Popeye and Olive Oly popped up next to you. You do have some very Bluto-like qualities. Did you guys ever discuss that on set?
A.J. Bowen: That would have been great. Maybe we should start telling people that's what it was. That's what we based it on. At that point, I had been growing the beard out for quite a long time. I was told not to shave it. I also had ratty long hair. Looking at the script, and thinking about this guy, I pictured Lewis as this blue-collar libertarian. My dad has a beard. I thought, "Fuck it! I'll have a beard for this one, too." And now, I let all of my acting come through the beard. I don't do any real acting.
I didn't mean to make this all about your beard. That certainly wasn't my intention when I sat down here. The thing I really wanted to discuss with you is: Your character is so likeable.
A.J. Bowen: Thank you.
He is supposed to be the villain, but there is a real sympathy for him. Was it a struggle to make him not so likable?
A.J. Bowen: The whole purpose, from my end, was to make him as sympathetic as I could. I thought it was a tough sell, because he was the counterpoint to the hero. Lewis is a man of action, but all of the actions he preformed turned out to be violent acts. I wanted to make it impossible for people to condemn him. I don't view Lewis as a villain. He is more of an anti-hero. He is a jilted husband that would do anything for his wife. He loves his wife more than anything else in the film. He proves, throughout the course of the film, that he is doing things to protect her. He just wants to keep her safe. I view it as a competitive sport. I've known Justin, the guy that played Ben, for a long time. I made it my mission to have people hate him, and not Lewis. That's what I wanted to do.
You certainly achieved that. It is a very interesting character, because the viewer has to struggle with this guy that is sympathetic, yet brutal in his actions. Your character really comes together in that second act, and you sell his likeability through the humor of that piece. Was it ever difficult dealing with the tonal differences presented to you by the three different directors?
A.J. Bowen: No, not at all. We rehearsed a lot before we did it. Also, if I am an actor doing a movie, I only get to do one spot. There is not a lot of development, typically. You are not given a lot to work with. So, I wasn't even really aware of how abrupt the tonal shifts would be. Not until the finished product was out there and I saw some people responding to that. For me, it wasn't so much a tonal shift as it was getting this rare opportunity to get around this guy that has more than one facet to his character. He is this multi-dimensional, fully fleshed out human being. They wrote it for me to do. So, that was easy. Everyone gets pissed off. Everyone feels jealous. Everyone feels cheated. And everyone feels loyalty to something. Having those different tones probably made it look like the actors created the shift. But it is a credit to the script and the directors. That was the fun part. I got to do everything I wanted with this character. I got to play with it. It was fun.
Did you ever see the directors argue over the direction your character was taking from one act to the next?
A.J. Bowen: Never. They were always pretty much on the same page. At least in front of us. I have no idea what they were doing behind closed doors. But what they projected to us was love and family. It was pretty cool. I think each director had a different character to focus on in his head. Dave had Mya. Dan had Ben. And Jacob had Lewis. Originally, the transmissions were acts. Act one was Mya. Act two was Lewis. And act three was Ben. They knew when they were receiving focus. And the film is so much about perspective. Again, we were given the freedom to look at things differently. Where one thing might look like something to a character, it might look like something else to those around him. The closest thing to conflict, and it took me a year to find something that we struggled over, was that it was tricky for us as actors. Because we were responsible for the arc. For all three acts as a total piece. And the directors were responsible for one. Sometimes, it was a little tricky to give them what they needed for their transmission if it went against the overall picture. I can't think of anything specific. I just remember a couple of moments where I said, "I don't really think that Lewis would do that right then. I don't think this is where his head is." And they would say, "Well, I am the director. So, that is where Lewis' head is at." I'd have to say, "Fuck it. You are the director. We'll do it that way."
My interpretation of the signal is that everyone who is immune to it is holding on to some semblance of the emotions associated with love. Do you think Lewis' jealousy is what kept him from turning completely crazy?
A.J. Bowen: I think so. I don't know. We had so many conversations about it. It was specific with Lewis' character. The way I looked at him was: This guy loves exactly one thing in life. And that is his wife. He will do anything to try and show his love, and protect her. In life, people will do all types of things in the name of justice, truth, or love. Even peace. And they will commit really evil acts. But there has to be a moment of accountability. What if someone was doing all of these horrible things for the common good? What if the means justified the end? If you reach a point where you recognize that can no longer be the case, you fail in your journey. There is a point where Lewis realizes, "Wow! I just beat this girl's head in. I beat this guy to death. I beat this door down. I choked this guy." He thinks he is being a protector, but the moment that Lewis becomes aware of all the things he's been doing, he feels he has been duped. He can no longer continue with the way that things are going. Because they ruined him.
Were you at all prepared for the response that this film has received, especially since it hasn't even had an official release yet? And are you prepared to have to talk about this film for the next ten years? Because this is certainly a classic in the waiting.
A.J. Bowen: I hope it is a classic. I hope that's what is happening. That's a humbling blessing if that's the case. I am a really big fan of horror films. Probably the biggest horror fan of all the guys that worked on this. I have been in crappy movies before. I can honestly say that with this one, if people like it or don't like it, I'm okay with that. I can accept that, because this is the movie all of us set out to make together. For me, it is already successful in the fact that I like the movie. That being the case, I am fully prepared to never again work on something that makes me as happy as this does. I have no problem talking about it for the next ten years. As long as people want to hear about it. They are probably already bored with it.
You can tell, already, that this is a big thing. As such, a tenth anniversary is something that every film wishes to celebrate. But as this film deals with the apocalypse and the end of the world, do you think it will even make it to its tenth anniversary?
A.J. Bowen: Do you mean: Am I paranoid about it sitting dusty on a shelf somewhere unwatched?
No! You can already see that is not the case. I'm talking about 2012.
A.J. Bowen: Ah, you mean the world coming to an end. I am a cynic. I think people are like cockroaches. It will be really tough to kill us. I think we will be around. I'm not really worried about that. I'm hopeful as well. I know I just contradicted myself saying I was a cynic, and that I am hopeful. But I think the "End of the World" is cyclical. I think every few years there is a dooms day scenario. It hasn't happened yet. I can tell you, if it happens in Los Angels, I am out. I will get in my car and drive away. I will hitch my wagon east. I think we will be around in ten years. I hope so. That will totally suck, but I wont be here to know about it.
After Y2K, its 2012 that everyone is worried about.
A.J. Bowen: Did Nostradamus say that the world was coming to an end in 2012?
Everyone has said it. The Mayans. Yellowstone National Park is supposed to erupt. The Sun is giving out. Our solar system is headed towards a black hole. The magnetic poles are flipping.
A.J. Bowen: This is the first time I have heard about this. So now I am worried. If Nostradamus said it was happening, I'm worried. Thanks, now I am officially concerned.
This is a goofy question, I know. But every classic horror movie has gotten its own set of action figures. It is inevitable that this one will get them too somewhere down the road. What would you like to see happen with the Lewis figure?
A.J. Bowen: I want him to have a beard. A bushy, functional beard like the old G.I. Joe dolls had. That is what I want to see. I would also like to see him with all of his separate tools as well. He needs to have a sledge hammer, a pesticide tank, some knifes...
I want to see the pesticide tank actually spray goo out of it.
A.J. Bowen: That tank was the biggest pain in the ass, man. It was hard to lug that thing around.
Were you stomping that thing onto a dummy's head? How did that work?
A.J. Bowen: Honestly, no, we weren't. We were too low-fi to have a dummy. I just slammed it down really close to that poor girl's head. It hit a bunch of cushions more or less. There were a couple of moments where we hit real things. That's how the magic of the movies happens. But a lot of the time it was slight of hand.
The one time you are getting slammed in the head looks so real.
A.J. Bowen: That sucked. That was the cheapest shot in the movie. They would chew my ass out f I gave it away. What I will say is that, as is the case with this movie, we didn't have a lot of money but we had an awful lot of time to discuss how to accomplish what we wanted to. So, there were a lot of things that we just talked about and then approached like a crossword puzzle instead of a mathematical equation. We would sit and try to figure out how to accomplish those effects. That one, where I am getting my head bashed in, is a composite shot. There is no shortcut in me slamming my head into the ground, but the tank never actually hits me in the head. They had no problem with me slamming myself against the ground. I basically had to give myself a concussion. And rug burn. I slammed my head into that cold hard ground about twenty times, but we got the shot.
It was worth it.
A.J. Bowen: Right. Chicks dig scars.
They do. I think that is very true. Now, I want to ask you about this horror genre rule that the directors utilized. They wanted to have a kill every ten pages. Was that a hard thing to coordinate?
A.J. Bowen: This is the thing. The guys had never made a horror movie before. I think they read somewhere that in a horror film there has to be a death or at least an act of violence every eight pages. It became a joke. I don't know if it was actually timed out. I don't know if that is the case with the film. They just wanted to make sure that they didn't undersell that aspect of this genre. I know that none of them are fans of torture porn. They didn't want to do something that was pornographic or explicit. They didn't want to get off on the inhumanity of violence. For the most part, the violence was a hell of a lot of fun. It made me feel like I was a varsity letterman. I just had to get in there and do it, and hurt myself sometimes. That physical stuff was a lot of fun for me. But there was one time when I hit a very good friend of mine in the back of the head with a glass. The first time that we did it, I broke the glass and a piece of it stuck into the back of his head. They shot the scene, and I had to continue to assault him.
Now, you are talking about the guy that made out with a dog on New Year's Eve. The guy that comes to the party. The one with the moustache.
A.J. Bowen: Yeah.
I loved that guy.
A.J. Bowen: He is fantastic. I saw him with that thick piece of glass sticking out of his head. It was there the whole time we did the take. He pulled it out after it was over, and we had to redo the shot. They didn't get what they wanted. So I had to take another glass and hit him again. Then we did it a third time. That is the one that is in the movie. I was so scared that I was going to look like a pussy and not him hard enough to hurt him. So I went way, way over the top and completely shattered that thing. When we got done with the scene he says, "Guys, I need a break and a beer."
What kind of glass were you guys using?
A.J. Bowen: It was the candy glass. The kind made out of sugar. And I think we had three of them to use. So we knew that we had to get it in three takes. I always thought that stuff didn't hurt, but this felt like real glass. And it was heavy. It was just a slightly less lethal version. That shit still stuck in his head.
He has the greatest reaction shot in that scene. And that is completely real.
A.J. Bowen: Yeah, he got hit. That guy got drilled. The director would tell him that he was doing a great job with his performance, but with that particular moment, he didn't have to work that hard. I knocked the shit out of him with that one.
Now, you were in the film "The Last Goodbye".
A.J. Bowen: Yeah, I am in, like, five minutes of that.
How did being in that film segue you into being in this film?
A.J. Bowen: We all went to college together. We've been making movies for ten years. Most of us have, anyway. Some people have been added on. But I went to school with two of the directors and the producer. I was in Atlanta when "The Last Goodbye" happened. They asked if I would come in and do one day on it. Because it was a part they could cast without being told, "No." It was a small enough role. So, I did that and got to play. Then I moved out to Los Angeles, and I was starting to get work out here when that DVD came out. They came out and crashed with me for the DVD release. They were talking about doing a genre picture. They wanted to show that they could turn a profit. They wanted to make a good, profitable film. I told them, "Man, I love horror films." Six weeks later, I got a phone call from Jacob and Alex telling me that they wanted me to play this role. I said, Yes. So I flew out and spent the holidays shooting with them. That was about two years ago now. That was one thing that was fortunate for me as an actor. They knew me. They knew what I'd done. They had a pretty good idea of what I could do. This was a pretty safe opportunity for me. To have a part that is written for you certainly helps an actor. There is a high level of trust that came with working together. They could tell me to fuck off, and I would know how to deal with it. This was the most non-PC film set that I have ever worked on. It was great. It was a really fantastic experience. Having the three directors, one idea had to get passed three times. We had the legislative, the judicial. We had the executive branch. That allowed the actors and everybody else that worked on the movie to have some say as well. We jumped in there and we rehearsed. The script had changed from the time that we rehearsed to the time that we shot it. That was because they were interested in making the best movie possible. They collaborated with the actors, and everybody else. We spent eight hours a day together rehearsing it and talking about what was really being said. We needed to have a point. So, some things changed. I really have to give it to them. There were a few times when we felt there was too much dialogue. And we'd ask, "What if we just cut all of this dialogue? Maybe we should just have one line instead." Any other writer or director would have said, "Shut the fuck up! I wrote that and you are going to say what I wrote, Goddamn it!" Instead, they were willing to try out our ideas. And if it worked, they would shoot it. I think there were a lot of moments were we pushed each other further than someone who didn't know us would have been able to. Communicating in short hand when you are making a movie for fifty thousand dollars is essential.
Now, you have started your own production company. What are your plans for that?
A.J. Bowen: That is just a fancy way of saying I am producing. I shot a movie and produced it in Austin last August. It is a genre picture. It is like a black and white "Twilight Zone" counterculture type of movie. I am interested in doing more of that. I am not interested only in acting. As I get an opportunity to do more work, there are things that I am going to do on the side just for me. They are just for my company as it grows and legitimizes, I suppose. I am doing that, then Jacob and me are writing a script together. Then there is another script that Alex and I will hopefully get to write together. If I have a hand in the writing or producing of it, it will be done through my company. That will be the end goal.
Do you have the opportunity to hire actors yourself for these projects?
A.J. Bowen: Yeah, I did. Actually. The investors for our movie in Texas didn't require any creative decisions behind it. They were really willing to part with their money. It was a small amount of money. But they gave us the freedom to go off and make the movie we wanted. That movie I made in Texas really benefited from us being able to go off and get Michael Parks to play my dad. He is an awesome character actor. So we didn't get any grief from anybody. If you keep the ceiling low enough financially, you are usually left to your druthers. So, in that regard, I did have the ability to choose an actor. If the money went up, I would have less control of the film in that regard.
I ask that because I read this morning that you're a huge fan of Leena Quigley. Are you planning on bringing her back and putting her in one of your movies?
A.J. Bowen: If you can put me in touch with her, then Hell yes I will. I will write a role for her. I would absolutely love to do that. I love 80s horror. Having her in one of my projects would be great.
The Signal opens this February 22nd, 2008.