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Interview: Filmmakers and Producer for The Signal

What I like about the Midnight Program at Sundance, is the movies can be kind of fucked up. And The Signal is kind of fucked up.” Words spoken by the Sundance programmer who introduced The Signal at its world premier at Sundance ’07, and not an inaccurate description of the film, which centers around a bizarre broadcast that takes control of every TV, radio, and phone in the fictional city of Terminus (and maybe the world?), turning those who are exposed to in into volatile lunatics.

What I like about the Midnight Program at Sundance, is the movies can be kind of fucked up. And The Signal is kind of fucked up.” — Words spoken by the Sundance programmer who introduced The Signal at its world premiere at Sundance ’07, and not an inaccurate description
of the film, which centers around a bizarre broadcast that takes
control of every TV, radio, and phone in the fictional city of Terminus
(and maybe the world?), turning those who are exposed to in into
volatile lunatics. Sure, this sounds like standard Saturday night fare
for the Sci-Fi channel, but a character-driven script, clever
directorial touches, and a talented cast of unknowns help it rise above
the typical schlock that categorizes most independently-produced horror
films. Bloody, suspenseful, and with a twisted sense of humor, it had
the best audience reception of any screening I attended at the SFF, and
deserved it. The Signal has the feel of and El Mariachi or Reservoir Dogs, the kind of rare career-launching film that strikes a perfect balance between art-house and grindhouse.

A film in three chapters, each called a “Transmission,” The Signal is the work of three separate writer/directors. Together, the three segments form a single story (this is not Creepshow or New York Stories). After a nasty opening sequence (which is borrowed from an earlier short by the second act’s director), David Bruckner handles the introductions, and dives head first into the film’s most
anarchic moments, as the broadcast’s effects throw Terminus into
madness. Next up is Jacob Gentry, who directs the second act with inventive cruelty, comedy, and camerawork. Running the anchor-leg is Dan Bush, who shows dramatic agility in side-stepping the genre conventions. Quarterbacking the whole thing is producer Alex Motlagh.
I had the chance to speak to all four filmmakers in Utah last January,
shortly after the premiere. Below is a transcript of that conversation.

Dan Bush, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Alex Motlagh

Jacob Gentry Dan Bush Alex Motlagh

Jameson Kowalczyk: What’s the festival been like for you?
It’s like this thinly veiled pretense of, ‘Oh, we’re having fun because
it’s Sundance and it’s glamorous and there’s these parties.’ And
they’re dragging me to all these parties. Most of them are useless, you
meet cool people. Apart from the premiere party, that was… I meat cool
people on the system level. They can’t necessarily help my career, but
I don’t care, I love them. I love meeting cool people. But you know,
I’m taking it in stride. There’s a lot of bullshit, and there’s a lot
of cool stuff.

Bruckner: It’s all very overwhelming, and it’s
been fun, and the idea that I may be able to start to make movies
instead of doing commercials.

JK: So how do you all know each other?
We know each other from college. We three met in college. We met him in
Atlanta right after college, or right around the time I dropped out of
college. Did you drop out of college?

Bruckner: I didn’t drop out, but I didn’t finish.

Gentry: So you dropped out?

Bruckner: No, I’m still working on it.

Gentry: I mean, six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Bruckner: I am three credit hours short of a diploma.

Gentry: I am too, but I like to say dropped out because it sounds cooler.

JK: It gives it a little more of an edge.
Gentry: Yeah, ‘I dropped out to make movies.’

JK: And now you sit around with sunglasses on…
Gentry: Just so you know, don’t write in your article, ‘Oh he wore his sunglasses… inside.’

JK: I’m just fucking around…
Bush: ‘These motherfucker’s sold their movie…’

Gentry: ‘Now they wear sunglasses inside.’

I met these guys in Atlanta right around 1999. We were all making short
films because we could with digital, standard-def cameras because they
were coming out. I was just so impressed by the work they were
screening, and it looked so good considering what it was and the medium
at the time. And I’d been trying to make movies on super-16 ever since
I left film school on Chapel Hill, and I didn’t believe in video, I
though it sucked.

JK: Did you graduate college?
Bush: Uh-huh.

JK: Okay.
And so I thought it sucked and so I was like… I was just really
addicted to the way film looked, and even super-8 film to me was better
than anything video could do. But then I saw their films and I was
like, ‘You know what, they’re actually exploring making movies, and
exploring ways of making shit look good. Their approach was the
opposite of mine, I was trying to… I was so biased, I thought video
sucked and film was the only way to make a really good movie. And these
guys were trying to make video look like film, and they were having
good results, with color correction they were doing, adjusting the
contrast and stuff. So it inspired me and I thought, you know what, and
I thought about Cassavettes and I thought about Goddard, and I thought,
you know, these guys would not let that stop them. If you didn’t have
ten thousand dollars to spend on an answer print, that wouldn’t stop
you from pursuing making your story and working with actors. So in a
way these guys, I felt like they re-inspired me.


The Signal 1

JK: What kind of films were you making at that time?
We were doing a lot of… Jacob and I were doing a lot of movies with
POPfilms doing a lot of chamber dramas. I was especially. A lot of
situational stuff. Like DV movies, this person versus this person, has
to get this to happen, then trying to do this, just ripping back and
forth, a lot of action. And we were turning them out pretty quick, we
were doing a lot of short films.

JK: Is this where the opening sequence of The Signal came out of?
Gentry: Pretty much. That was actually a 48 hour film, 48 hour film festival.

JK: I really liked the opening, it was really grabbing. I liked the look of it too, it looks like it fell out of the 1970s.
That was kind of the thing with that short, that short was just… I
don’t know if you know anything about the 48 hour film festival, but…

JK: You have to write, direct, shoot…
In 48 hours. You have to make the whole thing. And just to make sure
you don’t cheat, they give you like a character, a prop, and a genre.
And they gave us the genre ‘horror.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if we’re
going to do a horror movie, lets do a horror movie.’ Because everyone,
in terms of that, usually there’s mostly the kind of films that are
cute, funny, ironic, not matter what genre it is, they always make them
funny. And we were just like, ‘Let’s make it scary. For real.’ So
that’s where that came from.

Motlagh: What’s interesting about
that opening, it was actually the last move we made in the film. It was
the last thing we inserted in the film before we submitted to Sundance.
The opening was something we debated and fought over for pretty much
the duration.

JK: What were some of the other ideas you had for the opening?
It was basically just making sure the audience was equipped to enter
into the story. And make sure they had… because what we always talk
about is like, if you’re confused about just like, the logistics, then
you can get bored and not pay attention to some of the more interesting
character development or some aspects of the story. But if you have
enough information that you feel like you can go into that story. You
know? We really wanted to set up, and we also had this opening scene,
before that prologue, that was essentially just two people in a room
talking. And you don’t know these people, you don’t know anything about
them, you’re not in touch with their world. But in order to really,
really care about the story immediately, that scene was vital. But we
didn’t want people to check out before, we didn’t want to give people
the benefit of the doubt. So it was in a sense setting up the idea,
‘This is a horror movie. We’re going to give you a horror movie. So
here, here’s a little bit of horror. And then, then live with these
people for a little bit. So when we get down to the real horror movie
that we’re making, then you’ll be equipped with knowing those
characters and being familiar with their struggle and knowing what they
want, so when we get to the real fun horror, then it will be that much
better for you. You know what I mean? So it’s also kind of just a
functional thing in terms of story. To just set up the idea of like,
‘Hey we’re making a horror movie. Don’t get me wrong. Now you can pay
attention to two people having a really intimate moment, and talking
about what they want to do.’

Motlagh: You want that visceral,
you want to immediately suck people in, in the middle of something
already happening. And we were looking for that for a really long time,
what was that going to be, if we’re going to film something. We came up
with many different scenarios of violence and the classic movie opening
way of, like the scene in Jaws where the girl gets eaten in the
beginning, and that sets up the monster, and then you start to deal
with Roy Scheider after that.

Gentry: Originally it was just the signal playing at the audience for like, two minutes straight.

Bruckner: If you look at that thing for a while it does start to fuck with your head.

JK: Is there anywhere someone can look at that?
Motlagh: Go to

Bruckner: And just turn off all the lights and just stare at it with your face right up against the screen.

Motlagh: With a little tinfoil hat on.

But instead of like the classic, ‘Let’s show how the signal makes
someone go crazy,’ as a prelude to our movie and to set up the monster,
we decided to flip it, and I think it’s kind of interesting, for me, to
create the cool correlation between violence and media already, and
what’s already a part of our collective unconscious already, at the
beginning. And then it goes to the signal. And shows people.

It’s that there’s this horror movie that you’re watching, and then
you’re interrupted by the signal, to cut to another horror movie.

JK: Where there any films you saw early on, when you were a kid, that made you want to be filmmakers?
I have one, and I don’t know if it necessarily correlates to the movie
I made, I don’t know if I’d ever make a movie like this or even aspire
to, but I really liked New Jack City by Mario Van Peebles…. As
a kid it was so cool, and I didn’t realize at the time how didactic it
was and how it was basically a ‘Say no to drugs’ commercial,’ but what
was cool for me was that he had all these really cool shots, and Wesley
Snipes is this really cool gangster. And I was like 12 years old, and
I’d like draw movie posters for that movie, because it was actually
inspiration for me before I even saw it. Because just based on the
trailer and the poster, and my friend told me he saw it, because I
wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies, he saw it and told me about it,
and I was so inspired by what I thought the movie was, you know? By the
time I finally saw it, maybe a year later, I was like… I projected onto
it all the things I wanted it to be. And you know it had Ice-T chasing
after Chris Rock with a gun, and it had this cool hip-hop soundtrack,
and it was set in New York, but it was this kind of high-tech
alternative version of New York. The opening shot was this helicopter
shot across all of New York, Do-do-duh-do-doot, you know, the ‘Money,
money, Mah-Nee.’ And I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my

Bruckner: Conan the Barbarian.

JK: Why?
Ah… God I don’t know. I played a lot of D&D as a kid, and that was
one of the best movie realizations of that world. And I just grew up on
it. I used to be able to recite the whole Prayer of Crom. I probably
still know it. I’m not going to try.

Bush: I think the thing
that most impacted me, that made me think, ‘How can you possibly do
this?’ Even though I knew it was fake when I was watching it, was when
I was a little kid, The Shining came on TV. And they were
showing it on TV, some TV-edited version, and still I got halfway
through it, and it got to the point in the movie when it was an
intermission, a TV commercial break, and when it came back it said,
‘What’s about to happen is going to be so visceral that you’re going to
have to leave the kids out’ kind of message, and my parents let me stay
and watch it, and the blood came out of the elevators, and I couldn’t
sleep all summer long. I couldn’t watch the whole movie, I had to go,
but I remember I had nightmares for an entire month, I couldn’t sleep
as a kid. And I knew it was fake, but I couldn’t believe something fake
could affect me and change me, make me scared of the dark. That was
probably the most impactful experience watching a movie I’ve ever had,
that made me think, ‘Oh, I want to fuck with people.’

Motlagh: Terminator 2. Terminator 2 was the fucking… it rocked. But more recently in terms of how I’d like
my producing career to be, kind of like how… there’s a correlation in
my head between Beck and Steven Soderberg, just that they’re not
pigeon-holed in one sort of film, he’s done Ocean’s 11, and Solaris, and Erin Brockovich.
Just sort working… not being pigeon-holed, and [never like] ‘We work in
these kind of specific films’ and being pigeon-holed in a genre. The
thing about it is we like genre-horror films, but we want to explore
other types of films.

JK: What are you working on now?
Motlagh: “Jacob and I are working on a feature, Honeysuckle Blues. A karaoke samurai film. Or what do you call it? ‘Samurai karaoke?’

Gentry: ‘Karaoke Samurai.’ But done as an ‘80’s teen comedy.

Bush: I’m developing a thing called Rife. I’m really interested in some of the violence that’s surrounding us right now. I just loved Children of Men,
that movie’s just fucking crazy, how good it told the story in the near
future, and highlighted some of the things that are happening right
now, with… not specifically with that drama, but just in general. And
the fear levels and the paranoia and the ending of things. And Rife is about this biological attack that hits the inner city by way of a
new methamphetamine. And there’s a guy who goes into the containment
zone, he’s a vet, he’s homeless, and he’s got to go into the
containment zone to save his daughter. It’s a really dark, Children of Men-esque
story in the near future, and I’m just really interested in that
apocalyptic. I kind of think if that’s not a theme that’s somewhat
relevant to your work, then you’re not paying attention.

I always have a lot of ideas, I’m kind of sorting through a few things.
One of the ones I’m really steaming ahead right now, working on, is a
movie called Dark Life. It’s about deadly video games in the near future, games that kill you.


The Signal 2

JK: Do you play video games?
I don’t actually. I used to play video games around the clock,
non-stop, and I had to quit, because I literally had my Playstation 2
hooked up to my editing system, so when I was playing So-Com 2 online every night and I was wondering why I wasn’t getting anything
done. And actually the online video game phenomenon has been really,
really fascinating to me, because I think that it opens up a whole new
arena for social interaction. And I just see it going a lot of creepy

JK: Can you talk about The Dallies Project?
The Dallies Project is, once we started to realize each other’s
presence in filmmaking… about five years ago we were all kind of
working in association with Push Push Theater, which is a really
progressive theater in Atlanta, and is sort of a place where you want
to work if you want to get out of the big house theaters, it’s a place
where they’re actually doing progressive stuff, pushing the envelope of
what the medium is. Anyway, so through them we started this thing with
Rob Nixon, who is a playwright, he was an associate artist at Push
Push, and he and Jacob had this idea, and it’s kind of an idea I had in
college about giving a script to three different directors to see what
would rise up. And so with Rob Nixon and Push Push we started Dallies,
and it was to put out film challenges to the film community and local
artists. One was to make a film based on a photograph, everyone had to
make a film that was inspired by a photograph. Another one was to make
a film without shooting, to use all found footage. And the first one
was to make a film where the script was passed out to three different
groups. And it was a little more complex than that. But out of that
came, eventually the tenth such project was called Exquisite Corpse and
it was for some of the people that had really done well and made good

JK: How many people participated?
Bush: Overall, since it’s conception, there’s been a hundred short films made by over thirty artists.

These are people singing up to hang out, and make a film with their own
money and hopefully try something where it doesn’t need to succeed. Try
something, see what happens. Find a voice, it’s okay to screw up. We
made some great films, we made some bad films. I mean, I made some
stuff I’ll never show you, but it was really helpful in kind of
developing the chops, and we got into this situation, we all had a
dialogue, because we’d been ripping for years. Jacob would do
something, then Dan would do something, and I’d respond, and you can
see tendrils in all of them.   

Bush: So the last such project was Exquisite Corpse… not the last, it’s still ongoing. But Exquisite Corpse sort of has a direct link to The Signal. We had done… Rob Nixon and Dave Bruckner wrote the first episode or segment of Exquisite Corpse,
and it was similar in a lot of themes, and it had to do with
apocalyptic stuff and mysterious frequencies in the airwaves and
homicides. And then I did the second part, and then Gentry had written
and was prepared to do the third part, but was pretty busy working on
other features. He had already done Last Goodbye, and was working on Honeysuckle,
and didn’t really have time to spend on this, but instead he came and
said, ‘Okay, instead of doing this Exquisite Corpse project where one
person passes the idea on to the next guy and then continues the story
randomly, let’s streamline this and make a feature and see where these
cool ideas could live in a distinct way.’ So that became The Signal.

Bruckner: Jacob and Alex looked at Exquisite Corpse and saw a way to take one element out of it, and make a really cool
horror film out of that. And they sat down and presented that to us,
and said, ‘Let’s take this idea, and run with this.’

JK: I have to mention Cell, the Stephen King novel, because a lot of people are already claiming similarities.
Motlagh: We were in postproduction when Cell came out. If there are any similarities, at first I think we were a
little nervous about it – ‘Is this good? Is this bad?’ Obviously his
name overshadows ours. But then we kind of came to this thing that…
‘Well, we’re on the pulse, we’re on the cusp of the conversation. And
being isolated in Atlanta, it’s kind of cool that we may have had this
similar idea to King.

Bruckner: It’s collective unconscious in a way. It’s not hard to figure out, ‘Did this shit drive us nuts?’

Bush: And how disconnected are we despite all this media.

Bruckner: I’d like to read Cell and see how it works. I think part of the fun for us and what makes our
film unique is the way in the signal effects people. It replaces your

The Signal

JK: It doesn’t make you a total mindless zombie.
People who are on the point of breaking anyway. We’ve been saying the
signal doesn’t have an agenda, it’s just there. And if you’re at that
point of snapping… It rationalizes in your head, ‘The only way I can
through this traffic jam or this argument with my girlfriend or wife is
to [bludgeon someone] to death.

Bush: We thought of the movie Falling Down, but everybody’s falling down.

I know we tried to make it three-dimensional, with our acting and with
the relationships we were developing. And I know we tried to really
understand the connection to the signal, and how it plays on your inner
demons already in existence. I know we tried to avoid exposition.
Especially in the third act. What do you call that? The Pentagon scene?
When you cut to the pentagon and you have the geeky guy who explains
the [science of the whole thing]… that little bit of exposition in the
movie that will undoubtedly have everyone rolling their eyes toward the
back of their heads, because no matter what, it will never live up to
your own imagination of what something could be, especially if it’s
supposed to be scary.

Bruckner: They’re sophisticated, they’re
smart these days. All the kids we talked to… especially the younger
generation, doesn’t seem, to me, to be skipping a beat. Most of the
time they seem to be ahead of what we’re doing.


JK: What scares you?
Gentry: Insanity scares me. I think insanity is the most
horrifying thing. To me, that’s the scariest part about our movie. It’s
like, my own sanity is… I can’t escape my head. I can escape a monster
running after me. I know the rules, I can escape a vampire. I’ll just
wait till the light comes up, or have garlic. I can escape all these
things, but I can never escape my own sanity, and that’s horrifying.
What’s running around in my head, fears and desires, and those kind of
monsters inside.

Bush: Personally for me, it’s someone I love is
in danger and I’m completely helpless, at gunpoint, and there’s nothing
I can do but watch. I’ve had nightmares about trying to find my wife at
the end of the world, and literally not being able to. It’s just a
terrifying thing. I don’t know why, and even before I was married. Like
with my dad, if he got old and feeble and was attacked by a gang or
something like that. That kind of holocaustal human behavior, man’s
inhuman behavior towards man, it just gets me every time.

‘Holocaustal?’ Did you just come up with that? That’s the genre we’re
in, that’s what we’ve got to tell people, ‘We’re in the halocaustal

Motlagh: Absolutes scare the hell out of me. David and I
had this conversation, about conviction versus absolutes, and how you
can come to a point where it’s either one or the other, it’s either
good or bad, there’s only one other option than to kill this person.
There’s not other way out. There’s just complete absolute, which I
think is kind of indicative, and in our society right now, it just
scares the shit out of me. People just think it’s good or bad, evil or

Bruckner: Hedge clippers. Scare the fuck out of me. What a
fucking horrible device. Everybody’s clipping the bushes and I’m like,
‘Be careful!’ I won’t elaborate on what scares me, but I will say
something that really interests me is paradigm shift. When 9/11
happened, I couldn’t get my head around it. Something about that moment
of trying to understand this shit going down, kill or be killed, react,
survive… we live in a world that has a set of rules and we interact.
It’s something about… trying to do that, trying to come up with a game
plan. There’s something about that’s really fascinating to me, and that
really interests me. Maybe that’s a response to what scares me.

Magnolia Pictures releases The Signal in theaters this Friday, February 22nd.

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