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Dan Bush, David Bruckner, and Jacob Gentry, The Signal

THE SIGNAL.

This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.

Making a feature film, independent or otherwise, isn’t easy (understatement of the century). The seemingly impossible hurdle of gaining financing — not to mention the tiny details of actually executing the film and then seeking distribution — seem Herculean enough to scare off most would-be filmmakers.

Now imagine directing a feature film with two other directors.

Suicidal, right?

Well, that’s exactly what three of Atlanta’s finest — Dan Bush, David Bruckner, and Jacob Gentry — did. The ballsy trio arrives at Sundance with their terrifying horror film, The Signal, which tells a story in three sections, or “transmissions,” of a mysterious white-noise — appearing from TV’s, radios, and cell phones — that compels ordinary citizens to become bloodthirsty killers. The film has a deeper agenda (perhaps commenting on the media…?) than simply scaring the hell out of its audience, but you can be certain of one thing: the crowds that see this world-premiere at Sundance will be sure to turn off their cell phones in the theater.

“The Signal” screens at Sundance in the Midnight section, and for this piece, we have comments from all three of the directors.

DAN BUSH

Can you say a little bit about your background?
I have been making movies since I was a kid. In junior high school in 1986 I used to edit with two VCRs. Studied filmmaking at USC — Columbia, South Carolina. I took a class with Dan Berman called “Previsualization.” It changed my life. I realized then that the key to great movies begins with a vision — a fully engaged imagination. In Berman’s class, we dissected movies and looked at each and every shot in sequences from movies that were just coming out. We spent most of our time that semester dissecting Goodfellas, which had just come out.

I realized later that all of the film theory and language was counterintuitive when writing and designing a movie. It is important to understand how the language works, but I tried afterwards to not let it cramp my style. It’s like using fancy words inappropriately just because you have a large vocabulary. Better to watch the movie in your head and take notes then to watch someone else’s movie and think, “That is how you do it.” I really think that if your imagination is fully engaged you will tap into something beyond yourself. This is the drop in point — when your story becomes truth. I moved to film school at Chapel Hill, UNC after that. I met Fred Burns and studied animation. Simultaneously I worked with Marta King, an actress and acting coach from who was in Greensboro, N.C. She taught me most of what I know about directing actors and creating a safe place for them to trust themselves and to trust the moment enough to drop in and be real without forcing and without bullshit. In this way I began to find truth in imagined circumstances of the

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
It seems that I am always imagining a better life. I’m sure that is part of the human condition — to always yearn for some more fulfilled life; a perfect love; a life without lies. At some point we have all wanted to just get on a train and take off to where the grass is greener — to start a new life. But how often do we do this? Most of us are too scared to ever take such a risk. We settle with a mortgage, an IRA and an HMO. Or we fill in the empty spots of our unfulfilled lives with addictions or affairs, or perhaps numb the pain with self-help religions or TV.

What would it take to make us act on our instincts, leave out artificial lives and, as Ben Capstone, our protagonist, says in the opening of The Signal, “start a real life.” Perhaps we will all wait until the end of the world before we make that move…

Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with?
Every step of this film was a collaboration, from the writing to the sound design. It wasn’t an army, so much as a tribe. We have all worked together here in Atlanta for many years. We all knew each other — the grips, the art department, the producing team, the a.d., the actors. We workshopped each act of this movie while in preproduction. It was like boot camp except we called it Terminus Camp. We literally camped out for three days with the actors and worked every scene. Camp began with an obstacle course that forced everyone to work together. Then we broke off for scene work and exercises including historical improvisations to develop real relationships. We wanted to “load our guns,” so to speak, so that in we could move through production quickly. It worked. When we started shooting it was like a barn raising.

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
Yes — huge compromises. There is no other way to squeeze three driven and stubborn directors into one director’s chair. Whether the movie suffered because of these sacrifices? Perhaps it’s the opposite. We’ll never know for sure, but I think in the end this film can boast a powerful yet lean story line despite its many layers and complexities.

Any film influences? (this could also include literature, art, music, etc.)
Films? Trance and Dance in Bali by Margaret Mead. The Graduate, Little Big Man, Being There, Evil Dead II, Drugstore Cowboy, The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation of Christ, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Down By Law, The Thing (Carpenter), New York Stories, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs, Children Of Men. These are the first to come to mind.

Authors: William Saroyan, Sam Shepard. Paul Auster. Joseph Campbell, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey.

Books: The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, The Hawkline Monster, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, poems by Pablo Neruda, The Autobiography of Malcom X, Snow Crash.

Music: Jerry Goldsmith, The Books, Rachel’s, Roy Ayers, Beck, Radiohead, Marvin Gaye “Trouble Man Soundtrack.” The Minutemen, Lennon, Neil Young, Charles Ives, Coltrane, Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, Beatles, Lovett, Simon and Garfunkel, Django Rinehart, Public Enemy. Lately I’ve been listening to Midlake and My Morning Jacket.

What are your expectations for Sundance?
What an amazing honor, to share festival slots with so many amazing filmmakers. I am a little speechless. All of my life I’ve wanted to be a part of the conversation each year at Sundance. I am really excited about the conversation, the dialogue with other filmmakers. I’m excited to meet other filmmakers and artists of the day and gauge the current mental environment. These are some of the greatest storytellers of our time. This is the beginning of the 21st century and I want to know where everybody’s head is at, and what is driving their work.

Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
By the time my allotted time to purchase tickets came up — everything was sold out. I managed to get tickets to Fay Grim. I love Hal Hartley movies. Trust changed the way watch movies. I’m going to sneak in to Chicago 10. I made an official looking “All Access” pass and I figure if I carry a big black flashlight (the kind that could be used for bludgeoning) no one will stop me.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
Make sure you believe in your story. The story is the most important thing. Your first loyalty has to be to the story — above even yourself. I imagine making a movie is a lot like raising a child, because you will sacrifice years of your life and you will have to be ready to sacrifice everything else too. And be prepared to fight every step of the way for your story. Not for your ego — for your story. That’s your only real job.

What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
This one. Just kidding. I don’t know. I guess any questions that only serve to magnify and glorify the director.

DAVID BRUCKNER

Can you say a little bit about your background?
My father is the Chief Investigator and was once a homicide detective in Miami in late ’70s. My mother has been an ER nurse for something like 20 years. So I grew up with some idea of the ills of society (plus a healthy dose of Nintendo, action news and The Terminator). Raised in a suburb of Atlanta, I’m now 29 years old, I started making movies in high school with my neighborhood friends. Focused on sci-fi, horror and comedy, I took my habit to college in Athens, GA thinking I would wise up and go into one of the sciences, but it only got worse. Basically, the technology was available for my generation, so I took advantage and never stopping making things. The farther out I got the better the response. There I met Jacob Gentry, Alex Motlagh and several other key players of the POP organism and we took it to Atlanta. The last six years in the ATL have been a creatively nutritional whirlwind. We’ve collaborated with theaters, visual artists, and drunk reclusive poets. I’ve had the opportunity to write, direct, shoot, edit, act, produce, design, engineer, and invent. I was even a puppeteer for a brief moment. With PUSH PUSH THEATER (a workshop theater focused on development) and a gnarly group of film kids we formed the DAILIES Project, a beacon for our filmmaker community to explore, incite, and intrigue. So we made more stuff. There I began to work with Dan Bush as well as many of the actors from The Signal.

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
The Signal came from one of THE DAILIES PROJECTS called Exquisite Corpse where each filmmaker tells one portion of a larger story and then hands it off to someone else in chronological order. The idea for the movie grew from that both functionally and thematically. The overall arc of The Signal deals with communication, perception and individual, but each of three chapters have their own point I think. I wrote and directed Act 1: Crazy in Love. I think a lot of that is inspired by childhood fantasies about the end of the world. There’s a certain freedom that takes place when everything is reduced to survival. I always wondered who would be the strongest. Would you get to be the person you always wanted to be? Could you love whoever you wanted to love?

Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with?
They’re all Atlanta crop. We have had the opportunity to build creative relationships and friendships prior to this project. I found this helped us to have a common language before going into production. I mean, just a far as the other directors, there no way I would have been able to do this with two strangers. We know each other well enough to push and pull with some sense of the larger picture. I think that’s also the case with the actors, Alex (the producer), the sound guys, the composer, etc. We all go way back.

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
I would be too quick to say that we had to compromise having three directors and three different stories making one story. Sure, none of us got every scene we wanted into the movie, but overall I think having to compromise with other creative heads helped balance us out. It kept everything in check. In fact, the largest compromises I had to make by far, were more the result of our tight production schedule. We shot most of this movie in 13 days. That meant we had to turn scenes out super fast each day. So there were a lot of moments where I had big ideas about coverage, performance, and nuance that I had to sacrifice just to make sure I made sense of the story. That’s hard to swallow on your first feature when you want everything to realize your imagination, but that’s filmmaking, I suppose.

Any film influences?
The big one for the The Signal was Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. It reinvigorated the genre for me. Other big influences were Irreversible, High Tension, Spike Jonze, Tobe Hooper, David Fincher, Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, George Romero, Guillermo del Toro, Spielberg (Munich, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds), Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Michael Andrews, The Walking Dead, and Grand Theft Auto.

What are your expectations for Sundance?
I want our movie to affect people. I hope they feel it’s worth a repeat viewing. There’s a lot of stuff in the film that I can chew on; I’d love to see people chewing on it in reply. I’m also really looking forward to being among other filmmakers. It’ll be great to have dialog with others who have the same addiction. I can’t wait to make more movies.

Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
I really want to catch Black Snake Moan. Hustle & Flow destroyed me. I’m a big fan of the folks that made Ten. Also, The Protagonist, We are the Strange, Fay Grim, and Interview.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
“Have something to say,” an older friend of mine simply said once on the topic of ego. “If you’re telling stories because you want to be a filmmaker, you’ll eat yourself alive with self consciouness and criticism. There must be something, no matter how small, that you want to communicate outside your own personal gain.” At least that’s how I remember it going. I seem to come back to that idea a lot. It moves me forward no matter how difficult this job can be.

What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
In pretty much any context, my favorite question is “Why?”

JACOB GENTRY

Can you say a little bit about your background?
I’m from the hot and humid Dirty South. Born in Nashville 29 years ago and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. I studied theater and drinking at the University of Georgia in the infamous Athens. I dropped out with one semester left to start the POPfilms Collective in Atlanta. For about three years I made shorts and longs with the other two Signal directors Dave and Dan, The Signal producer Alex Motlagh, as well as Ben Lovett the composer, and several of The Signal actors like Scott Poythress, A.J. Bowen and Justin Wellborn. Then I was given the opportunity to direct a feature film. It was called Last Goodbye and starred David Carradine and Faye Dunaway. It cost $250,000 from local investors, and I made it with my friends in Atlanta. I was 26 years old and still wet behind the ears.

Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
Well, we had been working on this experimental film project called Exquisite Corpse where one filmmaker makes a short then hands it to the next guy to complete the next bit then another and so on. It comes from the idea of an artist drawing a line and then handing it to another artist to add to that line. Dave and Dan filmed their segments down and dirty on DV and I was to be third. I wrote my script and thought about filming it when I suddenly realized that some of these ideas would make a great feature. The original ideas were sort of this Lynchian pre-apocalyptic think piece about the breakdown of communication and a shifting societal need for connection. So I said, let’s make a horror movie! What is our monster? Media! The TV causes people to go insane and kill each other! Being a good businessman and responsible producer means taking high-minded ideas that stem from avant-garde art projects and boiling them down into sellable products. We want to get that Saw money! Signal, the T-Shirt! No, but really the genesis of our horror movie can be found in those Exquisite Corpse lines we drew.

Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
Is there such a thing as making a film without compromises? That’s the job really. You get an idea and then when you decide to make it, there is where you make your first compromise. You go to film it and you make a hundred compromises a day and try to limit the casualties as much as possible. So knowing that I try to not have any regrets and use all the lessons on the next movie. The only thing I’d do differently is to not always allow me the producer to limit me the writer. We actually have a guy on fire in the movie. I wrote it almost as a joke knowing that it would be something I’d probably have to compromise on, but Alex my producing partner made up his mind that we weren’t compromising that one thing. He vowed that we would have a guy running around on fire in our movie. And we do. So next time, I won’t try and make compromises before I have to. Next time I’m going to have TEN guys on fire. And they’re going to be riding flaming steeds through vast wastelands while Metallica plays on the soundtrack.

Any film influences?
For me on The Signal: Lou Reed, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, H.R. Giger, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Mansell, Michel Gondry, Gasper Noe, Steven Spielberg, Brian Depalma, Howard Hawks, Geoff Darrow, Frank Miller, Peter Sellers, Andre Rieu, David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, and many more…

What are your expectations for Sundance?
I want to hot tub with hot famous actresses. And I want people to enjoy our movie. I’m hoping the high altitude will make them lucid enough to understand the latent symbolism and political iconography interwoven subconsciously within our film. I also hope they shit their pants from fear of The Signal.

Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
I’m a big fan of Adrienne Shelley from her work with Hal Hartley. Her passing was really sad to me. So I might show reverence and check out her movie, Waitress. It also stars Nathan Fillion who is one of my favorite actors right now. The other midnight movies seem really cool. I feel honored to be in the same company as Greg Araki and David Wain. Also, Crispin Glover has a movie which I’m sure will be the opposite of boring. He did the commentary on Werner Herzog’s movie Even Dwarves Started Small which is definitely one of the most…unique…films I’ve ever seen. I love movies unconditionally so I’ll basically see anything I can get into.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
“Shoot low boys, they’re riding Shetland ponies.” It’s not necessarily advice as much as it is the name of a Lewis Grizzard book. But I always associate it with filmmaking for some reason. It’s like we’re filming the big stampede scene in the desert, and right before we roll I’m informed that we couldn’t afford full size horses. So we keep filming, but lower the Camera cranes to make the ponies look like real horses. We make this split second decision to adapt and carry on because the play is the thing. We shoot any way we can. I haven’t made a western yet, but if I do I hope I get real horses. If not, I’ll shoot low.

What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
My favorite question is “What is your next project?” because I always want to know.

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