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The Signal: Collaboration in Three Parts

The Signal: Collaboration in Three Parts

Articles - Directing

The upcoming horror movie The Signal’s tagline is, “Do you have the crazy?” It’s an apt question—and one you might still be asking yourself after you leave the theater. The “signal” in question is one that emanates from cell phones, televisions and radios, changing those who hear it as if removing the ego and the super ego, leaving only the impulsive id.

Set in the town of Terminus, the movie follows a man, his wife and his wife’s lover as they battle to survive madness—and each other—in the anarchy that ensues following the signal.
To create The Signal, directors Dan Bush, David Bruckner and Jacob Gentry each took a turn in the director’s chair, offering a new experiment in cinematic collaboration. This relationship allowed for three different viewpoints on the same linear story, paving the way for a movie that is truly unique.

Unlike other segmented stories (like Reservoir Dogs) The Signal is told chronologically. And unlike other movies with more than one director (like Sin City) there is a very noticeable changeover when a new body settles into the director’s chair. Understandably, there is a lot of room for confusion on the set of such an experiment, leaving the directors wondering if they themselves had received the signal.

Here, the three directors re-team to compose an essay on the making of The Signal, which is written, appropriately, in three parts.

Part I: Pre-Production
The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn: A Radical Reassessment of the Facts
by Dan Bush

It’s the 11th hour. The final script is past due and if we hope to begin shooting on schedule, none of this should be happening.

What is happening?

A fundamental change to our story and the script we called Terminus. Being that I am only one of three visionary directors working to tell one big story—and that I am the guy responsible for resolving this story in part three, I am fucked. ‘Don’t you see?’ I scream. ‘If you change the rules of the game in part one then part three will have to be rewritten from scratch.’

But even as I blurt these words the unimaginable dawns on me: Every detail in the world of Terminus is absolutely dependent on every other detail. So intricately interwoven are the plots, themes and language of these three stories that in one instant all of part three became irrelevant.

I snapped. As the sun came up, I stepped into the fog that had settled in my backyard. I sat down in the wet grass, and laughed with delirium.

“I think Dan’s been signalized,” Alex Motlagh, our co-producer, warned Dave Bruckner after our next phone call. “I think we’ve lost him.” But somewhere deep inside my madness, I realized that this fundamental change would solve more problems than it would create. If I could just let go—of my story, my protagonist, my identity—then I might rediscover what was cool about the story in the first place, and consequently rediscover myself in the process.

So I sat down and wrote. This time I wrote with abandon. At daybreak, I dropped into the new world of Terminus and, suddenly, the new third act flowed right through me. The rules were simple. Everything clicked. It was one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had.

I met with Jacob Gentry the next night and we were immediately on the same page. The new story was tighter than ever, and before we left we realized what our movie was about: It’s about point of view, shared identity and the interconnected structure of reality at the end of the world. Perfect!

This was only the first of many battles fought over the course of making The Signal, but I realized something awesome: If you are on to something good, you have to get out of the way of it. The greatest battle isn’t with other people, it is within yourself. And the darkest hour is always just before the dawn.

Part II: Production
The Three Governing Branches—Believability, Inevitability and Contradiction—Work it Out
by Jacob Gentry

The production of The Signal was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of and, in this way, strangely exhilarating. We told the story through the eyes of three main characters in three separate sections called “transmissions,” each with a different director and a different cinematic vision for the disparate perspectives. We were three directors each developing our own short stories that together would form one linear feature film. This was no anthology, mind you. No, our movie had to appear seamless to the audience so as not to distract them from the horrifying journey of the main characters.

In this way, we were kind of like Voltron (the lions, not the vehicles.) Dave, Dan and I each had our own mechanical lion ship to pilot, but in the end we had to come together to form a giant sword-wielding warrior robot. This approach forced us to keep each other at the top of our games. We were the three branches of government with a system of checks and balances, forming the believability, inevitability and contradiction branches.

For the actual shooting of The Signal we had an extremely accelerated schedule. There was just not enough time for each of us to have our own shoot. (Due to some story crossover, we would sometimes even have to switch out directors within the same camera setup). All three of us photographed the movie, so while one of us ran the camera another would direct and the third would be at craft services talking about Goldfish crackers or the fundamental differences between gummy bears and gummy worms.

With all the potential for catastrophe in our attempt at being adventurous, we actually got along fantastically. I think that is due in part to our commitment to the overall story and our unyielding desire to put ego aside and just make a good movie. The play is the thing. It taught me a tremendous lesson about the truly collaborative nature of moviemaking and that the best idea should always win, no matter who came up with it.

The Signal was an experiment in trying to create a fresh and original movie experience by utilizing the individual talents of three unique independent directors. Hopefully the end result will be three times as good because of it.
Part III: Exhibition
Twenty Minutes ’Til Screening: Seeing The Signal Through Fresh Eyes
by David Bruckner

After nearly a year of painstaking post-production madness, the seemingly endless array of fix-its and redos, the creation of an insane indie apocalyptic horror film starts to take on a delusional kind of quality. I’d heard other moviemakers talk about what I might call a “hyper-consciousness” of your own movie, where you lose perspective on what that first-time viewing experience might be for an audience. As a moviemaker, you’ve probably seen the film close to a billion times by the time you first screen it for an audience, so you anticipate every occurrence before it happens, stress over tiny technical imperfections and wonder deeply if the film only makes sense to you.

This was my mental playground 20 minutes before our little movie launched its world premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, UT as part of the Sundance Film Festival. I never thought it would get in. In fact, I had remarked that our entry was merely an offering to the gods. Don’t get me wrong—I love our freaky serial horror film, and I had the utmost faith in my fellow directors, producers and our badass ensemble of local actors. But when you’ve been slaving away in Atlanta’s underground digital movie scene for many years, screening at Sundance is a bit of a shock to the system.

As the movie began, my hyper-consciousness went into overdrive. On the eighth line of scene two—an obvious beat—a woman three rows ahead of me (and two seats to the left) looked around the theater casually. ‘This isn’t good,’ I thought. Perhaps she hadn’t heard the line? But the sound in the Egyptian is fantastic, so it had to be worse: She didn’t understand the line. Which is bad, because the movie’s paradigm had just shifted—and that tiny spark of information was to put our whole story into motion.

Then the worst of all possible scenarios occurred to me: She understood everything. Simply bored to tears, this woman, who I do not know and have never met, was obviously looking for the door. She wanted out—she wanted out bad. This could not be. I took a deep breath. ‘Have a little faith,’ I told myself.

Twenty minutes later the unimaginable happened: Right as chaos broke out on-screen, two guys behind me got up and left the theater! I was destroyed. Oblivious to everything, I sunk deep inside my own head determined to discover my power animal. I won’t comment on what it was, but when I emerged, I realized the audience was in throws of applause. The film was over and—strangely—seemed to be something of a success.

It turned out that the two guys who left the screening worked for Magnolia Pictures. They were going out to the lobby to discuss picking the film up for distribution (which they eventually did).
The great thing about screening your work at a festival is that you get to see it through other people’s eyes. Emerging from the madness of my own hyper-consciousness, I came to realize that people had an experience very similar to what we originally intended when we made the film. It’s as if the moment-to-moment ideas that spark your imagination when you start out but get forgotten through the rigorous process of actually making the movie somehow remain intact through it all. So when the audience responds, you remember the story you set out to tell. I’m thankful for the opportunity to screen it for a larger audience, and thanks to the festival, I’m now a little more “reasonably conscious” about how people might see it. In fact, I’m optimistic.

The Signal is in theaters now.

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