By Dana Barbuto
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Up-and-coming indie film director Will Eubank apologizes at the end of our interview. “I was rambling. I’m sorry. Give me a little coffee and I go for days,” Eubank said while promoting his new movie, “The Signal,” at the Liberty Hotel in Boston.
You can’t fault the loquacious director for being enthusiastic about his fledgling career and a movie that was the darling at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where the sci-fi mind-bender was purchased by Focus Features.
It tells the trippy story of three M.I.T. students whose cross-country trip turns into an experience straight out of the “Twilight Zone.” Things go wrong for Nic, Jonah and Haley when their side-trip pursuit of a rival hacker lands them prisoner in a government facility surrounded by untalkative guys in haz-mat suits. Young actors Brenton Thwaites (“Maleficent”), Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) and Beau Knapp (“Super 8”) portray the trio. Laurence Fishburne plays the agent in charge. “It’s kids sort of trying to find themselves and then happen upon something really crazy,” Eubank said of the film, which opens Friday. “They go down the rabbit hole ... and they’re trying to find their way out. Through this process, hopefully, they learn more about themselves.”
Hailed as innovative and ambitious, Eubank – like Quentin Tarantino – didn’t go to film school. Instead, he’s drawn on years of experience working at Panavision, the camera rental house. The 31-year-old worked a lot of different jobs on a lot of different movies, all of which prepared him to be a filmmaker. And it all paid off at Sundance.
“As a filmmaker it’s like a merit badge you desperately hope you’re going to get,” Eubank said of the festival. “I had two dreams before I turn 30 – go to Sundance and then get into the DGA. And the Sundance part took a little longer.”
It wasn’t the Holyoke native’s first trip to Park City, Utah. “Panavision would send me to Sundance to talk about digital cameras … and I would just sit there and see these people, these actors, directors, and storytellers and just wish that one day I could be one of them.”
But Eubank said the experience was bittersweet.
“My grandfather lived in Salt Lake City and he was kind of ... a gruff and crazy character. We called him Old Coyote,” Eubank said. “He was a cinematographer in the Navy and I would always – on Panavison’s dime – go take him out to dinner. He was was like, ‘Someday you’re going to get to Sundance.’ Unfortunately he passed away two years before the film got there. I was bummed.”
When he was younger, Eubank said he either wanted to make movies or go to the Naval Academy. “I always felt like my granddad was connected to both of those things,” Eubank said. Ultimately, movies won because you “probably didn’t need to get good grades to be a filmmaker.”
So Eubank started to “climb the ladder.” He got the job at Panavision to learn the technical side of shooting a film. He borrowed the cameras on weekends to shoot other people’s projects, earning several gigs. “While I was doing that, I was always working on the stuff I was writing. And then my first film, ‘Love,’ came along. It was all just falling into place. I wouldn’t say any of it was easy, and actually making ‘Love’ was difficult. But when it was all said and done, I had a film in my pocket that I had directed and built upon everything I had learned up ’til that point. It was like solving a big math problem.”
Eubank parlayed the love he earned from “Love” into “The Signal,” which he wrote with his brother, Carlyle, and David Frigerio. He said it took about three years to transition from script to screen.
“I always buy this big moleskine book ... grab a pencil, because there is going to be a lot of erasing, and start to ... slowly draw every shot I think I’m going to shoot. The last thing I do is draw a little map of the ... space I envision this occurring in and I draw where the cameras will be. Like a bird’s-eye view of where everything’s going to be.
“Then I take that book, which is super thick by now and got a lot of stuff shoved in there, and start location scouting. ... It’s almost harder to make that book than it is to make the script because that’s where you’re really forced to stare your movie in the face.”
Eubank, who counts directors Ridley and Tony Scott, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher as role models, didn’t have a big budget or much time to shoot on location in Albuquerque.
“I had to make lean-and-strong choices. I really needed to plan. I only have a few takes. I really needed to be surgical about it,” Eubank said. “And with all the pressures that are on set, you’re mind is pulled in different directions. You really need that road map.”
“The Signal” is just his second film, but Eubank said he’s learned two valuable lessons. The first: “A director needs to know where they are in the woods, especially on an indie film, where everything is out of order. That’s a real crazy puzzle.”
The second is casting people that you really believe in, including Fishburne. “That’s such a legitimizing feeling. He put a lot more into Damon than there was on the page. He lends such an identity and power to a role because of who he is,” Eubank said.
For his next project, Eubank has two ideas percolating: A Scottish Highlander film or military movie. “I’m working up to getting bigger budgets and I want to keep building,” he said “We’ll just have to see what I can get.”
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter at @dbarbuto_Ledger.