The Reeler


February 21, 2008

A Mixed Signal

Directors Bruckner, Bush and Gentry on the ups, downs and challenges of three-way filmmaking

Listen closely: Cheri Christian, A.J. Bowen and Scott Poythress face the music in The Signal (Photos: Magnolia Pictures)

How many directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? It depends on the directors -- or maybe the light bulb. In the case of The Signal, the postmodern horror/satire/romance featuring three overlapping "transmissions" from a city (Atlanta, standing in for the fictional dystopia Terminus) gone homicidal from hypnotic TV, radio and cell phone signals, the concept involved a collaborative experiment from the beginning. For all the convolutions of its story -- boy loves girl, girl cheats on husband, signal-addled husband takes payback from anyone within five feet of him, but who's her husband again? -- and the aggressiveness of its metaphors, The Signal flourishes in an oversaturated microbudget fever dream of blood and style.

The Reeler caught up with the three-headed filmmaking hydra of David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, visiting in advance of The Signal's opening tomorrow in New York. Along with actors A.J. Bowen and Chad McKnight, they shared thoughts on what makes a cult film, moviemaking in Atlanta and the secrets of their creative ménage a trois.

THE REELER: When you have three directors on the set, does that actually mean three guys calling shots? What was the interactivity?

BUSH: We were shooting for each other. Jacob shot most of the movie, Dave shot a bunch of it and I shot a little bit. While one person would be directing another person would be the DP and the third director would maybe work with the actors or maybe set up the next scene. We were all there, all the time, together.

GENTRY: We all directed movies within the movie, essentially. They're basically three movies that equal one big movie experience, and the glue that sort of ties it all together are the characters -- the actors who carry their performances throughout the film. They really helped us. And the score. There was a similar aesthetic in things like that, but at the same time there were complete tonal changes.

BRUCKNER: But on the set it was tag-team. You're on a location and one guy's directing, one guy's shooting, one guy's in another room prepping something or hiding or doing yoga.

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GENTRY: It's basically a WWE cage match. Slap his butt. "Get out there!"

BRUCKNER: You shoot some stuff, high-five and everybody makes an adjustment. "OK, we're shooting a different movie now."

BUSH: We had to wrap a location entirely before moving on. So we had to shoot whatever we could at whatever location we were in; we'd start with layers and levels of blood. We'd start with the least amount of blood and then add more and more layers on. So we're each jumping in as directors to handle whatever it is that happens with that level of blood in that location.

THE REELER: What's that challenge like as an actor -- three directors pulling you different ways while keeping you in the same climate?

That's pretty normal for film acting anyway, so you just note where you are and have it down in your head. But that part is fun. Because they're all there and we all know each other, there wasn't a huge discrepancy in style that caused us to have to refocus.

BOWEN: In the medium of film, the actor doesn't have as much impact on the actual storytelling. That's more of a producer or the writer/director -- everyone but the actor. We're just a tool for them to get their story achieved. One of the great benefits of having three directors at one time was that it gave everyone a larger hand in the collaboration. There was more of a conversation. And again, we all know each other so well that it had to pass through a lot of people without anyone calling bullshit. We had familiarity enough to say when we thought something was retarded. You spend an entire film shoot trying to build that trust, and usually by the time you get it, you're done. We were handicapped in our favor.

GENTRY: There's an big difference between "art by committee" and collaboration the way we did it. We were all such good friends and held each other and our work in such high esteem that we had a higher standard. You'll be damned if you're going to let your friend not do the best work he possibly can.

THE REELER: But it sounds as though three ideas had to evolve together and apart. If one changes, they all change. When does that end? Does it end?

You do have to settle on those things, but arguing out the rules of the universe is really important and where a lot of people get lazy. The math of where everything is was also held to a higher standard. And for a low-budget movie, you have to do that.

BUSH: And it's also: "How can I pay off what the other guys are setting up?"

GENTRY: Healthy competition breeds some realy cool stuff. In terms of the big suspense or kill moments, or the laugh moments? Inventive uses of weapons? "Oh, man, you have a mace with knives wrapped around it? I have to come up with something at least as cool as that."

THE REELER: Was the genre an influence on this working method? Would have you tried this with a comedy?

(L-R) Dan Bush, David Bruckner and Jacob Gentry on the set of The Signal

BRUCKNER: It just lent itself to this kind of experiment. You can get a bunch of tonal differences into a horror film; a horror audience is very savvy and they understand the differences between these things. Also, given the theme and the topic of this film, it seemed like the perfect place where we could flip channels on the same story. The vibe would shift and we could challenge the audience's expectations in new ways. You can't invent a black comedy. To know what you're riffing on, you have to set up a realistic world in the beginning. The order of that was very particular.

THE REELER: By the same token, Jacob, you've mentioned in other interviews that the great thing about cult films is that they lack any specific genre. Magnolia is marketing this as a cult film. How does that affect the way viewers approach The Signal?

GENTRY: It's not just a science fiction/horror film. It's an apocalyptic love story. It's a comedy of manners in certain parts. It’s an absurdist thriller. The coolest thing about the cult label is that it can be in a genre, but it can't be defined. It can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The other thing I love about cult or midnight movies is how they become a rallying point. The way we got together to do this -- almost like a tribe -- in our punk-rock indie scene in Atlanta, it was just as exciting to see audiences rally behind it as well. I'm always drawn to the movies that are undefinable.

THE REELER: Terminus essentially is Atlanta. I cover a lot of New York films and am always interested in how urban filmmakers use their cities. What did Atlanta mean to The Signal?

BUSH: It's funny. There are these small work/play mini-cities that are popping up around Atlanta. There's this place Atlantic Station that was an inspiration to us all -- this corporate entity. For one [fundraising] meeting we put together this Chamber of Commerce kind of package: "Come to Terminus!" Like this utopia where all your needs will be met and you'll function as a model citizen in this perfect environment. That's in contrast with the reality of people who are, in this day and age, more filled with doubt about themselves and their identities. Our characters are flawed. That was an interesting contrast.

GENTRY: You have to be able to say, "This is my place." It doesn’t have the French Quarter or jazz like New Orleans. It doesn't have barbecue or the blues like Memphis. You have to start to create its identity, and it becomes a sort of Everycity. We tried to create this alterverse called Terminus -- which was the original name for Atlanta when it was a terminus for all the railways.

BRUCKNER: A lot of people often ask, "What's it like to be a Southern filmmaker?" As though to make films in the South is to make films about the Civil War.

GENTRY: "Sweet-tea movies."

BRUCKNER: Or living out in the country growing up on a farm or something like that. But Atlanta is a new American city. It came up in the '80s, in an era of mass marketing and mass media. I grew up in the suburbs -- in a suburban, American media environment. And honestly, suburban Minneapolis probably doesn't look that different from suburban Atlanta.

THE REELER: You guys wrote, shot, directed and edited The Signal. How insulated was the shoot, and how much of that was just a small or fragmented filmmaking scene?

GENTRY: It's not just Atlanta. It's like Fight Club -- they're springing up all over the country. It's just a general need to have a voice and make movies, and not everyone can come to New York or trek to Los Angeles or make those connections. So you do what you can to go out and make a movie. That's what we did.

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