"Do you have the crazy?" While it may not be the catchphrase of the year ("I drink your milkshake!" takes the cake), that quote is pretty damn quotable. It's from a new independent horror movie called The Signal, and it's spoken by one of the saner characters in a world gone mad. Murderously mad, of course.
This pie-cut three-act film is written and directed by a troika of filmmakers who divvy the story of the effects a strange, death-launching transmission of mysterious static. The first part, entitled Transmission 1: Crazy in Love, contains the most pure horror; Transmission 2: The Jealous Monster, is the inkiest of black comedy; and finally, part 3, entitled Transmission 3: Escape From Terminus, is scary sci-fi.
Actor A.J. Bowen stars throughout the film, but his character, Lewis Denton, is "The Jealousy Monster" and he explained to horror.com's Staci Layne Wilson exactly how he channeled his inner green-eyed ghoul.
Staci Layne Wilson / Horror.com: The Signal's cast and crew seem really simpatico; were you friends with the directors long before they conceived of the film?
AJ Bowen: Yeah. Actually David [Bruckner] and Jacob [Gentry], two of the directors and I, went to college together. So did a couple of the other actors. We went to the University of Georgia, and we started making student films that were really pretentious. We thought black-and-white meant artistic truth. You know, so we started doing that, I guess about a decade ago and then we all kind of splintered off into their own things.
I went and starved in New York for a little while, and everybody starved everywhere, and then we reconvened to do Alex and Jacob's first feature together. The last goodbye and everybody had a very small role here or there and it and then I moved out to LA and was working, and I got a call from them saying that they were going to do a genre picture. And I love horror films, and I was like if there is a part for me, if there's anything let me know because I would love to come back and do it. And then they told me as a matter of fact yes, we want you to play a really violent, unhappy person, a cuckolded man.
Staci: Type casting, obviously. [laughter]
AJ: So I was very happy to do it, yeah. I didn't have to audition for it. I think that a couple of us were fortunate because we had the parts written for us. And they really kind of play on our strengths as actors, and that was beneficial.
Staci: What were your strengths as an actor that they felt that they could exploit for this movie?
AJ: I could grow a beard. [laughter] And really, I guess the honest answer is that I am interested. I'm not interested in playing a very simple [arc] and then I like the complexity. You know, one of the things that attracts me to the story is the idea that… I think a fully fleshed out human being is the capacity to do good and bad things. They have flaws, and I think that certainly that was much better for me to do. I wouldn't have been able to do the same kind of job that Justin [Welborn], the guy that played Ben, did. So having this guy's flaws makes it a little bit of a challenge to try to make him still sympathetic.
Staci: What is one of those unsympathetic things… well, there are a lot of them. Let me rephrase that: what is your favorite unsympathetic thing that he does in the movie?
AJ: While I think that everything that he does is heroic! [laughter] Um, I think that the worst thing that he probably does… I think it's in two parts: he kisses Anna right before he fills her mouth with poison. And then the other thing would be… we're not certain, who tied up Mia, but is Lewis did, then I think that that is the point of no return for the guy.
In his defense, everything he was doing that he thought he was doing for the sanctity of his marriage and the safety of his wife. And so this is one time where no one could be like "Oh, I can see why they tied her up and put her in front of a [Signal-transmitting] monitor with belts."
So, I would say that that, and hitting the 13-year-old girl with a pesticide tank.
Staci: Oh, yeah, that's kind of mean. A little bit.
Staci: So for fans of horror, how do you describe the film? Is it the zombies? Or is it aliens transmitting this signal through the TVs and radios, or what?
AJ: You know, I didn't think that when we were shooting I didn't think it was a horror movie. It wasn't until Sundance that I thought it was more sci-fi, because it certainly, I mean, it has elements, but I think it is nontraditional from its approach. I am a really big fan of slasher films. That is my probably favorite sub-genre, and there really wasn't any of that in this. So I suppose there are elements… we've really heard a lot about the zombie thing. But I can see elements of being this mass paranoia and this mass psychoses.
But other than that, I think that visually we are not entirely dissimilar from 28 Days Later. And I think that is where that comes up with a lot. And then there is so much in the film that deals with prospective and potential hallucination that you are not certain what is happening. So there are some moments where it is questionable whether people were actually dead, and came back. So I guess that supports the idea of it possibly being of zombie film. But the biggest element is that everybody is out to get you. You can't trust anybody. We are well and truly fucked! That's part of it, and then the gore.
Staci: Yeah, it is pretty gory.
AJ: I wasn't aware of that either, until I saw it for the first time. I mean, there is one moment where I was involved in a $2.00 effect shot, and the first time I saw it, I was very troubled. I was pretty bummed out by it.
Staci: Who directed that portion?
AJ: Dan [Bush]. That would be fairly close to the beginning of the third transmission, during the hallucination for Ben. Lewis, particularly, goes out in a very terrible way. And then having said that, that was the one where he really went, "Oh my God, we really can kind of make a video nasty!" It was pretty gory, but you are never aware that you are doing that at the time. I mean, I knew we were trying to, but... wow.
Staci: One of the most interesting backstories about The Signal is that it is by three different directors, and there are three distinct tonal shifts throughout the film. You take part, most prominently, in dark comedy portion. Now, how did you know when you were shooting, if you are being funny or if it was just too dark to allow anyone to laugh? Do they let you look at the footage so you could gauge how you were coming across?
AJ: I think that we were shooting it so fast that nobody even really had an opportunity to look at dailies. But I don't like to look at dailies, so I wouldn't have anyway. But, I think, if I was out and out like we didn't for like transmission two which people will think is the comedy of it is the shorter of the depth of the three I don't think that there was an approach to try "Okay, now we are making the funny one."
And you know… the really lame actory answer is like whenever there is tragedy, you try to find the humor. And whenever there is humor, you try to find the tragedy. But in this particular case, when we knew the directors well enough and we rehearsed the film well enough, that we I guess we kind of understood the tone going in. It wasn't spoken about, we certainly weren't trying to be funny. If it's funny, it's probably the writing.
Probably there is one exception in Transmission 2 that was totally off-the-cuff between me and Scott [Poythress], the guy that played Clark, involving pretzels. We had to do a take, like, six times. We didn't know the guy that played Jim, Chad, went off and got to play with the script a little bit and got to write on his own a little bit. And he and Jacob worked on it together, and then didn't tell Scott or I. So, when Jim shows up the first time, he said some things that were jaw dropping. We did not know until the first take that that was going to happen. We didn't even know in rehearsal. So, in that regard, I knew that it was funny because I busted out in the middle of the take.
Staci: Oh really? So they didn't use that one. Do have a pretty good idea of which take they are going to use when they do that many?
AJ: No. But as an actor, they almost never use the one that you want them to use. You know. They always use the ones that you wish they hadn't.
Staci: Just be glad that you're not not working with David Fincher. Well, strike that: I'll bet you want to someday, but I hear he does, like, 50 or 60 takes.
AJ: Or like Terrance Malick, he will have a lead character in his movie and then it will be cut out in post and you are not in it anymore.
Staci: Yeah, that would have to be the worst.
AJ: We don't have to worry about that, there weren't enough actors or time or money for them to do that. We had to put it all up there. [laughter]
Staci: How quickly did it all come together from script to screen?
AJ: Well, I had the script for a little while. But, we were not privy, the actors were not privy to the script until before Christmas. I think it was 2005. Was it 2005? We had our first read, our first table read before Christmas. And then we got back together right after Christmas, and we did what we called signal boot camp. So we spent a week or 10 days, eight hours a day, with the directors and the actors talking about it. The script was fairly there were some big differences from one we started. And that I think was a complement to the directors, because they were really open to suggestion, and it became more of like a community effort. So we rehearsed it for 10 days, trimmed down a lot added dialogue scenes changed up a little bit before we started shooting at. And then when we shot it, it wasn't more than a couple of weeks, tops. And that is including pickups. There were some long days in there. I guess you should be happy to do that if you are going to shoot a movie for $50,000.
Staci: Is that all it was?
Staci: Wow, where was it filmed?
AJ: Atlanta. Entirely. Just yeah, pretty much downtown, and actually Dave, the director of the first transmission, we used Mia and Lewis's apartment or a loft will it was actually his loft. So we had our department come in and put some art on the walls and make it look like it wasn't a bachelor pad. But.
Staci: One of the things that I noticed while watching the movie was how they made the transmission coming from the television set a little different than anything I have ever seen. You know, for instance I didn't picture "Carol Ann" at the screen. Do you know how they did that effect?
AJ: It was a composited shot. We had a guy, and Dan Bush the director of transmission 3, I think, had a lot of input on that day. The three went on for a long time on that. First there was the oral part of it. But then visually they threw in just a bunch of different random images. And I mean, there are some very disturbing images that make their way in so it was interspersed. I'm not sure exactly how they got the sort of wobbly wavelength thing, but I know that inside of it, there are a whole lot of things packed in that are awesome. I know that, because I spent a lot of time looking at it during the shooting of the movie. With my face, like, this far away from the screen! I was getting a little loopy after it, but I swear I saw a baby. I saw fast food, I saw a few indescribable things.
Staci: Well, that is part of the fun. So people can like look for little flashes of picture.
AJ: I don't think people should look too long at it. I got astigmatism from it. And if it does its job, it should make people psychotic. Right?
Staci: Yeah. But they will be so crazed that they will pay to see the movie again.
AJ: There you go!
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Tune in tomorrow for Part Two of Horror.com's exclusive interviews on The Signal