We first saw Broadcast Signal Intrusion at SXSW earlier this year. Its story—about a grieving Chicago man named James (Harry Shum Jr.) who becomes consumed by a sinister mystery hidden in a series of vintage videotapes—stuck with us. At last, it’s arriving in theaters and on digital this week, so we eagerly hopped on a video call with its director, Jacob Gentry (Synchronicity, The Signal), to talk more about the film.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: The movie is set in 1999, sort of right when old technology like VCRs and land-line phones were giving way to a newer wave of tech that was “the future” at the time. How did you approach filming a movie so specifically set in the not-so-distant past and what were the challenges with that?
Jacob Gentry: The biggest challenge, obviously, was logistical—on a modest budget, trying to avoid cars and things that give away the time period. But also it was a challenge in terms of—you know, I’m old enough to remember, I was an adult at that time. But a lot of the collaborators on the movie had to study information [about the time period] because they were too young to remember. So it was a really fascinating process to go, “I remember it this way,” and they’re like, “Well, this says that’s not what it was like.” So it’s interesting to see what the historical record in your own memory is. But yeah, I really felt that  was a perfect time for, you know, we have high-speed internet, everything is starting to gear up in that way, and cell phones are really starting to proliferate. But at the same time, it’s still close enough to the time when the broadcast signal intrusions occurred that it could potentially still be a fresh thing—there could be kind of a middle ground, where we can find some relevance in something that happened [in the mid-1980s] through the experience of someone living [in 1999].
There’s also paranoia in the air at the time that was very palpable, just in terms of our fears about the turn of the century, Y2K, and what have you. But until a couple of years later, we didn’t even realize how naive we actually were in 1999; there are some things we know better now in hindsight about that time. So I just find all those things really fascinating—to study the past in order to understand the present.
io9: What was your introduction to the script by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall, and what grabbed your attention and made you want to make the movie?
Gentry: A producer friend of mine sent it to me and I’ll be honest, the main reason was because I read a lot of horror scripts and thriller scripts—this is kind of a hybrid of the two genres—and I don’t ever really get freaked out. But this freaked me out, and I didn’t know why, and that was the biggest part of it. I got existentially anxious but I didn’t understand what was causing it, because there was no direct antagonistic force. There was no direct threat to the life of the character, it was just literally someone watching a tape, but for some reason it really affected me. And then when you start to dig into all this stuff, like the Max Headroom incident, which we took a lot of inspiration from, you start to see—it’s seemingly benign in a sense, or it seems sort of almost juvenile, but there’s something about it that is just very, very unsettling.
io9: And I mean, he could just turn that tape off, but he can’t stop himself from digging further into the mystery. So that’s scary, too. Like, why won’t he stop?
Gentry: Yeah, exactly.
io9: You mentioned the Max Headroom thing, and I was going to ask you, how much did you know about the real-life incidents before you started and how much research did you do into those?
Gentry: I did a lot of research. As we were developing the script, that wasn’t actually something that I discussed with the writers, and it wasn’t as explicit in the original script. The connections weren’t as tightly wound. I went deep on it and found it fascinating, and almost like the character in the movie, I kind of went into my own little rabbit hole with that. But just broadcast signal intrusions, in general, are very fascinating to me. The Max Headroom incident, because it’s unsolved, is always going to hold the most fascination, and it’s the most famous one because it happened on such a grand-ish scale, meaning like [it used] sophisticated equipment to take over a major network in a major city.
io9: Those were more of a prank, though, weren’t they? There wasn’t sinister intent? Or do we know?
Gentry: I mean, if you’re an Occam’s razor kind of person, then yes. If you’re prone to connecting dots that may or may not potentially be there, then… you know? There’s a lot of fascinating theories about it—some that actually seem like they have some legitimacy—but ultimately it does feel like a prank. It’s just that it would need such sophisticated equipment for the time, and it would take a lot of know-how to even do it in the first place. So what would be the point of doing such an elaborate scheme, if it’s just to be anarchic? Maybe I just answered that with my own sort of query right there, but that’s why it continues to fascinate. And that’s also a conflict in the movie: is it just a prank or is there something more sinister behind it?
io9: It feels very sinister because the intrusions are so terrifying. Can you talk about the director you worked with to create them, including how you came up with the design for the segments, especially the mannequins?
Gentry: I worked with an effects artist named Dan Martin, a fantastic, brilliant guy. We just had a lot of conversations about all kinds of stuff. One of our north stars for the aesthetic idea was a creepypasta called “I Feel Fantastic,” better known as Tara the Android—if you google that, anyone will immediately see [how Broadcast Signal Intrusion used it for inspiration]. We’re both lovers of the cinema fantastique and the odd and what have you; he’s in the UK and we had a lot of conversations about “video nasties” too. It was just about trying to find the perfect balance of, “What is the level of mundanity which makes this really, really unsettling?” I think that that’s both true of the Max Headroom incident and a creepypasta such as Tara the Android: there’s something so banal about it that it makes it even more upsetting. It’s got an uncanny valley idea to it, you know? [We used] animatronics and in some instances, there was this wonderful actor that Dan Martin works with named James Swanson—he has this just amazing physicality and characteristics to his face. He’s almost like a Doug Jones type of actor. So there’s a mix of actual animatronics or puppeteering in the movie, and also him being more robotic to create that gradual shift. I thought he did a fantastic job. Both of those guys did.
io9: It feels like you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be watching.
Gentry: That’s a more concise way of answering the first question that you asked, which is just like it just feels like, “I shouldn’t be watching this” or “I shouldn’t be reading this script.”
io9: I have to ask about Stepbot and Don Cronos, the two made-up TV series in the movie. How did you come up with the looks for those—Small Wonder and Doctor Who, I’m guessing, were the inspirations. Can you tell me more about those?
Gentry: Yeah, I mean, you nailed it right there. One of my favorite things is to kind of come up with fake versions of real-life things, and there’s a lot of fun with just imagining pop culture ephemera. Small Wonder was obviously very inspirational for Stepbot from the standpoint of, there is nothing in this movie that is as creepy as that sitcom from the ‘80s. It’s so unnerving and you really don’t know why, but it’s upsetting. Don Cronos was [us] trying to come up with a Doctor Who-type show and digging into that. I’m a casual fan of Doctor Who, but it was just trying to find our own version of that which felt like it could be real. That kind of stuff is really fun to do.
io9: Broadcast Signal Intrusion has some very noir vibes (the score backs this up) but it’s also very much a mystery thriller about discovering something that most people haven’t noticed. How did you strike that balance in tone?
Gentry: I’m such a lover of noir in my life, and my previous film was very much in the form of a noir movie with those tropes. But for this one, it was really about ‘70s paranoia thrillers, movies which are a descendant of noir in a lot of ways—like Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men, and then the other triptych of Blow Up, The Conversation, and Blow Out. Blow Out is a touchstone movie for me, it’s one of my favorite movies. I’m a [Brian] De Palma super fan. So, of course, all those things start to come together. The score, which a lot of people say sounds noirish, is actually—if you listen to some of the Michael Small music from movies like Marathon Man and Parallax View and Klute, it has very much the DNA of those, which I think pulls from the sort of prime period of film noir, and it’s almost an identifier for the audience. There’s this darkness, there’s mystery, but there’s also kind of like a sleaziness. You want to build paranoia, but you also want to kind of give the idea of loneliness and isolation and those sorts of things. Ben Lovett, the composer, obviously does a lot of that heavy lifting.
io9: I definitely thought of Blow Out during the scene where James and Alice (Kelley Mack) are listening closely to one of the tapes, trying to hear the hidden sounds.
Gentry: Yeah, there’s definitely some—I call it “process porn,” and it’s something I love. You know, whether it’s something like John Travolta forensically analyzing his sound tapes to discover a conspiracy, or James Caan [in Thief] with the intricate Michael Mann shot process of breaking into a safe. I love watching that if it’s done well and it’s always fun to try to make compelling.
io9: The ending, without giving too much away, dips into a very surreal place, kind of capping off the movie’s slow descent into a world that doesn’t quite feel real. What do you want audiences to take away from that last scene?
Gentry: I think the ultimate reaction, the sort of hope or dream, would be a really good parking lot conversation, or whatever [the equivalent of that would be] if you were to watch it at home and discuss it online. Some of my best moviegoing experiences are when you have a really good discussion about it afterwards and it sticks with you. Even if you don’t like it at first, there’s perhaps things you can discover about it. Some of my favorite movies or movies are ones that I was a little bit conflicted on. We took a lot of inspiration from Zodiac, a movie I was kind of unsure about when I first saw it, or even more recently, something like Under the Silver Lake. My wife and I were coming out of that and it was like, “I don’t think I like that movie,” and then we proceeded to talk about it the entire ride home. You know what I mean?
So that’s really the goal—hopefully it will be compelling and exciting and thrilling and unsettling. But also, if you so choose, there’s interesting things that can be discussed. Some of the most interesting conversations about this movie I’ve heard are when there’s someone who was like, “I hated the end of that movie,” and another person who wanted to defend it. And I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion arrives in theaters and on digital October 22.
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