Updating the conspiracy thriller

Jacob Gentry on the creative process and Broadcast Signal Intrusion

by Paul Risker

Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Broadcast Signal Intrusion Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is inspired by the Max Headroom signal hijacking of two Chicago television stations in 1987. Those behind the hijacking were never identified. In director Jacob Gentry's “historical fiction”, written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall, video archivist James (Harry Shum Jr.) discovers what he believes to be a broadcast signal hacking. Finding similar signal intrusions, he slips down an obsessive rabbit hole when he realises that they may be clues that will reveal what happened to his missing wife Hannah.

Gentry's previous credits include the ensemble drama Last Goodbye, which explored the connections between a diverse group of characters, including a horror actress, runaway teenager, an alcoholic preacher and a rock band; and the time travel sci-fi drama, Synchronicity. No stranger to horror, he directed the feature film The Signal, and the made-for-television slasher trilogy, My Super Psycho Sweet 16.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Gentry discussed his love of genre clichés, having his Rocky and Citizen Kane moment early on, and his attempt to modernise the Seventies conspiracy thriller.

Paul Risker: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

Jacob Gentry: In the early to mid-Nineties, when I was very young, I wanted to be a comic book artist. It was a dream, but I hit a ceiling of not only my own talent, but the ability to recognise that there were people better than me - my heroes.

I wanted to go further than what sequential art was, and I was a fan of movies, but I was lucky that between my eighth grade and ninth grade years, the movie Terminator 2 came out. It was a big deal because not only was it a phenomenal movie that holds up to this day, but there was a lot of behind-the-scenes information on grocery store newsstands. My friends would have pictures of Ken Griffey Jr on their wall, and I’d have pictures of James Cameron.

As I was getting into the art of shot-making and telling stories, the movement in the frame, the music, the dialogue and the soundscape gave me an added dimension that I wasn’t getting with conventional drawing. Starting to go further down the road with the dramaturgical elements, the semiotics and the art of montage, it just became an obsession earlier enough.

The first movie I made was in my freshman year of high school. A friend and I made a spoof of Terminator 2, called Terminator 3 School Day. They actually played it on MTV, so I peaked with my first movie, and it has been all downhill ever since.

PR: If Broadcast Signal Intrusion is downhill…

JG: [Laughs] That’s my Rocky moment right? That's my Citizen Kane. I'm not comparing myself to those, but you do that thing and you think it's all going to be like this. Everything I make is going to be on basic cable.

PR: The creative act requires confidence, self-belief and self-esteem. Even with those, writing or making films is a difficult process, and many creative types struggle with doubt and self-criticism. I’ve heard novelists and directors say that the joy is in seeing the work complete, not in the process of writing or directing.

JG: I like the bookends of the process the most, and the middle part is a necessary inconvenience. I love the research and the coming up with the ideas, developing it from nothing and starting to see the movie in my head. If I use the genre form, I want to contribute, or say something about that genre. If it's a period piece, I want all of the verisimilitude of that to be in place, but you can start to use research as a tool for procrastinating.

Directing is personally one of my least favourite parts of the process, if not the least, because they back the compromise truck up to your house and you start loading stuff in. The shooting includes my absolute favourite thing, but they’re these isolated buoys. When actors and the cinematographer find a moment you could never have thought about in the abstract, when you were working on it beforehand, that’s the most exhilarating part. The editing is my favourite, because I love the art of montage and juxtaposing images, trying to tell a story, and what you can say with the form. I love the rhythm and the music of it. I’d edit my movies forever if I could, not because I'm trying to perfect it, only because I love investigating the different alley ways.

Making movies is hard and I don't know if I'm naturally self-confident in my life. I’ve about an average sense of self-confidence, and maybe I’m lacking what you'd need to PT Barnum your movies. I’ve a lot of confidence in what I'm doing, but that's just because I get in this trance and I don't question myself. The one good thing about shooting is that you don't have time to overthink. With writing you can talk yourself out of good ideas by over analysing, but the confidence in the ideas just comes from the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing, because I've been editing since I was 14 or 15-years-old. You develop a muscle where you start to trust what works and doesn't, and you change it if it doesn't work – all you see are green and red lights.

PR: Thinking about this film, it brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, where characters discover something that leads them down an obsessive rabbit hole. Is part of the fun of making films playing around with familiar types of stories and forms?

JG: I'm fascinated and forever intrigued by genre convention. A lot of times the things people see in movies that they call clichés can be pejorative, as if you notice this is something that occurs in a lot of these types of movies and somehow is a bad thing. I feel the opposite; I love conventions, and I like to see how people make the form their own. I like the word tropes because I'm a big fan of them, and I'm not crazy about it when people use it as a negative term. They’re another tool just like the camera, or any other tool you would use to make a movie.

PR: Based on a real event from the Eighties, how much did you look to play on the incident? The reason I ask is because reality can cripple a story, instead it’s about knowing how to use it, even manipulate it for the purposes of world building.

JG: I call Broadcast Signal Intrusion an historical fiction of the Max Headroom incident, and other broadcast signal intrusions. I like the idea of it being slightly removed so that you're stepping inside of an imagined reality in the movie, but there's enough real life analogues that give it a sense of reality, so that you can suspend your disbelief.

I was vaguely aware of the incident when I read Phil and Tim's original script. I'm glad of that, instead of it being, ‘Okay, that's what this is based on.’ I had to go down my own rabbit hole, and when I came back up, I wanted to double down on all this stuff.

My first response to the script was feeling creeped out, but I didn't know why. I'm not that squeamish, I don't get scared in movies in a visceral way. There are certain movies that cause me existential dread, but it's hard to scare me. I can recognise when something is scary, but I was creeped out by the script, and I didn't know why. In the part that was tripping me out, there wasn't a phobia of mine represented, or a direct threat, and I didn't know the character that well.

When I started to figure out it was connected to this historical event that did the same thing as was in the script, then I started to see that this could be an interesting Seventies conspiracy thriller. It started out as this selfish thing of whether I could map a Seventies conspiracy thriller onto this.

It’s a form I like and there were aspects of that, so I wanted to go for it, but modernise the conspiracy thriller sub-genre. In the Seventies, they were based on conspiracies that we know the outcome of and have some form of legitimacy - Woodward and Bernstein [All the President’s Men].

Making the movie, it started to feel like the actual conspiracy theorists were just as scary as some of the theories. I know that's true all over the world, and I talk to some people in other countries where it's even more extreme. I thought, ‘okay, that's the way it can be modernised.’ Our take on the form was making the conspiracy theorists an unreliable narrator in the genre.

I also like tech and gear, and I grew up editing, using equipment like the main character in the movie, so I identified with that. It's fun to create a world that’s based on the real world, but could almost be an imagined world. It was as much world building as my stylised science fiction movie I made a few years ago, that had a completely imagined alternate universe.

PR: Is there an uncertainty in filmmaking that makes the process of expressing your intentions a daunting prospect?

JG: It’s why it's scary. Even someone like Spielberg, in the middle of his career when asked what's the hardest thing about making movies, he said, "Getting from the car to the set in the morning.”

You're capturing things that are permanent and there’s the old saying that there's only two ways to shoot a scene, and one of them is wrong [laughs]. The other axiom I subscribe to is Peter Hyam's thing when he said, “I don't use the camera as a capture device, I use it as a number 2 pencil on a sketch pad, or a paint brush.” I don't like the idea of just setting up the camera and going, “Okay, this person, then this person; wide shot, medium, closeup.” That bores the shit out of me.

It's about making choices in the moment and you hope the choice services the expression of what you're trying to do in the scene. The way Scott and I chose to do the movie is that it's very formalistic in the first half, and then the form starts to get looser, grittier and more handheld. The conspiracy thriller starts to fall apart as the main character does.

There’s a lot of anxiety, but at some point you have to make the choice and you hope it's the right one. It's almost an existential question because it's hard to make a movie. When people ask was that an accident, I wish film functioned that way. You try to find places to be analytical and you try to find places to be instinctual, but it's a roll of the dice. Every movie is a different challenge and it’s hard all over again. There are certain things you can learn, like how to work with other people, the technical logistics, but ultimately, every film if you're true to what that film wants, takes on it's own challenges. Every movie is like your first one in a many ways, or at least it is for me.

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