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Spirit Awards ’09: “The Signal” Director Daniel Bush

Spirit Awards '09: "The Signal" Director Daniel Bush

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors of films nominated for the John Cassavetes Award or Best First Feature Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards.

Director Daniel Bush’s film “The Signal” is a nominee for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards.

From the Independent Spirit Awards website: It’s New Years Eve in the city of Terminus and chaos in this year’s resolution. All forms of communication have been jammed by an enigmatic signal that preys on the fears and desires of everyone in the city. Told in three parts from three unique perspectives by three visionary directors, “The Signal” is a horrific journey towards discovering that the most brutal monster might actually be within all of us.

Please introduce yourself…

Daniel Bush, writer, director, editor.

It all started in the early 1980’s in Charlotte NC, where as an adolescent pyromaniac, I used 35 mm slide film and kerosine to create epic battle sequences between an H.R Geiger Alien figurine and my Micronaut action figure army.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

Making movies is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was a kid, my favorite movies were 60’s/70’s dramas. I swear to God. That sounds like bullshit, but it’s not. I loved “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Little-Big Man,” “Harold and Maud.” I don’t know why – I think because I believed them. I think it was the sound tracks to those movies more then anything – Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens. Beyond that, I was lucky – I’ve always been surrounded by people who encouraged me to make movies. In Junior high and high-school I turned in absurd, Monte Python-esque parodies on assigned literature instead of english papers- shot them on video and edited them with two VCRs. My teachers and my parents indulged my fascination. Specifically I owe my love for characters and story to my brother, Ben. He’s always been an outsider and a visionary – especially when it comes to drawing and writing comic books and graphic novels. He’s always been ahead of the pop-culture curve. For instance, he once gave me a mixed tape full of surf guitar and Al Green and Kool and the Gang – basically the soundtrack for “Pulp Fiction” – three years before that movie came out. As far as acting and directing actors- I owe my desire to find truth in imagined circumstances to Marta King – My first acting teacher in Chapel Hill, NC. Then there is Dan Berman USC (Columbia, SC, not California) who demanded argument and opinion. He taught me previsualisation and story structure. He critically shredded my first screenplay.

Please discuss the project that you have been nominated for a Spirit Award for. How or what prompted the idea for the film and how did it evolve?

With “The Signal” we were exploring perspective and perception in a self-destructing civilization. We had three directors – three protagonists – three perspectives. As filmmakers, we had all worked together for years under what is now “New-street Arts” in Atlanta; challenging each other, as filmmakers, through a community project called “Dailies”. Filmmakers participating in Dailies are challenged with obstacles or obstructions designed to push you in new directions. One such project, “Exquisite Corpse”, which had to do with a shared story and shared characters, gave us the idea for the approach we used to make “The Signal.”

About “The Signal, Transmission III”:

Thematically, I was interested in one idea: what if at the dawn of the Apocalypse, the exact moment of the fall of civilization, you can’t find the one you love? And Worse? You know that someone else is trying to get to them before you do? Under normal circumstances we all know there are things in life that inspire violent reactions. If anyone ever hurt someone you loved, for instance, what would you do about it? So,Transmission III is taken from the perspective of Ben Capstone, an outsider who is predisposed to survive The Signal because he already mistrusts the trappings of modern civilization, and all it produces. Ben tried to get out; out of his artificial life in this artificial city, and escape forever with Mya, the woman of his dreams. That is the hope. Possible or not It’s the only hope Ben has left. But before he can act, The Signal hits. And what follows is not just a battle with other signalized, homicidal maniacs, it’s a battle with himself. And consequently, in the story, the hero is tested with each step he takes deeper into the labyrinth. And each test prepares him for the final battle. If Ben gives into to his thirst for revenge, and succumbs to the infectious bloodlust transmitted by The Signal, then he passes the point of no return. He becomes the monster. And the signal wins. But if he contains his rage and keeps his sanity? He risks everything he has fought for and all hope of escape.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project both on the creative and non-creative side…

We had no money. This was a blessing and a curse. In the end the lack of funding forced us to be more specific and efficient with our shots and the way we described the action of the story and, consequently, forced us to be more innovative and more creative. We had to focus on character over spectacle. Does that mean it was all puppies and ice-cream sandwiches? Hell no. It was blood, sweat, and tears.

On “The Signal, Transmission III”:

The biggest challenge creatively was continuity – not just of blood on people’s faces, but in every detail temporal and spacial. Every detail in the world of “The Signal” is absolutely dependent on every other detail. That is how intricately interwoven the plots, themes, and the language of these three stories are. I felt that it was my job to honor the tone and sensibilities created in Transmissions 1 and 2, which were radically different than each other, in my opinion, but also pay off the action and momentum of the other two segments. Moreover, I was responsible for resolving this movie as a whole – or at least providing some clear conclusion of action and leaving the audience with the final thought or question. So when there were even slight changes in transmissions one and two, not to mention fundamental changes to the rules of the Terminus Universe (which also happened), It significantly affected the ending. It is amazing, but if you change the rules of the game in part one then part three will inevitably change dramatically. The whole thing just snowballs differently. This is especially true when you have no less than three visionary writer/directors telling one big story.

Please describe your experience of finding out you were nominated for a Spirit Award…

“Holy fuck! Am I… is it… are we… worthy?”

What were some your favorite independent films of 2008?

Every film nominated.

How do you define “independent film” and how has this definition changed for you personally throughout your career?

I’m new at this because I’ve never had much of a budget if any to make movies. So, I don’t really know how to define independent film. Independent of what? A studio? What is independent? Perhaps independent films are simply defined as American films financed and distributed by sources outside today’s big studios and their subsidiaries. Perhaps a filmmaker outside the Hollywood system has more control over their vision? Does that make it easier? Does that make it better? I don’t know. I doubt it. I do think It’s good for a filmmaker to have obstacles and obstructions- financial and logistical. Because these challenges force filmmakers to be innovative, to be specific, to be certain – and I know lack of money certainly forces a filmmaker to to focus on character over spectacle, which is fucking great. But Either way you cut it, it’s hard to make a good movie. A good movie is something you have to fight for. Sacrifice for. You should have to fight for it, and sacrifice for it – or be prepared to. if the story you are telling is not worth fighting for – it’s not worth making. And for me it’s all about the story. My primary obligation is to the story. If the story is compelling – I’ve done my job. It’s easy to make a film – you can do it on your cellphone if you really want to, but making a good movie (telling a compelling story) is the one of the hardest things we can attempt. So even if you have your own money to make a movie -even if it is truly, completely independent- at the end of the day, you are still going to have to answer to somebody.

“What’s next for you?”

Well, I have two feature projects in development right now – and I love them: “Aurora” (sci-fi, thriller), and “The Bateson Device” (horror / thriller). And until either of those movies find their footing (with the proper cast and financing, etc.), I intend to make another movie – “The Trust” (horror / thriller) – this summer on a shoestring budget in Georgia.

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