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Spirit Awards ’09: “The Signal” Director Jacob Gentry

Spirit Awards '09: "The Signal" Director Jacob Gentry

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 Jacob Gentry’s “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.

Jacob Gentry, co-writer/producer/director of “The Signal.”

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

The summer before my freshman year of high school a small independent movie called “Terminator 2” was released in theaters. Like everyone else in the world I loved it. But I went a little further with my obsession. I actually became fascinated with how the movie was made and who made it. The other kids in my neighborhood idolized Ken Griffey Jr., Michael Jordan, and Bo Jackson. My walls were covered with pictures of James Cameron. When school started that fall I enrolled in a video yearbook class that had pretty sophisticated equipment for a high school in 1991. Me and a few of my friends stayed late after school everyday and learned the cameras and the editing decks so that we could create our secret masterpiece, a six minute comedy spoof called “Terminator 3: School Day,” complete with primitive CGI and nonstop adolescent action. Through some sort of province MTV contacted our teacher and asked if she had any student films for a new show. When I was a mere 14 years old I watched as a movie that I had written, directed, and starred in aired for millions of people on basic cable. Much like Orson Welles or Sylvester Stallone, it’s been all downhill ever since.

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?

“The Signal” is a scifi/horror/thriller/social satire/love story set in the apocalypse. It is told in three parts by three different directors to show three perspectives on how a mysterious transmission emanating through all media devices in the city of Terminus causes the city to destroy itself. It’s about how violence begets violence because everyone is justified in their own mind.

My producing partner, Alex Motlagh and I wanted to make an low budget genre picture for our next project. We were already collaborating with Dave Bruckner and Dan Bush on an short film side project called “Exquisite Corpse”, where one filmmaker starts the story and others pick it up and take it in their own direction. We all four then decided to shape and form those more esoteric and challenging ideas into a streamlined science fiction horror picture. Somehow we made the decision to have all three of us direct. Fortunately I have massive respect for those guys and we’re all great friends so we took the challenge. We enlisted all our talented actor friends and dove in the pool hoping there was water.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

I would say lack of money, but I get the feeling that even big huge hollywood budgets can feel like a constraint to your imagination.

The biggest challenges came in the fact we were attempting something very uncommon in cinema with the three directors telling the same story. I may be wrong but I don’t know of another movie with quite the same process/structure as ours. Therefore the biggest challenge was not really having a road map for this thing. That however was also the biggest thrill.

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

I was on a plane traveling from LA to Atlanta to work with the other guys on furthering the story of “The Signal.” We had spent the last year or so working mostly on our own scripts and projects, but we were having an obligatory development meeting for future projects set in the world of Terminus. When the plane landed I turned on my cellphone and was bombarded with text messages and voice mails about the nomination. I went straight from the airport to the “obligatory development meeting” which became one of the most creative and productive weeks we’ve had together. The energy in the room was unstoppable. Being recognized for the story we created together gave us a renewed interest in working with each other once again, and the confidence to let our imaginations run wild.

What were some your favorite independent films of 2008?

My favorite movie of 2008, independent or otherwise, was “The Wackness.”

How do you define “independent film”?

I define independent film not by it’s subject matter or content, but by the manner in which it was made. Whether it’s John Cassavetes with “Faces” or George Lucas with “Empire Strikes Back,” whether its Spike Lee with “She’s Gotta Have It” or Mel Gibson with “The Passion of The Christ.” “Pink Flamingos” or “Apocalypse Now.” Big and small. Popular and cult. Blockbuster and midnight movie. A personal story made with private money outside a corporate system without consideration for the bottom line and with the passion and gusto to get your vision to an audience against all odds – that is what I consider independent film.

What’s next for you?
After many years of trying, I would like to bring my Karaoke Samurai movie to the big screen.

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