One of the first films I ever covered in my career was The Signal (2007), which was co-directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry, so it’s been a real pleasure to follow this trio’s career paths over the last 13 or so years. And Gentry’s latest directorial endeavor, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, celebrated its world premiere earlier this week as part of the 2021 edition of the SXSW Film Festival.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Gentry about his involvement with Broadcast Signal Intrusion, infusing this fictional story with real-world elements, utilizing the year 1999 as the backdrop for this paranoia-fueled tech thriller, his experiences collaborating with the film’s star Harry Shum Jr., and more.
Great to speak with you again, Jacob. I know this is based on a real occurrence that happened in Chicago in the late '80s, which is where I grew up. And it's weird, because I don't remember this, but I was also young, so this might've just gone totally over me, because I was maybe eight or nine when this was all happening. But I'd love to talk a little bit about why this story in particular was ideal for you to take on as your next project as a director.
Jacob Gentry: The initial concept of the eponymous broadcast signal intrusions was in the script that Phil [Drinkwater] and Tim [Woodall] wrote. And when the producers sent it to me, I responded to that core concept, but there was no sort of mention to me of some of the inspiration. So I just went and did my own research into all of the stuff that the script was talking about. I spoke to the writers and they talked about that Max Headroom incident that was, of course, woven into the DNA of the script.
I think that throughout working on the script with them, my desire was to make it almost feel like historical fiction for an event like that and creating our fictionalized version of the Max Headroom incident, so we'd still have room to go our own ways. We'd have poetic license with a lot of things, but at the same time, rooting it in a real-life event somehow made the unsolved mystery and potential conspiracy behind everything seem even more tactile and disturbing.
It was like being inspired by something like Zodiac, or something in that way, where the fact that it’s based on an actual thing that happened, even though it's not the most extreme serial killer story you could come up with. But then also, the movies that really inspired it for me, that I really wanted to kind of make this part of that idiom would be the paranoia thrillers of the '70s, like All the President's Men, which is actually dealing with something that's a real history. But then there's movies like Parallax View or The Conversation or Blow Out, where these kinds of movies that would create their own analogs to the political paranoia that was happening at the time.
And also, in the '90s, I had worked on this kind of analog equipment, and I was a video editor since I was in high school. So, I related to that, just in a life history kind of way, being like, "Well, this is something that I know about and could potentially find ways to make it cinematic." Make the process of it cinematic for a contemporary audience that may or may not even have any understanding of this equipment, or these means of forensically analyzing a piece of media is like a clue in an investigation.
This story is set in 1999, and I can remember there was this inherent weirdness in the air that year, because of things like Y2K and stuff like that. Was that sort of intentional on your part, in terms of wanting this to take place around that time? It feels like the perfect backdrop to this story.
Jacob Gentry: Well, with the script, there was a distinct difference in where the story ended up taking place. I think this perhaps was like a little bit of a translation issue from here, because the writers are from the UK, is that their script was very much immediately following 9/11. I thought that there was a feeling in the air after that where a general innocence was lost, or there was just a tone to the entire world around us that was changing. But you're right. In 1999, we didn't even realize how naive we were about a lot of things and yet, we were really paranoid about the change over into the new millennium. So I just wanted to back it up a couple years and just make it clear that 1999 was a really interesting, fascinating year for all of that.
But in the same way that the paranoid thrillers of the '70s were inspired by things like the Kennedy assassination and Watergate, it was like there was a palpable paranoia in the air from exactly what you're talking about, Heather, which is the fears of Y2K and the burgeoning days of the Internet. That was the beginning stages of something like Google even existing, and at that point, we've yet to even get into the world of YouTube and social media. So I've found it to be far enough from the events, because the mystery that it's trying to uncover happened in the '80s, where it would still be astounding that it was unsolved and make it creepier. There were a lot of things that I think created an arena for the kind of story we wanted to tell.
I want to talk about Harry in this movie, because his character goes on this incredible journey in this story and he's just so damn good here. How was it working with him on Broadcast Signal Intrusion?
Jacob Gentry: He's tremendous. It was one of the great thrills of my life to work with him on this movie. I have so much respect for him. He is insanely talented. I can't say enough good things about Harry Shum Jr., as he's one of my favorite actors I've ever worked with, and I loved every part about working with him. I think what's cool about this movie is that, hopefully, if I did him the service that I should have, he's going to surprise a lot of people. He's mostly known for things that are a little bit lighter, in terms of their tonal qualities or emotional depth. Not to say that something like Glee or Shadow Hunters doesn't have emotional depth, but this has a different kind of tone to it.
I also think seeing someone like him unravel in a really convincing way is astounding to watch because the character becomes very complex, and maybe does some things that you may question the morality of some of the stuff that he's doing. It's like when you have a character who is as relatable and likable an actor as him, I think when he comes on screen, you instantly are endeared to him, just by the jump. So it's always interesting to see those kinds of people unravel, because it almost takes you by surprise.
But in terms of the process of doing the archival video editing and logging tapes and those sorts of things, Harry's a tremendously talented dancer and choreographer, and I had experience with the equipment and the things that we were doing with that equipment, so it worked out great. If I wanted to give him a set of things to do in a certain order, with a process in which to do it, he was a very quick learner and he often outshined your abilities pretty much instantly. Harry definitely made this film really fun to work on. For sure.
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