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SIGNAL OF INTENT

It started with a simple idea – a FrightFest-backed initiative to encourage would-be screenplay writers to submit their ideas and be nurtured and mentored by experts in the field with a view to one day turning the script into an actual finished film. It started with a simple idea – a FrightFest-backed initiative to encourage would-be screenplay writers to submit their ideas and be nurtured and mentored by experts in the field with a view to one day turning the script into an actual finished film.

 

As anyone knows, film festivals are littered with directors, writers and producers looking to get a foot in the door, with little or no success. And even if they do, their projects can languish in development hell for months if not years afterwards.

 

So the fact that FrightFest’s New Blood initiative now has one finished feature film under its belt is a significant achievement. And the fact that the film, BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION, premiered at FrightFest was neatly serendipitous, squaring the circle to an idea dreamed up by, among others, FrightFest’s directors and long-time attendee, FF supporter and industry expert Giles Edwards.

 

The fact that it’s a cracking little film, a genre-bending tale of a strange hijacking of local cable TV when the format was in its infancy, is not only heartening, but also points the way forward for New Blood too.

 

It owes as much to Alan J Pakula as it does to David Cronenberg and plays as much like a 1970s conspiracy thriller as a horror, another testament to the talent involved.

 

“That was always the key to it,” says Edwards now, who dreamed up the idea with the FrightFest team when he was one of the team launching newly formed independent production company Queensbury Pictures, which is owned by MPI, where he also runs acquisitions and development for Europe.

 

Queensbury was launched to work with creatives and develop genre fare. “One of my first thoughts was ‘where the fuck do we find scripts from?’” he explains. He wanted to find the new Bean Wheatley, the new Ti West, the new Julia DuCournau. And where better than scouting among the FrightFest audience – film savvy, creative and with a firm understanding and love of genre fare. Conversations with the directors led to New Blood being launched. “It was a case of ‘give us your ideas, we’ll buy it from you, and we’ll make it’,” says Edwards. There were criteria of course: “It had to be at the right level. We’re not going to have Arnold fighting aliens on the moon, the idea had to sit with our budgets.” Queensbury was trying to avoid the obvious slasher fare too, as well as looking for under-represented voices, or maybe writers who might have got as far as having an agent but had had little success beyond that.

 

From hundreds of entries, the list was whittled down to eight, who received mentoring from FrightFest legend Barbara Crampton through to Dominic Brunt, as well as Edwards and producer Travis Stevens, another Queensbury founder.

 

“We had proper one on one sessions and we gave feedback, asked them why they were taking things in a certain direction. With a writer, a producer, an actor and someone like myself, the writers really felt they were getting attention for it,” says Edwards.

 

Writers Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall had sent a pitch in and even though they couldn’t make the mentoring session (they’re based in different time zones for starters), but for Edwards and co, the BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION idea, about a hijacking of cable stations in the early Internet age, stood out immediately. “This is exactly what we wanted,” says Edwards, explaining that their backgrounds in media, film and tech were ideal. “They had an agent, but nothing produced. They wanted to make this, but they couldn’t sort the funding and we thought this was an opportunity, this is like the stuff we do.”

 

The pair submitted a script and as Edward notes: “The script really resonated with us, there was an incident that happened in Chicago, and no-one ever found out who did it. And Phil and Tim spun it off into a conspiracy thriller.

 

“It did stand out, not to negate the other entries at all, but sometimes you hear an idea that sounds cinematic, sounds grown up, is cinematic and realistic. It’s at the hinterland of near horror and sci-fi, it feels grown up, like Cronenberg and Pakula.”

 

All these elements and more – folk horror, drama, the conspiracy thriller feel – wooed Queensbury and the judges and mentors, and luckily the team of Drinkwater and Woodall came good on the promise. “The script followed and luckily their writing was so polished – they just got it,” says Edwards.

 

For their part, Drinkwater and Woodall have been working together since 2012 and made their first short film together a year later. “A lot of the work we’ve done has been a collision of ideas,” the pair say (their comments are from both), “but always, we feel, shot through with the same themes – nostalgia, escapism, characters who are striving to find their place in the world. In a lot of ways, BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION is such a unique and idea to us that we didn’t pay much mind to the genre aspect of it while we were writing the script. It was a very organic process, following threads which excited us. All we knew was the atmosphere of the movie, and we stayed true to that at every moment. We’ve written a lot of scripts together, but only a couple of them ever seem to have a magic in them. Broadcast was most certainly the first of those screenplays for us.”

 

The idea had been six years in the making after they’d “fallen down a weird rabbit hole into Max Headroom and a YouTube video called I Feel Fantastic’.

 

“We became fairly obsessed with these two things, and they tied into a bunch of our general pre-occupations – analogue technology, the uncanny, a fascination with conspiracy theories and their place in the culture, etc. Then we kind of combined all of that with other things we loved – the paranoid films of the 70s New Hollywood (The Conversation, Blow Up, The Parallax View, All The President’s Men, etc), movies that focus on procedure (Memories of Murder, Zodiac), psychoanalysis, 9/11, Vertigo, VHS – and out came BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION.”

 

Another influence came in the shape of a fleapit hotel in New York the pair stayed in and after a potential feature based on the script with the BFI fell through, they took the New Blood path. After the script had been submitted, the production began in earnest, with director Jacob Gentry enlisted to helm the feature as his earlier feature The Signal, was rated by the Broadcast team.

 

“I don’t scare easily in the cinema and have never been truly creeped out reading a script,” says Gentry, “but I found it deeply unsettling upon first read. I kept looking over my shoulder the whole time. Then after collecting myself and reading it again, it felt like a compelling character study about how grief and loneliness can spiral into obsession and conspiratorial thinking. I’m a huge fan of 70’s conspiracy/paranoia thrillers and thought this material had the potential to make an interesting modern take on that sub-genre.

 

‘There's also certain kinds of stylistic ideas and cinematic set pieces specific to conspiracy/paranoia thrillers which I wanted to try my hand at and would still feel organic to the material. I thought the story could be a great delivery device for some of these ideas. I connected to other aspects on a personal level as well. Before I started directing features, my job was very similar to that of the main character. I spent many a late-night logging editing analog videotapes. So, I connected with it in that way and thought I would maybe bring a bit of verisimilitude to the movie.”

The team set about working on the script, streamlining the story, tightening the timeline and focusing the locations around Chicago. The finished version, as Edwards notes, still has the scope, scale, and ambition of the first draft, and still takes the viewer on a journey.

 

Drinkwater and Woodall expand on how the script developed, adding: “In some ways, it differs from the early drafts quite a bit and in other ways, not at all! The core of the film remains the same in terms of the central character, his past, his journey, and its narrative outcome. Certain things have changed in relation to the very end of the film – our script was perhaps more unmoored, more of a jump into the subconscious, but we understand the intentions behind the decisions made in the final film and think they work well. The physical journey James goes on in the script was maybe a little more Odyssean and took in more places as he spiraled through the American landscape, and in the film, this is much more of a Chicago-focused story.

 

“Most of the changes made are maybe in the first act, to facilitate considerations that we had the luxury of not considering when we were first writing it (budget, logistics, etc) and there’s a little re-writing of dialogue here and there mainly for the same reasons. But – in it’s narrative, characters, beating heart and unnerving soul – this is the film we wrote and we’re incredibly grateful to Giles and Jacob for believing in it so much and bringing it to life.”

 

Gentry notes: “I’m too obsessive as a filmmaker to not see every part of the process as anything other than an impossibly high mountain to climb. I was involved early on and worked on the script with Tim, Phil and the producers for several months. My input was mostly around structure and dramaturgical specificity. Tim and Phil are highly intelligent writers with a literary bent. Their work is very effective at putting you inside the subjective emotional experience of the main character in an almost novelistic way, so sometimes the tangible details live in the metaphorical.

 

“We had to transpose those interesting aspects of the character’s inner life onto specific outer life traits that were shootable. We also needed to push this idea in other areas like even more specificity in using the real-world events that inspired the story so that then the movie almost becomes an historical fiction of broadcast intrusions like the Max Headroom Incident. This meant we had to set the story in the same actual location as the events, but since we were already shooting in Chicago that worked to our advantage. Since this was taking place in the US, but half the team was UK we also had to make a few colloquial language tweaks. At the end of the day, however, I had to make sure we never strayed too far from the core of what attracted me to the material in the first place. And that's usually the biggest challenge at every stage of making a movie.”

 

So how pleased are they with the finished product?  “It's sort of difficult to compare 100 minutes of moving images and sounds with a stack of paper with words on it, but I'll answer with a bit of slightly pretentious anthropomorphizing: Like any movie I've made, at a certain point takes on a life of its own,” says Gentry. “It tells you what it wants to be and becomes what it wants what it wants to become. My job is to facilitate its needs and then stay out of its way. I'm just one of the many talented mothers and fathers who conceived this mischievous precocious child.

 

“I’m a little too close to it to be wholly objective, but I am extremely pleased with the work of all my collaborators both in front of and behind the camera. As just a fan of their work on the movie, I love Scott Thiele’s cinematography, Sarah Sharp’s costumes and sets, Ben Lovett’s music, and Dan Martin’s nightmare fuel. I’m also a huge fan of all the performances by both the Chicago talent as well as the LA based actors like Kelly, Chris, and Justin. And I’m simply over the moon in love with Harry Shum Jr’s lead performance. It was a thrill to work with all these artists, and I believe it’s pretty much the movie we set out to make.”

 

For Drinkwater and Woodall, it’s an opportunity that has set them off on a bunch of further projects, including a sitcom and a second feature which has also been penned already.

 

“Having our movie made with Queensbury is such a huge deal for us,” they said. “For any writer working in this industry, a feature credit is important because it validates you. Ever since we turned in our final draft of the screenplay, we’ve been writing, working, hustling, trying to get our next feature away. There’s no doubt this is a big moment for us, and we’re more determined than ever to take what we have learnt from this process and to keep on building our careers in this strange, fickle, and magical thing they call ‘the movie business’.” The next step was the FrightFest experience. For Gentry, it represented another missed opportunity. “I’ve known about it for many years, and I’ve always wanted to attend. A movie I co-wrote and co-directed called THE SIGNAL had its UK premiere at FrightFest in 2007 and I couldn’t go. The screening was introduced by the talented raconteurs Joe Lynch and Adam Green who came back saying how great the response was to the screening, so I was very disappointed I couldn’t be there. And now years later due to the unfortunate Covid restrictions I had to miss it a second time which is a real bummer.”

 

For Edwards, BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION achieved its aim of becoming one of those much-talked about films at the event. “I wanted to be one of the films everyone’s talking about this year. This is great, weird story. We’re not going to stack up against Blumhouse, we’re on another level a bit more provocative bolder, artsier, just as rewarding. There’s some ambiguity, unanswered questions, some people may find it frustrating, part of the allure. I want to get people having that debate, to talk about the film.”

 

And obviously, the film also shows that New Blood ideas can become real, actual living feature films.

 

As Edwards concludes: “This really is a thing, people can see it there, it’s a real film and it gives people an idea of what the cut of our jib is. We want to keep the ball rolling. We want to nurture and be a genre cheerleader and champion. We want to make films that stand up against the best of independent genre cinema.”

 

For Drinkwater and Woodall, there’s some advice too: “It’s so difficult to give advice, because all of us are all just blowing about in the wind trying to do our best! We’d never dream of giving actual writing advice, as we are certainly not able to do so, and we firmly believe that there is no one way to write a script – that’s the beauty of writing for film. I think Charlie Kaufman – a huge hero of ours – said “Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take.” And we wholeheartedly agree. The story and the characters will always lead you where you want to go, and if they don’t, then it’s not the right story or they aren’t the right characters. The one piece of advice I think we feel qualified to give in relation to everything that has happened with BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION, is that you must only ever write something you believe in. Never write to play the odds. Never write for the marketplace. Never try to predict what people might want or what might be popular and never write in relation to what’s getting made. Just write from the heart. The short films we’d made for the BFI before Broadcast were all quite warm, sweet-natured dramas and the scripts we’d been focused on were mostly comedies. We took a risk when we decided to dedicate all that time and energy into writing something that was so different from everything we’d been working on up to that point. But we did it and now here we are staring at a European premiere on an IMAX screen in Leicester Square. Basically, what we’re saying is the universe is absolute chaos so just do what makes you happy.”

 

BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION IS AT UK CINEMAS ON MARCH 25 AND ON BLU-RAY ON MARCH 2

 

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