[SXSW Interview] 'Broadcast Signal Intrusion' Director Jacob Gentry Discusses the Eerie Incidents the Film is Based on, His Fascination with Conspiracy Theories, and More!
Few things are as unsettling as unsolved mysteries...
...Director Jacob Gentry (The Signal) is no stranger to curious occurrences. Gentry has a deep fascination with conspiracy theories, and so it seems almost like a match made in filmic Heaven that Gentry became involved in the film Broadcast Signal Intrusion, which just had its World Premiere at SXSW and plays like an eerie, noir horror flick that delves deep into conspiracy theories and the psychology of the conspiracy theorists themselves.
Loosely based around the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident of 1987, the film follows James (Harry Shum Jr.), a man still grieving over the disappearance of his wife, who unearths a series of strange broadcast signal intrusions that may or may not have a connection to her disappearance. Determined to uncover the secrets behind the tapes, James sets out for answers, descending deeper and deeper into the dark world of conspiracy.
I had the extreme pleasure to sit down with Gentry and discuss the film, in which we talked about everything from broadcast signal intrusions, the eerie inspirations behind the film, the fascination of conspiracy theories, and more!
Photo from Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Killer Horror Critic: First off, congrats on Broadcast Signal Intrusion playing at SXSW, and thank you for some of the inevitable nightmares I’m going to have from the imagery in this film.
Jacob Gentry: Well thanks for the compliment! I appreciate that, and I’m glad it had an effect on you.
KHC: It really did. So tell me, what attracted you to the concept of Broadcast Signal Intrusion and Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall’s script? Was this something you had been working on together for a while?
JG: I read it, and I just responded to a lot of aspects from it. Once I got involved in the movie, then that began the process of working on it with them and developing it and taking certain things further and adding my own ideas to the mix.
KHC: I did a little research myself into the Max Headroom signal hijacking from 1987, so how much of that would you say is put into the script?
JG: Tim and Phil had a lot of DNA of that as inspiration in their script. When I got involved with it, I was really pushing to go even further with that. I initially really liked the idea of making it a paranoia thriller like those movies in the 70s. Because all of those movies, like obviously ‘All the President’s Men’ was based on Watergate, it’s a true-life event. A lot of the movies like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ are based on sort of fictionalized versions of real life history, so I thought wouldn’t it ground it and make it more interesting while making the mystery more compelling if it had a real-life analogue? This is almost like a historical fiction of an intrusion that’s similar to the ‘Max Headroom’ incident. That was something that was in the script, though they didn’t actually tell me about it, and I’m really glad because I had to kind of find it on my own and do my own research. That’s always the way to get a lot of people, including me, interested in things is to sort of find it for yourself. I was uncovering that the same way that you did, and then figuring out, how do we map this onto the movie that we’re making?
KHC: I’ll admit, I wasn’t very familiar with this incident. What was your initial reaction after doing some research and learning about Max Headroom?
JG: I might out my age a little bit, but I do remember ‘Max Headroom’. I was actually a huge fan of the television show. There were two sides of this character. There was this Pepsi ad, Matt Frewer in makeup digital creation selling Pepsi, but it started as this amazing, post-apocalyptic dystopian future world about journalists and that was kind of the show. It’s a really cool show and unlike anything else that was on TV at the time. So, I was aware of that. But then as I was investigating the actual incident—I’m always fascinated by unsolved mysteries—and something like this seems like, why wouldn’t they be able to solve it? We think now with meta data and the ways in which we can tell what everyone’s doing at any time of day and where they are located in the world, the idea that there’s not any of that sort of information that lies within a pirate video that would allow them to track that down…They were able to catch Captain Midnight, who was the previous big broadcast intrusion that happened. That was through traditional means of investigation by the FBI. So, I’m always fascinated by unsolved mysteries. I’m fascinated by any kind of thing that still seems like the story has not yet been told. It was a joy to research. We were already sort of planning shooting in Chicago, and it was great to be able to set it in the place where the actual real life historical event that we’re inspired by took place.
KHC: Does it freak you out at all doing this film and knowing that it did go unsolved without anyone really knowing what it was about?
JG: I think it would if it was something…What’s creepy or disturbing about the ‘Max Headroom’ incident is actually just almost aesthetic. No one died. A sports news broadcast got interrupted, and an episode of ‘Doctor Who’ got interrupted on the same night. And that was one of the challenges of the movie, was to be like how do I show the impact of this with someone now who wouldn’t even blink twice if it happened? Because back then it was a federal crime. ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ is sort of like, well, what if there were darker, deeper implications behind the ‘Max Headroom’ incident? And there are some darker corners of the story that have been theorized. One of the other inspirations for the movie were particular Creepypastas and Creepypasta videos, one of them being ‘Tara the Android’, which had some of those theories, and some of the implications were pretty dark and sinister. I just thought it would be fascinating if there was something a little bit bigger than some hackers seeing if they could get away with it. Was it a benign hack, where it’s just about the hack itself, or was it something like bringing down the credit card companies? We know that wasn’t the case in that situation, but it’s a fascinating story because there’s a voyeuristic quality to this stuff that is creepy even when you know your life is not in danger.
KHC: One hundred percent.
JG: Even the first time I read the original version of the script, I was freaked out but I didn’t know why, because it wasn’t like something was going to come after me from reading the script. The early parts of the movie weren’t even necessarily dealing with life threatening things, but there’s still some kind of uneasiness in that sort of watching something I shouldn’t.
Photo from the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident
"‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’ is sort of like, well, what if there were darker, deeper implications behind the ‘Max Headroom’ incident? And there are some darker corners of the story that have been theorized."
KHC: It does feel like a lot of it is in the why? Why did this happen? It’s almost like the equivalent of getting Rick Rolled but in the 1980s, with this intrusion popping up during a sports broadcast. But that ends up being something the film really focuses on, which is this theme of coincidence and our search for meaning in something which is potentially meaningless. Was that something that attracted you to the script as well or was that something you brought into it?
JG: I think that is something I’m interested in. I’m also really fascinated by conspiracy theories or even conspiracies themselves. During the time that we were making this movie, connecting dots that aren’t there actually became scarier from the standpoint of the theorists. The movies that I was inspired by like the conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, they were based on things that we knew to have some amount of merit behind the conspiracy, or in the case of something like ‘All the President’s Men’ and Watergate, we have all of the evidence in the world to show that that happened. But cut ahead to when I first started getting involved in the movie, you had people taking conspiracies so far because of the internet, social media, YouTube, what have you, people were shooting up pizza parlors because they thought there was a sex ring inside.
KHC: Yeah, it’s quite the rabbit hole.
JG: To recontextualize that subgenre of movies and update it for a contemporary audience, it’s also presenting the danger of the person trying to uncover the conspiracy as almost more dangerous than the conspiracy itself. That became really interesting to me. So, in that way, it actually kind of has parallels to something like ‘Taxi Driver’ in a way. I love conspiracy from a fascination, intrigue standpoint, but I believe hardly any of them if that makes sense.
KHC: Totally. All of them are interesting regardless of how ridiculous they sound. QAnon for example, it’s interesting, as depraved as it is, but I of course don’t believe a damn word of it.
JG: That is something that even when I started making this movie, didn’t even really exist, and then as I’m making it, I’m wondering wow, that could have good or bad implications for our movie. Because you know, like that old saying, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m wrong, we’ve gotten to a really interesting place with all of that of how do you even begin to sort through that? All a conspiracy is is just two or more people collaborating on a crime. We know that there’s corruption, and we know that these things actually exist, but the train is on the tracks without a conductor and that is an interesting place to pull from in terms of a movie story.
At the core of it it’s curiosity. I think that being a naturally curious person, especially when it comes to mysteries or unsolved mysteries, I’m always looking for answers to questions. The movie sort of presupposes, what if we used these obsessions or rabbit holes that we go down as a way to avoid dealing with our own personal traumas?
KHC: Yeah, it’s interesting, that’s often what conspiracies seem to become for a lot of people, is this avenue to avoid dealing with things they’re not ready to accept, such as QAnon and Trump, you know? It’s a way to avoid accepting reality.
JG: Did you see that Flat Earther documentary?
KHC: I haven’t, but it blows my mind that people still believe that.
JG: There’s a Flat Earther documentary that very obviously shows the filmmakers are not on the side…it’s pretty objective, but obviously, it’s not a pro flat earther documentary. What’s really interesting about it is, I was initially dismissive of everyone in it, and then you realize oh, these people just want to have friends. It’s just something to bond with other people about.
KHC: Oh yeah, it’s about the community.
JG: It’s the same thing with movies. I have groups of people where we watch movies and get on Zoom and talk about them. That is something we found, and it’s probably a bit more healthy of a way of dealing with things than denying hundreds of years of scientific fact. But ultimately that was the case, and I sort of saw in that a human desire for connection. And even if it’s something as ludicrous or potentially dangerous as believing the earth is flat, there is a sort of basic human need behind it.
KHC: For sure, it’s all about the human connection and as you said, making friends.
JG: Exactly. If you sort of read about or listen to any sort of great investigative podcasts about stuff like QAnon, the New York Times did a fascinating one where a lot of it just felt at a certain point like middle aged people who didn’t really feel like they connected with the world around them and they are finding a community of people. And that’s not to excuse anything that may be potentially dangerous, there’s tons of it…I don’t necessarily sympathize with them, but I empathize with that human need for connection.
Photo from Tara the Android
"I think that being a naturally curious person, especially when it comes to mysteries or unsolved mysteries, I’m always looking for answers to questions. The movie sort of presupposes, what if we used these obsessions or rabbit holes that we go down as a way to avoid dealing with our own personal traumas?"
KHC: I could honestly talk to you about that forever, so speaking of one of the more freakier sides of the film, is the whole “Step-Bot” sitcom, which feels like the film’s take on Max Headroom. I’m curious, the mask that ends up being used in these broadcast signal intrusions, what were some of the inspirations behind the design of that, because it’s pretty freaky.
JG: That was Dan Martin, who’s a brilliant artist. He most recently worked on ‘Possessor’.
KHC: Excellent film.
JG: A lot of the inspiration for that came from that ‘Tara the Android’ thing that I mentioned. It’s really, really unsettling, and that and the ‘Max Headroom’ incident mask cross pollinated with…I really like coming up with fake TV shows…
KHC: Who doesn’t?
JG: I was just imagining what a real sitcom about an android would be like and reverse engineering that, so it was kind of combining all of those things together and reverse engineering a lot of it to come up with the design of it, but then give it a surreality that starts to get away from something a little more understandable like a guy wearing a mask and then becomes something like perhaps it’s an actual android. A lot of that came from Tim and Phil’s script, working with them and Dan, and creating the inspiration within the movie and our historical fiction that we created.
KHC: Well, it’s extremely effective, because every time that mask popped up I felt severely creeped out.
JG: Wow, I’m glad it had an effect and that it worked. You do worry that this could be really creepy and disturbing, or it could be just really silly, or both!
KHC: Well I think that’s the thing, is being based around this “Step-Bot” sitcom, inherently there’s a bit of silliness to it, but that’s what makes it so freaky.
JG: Right. A lot of the inspiration for Step-Bot came from ‘Small Wonder’, and ‘Small Wonder’ is a sitcom about a robot girl who was created by her scientist father, and the level of creepiness in that television show was something we could only hope to achieve with our movie.
JG: It’s a comedy, but the banality of it, the disturbing sense under the surface of it is what makes it so much creepier. That was the goal, is there is a disturbing element in the banal. A lot of the design of the broadcast intrusions in this come from…there’s something so mundane about them but they’re off in a way that is even more disturbing than if it was just a sensory overload.
KHC: Something I’m curious about, the film goes back to 1999, which was this period I believe where we were starting to experience the decline of VHS. You, like myself, got to experience growing up with VHS as well as witnessing the decline of it, so do you feel yourself wanting to go back to that era at all? Were you excited to go back to that era of VHS with this film?
JG: I think that for a movie that’s supposed to be a horror thriller, it’s harder to, with perfectly clear 4K high-def, make something creepy or unsettling or scary. I used to always say that one of the scariest things about horror films of the 70s was the film stock. There’s something about the look and the feel and the grain of the film that contributed to a movie like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ being as scary as it was.
KHC: The exact film I always think of first with that.
JG: For me, I would much rather watch a Criterion Blu-ray of a movie than a VHS of it. But at the same time, as far as portraying something in a movie, you want it to be cinematic, and even a Blu-ray is just not that cinematic, and a guy logging tapes on his computer is much harder to make cinematic. I’m really into the process part of it all. One of the big influences was the triptych of ‘The Conversation’, ‘Blow-Up’ and ‘Blow Out’, ‘Blow Out’ being one of my favorite movies, the De Palma masterpiece, where it sort of forensically analyzes a piece of media to uncover a mystery or solve a crime. I never got to work with magnetic tape and the way that sound men of the 70s would. I’m used to being in pro-tool sessions with the sound designer. There’s something about the process of that. The same way that it’s compelling to watch James Caan break into a safe in a really unique and interesting way in ‘Thief’, because that’s how they would do it in the 70s. The process part of it all is really interesting to me, and there’s just an aesthetic to VHS that has a nostalgic quality, but also a little bit of a haunted quality to it. It’s a lot easier to make a videotape seem haunted than anything else, because of the natural flaws it has. Static, tracking, the sounds the VCR makes, it can be rhythmic but it can take on a disturbing monstrous quality, as evidenced in many great movies of the last ten to twenty years.
KHC: Oh yeah, there’s just a creepier sense to it all. You know with VHS, there’s just so many lost tapes out there so to speak. It felt like it fit the film perfectly, going back to that era when there’s just so much out there that we don’t know about on tape.
JG: The first time I ever saw ‘Evil Dead II’ was a third generation copy of a copy. It had a label that just said ‘Evil Dead’ scribbled in marker, and somehow because I wasn’t sure what was going to be on this tape, and because at that time we still believed that ‘Faces of Death’ was real—it still wasn’t proven that those things weren’t actual deaths—popping that in and watching it…just in the process of watching it and the presentation in which you’re seeing it has a whole other aspect that a perfect hi-def with a full color booklet and a Sam Raimi interview, it’s not the same thing as finding the one guy you know in your state that has a copy of ‘El Topo’ on VHS and that’s the only way you can watch that movie. You heard about snuff films from the time and you’re like what is that, or you’d watch ‘Videodrome’ at the time and think, do these things actually exist? They seem like they could exist. That’s the power of these movies.
By Matt Konopka