Quantcast ICONS Interview with Anessa Ramsey and Justin Welborn of THE SIGNAL

Anessa Ramsey &
Justin Welborn of

On February 22nd hopefully you'll be lining up to see "THE SIGNAL " when it finally, after much delay, releases theatrically. The film has been a favorite of Icons of Fright staffers since we first caught it at an early test screening last spring. Almost immediately after we sought and sat down with two of the main stars of the film, Atlanta natives Anessa Ramsey and Justin Welborn. As you'll read working on "The Signal" was as much a unique and unusual experience as it is to watch the film. - By Mike C. - 1/08

What are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first films to really scare you?

Anessa: When I was in 6th grade, I went to a slumber party at this girls house and we watched The Exorcist, Poltergeist and there was one more movie, but 10 minutes into it, I ran into her room and dove on her waterbed, and then remembered the story of Freddy Krueger coming out of the waterbed. So, then I tried to lie on the floor next to the bed, and remembered the little boy from Pet Semetary! So, literally the next morning when my mother came to pick me up, I was sitting in the corner with her cat, holding it against its will and rocking back and forth. (Laughs) After a while, especially after you work on any of horror film, you start to realize there’s nothing to be afraid of. It took me a while to recover from all that!

Would you say you’re a fan of the genre?

Anessa: Absolutely! I love ghost stories.

What are among some of your favorites?

Anessa: Still The Exorcist. I mean, that’s the scariest movie of all time.

Justin: Have you ever read the book?

The book is very scary! What about you, Justin? Do you remember your first recollections?
Justin: You know, I couldn’t watch horror movies when I was a kid for a long time, because I have such a vivid imagination, so they would give me such terrible nightmares! But the first real horror movie I remember affecting me was ‘Piranha’. Remember that one? There is nothing like a swimming pool full of mutated piranha’s released into a river on an innocent bunch of campers! I think I must’ve seen it on late night TV! Mom and Dad were probably asleep, and I’m up watching Piranha! (Laughs)

Can you both give me a bit of history behind how you both got involved in acting?

Justin: Even when I was a little kid, weather it be Sunday school plays or summer camp stuff, I must’ve been 9 or 10, I started doing community theater. Movies to me are still amazingly unique, because I can’t quite get over from how different it is from theater. You are always used to the fact that it takes a huge collaboration.

When we were doing that first scene together in THE SIGNAL where we’re both in bed together, everyone was really wonderfully sensitive about it. They’d say, “Ok we don’t need everyone here for this.” Because I’m naked! I’m revealed! But it was so easy. Even though there are people there, after a while you start to trust everyone. You forgot they’re there. Or even that the camera’s on you. And you become the person that makes that performance happen. If anything, everyone else is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make it all work.
Anessa: I didn’t start acting until I was about 17. I started out doing dance and acrobatics and playing the piano – I was performing in every other way when I was very young. But it wasn’t until I was 17 that I started “acting”. I tried out for theater productions because I knew all those guys from choir and art and dance classes. I got cast in the first play they ever had and it was sweet. I haven’t stopped acting since. I was a late bloomer.

THE SIGNAL was filmed in Atlanta. How’d you both get involved with it?

Anessa: We are really lucky that we know these people (the filmmakers) and that we have worked with these people for so long. The idea of making a feature film for every single person involved was something that had been on the table for a while. And finally, we all just felt “Hey, let’s do this.” It became a real collaboration. It came from a few ideas.

Justin: A lot of us worked on ‘Last Goodbye’, which was the first feature film that Pop Films did and Jacob (Gentry) was the director of that and Dave (Bruckner) did a lot of camera work for that.
All of these guys, Jacob and Dave – two of the directors of THE SIGNAL, I’ve directed them in plays. We’ve all acted together, we’ve all worked in the same theaters together. Dan (Bush) is intimately involved with the creation of the early stuff that all these guys did together. It was about 6 or 7 years ago. Neither one of us auditioned for this movie, a few other people did. They asked for us specifically and had me, Anessa and AJ in mind for the roles of Ben, Mya and Lewis. It was really great. It contributed to the mutual trust. They already knew what we could do, so they’d push us a little further.

Anessa: It was perfectly comfortable. We all knew each other so well and for so long that it wasn’t difficult for them to get us to where we had to go. Each director had a process with how they established relationships with the actors. AJ I really didn’t know, I didn’t work on ‘The Last Goodbye’ with these guys. Most of the crew were already in Atlanta. By the end of it, we were all very tight knit.

How collaborative was this film? How much input did you get from the directors or how much did you put in? Were you all involved in the creating the vibe of the film?

Justin: Yes and no. In the fact that they already well had the script. Even when we were doing boot camp it was done. But there were times we came on the set where things would change. For example, the scene where I’m cutting Lewis (AJ) out of the chair he’s tapped down to, there were 2 pages of him and I talking. And AJ and I thought “This is one man to the other man (in Mya’s life). There’s so many details in this dialogue. Would we really say all this?” And we turned to the directors and then I looked at AJ said to me, “You’re him.” From that one simple line, we took pages out. Then we say it again at the end. Am I you? Are you me?
Justin (cont): It made perfect sense to simplify that and they trusted us with stuff like that. One of my favorite scenes is when Anessa (Mya) is talking to Rod in the closet…

: We actually shot that a month after we shot the movie, because we weren’t happy with it! We weren’t happy with the performances there. We shot the movie really fast. So we all went back and redid that scene and had the time to think about it.
You had a lot of trust with each other & the filmmakers from having worked together in the past, but the film is about paranoia. You never know who you can trust. Anyone can snap at any second in this film, which is what we really liked about it? How difficult was it to get yourselves in that frame of mind? I love, for example that AJ’s character, Lewis – by the end of the first act, he’s a really scary guy. But then in the second act, he becomes the guy you end up liking the most. You get to see it from the perspective of someone who’s totally crazy and doesn’t know it yet.

Anessa: Well, originally the sections were divided by character, so instead of “transmissions” (the way each act is called now), the first act was called “Mya”, the second act was called “Lewis”, the third “Ben”. Essentially from the perspective of each character.

Even though you guys knew the filmmakers involved, what’d you both think when you first read the script for THE SIGNAL? Because this is really a radical idea, and 3 different acts, 3 different tones? Did you have any idea the film would turn out the way it did? Or did you just trust what these directors were doing?

Justin: No! I have such a hard time visualizing scripts, because it’s movie talk! It’s not like stage plays with rich monologues. Movies are visual medium. We talked about a lot of things beforehand.

(To Anessa) You have this great scene where your walking down the hallway and everyone around you is going crazy, and you put on your headphones. That’s what somebody would do. That’s one of the most frightening scenes of the movie, when you’re just alone in this hallway…

Anessa: That was really a cool day. The special FX guys got to the apartment building probably at 3 in the morning and covered it in blood. And they brought in the extras to Toby Sells, who is an amazing FX artist. You’ve probably seen some of his stuff and didn’t realize it. So, they made up all the extras, and then brought me into make-up around 6am in the morning and… they wouldn’t let me walk down the hall first. They wouldn’t let me see it. So, they gave me the music and the headphones and said, “We just want you to get thru it. Don’t look at it, just put on your headphones and get thru it.”

Justin: I’m pretty sure that that shot in the movie is the first take. It’s really hard to walk out when there’s plenty of behind the scenes people there and not look at them, or what the extras around you are doing. Especially when it’s this emotional a scene. And the shit is on! It’s like… OK, walk thru the apocalypse! These are supposed to be your neighbors. You’ve got to walk down the street, and what do you do if one of them runs out with hedge clippers?! Just focus and walk. It’s one of my favorite scenes too because it’s really beautiful and the music is really great. It’s the idea of trying to maintain while the entire world around you is falling apart. That’s what I love about this movie.
There’s 3 directors on this picture and you’ve worked with them all before, sometimes separately, but what was it like to work with all 3 of them on THE SIGNAL?

Anessa: There it is! The question everyone asks!
Justin: Not only do we know them, I’ve made commercials with these guys and movies. But those guys had spent so many nights, writing and arguing and going back and forth – it was so easy for us. It was more difficult for them, but they NEVER showed that stuff to us. The most you would ever hear was “We’re going a little over on Jacob’s time, so we need to do your scene and I need you to be ready.” Because, you’d have the director of the scene, and it’d be his portion of the movie, and he’s dealing with cameras and lights and questions and the actors – and then you’d have the guy on the camera, who was usually one of the other directors, and he’s dealing with the tech. Then you have this other guy who’ll say things like, “That was awesome. Talk a little louder. Don’t move.” It felt like there was always somebody there to back you up. Or guide you.

All 3 of them were always on set, but each of them were specifically responsible for each act? Is that how it worked?

Justin: Yes. The first transmission was David Bruckner, which was “Crazy In Love”. The second was done by Jacob Gentry and that was called “The Jealousy Monster”. And the third act was Dan Bush and that was “Escape From Terminus”. But even while we were filming it was tough, because we’d be filming Act 1, then go back to Act 3, nope, now it’s Act 2! (Laughs) It was hard to keep up!

How do you do that though? How do you go thru 3 different styles and keep your performance consistent?

Justin: There was no difference in consistency of performance. You never changed who you are (character-wise), it was just who was talking to you at that moment about who you are and what you have to do. Also, the idea of having to keep it straight. We never had to keep it straight, we were just being us. You’re always Mya, or Ben or Lewis. It was just who was telling you where you were. They had such amazing continuity. The assistant directors and crew were such awesome people. At points, the directors would say “Wait, where are we?” (Laughs) Remembering continuity of the blood was probably the toughest part! (Laughs)

The little patch of dried blood on the side of your head was horrifying! It hurt me just to see it. This is the first time in a long time where things that happened to people in this movie looked painful! Now, in retrospect for you two, when you look back at the film, does each act represent the director’s strengths who did it? Meaning can you see a part of the movie and know, Ok Dan did this part, or Jacob definitely directed this.
Justin: I think we can but because we know them. They are all such great directors, but this is only such a small portion of their talent. I know their parts and they put everything they had into that, but it’s not their own movie. If you watch some of Dan Bush’s short films that are all him, they’re heartbreaking. Dave Bruckner will do stuff that will just blow your mind – it’s beautiful and relevant and people are really talking to each other.
And Jacob’s stuff will turn you around and make you laugh. I’m really proud of them for that. They put everything they had into their part, but one of the great things about them is that there’s so much more for them to do. They’re all working on their own movies right now. When you get those minds together, not only do they have to compromise, which I’m sure was hard to do and collaborate, which is probably even harder then compromising, but they really achieved it.

What was it like to see the completed film for the first time?

Anessa: First time we ever saw it was in the same room with MC Hammer at Sundance. (Laughs)

So Sundance was the first time that you guys had ever seen it?

Anessa: Yep. Well, I saw the rough cut, but the music wasn’t finished. It was complete for Sundance.

Justin: It all happened so quickly. I’ve seen it now a few times, so I’ve really gotten to appreciate each actor each time. But that first time, it was amazing. There were people yelling and screaming and getting into it.
Anessa: We had two rows roped out for us in the back of the theater, but we decided we were going to sit up in the first 2 rows. Because we hadn’t seen it yet. And yeah, it was amazing. I always tell people watching yourself on screen is like listening to yourself on tape, only times a million. It’s terrible! You judge your ever move. It takes you seeing the movie 12 times before you can actually just watch it and enjoy it without saying to yourself, “Oh don’t make that face! That was terrible!”

Justin: I’m not quite the same. (Laughs) I love it! Honestly! I’m not self conscious to seeing myself…

You seem like you’re loving every second of this, man!

Justin: Oh, dude, I totally do. (Laughs) I’m just SO pleased. You just don’t understand how many years of work all of us have put in for theater and their own films, and nobody set out to make a million dollars. Or even the movie that we’re talking about right now. Sending it to Sundance was like an offering to the Gods. We sent it in at the last minute. And when I found out we got INTO Sundance, I was drunk for two days. (Laughs) I just went out and stayed out! We went to Anessa’s bar…

Anessa: Yeah, I was getting THEM drunk! While I was working. So, it was kind of lame. (Laughs)

Now, with all great horror movies, usually just underneath the surface is a social commentary. I don’t know if it’s obvious with THE SIGNAL, but one of the ways that I read the movie was that television is essentially draining people and killing them. We’re grown so dependant on it, that suddenly losing it would make us all go crazy. You could say that THE SIGNAL is just anything that the media is feeding to us or anything that’s going on out there. Do either of you feel that there’s a social commentary to it? Personally and not necessarily speaking for the directors?

Anessa: I’m going to use Jacob’s answer to this question. I’m going to leave that to the audience. Personally, I do see all aspects that everybody has spoken about, and I see the social commentary and what would happen to the world if we suddenly didn’t have cable television or cell phones, I get that. I get the whole idea of THE SIGNAL being the media. But none of that is explained, because you’re right. However it works for you, you’re right.

Justin: The first thing is to entertain. The goal to entertain, especially for this film is probably more predominant then the idea that we’re trying to make a very valid social message here. But… it was always there. None of us don’t think about that stuff. THE SIGNAL is everything that we’re being exposed to in one shotgun blast. The guys are very aware of what they’re doing, but at the same time, they didn’t set out to make ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. This was their monster. They don’t have to bash you in the head with it, they just want you to watch!

Anessa: I think they tried to cover all the bases. To keep it entertaining. You’ve got your sweet moments, it can be very scary, you’ve got your gore moments.

THE SIGNAL is a very well written, well crafted, directed and acted film. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and like you said, all bases are covered.

Anessa: Thank you.

Were there any high jinx going on behind the scenes of this movie?

Anessa: There was a behind the scenes cameraman that was everywhere on that shoot, and I hope that comes out on the DVD extras. Because we never stopped laughing. Seriously, we had so much fun on this shoot!

THE SIGNAL comes out Februaryu 22nd, 2008. What’s been the most surprising thing for you guys ever since the film officially got picked up for a release?

Anessa: All of it! Quite honestly, the fact that it got picked up. No one thought we’d make it into Sundance, let alone Magnolia coming along saying, “Yes. We want this.” It’s all been a whirlwind. Right after it happened they changed my plane ticket, and we spent 5 days after Sundance talking to every country on the planet, doing press. I didn’t even know what the hell was happening!

Justin: It’s been very surprising, but what’s been so gratifying is how well received this movie has been. We all love horror movies. This is a movie by a bunch of people our age FOR a bunch of people our age, and it’s just amazing to me how well received, and how many wonderful thoughtful conversations I’ve had with people at bars, or people at the film festivals. They want to talk about it. And that’s terrific.

I really hope that opens the door to Atlanta. Atlanta’s the biggest city in the South. And nobody knows anything about it. Nobody knows us, but we know you. We’ve been here for a long time, we’ve been doing our work for a long time, and we are so ready to have that conversation. The invitation to people being enthused about it has been the most gratifying.

Anessa: I want to send out a shout out to Atlanta. Because right now, there’s a lot going on in Atlanta. Like the band ‘Mastadon’ is from Atlanta and they’re getting HUGE. ‘Snow Den’ also play here in New York all the time, hey’re also getting big. ‘Black Lips’, they’ve been together since they were 13 years old and they’re just now getting recognition. And these are people all our age. They’re all coming out of our city. And it’s been awesome for everyone. I’m excited if somehow we’re helping put Atlanta back on the map. If you don’t want us to come to you, then you come to us. Because there’s a lot going on down there.
So, what’s next for you guys after THE SIGNAL?

Justin: I’m making a movie right now called ‘Dance Of The Dead’ with Gregg Bishop who made a movie called “The Other Side” which was at Slamdance, not this past year, but the year before that. ‘Dance Of The Dead’ is the reason I have the Mohawk right now. (Laughs) It’s another horror movie. It’s a real zombie movie. I call it ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ meets ‘The Breakfast Club’. My big thing is to learn more and more about how to do a film with each project.


- by Robg. 6/07

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