Harry Shum Jr. plays an obsessed video archivist in "Broadcast Signal Intrusion." Photo courtesy of Queensbury Pictures
LOS ANGELES, March 17 (UPI) -- Actors Harry Shum Jr. and Chris Sullivan told UPI in a Zoom interview that their new film, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, reawakened obsessions with technology from their past. The film premiered Tuesday at the SXSW Online Film Festival.
"I kind of still don't understand how this technology works," Shum said. "Even the technology that exists right now, we have that same kind of feeling."
Shum plays James, a video archivist in 1999 Chicago. While archiving old broadcasts, he discovers an underground transmission of a sitcom called Step-Bot, a TV sitcom about a robot stepmother, interrupting network broadcasts before normal programming resumes.
James becomes obsessed with finding the source of Step-Bot, so he seeks out additional video evidence of the broadcast signal interruption.
Sullivan plays Phreaker, a hacker James discovers through his journeys. The 40-year-old This Is Us actor said he appreciated Broadcast Signal Intrusion's 1999 setting because that was before the characters carried cellphones.
For Sullivan, the quaintness of the 30-year-old video and online technology made the mystery compelling. VHS and Betamax tapes, or computer bulletin boards, were the only leads they can follow.
"Now all those technologies are 30 years old," Sullivan said. "That's where the tension is going to have to come from."
Shum said he could relate to James' obsession with video. The 38-year-old Shum said that when he was younger, he put two VCRs together to re-edit the scenes from Pulp Fiction.
"I was just excited to see what it would look like if it was in chronological order," Shum said.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion is directed by Jacob Gentry. The screenplay by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall was inspired by real broadcast signal intrusions in the '80s, the sources of which were never discovered.
Gentry referred to films like The Conversation and Blow Out, in which characters obsessively study recordings for clues. Gentry felt showing Shum physically manipulate '90s technology would be compelling for viewers.
"Forensically analyzing a piece of media is actually a major part of uncovering the mystery," Gentry said. "It's long enough [ago] now that some people aren't even familiar with it, so it can be a fascinating process cinematically."
Shum relived his VCR editing days with the equipment on the set. Production designer Sarah Sharp provided working '90s video equipment for Shum's scenes.
"We got to really play around with this," Shum said. "It felt like I was back in that time period. You got to really feel it."
Through his investigation, James encounters Alice (Kelley Mack), a stranger who also is looking for answers. Mack said James' obsession sucked Alice into his mystery, too.
"With something so intriguing, I think she took an opportunity to do what she could for him and get what she needed in return," Mack said.
When James meets Phreaker, Sullivan portrays a reclusive hacker who reluctantly gives James all the information he has about Step-Bot. Sullivan said he worked hard to learn a long monologue.
"The preparation of just sheer memorization was longer than normal," Sullivan said. "I want to be able to show up and produce and not be stumbling over the actual material."
Since Sullivan is only in one scene of Broadcast Signal Intrusion, he relied on Gentry, Shum and co-star Kelley Mack to help him fit into the rest of the movie. Sullivan said he could tell from Shum and Mack's performances the sort of paranoid obsession the film was chronicling.
"Even just watching people operate, you can be like, 'OK, I think I understand the tone here,'" Sullivan said.
The deeper James and Alice get into the broadcast signal intrusion, the more they reveal to each other about their own histories. Shum said he hopes the technological mystery gives way to an emotional drama for viewers.
"I think all this mystery really opened up my eyes onto the human condition in a lot more ways than just the technology aspects," Shum said.
SXSW screenings of Broadcast Signal Intrusion have sold out. The film is available for distribution.