By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Director Fede Alvarez created some of the most grisly and frightening sights of the past decade in DON’T BREATHE and the EVIL DEAD remake. Now he’s aiming to frighten you with sound in the Apple TV+ series CALLS, which he discusses with RUE MORGUE below.
CALLS, which debuts on the streaming service this Friday, March 19, uses a star-packed cast and innovative, abstract visuals to elicit terror via telephone. The nine episodes consist of calls between assorted characters facing strange and increasingly unsettling situations–which at first seem disconnected, but become tied together as the series goes on. (Check out an exclusive excerpt below, which has NSFW language.) The wide range of actors involved includes Nicholas Braun, Clancy Brown (THE MORTUARY COLLECTION), Lily Collins, Rosario Dawson, Mark Duplass (CREEP), Karen Gillan (OCULUS), Judy Greer (HALLOWEEN), Laura Harrier, Paul Walter Hauser, Danny Huston (30 DAYS OF NIGHT), Nick Jonas, Riley Keough (THE LODGE), Joey King (WISH UPON), Stephen Lang (DON’T BREATHE), Jaeden Martell (IT), Paola Nuñez, Pedro Pascal (THE MANDALORIAN), Edi Patterson, Aubrey Plaza (LIFE AFTER BETH), Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jennifer Tilly (BRIDE OF CHUCKY). Based on the French series of the same title created by Timothée Hochet, CALLS ties in directly–if unintentionally, as Alvarez explains–with our current era, in which we’ve spent the last year communicating remotely and fearing what we hear.
How did you become involved with CALLS, and how was this version adapted from the original French one?
Apple approached me with the French show, but all they wanted us to keep was the idea. They gave us a lot of freedom to create something new, based on the high concept of a TWILIGHT ZONE-ish series based on phone calls. We came up with new stories, and a complete, fresh visual language. The French show is very minimalistic when it comes to what’s on screen; it’s mostly the names of the characters with text, and that’s it. We knew we would create a visual spectacle with our show; Apple’s brand obviously has a signature when it comes to graphics.
As a director and writer, it was a perfect opportunity for me. Coming from movies, where you have one idea and you have to stick with it for two years, it was a pleasure to be able to create so many characters in so many situations, and a visual language that did not previously exist. It was rare to do a show where there was no playbook or bible of how we were supposed to do it, or how one would usually do this. There was no usual; we could really do whatever we wanted, and that felt great.
Who else is on your writing team?
For most of it, Rodo Sayagues, my co-writer who I’ve made my movies with, worked with me on a lot on the stories, and then there was a writer’s room, with multiple people collaborating on the different scripts.
Without giving too much away, can you talk about how the stories progress and ultimately intertwine?
They all feel like they stand alone; each chapter feels like a new story with new characters. But by the third episode, you start realizing, wait a second, these all have something in common; they’re not just stand-alones. It might feel, in a way, like the episodes are separate stories and have nothing in common, but I had the idea that when you watch them in order, you start to realize that these characters are experiencing something in common that becomes the through-line of the whole show. That’s what’s special about it. Usually, episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or a show like that will be completely separated, but this is not the case here. This is one single story told from different perspectives of different people.
What they all have in common, without hopefully spoiling too much, is there’s something happening with the soundwaves of these phones, and suddenly people are able, in different degrees, to talk to the future and with the past. That creates endless dramatic situations, where sometimes someone is talking with somebody who was alive five minutes ago, but now is not any more. And then, because they’re talking with them 10 minutes into the past, they have to warn them about what’s going to happen to them. Or you’ll have an 85-year-old man who is alone in a nursing home, and made all the wrong choices in his life, suddenly having the chance to talk to his younger self. What do you say to yourself when you’re 20, coming from that place? There are a lot of different approaches to that simple idea that I think the audience will enjoy.
Considering what’s happened over the past year, was our current reliance on remote communication something you specifically wanted to explore in CALLS?
Sure, yeah. We did start working on the show before the pandemic started, but by the time we recorded, we were in full lockdown, and we actually recorded everybody remotely. But as a writer, you cannot help but be affected by current events, particularly events like these, so there’s definitely that theme in there, I think. Any great show is always about human relationships, and this kind of detached, remote connection over the phone is obviously more relevant during the pandemic.
You secured a remarkable cast for CALLS. How did you determine the right people for the parts, and get them signed on?
That’s just a testament to the story, the filmmakers involved and Apple. Usually that’s the reason for actors to take on a show: They’re looking for good stories and characters, and also, great artists always want to be part of the new and experimental and strange. You might think otherwise sometimes, but I believe they’re always trying to take risks and do new things. They don’t want to do the same thing they’ve done 100 times. So that was definitely the reason everybody gravitated toward CALLS, and it was so easy to get the cast. Everybody we offered it to said yes, and having them involved was truly amazing.
As far as how we selected them, there are always a lot of actors whose work you admire, and who you want to collaborate with on something. But then, obviously, they need to sound like the roles, which is different from a movie. In a movie, they need to look the part; here, they need to sound the part, and hopefully we got that right. It’s kind of a shortcut, based on preconceptions of voices; it also happens when you make a movie, based on preconceptions from how someone looks: Oh, this guy looks like a bad guy! [Laughs] There are many prejudices we all carry when it comes to voices as well, so we needed to find voices that, just when they say hello and a couple of words, you already think, ah, this guy is probably somebody I shouldn’t trust, right? It’s like when [in the show] Pedro Pascal calls Mark Duplass, and he asks if he can go and check his house because he feels like he left the door open and he’s driving to the airport, he doesn’t sound very trustworthy [laughs]! It’s the way he plays it as well, and the way they use their voices in general to convey the essences of their characters.
What are the differences between directing actors on set and remotely directing vocal performances?
Directing is usually, for me at least, all about motivation and being faithful to the reality of the situation. You try to guide the actors to stay grounded in reality, and not overreact or underreact to certain situations, because the audience will be awakened from the dream of the fiction. Bad performances will do that; they’ll make you go, “Wait a second, that cannot be real. No one would say that or react that way.” And when you’re dealing with voice work, it kind of goes the same way it does on set. The other part is trying to create the proper environment for the actor. On my films; I put my actors through the wringer if that’s what the characters go through; there’s no easy, cozy way to do it. There’s no greenscreens or stuff like that in my movies most of the time.
It was the same here: I wanted the actors to be real at all times. I was happy, actually, at the end of the day, that we ended up making it the way we did, recording it remotely, because the show is a lot of characters talking to each other on the phone, and that’s what was really happening. All the actors were at home, talking to each other over the phone, and they were not pretending they couldn’t see each other; they could not see each other, and I couldn’t see them either. I was at my house, just eavesdropping on the conversations [laughs], giving them notes at the end of the scene and doing again. It was a very special way to work, and super-realistic for them. There’s a particular way we communicate over the phone that is quite different from the way we do it in person; it has its own set of rules that we’re obviously all used to. And that’s very hard to write; you have to give the actors all the elements so they have the right environment, and then let them improvise. There’s a lot of improvisation in CALLS.