In an exclusive interview with Your Money Geek, Fede Álvarez discussed his new Apple TV+ series Calls. The series, which is based on a French series by the same name, brings audiences a wholly unique experience that is reliant on their own imagination and the hypnotic minimalistic audio and visual designs. The interview does contain mild spoilers for Calls.
Interview: Did Fede Álvarez get a call from the future to direct Apple TV+’s new series Calls?
Maggie Lovitt (ML): When I started watching Calls, I was like, ‘Wow! This project is such a great thing to work on during quarantine.’ And then I realized that it was actually greenlit in 2018. So who called you from the future and told you to do this series?
Fede Álvarez (FÁ): Well, it was definitely like that. It was one of those curious things because […] I think Apple wanted to do it earlier, but I was involved in 2019, I think if I remember correctly. We started gearing up and dreaming [about] the stories and all of that early development that you do.
By the time we were ready to shoot it, that's when we were in full lockdown. But we felt like, ‘Well, if there's a show that we can still do, it's this one. There should definitely be a way to do it.' So we figured out this kind of complex and clever situation with technology where we could send a laptop and mics to all the actors and they had to figure out a way to use them. I loved that. They had no idea how to work their way around the mic, but everybody managed to do it.
What you get in the show, which is a lot of people talk on the phone, that's what was happening in the recording. Everybody's at home, everybody's talking to someone else that is in a different part of the world. It was a very special way to do it.
I was at home directing from my house. It ended up happening because [of] the current events, but it was not a show that came out of that. Which you're right to say it's like someone warned us that if you want to do something in 2020 it's this one because movies will be trickier.
(ML): How different is Calls from the French Calls that it is adapted from?
(FÁ): It's very different. I mean, if someone saw the French show you'll get a completely new show. Apple approached me with the French show and they wanted to do this Twilight Zone sci-fi show in a way. Then apart from that, we needed to create the whole thing. Visually it was gonna be completely different. And the stories were going to be completely different.
So apart from Episode One, that has something in common with the French one because we did it more as the pilot, but then the rest are completely different stories. So it's quite a different experience. I also think we just have a bigger budget. [laughs] In fairness to the French show.
(ML): Speaking of the visuals for the episodes, they're so unique. When those were coming together, what were your inspirations for them?
(FÁ): I think everybody on the animation team and myself all drew more from abstract art than anything else. Because we really wanted to keep it very abstract. We just didn't want to give you a literal image. Right? We wanted you to use your imagination. And we didn't want to step on it.
I think if I asked you to imagine something, but I show you something else […] You just imagined the ideal car and [then] I showed you a Tesla. There’s no way [that] you can imagine anymore [because] you have just been slammed by whatever I'm showing you. So the same goes here, we didn't want ever to step in the way. We just want to empower your imagination. Mesmerizing you and hypnotizing you with graphics, but never getting in the way of it and blocking it.
It was probably from art and even in a more technical way, I think it kind of takes you back to those old graphic computers. Early Macintosh computers [with] black and white backgrounds and RGB colors. That sort of thing. I don't know why, but for some reason, it reminds me of that.
(ML): Going off that, with the music choices were there any specific kind of scenes that you were trying to set the visual scene with the music choices? Even the music in the credits seems to set the scene.
(FÁ): I think the show is all about sound. We knew from the beginning that we were going to need a great score and obviously some needle drops here and there. The score itself is about the same as the graphics. It was trying to be as abstract as it could. We didn't want a bombastic music track because that would just get in the way again. [Music] would just push you to be more excited or force you to be scared by giving these dreadful chords.
We did not want to do that, which is why the music is there just to support your imagination and to let you choose how you feel about things and not be forced to feel a certain way. Music can force you to feel scared or sad even when there's nothing sad in the story. So we really tried to avoid that. Again, everything is there to assist your imagination and let you enjoy it and do the nice work of imagining all of this world.
When it comes to tracks, you're always trying to go for things that mean something to you. I think there are a few of those.
Just personally, I think that Stevie Wonder track on episode eight [is there] because that's the first track I ever heard on headphones in my life. It was the first time I was on a plane and I was seven years old and someone brought me the headphones. I was like, ‘What is this thing?' and I put it on, and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was playing. I was blown away by the music in my head. So I still remember that [and] that's probably why that track is in there.
(ML): You mentioned teaching the actors how to use the different audio equipment. Were there any challenges with this project since it is so different from any film production?
(FÁ): The challenge was the neighbors. [laughs] Because people were at home pretending to be killed or running around asking for help. The neighbors were going crazy a lot of the time. The actors would have to struggle with a way to have to explain to their neighbor what they’re doing. These are actors, I guess, they know who they are.
I remember Nick Brown in the first episode. He needed to run outside at some point [and] he wanted to sound like he was outside. To do that you have to go outside. So I think he ran out to the streets and he was just asking for help and running around holding a mic and everybody was looking at him like he was insane. So there was a bit of that.
I remember [when] Karen Gillian was also pretending that she was being killed, her dogs were going insane. Just because they were so worried for her [because] she was locked in this other room. The complexities were that and then the mics, but most of the actors figured that out pretty easily.
(ML): Everybody was so brilliant in their roles. Were any of them written for them in mind or was it just a matter of perfect casting?
(FÁ): Yeah, they were really good, right? No, we started with a story. We were lucky enough that most of the time [when] we finished [writing] we would say, ‘Who would be great for this?' ‘This person or that person would be great.' We went out to [the actors] and they said ‘Yes!'
I think great artists always want to take risks and do something new. When this was pitched to them it was like, ‘Well, that sounds crazy. Let's do it!'
I think the only one probably was Stephen Lang in the last episode. I made a movie with him called Don't Breath a few years ago and we wanted to work again. So I brought Stephen Lang back for the last episode. When I was writing I knew it was going to be him.
(ML): That ending! There is going to be more, right? Fingers crossed.
(FÁ): Sounds like it right? Fingers crossed. I think if the audience wants another one, Apple would definitely give them another season.
(ML): I hope they do! My last question is, what do you think is the perfect way to watch the series?
(FÁ): It's a good question. I would watch it on a big television and if I had headphones, I would stand in front of it. If you're watching it on your own, obviously. But because the graphics are so beautiful and so mesmerizing. It's so unique. They really draw your attention in a unique way. Now I'm sure people may watch on their phone. With some kinds of shows, I [would] resent that as a filmmaker. I don't want people to watch my stuff on their phones. But this might be one of those that I go, ‘That might be fine.' You'll also get that kind of intimate experience of hearing someone talking on the phone on the phone.
One of the main things I love about the show that creates this tension, this wire-istic aspect of just being able to eavesdrop on someone's conversation. I remember when I was a teenager, and people had landlines at home. Remember, when you had the wireless phone? Sometimes magically, we would turn it on and maybe connect with some neighbors who had the same frequency. And for a second you could hear conversations.
That was something that used to happen [and] it was always fascinating. It was so wrong. You could keep listening to it a little bit, but your mom would tell you to hang up and you'd have to hang up. My mom at least asked me to hang up. It was a great feeling, suddenly you were waiting for something to happen, for some drama to unleash. Usually, they were very boring conversations.
But on this show, I can promise you that a lot of things will happen. It will not be a boring conversation.