Fede Álvarez has made an infamous name for himself in Horror. The filmmaker was working on small projects in his home of Montevideo, Uruguay until Sam Raimi entrusted him with 2013’s Evil Dead. What could have been a suicide mission remaking one of the most beloved horror films of all time resulted in the exact opposite. In fact, many now consider his Evil Dead as one of, if not, the best remake in all of modern Horror. His strong relationship with Raimi lead to the creation of his second beloved hit, Don’t Breathe.
His latest project, Calls on AppleTV+, is a killer flex in the modern streaming world. A short-from horror series centered on an apocalyptic anomaly allowing average people to communicate with the past and future, just by dialing the phone. No actors are ever present on screen, just the sound of their fear and psychedelic visuals crafted by Álvarez. “Anyone familiar with his work can fully expect things to get f*cked up, and quite quickly.” There isn’t anything else on this niche of a scale, with this kind of ambition no less, on another streaming platform, especially with an all-star voice cast including Pedro Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Nick Jonas, Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and more.
With cinemas on the edge of reopening amid what seem like the final legs of the pandemic, Álvarez is getting ready to go big again. He produced and wrote the upcoming Don’t Breathe sequel along with a new chapter in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. We were lucky enough to catch up with Fede Álvarez and break down everything about Calls, from its chilling style to its place in modern Horror. We also, of course, couldn’t resist asking about his upcoming projects.
There are certain Horror subgenres with notorious reputations, whether it be found footage or even now in the age of COVID, people are making Horror films using only their phones and laptop cameras. So when creating Calls in your head, do these factors intimidate you at all? Or does it kind of give you the motivation to make something better?
Fede Álvarez: I hadn’t seen any of those. Because I’m old, I’m like 40 (laughs) so I guess I haven’t seen any of this new stuff, I was not intimidated. But I was intimidated by the format, yes. The idea of how am I going to put everyone through the emotions that they want, right? When you go into something like this, it’s like “give it to me!” You just want to feel scared, excited, and emotional. That’s why we watch shows, because we just want to get in connection with that feeling inside us.
So how do I do that when I cannot see anyone’s face? When I don’t have a monster hiding in a hallway? That’s what was intimidating about it. It was a lot of work and trying to figure out the stories, trying to figure out stories that were perfect for the format as well. That’s the hardest part, you don’t want to come up with an idea that would be better if you could shoot it. So that’s why if you pay attention to a lot of the episodes, they wouldn’t work if I was actually shooting them. Like when Rosario Dawson’s sister is telling her that she’s disintegrating in her house but she’s a hypochondriac, so we don’t know if to believe it or not. If I was shooting that, you would know right away. Unless I shot the whole thing from Rosario Dawson’s side, which wouldn’t be very exciting. So that was the challenge, to find those stories and make sure they’re great for the format. Hopefully, I’ve done that.
Yeah, there are people doing crazy stuff right now, entire horror films shot from laptop cameras. So speaking on the stories, one of the more obvious inspirations I can possibly see is like The Twilight Zone. But asking you specifically, were there any shows or films that inspired you when writing Calls?
Fede Álvarez: Good question. I think because of the genre, there’s no one single genre for [Calls]. Obviously, it’s scary at times, but then you have episodes like ‘Pedro Across The Street’, which I find hilarious. Yes, there is a bit of everything spread throughout. So there is not one single thing I can point out. And part of that was the beauty of doing this. There were no rules, there was no playbook, no one was trying to make it similar to something else. We had Apple approach with this French format, all they basically told me was, you know, what we saw on the show – it has to be phone calls, it’s got to be kind of Twilight Zone-y. Then after that, I was given the opportunity to create all the stories, create this narrative, and create all the visuals. So there was a lot of room to make it our own really. That’s what made it great, there were no rules for it, there was no direct reference, there was nothing that I was trying to match it to.
The closest thing that I could probably try to match it to is when, you might be too young for this, but when everybody used to have landlines at home and you’re talking through a wireless phone, sometimes it would connect to some other phone. So you’ll pick up the phone and you’ll hear a conversation. It was just some neighbor having the same model telephone model as yours, then suddenly it’s like God you can hear and you were always waiting for something dramatic to unfold, which it really did. There’s something very special and forbidden about that idea of suddenly dropping in on someone else’s conversation that you’re not supposed to be hearing. This was my voyeuristic aspect of it that I really enjoyed. So that was most of the inspiration. I was trying to figure out what would be the phone call that you’ve dropped into and realize, “Oh my god, a lot of things are happening here.”
All of your horror films are scary and intense, but there’s also a level of really dark or sinister comedy. This of course carries into Calls but you haven’t played with science fiction like this in a long time. How do you find a way to blend all of these aspects together?
Fede Álvarez: I’m a big science fiction fan, so I don’t know why I never ended up making a movie in that space, at least yet. I did make a short that was science fiction called Panic Attack, which is what gave me a career, it gave me Evil Dead. It was about a bunch of giant robots destroying Montevideo, my city in Uruguay. So I always loved the genre, just for some reason I didn’t do it on film, maybe because lately there has been a lot of sci-fi movies in general. But just when you know it and you’re familiar with the language, I think it’s a lot of fun to write sci-fi. I’m a big fan of time travel movies, from Back to the Future to Primer, which is a very complex one. There’s a lot of that sci-fi in this show, right? Everything that’s related to time travel. Now, there aren’t people traveling through time, but there are definitely sound waves.
Everyone’s already talking about the cast because holy sh*t, so many big hitters are here. It’s part of the surprise when the credits roll because you’re like, “I didn’t know that was that that person’s voice!” Now, was it more challenging only having voices to work with? How were you giving direction apart from your actors?
Fede Álvarez: I mean, the better the actor, the less work you’re requesting of the director. That’s always true. They are great names because they are great at what they do. So that’s the main thing you’re looking for, particularly, when I know that I’m not going to sell their faces. People are going to say, “I want to see the show because I saw in the trailer that this person is in it” and they won’t actually see them. Like you said, the episode will finish and they’ll go like, “Oh, look at who that was!” I personally love the guessing game. When I hear voices in animation I’m like, “Wait a second, I know this guy” and I’ll guess till the end. There’s something about that, I always find that it’s a lot of fun. So that’s why I wanted to have big names in [Calls], just so you could guess and kind of recognize their voices.
Like I said, it was not too much of a challenge at that level because great actors, they do a great job. So you have to do a little less and most of my job, what ended up happening because of the pandemic – what would have been a show done on a stage with the actors pretending to be talking on the phone – we ended up recording everything remotely. We just sent mics to the houses of the actors and I was at home, they were all at home, and so they were not seeing each other’s faces – they weren’t pretending to be talking on the phone, they are talking on the phone. When you get into the show, that was what they were doing – Mark Duplass just talking with Pedro in his house over the phone with me dropping in and everybody coming in and out. So there was something super realistic in that, it made it a bit more grounded and I think made for better performances.
As great as the vocal performances are, you also need something on screen because people might get bored, right? Just the way we’re trained to watch movies and TV, we need something visually present. Can you talk about creating the visuals for Calls? Like forming the sound waves, shapes, etc.
Fede Álvarez: It took a lot of time to figure out the graphic look. We knew it was going to have to do something with sound waves because towards the last episode, you start realizing that what’s happening has to do with sound waves. So that’s why it looks the way it does. Personally, I just wanted to go back to the retro graphics of old Macintosh computers, that kind of black background and RGB colors, we were inspired by that. Because we knew it was a very trippy show, we also wanted to take album covers from the 60s and 70s. There’s some Dark Side of the Moon in there and stuff like that was a bit of an inspiration for the look. But apart from that, again, this just doesn’t look exactly like anything else. So it’s just inspiration from many things in your head.
I have to bring up Sam Raimi because we all love him, of course. Calls specifically reminded me of what Sam was doing on Quibi with 50 States of Fright, a short-form horror series with each episode having its own story. His show was praised as one of the best on its platform and like Calls, they’re both so intense and addicting that you can’t wait for the next episode. Do you think with the success of your show that there could be more space in the mainstream for projects like this?
Fede Álvarez: I think there is and I hope they do push those a bit more. In this case, you mentioned an iconic filmmaker [Raimi] doing it, but I hope those sort of shows will be given to the younger filmmakers. You know, the young filmmaker that just wants to experiment and it would also allow people that don’t have a lot of resources to do big shows. It’s not only at home, like you were saying earlier with just using phones, it doesn’t take a lot more to suddenly create great stories. They might see [Calls] and go like, “Well, I can do better.” That’s what I always hope happens with whatever I do, that young people see it and go like, “Yeah, I can do better than this” and just go out and try it.
You know, that was my motivation to make movies. I would watch movies I didn’t like it and go like, “I could do better. I’m going to have to try now.” But sometimes it’s hard. If it’s a movie, even if you feel like you could do better, it’s hard for someone to give you millions of dollars to make it. But now when it comes to something like this, I think people with not a lot of resources and a lot of creativity can suddenly create an amazing show and reach large audiences through services like this one [Apple], right? So I hope it opens the game a little bit more if the show is successful. And I hope it will be so that it proves that it doesn’t take a lot to make people feel a lot.
Lastly, you’re very busy and we just brought up Sam Raimi, who you’re producing more projects with. What can you tell us about what’s next on the horizon? Next time we’ll see your name it will be for Don’t Breathe 2 correct?
Fede Álvarez: Don’t Breathe 2 is actually coming out this year. It’s done already. I watched it not too long ago and it’s fantastic. So I just really can’t wait for you guys to see it. Two of the movies I made as a producer and also writer, obviously Don’t Breathe 2 and also this year Texas Chainsaw Massacre will be coming out, which is also fantastic. Both movies… I think we’re all craving for that horror experience again in a theater, to be surrounded with people and get the best. So I think that these two movies, hopefully, will be my contribution this year for the world of horror fans. Just to go bananas in the theater watching them, because both of them are pretty insane and crazy. They’re pretty out there when it comes to horror movies. So fans will get a lot this year with those films. Hopefully by the time they come out, the world would have gone back to normal and we’ll get together in a theater and go crazy.