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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Calls: How COVID-19 boosted the cell signal for Fede Álvarez's experimental new Apple TV+ series

By Josh Weiss
Calls Apple TV+ key art

When Apple TV+ approached Fede Álvarez (Evil Dead, Don't Breathe) to develop a show about phone calls, the director thought that the folks behind the streaming platform had held one too many giant cellular phones up to their heads in the '90s. However, as he began to dig into Calls (based on Timothée Hochet French show of the same name), Álvarez came to realize that he had a rare oppurtunity to break the Hollywood mold with a project that had no pre-existing "Bible" or "reference" materials.

"You can really make it your own," he told SYFY WIRE during a virtual press junket ahead of the March 19 premiere. "As a writer/director, to have the challenge of coming up with all these stories that have to be high concepts that should work for film. That is the bar for us. The idea needs to be good enough to make a feature film, but we'll compress it in 10 minutes. And not only that, but it also has to be perfect for the format. The best ones all have to be stories that if I was shooting them, I would ruin the magic. Most of them work because I'm not shooting [them in person] ... There's many of those episodes where you don't know what's really happening and if you saw it, you'd know and it would ruin [the experience]."

A veritable throwback to the days of radio or perhaps the next stage of podcast evolution, Calls has no visuals. Unless you count the unnerving collection of fluctuating and colorful sound-waves that accompany each surreal phone conversation. When we pose that the project falls somewhere in the middle of podcast and TV show, Álvarez qualifies it as "its own beast."

"I'm not one to oversell the things that I do, but it is fair to say that even when you see the trailer and someone describes it to you, you gotta put yourself in the experience," he explains. "And by the time you finish watching the first one, it will never be what you expected and hopefully, it'll be a lot more. There's no way to anticipate it, I guess because you've never consumed something like that ... There's no words to describe the experience that you go through. It's this whole thing where you discover something in your imagination you didn't know was there."

He goes on to say that Calls combines elements of classic radio dramas, modern-day podcasts, and even old-school computer graphics. "It has a lot of abstract art in it. Elements of abstract art and classic animation as well," he reveals. "Classic computer animation. We took a lot from the old Macintosh graphics from the '80s. So, it's this mix of a lot of new and classic things combined into a new thing."

So, what is the short-form series actually about? We don't want to give too much away because it offers such a singular and unique viewing adventure, but as the title suggests all nine episodes — ranging from 13 to 20 minutes each — are centered around phone calls, and really weird ones at that. Armed with a dynamite cast that features Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian), Rosario Dawson (Marvel's Daredevil), Lilly Collins (Emily in Paris), and plenty more, Álvarez weaves an unsettling tapestry of seemingly unrelated telephone tête-à-têtes that all connect in one Earth-shattering way. While the filmmaker prides himself on realism ("I don't think I've ever used a green screen in my life," he says), Calls actually got an unexpected leg up by way of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Ironically, this feels like a show that came out of the pandemic, but that's not true," Álvarez continues. "We started the show before the pandemic and when we were about to go into production, the pandemic hit, and suddenly, we couldn't get together. The plan was to get everyone on a stage and work with them, so when that [fell through,] suddenly, I was like, ‘Wait a second, if there's a show that's not gonna be stopped by this, it's this one.'

"We started this massive operation on every episode to send a suitcase to the house of the actor with a computer, mics, and everything they needed to record themselves," he continues. "When you listen to the show, it's exactly those actors in different parts of the world literally talking to each other on the phone. I was at home listening to the conversations and directing from there. So, there was no faking — they were literally on the phone trying to hear each other and breaking up sometimes. It is almost like a super-realistic performance."

Fede Alvarez

One cast member even recorded his lines outside when the script called for an exterior scene. "He took all the mics and ran out in Silver Lake and to the streets. He was running around, recording his last scene and talking to himself and other, invisible people," he says. "There was a lot of that. Just a very playful and unique experience for everybody. When it comes to directing, that's what you always dream of. To get [the actors] to play as close as possible to reality."

If we had to compare the show to anything, we'd say it brings to mind a classic episode of the original The Twilight Zone's first season "And When the Sky Was Opened." The episodes give off the same chilling, existential, and borderline Lovecraftian vibe that something is off with the universe... and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

"I think Twilight Zone is a big inspiration, for sure," Álvarez says. "Mostly [when it comes to] this fantastic series of episodes with big, high concepts. I think that was something I was truly trying to find in each one of the episodes. Though it was all part of the same story, you really wanted to find simple high concepts that drew you in very fast."

He also cites Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, and Primer as notable inspirations. "I've always been a fan of all this crazy, extreme time travel stuff. There's a lot taken from that, which, thematically, I think is always interesting," he says. "This idea of learning to accept the reality we live in and also to cope with the bad and good choices we made in the past. It's all about fate ... We took from a lot of that story."

The Twilight Zone And When the Sky Was Opened

The end product is something very much akin to Rod Serling's famous anthology series. Calls is genuinely fresh and groundbreaking television that turns the viewer into an active participant by weaponizing their own imagination against them.

"This is a show that we created with a lot of freedom when it comes to the stories we tell and the themes," Álvarez finishes. "We took all the risk we could take, I think. It was really experimental and I'm super grateful that Apple really allowed us to play with such a big canvas on their streaming service with something so unique and strange. I'm super grateful, there's not a lot of opportunities like that usually."

Calls premieres on Apple TV+ tomorrow — Friday, March 19. Check out an exclusive clip right here.

The voice cast also includes: Judy Greer (Halloween), Mark Duplass (The One I Love), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Tenet), Nicholas Braun (Succession), Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption), Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame), Paul Walter Hauser (Cobra Kai), Danny Huston (Children of Men), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience), Joey King (The Act), Laura Harrier (Hollywood), Stephen Lang (Avatar), Jaeden Martell (It), Paola Nuñez (Bad Boys for Life), Edi Patterson (The Righteous Gemstones), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Danny Pudi (Mythic Quest), Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog), and Jennifer Tilly (Family Guy).