By Nicolás Medina (*) - Back in 2009, a young Uruguayan director caught the attention of millions of people from all over the world by broadcasting the short film ¡Ataque de pánico! (Panic attack!)
Not much time passed and his life had already changed completely. Although he had experience and recognition as a director of short films, the filmmaker had focused his career mainly on advertising. By the time he remembered, his short film in which robots of colossal proportions and airships destroyed the city of Montevideo had caught the attention of Hollywood producer and director Sam Raimi (Infernal Possession, Drag Me to Hell, Spider-Man).
By 2013, Federico Alvarez (now 43 years old), who reflects in this article on his new series, which he finished producing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, released his first feature film in Hollywood, Infernal Possession. In 2016 the success is repeated again, but this time with Don't Breathe and then he released his third feature film, The Girl in the Spider's Web (2018).
And when in early March of this year Fede Álvarez shared on his Twitter account that he had written and directed a TV series for Apple TV+ and that we had never seen anything like this, the anticipation promised to surpass the phenomenon of ¡Ataque de pánico!
Calls premiered on March 19, 2021, on the Apple TV+ platform. Each of its nine chapters revolves around one or more characters who, while communicating through phone calls, begin to experience strange situations, temporal conflicts, and situations that refer to the apocalyptic. And the interesting and striking thing about the proposal is that all the stories are told in radio theatre format, without resorting to the use of photography, but relying on texts, graphics and hypnotic visual effects that accompany the subtext of each chapter individually.
QUESTION: You explore and combine elements from science fiction series such as The Twilight Zone, X-Files and certain language that seems to be taken from the found footage technique. What is it that inspires you and makes you choose these and not other references?
FEDE ÁLVAREZ: The truth is that at the moment of writing and designing the series I don't think much about other references. I only think about what is the most interesting story I can tell through one or more phone calls. The references inspire you very early in the process, but when writing, the team is on its own with its ideas.
In fact, Alvarez does not recycle or skimp on creativity despite the influences that may arise, and which inevitably appear at this point in the history of cinema. Calls is an innovative proposal audiovisually, and with all due respect to the original material, a much more frightening and effective experience. But why is this effective?
QUESTION: One of the main elements to make horror and science fiction is the use of out-of-field. As spectators, we are more insecure about what we don't see than what is explicit. In Calls, you enhance these resources by doing an impressive job of sound design and original immersive and hypnotic visuals that accompany the story and end up forming an audiovisual language. How did you feel this change in the use of audiovisual language based on what you are used to?
FEDE ÁLVAREZ: In a way, I really enjoyed not having many tools at my disposal other than the ability to use words and combinations of colours and sound. The hardest part was finding the visual style and the rules of the game. Once we all agreed with the team, things flowed very well.
Not only did things flow very well, as Fede says, but the viewing experience works very well. The immersive and hypnotic graphics and visuals designed by the Logan company play a key role in addition to turning the series into an audiovisual production. There is a clear cinematic language in the different possibilities that are captured on screen in each chapter, but apart from this, they can also be seen as an incomplete text which each viewer will interpret, complete and receive in a personal way based on their experience and the sense they attribute to each visual design.
The sound design allows for intermittent phone calls, the use of sounds that we are used to hearing on a daily basis in conjunction with terrifying sound elements that no one would want to hear in their life, make the auditory experience of the series impressive, great, and difficult to repeat.
QUESTION: The series is very ambitious in terms of format, cast and effectiveness, but it is also a minimalist proposal that optimizes its resources to the maximum. Do you think that the fact that you can make the project work has to do with your training and experience making films in Uruguay and all the challenges that this entails?
FEDE ÁLVAREZ: Probably. In Uruguay, it is rare to develop a style that requires millions of dollars to produce. You always try to tell the best story possible with what you have at hand. It's something that, although I now work in a big industry, I try never to lose sight of.
The arrival of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the stability of the project. But as he himself has said on several occasions If there was a series that isolation was not going to stop, it was this one.
The production then had to adapt to the new normality. The actors received the necessary materials and technical equipment to record the voices on their own. And he has expressed that this modality ended up in more than one way benefiting the final result that had the added value of being made in a way more similar to the fiction that collaborated with the actors and their interpretation.
QUESTION: You mentioned that, although the project was underway before the pandemic, they had to adapt the execution to all that the sanitary measures implied, where each actor received devices, microphones and was in charge of recording all their dialogues on their own under your direction. Would you repeat this modality or would you take advantage as director of the possibility of having direct contact with the actors in a recording studio?
FEDE ÁLVAREZ: I think I would personally do it the same way, although the actors would probably prefer to go to a studio and not have to learn how to operate a portable audio studio!
Throughout the nine chapters of the series (which last between 13 and 20 minutes approximately), we will be given progressive information that will catch us and that the viewer must collect and place in the appropriate place to spin a plot that goes through horror, science fiction and mystery, but that is mainly based on drama. Each chapter revolves around a conflicted interpersonal relationship, broken relationships and a need for connection with the other that ironically is interrupted between the phone lines that connect the characters.
The viewing experience, personally, I believe will be most effective if the viewer is placed in a position of total abstraction. Where the only elements in the room are us, the screen and a pair of headphones that will enhance our senses. But if we opt for this modality, the viewer should be prepared to constantly look over his or her shoulder.
QUESTION: At this point, your filmography includes three feature films, TV series and you made the leap to production with Don't Breath 2 and the new sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Do you feel the same as the Fede of 2016, or how do you feel your version of the future has changed in relation to that era?
FEDE ALVAREZ: I probably feel even less confident than in 2016, since the last film I released (The Girl in the Spider's Web, 2018) wasn't number one at the box office like the others, but at the same time I feel that a little bit of failure always comes in handy to appease the ego.
The series has another crucial element: the actresses and actors who brought the characters from paper to screen, or rather, to our ears. In Calls the cast features actors like Rosario Dawson (The Mandalorian, Daredevil), Nick Jonas (Jumanji, Midway), Lily Collins (Emily In Paris, The Unforeseen Events of Love) or Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation). And I would like to highlight the performances of Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Godzilla) and Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) in an extremely disconcerting and distressing chapter, as well as Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian) who delights us with his voice in an extremely disturbing character. And these are just some of the names that make up the cast.
Fede Álvarez is currently working on the sequel to Don't Breath (directed this time by Rodo Sayagues) and on a new sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in both projects with the role of producer, and which are in post-production.
Infernal Possession is available on Amazon Prime Video, Don't Breath on Netflix, The Girl in the Spider's Web on Google Play and all Calls episodes are available on Apple TV+.
(*) Nicolás Medina is a Film Critic member of the Uruguayan Film Critics Association (ACCU.UY). He is an Audiovisual Producer graduated from the Audiovisual Technicature of UTU (Uruguay) and an Advanced Student of the Audiovisual Communication Degree of the ORT University (Uruguay). Accredited by the Uruguayan Film School in workshops of Journalistic Documentary, Assistance in Direction; and Film and Literature. Montevideo, Uruguay.