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‘Calls’ Director Fede Alvarez on Creating ‘The Twilight Zone’ for Phone Calls (Exclusive Video)

”I didn’t want a story that had you go, ‘If I was seeing this it would be so much better'“

Apple TV+’s new experimental series “Calls” straddles the line between podcast and TV series, using minimal visuals and just short audio conversations to tell nine stories of people experiencing strange, seemingly supernatural events.

“I didn’t want a story that had you go, ‘If I was seeing this, it would be so much better,'” director Fede Álvarez said in an interview with TheWrap. “So most of [the episodes], if you were seeing them, it would ruin it.”

The series is adapted from the popular French-language series of the same name, but Álvarez’s version goes in its own direction, calling on a roster of actors including Nicholas Braun, Lily Collins, Rosario Dawson, Nick Jonas and Aubrey Plaza along the way.

Álvarez said he and the team came up with dozens of ideas for the show before winnowing them down to what eventually became the final nine episodes, which explore stories featuring doppelgängers, mysterious bank robberies, disappearing planes and more.

“The reason I did [the show] was because I didn’t have to tell the same stories,” Álvarez said. “It was just the format, and now we can tell all original stories. We also needed to create a full-length visual language that was not there in the original show. We do really create this whole new visual look for it. So there was a lot of room for creation. All we needed to do was to take one with this idea of kind of ‘Twilight Zone’ show based on phone calls, and the original creators were kind enough to let us run with that idea and make our own.”

Watch an exclusive clip from the series above, and read more TheWrap’s interview with Alvarez below:

TheWrap: When you were looking at the original series, what kinds of things were you looking to take from and how faithful you were trying to be?

Álvarez: When Apple approached me with the original series, I think all it took was to watch the first episode to tell then that I was interested. Because as different as it is from our show, I think it was just the fact that Apple and Canal+ were eager and willing to make a show that will require a lot of your imagination, that was going to be just based on phone calls. That was something that I thought was super brave and super original and unique. And the reason I did it was because I didn’t have to tell the same stories. It was just the format, and now we can tell all original stories. We also needed to create a full-length visual language that was not there in the original show. We do really create this whole new visual look for it. So there was a lot of room for creation. All we needed to do was to take one with this idea of kind of “Twilight Zone” show based on phone calls, and the original creators were kind enough to let us run with that idea and make our own. So if you have seen the original show, you’ll see how different they are.

The show is primarily audio, but there are important visual components, including a few bits of text that aren’t read out loud. So how do you envision people consuming the show? Are they sitting down on their couch and watching it on TV? Or is there more room for it to be adaptable?

I think it is adaptable. You can watch it any way you want. My ideal situation, I think, is with headphones in front of a large TV because the whole show is mixed in [Dolby] Atmos and has this binaural mixing, so when you hear it through headphones, the sound does things to your head that you have never experienced before. That’s something that only Apple can do, I guess. But I think we live in a world where, obviously, we cannot control how people watch this thing. So I’m sure you’ll get a get a good experience even if you listen to it on your phone. I can’t wait to see where people go and what ends up being the favored way for consuming.

There are quite a few like big stars on the show. What was your process there in terms of casting?

When it comes to voice work, who they are doesn’t really matter because people don’t see their faces. It’s just looking for the talent. These people are stars because they’re really, really talented actors. I was trying to get the best actor, and we were lucky enough that I would say that most of the people in the show were the people who we called first. And I think it was a testament to the stories and scripts and Apple that everybody said yes, that they wanted to flock to it. I think the pandemic also helped in a way, because there was no shooting at a time and all these actors were eager to go and do what they love to do. So it was a chance for them to perform during those times.

What are kind of like the biggest challenges that you face with a show like this?

The biggest thing was coming up with stories where the format is not going to be a limitation for it. I didn’t want a story that had you go, “If I was seeing this, it would be so much better.” So most of them, if you were seeing them, it would ruin it. There’s an episode where Rosario Dawson is on the phone with her sister who claims to be disintegrating. But she’s a hypochondriac, so she comes up with stuff like that all the time. So how do you know which is true? If we showed it, it wouldn’t work. And the same with many of the episodes, it’s just concepts that work because you just listened to it and you’re not seeing it.

Were there any stories in the initial process that you had been working on and then at some point realized just won’t work in this format?

For sure. Usually, for something like this, I think it’s like a good album, where I like to get out and write like 40 tracks in order to find the 10 that make it to the album. We came up with so many ideas and so many stories. Mostly they ended up being ideas that we felt would be better if it were shot. Maybe I’ll make them into a movie one day.

How will the versions of the show in other languages differ?

For the international audience, usually you get subtitles, right? I mean, obviously there’s dubbed versions all over the world that would be for a lot of countries that just like to see things in their own language … What I didn’t want was people to have to read English text and then subtitles. Having double text would be a nightmare. So maybe because I’m from Latin America, but I really wanted to create, for the whole Spanish-speaking community, even in the United States, a show that is all rendered in Spanish. So there’s at least a version of the show where all the text on the screen is in Spanish.

“Calls” is now available to stream on Apple TV+