“THE CALLER”: Director’s Deadly Dialing

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Originally published at Fangoria.com on August 27th, 2011

The supernatural thriller THE CALLER (now in release from Samuel Goldwyn Films) follows a young woman, Mary (TWILIGHT’s Rachelle Lefevre), as her life spirals out of control after she receives mysterious calls from an unknown stalker. The voice on the phone desperately wants her attention and will do anything to get it. How can Mary protect herself, especially when she can’t even see the person threatening her? Fango spoke with director Matthew Parkhill about the challenges of turning a simple phone call into a terrifying sequence, his ensemble cast and his upcoming projects.

FANGORIA: Tell us about the plot of THE CALLER.

MATTHEW PARKHILL: It’s a supernatural thriller revolving around a woman, Mary Kee, moving into an apartment to escape from an abusive marriage. She’s trying to get a fresh start. There’s an old telephone in this old apartment, and she starts getting calls from this woman. They’re nuisance calls; crank calls. She thinks her husband has set this woman up for it, but the woman says she is calling from the past. Mary doesn’t take it too seriously, and they start to bond over problems with relationships. The calls start getting weirder and weirder, and when Mary starts to break contact with the caller, all hell breaks loose! It’s a supernatural thriller with horror elements. It’s more old-school, about atmosphere and tension, instead of a body-count sort of horror movie.

FANG: What drew you to the script by Sergio Casci?

PARKHILL: The smartness of it. I really thought it was a smart script. At that time in London, I was getting the same kind of horror movies. A lot of them were kids in a room, with a killer on the loose, getting chopped up. Then I read this one, and it just had something different. I liked the psychological elements. I also liked the fact that I felt there was a role that an actress could do something with. The role of Mary was really interesting; she’s in every scene. The movie is about her psychological breakdown.

I also love the fact that we don’t try to explain everything. You have to figure it out yourself, put the pieces together. Your mind is racing to catch up with what’s happening on screen. When I read the script for the first time, that’s the reaction I had. My mind was racing to catch up with what was happening on the page. I love that feeling! We don’t have a bolt of lightning to explain how the telephone becomes this thing. It was just there. It was a very smart genre story, but with added emotional and psychological elements.

FANG: A telephone can be used as a weapon of fear, as seen in the SCREAM movies, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and in classic TWILGHT ZONE episodes. What were your inspirations for THE CALLER?

PARKHILL: There were three very particular influences for me, and I talked about them a lot with my director of photography [Alexander Melman]. REPULSION, the Roman Polanski movie, shares some similarities, because it’s about a woman going crazy in her apartment. I loved the claustrophobia in that movie, the sounds coming through the walls. The sound was an influence. Another was the GRUDGE movies, both the original and the remake. The tones of those were distinctive, even though the remake had the same director [Takashi Shimizu]. They have distinct feels to them. Again, it was the use of sound. You can watch THE GRUDGE with just pictures and it’s still creepy as hell, but the sound is so cool. And the third was LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, the Swedish version. I’m a huge fan of that movie! When I first saw that, it opened my eyes that you can make a genre movie in a different way. That movie has such a poetry, such beauty to it, both visually and in terms of the characters. And another one for the DP was DARK WATER, the feel and darkness of it.

We never actually talked about other phone movies, like SCREAM and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. I didn’t see ours that way. I never really saw it as a phone movie, which is kind of weird because it is one, but that wasn’t a way I related to it at all. I related to Mary much more, in terms of her character and journey.

FANG: Rachelle Lefevre delivers an amazing performance. She starts out as this vulnerable, fragile person and gradually develops into a headstrong fighter as she investigates where the calls are coming from. How did you work with Lefevre on building this character arc?

PARKHILL: The key to working with her was taking away the horror elements and just focusing on her character journey. We never talked about the suspension of disbelief regarding the phone. We just talked about the psychological journey of her character. I used to joke with her that the movie, from her point of view, was about marriage counseling. How do you deal with an abusive ex-husband? Those were the kinds of things we focused on.

It’s interesting that you talk about vulnerability. In my head, the character is much more vulnerable and Rachelle is a very strong actress. What’s fascinating with the way the movie grew, she plays the vulnerability much more internally, behind the eyes. She’s not running around screaming as a victim. She’s trying to keep her life together.

FANG: The most terrifying scenes are the phone conversations between Mary and the caller, Rose [voiced by DRAG ME TO HELL’s Lorna Raver]. How did you approach those scenes to build suspense?

PARKHILL: The big challenge for me, as a director, was that a lot of the script was phone calls. The challenge was, how do you make those visually interesting? How do you build tension with one character in a room on phone? One of the things we did was bring down Lorna Raver to Puerto Rico. We could’ve just filmed Rachelle’s character reading off with a different actor and then added Rose’s voice in post. I didn’t want to do that. We built this modest set for Lorna, a sitting room we never saw. We shot in a warehouse and put in a phone line, and all the conversations were filmed for real.

Rachelle didn’t know what Lorna was going to throw at her. The phone-call scenes were never rehearsed, so when we were rolling, Rachelle didn’t know what was coming. In between takes, I’d sometimes say to Lorna, “Let’s throw something else at her, mess with her here.” It always came off as a surprise. Actors often say acting is about reacting. She had such a great actress to play off, which really helped make the performance believable. It’s one of the things I’m proud of with this movie. It feels very real in many ways.

It’s a fantastical premise, and I could have gone two ways with that. I could have embraced the fantastical and explained it, or say I wasn’t going to explain the fantastical and focus on the story and characters. We always tried to keep it grounded in reality.

FANG: Shooting in 23 days, was it easier to work at a fast pace because you cast several TV actors—TRUE BLOOD’s Stephen Moyer, EUREKA’s Ed Quinn and HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA’s Luis Guzmán?

PARKHILL: To be honest, I never really thought about that. All three have moved from TV to film and back again. It was really tight. In their only scene together, Stephen was on his way to the airport and Luis was on his way from the airport. We only had them at the same time for an hour. It was a three-shot, and they were just so good at hitting it. It’s wasn’t about them forgetting their lines; they were getting into their rhythm and their places. Maybe that’s their training from TV. But I never thought about that; that’s a good point.

FANG: Puerto Rico becomes another character in the film. What drew you to this location?

PARKHILL: Originally, Sergio’s script was set in New York. I got a call from one of the producers: “Could you do this in Puerto Rico and shoot San Juan for New York?” It’s not as crazy as it sounds, because a lot of movies have been shot here: FAST FIVE, THE LOSERS, MIAMI VICE. This place doubles for a lot of places. Originally it was a financial thing: There are tax breaks here. They flew me down here from London, and I remember arriving and thinking straightaway this wasn’t New York. Within 10 minutes, you could put a camera here and make it look like New York, but then, you would lose something. It has a great, different feel and texture. My argument was, “Why don’t we set it here? We can do that without changing the story.”

This isn’t advertised, but the movie is set in 2004. We changed the backstories a little bit. It benefitted the movie and made it more interesting. There are a lot of low-budget New York thrillers; the fact that we embraced the setting here helped make it more distinctive. It started out as a practical thing and it became a creative thing.

FANG: You wrote your previous feature, DOT THE I, yourself. Is it easier for you to visually approach a script you have written, or one from another screenwriter?

PARKHILL: This is the first time I ever directed something I didn’t write. I found it easier, because I had more distance from it. I could feel from my point of view what worked, what didn’t work. I was able to be more objective. When you write something, for me anyway, it’s hard to be objective. Sometimes you need to bring in people to be objective for you. For this, I was detached in a good way, because I was able to stand back. The first draft I got from Sergio was fantastic. The things we ended up changing were small. I read the script the first time one September, and I shot it the following year. It was pretty fast.

This started 14 years ago; Sergio first did it as a short film. One thing he hates to hear is, “Oh, it’s like FREQUENCY!” He actually made his short before FREQUENCY. When that movie was released, he knew everyone was going to think he stole the idea from it. He had been working on the script for a long time.

FANG: What are you working on now?

PARKHILL: I’m doing a few things as a writer, and a project as a director. Right now I’m writing a thriller about corruption in the London Olympics; it’s like MICHAEL CLAYTON meets CHARIOTS OF FIRE. It’s about a runner who uncovers this corruption going on, and in an INSIDER kind of way, his life is threatened. That’s not for me to direct. As a director, I’m doing a film called TWIST, which is a contemporary retelling of OLIVER TWIST set in London. It’s very different from THE CALLER. All these kids Fagin assembles are great at art heists. They’re kind of like little Spider-Men without the webbing. It’s a young OCEAN’S ELEVEN with the cast of SKINS. That could be a lot of fun!

Another thing is a supernatural thriller I’ve written, THE INHERITANCE, which is a companion piece to THE CALLER. But I’ll probably do TWIST first.