Directed by Bonnie Wright and written by Martin Cohn, the series of three shorts in Phone Calls takes an intimate look at three relationships: the deep insight of two friends, the turgid ambivalence of a married who don’t know what they want for dinner; a call that ends with an argument about much deeper issues. Filmed entirely on film, the series takes on a dreamy aesthetic full of rich colours which are at odds with the moments of ugliness revealed in the conversations.
How did you come together to create Phonecalls?
Martin: A while back I was writing short stories for a book and a lot of them starting becoming dialogue. When Bonnie and I met through mutual friends, we spent an intense two weeks together going out every night and we started talking about it. I was saying that I’d love to do a show that was just about phone calls. I said it very off-the-cuff and Bonnie just looked at me and said, “Great, let’s do it.”
Bonnie: There was one short story that was a phone conversation with a structure that already worked really well. I was like, ‘This would be so cool as a web series,’ I guess we had that format in mind from the get-go. It’s funny because my knowledge and experience of web series is honestly not huge because I don’t watch that many. For me, film is just something that I’ve always been drawn to over television but not because I’m not interested in episodic narrative. It’s been interesting shooting this and being aware of a whole new world. Even though I started making short films primarily in terms of what I first directed, not many of them have had an overall concept and this is very much a concept because we always wanted to go beyond the three episodes that we did.
Here’s a thing. People don’t really communicate on the phone anymore, do they.
B: I guess that’s something we wanted to explore, the questions of is this a dying form of communication and what style of communication do you have in a phone conversation when you don’t have emails or texts?
M: That’s been a big thing because the way people communicate when they’re taking on the phone is so unique, so singular, and I love that. I love what a phone conversation can be, the way it makes people act and interact. It can mean so much or so little. I think it also comes from the fact that for some reason visually for me, one of my favourite things in film, TV or anything, is seeing a woman on the phone. I just love the way a woman on the phone looks.
B: We’re interested in the truth that can come out when you’re not physically face-to-face with someone. A lot of my work is often about the spatial awareness of a character within their space, landscape or their proximity with someone. For me, it was quite a challenge because that’s something I’m naturally drawn to - really working with physical space and being in an environment with someone whereas this is void of that and it’s suddenly just you and the phone that you’re having this relationship with. That was interesting to me because it was definitely new. You’re isolating these characters in this vignette of the two of each of them.
So what were each of your roles in terms of production and writing?
B: I guess we essentially produced it together in a technical managerial sense and also in a creative sense. We did stick to the roles of Martin being the writer and myself as director, but I would say we’ve very much collaborated on the other elements.
M: It’s very much both our project, at no point did any of us take over, it’s very much us doing this together which is really nice. That’s why I’ve always wanted to work in film and with story telling of this kind because I love working with people and I love working with friends. It’s a gift - to be able to work with friends and people you admire and trust. I don’t think there’s anything better.
B: Even though we’re weirdly drawn to the same things and maybe surprise each other when we both like the same things, I’d say generally we’re very very different people with very different tastes. I think that adds something really interesting to the collaboration because we would sort of catch each other out in moments where maybe one of us went on a weird divergent and the other was like, ‘Uh, let’s pull that back, or go that far.’ It was an interesting push and pull which was good.
M: It never felt like you were being reigned in or stumped or stopped, again as Bonnie was saying, we seem so different but when it comes to film and storytelling, there’s so much cross over. I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed on something about a film, we’re always on the same page.
How big was the learning curve for you both?
B: We shot the first episode in May last year and then we shot episode two and three on the same day later on in June so there was a time in between shooting them that we definitely learnt a lot from.
M: Even things like the place we got the camera from for episode one we were like, ‘No, not renting from them again.’
B: Yeah, there’s the technical side of things and then I guess what we’ve also learnt in terms of it going to Tribeca is really interesting in the sense of you’re showing it to an audience and when you’re accepted and able to show it to a platform like that that has such ground house as a festival, there’s a whole new element of upping your game and wanting it to be the best it can be with the opportunity given. Most of the projects I’ve ever done have had deadlines set by me whereas this time, having one already set means stepping up to that which has ramped up our rhythm of production to a scale that’s been really exciting. I think as we’ve edited them, we slowly began to understand what kind of characters we’re really interested in exploring going forward.
M: Looking back, I loved doing episode two, I think the performances in it are so fantastic and between the three episodes it’s definitely our happy light one - it’s fun and it’s great in how it shows a really wonderful relationship, the kind I have with my very close friends. But in going through it and then comparing it to episode one and three, I couldn’t see myself writing like that again. I don’t know if I’m interested in showing those good healthy relationships. What I love so much about episode one and three is that they’re not healthy, they’re not nice, they’re both very mean spirited and something I’ve learnt about myself is that that’s what I like to make. I like to make mean things.
We wanted to explore the questions of is this a dying form of communication and what style of communication do you have in a phone conversation when you don’t have emails or texts? - Bonnie
Who are your characters? What have you drawn from to invent them?
M: I guess the primordial soup in my mind is made up of all the women I’ve grown up loving. Women like Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Selma Blair and Jennifer Connelly. They represent the ultimate version of being a woman onscreen, to me. The characters they portray, more often than not, are hyper female without being caricature. It's the heightened version of reality of what women are perceived as. Most, if not all, of my characters come from those ideas and tropes that the great actresses channel and then pitting them against things like the monstrous male.
B: Episode two is two female best friends talking to one another, and then episode one and three and both men and women in conversation, and there are some scripts you’ve written that don’t necessarily explore a man and woman on either side of the phone, yet still manage to explore that battle. With a phone call you’re naturally on this balancing scale of power that shifts between the two, and I had that literally when editing and directing because you’re split editing between two, it’s a call and response thing. It naturally presents that shifting of power and focus which makes you question who ends the call?
M: There’s a lot of that. The power moves of hanging up.
That moment you choose to say goodbye to someone says so much about your relationship. There are some people that you can talk to on the phone for hours and you say goodbye six or seven times but the conversation keeps going.
B: I also think you can tell so much about each other when you pick up the phone. My mum can read me within the first word I say, she’ll know if I don’t want to speak to her, if I’m in a space where I can’t really speak or if i’ve got something to ask her. It’s just amazing how you can read so much about someone through the tone of their voice on the phone.
It’s a strangely honest medium even though you’re only getting one sense ignited. It’s that thing where if you can’t see something, you pick up on all the tiny details that you maybe wouldn’t do if you were with someone. All of your senses are focused on one thing.
B: Also, things can be misinterpreted. You can be hyper-sensitive and the tone of someone can be easily misunderstood.
M: That’s such a great way to put it - it is a strangely honest medium and again it goes back to that thing where because you’re not face-to-face, you’re fearless on the phone.
B: I hate confrontation. I could call someone up and complain about something or have to tell them about something which I would honestly just freak out with if it was face to face.
M: Because it’s voice, it’s ephemeral, it’s not written down. I have so much anxiety trying to write something on email or texts that are confrontational or professional on a level where you have to be like, ‘Listen, you’re not doing your job right.’ But if it’s a phone call, I don’t give a shit.
Exactly, because it doesn’t last.
M: There’s that too. It’s kind of like, they’re not in front of you and it’s fleeting so the two mixed together is recipe for disaster.
B: It can’t be used as evidence against you. If something were to happen, emails can be used against you in court or whatever whereas a phone call is like it didn’t happen. That’s like the third episode where we very much play on the sense of time this character has spent on the phone is obscured.
Well we’ll all remember this phone call Martin.
M: Definitely (laughs) but being on the phone too, it’s a weird temporal shift, you know. It’s a universe all it’s own.
I march around on the phone, I can’t sit still, I have to be in motion somewhere. I also have no phone reception in my house so if someone calls me I have to go out and go to the shops and buy a packet of cigarettes silently miming to the man. Whereas other people can happily lie on their bed for hours and talk, so that’s a strange thing too - everyone has their own routine.
M: I love that about phone calls, if you’re on the phone outside it’s a social interaction but you’re so removed from the actual real world around you which is such a weird sensation but I think it’s so fantastic.
B: You also have space for forms of expression on a phone conversation that I never do when face-to-face with someone. You know, I could be on the phone and be doing this expression or that and get really into it. You’re not being watched so there’s a sort of freedom of body language whether it’s pacing around the room or getting really angry at someone.
You just premiered at Tribeca – what will happen now?
B: The first three episodes will be live on their platform so you’ll be able to watch it there. In terms of it developing into a series, that’s sort of open ended but after the festival, our aim is to develop it and take it further.
M: One of the things so fantastic about a festival like Tribeca is that the team there is so much on your side and they want nothing more than to give you every opportunity to further develop. To get that sort of support, especially for me with this being my first experience in making stuff, it’s been a very amazing and humbling experience. I’m still like, ‘This can’t possibly be real.’