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Interview - THE VOICES Director Nathaniel Nuon

the voices
Nuon speaks about his new supernatural thriller.

Valerie Jane Parker, Ashley Bell, Jordan Ladd and Leslie Easterbrook star in The Voices, out now on US VOD (UK/ROI release TBA).

After visiting her father's grave, Lilly and her mother are involved in a terrible car accident leaving Lilly orphaned and unable to see. In her youth, she struggles with her blindness and begins to hear voices. Unbeknownst to her, they don't belong to the living. After years of learning to cope, Lilly is now happily married with a baby on the way. Lilly soon discovers her unborn baby has become a vessel, a second chance for souls stuck in limbo to be re-born. She only has until the baby's first heartbeat to decide which soul will be re-born through her. Now the voices she heard in her youth have returned, clamouring for the chance to come back. Among the voices, she befriends the spirit of a little girl tied to a years-old cold case. Lilly finds herself in a desperate struggle with the girl's murderers and the souls vying to be born again.

We spoke to co-writer and director Nathaniel Nuon about the film.



Tell us where your love of film comes from?

I’ve always had a love of film for as long as I can remember. My family were refugees from Cambodia. When we got to the states we did not have much. Both my parents had to work to make ends meet. I remember my dad brought home an old TV that someone was throwing away. It had a few channels and was in black and white, but I was amazed. The only thing was that the TV had no working sound. As a kid, I would imagine in my head what the characters were saying on screen. I would make up my own dialogue to fit my own story line. When I got older and watched them again with sound, it was a completely different experience. What I had imagined they were saying and what they were actually saying was the complete opposite.



And do you remember the first film you saw?

'Eye of the Beholder' on the original The Twilight Zone series was the one I remember watching on the broken TV, making up my own lines for each character. I also credit that show for my love of the unknown and the strange. The series introduced me to one of the great storytellers, Rod Serling, who has a heavy influence on a lot of my work.



Was there a film or filmmaker that motivated your decision to pursue filmmaking for a career?

I consider my dad the filmmaker who motivated me to pursue filmmaking. Growing up, I always felt I wanted to make films and be a filmmaker. At the time, it just did not seem like a possible path. Seeing my parents work their way up, I had it in my mind that I needed to have a stable career path such as becoming a doctor. It was not until my dad and I had a serious conversation about where I wanted to go in life and the subject of film came up. To my surprise he was incredibly supportive. In fact, so supportive that he helped send me and my friends to film school and self-funded our first film. He acted as an EP and Producer on my first film. At certain points I think he loved filmmaking more than I did. Nuon Films is named after him and in memory of him. Our logo is me holding the first camera he purchased for the first film. I think, because of my dad, the bond my friends and I formed on that first film kept us together to this day. Two of them are producers on The Voices and the other is my DP.

My dad passed away before the idea of The Voices was conceptualised, but after he passed I had to move back home and spent a lot of time with my mom. I realised growing up I didn’t know a lot about my parents’ early relationship in Cambodia. One day we were talking over lunch and she told me about this recurring dream she had a long time ago about a little girl visiting her. The little girl in the dream would ask if she could stay with us. My mom would reply “No” each time. She said she had the same dream for weeks until she finally agreed to the little girl’s request. My mom later told my grandma about the dream. Without hesitation my Grandma said “Oh, you are pregnant and you will have a girl.” Nine months later my sister was born. I always found that story super intriguing. I did some research and found that it’s a heavily rooted belief in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asian culture for a pregnant woman to develop a sense for the supernatural and be a portal for a soul to return. That was the start of the premise for The Voices. I sat on the idea for years before I even started to work on the film. It was not until my friends and I got together for a brainstorming session that I threw the idea out there. Mike and Charles, my long-time friends and producers, agreed we should do this one.

 

How long ago did you write the screenplay?

I wrote an old version a long time ago. I originally wrote and designed it to take place in Cambodia. It was more of an Asian supernatural horror film. It wasn’t until maybe seven years ago I decided to convert it over and Americanise it. I did my best to adapt it to take place in the states, but sometimes things are lost in translation due to the cultural differences. After the conversion it took a couple more years to develop.



Did the idea change much over the course of those drafts?

Most definitely! We had so many versions and different drafts. None of them were working out, but the core of the story and premise remained the same. It was always about the choice for Lilly and she was always visually impaired. Being blind was important to me because I personally went through it. I had an incident when I was younger that caused me to be blind for a couple weeks. It was the most terrifying experience for me. The idea that I had to restructure my life and adapt to this new scenario scared the hell out of me. I was super lucky it was only temporary. So those two elements in the screenplay always kept me emotionally close to the project. After tons of rewrites, the story still didn’t feel right. It was one night, when I asked myself if I’m making a film about a visually impaired woman, how can someone who is visually impaired enjoy this film? That’s when I began to learn more about Audio Description for films. I started to research and listen to AD for movies that had the option available. Some were okay, others were poor because the pacing and editing in the film wasn’t designed for Audio Description.  It seemed hard to enjoy, but at the time that’s all the visually impaired community had. I realise most filmmakers don’t even consider Audio Description when shooting their films. That’s when I knew what was missing in the script. The film was being written for the wrong audience. I went back and discussed it with Mike and Charles (Producers). I told them we are going about this the wrong way; we are too focused on people who can see the film and not on those who can’t. I explained my idea on designing the screenplay around Audio Description. Everything from the shots and blocking, down to the pacing of the film, was for visually impaired viewers in mind. They both agreed. With this new mindset, I brought on my long time writing partner, Daniel, to help me flesh out the screenplay. It wasn’t an easy task by any means. We still had to make a movie that could sell and still be watchable for those who can see. So, finding that right balance was always a challenge.



How much did you encourage the cast to improvise?

Before we filmed, I explained to all the actors what we were trying to accomplish with the film. Having Audio Description in mind, we had to do a few takes that had longer breathing room and reaction shots. Everyone was super amazing and on board with the vision. They stuck to the script with little improvisation. There are times when they even suggested that it may not be enough time to describe the actions in the scene and they would play it a bit slower.





What does a legendary actress like Leslie Easterbrook bring to the film?

I don't even know where to begin. Working with Leslie was a dream come true. She’s the most kind and loving person to be around. I honestly didn’t think we were going to be able to get Leslie on the project because of the role.  She and Jordan Ladd have been such big names in the horror world, but I was asking them to play more of a mother figure in a supernatural drama. She read the script and was in. We talked about how the film was being shot and designed for people with visual impairments. She loved the idea and showed up hands down one of the most motivated and inspiring people to be around on set.



I imagine, because of her following from the Rob Zombie films, it doesn’t hurt having her in the film either - the movie will now be on the radar of horror fans!

Yes, the film is a unique horror in its own way. I love Rob Zombie and Leslie’s work together. You know Rob Zombie is on a whole other level with horror than I am.



It’s not an out-and-out horror movie though, is it? How did you pitch it to investors?

I think this is the most challenging process for independent filmmakers. I can’t even remember how many pitches I gave. Some were very formal, some were just over drinks. When I first started pitching the project, I think I did what most filmmakers tend to do: Explain the whole story. The more rejections I got, the shorter and more mysterious my pitch became. I remember being in a bar at one point and the EP asked me about the project. I just said, “It’s about a blind girl who hears dead people.” He replied, “Kind of like The Sixth Sense?” I’m like, “Yeah kind of, but what they are asking her is important.” He said, “What are they asking her that is so damn important?” I replied, “Can I be your baby?” That’s usually when they began to ask what the story is about and became more interested in how the story unfolds. I just learned for my pitch to be very short but have three elements: Give them something they can compare it to, tell them why it’s a different idea, and leave them wanting to hear more.



There are a few movies out there titled The Voices – did you toss up the idea of retitling it any stage or was it decided there was no better title?

The original title was in a different language but 'Voices' was always the working title. Once we got distribution, they decided to change it to The Voices.



Would you consider a sequel?

Daniel (writer) and I talked about a sequel. It just depends on how well The Voices does. I am proud of what we created with the first one either way. A sequel is just a plus.