Sergio Casci, screenwriter of The Caller, was born and raised in Scotland and he has that charming Scottish accent to prove it.
His ancestors’ roots lay in Tuscany however, less than a 2-hour drive away from the Italian city where I called him from via Skype. His mother was born in Italy and from his father’s side it was his great grandfather who emigrated from sunny Tuscany to rainy Glasgow. For a second/fourth generation Scot-Italian he still speaks Italian remarkably well and his favorite football team is not the Glasgow Rangers but the Italian Juventus.
We spoke for nearly an hour and a half about screenwriting, horror movies, The Caller, True Blood, the online fandom and everything in between. I never experienced an interview that felt so little like an interview and instead so much like a great conversation over coffee.
The Caller, starring Rachelle Lefevre, Stephen Moyer, Luis Guzmán and Ed Quinn, was shot late 2009 in Puerto Rico. This psychological thriller directed by Matthew Parkhill tells the story of new divorcee Mary (Rachelle Lefevre) who tries to start a new life after her marriage with husband Steven (Ed Quinn) has come to an end. Mary starts to receive a series of sinister phone calls from a mysterious woman who is calling her from the past and that’s when things really start to get scary.
Rachelle Lefevre is known from the Twilight movies, Stephen Moyer plays a vampire on True Blood and so did Ed Quinn (Stan in season 3). That makes three vampire-actors in one movie.
“The great thing about The Caller is that we combine these two great vampire franchises, we got True Blood on one side and Twilight on the other, its vampire heaven!” as Sergio tells me, and adds that it was not done on purpose. “Originally it was supposed to be Brittany Murphy playing the female lead and then all manner of things happened, I wasn’t there at the time. Luckily they had Rachelle Lefevre in mind anyway, she was somebody they had looked at and had like very much so they were able to ask her very quickly, she read the script and said “yes” straight away. We are not a massive budget film and yet suddenly we were thrust in to the headlines because of the whole Brittany Murphy connection.”
The Caller trailer.
Sergio Casci started his career as a newspaper journalist before making the switch to television where he worked for 10 years as a broadcast journalist for BBC Scotland.
“I’ve always had an interest in writing and I started writing short films and one film was accepted by BBC Drama and after that I made another short film. I started to think that maybe I should try to do that for a living.”
The moment he gave up his job as a journalist however the drama work dried up. Luckily the tide changed again in his favor and Sergio was hired to work on the Scottish soap “River City” and he managed to get his first featured movie made “American Cousins”. His career as a screenwriter was airborne.
Sergio flew out to Puerto Rico to visit the set of The Caller where he met the leading lady Rachelle, Stephen had already finished shooting his scenes and had left the island. Unfortunately he didn’t see them work together on set, but the screenwriter is extremely pleased with what the actors did with the characters he created.
“Once you hand over the screenplay it’s in the hands of the producers, the directors and the actors, you have to sit back and hope for the best. What really pleased me was the chemistry between Rachelle Lefevre and Stephen Moyer. They absolutely crackle on screen; it’s fantastic to watch. They are both fantastic actors in their own right and they are both very charismatic, but when they come together the chemistry on screen is just absolutely amazing. It is something that you hope for but that you don’t always get and in The Caller we were just so lucky because we got it, it’s brilliant.”
The Caller is based on a short film Sergio made about 10 years. It was a 25-minute film called “Rose”, the central story is the same: a woman getting a phone call from the past. With The Caller he expended the story and made it a full feature film with richer characters and sub-plots.
Originally the story was set in Glasgow, after a re-write it moved to New York. The production company moved the location even further away from Scotland and chose Puerto Rico as the set for the movie, thus bringing in Puerto Rican elements that further enriched the story.
I wonder what elements are needed for a good screenplay.
“You need to have a good story”, Sergio answers my question. “I like to have a really good, strong, powerful story. I don’t like films about nothing. I like films about something. You also need to have very compelling characters. Nowadays people are so used to the Internet, their iPhones and computer games, there are so many potential distractions, they are also used to getting immediate gratification. A film has to be compelling to get people to get out of their houses and buy a ticket. That means great characters, a great story, great dialogue and a great director: you need to have everything and the screenplay is the basis for all of that.”
I have seen so many poorly written horror movies with terrible dialogue. So I was very pleased to hear that Sergio pays a lot of attention to his dialogue writing.
“My great interest in screenwriting is dialogue, I love writing it. There is something about great dialogue that stays with you. Some of the films that I watch again and again are the ones that have fantastic dialogue. Some screenwriters don’t particularly love writing dialogue, they see it as a chore, instead that is the thing that I relish. I go over a sentence for hours just to make the rhythm right, I really enjoy it. I hope I managed to achieve that in The Caller because it is very important to me as a writer that the dialogue grabs you. And that’s why the actors are so important. A bad actor can kill the best line. But when you’ve got people like Stephen and Rachelle you can write a line that you think is good and when you hear them say it you think they’ve made it brilliant. They put so much character, emotion and feeling in it. When I’ve written something that I am proud of, I hand it over and what I see up on the screen is 10 times better then what I wrote, because of the fantastic director, actors and crew really making the most of it. That’s when I love being a screenwriter.
Ok, so now we know what we need to write a screenplay, but what makes a scary story scary?
“I’ll tell you. I know the answer to this”, Sergio answers me immediately. “What makes a scary story scary is normality. When we watch a scary film, what scares us is the idea that this could be happening to us. Therefore you have to create a world which people recognize and which is in a sense normal. Because if it’s not normal people can’t identify with the situation. And if they can’t identify with the situation they are not taking it personally and they will not feel the fear. So I hate horror films which begin with an abnormality. I don’t want to see the vampire or the werewolf in the first minute. I want to see somebody making breakfast in the first minute and taking the kids to school. So then when the vampire or the werewolf or the psychopath arrives they are breaking into normality and I’ve already bought into that normality and I’ve already identified with it. So when the monster comes I’m getting really scared.”
I’ve seen numerous bad horror movies where the characters always do the opposite of what I would do in a threatening situation and there never seems to be any cell phone service.
Sergio nods and smiles in recognition. “The cell phone is the ruination of the screenwriter’s life. Twenty years ago you could have people up on a mountain or by a lake and they were isolated, but now there is the fucking cell phone! I’ve done it myself: there is no service or the battery has run out or “oops I dropped it” or I left it at home. You have to establish that otherwise the audience thinks: “why doesn’t he just phone?” Another question is: “Why don’t they call the police?” People in films have to behave the way you or I would behave. I am in a house, I am terrified and I hear a noise outside… what will I do? I know! I’ll go out on my own and see what’s happening!” Sergio puts his hands in the air and screams out in disbelieve.
“I love horror, it’s my favorite genre, but I hate 95% of horror movies. At its best horror is fantastic. I remember the first time I saw The Exorcist, some 30 years ago and it blew me away. It’s been copied and ripped off so often that it’s lost some of its power. Young people watching it don’t realize how incredibly original and fresh it was. “
Sergio’s taste in horror thrillers reflects in what he wanted to achieve with The Caller.
“What I wanted with this movie was that build up with dread when the fear starts creeping up from the inside and you don’t realize it’s happening and by the time you realize what’s going on you are absolutely shitting yourself with fear. It is quite easy to make the audience jump, and there are jumps in it as well, but what I really wanted is that absolutely icy cold fear that comes from the inside. I think that’s what the director, the actors and the crew managed to get out of the script and put on the screen. I want people to go home and really not sleep at all that night”, Sergio says with a twinkle in his eyes.
So it’s safe to assume that the screenwriter is happy with the end result. “I loved it, I absolutely loved it”, Sergio confirms.
“There is a scene in the movie where Mary has to dig up a jar that was buried. I was in Puerto Rico for the filming and I was watching on the monitor with the director while Rachelle was doing the scene. At the end of the scene, when it climaxed, we both jumped back and I fell off my seat. Because Rachelle’s performance and the way it all came together was so frightening and the ending was so unexpected that I literally fell out my seat. And I knew what the ending of the scene was, I had written it… [laughs].
The biggest challenge in this particular screenplay however was not how to make the audience fall out off their seats, but the trick that is played with time when the main character starts receiving telephone calls from the past.
“When you screw around with time in a film it’s very hard to keep things consistent and deal with all the paradoxes. I dealt with all the paradoxes as well as I possibly could. But I am sure when the film comes out I will receive emails from philosophy majors, computer geeks and Star Trek fans explaining to me why my understanding of time paradoxes is completely inadequate”, he says with a smile.
Since I am a bit of a Trekie myself (original series only!) let me take the first shot. Why didn’t she get an answering machine or unplug the damn phone?
All will be revealed in the film Sergio assures me.
Being a Scottish-Italian Sergio can’t help that on some subconscious level his Italian roots surface every now and then in his work. Stephen’s character in The Caller is named John Guidi and it turns out he comes from Italian origin.
“I wanted him to have an Italianess”, Sergio explains. “I saw him as someone with an Italian background and more so his parents, they are in the film as well.”
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States and hosts a large USA army base where in The Caller Mary’s father was stationed, so that’s how she ended up on the island. According to the Guidi family legend, Stephen’s character John lives in Puerto Rico, because his grandparents immigrated and they thought they were going to New York. But the boat stopped in San Juan and they got off thinking it was New York and by the time they realized their error, it was too late. A lot of Scot-Italians have the same family legend, on their way to New York they stopped in Glasgow and got off thinking they had already arrived at their destination.
From the trailer we’ve learned that Stephen speaks with an American accent in the film.
“He has an amazing American accent; I didn’t realize that he was British”, Sergio says about Stephen Moyer. “I am a massive fan of True Blood and I was a fan before I even knew that Stephen was going to be in The Caller and I think he is absolutely brilliant, he is absolutely fantastic.”
John Guidi is a very intelligent, very charismatic, centered and calm person. Mary has been through a very traumatic time with her ex-husband and she meets John at a very difficult time in her life and she sees a goodness in him; a sort of quiet strength. Mary is distrustful of men because of the terrible experience with her ex, but because of the way he is, she very quickly starts to trust him. Because he is intelligent, kind and strong she turns to him more and more as her problems increase.
When I ask Sergio about the nature of Mary and John’s relationship in the film he gets all mysterious and doesn’t want to give away too much.
“You mean might there be some action?” Yes, of course that is what I mean!
“Anybody who wants some tasteful Stephen Moyer on screen action won’t be too disappointed I think.” Sergio gives me a big smile and doesn’t say another word, thus making me understand that it’s time for the next question.
To stay on topic I ask him what’s more fun to write: a gruesome death scene or a steamy sex scene.
“A gruesome death scene, every time. I am not a big sex scene writer. My instinct is to have a couple go into the room, close the door and pick the story up the next morning at breakfast. I am quite a small-town boy that way.”
Unlike his novelist wife Helen FitzGerald who follows her characters straight into the bedroom. Has he ever considered writing his stories in books instead of screenplays?
“I thought about it, but you need to have an awful lot of stamina. I’ve tried and I’ve failed in the sense that I get 10 pages in and then I think I just want to write dialogue, I want to make it a screenplay. One day I would love to write a novel, but I think it’s really hard. With screenplays it’s a lot easier because when you look at a screenplay it has a lot of white spaces on a page, there is far fewer words then in a novel, I lack the energy and inspiration to come up with hundreds of words.
My wife is working on her 7th book now and I get very jealous, but I try and hide it. Novelists and screenwriters have very different roles. A novelist is seen as an artist, but a screenwriter is often forgotten about and left at the side, so I seethe with jealousy whenever my wife is interviewed. It should have been me; I was supposed to be the famous one! [Laughs].
I am working on turning one of her books into a screenplay; it’s called “The Devil’s Staircase”. Her books are very dark. If you like True Blood then I think you’ll like her books.”
Spouses working together could be a real challenge for a marriage, but Sergio has found the perfect solution.
“I just do what I am told”, he says with a very serious face. “I find that complete and absolute immediate obedience avoids any issues.” He laughs and takes another sip of his coffee.
We end our lovely conversation with a True Blood question. Would he like to write an episode for True Blood?
“I’d love to! True Blood is one of the few must-watch shows, there are only 1 or 2 shows that I’d hate missing and True Blood is up there. My all time favorites are The Sopranos, The West Wing and True Blood.
I’d like to write a scene between Bill and Sookie. Yes, Bill and Sookie… has to be. Bill is clearly a good and decent man, but at the same time he is a vampire and vampires are dark. That conflict makes him a fascinating character. And then there is Sookie, you meet her and you fall in love with her. As individual characters they are fascinating and together they are just wonderful.”
When I mentioned that I think Sookie can be a little annoying at times, Sergio tells me that I am just jealous. He might have a point there: I don’t have 4 hot guys competing for my attention. But would I really want 2 vampires, a shapeshifter and a werewolf as suitors?
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Special thanks to Pimienta and BankSide Films for the movie stills.