We spoke with filmmaker Nathaniel Nuon about his latest movie, The Voices. Here’s what he had to say:
Nathaniel, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your feature directorial debut. How daunting was that?
Kind of. I directed a few smaller productions before this one that haven’t been released yet. They both were super low budget with the help of family and friends. I’ve worked on other big productions on the post production side and VFX world. This film, being indie, was super stressful at times. I had to wear multiple hats often, but I had an amazing team behind me to pull me through it, even though they were wearing multiple hats as well. The Voices had many layers to it; right from the start the script was designed for visually impaired viewers. In the development phase of the film, it became quite obvious to us that there was an opportunity here not just to tell a story, but to also reach out to those who are visually impaired in reality. This idea became key in all aspects of development and pre-production. The screenplay reflected this in the descriptions and pacing. During production, we focused heavily on Audio Description when it came to shots and pacing of the scenes. I always made sure I got the actors’ performance I wanted, but also left enough time for the description to overlayed over the scene for the narrator. We used slightly longer takes to accommodate Audio Descriptions and tried to tailor the dialogue to help as well. We wanted the Audio Description voiceover to be good enough to be almost a character of its own
What did you learn on shorts that you applied to your feature work?
My first short, “Residue”, won two Emmys. Throughout that process, I definitely learned a lot about the business side of the industry. It actually put me on a path to learning a lot about the producer’s role in filmmaking. I spent quite a bit of time learning and understanding the business side of film. I was able to produce a few more shorts and applied what I learned on those projects to the feature work.
Being your first film, was it difficult to get financing for THE VOICES?
I think this is the most challenging process for independent filmmakers. I can’t even remember how many pitches I gave. I will say I heard “No” so much that it was just a common thing to walk into an investors meeting expecting to hear “No”. When we finally had two investors lined up for the production, one backed out at the last minute for personal reasons. It left me with the decision to either shoot this film with what I had or wait to raise more money. A part of me wanted to wait, another part said do it. So I had a meeting with my executive producer, Brad. He believed in the project as much as I did and we decided to move forward with what we had. I’m very fortunate to have everything aligned for me at the time with casting and scheduling. Sometimes you meet people like Brad and sometimes you don’t but I do know that you should always have your pitch ready in case you do meet them. You can spend years looking for financing and it can all fall into place in just minutes, if you are ready.
You’ve also some names in the cast – how early did Leslie Easterbrook and Ashley Bell get involved?
Leslie came onto the project pretty early on; she loved the script and was fully prepared for the project. Ashley came a bit later in the process. The actress who we had cast had an injury and couldn’t make the shoot. Ashley read the script and agreed to come at the last minute, so we were super lucky. She was amazing to work with and an incredible person to be around.
You’ve cast Valerie Jane Parker in the lead. Why was she your pick for Lily?
During the casting process, I actually didn’t watch any auditions. As my producer, Mike, was going through all the tapes, I would just listen to the auditions. I was listening for who I felt our lead would sound like, before I made a decision on how she looked. I knew this was the way our visually impaired viewers would experience our main character. Valerie was in our top 10 for the role of Lily, before I actually saw what she looked liked. Then we made our decision based on their visual performance. Odd way to cast, yes, I know.
She has some really powerful moments in the film – was there anything you especially wanted to see from her in her approach to playing this woman?
Valerie was super professional; she came over very prepared. We talked a lot about the technical aspect of the film, of who we are trying to make it for. She was fully on board to do longer takes and beats for the Audio Description to be placed in the scene. With that in mind, there are some really powerful moments in Lily’s life that I think Valerie was able to bring out even with the way we shot the film.
Though fictional, I imagine there’s people out there with stories just like this. Did you google any of them?
When I was researching some stuff for the film, I came across a story about a mother and baby who got in a really bad car accident. When the EMTs arrived on the scene they thought there were no survivors. One of the EMTs heard a woman’s voice calling out to save her baby. Then I found out there was a Youtube Video of it, obviously I had to see it and hear it for myself. That was the inspiration for the accident scene for Lilly.
Do you have a personal interest in supernatural stuff?
Oh yeah. The film was based on my mom’s personal experiences. One day while talking with my mom over lunch, she told me about this reoccurring dream she had 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 dreams 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 starting premise of The Voices.