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Q&A: “THE VOICES” Director Marjane Satrapi on Talking Animals and a Sympathetic Psychopath

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In THE VOICES, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) talks to his pets—and they talk back. He’s more awkward around people, and sometimes those interactions turn violent and bloody. This pitch-black comedy/horror film is the English-language debut of acclaimed Iranian director Marjane Satrapi, who gave Fango the lowdown on its creation.

Opening in theaters and available on VOD tomorrow, February 6 from Lionsgate, THE VOICES is set in an American suburb (but filmed in Germany!), where Jerry toils in a faucet and fixture company. He’s got a thing for new British arrival Fiona (Gemma Arterton), while co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) secretly pines for him; back at his place, located over an abandoned bowling alley, Jerry trades words with his loyal dog Bosco and sarcastic, Scottish-accented cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds). Clearly all is not right in Jerry’s head, and that becomes even clearer after an outing with Fiona goes violently awry (see our review of THE VOICES here).

This is also Satrapi’s first time at the helm of a horror feature, following her much-praised animated film PERSEPOLIS (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), the live-action drama CHICKEN WITH PLUMS and the crime comedy THE GANG OF THE JOTAS. For THE VOICES, which was scripted by TV procedural veteran Michael R. Perry and also stars Jacki Weaver as Jerry’s psychiatrist, Satrapi brought aboard cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, whose credits include HIGH TENSION and the well-regarded HILLS HAVE EYES, THE CRAZIES and MANIAC remakes. But THE VOICES’ greatest technical challenge involved its four-legged co-stars…

FANGORIA: They always say in the filmmaking world that you should never work with children or animals, and you had a dog and cat as key characters here. Did you feel any misgivings about that?

MARJANE SATRAPI: Yes, especially since CHICKEN WITH PLUMS had two kids in it, and I promised myself, no kids or animals after that. But then, this project was based on those two animals, so it was a little difficult to say, “I want to do this film without them!” What I was most concerned about was the cat, because cats do what they want; you say to them, “Sit,” and they just look at you, telling you with their eyes, “F**k you, dear, I will sit when I want to.” So most of the time, the cat was not actually in the same room with Ryan. My editor, Stéphane Roche, also directed the 2nd unit, and after editing all day, he would come in at night and film the cat. He had to be very patient, shooting for like two hours, and maybe the cat would stay in place for 20 seconds. It was difficult, because cats are also very sensitive, so if there are too many people around, they freak out. But now I’m a specialist with animals; they don’t scare me anymore. Give me a film with only animals—go ahead!

FANG: How did you cast Bosco and Mr. Whiskers?

SATRAPI: Well, it was really the same as casting the actors. At first I thought a labrador would be nice for Bosco, but then this dog was proposed to me, and he deserves an Oscar, because he was so expressive; he had these eyes full of compassion. Then, since this dog was so big and imposing, and Mr. Whiskers is very mouthy and talks all the time, and acts like he’s above everyone else, we needed a tiny little cat. So I looked for a little orange tabby, and I love the one we found; he looks like a bad-ass!

FANG: Whose idea was it to give Mr. Whiskers a Scottish accent?

SATRAPI: At the beginning, I was thinking he should sound more high-pitched, but then Ryan sent me these tapes, and that’s how he did the voice of the cat. And suddenly, I thought about these Scottish guys I know, who are thin and have that orange hair, and they swear all the time and they’re bad-ass, and I was like, “Of course he’s Scottish.” It was so funny the way Ryan did it, there was no discussion about it.

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FANG: How did you first become involved with THE VOICES? It’s very different from anything you’ve made before.

SATRAPI: You should ask that question of the producers. My agents sent me this project, and when I read it, I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” I could not define the genre, and I still cannot—but the next day, when I woke up, I was like, “How come I have so much compassion and sympathy for a serial killer, and how can I convey that?” And I loved the cat; I loved every bad word that came out of his mouth. I think it was between me and two or three other moviemakers, and they ended up choosing me. I don’t know why—maybe they think I’m a psycho or something?

FANG: How did you approach that tricky balance of sympathy for Jerry and revulsion at what he does?

SATRAPI: What was interesting for me was Jerry’s fantasy world; only he sees it, so I could do whatever I wanted there. It was like a playground for me—what does Jerry’s world look like? At the same time, I always try to capture real life in every film I make; even in PERSEPOLIS, there are moments of comedy. Life is like that; you’re never scared 100 percent of the time, you’re never angry 100 percent of the time; it’s a flow. You have this guy who does everything to appear normal, and little by little, as you get into the film, you’re like, “Oh, he’s a bit weird,” then, “Oh my God, he’s kind of awkward,” and then suddenly, pow! This accident happens, and from there it’s like a snowball effect, the beginning of the end—one thing leads to another.

To find that balance, you have to have a great editor, and Stéphane has cut three of my films, so he’s like my right hand. It’s all about how you edit it and make sure nothing is too long or too short. It’s very difficult to say exactly how that works, but when it does, you get that feeling of “OK, this is the right balance.” I don’t have any magic formula for it.

FANG: This is also a very different role for Reynolds. Did you intentionally cast him against type?

SATRAPI: It was not me who chose Ryan, it was Ryan who chose me! They called me and said, “Ryan Reynolds is very interested in making this film,” so I went to New York to meet with him. The thing is, you can have the best moviemaker in the world and the best actor in the world making something together, and if each of them wants to make a different film, it’s not going to work. It’s very important that everybody goes in the same direction. I knew Ryan from good films like BURIED and not-so-good ones like THE GREEN LANTERN, but even in that, you could see he was still making something out of it—he must be really talented!

From the moment we started talking about THE VOICES, he had the same understanding of the project as I did, and I saw something deep and dark in his eyes that could be truly creepy. At the same time, he has this boyish smile that, no matter what he does, has you thinking, “OK, I forgive you; you’re such a nice guy.” He knew who Jerry was, and did a great job; he was a blessing.

FANG: There are moments in THE VOICES where his characterization is reminiscent of Anthony Perkins as PSYCHO’s Norman Bates; was that performance a touchstone for you and Reynolds?

SATRAPI: Well, who can look at a guy like this and not think about Norman? Even in the rap that Alison [Ella Smith] sings, there’s a reference to Norman Bates. But we really tried not to copy him, because there is only one Norman Bates. Plus, I think Norman is much more conscious than Jerry is; he pushes the car into the lake and gets rid of the body, so he somewhat knows what he’s doing. Jerry is really overwhelmed by everything; he’s much more comic and innocent than Norman.

FANG: What went into the casting of the supporting actresses?

SATRAPI: I really wanted different kinds of women, because normally in films like this, you have girls who are about 50 pounds and all blonde. And in this film, Jerry does not express any sexuality; all that comes from the female characters. So for Fiona, I wanted a real woman, like Sophia Loren, with this incredible body that a man would see and immediately fall in love with—she’s the height of being female. Then you have Lisa, who’s very cute and sweet, but she’s the one who’s into Jerry and wants to take him into her bed.

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In the script, the shrink was younger, around 35. But I believe it’s important to also cast older women, because they exist, and they are not just grandmas baking cookies, you know? They do other stuff in their lives. I really wanted to show the range of different kinds of women. I’m sick of seeing the same skinny girls in all the films, looking the same, with the same blonde hair, the same body, the same way of talking—it makes me puke!

FANG: Although THE VOICES has a typical American setting, it was shot in Germany—why was that?

SATRAPI: I think it cost the producers less, and because this was my first English-language film, I wanted to be comfortable with the crew, and I knew the crew in Germany. The thing is that if you don’t shoot in a place like Cincinnati or Chicago or Seattle, the big American cities which have very particular architecture, you can find the equivalent of an American small town in Italy, in Germany, in Holland, in Scotland. I know the Midwest very well, and there are places in Berlin where you couldn’t tell it from Pittsburgh; it looks very much the same. Last year, when I showed THE VOICES at Sundance, this guy came up to me and said, “I’m from Michigan, I know that bowling alley!” And I was like, “You don’t, because we constructed it, and that was not Michigan, it was Berlin!”

FANG: Was this your first time working with Maxime Alexandre?

SATRAPI: Yes, and I love him. I want to do all of my movies with him—he’s great! I watched the horror films he did with Alexandre Aja, and I turned off the sound, because to me that is the scariest part, and I was like, “What lighting! What beautiful images,” because it is very difficult to make those things look classy and gorgeous. So I asked to meet him, and he turned out to be exactly the same age, and he just made me smile, and I was like, “I really want to work with this guy.” He had the same understanding of the movie, so it was a very, very happy collaboration. Hopefully, he will be my DP for the rest of my life.

FANG: Are you planning on doing more horror-themed films?

SATRAPI: Why not? But for my next one, I want to do something new, because I get easily bored, and it’s not like I’ll be able to make 150 more movies; I’ll do a maximum of 15 before I’m dead. I would love to make a film, for example, about a female superhero who has a sense of justice because she has been raped, and she’s an alcoholic and swears all the time. Whenever I mention this, everybody wants to see it, so I have to sit down and write it.

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About the author
Michael Gingold

Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.

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