Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here on this gorgeous Tuesday afternoon with a simple Q&A with Dagen Merrill, director of ATOMICA. The film features performances from Dominic Monaghan, Tom Sizemore, and Sarah Habel and is set in the not-so-distant future. While I always prefer speaking with filmmakers, sometimes schedules don't line up (my fault) - but I'm still left dying to ask a few questions. In this case, Dagen was willing to answer my questions via email thankfully, so if the below reads less like a conversation and more like a genuine Q&A... it's becasue it is! I love picking the brains of filmmakers, as each film is a unique challenge in its own right and every filmmaker has their own unique perspective. I'm very much appreciative of the man's time and perspective, given his answers below feel sincere and thought out as opposed to canned responses that you'll occasionally see from individuals on a press tour. The film hits select screens this Friday (3/17) and immediately rolls to Digital HD and VOD the following Tuesday (3/21).
In the near future, when communications go offline at a remote nuclear power plant isolated in the desert, a young safety inspector, Abby Dixon, is forced to fly out to bring them back online. Once inside the facility, mysterious clues and strange behaviors cause Abby to have doubts about the sanity, and perhaps identities, of the two employees onsite.
How did you first get involved with the project? At what point was it official that you would be helming the film?
This was one of those rare occasions where I was approached by the financing and tasked with finding a great script to direct and independently produce. Not being a bona fide producer I immediately took the opportunity to LIFE BOAT FILMS where a couple of the strongest indie producers I know operate. I was always on board to direct but it was more of a question as WHAT film we would be making.
Given the film had three writers (according to IMDB), what kind of impact did you have on the story in terms of adjustments or suggestions before you came to set? How about on the day, were you free to tailor the script to fit the performances you were getting or did you stick pretty much to the page?
Producer Vahan Paretchan found the original script after it had won an international award for writers Federico and Adam. We were all really impressed with how much tension they had been able to create in such a confined story. From there we hired Kevin to help tailor the script to fit the vision I and the producers had for the movie. An example of this is that the original script is contemporary and didn’t have the sci-fi angle that the final script had. On the day we had as much flexibility as we needed to make everything work but we mostly stuck to the script since we had put so much effort to create exactly what we were looking for.
Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process? How did you secure your leads? At what point did you think, “You know, Dominic would be great in this role?” Did your leads have any adjustments on the script as far as once they had ownership of their characters?
Dominic had worked with Producers Jaime and Vahan on a previous project and they were able to get him the script – I’ve been a HUGE fan of Dominic so it was a no brainer for me, it was only a matter of how he would respond. I don’t recall any specific adjustments to the script, but that’s probably only because I can’t imagine a time when this character wasn’t the one that Dominic created. He brought SUCH energy and such originality to the role I honestly can’t even remember what thoughts I had about the character before I saw him inhabit him.
From the trailer and a few clips, the film has a really cool – almost timeless - design that harkens back to ALIEN with a very industrial tech vibe that feels pretty claustrophobic. How much of what’s in the film were locations versus sets built from scratch?
We shot the film in an abandoned Titan II missile silo in the high desert of Washington state. Our art team and construction team worked endlessly to clean the site, make things safe to shoot and then add details to what was already a really insane location to shot in. So besides the interior apartment and interior tri-copter everything was shot on actual locations. In my opinion some of the locations are SO good that they look fake, cgi or like miniatures – but they are not. I also have to give a HUGE shout out to cinematographer T. Burton who’s lighting design, color schemes and beautiful mind REALLY made this space into what you see in the final film.
In terms of design, how did you land on Production Designer Ben Blankenship and what are a few examples of ideas he brought to the table that weren’t necessarily spelled out in the script?
Ben is a mad, artistic savant and that’s pretty much all I can say about that.
Were there any films or TV shows that you found yourself referencing as a short hand with your department heads or cast?
Not really – though I’m sure that would have been a good idea.
What was your shoot like in terms of how many days, lengths of your days, and size of your crew? How much prep did you have and what did that consist of?
I don’t recall exactly but the shoot was short, the days were long and the crew was stretched. At one point the Gaffer pointed out that we had laid more cable to power our enormous set (see the 4/12 minute walk and talk) than they had on the last Transformer movie. (I guess there’s someone who keeps track of such things). Our onsite prep was minimal – Any smaller of a crew would not have been able to accomplish what we did and any bigger would not have even tried. The women and men who made this film happen are all warriors.
What were things you thought you needed during prep, but perhaps weren’t able to get – be it more money, a specific location, etc… that ultimately you worked around and (leading here) are ultimately glad you maybe didn’t get? Any happy accidents with this one?
The location was a huge win for us. I found it on a random website and the Producers where able to locate, permit it and get it for the entire shoot –Truthfully we probably could have made this movie on a stage with green screens and CGI but it would have lacked what I love most about it. Every shot, every set up and every performance by our incredibly talented actors brings with it the weight of where we were and the physical and sometimes psychological work that it took to be there. Within every moment of this movie there is a real and foreboding SPACE that lurks below the words, the actions, the story – if we as filmmakers we’re able to bring any of that into an audience’s experience then the journey was well worth it
Reflecting on the shoot itself, what would you consider your favorite day of production? It could be anything, the perfect light, your favorite performance, or anything really – I’m just curious as to what you reflect positively on when thinking about your film.
There were a couple shots that I really fought for and love, but honestly the real pleasure was watching Sarah, Dominic and Tom deliver again and again. We were 40 feet underground, it was extremely cold and there were LOTS of technical challenges to overcome but one thing we never had to wait for was performance. They were 100% up to the task. One of my favorite moments is when Zek and Abby are just outside the sick bay discussing what to do with the man they found in the desert – it’s was one of the simpler moments to shoot but being able to give those two the space they needed and watch them work was incredible.
What are you working on next?
I have a REALLY weird, funny and twisted indie Sci-Fi and a dark comedy TV series about the forthcoming Revolution that are both slated to go into production this year. Because of where they are in the process in this precise moment I can’t give more details. But please keep your eyes out!
What project, if given carte blanche – would you want to be associated with? I mean truly if someone offered you an opportunity to do whatever you wanted, what project would that be? STAR WARS? TRON? JURASSIC PARK? I’m just curious to see what you’re a fan of and what your dream project is.
I don’t know if it’s an actual thing, but I’ve noticed that I’m a bit of an experiential filmmaker. The actual experience and process of MAKING the film is what interests me most about it – both psychologically and physically. So I choose projects based on that – I don’t think I’d ever direct a tent pole or another studio film (did that once) because even though the movies can turn out amazing the experience of making them can often be a little more bland. There are some obvious exceptions – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is probably the best example of a movie that does both. (I would sell a Kidney to direct ANY unit on THE WASTELAND). Can’t think of many other films like that – few directors get away with such madness at that budget level. So given carte blanche? I would like to continue making low budget experiential genre films but on the next one I’d like to cast BRAD PITT and EMILY BLUNT.
Ladies and gentlemen, there we have it - a little bit of insight into Dagen Merrill in regards to his film ATOMICA. I hope you enjoyed his answers as much as I did (and still do actually). Written Q&As are only as interesting as the individual answering them allows and here I think he provided some pretty cool info to my questions, some standard/some not so much. The film hits screens this Friday and then comes out on VOD 3/21 - so check it out if you think it's something you might be into!
- Mike McCutchen