Let’s face it, there’s been an influx of optimistic, forward-thinking sci-fi films lately. Arrival favored communication and methodology over adversarial confrontation. The soon-to-be released The Space Between Us speaks to our inherit humanity in the context of a planetary colonization. And while that approach is an important, and particularly welcome perspective given current events of late, there’s always something to be said for a grim, dystopian, desaturated exploration of our collective id. (Our review.)
Domain is the kind of film that delivers on that dystopia. With a minimal cast and bare-bones setup, the film serves up a post-apocalyptic scenario, a handful of survivors each in separate bunkers have spent years communicating with one another through screens referred to as Domain. As things slowly start to go awry, their trust in one-another starts to erode, and they begin to question the entire nature of Domain, as well as what’s really going on in the world around them.
We got the chance to talk to the writer/director Nathaniel Atcheson, along with stars Britt Lower, Ryan Merriman, and Kevin Sizemore about what it was like to creating a minimalist, compelling, decidedly dark sci-fi tale.
This seemed like a really lived-in idea. Like it was something that’d been worked on for a while.
Nathaniel Atcheson (writer/director): Yes. I wrote the first draft in 2010, and we shot in 2015, so [it was] five years of me having it in my head before I really put it down.
Where did the story come from originally?
Atcheson: It really came from this very utilitarian fact that I wanted to make a Sci-Fi movie on a low budget and wondering how can that be done, so I was like “one room,” and then the idea just sort of exploded from that. It wasn’t like I was trying to tell some specific thematic point at that moment, but then the themes and the story and what I wanted to do within those confines then revealed themselves. And it was good that I had five years because the script evolved a lot and changed drastically, and I really found the story. But it just started off with a very simple desire to make a science fiction movie.
How was the casting process?
Atcheson: It was a very, very fast process in the last few weeks. We had a casting director, and we set the start date before we had any cast because we were told that’s what you’re supposed to do, and then the start date approached, and then everything came together in the last couple of weeks right before we started shooting so it was a whirlwind. The two weeks of pre-production we were on was like, “Wow.”
Ryan Merriman (Denver): I think I did my fitting the day before we shot or maybe two days before.
Britt Lower (Phoenix): I got a phone call when I was boarding an airplane to Phoenix, AZ, and my manager said, “You’ve just been offered a role in this film and the character’s name is Phoenix.” And I could help but take pause and think, “Okay, I better take a look at this script.”
Merriman: “Is this a sign?”
How did the rehearsal process work when the actors are just talking to screens most of the time?
Atcheson: We made a diagram.
Merriman: This is the main set: the bunker, the master camera; there’s a green screen here on the other side of the wall which has about six or seven chairs and we would all rotate with GoPros.
Kevin Sizemore (Orlando): We all had GoPros with a teleprompter feed so we could see each other in our little GoPro camera and they could see us. But we would be doing a scene, like we’re talking to each other but we’re in the bunker, so you can’t look at it.
Merriman: So you talk into the camera. That’s very hard for an actor because we talk to individuals and the camera is here. It’s really weird because the camera eavesdrops into your conversation as an actor. But in this form, you are talking through it. It’s really interesting.
Sizemore: They didn’t have but one beautiful amazing set bunker, and we would just kind of rotate into that. And if we weren’t on camera, we were always off camera for each other.
But you were still on-camera on the GoPro most of the time?
Merriman: Yes, mostly. But we did like 10-14 pages a day.
Sizemore: It was fast.
Lower: And so rehearsal kind of happened naturally on the GoPro so we got into such a rhythm. The scenes were really tight by the end because we were shooting them, I think you said 72 times sometimes.
Merriman: We shot the big scene, the 12-page scene, 72 times.
Atcheson: I think rehearsals would have actually been redundant. We ended up shooting it so much. I never felt like the performances weren’t where we wanted them to be. They just ran out of the gate. Everyone had really good chemistry and comradery. Maybe we were lucky but I feel like it was the right group of people.
Merriman: Also, if it was a heavy scene or if somebody had some emotional stuff, we would be like, “Hey man, can I go in first?” or, “Can you guys give me a moment to work on the scene?”
Lower: Yeah or like, “Wait, I have 12 pages to memorize. Can I go last so I can work it though the GoPro first?”
Merriman: It was really cool.
So with the rotating in and out, did that sort of build the camaraderie? Because you come into these characters five years into their odyssey.
Lower: Yes, the chemistry is so vital to this community, and we built that moment by moment on set together.
Atcheson: And the way we shot it with this whole set up was intentionally designed to make it so they could interact. There’s certainly a way we could have made this movie where they were reading with just the script supervisor off camera and we just shoot their stuff. Because no one is on camera together for the first 70 pages of the script, but I knew that that wouldn’t work. They would be not acting with anything; they would have nothing. At least, this way they could hear each other’s voice and see, even if it was a little tiny thing, they could see them, and I feel like that made all the difference.
Merriman: It would be impossible to do it any other way, I think. Or it’s not fair. Even when we would do 12 or 13 page scenes where Brit’s working, we were all sitting off camera reading with her. It’s not like we were off like, “I gotta get the fuck out of here, you know.”
Sizemore: That’s funny because the whole premise of this film is you’re trying to touch, you’re trying to feel. And even though you’re in the same room, you can feel the person being in the room without physically touching them, but if no one was in the room, it would have been dead. There would have been no life, no excitement at all.
Atcheson: Yes, definitely.
Merriman: That’s what we did with some of our more intimate scenes. Instead of me actually being on the green screen, I would just sit right next to the camera, and read, and it made it so much better.
Atcheson: It worked so well. I remember one time we tried to not do that and you guys just freaked out.
Is that a comparable experience to any other films you guys have worked on over the years?
Merriman: There’s stuff like it, [but] this was a unique process that I don’t think I’ll ever do again.
Atcheson: It’s inherent to the concept.
Lower: There were a few moments where there would be a certain shot we couldn’t get without having to just look at an X, and you really have to rely on your imagination in those moments, which is exactly what’s happening inside of the bunker is their minds are going crazy with what they imagine is happening outside. And the information they’re getting is entirely from the screen that’s in front of them, from Nadine and from one another. And they have no real idea of what’s fact and what’s fiction.
Did the fact that it was an actual movie set and having everyone on set, did that add to the real distinct sense of paranoia that gradually creeps in and gets heavy? Was that something that you would just feed off of more?
Lower: We were just in one studio so it was dark, and it was the small bunker of a set so you’re not exposed to sun all day, and the characters…
Merriman: Yes, that was weird to go outside and be like…
Sizemore: Our bunker was almost this size. It was close to this size.
Atcheson: It was like half the size of this room.
Sizemore: Yes, it was like half the size of this room.
Merriman: It was beautiful. It was amazing.
Sizemore: I think this was the first set that I have not communicated a lot with the crew. I love the crew. They just do everything for you. But you had no time. If you had a pee break, you had a pee break, and then you have to get back because your actors are waiting and we had to fly. We really had to move quick.
So the script was pretty tight, I assume there wasn’t a lot of improvisation.
Sizemore: It was tight for my character, and I know from what they’ve said, it’s on the page.
Atcheson: We timed a lot of it even on the day though, and even on post when we were editing, I ended up cutting out tons of lines that ended up being redundant once I saw it, and the information I was trying to convey was no longer necessary, or it was conveyed better in just a look they would give as opposed to this line of dialogue.
Sizemore: Which might have been the airplane thing.
Atcheson: Right. Exactly.
Sizemore: “Hold for a plane.”
Atcheson: Literally happened many times.
Merriman: Nate [Atcheson] was great about that. The longer you shoot and work as your character, you find little things out that you want to try, and he was really cool about, “I don’t know about this,” or “Can we try this?” And we’d cut lines or add them or ad lib, and it was very freeing as an actor.
Sizemore: And what I appreciated about him is I had two or three things that I would bring up because I remember Nick [Gomez’s] character was very just “you f–, f–, f–, f–, f–, f–, f–,” and I remember we had a conversation where my character went kind of in the same room as him, and I felt like if I did it, it wouldn’t give me any power because that’s his character.
Merriman: Did we have that conversation?
Merriman: I don’t remember that but we got into the editing room, and I saw that you had taken all the “fucks” out of the script, and I was like, “Why didn’t he say ‘fuck’ ever?” I forgot we had that conversation.
Sizemore: I said “friggin.”
Merriman: It’s different.
Sizemore: And it just stood out. It had to give me my own world and Nick his own world. I just felt like it would have been compounded. So if we didn’t have that conversation, I snuck one in on it. But it worked, I think. I know it did because…
Words like that, they’re so campy, it’s like, “What kind of sociopath says ‘friggin’ or ‘freakin’?”
Did any of you get to keep those weird jumpsuits that your characters wore?
Lower: I did. I have the pants still.
Merriman: You loved those pants. You wore them constantly.
Lower: It was the most comfortable costume ever.
Sizemore: Because you were doing yoga all the time. It was perfect.
Merriman: She does yoga all the time.
Sizemore: She was stretching those pants in and she’s in heaven.
Merriman: We’re all sitting in our chairs uncomfortable and Brit’s doing downward dog.
Lower: Which is great, I just incorporated it into the character because she was bored, too. She was like, “I’m going to do something.”
Sizemore: I remember when I did the exercise scenes, I had just had shoulder surgery, so I pretty much said to Nate, “I’ve got four push-ups in me.” So we would shoot that scene four times so I could get four and then I would rest my arm, and then do four, and then I would have to do a pull-up.
And you did it all on just one set?
Atcheson: Yep, we just built one set.
Merriman: It’s pretty fascinating.
Atcheson: I guess if the budget was huge, we could have built seven sets and had seven screens and just shot it that way.
Sizemore: Yeah, but [the way we did it] was perfect. It was perfect.
For information on upcoming screenings check out DomainTheMovie.com.