An Interview with Dagen Merrill, Director of Atomica

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Atomica, a sci-fi thriller starring Tom Sizemore, Dominic Monaghan, and Sarah Habel, was released in theaters on March 17th. It comes to VOD March 21st. I was lucky enough to screen a copy of Atomica for review (look for that review tomorrow), and interview the director of the film, Dagen Merrill.  He was gracious enough to give some in depth, great answers to my questions, so I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Dagen Merrill is a director and producer, known for Beneath (2007), Broken Hill (2009) and Murder in the Dark (2013). – IMDB

Talking with Dagen Merill

Sci-Fi & Scary: Atomica is the first science fiction film that you’ve directed. Other than that obvious genre difference, was there anything else about it that made it markedly different from the other films you’ve worked on?

Dagen Merrill: It was the first film that I’ve directed where I also didn’t write the screenplay. This has been something I’ve wanted to do – to find a script that I love without having to write it myself. The upside was that I got to explore themes, idea, scenes and characters that weren’t native to my own experience and social conditioning. One challenge I found was not missing out some of the details and moments that were written but not immediately understood by me –

 

Atomica is a mystery/thriller as well as being a science fiction film. It is the third in the mystery/thriller category that you’ve directed. What about this genre draws you to it?

I love genre films because they allow us to tackle more internal stories than traditionally can be done in film. I also love how genre allows you to push the boundaries visually.

 

In Murder in the Dark, a film you directed in 2013, you used a rather interesting method of getting the best reactions from your cast. This meant that many of them were in the dark about things that were going on. How would you compare that experience to shooting Atomica?

First of all, thanks so much for checking our MITD. I really really loved making that experimental film. One of the highlights of my career so far. MITD wasn’t scripted and ATOMICA was so they were TOTALLY different experiences… that said we did manage to shoot ATOMICA in an abandoned Titan II Nuclear Missile silo. And like MITD we had full control over the entire area and let the set be another character in the movie. So even though Atomica was scripted the actors (and the crew and all of us) were actually experiencing a pretty extreme environment as we worked 60 feet below ground for weeks on end. It was cold, it was wet and when the lights went off it was very very creepy – I have to think that some of that seeped into the final version. Actually, I’m sure it did…

 

To what extent were you involved in the hiring of the cast and key production crew?

Very involved. Can tell you that the producers at Light House getting Dominic on board was a huge win for such an indie film. We shot in Washington so relied on Mel Eslyn for most of the key crew hires. She’s a genius and couldn’t have done it without her.

 

How much impact/influence does the color palette have when you’re shooting?

The space itself was pretty gray with some splashes of blue. Since we didn’t want to repaint the entire location we relied on those grays and blues from a production design perspective. From there we had a lot of freedom in lighting to set the tone. Again here we wanted the facility to be a character so you’ll notice we used fleshy tones and reds to give the feel of living breathing thing. IN several scenes we were able to “hide” an eye – like the facility is watching them.

 

What was the most difficult shot in Atomica to get (at least to your satisfaction)?

We wanted to give the location scope and give the audience a sense of geography and claustrophobia-inducing structure so we planned a 4-5 minute continuous shot (a walk and talk) that stretches from one side of the facility to the other. We nailed the shot after four takes and in each shot the actors and crew walked almost a half mile underground. In the end, we edited it and cut in some close ups for performance and to pick up the pace (so it wasn’t’ a continuous shot) but to pan, art, and light a half mile of underground space was amazing.

 

Every film has its own unique set of challenges and goals, what were some of Atomica’s?

Indie filmmaking is hard. There was time before Universal or SYFY ever saw this film that we wondered if we would ever be able to finish it at all. Uniquely one of the greatest assets of the film was this amazing location but the technical and actual challenges of filming there were incredible. In the end, we faced many of the same challenges any film faces in post but once we had the actors’ performances in the can it was easy to always push through knowing that what we had already accomplished was worth the effort.

 

How much time was spent in the development phase for Atomica? Did it differ greatly from other films you’ve worked on?

We spent about 6 months in development. Yes, much different as traditionally I write the films I direct which takes a lot longer.

 

I love Syfy films, but across the board, there tends to be a strong ‘cheese’ factor which everyone happily embraces. (Which is probably part of the reason I adore them.) However, Atomica is fairly serious (except for one particular laugh-out-loud scene from Monaghan). What made you decide to go in this direction?

That’s funny you say that. None of the Sci-fi films that I love go for the cheese. (unless it’s meant to a la GALAXY QUEST which actually parody’s that “cheese”) The sci-fi I tend to watch and love is very real. It’s like watching a period film and people acting like they live in the past – I like films that express what it is to be human and while I try not to take myself too seriously what is going on around us, I feel, is actually monumentally important.

 

Did Atomica change at all from the original plan laid out in development? If so, what was it?

The original script was not a sci-fi or rather was not a traditional sci-fi. We decided to put it in the future so we could maximize the degree that audiences could relate. Instead of being about an isolated case for a few people now it then became about a potential dangerous future for all of us.

 

Do you see yourself working with Monaghan and/or Habel in the future?

I would work with either of them in a heartbeat. They are both not only incredibly talented actors but two of the highest caliber of human beings on the planet. I’m totally sincere in saying that. It’s not always the case but in making Atomica I got to work with these two gems and I’ll never forget the experience. I’d like to think that If I become a better person maybe they’ll want to work with me again.

 

I noted the presence of Phil Austin, who has been in two of your other films (Murder in the Dark, Broken Hill). Was it a deliberate choice to give him a part in Atomica, or was that just how things worked out?

Dude. You are now my favorite journalist ever. Thanks for noticing. Phil is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I love putting him in stuff because he’s so damn talented and he is one of those actors who is generous in his performance. If you look at his bigger films (WHITE HOUSE DOWN etc…) you’ll see that he can take up space in a story and scene without taking away from the performers around him. I hope to put him in every movie I ever make.

 

What is your favorite memory from the making of Atomica?

It was such a grueling shoot that sometimes we had to blow off steam. After a particularly hard day instead of going back to our hotels and going to bed (as we should have) instead the cast and some of the crew took over the local small town bar. Dom DJ’s (by the way he’s really good) we did karaoke, danced, and sang until 4 or 5 in the morning and then went to work the next day and had one of the best days. At that point getting a break from the weight of shooting in that dark place was even more important than sleep.


Big Movie Cover for AtomicaAtomica Synopsis: 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.

Director: Dagen Merrill

Writers: Kevin Burke, Federico Fernandez-Armesto (screenplay)