Atomica: Director Dagen Merrill Addresses the Claustrophobic Sci-Fi Thriller

– by Gig Patta

The future does look bleak and depressing for nuclear energy.

With the beginning of the millennium, the sci-fi film Atomica plays into world’s thirst for energy.

The sci-fi thriller, directed by Dagen Merrill, features a small and known cast with Dominic Monaghan, Sarah Habel and Tom Sizemore.

It’s set 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 the facility to bring it back online. Once inside the facility, mysterious clues and strange behaviors cause Abby to have certain doubts about the sanity and perhaps the identities of the two employees on site.

Earlier this month, LRM had an exclusive phone interview with Merrill, in which we discussed using a real nuclear silo as a set location and his spectacular all-star cast.

Atomica is currently available on VOD and Digital HD today.

Read the full transcript of the interview below.

LRM: It was a pleasure to meet with you earlier this week in Beverly Hills. I certainly hoped you had a lot of fun.

Dagen Merrill: Oh, yeah! Yeah. I have a name to the face now. [Laughs]

LRM: Tell me what in particular drew you to this project Atomica?

Dagen Merrill: It was the story initially. We read the script. We were looking for something really contained. When you have a script that you read three-quarters of the way through, I was like “Oh, my gosh!” I was turning one page after another page. It is only three characters all in one location.

That’s very rare to find a script like that. It’s from the storytelling with so many twists and turns. It just happened not to have very many characters.

LRM: Looking at your past history of films, you’re much more of a thriller type of guy. How is it to venture into the sci-fi world for yourself?

Dagen Merrill: My favorite sci-fi’s generally have a bit of a thriller [element] to them. It was more about the environment. It’s not about on whether I want to create a sci-fi or not to create a sci-fi. I just want to create the right environment for this story. The future did make a lot of sense. All these things are related to nuclear energy and a big part of the story. They are all future problems.

Rather than having it now, it takes in the future in which there are a lot more at stake.

LRM: You talked about the fact that the movie is about these three characters. The facility, you used, is technically a fourth character in the movie. Could you talk more about the set and how you did discover this perfect location?

Dagen Merrill: You’re absolutely right. [The location] has always been another character. We shot in this abandoned nuclear silo in Washington. It was a lot of work to make this location as the set we wanted. We liked the location, because it had such weight to it. It was just hard to kind of exist in.

From there, to make it as a character, we talked a lot about lighting. [Timothy] Burton, our cinematographer, and I spent a lot of time walking through this space. We were trying to figure out on how to make this place feel like a living, breathing thing.

You’ll notice [in the film] that there almost seem like an eye everywhere. There is an iris that served as a focal point. They’re constantly walking through the structure and it’s constantly looking back. We put in some automated lighting as you walk in certain places—then the light would come on.

With sound design, we shot specifically in mind with a specific sound atmosphere. We wanted to give this place a breathing heartbeat. When you look at the movie, you can compare what is happening in the facility and compare on why Abby is having these dreams. If you listen carefully throughout the facility, you can hear that we had it breathing. There is this inhaling and exhaling. And you’ll hear this very subtle mechanical heartbeat.

That’s on what we did to try to make this into another character. If you look at the scenes as they’re about to say something—an alarm would go off. It’s almost like the facility is almost interrupting. It’s almost like it has something to say.

LRM: Why do you supposed filming this movie in a nuclear silo is more of an advantage than filming it in a studio?

Dagen Merrill: I like the experimental filmmaking personally. If you look at the stuff I’ve done, then it’s all about the locations.

I feel like it’s for a couple of reasons. First of all, why shoot an independent film in a studio. Might as well shoot it as a studio film. You make this as a great studio film on a green screen. A bigger studio film with a bigger budget could easily do that.

I think what’s great about independent films that we can go to locations where studio films can’t go. There’s no studio in the world would shoot in that facility. It’s just too difficult. They will think on why not just build a set or why not just do it all on a green screen?

For me, the “why not” is all about the experience on making the film there. It’s the experience that will be brought into the final product. It’s very valuable. In this case, it’s all about the story on what happens when it stops on a certain energy production. The world ended up with too much nuclear waste.

Here, we got to shoot it in a relic of the Cold War. It’s kind of a [homage] to when certain technology just got out of hand and the whole world is insane. To have that darkness and to be in a place where these soldiers used to sit there with their finger on the button—you can feel the intensity of the place that could easily obliterate the planet and start a world war.

I think it does make a bit difference. Can I tell you specifically—this performance or this shot? For me, I hope you watched the film and get a sense about it. We had a blast making it and we had an incredible experience.

Even if you talked with the actors, they’ll tell you about the tensions performed naturally from the surroundings. I like that.

LRM: Speaking of the actors, you worked with a small cast. You worked with a very “strong” cast. You worked with Dom, Sarah and Tom. Could you talk about them and how great they were on the set?

Dagen Merrill: [Chuckles] They were great. It’s a horrible location to shoot at. It was cold. There were long days. Since it was an independent film, there were all these time constraints and all of these issues we were dealing with. We relied on them to always be ready. They need to be in good spirits. They are ready to deliver. And it’s no matter how cold it is at the time.

I think about Sarah had this scene where she goes into this sunroom to take in some artificial sun. She is trying to relax and look peaceful. She is wearing this really small futuristic looking bikini. And it’s freezing! It’s like 40 degrees in there. [Chuckles] She was a trooper.

Dominic created a really interesting performance. Speaking of the facility, he really became the extension and the face of that facility. He really went deep with that character and took a lot of risks.

And finally, for Tom, he did a lot for that character even thought he didn’t have a lot of screen time. We wanted someone who had a lot of weight on screen or gravitas as we say. He came and delivered. Tom is great. We only had him for a few days. By the end of the third day, he pulled off to the side and said, “I feel like we need more time to get these scenes right.” I responded back, “Look. We don’t have time. You’re going home tonight.” He said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I think we should do this right. I will stay an extra day and do whatever it takes.” He gave us more time that he was contractually obligated to do. He believed in the film. And he believed in the character.

We couldn’t ask for a better professional cast.

LRM: As I’m wrapping this up, could you talk about the tech of the future? I was laughing that they were still using tablets and talking about CDs from the 20th century.

Dagen Merrill: For the tech, that was the one thing we were really playing around with. This place is old. She comes from a very futuristic world. Everything is quite different. She comes to the place, where it’s a big relic. It’s essentially the current era we are in now of 2018. The film takes place a little further in the future.

We wanted to bury inside this facility of the different layers of technology. He does mention CDs, which is this retro thing he has heard of. She finds this company tablet that is nearly 100 years old and still powers up. She only uses it, because it is helpful.

The best thing is that the technology she is used to—doesn’t even work in there. Nothing is connecting to anything. She has to rely on these old technologies. And it works.

LRM: You know what, it was awesome. I’m just glad that those tablets of a long warrantee of 50 to 100 years. [Laughs] Thank you very much. I appreciate this conversation. Good luck with your future projects.

Dagen Merrill: I appreciate your time.

Atomica is currently available on VOD and Digital HD today.

Source: LRM

Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Dagen Merrill, Atomica, Dominic Monaghan, Sarah Habel, Tom Sizemore