Exclusive: Director Dagen Merrill Talks Atomica

Dagen MerrillThe science fiction film, Atomica, by Syfy Films, which was released Friday in select theaters, also comes to VOD and Digital HD starting tomorrow. The film, directed by Dagen Merrill, is set in the near future, where nuclear radiation is converted to usable energy. When communications at a remote power plant go offline, Abby Dixon (Sarah Habel) is dispatched to fix the problem. It's obvious when she arrives that something is going on, as the lead scientist (Tom Sizemore) has gone missing, and she doesn't know if she can trust the only employee left at the facility, Robinson (Dominic Monaghan), who may not be who he appears.

Recently, the director talked to SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about his work on the film.

SCIFI VISION: Can you start off by telling me how you became involved in the film? What was it that first attracted you to the project?

Dagen MerrillDAGEN MERRILL: I had an investor approach me about making a low budget film. From there, I connected with Lifeboat Entertainment which is one of the most incredibly low budget production houses in LA, and we started looking for scripts. Vahan [Paretchan] (Lifeboat) found this award winning script, and from there, it was just about finding the right actors.

In your own words, why should people watch the film; what do you think it is that will attract viewers?

It has a nice trailer, and that should attract viewers. I will say that once they are watching, I hope people can feel the energy that we all put into it.

Can you talk about the style you chose for the film and the process you went through make those kind of choices?

I’m someone who always will push for story over style. That said, we collaborated with the incredibly talented Director of Photography, Timothy Burton, and he is probably the number one reason this film has such an amazing feel and style. He’s one of the most promising and talented DP’s in the industry, in my opinion.

Can you talk about working with the three principal actors?

They made the film what it is. Dominic took some real risks in creating the character of Robinson. An actor of his caliber could easily rest on past glories or accolades, but Dom truly pushed the character into a realm that I couldn’t have hoped for.

Sarah Habel is known for a certain kind of role, and she was willing to play way outside the box on this one. I’m most grateful to her for trusting me and for allowing herself to live and act in a space and aspect of her craft that was a little outside the box.

And Tom, he’s a legend in so many ways. I’m glad I got to spend a few wild days with him and learn as much as I did.

Does working with such a small cast provide certain advantages or disadvantages? Which do you prefer?

Dagen MerrillI like small casts and movies with limited POV’s. With TV being the way it is, there is no way we can compete with the breadth of characters that TV offers. But within cinema, there is still the ability to achieve a depth that despite the amazing TV that’s out there, I still haven’t seen anywhere but the big screen.

Can you talk about working with visual effects in the film? Was there anything that was particularly difficult to shoot because things would be added in later digitally?

As always, the big effects are easy, and then it’s some small thing you didn’t foresee that bites you in the ass. I think that’s the lesson I learn again and again. When it comes to VFX, planning is key. We had this door that we added a green screen to, because we didn’t like the design. That ended up costing more time and money than some of our “Tentpole” FX shots, because it wasn’t planned well.

How collaborative were you with the effects team?

As collaborative as we could be, but ultimately the original team left the project so we had to do a lot of reworking.

What is your favorite scene and why?

I love the scene in the kitchen when they are talking, post shower scene. It just feels really creepy, intimate, real, and all at the same time. They really nailed that scene, and it just goes to show that’s it’s not about FX and everything else, just two talented actors in one room talking. And after everything, it was my favorite scene.

Which scene was the most difficult to shoot and why? Or any other challenges you faced?

We wanted to give the location scope and give the audience a sense of geography anda 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 plan, art, and light a half mile of underground space was amazing.

Is there anything you wanted to do that maybe didn't come out quite the way you hoped because of time or something? Maybe there were scenes that had to be cut for time?

The planned ending was slightly truncated because of budget and some other limitations. I was pretty hurt about it for a while, but after the last viewing, I realized that it was probably a better thing, because it forced us to focus on the characters and emotional through-line. People have seen enough spectacle, and there I was trying to give them more on a much smaller budget. Instead we had to go with sustenance, and that was cool.

AtomicaAre you a fan of the science fiction genre? What kinds of movies/television do you like to watch yourself?

I love it. T2 was a film I saw as a kid that changed my life. I was a Cold War child, and it changed my perspective on how the world might be. “No fate but what we make.” Besides that, I love dirty smaller budget sci-fi. Alien and Primer are two of my favorites.

Can you describe the film in three words?

Look deeper...inside.

Do you have any other projects coming up that you want to talk about?

I have a crazy ass sci-fi that we are shooting in the fall that should be amazing, and a TV show that, if it comes out, will ruffle, hopefully, a lot of people’s feathers. Folks can follow me on Instagram @dagenwalker if they want to see more.

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