Zero Contact : Exclusive Interview / Director Rick Dugdale Challenges with Zoom Setting in Pandemic Time Through the NFT Release

Zero Contact : Exclusive Interview / Director Rick Dugdale Challenges with Zoom Setting in Pandemic Time Through the NFT Release

Synopsis : Starring Academy Award® winner Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), this high-tech thriller chillingly reimagines our isolated, virtual world. Hopkins plays Finley Hart, the eccentric genius behind a global data-mining program. Upon his death, five remote agents — including Finley’s son — are contacted by a mysterious A.I. entity to reactivate the initiative, which may enable time travel. As sinister events occur at each of the agents’ homes, they must decide whether entering their passwords will save the world… or destroy it.

Q: You’ve been a producer since 2011, so how did Covid affect you as a filmmaker? How did it affect the making of this film?

RR: When Covid struck, everyone was looking at how we are going to make films if there are such restrictions? Every state, every country had different restrictions. There was a lot of misinformation, unknowns that I had to deal with as a producer — can I cross the border? Can I not cross the border?

We had films going into production in Canada, in Serbia that we had to halt production. We looked at bringing the stuff back to the U.S. because you couldn’t get actors to cross borders — they didn’t know if they could get back or if they had to be quarantined. All this stuff obviously wasn’t just happening to the film business. But these were massive hurdles that we were all having to overcome with our productions.

Our plan for this particular film, “Zero Contact,” was that if we can’t cross borders, if we can’t travel the cast, how do we make a film with the logistics and resources that we have? We were fortunate enough to have team members all over the world, and we had a think tank where everybody came together and said, “Well, what storyline would work?” It can’t be about Covid, it can’t be a horror movie, and we can’t use Zoom to record the scenes.

So we came up with an idea a couple of weeks later. Cam Cannon had a script that absolutely blew everybody away, both from a logistical standpoint — that it was achievable — and [it was] a story that worked and interested everybody. From there, we started to put it together.

Q: Did you develop the script with Cannon? Since you were not going to sit beside him, how did you two map it out?

RR: It was all, obviously, over Zoom, over phone calls, and even though Cam lives maybe around 15 minutes from my house — it was all done remotely. Then, as we started getting into it, everybody was buying in that we actually didn’t want… I’m sure you could break rules and go grab a coffee with somebody. But we purposely didn’t ever be in the same room together. Everybody wanted to make sure that this was done “by the book” — it was a “zero contact” kind of thing.

Which is interesting, because not everybody can function that way. I think we all learned who’s good at it, and who’s not. I mean, the Cannes Film Festival I just got back from — to shake hands and talk to people and be in person, guess what? More deals got done that way. But it was all remote — the whole script was remote.

Q: The film was produced in several different countries. You started shooting in 2020. All the actors were in different locations, they didn’t have makeup, wardrobe, lighting and other things like that. In order for them to prepare as an actor, they have to prepare other things besides acting — what about that?

RR: First of all, I made the negotiations really easy when we had to talk about their trailers, and they weren’t going to have trailers. I’m kidding…

Also, we had to cast the right people. You had to have people that would buy in, would understand it. They knew you weren’t going to have hair/makeup because it wasn’t possible. And you also had to have [veteran] actors who had experience on the film set versus a first-time actor who wouldn’t necessarily know framing and camera work because they had to do that as well Aleks [Paunovic] and Chris [Brochu] have a better understanding and respect for producing.

When we did have a location scout who walked around with the laptop, we could identify the locations to shoot in — each person’s house or office, wherever they were. But then from there our production designer would be on Zoom and would say “Hey, the wall is too yellow. Can you guys find a different room or pull a drape across? Okay, that’s good. This will be for scene 37, that’s where you’re going to shoot that act.” He’d have to make a note.

We had an AD [assistant director] that would also facilitate all this. But then you’d have your DP say, “Hey, the lighting is too bright, can you bring it down? Or grab the light from the other room? Great, put that in the corner. That’s going to be for scene 76 that we’re going to shoot next week.”  We had a location scout who did like that. They would have a call sheet and they would know, okay, I’d better be in this wardrobe which really takes place over one day.

They would have to prepare all of that. They would have to prepare their prop. You look at TJ Kayama, who we shot in Tokyo — in that wardrobe. We shot him first, and so the wardrobe of our character in the black hoodie had to be wearing something simple enough to be able to replicate all over the world. Hence the black sweater hoodie that they’re wearing, right?

But it took the right people to be part of it that would buy in, in order to make this worth everyone’s while. Because obviously it was going to take hours and hours and hours, and a lot of people don’t have the ambition to do an idea like this. It might not go through to the end. You might [go], “ah, that was fun.” We were determined to make a completed movie and see what would happen in the end.

Q: How do you rehearse them? The process for rehearsing is obviously different from actually shooting the film.

RR: Ed Lucas, who is the cinematographer, created a production guideline. We would do equipment inventory with each actor. We’d say, “Do you have an iPhone?” and they’d say, “Yeah, I have an iPhone 8. Oh but wait, I also have an iPhone 10.” “Great.” But it’s a different format, so let’s put that on the list. “Well, I have a Canon 5D.” “Great, that’s an option.”

From there, we’d go “For this scene with Trevor [Aleks Paunovic], for example, his security cam would be a GoPro. Then you would give a tutorial on how to mount a camera behind the laptop, so that the lens sits just above the Zoom camera. But again, we’re not recording on the Zoom. We’re using Zoom to stand on set. So we had to walk them through all the technical elements of how to mount cameras.

Then the post-production guys would walk them through what an FTP [file transfer protocol] is. Of course these actors don’t know what an FTP is. After filming, they would download the footage, load it to the FTP. It would go to Sweden and then the editors and assistant editors would confirm that we got it. That’s essentially your DIT [digital imaging technology]. Once we got it, great. The script supervisor — which was really the editor at that point — confirms we got that scene in the can.  So that was the whole workflow process — it was a major thing as well.

In terms of rehearsing, how would we actually get the actors to go through that process? We did a couple of table reads. Again, it was standing on set, and we had to make them feel like it was a real set as much as possible. It was like you and I having a Zoom session — are you really going to get into the performance and deliver? But if you have the AD there and the DP, and we’re talking like everything I just said, they’re going to feel like this is a real set. The only thing we didn’t have was craft services that everybody could participate in.

You’d have rehearsals with the AD reading the lines and I would weigh in and say, “Let’s try it this way. Great.” They weren’t necessarily rehearsing with each other, but they would rehearse with Ardy [Brent Carlson], the AD, as we were able to walk them through and block it. They’d rehearse, then we’d shoot.

Q: Is this film the first for Anthony Hopkins after he won the Oscar for “The Father”? How did you convince him to do it with that setup?

RR: It is. This is the first film, I believe. It was not easy, first of all. He’s a legend for a reason. I was fortunate enough to work with him years ago on a film called “Blackway” [dir. Daniel Alfredson (2015)]. I got to know him and we became friends. I also got to know his team and family.

I thought there was a chance: if we could spell it out precisely how to do it, if there was any kind of fear or complications of how it’s even possible — “This is going to be dumb and not worth my time” — we had to take all of that away and make it very simple. Fortunately with his family, who partook in this process, I was able to spell it out for them precisely and really make it simple. We had to do that. Once we spelled it out, and demystified the process, he said to me, “Well, I made a lot of films in my career, but I certainly haven’t made a film like this so let’s do it.”

From there, he needed four or five weeks to get ready through his process as an actor. He brought in a backstory, he was so involved, and a true professional, obviously, even with this format. It was incredible. His performance was amazing in the film, for that reason.

Q: Filmmakers have continued to adapt to Covid’s ever-changing landscape. The future of cinema relies on films [like this one]. It’s pushing the boundaries, in a way. Could you talk about the unique release of it as an NFT [non-fungible token]?

RR: Vuely — “to view” [blockchain-powered platform]. Once the film was completed, and we knew it worked, we had to do something special. We could have gone through the real traditional path right then and showed it to distributors. But we were involved in FinTech and blockchain already at that point. I was trying to come up with this idea of what it would look like if an entire film was released as an NFT. So we built a platform called Vuely, and it became the first film ever released as an NFT.

To break it all down, an NFT release — an NFT strategy — is really about engaging a community, a dedicated fan base that actually would partake in the whole world that you are building. When you show a movie in a movie theater, people buy the popcorn and they leave, they’re gone from your lives. And you’re gone from their lives. With an NFT, the future of releasing films in this fashion is about building a whole dedicated fan base, removing the negativity that can live in social media and Web2, and this is the future with Web3.

If you own an NFT, are you going to write bad reviews? Well, no, you’re part of the community. You might, but you’re part of the community. At that point, you don’t want to hurt the value of your NFT. Plus you’re part of the community and you don’t want to hurt the success of the community.

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Are you going to pirate the movie? Well, no — you don’t want to torpedo the value of your NFT. So it’s really about listening to the fans, listening to the community, and building something for them to partake in. And that just is not there right now. That’s what an NFT release is.

Q: Some in the media say this is the first movie in film history to be shot in Antarctica. But there is a Japanese movie called “Antarctica” which was released in 1983, and shot there. This will be the first feature film that’s shot entirely in Antarctica. Can you talk about that?

RR: We started filming in Antarctica, and did begin filming on Part 2 and 3.. Yes, we were told through the Antarctic treaty program, this is the first scripted film in history. I’m not aware of the Japanese film, so we should definitely check that out.

But this is about thinking outside the box. This is about getting outside your comfort zone. This is about taking audiences to places they don’t get to go. As a filmmaker, I don’t want to do green screen my entire life. I don’t want to cheat stuff if you don’t have to. As a producer on “Zero Contact”, if you put the work in, you will realize Antarctica is not that expensive to go there.

It’s expensive, don’t get me wrong. But you would shoot this in Winnipeg. If I shot it in Winnipeg, it means a bigger crew, and also logistics. It means all the other complications that come with traditional production. If you go to Egypt, you would probably shoot that in Tunisia. But again, if you put the work in, you pay to flip cars over on the Giza plateau. It’s much better than doing it on a green screen.

You want the audience to feel part of this journey. I have always personally been intrigued as a filmmaker, that you want to take the audience with you. You want to take them somewhere. I don’t want to explain that it was done on green screen with motion capture, this, this and that. Put the work in. Figure it out. Take the audience with you.

Q: How does this experience set you up for the next chapter in your story? Can you talk about how NFT and your film will change the future of filmmaking?

RR: First off I want to say, on the NFT side, an NFT release, is that here you have this great scenario that I think is a win for all cinema and Hollywood.

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Lion’s Gate is releasing the movie traditionally — it’s coming out on Friday. But it had an NFT release as well.

That’s the thing as filmmakers, when you have finance plans dwindling and trying to figure out different gap financing. This is something that Lion’s Gate embraced, the NFT strategy. This is a revenue stream that never existed.  So that’s something that I’m really proud of, is that we are breaking new ground from traditional distribution, not afraid of this NFT strategy.

In terms of where I’m going as a filmmaker… I will continue to explore stuff that’s outside the box. There are so many opportunities if we put the work in, and if you look around and explore what’s possible. I think we need to tell stories that are international. As you’re seeing, streaming is global, and NFTs are global. So global stories give you more roads to victory, they become more interesting.

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The world is getting smaller. Every ocean you cross, your IQ increases. Those are the stories I like to tell. Those are the stories that you want to do to expand cultures and connect cultures. It’s important to do that.

I’d rather make those types of movies than an isolated film in the mountains of Idaho or something. That’s more interesting for the world of cinema.

Q: That’s so true. Thank you so much.

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Here’s the trailer of the film.

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