For a project virtually built and run over Zoom, there is no more apt name for film. zero contact. Produced in 17 different countries during the global pandemic, zero contact is a thriller that focuses on the dangers of high technology in a virtual world. Anthony Hopkins (The silence of the lambs) plays Finley Hart, an unconventional genius behind a global data mining program. When Hart suddenly dies, five strangers are digitally summoned to carry on Hart’s work, which is an initiative that involves time travel. However, outside forces begin to stalk and harm each of the five people, forcing the group to decide whether to finish the mission at the risk of their own lives.
Directed by Rick Dugdale zero contact bills itself as the “world’s first feature-length NFT event”. The film can be purchased as NFTs through Vuele, a platform that specializes in collecting and trading NFTs of feature films and their subsequent content. In a conversation with Digital Trends, Dugdale discussed the challenges of directing on Zoom, how he convinced Anthony Hopkins to join the cast, shoot part of the sequel in Antarctica, and what the future holds for Fly and NFT feature films.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: So the pandemic started in 2020. Where and when did you get the idea to make this movie?
Rick Dugdale: I think we’ve been in a pandemic for a week and we had nothing to do. So we had this international think tank and we said to our colleagues around the world, “Well, how do you make a movie if you can’t be in the same room together?” And so we started working on this idea in a workshop with a brilliant writer, Cam Cannon, who works with me, and we came up with this idea that he developed. Ten days later, we had a script. [Cam is] a very fast writer, so we weren’t necessarily surprised that he was so fast. But you read it and everyone who read it was like, “Well, wait a second. This really works.” And we start to work a little bit, and the next thing you know, we start putting together the cast. From there, it was all about convincing people that this wasn’t going to be a waste of time. And we went for it.
Speaking of convincing people, how did you convince Anthony Hopkins to get involved in this project?
It started with, “Look. You know nobody is making movies right now.” And Anthony says, “I’m not going to make a movie. I will not get up from the couch until there is a vaccine.” I said, “Well, maybe you don’t have to go too far.” Fortunately, I had worked with him. [before], so he knew what his team would need to understand that this is a real movie. So we presented you with a kind of beat-by-beat schedule: get the equipment into the house, how to film it. He said, “Look. I’ve done a lot of movies in my career, but I certainly haven’t made a movie like this. So let’s go for it.” But having that relationship with him, I think, gave him confidence that we weren’t going to waste his time.
You’ve been making movies for two decades, but zero contact It is the first film that you directed. What happened to this film that made you finally decide to direct?
When it first came up, Cam and I were working on this idea. The original idea was what would happen if five world leaders were assassinated around the world at the same time by the same person. That was kind of an origin story. Yes, someone can run with that idea [laughing]. But that was the origin of everything. As I was writing the script, I started saying to Cam, “Hey, let’s put [in] a Japanese character because TJ [Kayama] he is a friend of ours. He can film that part. Let’s look for Veronica Ferres. She can play that role. She is a friend in Germany.
Suddenly, we have a script and a production plan. My colleague, Peter Toumasis, says, “Okay, so who’s going to direct?” And I said, “Well, I guess that’s me.” Let’s run it from a war room. Being part of the conceptualization was a story that interests me. Cam and I put it together using, shall we say, ancient astronaut theory and that’s where it can go. So, it is something that, personally, interests me. I was always fascinated by it, so it made sense to say, “Okay, this is it.”
Logistically, you’re telling the actors that they now need to pay attention to shooting angles, lighting, and sound. Plus, you’re running it all on Zoom. How was that process? What challenges did you face?
They [the actors] I have a lot more respect for producers now, which is great. We use Zoom as a device to stand on set. It wasn’t a Zoom movie, was it? There is real equipment. So if the Wi-Fi signal went down, we can’t see or hear the performance, but it was probably recorded on camera. So we had to say, “Hey, can we get some in-camera playback? And by the way, you have to do the playback yourself and tell us if you like the take.” we had a big announcement [assistant director], and we treated the set like a real set because, from a psychology point of view, you needed comfort. I think personally, I needed everyone to have confidence that this was worth it.
So we had an AD. We had a production designer on set. We had an editor on set, which is not at all common for every scene you shoot. But the AD, Ardy Carlson, would run it and say, “Okay, guys, are you ready? Images above. Okay, let’s roll the sound. Oh wait, let’s close the curtain. I have a silhouette that is not going to work. i have the dp [director of photography], Ed Lukas, making framing decisions, which means the actors change the framing themselves and all sorts of things. But then that’s how we’re going to roll the sound. The actor turned and pressed the button on the camera. [He would say] “Are you okay Alex? Okay, let’s do this.” Then we would read lines in front of him and he would perform in front of me or the AD. The more you treated it like a real set, then [you get] the real result, the real performance.
A unique aspect of the film. is the NFT side of this. zero contact is a feature-length NFT through Vuele. Can you explain what Vuele is and what it means when someone buys it through Vuele?
Fly is the world’s first NFT movie distribution company to distribute movies using NFT, which is very different from a traditional distribution strategy. This is more of a collectible, resellable, fan engagement tool that uses NFTs. With Vuele, we would also be making collectibles linked to the movies that are released. But this is a unique way for us to engage the fan base that is not the same consumer, right? Being able to partner with Lionsgate just sends the message to Hollywood that this is something new. This is a source of income that did not exist in Hollywood.
So it’s two totally different audiences right now. People who have the NFT will have all kinds of components that are added and airdropped. It’s like getting the Metallica concert shirt. There is something to go home with, a utility. That is different. I think that the traditional distribution strategies that are happening now are not full of utility. When you buy the Blu-ray box set, you can still own it and put it on your shelf. It’s just a different consumer base. The future will obviously, we believe, include an NFT component, much like streaming became popular 10 years ago. It is not different from that.
Now for someone who doesn’t even own NFTs or even understand them all, what will the audience get if they buy? zero contact through Fly?
I mean it’s exclusive access. It came out earlier, and there are different versions of the movie that were accessible. Speaking for Fly, each movie will have different components like this: exclusive early access and long lists of utilities. In the first 11 versions of the movie, for example, if you bought that from Fly, within your NFT, you had to shoot yourself in the movie. Once we go with a studio like Lionsgate, you couldn’t make 2 million copies of the movie from the people who bought the 2 million. [copies], so it would be impossible. But in this particular case, in zero contact, you can play a character in the movie. Your version of the movie is you with Anthony Hopkins. That is unheard of in Hollywood. That’s one of many useful components.
With the idea of putting someone in a movie, now everyone can be an actor.
Even if it’s a poor performer, it’s still a good NFT to have [laughes]. I think that’s about it. The sky is the limit with the inclusions and utility components you can have as NFTs. Again, a different audience, but a different way to release a movie.
zero contact It’s going to have two sequels, and you just shot part of the first sequel in Antarctica. How did the idea come about? Why shoot in Antarctica?
I have long had a passion for doing that. We had been working on a show at one point about Antarctica because we knew so much about it. But I also realized that once you go there, everything that we’ve been doing for years, set in Antarctica that was filmed in Alaska and Montana, is wrong. There are no trees there. There are no helicopters flying around Antarctica. In the origin story of zero contact, though fueled by a tech titan, tough business, and time travel, what you’ll start to realize is how he developed time travel technology. This is like quantum physics and the electrical grid lines on Earth. This is where we’re going with this universe.
Start with the points on the electrical grid that would include the north and south poles. So could we shoot that in Montana? Of course. But as a producer, if you put in the work, you realize that it’s not that much more expensive to go to these places than it is to cheat on the backlot in Los Angeles or in some studio in Canada. That’s how we saw it. Take the audience to these places they’ve never been before for the “wow factor.” Then on top of that, the emotional impact of the talent performing there was incredible. We would have shot it with green screen, which we did in Antarctica, and you wouldn’t have gotten the same performance.
How are you going to top Antarctica for the third movie? Is space a possibility? A volcano?
I don’t want to reveal it, but we’ll talk about it again. We are doing some very special things and we continue to innovate. That’s what it’s really about. Let’s make life interesting. And so, in these movies, the plot is part Indiana Jones, part Beginning/cloud atlas. Being in a time travel type of genre, there are endless possibilities of where to take that story. Let’s just say if we could capture a sequence on Mars, that would be great. So we will review that.
zero contact is in theaters, digitally, and on demand starting May 27, 2022.