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'Zero Contact' Beyond the Pandemic to Artistic Heights

'Zero Contact' director Rick Dugdale speaks with Script contributor Paula Landry about his experience making this film, which is a follow-up conversation she previously had (when the film was launching as an NFT) with Cameron Chell, co-founder of Vuele, the NFT platform.

It seems impossible that such a global and imaginative movie like Zero Contact could come out of the pandemic. But the results are gripping. I highly recommend that you watch the movie on VUDU as soon as possible. Not because it was made during the pandemic, rather, to experience a great movie.

This high-tech corporate thriller centers around Finley Hart, played by the unforgettable Anthony Hopkins, the eccentric genius behind a global data-mining program. Upon his death, five remote agents - including his son - are contacted by a mysterious Artificial Intelligence 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.

Oscar-winning Hopkins plays the mad tech mogul with such a quiet intensity, you’re mesmerized and disturbed all at once. Rising to the occasion, the rest of the cast also knocks it out of the park.

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As you might expect for a pandemic-produced movie, it was shot almost entirely on Zoom. In addition, it was the first feature film NFT and was produced in 17 countries, entirely virtual. The story is exciting, creepy, suspenseful, and entirely dramatic in a way that I wouldn't have imagined possible.

I had the opportunity to speak with the director of Zero Contact, Rick Dugdale, about his experience making this film, which is a follow-up from a conversation I had previously (when the film was launching as an NFT) with Cameron Chell, co-founder of Vuele, the NFT platform. It’s exciting to see the results and I hope everybody watches this picture. It is interesting visually (a total feat) with a gripping story. Fans of tech thrillers will enjoy watching, no matter when and how it was made. Rick was kind enough to share his experience with me. As it’s a high-tech thriller, seemingly shot entirely on a combination of Zoom, surveillance and cellphone cameras, it offers a wide variety of visuals (and incredible graphics) and I wondered how the director managed to balance the technical and creative challenge of completely remote production. 

As a note, some of Rick’s responses are paraphrased for brevity.

Technical Versus Creative Challenges

Rick Dugdale: It starts with a great team, many of whom I’d worked with on past films. The entire team was on Zoom during the shoot, so while we’re shooting, just a screen away, the production designer, editor, and editor are all there. This painted a picture of confidence and felt like a real movie set. The actors were confident because they could ask the AD any questions about the next scene. The feeling of working on set was maintained.

Going on to the next filmmaking challenge, I was curious about the chemistry between the performers, and Rick you tackled that aspect of directing his actors, and how he actually turned the remote aspect of the project into a positive.

Rick Dugdale: We decided intentionally to not have the actors opposite each other. They didn't know each other. But the lack of connection is what plays into the movie, because that's what we've all felt for two years being on Zoom.

Screenwriter Cam Cannon wrote the work, and I wondered what, if any, changes needed to be made in the story to accommodate the production.

Rick Dugdale: I was fortunate enough to work with a great writer, Cam Cannon, who's a partner of mine. He’s very talented, so fast. He definitely needed a second set of eyes to understand, because we were changing things on the fly. We had to adapt to the surroundings, and what the actors had available to them. We had them give an inventory on your life in your house. And then from there, we’d build the scene to some degree. We were adjusting sequences based on what was there - a wall that was too white, or the kids are sleeping, and so on.

Achieving The Look

This feels almost guerilla filmmaking-like to me, planning to fix a few things in post. But it’s clear that working with Ian Duncan as the visual effects producer, Tink the production designer and cinematographer Edd Lukas, and the rest of the team, they rose to the challenge, bringing in great production value. It’s a very international work, so I inquired about the emphasis on highlighting the global factor which comes through the dialogue.

Rick Dugdale: We wanted to make sure we cast the film internationally, because the dialects and different accents and languages would also send the message that it was more international scope, and bring up the production value.

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Cultivating The Performances

Paula Landry: All your actors rocked it out, Chris Brochu, Aleks Paunovic, Veronica Ferres, Martin Stenmarck, TJ Kayama, Lilly Krug, James C. Burns, you brought out such strong performances. Working with Sir Anthony Hopkins must have been inspiring, to say the least.

Rick Dugdale: He's a legend. There are a lot of things to take away being able to work with him, especially in a director capacity. I was fortunate enough to do a film with him years ago, called Blackway that I had produced. His process as an actor is amazing. He needed six weeks before he could shoot to prep the character. And some people would think that's crazy, but then we could pivot the storyline and it wouldn't matter to him because he had a back story, with six prequels worth of material. And his performance on screen was so in-depth, but he's that committed, he's that dedicated to his craft. And his process is one of a kind. And the rest of the actors didn't hold back. And then you see the performance coming through and people were tearing up. I was tearing up on Zoom, watching his performance. That's when I knew this actually is going to work. If we can see that without any sound design or anything that to drive that emotion home, that's when we were so convinced that you can get a performance from these actors remotely. But of course, it starts with a good story by Cam.

Takeaways From A Unique Shoot

Paula Landry: The right ingredients were there, strong story, team, and motivation. Could you come up with any takeaway from shooting during Covid that would be a positive, or silver lining?

ZERO CONTACT POSTER

Rick Dugdale: What I take from this is that, truly, anything's possible. What I’d love to see happen in the future is that if you're a kid in Uruguay or Kazakhstan, and you're a filmmaker there's no reason to not connect remotely with people all over the world. I would reach out online or on Reddit to another filmmaker in the Amazon, and ask ‘Hey, can you get me a shot of five people paddling down the river? Great, I'll Venmo you 100 euros, and then I get that footage.’ And that goes in the movie. And if I lived in Kazakhstan, I would do that in 10 other countries. So remote filming is innovative in that way. It would be great to see more young filmmakers coming up using techniques like this. They’d bypass the hurdles of work visas, travel, and finances to go into these places to create an international storyline, which would get you better distribution and launch your career.

Zero Contact is a great film and a tremendous feat. Congratulations to Rick Dugdale, Cam Cannon, Vuele co-founder Cameron Chell and everyone involved in the movie. To readers and filmmakers, watch this film, it’s a first of its kind, from NFT to global super-production and a case study in art, movies, collaboration, and what’s possible!

Zero Contact is in Theaters, On Digital, and On Demand on May 27, 2022. Learn more on Vuele.io and stream now on Vudu.com.