Other Worlds Austin Premieres Nathaniel Atcheson’s Domain
Social media meets the apocalypse
On the internet, no one can hear you scream. When writer/director Nathaniel Atcheson created his post-apocalyptic technological thriller Domain, he found the terror of digital isolation.
Tonally, Domain is light-years from his social media satire Herpes Boy. However, both deal with life in front of a webcam: Herpes Boy made its eponymous hero an unlikely YouTube star, while Domain has live feeds as the only connection between seven characters at the end of the world.
Explaining the story's genesis, Atcheson said, "It almost sounds like I reverse engineered it." He'd always planned to make science-fiction films, "but sometime around film school, I just decided it was too expensive." Looking for something else, he fell into comedies, but after Herpes Boy, he got serious about making a genre movie – not least because he was afraid of being pigeonholed as a comedy guy. "After Herpes Boy, I got a lot of feedback from people saying, 'You have to pick your genre. Hollywood doesn't know what to do with you if you can do a lot of stuff. They want you to be one thing,' so I really took that to heart."
With only a limited budget and technical resources, he created an affordable future. "It started with a setting, this scenario where people are alone in one room, and then it turned into this situation with the Skype-type interface. From there, I started building it out, and asking, 'Why would these people be there?'"
Finally, he settled on a global pandemic. The solution to the imminent extinction of humanity is to seal thousands of survivors in their own individual bunkers until the plague burns itself out. To keep them sane, each person is connected to six complete strangers from around the nation, by a streaming video system called Domain. But, like any social media platform, all anyone can know about anyone else is what they are told. As time goes on, the seven characters in this circle start to fall apart, with cyber-bullying, language policing, virtue signaling, and online harassment fraying their relationships.
The underlying question for all seven members of Domain is how much they can really know or trust the faces and voices on the other side of a screen. For this, Atcheson found himself influenced by a classic of the sealed-bubble genre, The Truman Show. He said, "You have a life, you think this is your life, and then the layers start coming apart, the shell breaks, and you realize, 'This is not at all what I thought it was.'" As for the look of the film, he turned to Ridley Scott's masterpiece of gritty, blue-collar sci-fi, Alien. "[It] was our touchstone, in terms of how to design the screens and the bunker, in order to make it feel less dated."
However, he still had some technical issues to solve. Early in the scripting process, he realized the actors needed to be on set with each other, "otherwise it would be very flat. Actors are at their best when they are working with other actors." He credited his longtime cinematographer Benjamin Kantor with developing the solution: a single bunker set, a giant green screen, and a row of GoPros. "When all seven actors, or any combination of the cast, was present, there was one actor being filmed on the stage with our big movie camera, and then there were up to six others being filmed on the GoPros with the green screen, and everyone had a teleprompter, and everyone could see each other and interact with each other."
Domain premieres as part of the Other Worlds Austin Film Festival Sun., Dec. 4, 5:15pm, at Flix Brewhouse. For ticket info and to see OWA’s entire schedule, visit www.otherworldsaustin.com.