This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 168: Director Dagen Merrill Talks About His New SyFy Channel Film, Atomica.
Ashley: Welcome to episode #168 of the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast.” I’m Ashley Scott Meyers Screenwriter and Blogger over at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing director, Dagen Merrill. Who just did a movie for the Sy-Fy Channel, called, “Atomica.” I dig deeply into that film and figure out exactly how he got that made. So, stay tuned for that.
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So, now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing director, Dagen Merrill. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Dagen to, the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me today.
Dagen: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Dagen: Well I tell people sometimes, that I grew-up in the circus. But, it was with television and movies. My father was a film maker. So, I worked on my first professional set when I was 12, in the jungles of Western Famila. You know, creating special effects by lighting fires in the jungle. So, from there, yes, I spent most of my life in and around the film industry. I worked and done a lot of commercials, and what not to pay my tuition through college.
And I wound up at USC Graduate School, at the PS Producer program eventually. That’s where I made some contacts. The kind of people that helped me have an actual professional career.
Ashley: And let’s talk about some of those first steps to actually becoming a professional, what were some of those initial steps. Did you write a spec. script? Did you shoot a short film? What were you’re sort of you know, those first steps to becoming, and actually breaking in?
Dagen: Yeah, a I would say, writing is how I got into the professional world. I wrote a spec. script with a writing partner of mine at the time named, Kevin Burke and we ended up selling that to Paramount. It was a horror thriller, so yeah, that was kinda the way, before that though. On the more of the director’s side, I had made a short film, as part of a competition called, “Private Greenway.” And the short did really well. It got me up and got me a lot of exposure. I did end up doing the whole project, “Greenlight” reality TV show. But I did get a lot of exposure. Because it was one of those years that hadn’t been that, Matt Damon and all those guys was around. And so, I got an agent from that. So, that was another thing, that short film. Between that short film, and the screenplay. I wrote a kind of like a pal way, I worked my way in a position to be fresh.
Ashley: Okay, and was that spec. script you’re talking about, was that the script for, “Beneath?”
Dagen: It was, yeah, it was.
Ashley: Okay. And so, maybe you can just give us a quick overview of how you actually got to Paramount. And how you were able to sell it. Did you get an agent first? Did you have some connections through Paramount? Maybe just give us a quick overview. I know there’s a lot of writers who would love to sell a script to Paramount.
Dagen: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, in that particular case. We, I wrote it, I got it to some producers, and we were going to make it. We actually had the financing to make it independently. And I guess through the producers. Someone, another producer, or someone at Paramount got wind that we were making this really cool Indie, kinda genre film. And they kinda came in and kinda made us an offer, you know, to make it with more money. And they offered us a big distribution. And you know, we ultimately came to the fact and made it with them.
Ashley: Okay now, curious, I get a lot screenwriters coming to me. And they’re asking me, hey, how can I attach myself as a director? Did you get any blow-back on that, as you’re ramping up for your first feature film? Was the short film did for project, “Greenlight” was that enough for a calling card that you could show people, yes, I can direct too. Do you have any advice for how a writer can potentially attach himself to a project as a director too.
Dagen: Yeah, I think you do have to have some sort of directing example that’s strong enough. So, they have, at least have an idea. And my experience, and this isn’t the best ever. But, sometimes the studios they have a lack of imagination. Which is why it was really helpful for me to not only made a short, I think was good, and I liked, but it had received outside apart. Other people said it was good. And so, not only were they, hey he’s done this great short. But, that everyone thought it was great, you know.
I think there’s a lot of film makers who are making a lot of incredible stuff. But, if it doesn’t have the right, if it did get the right attention? Then I think studio people are going to have a hard time. Unless they really want the screenplay, and they have to say, “Yes.” They’re going to have a hard time saying, “Yes.”
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, now at this point in your career, were you able to get an agent? Did you have an agent before you made the sale? Maybe you could to that a little bit? Again, it’s a very common question. Again is, as a writer, and even a writer/director. How do you get an agent? What’s your sort of story like at that point.
Dagen: Well I was, let’s see? That’s an interesting one for me. Me, I think I had an agent for a while. Maybe actually before I ended up parting ways with that agent, actually my two agents, agency before I made my first feature, with Paramount. And in that first feature I got a new set of agents and people. So, I’m not the right person to ask. Because I kind of, I don’t think I have the healthiest relationship with agents and things like that. But I do know it’s incredibly important to do, to have. I would say, it’s funny, agents are funny. I would say from my prospective now, I would say that the more important thing that I enjoy now, I have a manager. I have a manager that I really trust, who I like. And then he is able to negotiate agents for me.
Ashley: Okay, okay. So, let’s dig into your most recent.
Dagen: But I don’t have much to say on what to do, you know.
Ashley: A-huh. No okay, fair enough, fair enough. It’s just always interesting getting people’s perspective. So, let’s dig into you’re latest film, “Atomica.” Starring Tom Sizemore. Maybe to start out, you could give us a quick pitch or a log-line for that film.
Dagen: (Chuckling) You know, that’s why I write screenplays, so I don’t have to write anything short. So, basically, it’s, it takes place in the distant future. Where all energy problems have been solved with nuclear power. An energy inspector, played by Sarah Habel finds like there’s Christmas Eve time. One of the biggest state, where they put all the waste has gone
off-line. And so she goes, appears to go and see what’s going on? And when she gets there. The people who are running the station are there. But, they are not exactly what they seem. And it just kinda escalates from there, depending on how you want to look at it?
Ashley: So, how did you get involved with this project?
Dagen: This was a rare project. Where off of kind of a pitch. I actually got the money independently financed. This was of course, way before Sy-Fy or Universal came on-board. So, we had the money before we even had a screenplay. And we ended up, yeah, that’s kinda how I was involved from the very beginning. But, as soon as I had that kind of opportunity. I took it to some producers a couple of vets, a couple of independent producers I know. They work for the studio over at “Life Boat Productions.” And they said, “Hey, here we have this opportunity, but can we deliver, can we find the right spirit for this opportunity. Because it wasn’t a ton of money. And we knew that it had to be really good, to like, find an audience.
Ashley: M-huh. So, maybe you could take a step back there. How did you go about raising money for something that you didn’t have a script for?
Dagen: (Chuckling) You’re as bad as my, as anyone. Because it’s not how it works. This particular, I mean, it never happens, it never happens like this. But I’ll tell you the story.
Dagen: Just one of those that will never happen ever again. But, if, basically, we, I was with a producer. And we had gone to a company, a production company based in Taiwan. And they were interested in doing something big, bigger. So, we had gone to them with an idea that was probably, you know, in the $12-$18 Million-dollar range to get made. And they said, you know this is a little bit, change gears a little bit, a little bit too much for us to bite off right now. But, if, but you know, what if you, you know, could you make a movie for this much. And we said, yeah, yeah, sure, just from that point we were a little deflated. The big idea we brought didn’t work for that much money. Yeah, yeah, just, you know what? Just send it, the money, here’s the wire information, put it in the bank. As soon as we get the money we’ll for sure make a movie for that budget, no problem. And we just walked out, it was kinda a way to get out gracefully. And then a week later, it showed up in the bank. So, that’s how we made it.
Ashley: Wow, that is a pretty amazing story. Okay, so then, let’s track this particular story, “Atomica.” So then, where did the genesis of that story. Now you know, you have a specific amount of money for a budget. How did you go on and did you get the script written? Did you have the kernel that idea of hiring a writer. Or did you start looking at spec. scripts. Where did this sort of genesis of this idea and script come from?
Dagen: Well, we wanted to make something quickly. You know, because we already had started before. We wanted to find a script that was already created. And that’s why I said, I went to, I’m not a producer. So, I went to some of the best producers I know. And I think it was the agency. If you look at the producers on the film. Robert Haun who found the script, that had won some award internationally. And it was contained, it was really cool. And we decided to go for that. We needed some rewriting, kinda either the way we wanted it. That we felt that it needed. But, it was a great place to start.
Ashley: Yeah. Okay, let’s start, let’s dig into that a little bit. You just said it was very contained. And it had one scene words. Maybe you could just elaborate on that a little bit, on what attracted you to this script. And again, come at this from sort of the director’s perspective. I get a lot of screenwriters Emailing me. Hey how can I get a director attached? And so maybe you can talk specifically about what attracted you to this script.
Dagen: What I liked about it? Was that, for me, on two different levels, right. So, we had, we kinda had the story, the plot, what was happening between the characters. But, there was a deeper kind of cycle, logical question being ask? And kind of being worked through from scene to scene. And you know, on and Indie film, you need that. Because you’re not going to, you know, you have to have that intrigue that brings the whole audience in. I think that’s kind of a little bit “Heady.” But, what that comes out to the end of the day, really.
Reading a screenplay, and have just been enthralled by it. A lot is happening, kind of finding yourself emotionally involved. And then you skip to the end of it. And go, boy was that really just 3 people, in like one location, you know. And you didn’t feel the smallness of it, right? Because a lot of people would go, hey, let’s do a small budget film. I’m going to write this thing throughout reactive and it’s not great. Because it doesn’t work that way. You don’t want to work for more money. You want to start with something and really work. And if it just so happens works in a contained way and make it independently. Then that works for me, ya know.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. You just mentioned that a couple of changes that you requested for the script. Again, maybe you can talk some more specifically about that. What were some of the changes that the writer made from the original script that you read to the version that you shot.
Dagen: Well, we did a couple of passes with the original writers. And then as we were getting closer to production. We got Seth Brook, another great writer, who was a little bit closer. Because they were international. At the time, they were the writers. We were on a sort of trip to Europe. So, it was a little hard to kinda understand. Because we were bring in a writer, and that’s how I met Kevin Burke. And some of the, I don’t remember, typically? I mean obviously there’s a lot of scenes that have. But, the main change that we made from the original. Was that we set it, we made it sci-fi, it originally wasn’t sci-fi. It was just kind of a thriller. But, we kinda turned it, we put it in the future. We added this more kind of science fiction element. Which we thought would kind of bring more, a little bit more depth in. Like it’s kind of a very specific story, you know, and we felt like the sci-fi would bring it up and it would make it a little bit more global. Because that’s what we wanted, we wanted it to be kind of, anyone who is watching it to be able to feel like, oh yeah, this is part of what I’m experiencing. To whereas the personal is a little bit narrow.
Ashley: Yeah, I wonder if you can talk just briefly about how kinda Kevin Burke was brought on the project. What was your relationship like with him before this? And again, I’m just asking because a lot of screenwriters are wondering what do, how do I get hired to do re-writes on these types of projects. And so, maybe you can kind of talk about specifically how, you went about finding and hiring Kevin Burke.
Dagen: Well, Kevin, in fact was the writing partner that I had. So, he had a distinctive advantage that I had worked with him before. And I just knew that he could deliver, within the time frame. So, I mean, I guess, as far as re-writing, what I was looking for? Was someone that could do, that I knew could do exactly what we needed the producers needed him to do, and do it quickly. You know, to whereas I think sometimes when you go. Like if you’re going to hire, hire from an original stream that offers up an idea. You kinda want them to bring a lot of their own ideas, changes, and what about this, and what about that? And Kevin sort of has that, but in this particular case, we were on a time-line. I knew I wanted to go with someone whom I knew would do exactly what we had decided. Also, keep in note that we are there.
Ashley: Mm. Okay, so let’s talk about the sci-fi element that you added. I’m just curious, And I know, you’re the director. So, a lot of it for you comes up as sort of you know, artistic changes. And ideas.
I’m curious, is there any word of a business announcement that a sci-fi thrillers have a more global audience than just plan thrillers. And did that impact your decision to kind of open up and make it more of a sci-fi, than just a plan thriller.
Dagen: Yeah, you know, I’m just kind of a fan of sci-fi. That’s kind of a pride source thing. The thing is, I’ve done thrillers before, they’re fun to do. But, I thought it would be really smart to do the genre. So, that’s kinda the first thing. But, certainly that there are keeping the investor in mind. I wanted to give the best possible outcome to the investor. And I do think there is a broader market for sci-fi, and certain kinds of genres. And then there is straight thrillers.
Ashley: I wonder if we could just take a step back now? So, you kind of described how this script came into sort of you sphere. Is that very typical of the projects you directed, but haven’t written. You know you work with a producer, the producer brings in a script. And again, I’m asking this, because I get a lot of questions from writers saying, you know, how can I too get such and such a director. So, I’d just be curious to kind of hear how you get scripts typically? And just kind of describe what that looks like. Do they go through, you know, your producing partner? Do friends or do friends hand you scripts? How many scripts do you read, and where do you get scripts?
Dagen: Yeah, typically I get scripts either through my agent or manager. And my manager is someone around that I can trust. So, he keeps that, his ear to the ground, what’s good. And he will forward me stuff. I mean, when I’m looking for a script, it’s all an average read, 2 or 3 a week, when I’m looking. So, yeah, that’s normally how it happens. Now, on the other hand, if I’m trying for a specific idea? Which happened most recently. And recently is working with an idea, then we’ll go out and hire a writer to write it, based on. Whom we think will do the best job.
Ashley: Yeah. So, I’m curious too. You’re reading when you’ll looking for scripts, you say you’re reading 3 scripts a week. Are there some common mistakes you see a lot of screenwriters make? And again, I would say, coming at this from sort of a director’s perspective. Are there some sort of things that, you know, as a director you wish writers wouldn’t do? Or would do more of?
Dagen: I’ve reached the point where I tend to be reading pretty good scripts. I would say that, because of that. It seems simple, like if there’s any kind of. The first thing that turns me off on a script? Is if they, if it’s not polite. And I mean in a weird way. I don’t mean like, it’s the writing, the subject is polite, that it doesn’t respect me and my time. Like large blocks of action, for example. They expect me to just like, pummel through. Like if I open up, if you open up the first page, it’s an entire straight thing of action. Or conversely, if you look on the second page and there’s you know, the whole thing’s all one dialog, sort of monolog. And again, I’m not saying that, that might not be a great thing from the movie. It might be an Academy Award Winning monolog? But, it’s kind of, there are other things that kind of happen early on in a script. Like from the director, it might pull ya out, and be respectful. Just how screenplays are normally done, you know.
Dagen: Besides that, you know, just, you’re looking through how involved are the characters. And also, because I’m a writer. I usually take the time to read an entire screenplay. Because I don’t know how long and how much effort. Because I only know people who will read the first ten pages. And if they are not hooked in the story and the characters at that point, they’ll stop reading.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, do you just have any other advice to people looking to break in? Whether it be as a writer, or a director.
Dagen: You know, I think, you have to be surrounded by your people who are doing what you want to be doing. You know, so much of it is in the relationship. And I don’t try to end up smooth. I don’t think I’ve ever got a job from like a party I went to. In the hopes that I could smooze somebody, that never happened. Instead, what seems to happen is? Whoever your creative energy, whatever your creative group is. You know, the people you call “Your people.” People that you spent your time with. Those are the people who you’re going to end up working with. Me, I got lucky. You know, I got to go to USC. And I kinda bought into a certain group. But, that has not been the way it’s been. People do play cards of influence. So, I guess, if you’re trying to break in, I guess? Don’t try to break in. Instead, try to just really find your art. And really try to find your do whatever it is you love to do. And then find people who are into the same kind of thing. And you enjoy the same kinds of things. If it’s just you trying to “Break in” it’s never going to happen. If you’re just sharing your talent and you’re making relationships. And there’s 20 of you. Not any one of those people have to be successful. Or anything else. Somebody is at some point get lucky, you know. I haven’t been very determined. At being a former film school. So, if you tell me, trying to make it. Hollywood is like trying to play Roulette. What position is your count up? And you stay in the game long enough. Eventually the ball is going to land on the number. So, how does a group of people you haven’t even met, worked with and collaborated with, and create with. That you’re much more likely to break in. Because someone is going to make it in.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. Sound advice for sure. How can people see Atomica. Do you know what the release schedule is like?
Dagen: Yeah, you know, it’s 6 theaters L.A. and New York, on the 17th of March 2017. And it will be available on Video ONDEMAND everywhere I guess? Watched on the 25th, the following week. I’m not exactly sure where everywhere else? Oh, yeah, coming up on the 31st.
Ashley: Perfect. And so, what’s the best way for people keep up with what you’re doing? If you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, anything you are comfortable sharing. You can just give us that now. And I will also just round it up and put links in the show notes so people can click over to it.
Dagen: Yeah, I appreciate that. I do most of my sharing on Instagram @DagenWalker –
D-a-g-e-n Walker – W-a-l-k-e-r and from there, people who are interested can come find everything else I’m doing.
Ashley: Okay, perfect, perfect. Well, Dagen I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me today, good luck with this film, and thank you much.
Dagen: Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Ashley: Thank you, we’ll talk to ya later.
Ashley: I just want to mention two things I am doing at “Selling Your Screenplay” to help screenwriters find producers that are looking for new material.
First I’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent directly to producers. Every member of SYS Select can submit one log-line per newsletter, per month. I went and Emailed my large database of Industry contacts and asked them if they would like to receive this newsletter of monthly pitches. So far I have well over 350 producers who have signed-up to receive it. These producers are hungry for new material and are happy to read scripts from new writers. So, if you would like to participate in this pitch newsletter and get your script into the hands of lots of producers. Sign-up at – www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com, that’s – www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
And secondly, I’ve contacted one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites. So, I can syndicate their leads onto SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently I’ve been getting about ten to twelve high quality paid screenwriting leads per week. These are producers and production companies who are actively looking to buy material. Or are looking to hire a screenwriter for a specific project. If you
sign-up for SYS Select you’ll get these leads Emailed to you directly several times per week. These leads run the gambit from production companies looking for a specific type of spec. script. To producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas. Producers are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series pilots, it’s a huge aray of different types of projects that these producers are looking for. And these leads are exclusive to our partner and
On the next episode of the Podcast I’m going to be interviewing, Martin Coolhooven, who just did a western called, “Brimstone.” He wrote it, and he directed it. He’s originally from Netherlands. He built his reputation as a director locally first. And now he’s starting to bring, and branch out and write and direct films for the international market. He started by doing short films and getting them in his home country of The Netherlands. And has slowly worked his way up. We dig into his entire full career from those first short films all the way up to his most recent western film called, “Brimstone.” So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with
Dagen Merrill. One of the things that stood out, to me is? You know, he kinda prepped us his story about get the money for this movie. This is kind of an anomaly, and he’s right. It seemed like a very unusual situation for a company to give out money. Really without having much of anything in place. But, I will say that, on the flip side. In most cases to get a movie made, you need some element, some unusual element, some bit of luck to kind of fall into place. And a lot of the times I think I can tell you from the other films that I’ve done. Some of the bigger films, like, one of the first films I did, “Dish Dogs.”
Looking back on it, it just, it felt like it was an incredible amount of luck, the planets had to align. For that movie to get made. But, you need these sort of unusual situations, you know, that seem to come out of nowhere. And I don’t know that they is a good way to engineer these types of situations. But, I do think, and this is what this Podcast is all about hopefully anyways. But, by putting yourself out there. And just trying to make things happen for yourself. That’s how you’re gonna run into these types of situations. I don’t know that they are something specific, that you can step back and like say, you know, this is what Dagen did. So, let’s try and engineer a similar situation. I don’t know if that’s a good approach? But, I think the sort of general overview is that he was out there trying to meet people. You know, he tried to cut a deal with this company with a bigger film that didn’t work out. So, they had to go with a smaller film. But, just he’s out there pushing things. And trying to make things happen. Meeting with people, just getting into situations where something might happen. And you know, if you’re just a writer. You’re sitting in your room. And I totally get that. Because that’s how I am. I much prefer to sit in my room and write my scripts. And not have to get myself out there. But, if you’re just doing that? You enter a few contests, maybe use my Email and Fax Blast Service, you put it up on “The Black List.” That’s kind of all you’re doing? I just feel like you’re potentially missing a lot of opportunities. And again, I’m not, I don’t know if there is anything specific that we can take away from Dagen’s story. But, I think there is something general, and I think that something general lesson to me. Is that just getting yourself out there, just doing things. You know, I’m trying to make my own feature film. And I can tell you, through my experience of making, “The Pinch.” And a ton of people I met, I learned a ton, and I met a ton of people. Boy, and I will continue to meet, you know, producers and distributors as I go through this process and this is just what this is all about. This is how the business works. This relationship, this business is very much based on relationships. And the more ways you can put yourself into those situations, the more chance you have of getting that sort of lucky break or sort of very unusual situation. It just seems really odd. But if you’re constantly putting yourself out there. Constantly trying to make things happen. Hopefully, eventually, something like this will come up.
Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.