For a project virtually built and made on Zoom, there’s no more fitting name for the 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 (Thesilenceofthelambs) plays Finley Hart, an unconventional genius behind a global data mining program. When Hart suddenly dies, five strangers are digitally called upon to continue Hart’s work, which is an initiative that involves time travel. However, outside forces begin to hunt down and harm each of the five, forcing the group to decide to complete the mission at the risk of their own lives.
Directed by Rick Dugdale, Zero contact is billed as the “world’s premier feature film NFT event”. The film can be purchased as NFT through Vuele, a platform specializing in the collection and exchange of NFTs of feature films and their subsequent content. In a chat with Digital Trends, Dugdale opened up about the challenges of directing on Zoom, how he convinced Anthony Hopkins to join the cast, filming part of the sequel in Antarctica, and what the future holds. reserve to Vuele 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 film?
Rick Dugdale: I think we are in a pandemic 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 doing kind of a workshop on this idea with a brilliant writer, Cam Cannon, who works with me, and we had this idea that he ran with. Ten days later, we had a script. [Cam is] a very fast writer so we weren’t necessarily surprised that it was so fast. But you read it and everyone who read it said, “Well, wait a second. It actually works. And we started doing a little workshop, and then, you know, we started assembling the cast. From there, we just had to convince people that it wasn’t going to be a waste of time. And we went there.
Speaking of convincing people, how did you convince Anthony Hopkins to get involved in this project?
This led to, “Look. You know nobody’s really making movies right now. And Anthony says, “I don’t make movies. I won’t leave my couch until there’s a vaccine. I said, “Well, maybe you don’t have to go too far.” I had the chance to work with him [before], so I knew what it was going to take for his team to realize that this is actually a real movie. So we presented them with kind of a beat-by-beat timeline – getting equipment into the house, how we film it. He said, “Look. I’ve done a lot of movies in my career, but I certainly haven’t done a movie like this. so let’s go. But having that relationship with him, I think, gave him confidence that we weren’t going to waste his time.
You’ve been producing movies for two decades, but Zero touch is the first film you made. What made you decide to make this film?
First, when it came together, 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. It was kind of the origin story. Who yes, someone can go running with this idea [laughing]. But that was the origin. While he was writing the script, I started saying to Cam, “Hey, let’s [in] a Japanese character because TJ [Kayama] is a friend of ours. He can film this part. Let’s get Veronica Ferres. She can play that role. She’s a friend in Germany.
All of a sudden we get a script and a production plan. My colleague, Peter Toumasis, says, “Okay, so who’s going to lead?” And I said, “Well, I guess that’s me.” We’re going to run it from a war room. Participating in its conceptualization was a story that interested me. Cam and I put it together using, say, ancient astronaut theory and that’s where it can go. So this is something that, personally, interests me. It’s always fascinated me, so it made sense to say, “Okay, that’s it.
Logistically, you tell the actors that they now have to pay attention to camera angles, lighting and sound. Plus, you run everything on Zoom. How was this process? What challenges did you face?
They [the actors] have a lot more respect for producers now, which is great. We used Zoom as a device to stand on set. It wasn’t a Zoom movie, was it? There is real material. So if the Wi-Fi signal goes down, we can’t see or hear the performance, but they probably recorded it in the camera. So we had to say, “Hey, can we get an on-camera readout? And by the way, you have to do the reading yourself and tell us if you like the plan. We had a great announcement [assistant director], and we treated the decor as real decor because, from a psychological point of view, you needed comfort. I think, personally, I needed everyone to know that it was worth it.
So we had an AD. We had a production designer on set. We had an editor on set, which isn’t totally common for every scene you shoot. But the DA, Ardy Carlson, was directing it and saying, “OK, guys, are you ready? Photos in place. OK, so let’s start the sound. Oh wait, let’s close the curtain. You have a figure that is not going to work. I have the DP [director of photography], Ed Lukas, calling shots for framing, which means the actors change the frame themselves and all sorts of things. But then it’s like we’re rolling the sound. The actor was spinning and pressing the camera button. [He would say] “How are you, Alex?” All right, let’s do this. Then we would read lines in front of him and he would play in front of me or the AD. The more you treated it like real decor, then [you get] the real result, the real performance.
A unique aspect of the film is the NFT side of that. Zero touch is an NFT feature film via Vuele. Can you explain what Vuele is and what it means when someone buys it through Vuele?
Vuele is the very first NFT movie distribution company in the world to perform movie distribution using NFT, which is very different from a traditional distribution strategy. It is more of a fan engagement, collection and resale tool using NFTs. With Vuele, we would also do collectibles related to the films it releases. But it’s a unique way for us to engage the fanbase that’s not the same consumer, right? Being able to partner with Lionsgate just sends the message to Hollywood that this is something new. It’s a source of income that didn’t exist in Hollywood.
So these are two totally different audiences right now. People who have the NFT will have all kinds of components added to it and dropped. It’s like getting the Metallica concert t-shirt. There’s something to go home with, a utility. It’s different. I think the traditional distribution strategies that are happening now are not filled with usefulness. 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, just as streaming became a popular thing 10 years ago. It’s no different than that.
Now for someone who may not even own NFT or even understand them all, what will the public get if they buy Zero touch by Vuele?
I mean it’s exclusive access. It was released previously, and there are different versions of the movie that were accessible. Speaking for Vuele, each movie will have different components like this: exclusive early access and long utility lists. In the first 11 versions of the film, for example, if you bought it on Vuele, inside your NFT you have to shoot yourself in the film. Once we went with a studio like Lionsgate, you couldn’t make 2 million copies of the movie from people who bought the 2 million [copies], so it would be impossible. But in this particular case, Zero contact, you get to play a character in the movie. Your version of the movie is you opposite Anthony Hopkins. This is unheard of in Hollywood. It is one of many utility components.
With the idea of putting someone in a movie, anyone can be an actor now.
Even if it’s a poor performance, it’s still a cool NFT to have [laughes]. I think that’s all. The sky is the limit with inclusions and utility components that you can have as NFTs. Again, a different audience, but a different way of releasing a film.
Zero contact gets two sequels, and you just shot part of the first sequel in Antarctica. How did it happen? Why shoot in Antarctica?
I have long had a passion for doing this. We had worked on a show at one point about Antarctica because we knew a lot about it. But I also realized that once there, everything we did for years, filming in Antarctica and filming 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, although driven by a titan of technology, tough businesses, and time travel, you’ll begin to understand how he developed time travel technology. It’s like quantum physics and the lines of the Earth’s power grid. This is where we are going with this universe.
It starts with the points of the power grid which would include the North and South poles. Could we shoot this in Montana? Sure. But as a producer, if you put the work into it, you realize that it’s not much more expensive to go to those places than to cheat in the backlot in Los Angeles or in a studio in Canada. That’s kind of how we saw it. Take the audience to those places they’ve never been before for the “wow factor”. On top of that, the emotional impact of the talent performing there was incredible. We would have shot it in green screen, which we did in Antarctica, and you wouldn’t have had the same performance.
How are you going to go back to Antarctica for the third film? Is space a possibility? A volcano?
I don’t want to reveal it, but we’ll talk about it. We do some pretty special things and keep innovating. That’s really what it’s all about. Let’s make life interesting. And so in these movies, the script is part Indiana Jones, part Creation/cloud atlas. Being in a time travel genre, there are endless possibilities of where to take this scenario from. Let’s say if we could capture footage on Mars, that would be pretty cool. So we’ll review that.
Zero contact is in theaters, digital and on demand from May 27, 2022.