Erotic as some may find Fair Play, writer-director Chloe Domont never explicitly set out to make an erotic thriller. Still, even the movie's executive producer, Oscar nominee Rian Johnson, hailed it as "the kind of twisted erotic thriller for grown-ups that we all need more of." Others, however, have argued it is actually more of a romantic drama, and others still claim it's best classified as a workplace melodrama.
"I've always said this is a thriller about power dynamics within a relationship," Domont say for her part. "It definitely has crossovers into the erotic thriller genre. It has crossovers into the psychological thriller genre. It has crossovers to a relationship drama. But I never set out to make a film that stays within the confines of one particular genre."
Fair Play centers on ambitious financial analysts Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who are happily engaged to be married — although no one at the high-power hedge fund where they both work knows it, as their relationship is a violation of company police. But when she is promoted over him, dynamics of money, gender and power are completely upended, and their relationship is pushed to the brink.
"As new filmmakers, our job is to twist genre," says the first-time filmmaker. "As a new voice, you want to break that to some degree to serve a story that you need to tell. And for me, it was always about using the genre to shine a light on an emotional terror that I think we all experience in some way. The problem is that this emotional terror has become very normalized, and what I was trying to do with this movie is say, 'These things are not normal. They're terrorizing on many levels.'"
A.frame: There is a lot at play in this movie. What was the first kernel of an idea that eventually became Fair Play?
I think it was a reckoning of sorts with experiences I had in the past. It was this feeling I was having in a certain period of my life. My career started to take off, and it was this feeling that my success didn't feel like a total win — it felt like a loss on some level. And it was because of the relationships I was in. These relationships with men who, on the one hand, adored me for my ambition, adored me for what I was trying to do, adored me for my talent, but there was still this unspoken feeling that me being big made them feel small. So, I started to undermine myself in little ways to try and protect them and protect the relationships, and it was something that I normalized for years in different relationships.
And I think after years of experiencing this on different levels, it made me realize how much hold these ingrained dynamics still have over us. But the bigger thing for me was, why is this some unspoken off-limits thing that we can't talk about? Why is it something that's just pushed down? Neither party in any of the relationships was able to acknowledge it. I didn't even want to acknowledge it, because I felt like, what would that say about me and my choice of partner? If I were to acknowledge that I was with someone who was threatened by me, I felt like it was a poor reflection of me. Because I'm in a progressive city, and I'm with a progressive man, and it's like, we're beyond this, right? It just got to a point where I was just like, I need to talk about it, because it's driving me f**king nuts. And so, I sat down and I put it on paper, and I just went bats**t crazy with it, because why not?
Was it always going to be set in the world of hedge fund, or did you venture down any other roads of where this could be taking place? Was there ever a version that was even more autobiographical, that you considered setting in Hollywood? We're in this post-#MeToo, post-gender-reckoning Hollywood, but I'm sure there's still plenty of men threatened by an ambitious female filmmaker.
I gravitated towards the finance world pretty quickly, and then I landed on the hedge fund sector because I just feel like very few women make their way up in that world. It was important to me to show what she has to do to keep her seat at the table, to stay in the boys' club — how in many ways she has to play ugly to survive. That was interesting to me. I also felt like it was something that I could relate to in many ways, just that kind of a high stakes work environment. I don't think my experience in TV feels so dissimilar than what it would be to work in finance. There's a lot of money on the table if you don't make your day, and on one day, it's like you make your day and you're a hero, and on the next day you don't make your day and you're a piece of s**t. I think that's very similar to how people feel in finance. One day, they make a lot of money for the firm, the next day they could lose it all. It's what those high highs and low lows do to a person and do to a relationship, and how the toxicity of that feeds into the toxicity of a relationship.
How did Phoebe and Alden come to the project? Was this a case of you thinking of them for the roles and sending out the script, or did you find them through a more traditional casting process?
I was drawn to Phoebe. She had a lot of buzz coming off of Bridgerton, and I actually hadn't seen the show, but I was excited by her name. Because the character of Emily is a rising star in the world of finance, and I was looking for a rising star. That was much more exciting to me than someone who was already established in the feature space, and then I honed in on her performance and I felt like there was a warmth and a vulnerability but also fierceness. I could just tell she was an incredibly strong actor, and she was super dialed in and super present, and the way that distress reads in her eyes I felt like was really an important characteristic for Emily. So, once I saw Bridgerton, I sent the script to her and we met, and in the meeting, I knew she was my Emily.
And then Alden, I'd been a fan of his for a while. I loved him in Hail, Caesar! and was excited when he responded to the script. And meeting him, it was very clear he's a director's actor. He's a theater actor, and I think theater actors, they're all about the craft. They dive head first into the material. And I knew that he was going to be able to bring a sense of humanity to the role and a duality of mixed emotions in a way that would give this character a lot more depth and a lot more empathy.
When chemistry is as essential to a movie as it is to this one, do you test it? Did you do a proper chemistry test?
I mean, we did get them in the same room before shooting, but they were already cast. I don't know. I just knew that they would work. But it is true: You either have chemistry or you don't. You can build up chemistry if it's already there, but you can't create it if it's not. Fortunately, the chemistry was instant. It was electric, I would say, from the beginning. And the couple of scenes that we shot early on were some of the more loving scenes, because technically, they're the lighter scenes of the film, and there weren't that many light scenes in the movie. So, we started with shooting those, which arguably should have maybe been shot towards the end, because they would've gone through something together and there would've been more of that bond. But I'm really happy with the order in which we shot the film. We shot that shower scene pretty early on, and I knew the way he looked at her and the way she looked at him that I had a movie.
[The remainder of the conversation features spoilers for the ending of the movie.]
And the movie does go to much more demanding places. On those most demanding days, what did you need from Phoebe and Alden and what did you feel they needed from you in order to get through the day and get the performances you needed?
I would say the most demanding scene was the final scene of the movie. That was a tricky scene, because it's a long scene. It involves stunts and special effects, and it's really heavy on performance. So, going into that scene, what they needed from me was a way to shoot it where it wouldn't interrupt the performance, where they could just fly through it and build up to it, because if you break it up with too many setups, then you're breaking up them getting into it. So, we brought a crane in to be able to track with them uninterrupted, to track with her as she comes into the apartment and then she picks up the knife and then she moves towards him. I think that really allowed her to unleash all of what she brings without a start and stop system. I think that was I think invaluable for the day. And also we rehearsed what I needed from them and they needed from me. We needed to rehearse the beats to make sure we knew what we were going into, because it was such a long scene, we knew it would take all day, and if we didn't rehearse this ahead of time, we wouldn't have made the day.
At Sundance, you said you "wanted to be as ruthless with the execution of this as the nature of the subject matter itself." What did that ruthlessness look like for you?
Just ugly. I wanted to show this on the ugliest level. To me, that meant where it goes in the last act, with the way that he reclaims power from her in the bathroom through physical dominance, and the way that she reclaims power from him. Just showing how ugly it can get. But at the same time, that also meant being uncompromising with the direction of it and the filmmaking. I wanted to shape this film like a bullet, and I wanted it to pierce the audience. Every choice was about how f**king slick and sharp it could be.
This is your feature debut. As prepared as you were, as much experience as you had directing TV, what is something you could only learn from directing your first movie?
Oh, man. TV is so in and out. You only have four days in the edit, and it moves at such a fast pace, and then that's it. A movie, you live with it for so much longer, and because of that, you lose perspective. I would say the biggest thing I learned was what to do when I lose perspective, and what to do is to walk away. Or if you're in the edit and you're losing perspective, focus on a different part of the movie. Just come back to it. Because the biggest thing for me is I started to question myself at times, because I was losing perspective. I kept wanting to push the scene and push the scene and push the scene, and I was reminded by my producers and by the people that I trust that it was there, and I didn't have to push it. It's only because I was numb to what was happening that I felt like it wasn't there, and now that I know that, I can trust myself more going into the next one.
By John Boone