Director Dagen Merrill chats with INFLUX Magazine

by C. Rachel Katz

In this year’s line-up of After Dark’s 8 Films to Die For is Murder in the Dark, a movie born from an experiment in filmmaking. The film was shot over three days in an abandoned medieval city, with no script. Inspired by the party game of the same name, Murder in the Dark is a murder mystery wherein even the actors had no idea who was the killer or what was going to happen from one moment to the next. The film is available now on VOD, giving everyone a chance to assess the results. I caught up with director Dagen Merrill to ask him all about how this experiment played out.

C. Rachel Katz: Where did this idea come from?

Dagen Merrill: The idea was cooked up with my producer Chris Wyatt, but the game—Murder in the Dark—is a game I used to play as a kid. I played one particular game, one late night on a houseboat, there was probably forty or fifty people there and this murder was killing everyone. It came down to me and two other people. It had gone on for hours and hours, and it was me and this other dude and this little thirteen-year-old girl. And we obviously knew it was me or the dude, and we were just screaming at this poor girl to pick the other person. And it turned out she was the killer the whole time. And she won the game! There were fifty people after her, and she won. It was a crazy time. And that stuck with me, so I guess that’s why, why that game and why this story.

CRK: How exactly did the story develop? Like how much direction did you give the actors in terms of story beats and revelations?

DM: It’s very experimental and the fact there’s even a movie that came out of it at all… We didn’t know for sure whether it would work. We had a rough outline, maybe a twenty or thirty page outline of what we wanted the story to be, what kind of beats we saw as important, and what was important for the characters, and ultimately how it would resolve. But we tried this thing where the actors didn’t know what the story was. We three weeks of rehearsals with the them in character so they knew who they were and they knew who they were in relation to each other, and they knew they were going on an adventure, but literally that was all they knew. They didn’t know the genre, they didn’t know what was going to happen.

We did this thing we called the “freeze and whisper” system, where we’d blow this whistle and everyone would freeze and then we’d go around and we’d whisper motivation and stuff in individuals’ ears. Everyone would kinda not know what was going on, but individuals would have emotional motivations. And the question of the experiment was, could we work with individual characters’ emotional motivation to move plot along in a way that interesting and compelling. So that was the experiment.

CRK: I gather from watching the clips that play during the end credits that the cast was a little nervous or uncertain about the project. How much convincing did you have to do to get people to sign on?

DM: It took a tremendous amount of trust. They’d look at me—they don’t know me—they look at me and go, am I going to be safe, am I going to be okay? That was part of my job to get everyone feeling comfortable. As performers they needed to feel comfortable so they could [act]. If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be able to perform. Sometimes we put them in blindfolds. They had no idea what was going to happen next.

There were small successes. Like they’d come around a corner and we’d capture that moment the first time they see a body or run into somebody. For example, the very beginning of the movie where they pick up that hitchhiker, they’ve never met that guy before. They’ve been together for weeks in rehearsal and it’s all very controlled and the first thing we do is they go up the road and there’s this hitchhiker. Only one of the characters knew. The guy who was driving knew—I said to the guy who’s driving, “You’ll see something you need, so investigate it further.” So he pulls up and there’s someone and he’s speaking a different language, and they had no idea who he was. The actors had never met this guy.

CRK: Was it hard to control the secrecy and the mystery?

DM: Yeah, it was. That was a big part of it. And it was actually kind of fun. Part of the success of this was the crew we put together to make this movie. Normally you make a movie and there’s the director and the producer, and there’s the sound guy, and there’s the camera guy, and all these people and everyone kind of has their individual roles. Every single person I brought on board was a filmmaker so they had an idea of how to direct and edit and produce, they knew how to do everything. So we sat down and everyone was responsible for keeping the secret. And I think that’s part of what made it fun. I had seasoned filmmakers who work on big films and do a lot of cool stuff out there, and they’re loosing money just to come and hang out and try this out.

CRK: How did you film this? I noticed two cameras in that little making-of featurette at the end of the movie.

DM: I think at our max point we had six cameras. Generally speaking we had two main units and one smaller unit, and one roving unit, so we had four cameras running all the time.

CRK: How did that work, because you couldn’t rehears in the space. So how did you work out the the blocking?

DM: That was the cool thing about this location. It was maybe thirty-four square miles that we had control of. There was maybe a little bit of, hey don’t step in front of this person, or do this and find your light. And we go lucking with the weather. There were clouds most of the time we shot, we didn’t have to worry too much about lighting. And they could go anywhere and do anything. They had no parameters about where they could be or couldn’t be. If they kind of wandered off and no camera people followed, eventually they’d wander back. And I’d tell them, “Hey buddy, you just walked out of the movie.”

We wanted them to be able to make those decisions [about where to go]. There was very few instances where we put the kibosh on them. Sometimes someone wasn’t a very experienced storyteller—we had a lot of young actors—and they’d say, “Maybe this is an alien,” and we’d be like, no that’s not what we’re doing. But mostly we would go with whatever. There was some crazy stuff that came out over the course of the movie. Some crazy directions it would go.

We filmed it continuously. The movie takes place over three days. We filmed it over three days and filmed it continuously for three days, in order. Without any stops. No cuts, no retakes. Nothing. They just went forward for three days.

CRK: You must have had a phenomenal amount of footage at the end.

DM: It was ridiculous. It was so invigorating to be so freed up from convention. I was like, “I’ll never make any movie any other way because this is so exciting.” And then after a year-and-a-half of post, “I will never do this again; this was the worst idea ever.”

We shot it for three days in a row, and then we went back and shot it in order, again, for three days. So we did it twice. And then we did two days of re-shoots. So we shot the whole thing in eight days. There’s one particular scene where they’re trying to figure out what’s going on, and in the movie it runs seven-and-a-half minutes or something, but on the day when they were doing it took them thirty-five minutes usually, to get through it. We did it four times and we filmed it with five cameras. You can do the math there, thirty-five minutes times four times five, to get a sense of how much footage. And it was never same, no one stood in exactly the same spot, or moved in the same direction, they never said exactly the same lines. It was extremely challenging to put it all together. And we had no idea whether anyone would want to release or watch the movie.

CRK: How do you plan and find support for a project like this? Was it a hard sell?

DM: We did it for a low enough amount, and because of the genre—that’s the great thing about genre film, there’s a certain built-in audience, so you can take bigger risks. This was a huge risk. As it turned out, I found an investor who was very interested the experiment more so than the film. So we actually got it funded through someone who was interested in the artistic side of the experiment. They were thrilled with out it turned out. And it’s a bonus there’s a movie that got released.

CRK: Tell me about the location. You filmed this in Italy at the Sassi di Matera which is a world heritage site.

DM: I didn’t know anything about that, the fact that it was [a UNESCO site]. I found it online somewhere, kind of urban explorer type stuff. I love that kind of thing. This was years ago. I just saw a photo and I thought it was incredible. And then I was in Italy for a film festival and I just got in a car and drove there. I had found it on google maps, but it’s hard sometimes to match the picture to the place. So I saw it and I thought, yeah I should come back here and film. I had to get a producer figure out how we were going to film there. It was challenging, it was southern Italy, and we sort of walked into a political firestorm that we were unaware of. We called before we went and asked if was okay to shoot there, and it was all, “yeah, cool.” And when we got there it was, “no, no you can’t shoot here.”

CRK: In the featurette it looks like not everyone was happy to see you, and you had police protection at one point.

DM: We had negotiations with the mayor, but we didn’t know this mayor was a very divisive mayor. In this town there was a forced evacuation in the 80s because of a huge landslide. It’s a medieval town, and a beautiful city, and everyone was put in these awful fascist-esque, like Franco-era housing, and they never returned [to the city]. And then we come to town, not knowing any of this. Meanwhile people who used to live in these homes—these were family homes—they’re not even allowed to go back up there. So they see us getting permission to go up there to film in their family  homes, and you can understand why they were upset.

But in the end it worked out alright. We were very respectful if they didn’t want us to shoot in a certain area. We made a deal where we started eating all our lunches in the local community. They would make lunches and we’d pay for them. And the food was so good! So it worked out in the end. We were very gentle with the site.

That town is so amazing. We were such a small crew, and we were really pushing the limits up there of what we could do. It was a very dangerous and sensitive area. I felt very privileged to shoot there.

CRK: You do get a sense of the place watching the movie. But you have people falling through floors and out of windows…

DM: I was operating one of the cameras and yeah, it’s a very dramatic place. And there were lots of areas that we very dangerous, so we stayed away of them. One of our rules was no running. Normally in these kinds of movies people run, but there was no running. So we did all the running and stunts as part of the final few days when it was much more controlled.

CRK: Sounds like you could maybe make a documentary from some of the footage.

DMWe actually had a documentary crew that shot the whole thing. That’s where those clips at the end came from. I’m glad we were able to put some of that in the credits to give people the idea of [what we were doing]. We got probably a hundred hours of documentary footage.

CRK: Can you talk about any upcoming projects? Anything in the works?

DMSince then I’ve shot two movies, which I’m now finishing the post. One of them is called Deep Burial and it’s a sci-fi. It was some very intense shooting. I guess I like this kind of thing. We shot it in an underground nuclear missile silo. It’s a titan 2 silo—the biggest one that was built—and it’s abandoned. And so we just went and shot the whole thing six floors underground. Shot around this 130′ pit where they used to keep these huge missiles. … There’s this kind of anti-nulcear theme that goes through [the movie]. It was weird shooting this film and shooting it in this relic of the cold war.

Dominic Monaghan is in it, and Sarah Habel, and Tom Sizemore. It’s a very small thriller shot in this amazing location. And it looks amazing. It’s much more put-together than Murder in the Dark. I’m really excited about it. We just finished it.

CRK: Which to you prefer? Experimental filmmaking or the more traditional approach?

DMI like independent filmmaking. I shot one feature for a studio, and I just didn’t like the process. I like having a lot of control, I like giving actors a lot of freedom. I like going places that you can’t get to, or tell stories you can’t tell [with studios]. I think experimental, if it’s done for a reason, is ? If I do something like that again, I’ll do it different. I would probably use more experienced actors, and I would probably ask for seven times more money.

It was so fun to shoot. It was such a blast. I’m glad the movie is enjoyable as a movie. I mean, you don’t have any idea how it’s put together. But I do think if people take the time to really watch the movie you’ll get a sense of how it was made. It’s really special. As an experiment it really stands out for me. Maybe there will be a documentary. Who knows?

CRK: Thank you, Dagen.