Risk On: Chloe Domont on Fair Play
With credits on high-profile TV series like Suits, Star Trek: Discovery and Billions, writer-director Chloe Domont had experiences in the entertainment industry where she felt like she had to adapt to the boys club.
Those experiences, as well as the fear of all she could lose if she didn’t play along, were front of mind when she was crafting Fair Play, an intense, high-stakes and increasingly nerve-wracking relationship and workplace drama with notes of ’90s erotic thrillers. But in no way did Domont want to use the film industry as a backdrop for her masterful feature directorial debut. “That would have been boring for me,” Domont said on Zoom one August afternoon, explaining, “I wanted to explore new territory.”
Once she had the film’s core relationship dynamics—between Phoebe Dynevor’s Emily and Alden Ehrenreich’s Luke as two soon-to-be-wed workaholics—in place, she set her eyes on the Wall Street finance world as the setting, an industry just as demanding and male-dominated as her own. From there, the beats of the story around gender dynamics, male ego and womanly survival solidified, resulting in a Sundance sensation that sold to Netflix for $20 million.
Below, Domont breaks down her film’s themes, design details, tricky intimacy scenes and her desire to make films that dwell in moral gray areas. The film enters limited theatrical release on September 29 before joining the Netflix platform on October 13.
Filmmaker: Fair Play is set in a very specific kind of workplace, with a lot of technical jargon from the finance world. Tell me about integrating details about that world with your character arcs.
Domont: The real intention for the film was, I wanted to make a thriller about gender power dynamics within a relationship. So, I mapped that story and arc out first. I landed on finance as a backdrop for a number of reasons: I had a bunch of friends in that world, and their experiences, given the highs and lows that you experience on any given day, were very similar to my experiences in film and TV. I felt like I could emotionally relate to being in that environment, even though I knew nothing about finance. From there, it was really just studying for a math test or learning a new language—that was the easy part. The harder part was definitely the emotional complexities.
Filmmaker: I literally have a question written down here: “Did any of your experiences as a woman in the film industry inform some of the film’s dynamics?” And you just answered yes, so let’s open that up. A lot seems to be changing in the film industry, but it still feels painfully male-driven.
Domont: Absolutely. In many ways, [things in this film] are like what women have to do to keep a seat at the table or even get to the table. What I was trying to accomplish was to [show] all the ways in which Emily has to play ugly to survive in that workplace with those kinds of men, and also how she has to play ugly to survive at home. There were many times on certain shows where I felt like if I didn’t participate [in] some degrading joke I wouldn’t be considered cool, and I would lose my seat in some ways.
Filmmaker: In that sense, the way you crafted Emily is really fascinating to me. She is always reacting to signals and recalibrating herself. It seemed like a very tricky way to write a character, which makes her all the more believable and relatable.
Domont: My intention with that really came with the reason I wanted to make this film. Over many points in my life, I [experienced] that feeling when my success didn’t feel like a win. It felt like a loss because I knew that this professional accomplishment would cost me something on a personal level in the relationship I was in. That duality, and the irony of that, is something that I felt on a very deep, painful level and that drew me to making this film. As a society, we’re not equipped to face these kinds of dynamics because we don’t know how to talk about [them]. We can’t even admit that that’s what’s really going on. We [in the film industry] are in progressive cities for the most part, or we’re dating progressive men, but all these [dynamics] are under the surface. So, yeah, it is a lot about her reacting to things and trying to manage it all.
Filmmaker: One of my favorite moments in the movie represents this. After closing on a big win, Emily attempts to text “My treat” to Luke about a celebratory dinner. Then, she deletes it and inserts something playfully sexual to her wording instead to make her newfound power more palatable to him.
Domont: Totally. I feel like a lot of women can relate to having to undermine themselves in certain ways to try to avoid the rage, or just the tension, of an insecure man—trying to protect the male ego because we all know the disappointment, and sometimes destruction, that a wounded male ego can have on relationships. We try to protect it at all costs, even at our own.
Filmmaker: I responded to the look of Fair Play as much as its themes. There is such a New York City grit to it—in certain ways, it reminded me of a brand of 1970s cinema, favoring low lighting and neons. It’s a visual palette that goes so well with the thriller genre.
Domont: I wanted the city to start to feel like as much of an antagonist as the characters become to each other. I feel like New York City is the worst place to be when you’re experiencing any kind of distress, so I wanted to shoot the city in a way that felt like it was closing in on them and almost eating them alive at certain points. When the subway comes abruptly throughout the film, I wanted to shoot it in a way that would feel abrasive. The sound design obviously helped with that a lot, too.
In general, we definitely wanted to lean into the look and feel of the thriller genre. In a way, the camera was supposed to be a reflection of their worst fears. We had these long shots that were slowly pushing in on them or coming around the characters and lingering before then racking to one of them in the foreground or background. For me, those push-in shots [were] almost like this impending doom that the characters feel is coming for them, but they refuse to accept and face it.
Filmmaker: Did you find any inspiration in certain films that you repeatedly gravitate toward, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker?
Domont: I want to make films that I want to see as an audience member. I like to be taken on a ride. I like to be shocked. I like to be mortified. I like to be on the edge of my seat. I like films that explore provocative shades of gray that aren’t black and white, where there aren’t clear heroes or villains, films that push the envelope. That’s exactly what I aspired to do with this film: make a film that I want to see as an audience member. To be honest, I feel a little bit bored with the state of cinema in certain ways because I feel like I [used to] see a lot of these films, but not as [many] of late, so I’m thirsty to really push the envelope.
Filmmaker: Do you mean you find today’s cinema a little prescriptive morally? As in, “Here is the right thing, here is the wrong thing,” and there is not so much dwelling on that gray area that you mentioned?
Domont: I think people are more and more afraid to offend, and I think that people forget that art is supposed to provoke and create conversation and debate, to hold up a mirror that people don’t necessarily want to look into. To me, that’s what art is, and I think that we all have to do better in trying to stay true to that.
Filmmaker: Is there a specific film you find yourself going back to that does the gray area so well? Something you just keep rewatching?
Domont: Network. That’s probably my number one favorite movie of all time. It doesn’t get better than that.
Filmmaker: It really doesn’t. Those gray areas were also popular in erotic thrillers, and I couldn’t help but think of the erotic thrillers of the ’90s when I first watched Fair Play.
Domont: It’s interesting. [Within] a thriller about power dynamics in a relationship, there are definitely a lot of crossovers to the psychological thriller, to the erotic thriller and to just a relationship drama. But I strongly believe that as a new filmmaker, our job is to break from conventions and twist and manipulate and abuse genre to serve stories that we have to tell right now. Definitely, you’ll feel undercurrents, at times, of the erotic thriller genre, and you’ll feel undercurrents of just a psychological thriller. But for me, ultimately, this is a movie you can’t really put a label on.
Filmmaker: What were some of your conversations with your leads, Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, regarding the tricky, high-stakes nature of their characters’ dynamics?
Domont: They really understood the script. Our rehearsal period was incredibly helpful. We had two weeks of rehearsal leading up to the shoot, and that was a way for us to bond [and] to rehearse like 80 percent of the scenes. That period allowed us to work out any little kinks with the script and try new things and play, then just really be very intentional going into day one of shooting. But they didn’t need much guidance in terms of where the story was going. They were both really excited to dive into it headfirst.
Filmmaker: What was your approach to sex scenes, especially the very challenging one that happens during their engagement party, which starts from an angry but consensual place and, not to give spoilers, then turns violent? Did you have an intimacy coordinator?
Domont: We actually had an intimacy coordinator for the whole shoot, just given the nature of the film. Even in rehearsals, we rehearsed with an intimacy coordinator. We basically treated and shot a lot of those scenes in two parts. So, we would shoot the performance side and just focus on the performance. Then, the parts that were more physical, we would treat those like a stunt. It really freed up the actors so that they could act without thinking where their head needed to be [for the more physical scenes] because that would take them out of the scene. I think [that approach] was helpful for all the departments. We didn’t do that many takes of the physical violence parts. We would walk through it [at] half speed with everyone there, with our stunt team, with our intimacy coordinator, then do maybe two takes. I am a director who likes to do a lot of takes, but that was something that we didn’t do multiple takes of. Once we got it, we just moved on.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk more specifically about the interiors and Steve Summersgill’s production design, which provides a space for the choreography and movements. I read that the interiors were all shot abroad.
Domont: Yes, we shot almost all the interiors in Eastern Europe, and we built them all on stage, [including] the bathrooms and the two main sets: the office and the apartment. We even built the dressing room that she goes into when she’s looking for a shirt. It was great because it allowed us to build the space exactly as I wanted to have it, and we’d have the freedom to shoot it how we want without being confined to small location spaces. I love shooting on stage because I love the control. I had a very specific vision for how all these spaces would look, so I would’ve found it more challenging to try to find these spaces with existing locations and all the problems and headaches that come with shooting on location. I’m very much old-fashioned in that way. I am a stage girl.
We shot all the exteriors in New York at the end. It’s magical when it happens, but it’s also a nightmare where you have no control over anything. And even when you have a lockdown, there are still people entering your shots, and now it’s even more challenging as people have masks on. You have someone walking into your shot—and you’ve seen the film, it’s not a cut-y movie. The visual direction for the film [is] long takes slowly pushing in or pulling out or coming around. So, it’s like you get this take and you get the performance and the camera continues to pan. Then, someone walks into your shot in a gorilla outfit, and you’re like, “Fuck, we have to do it again.”
Filmmaker: OK, I have to ask, did that really happen? Somebody with a gorilla outfit walked into a shot?
Domont: [Laughs] Not a gorilla outfit, but there was a bus that pulled up and everyone was in a tiger costume or something ridiculous. That’s New York. It’s like a bus pulls up with people dressed as unicorns and you’re just like, “Where did this bus full of unicorn people come from? It completely ruined this perfect take.” But, when you do get the shot, there’s nothing better. When all the stars finally align on take 11 when you’re losing light, there’s nothing better than that feeling of getting it. You feel like you’ve cheated the system in some way.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the couple’s apartment as a key set. I was intrigued by the way you designed it. Both of these people are, of course, making a lot of money. And yet, their home felt like an afterthought to them. Also, it was quite claustrophobic atmospherically.
Domont: [Because] the relationship is a secret, it wouldn’t have made sense that they would’ve lived somewhere where they would run into all their finance bros. They wouldn’t be living in Chelsea or Midtown. They’re also younger. For me, Chinatown just made sense. I also wanted the texture to oppose the all-glass Midtown feel with something a little bit grittier. And shooting in Chinatown is super cinematic. All of that factored into the decision of setting the apartment there.
In terms of their actual apartment, these are workaholics. All they think about is work. Their apartment, their home life, is all an afterthought. They don’t spend much time in it. They work all day and drink all night, and they come home and sleep for three hours and do it all again the next day. But, in terms of the layout of the apartment, it was very important to me that the space could start to feel like the world is closing in on them. It was important that we had these walls that we could move in slowly over the course of the film, and that’s what we started to do. The long hallway between the living room and the bedroom—we started to bring those walls in 10 percent from the second act on as the cracks are forming in the relationship and things start to implode. We brought in 10 percent each scene that we were back in there. I never wanted the audience to see or be able to know, but you just start to feel the claustrophobia a little bit more as things close in on them.
Filmmaker: In addition to control, what were some of the other benefits of shooting the interiors on stage in Eastern Europe? I would imagine cost was a factor.
Domont: Definitely. It just allowed us to put more money on the screen. Shoot days were more important to me than anything, so I was able to have more shoot days over there. But also, my producers who had shot Glass Onion did a lot of the interiors of Glass Onion over there. So, they had such a great experience working with that crew, and they had built an infrastructure there we could slide into right after they were finished.
Filmmaker: We should mention the brilliant contemporary costume design of Kate Forbes, too. Especially Emily’s professional dress sense that Luke unfairly calls “cupcake.” She has some traditional femininity in her clothes, some satin and perhaps a little frill on shirts. But she’s still powerfully professional.
Domont: My intention with that “cupcake” scene was to underline that the margin of error for women is so small. That little bit of frill or ruffle is her way of holding onto her femininity in this very male-dominated space. That was always a question: “How cupcake-y do we want to go?” With the costume designer, we had a whole display of super cupcake-y dresses. But if we were to go too cupcake-y, then it would almost give [Luke] a point. We can’t give him too much of a point, but there also has to be a little trace of it there to show that the margin of error is really that small. More important, that midpoint is the no-turning-back point in the film. That’s the first time Luke uses his insecurities as a weapon against her by undermining her appearance with this passive-aggressive comment about her wardrobe. Up until then, he’s just been internalizing it and dealing with it and stewing in it. But that’s the first time that he actually bites back at her, and you see that insecurity come out in a poisonous way.
Filmmaker: He is such a brilliantly crafted character, a modern man who’s all like, “Congratulations, I support you,” at first. But then, not so much. I’m wondering, what were some of the most interesting reads you got on him from the audience. In your head, how much sympathy were you allowing him to have?
Domont: I was trying to give as much [empathy] as possible because I think that that’s the more interesting version of the film. No one is going to walk out of this movie feeling the same way about him. Everyone’s going to have a completely different perspective on him. There are people [who] will walk out thinking that he’s a villain from day one. There are people [going] back and forth on him. Then, there are people [who] walk out thinking that they’re both villains and that they deserve each other.
Filmmaker: I heard that take and couldn’t get on with it. I was like, no. She was trying to stay afloat by reacting the best way she could. Whereas he… I didn’t think of him as a villain at first, but later on, I did.
Domont: I don’t personally blame Luke for having the feelings that he has. I don’t think it’s his fault for having these feelings. He’s struggling with a lot of things that he doesn’t know how to deal with, which I feel like a lot of men, in many ways, struggle with because there’s never been a platform for men to talk about their feelings or about things that upset or challenge them. This is a systemic societal problem. But, I do think what he ends up doing with those feelings, at a certain point in the movie, is where he has to take accountability. And he still doesn’t. It’s unfortunate and it’s tragic, but there is a clear line in the sand that he crosses that he shouldn’t have crossed. And when he does, it opens up a can of violence on a whole other level.
Filmmaker: So glad you’ve just differentiated having those feelings and choosing what to do with them.
Domont: The problem is, society only puts out one image of masculinity. As a society, we raise boys to believe that masculinity is an identity when it’s not. It’s an energy. There’s only ever been one small box for how we think men should be in the world, and we try to make men feel like they have to fit into this box and they have to succeed, and that success is a zero-sum game in many ways. As a society, we’re setting men up for failure. That’s a lot of what Luke is struggling with—this idea that if he’s not succeeding, he’s a small man or a weak man. That’s something that he doesn’t know how to deal with.
Filmmaker: The last thing I want to ask about is Fair Play’s precise economy. So often, I see debuts that are almostthere. But this one feels so fully and confidently executed start to finish, with no excess. How do you make sure you are achieving that level of economy on the page and behind the camera?
Domont: Thank you. My approach is psychotic obsession. It serves my work, but it doesn’t serve my sanity, so I’m working on that. I’ve just been studying. I’ve been working on this and trying to hone the craft for as long as I can remember, since I was probably 18 years old. [I have] a complete dedication to intention, to every choice. And I think people forget that anything within the frame, there has to be a reason for it; everything should be a choice, and there should be a reason for that choice that should speak to the emotional states of the characters or the story or the tone and the tension in some way. That’s what excites me about filmmaking: All those things are there for a reason, and those decisions are made for a reason. That’s the essence of filmmaking that excites me.
Filmmaker: It sounds like you’re the kind of filmmaker who can kill her darlings: if something doesn’t feel necessary, get rid of it. Or do you sometimes have a hard time doing that?
Domont: The answer is yes and no. If it’s not working, I’m cold with it. I’m like, “All right, it’s done.” And to be honest, it’s almost in the edit sometimes. When I lived with scenes enough in my director’s cut, I would feel like, “OK, I lived with it for three weeks. Now I know it’s not going to make it in the life of the movie, but I had time with it in a way that satisfied me.” But, if I know ultimately it doesn’t belong in the final delivery, I’m okay with that. [For Fair Play,] I wanted to shape this thing like a bullet. So, if I had to lose some babies, then I had to. But at times, I felt like there was a lot of blood on the floor.