Consider this: you’ve made an acclaimed “Star Wars” sequel, reinvigorated the whodunit genre, scored an Oscar nomination and spawned an unlikely franchise. What do you do next? If you’re Rian Johnson, you turn around and offer a helping hand to young filmmakers coming up behind you, nurturing one of the buzziest movies of the fall in the process: “Fair Play.”
Writer/director Chloe Domont’s debut feature, a steamy erotic thriller about the power dynamics between two young people (Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) who both work as financial analysts for the same cutthroat hedge fund, is an unmitigated success. After a bidding war at Sundance, the film was snatched up by Netflix for a cool $20 million, and it’s now currently one of the most-watched new titles on the platform following its release earlier this month.
Johnson and Bergman met in 2002. “I had been trying to get my first movie ‘Brick’ made for eight years and failing at it,” Johnson told TheWrap. Then he crossed paths with Bergman, who Johnson said, “took pity on me and agreed to produce it.” Together, they launched T-Street in 2019.
It is also the first film made through the Emerging Filmmaker Program at T-Street, the production company formed by “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Knives Out” filmmaker Rian Johnson and his producing partner Ram Bergman. And that same incubator program formed in conjunction with Brye Adler and Jonathan Golfman of MRC, has also now produced one of the buzziest films out of the Toronto International Film Festival, “American Fiction.”
As far as the ethos of T-Street goes, Bergman said, it’s about being able to “work with good people that we think are talented and singular and just support them and guide them and just have fun making it.” This feels quaint by today’s standards, with production shingles talking about interconnected storytelling and the value of consumer-facing IP. “We’re not trying to build an empire,” Bergman added.
But what they are trying to do is encourage young filmmakers like Domont.
Building a Support System
For years, Bergman and Johnson had, as the “Looper” filmmaker said, “been very content with just making our own stuff.” He’d been wary of wanting to build “some bigger thing,” as he’d seen how that ambition can “swallow you.” “But the notion of this actually being something where we can support people but also learn from them. That was exciting for me,” Johnson — who is currently working on a third “Knives Out” movie for Netflix and a second season of the Peacock series “Poker Face” — told TheWrap.
“I think we’re definitely looking for voices and filmmakers that punch above their weight budgetarily and are open-minded to more popular storytelling,” T-Street producer Ben LeClair said. “One of the only rules at T-Street is that we never do anything down the middle.”
And “Fair Play,” a modern twist on the erotic thriller genre that tackles gender dynamics and sexual politics head-on, is anything but down the middle.
Dynevor and Ehrenreich play Emily and Luke, two bright, young professionals jockeying for career advancement at a vicious hedge fund in Manhattan, run by a gnomish Eddie Marsan. When the promotion Luke thinks he is going to get instead goes to Emily, the applecart is upended and the equilibrium of their relationship (intellectually, economically, sexually) becomes more and more fraught. This leads to one of the more unforgettable climaxes in recent memory, one that will have every couple who watches the movie arguing long after the credits have rolled.
With the Emerging Filmmaker Program, Bergman said the goal was to find first-time filmmakers with promise that they could guide through their debut feature and beyond.
“I just feel super grateful that for my first film, I got to make it with the right people and do it the right way. I feel like that rarely happens,” Domont said. “They understood the kind of movie I was making, and they were behind my vision from day one.”
Johnson was dazzled from the script stage. “If you read a script that’s written by somebody that has a solid storytelling sense, immediately you feel like you’re in good hands, you recognize it,” Johnson said.
In terms of making the movie, Bergman wanted to ensure that there were producers on each project from the incubator program “24/7, from the first day that we start working all the way until the movie comes out.” He said that oftentimes a producer is involved in development but not the production, or that they are flitting between different sets for different movies without being focused on one project all the way through. Johnson and Bergman would advise throughout but T-Street producers Leopold Hughes and LeClair were on hand for the whole process.
The shoot took place during the height of COVID-19 and in, of all places, Serbia (standing in for New York City) “in the heart of winter.” “That had its own challenges,” LeClair said.
Heating Up Sundance
At the time that Domont was making “Fair Play,” Johnson was working on “Glass Onion,” his follow-up to “Knives Out,” but was still clued into how “Fair Play” was turning out. “I just kept hearing reports that, wow, Chloe really is locked in and knows what she wants. And then when I saw the first cut, I think similar to reading the script, it’s just right there on the screen. I was just like, Oh, this is a filmmaker.”
There seems to be a kinship in Domont’s willingness to resurrect a genre that you don’t hear so much about these days, the erotic thriller, in the same way that Johnson brought back the whodunit mystery with “Knives Out.” Not that “Fair Play” is explicitly an erotic thriller.
“I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics within a relationship, it just so happens to be highly sexual,” Domont said. “There are definitely crossovers to the erotic thriller genre. There are crossovers to the psychological thriller genre or crossovers just to relationship drama. But I feel like our jobs as new filmmakers is to twist genre and manipulate it to service stories that we have to tell now. So I don’t think it’s a film that you can really put a particular label on or put in a box.”
For Domont, the trickiest aspect of the film wasn’t the sexual politics but maintaining the proper level of suspense. “I set out to make a pressure cooker kind of ticking time bomb thriller,” Domont said. She kept an eye on moments that “got too big too quickly” and adjusted.
“I’ve been calling it the date movie from hell. I’m ready to break some people up, I think.”“Fair Play” writer/director Chloe Domont
Clearly, considering how the film played at Sundance, Domont found the right equilibrium.
“You have no idea how people are going to respond,” Bergman said of the anticipation ahead of the film’s festival premiere. “But we knew this woman is a real filmmaker. A serious filmmaker. And I had no doubt that people would recognize it.”
“It was almost like waiting for Christmas as a parent,” Johnson said. “Oh my God, I can’t wait for them see to see this amazing thing Chloe’s made.”
Domont said that the entire weekend was a “blur” but she does remember the very first time the movie played (the phrase “like gangbusters” comes to mind). “The best part for me was the audience reactions of that first screening. To have 350 people in a room gasp and cringe and woo and boo and feel the movie in a way that you always intended, I think is the best thing as a filmmaker,” Domont said.
When Netflix won the rights, Domont was taken with the platform’s “global reach.” The film received a limited theatrical release in October before its worldwide debut on the streaming platform.
“I want as many people to see this movie as possible because I think more people see it, the more conversations it’ll start,” Domont said. “I’m just excited to open this up globally and see what people from different cultures think, how they relate to it.”
“There’s a real sticky conversation there that really craves mass amplification,” LeClair added.
Much in the same way couples would go out to the theater to see “Fatal Attraction” or “Disclosure” on a Saturday night, they’ll spend a Saturday night at home watching “Fair Play.” And afterwards they might have an uncomfortable chat. “I’ve been calling it the date movie from hell,” Domont said. “I’m ready to break some people up, I think.”
More miraculous than the out-of-the-gate success of “Fair Play” was that T-Street did it again at another festival in the fall.
“American Fiction,” the feature directorial debut of Emmy-winning “Succession” and “Watchmen” writer Cord Jefferson, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival at the beginning of September. By the time the festival had wrapped, the movie, which stars a never-better Jeffrey Wright as persnickety college professor who deals with his very complicated family, had won the People’s Choice Award, a harbinger for awards season success to come (“Argo,” “American Beauty,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “Nomadland” picked up the People’s Choice Award at Toronto before bringing home the Academy Award). MGM, now a part of the Amazon umbrella, will release the film theatrically this December.
Jefferson said he didn’t even known about the incubator program until he was in production. “We took out the script to various producers and the reason I decided to go with T-Street is because they greenlit the film in the meeting. I met with them and we chatted for about 15 or 20 minutes, and Ben LeClair said, ‘We want to make this movie.’ I immediately decided to go with them because they were the only ones who said, ‘We’re going to make this film,’” Jefferson said. “Then I found out afterwards that I was part of this program that they had with MRC. I think I was the third film.”
(If you’re wondering about the fuzzy math, the second film made after “Fair Play” in the program is “The Snack Shack” from director Adam Carter Rehmeier, expected to debut next year. LeClair called it “the best version of a nostalgic trip to Nebraska in 1991.”)
Part of why Jefferson didn’t know about the program until later is because he didn’t feel separate from everything else that was going on at T-Street.
“I think that sometimes when people establish these kinds of programs for new filmmaker voices or underrepresented voices, there’s a very clear delineation between sort of like, ‘This is us in a normal capacity, and then you’re over here in this kind of charitable space,’ and it feels like it’s very much separate but equal,” Jefferson said. “You never feel that at T-Street. It never felt like we were the JV and then these were our varsity projects. I never felt like my much smaller movie was any less important to anybody in the office, which was a really great feeling.”
Jefferson — whose esteemed writing resume also includes episodes of “The Good Place” and “Station Eleven” — was clear about his inexperience in directing, but that was far from a deterrent in T-Street’s eyes. “I think in fact it energized them. I think that they really do believe in their mission, which is to help people who might not otherwise get to make movies, make movies,” Jefferson said.
As for Bergman’s goal that filmmakers will make their first film with T-Street as part of this program and come back to make more, well, he doesn’t have to worry about that with Jefferson. “I’d work with T-Street on anything and everything for the rest of my career, as long as they’ll have me,” he said.
And it’s not like T-Street will only be making movies by first-time directors; Johnson said that they would welcome more established talents with bigger budgets. He genuinely loves, as he said before, “learning from watching other filmmakers work.”
There is also the matter of the third movie in the trilogy that began with “Knives Out” and continued with “Glass Onion.” Johnson joked that it was Bergman who had put me up to asking the question. “It’s coming along. I obviously couldn’t work during the strike, and now that it’s over, I’m diving in full force, and so it’s coming along. I’ve got the premise, I’ve got the setting, I’ve got what the movie is in my head. It’s just a matter of writing the damn thing,” Johnson said.
At one point, Johnson confessed that the name T-Street comes from a beach in San Clemente, where he would hang out as a teenager and where he would later shoot his debut feature “Brick” (the same movie that began his relationship with Bergman). “For me, it just evokes a place that I want to be and hang out with my friends at. You just meet me at T-Street and spend the whole day down there,” Johnson said.
The T-Street from Johnson’s youth has now become the T-Street of Johnson’s future – a nurturing place where he can make the very coolest things with the very coolest people.
Digital Cover Credits:
Photography by Jeff Vespa
Chloe Domont Hair & Makeup: Kerrie Urban
Stylist for Rian Johnson: Mark Holmes
Groomer for Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman: Su Naeem