All is indubitably not fair in love, war, or “Fair Play,” the crackling feature debut from the writer-director Chloe Domont that became a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (It sold there to Netflix for $20 million, and is now streaming on the platform).
Phoebe Dynevor (“Bridgerton”) and Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”) star as Emily and Luke, ambitious young junior analysts at the same Manhattan hedge fund. Their seemingly blissful relationship is upended when she gets a big promotion and he doesn’t; a fraught psychosexual showdown ensues. A Southern California native, Domont, 36, sat down for an interview in New York to discuss male fragility, the state of erotic thrillers and making “a date movie from hell.” Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You had mostly been directing for hire on premium-cable shows like “Billions.” What made you want to tell this story?
It was many years of having this feeling as my career started to take off in TV that my success didn’t totally feel like a win, because of the kinds of men I had been dating — that me being big made them feel small. It just made me realize how much hold these ingrained power dynamics still have over us, and that was something that I wanted to put onscreen and explore.
Was it always your intention to set it in the world of finance?
No, for me it was about getting the beats of the story, how the relationship would implode once the power flipped. That was the heart of it. But I had some friends in that world, and it just felt like something that I could organically write from even though I had no experience in it.
The highs and lows, the stakes of that kind of work environment, felt similar to the stakes of the film and TV industry: You slip up once, and you can be out. And the work-hard play-hard aspect, too, I feel like is in both. It was another male-dominated industry that is hard for women to come up in — and when they do, they’re treated differently, as we all know.
How did you go about learning the jargon?
I took a bunch of hedge fund guys out for drinks! [Laughs] I got them drunk and just started asking them very simple questions. It was really like learning a new language, like Spanish or coding or something. And honestly that was the easy part. Writing the emotional arcs of the characters, that was much more challenging.
The film really hinges on your two leads’ performances, and their chemistry. How did you find them?
When you get [casting] lists, you get the same 15 names that everyone gets. But the casting director mentioned Phoebe because of “Bridgerton,” so I watched the pilot and I just thought she had it. There was a vulnerability but also a fierceness, an untapped fury that I could unleash. There was also something exciting about cutting off the corset and putting her in a suit and turning her into a shark.
Alden I had loved since [the 2016 Coen brothers comedy] “Hail Caesar,” But I knew that it was going to take a very confident man to go to Luke’s level of insecurity. Other male actors that I had met with, I could sense their hesitance. But Alden was ready to commit and get in the mud with me on it, and he did.
Some critics have touted “Fair Play” as the return of the erotic thriller. Do you think that’s true?
I didn’t set out to make an erotic thriller. I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics within a relationship, and that definitely has some crossovers. But I think our job as new filmmakers is to do something different with genre and manipulate it and twist it to serve our stories.
I don’t think it’s enough these days just to make a good movie. You need to make something that pierces people in a way and holds up a mirror and gets them to ask questions that they’re not asking and starts conversation and debate. And this just felt like a subject matter that hasn’t really been explored onscreen, at least in not this way.
The audience response at preview screenings has been so interesting — clapping, gasping, even yelling at the characters.
People were reacting like it’s a horror movie, and that was very exciting to me. The intention was always to create this balloon of tension that you don’t know when or where it’s going to pop, but once it does, it just becomes this total dogfight.
This feels like a dangerous date movie. You may end up facilitating some divorces.
Couples that have come to early screenings, you see them start to fight on their way back to the car — like the man will say something, and then his girlfriend will slowly look at him like, “That’s what you thought?” So yeah, I can’t wait to break people up. I’m here for it.