Fair Play writer-director Chloe Domont remembers a time in her life when her career was going well, but her relationships were not.
“My success, or little bits of accomplishment, didn’t feel like a win. When it happened to me, it felt like a loss. Because of the kinds of men that I was dating at the time, there was this feeling that my rise brought out their insecurity within themselves and this feeling that my being big on some level made them feel small,” she recalls.
“And it was nothing that was ever spoken about. Because neither one of us would want to admit that that’s what was really going on. But it was very much a big elephant in the room. And it was something that I kept experiencing, in relationship after relationship.”
She had earned a BFA Degree in Film & Television from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and was starting to get commercial jobs while making her own short films. But even bigger successes were still to come.
“I am someone who writes my fears, and I was afraid that my career would cost me my relationship,” she says. “So I wanted to write a movie about that.”
By 2017, she was earning steady TV directing jobs on high-profile projects like HBO’s Ballers, CBS’s Clarice and Showtime’s Billions.
Then she finished writing Fair Play.
“It really came to fruition right before COVID,” says Domont. “I spent six months on the script before I shared it with anyone. And then I shared it with my agents, then worked through probably a couple more drafts, and then they started sending it to producers. And then once they started sending it out, actually, things moved very quickly, which was very exciting.”
The film is now in theaters and begins streaming today after Netflix paid $20 million for it at Sundance. To mark its release, Domont walked us through every stage of Fair Play — from screenwriting to development to production to post to distribution. This article is adapted from a longer series of pieces that appear in our latest issue, The Complete Guide to Moviemaking 2023, now on newsstands.
Chloe Domont on Writing Her Fears in Fair Play
Fair Play tells the story of two young employees at a cutthroat hedge fund, desperate for promotions. They’re secretly engaged, because company policy prohibits interoffice relationships. But things get nasty when Emily (Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor) begins to far outperform Luke (Alden Ehrenreich, best known for Solo: A Star Wars Story).
What makes Fair Play so effective is that its perspective is so steely-eyed — though it plays with the thriller genre, neither of the lead characters ever fall into easy caricatures or tropes. We’re held rapt by our uncertainty about which way every situation will go, because we don’t know what we would do ourselves.
The script was in very good shape by the time Domont shared it with her agents. But she was open to feedback through every step of the process.
“I don’t think anything’s ever unhelpful. I don’t ever have to take a bad note,” she laughs. “I’ll try anything. And then if it doesn’t work, or it’s not as good, then I just revert back. There’s nothing lost by exploring a note, ever. And I don’t take notes personally. I want it to be the best script it can be, and if something that I intended isn’t coming through, then I want to know why.”
The notes she received were mostly about Ehrenreich’s Luke, who starts off suave and graceful, but whose flaws become very apparent as Dynevor’s Emily outshines him. Finding the right balance was especially tricky because audiences are supposed to feel uncertain about Luke, just as Emily does. She wants the relationship to succeed, even when Luke is obviously failing.
The feedback often involved questions of “how are we supposed to feel about him… and how early do we see him kind of turning to the darker side? And so it was really a lot of modulating that,” Domont says.
There’s also dramatic tension in how far Emily will go to succeed: “She, in many ways, is playing ugly to survive in that workplace, and also survive at home.”
The film especially resonates by addressing everyday questions around modern masculinity, mining a specific type of male dread that manifests itself in an obsession with being “alpha,” fueled by a thriving podcast and YouTube industry.
As Luke’s situation at work gets worse and worse, he begins looking for quick-hit solutions through an online course that encourages risk and demanding respect. It is led by a self-styled corporate guru inspired by a real-life pop psychologist.
“I based him off of Jordan Peterson, actually,” Domont says. “Because I feel like he speaks to that kind of audience — men that feel insecure in their skin or wherever they’re at in life. And he tries to channel… more of an aggressive alpha male energy to get men to feel more confident.
“Luke would never go down that road if he wasn’t feeling so low, and so insecure in that moment,” Domont says. “But because he does, he’s looking for anything to take him out of that feeling that feels so uncomfortable.”
One thing that never changed was the story’s ending. Domont knew what she wanted to say, and was never tempted to let her characters off with a pat resolution.
“I don’t write one word until I know what the ending is,” she says. “Until I’m certain that is where I want to go. That ending is where the story and the genre come together, in one final punch.”
The ending also resolves the film’s intriguing internal drama about what type of story it will ultimately be: Is it a relationship drama? A tale of corporate intrigue? A straight-up thriller?
“It’s working within the thriller genre, which uses violence as a means to solve conflict,” says Domont. “So that was important.”
How Chloe Domont Steered Clear of Development Hell on Fair Play
Development is an amorphous concept: When agents and producers talk about it, they often mean the process of matching a writer, director and stars with intellectual property in a studio’s possession, then endless notes and rewrites and changes. Countless projects land in development hell as writers and directors and clever takes come and go.
But because Chloe Domont is the writer and director of Fair Play, a lot of the back-and-forth that might happen in meetings and long lunches on other projects instead took place in her mind.
Which isn’t to say it was easy.
“It wasn’t like a classic development deal. It was me on my own, in a room, hitting my head against the wall for a very long time,” she laughs. “And walking in circles and talking to myself and looking like a crazy person. That’s really what the development period is for a writer.”
Her next step was sharing her very polished script with her agents at United Talent Agency, led by Abby Glusker, whose clients also include Jessica Alba. Soon after that, they sent it out to Star Thrower Entertainment, a film and TV finance and production company founded by producer brothers Tim and Trevor White, whose credits include the 2022 Best Picture nominee King Richard.
“They came on the project first, and they helped me with casting,” Domont says.
Casting, of course, was crucial: The film relies on our investment in the dynamic between the lead characters, Emily and Luke.
“I was looking for two versatile actors who had never done anything like this before,” Domont says.
Whoever played Luke would need to be able to win, then lose, the audience’s sympathies, and sometimes be very unlikable in the process. Alden Ehrenreich became the clear choice, in part he understood how dark the script needed him to go.
“In terms of Alden, I’ve loved his work previously — Hail Caesar, and earlier films as well. I just think he’s an incredible talent who can do anything,” says Domont.
Though he’s best known for playing Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich has demonstrated striking versatility this year with not only Fair Play but also a crucial role in Oppenheimer, and with his own writing-directing debut, the short film “Shadow Brother Sunday,” which is now making the festival rounds.
“He had never done anything like this before,” Domont says of Fair Play. “So I was very excited to meet with him. And when he read the script, he responded right away, and we had a meeting, and it was so clear to me: Yeah, he was my guy. Just his level of commitment to it, and he was willing to dive into this material headfirst, without question.
“And also, we had a lot of the same beliefs about how to make a movie. Like we’re both big on rehearsals. We just felt very aligned in terms of our work habits.”
Emily may be an even more difficult role: She’s a woman working round-the-clock to be the countless things the men around her expect her to be, and to live up to some old-fashioned ideas her mother keeps espousing, as well. All while thriving in a workplace designed to weed out the weak, where her words, wardrobe and after-hours attitude are constantly scrutinized.
“In terms of Phoebe, I feel like she’s a star on the rise, and I felt lucky to catch her in this moment. I could tell, just watching her on Bridgerton, that she’s an incredibly strong actor who was just super dialed in to what she’s doing — incredibly in the moment, incredibly present. And I just knew that she could go there,” says Domont.
“And after talking to her and meeting with her, seeing how committed she would be to this project and to the role and how personal it was for her, how much she related to it, there was no question in my mind that she was Emily — and she delivered to the nines.”
With the key actors on board, they went out to financers — including MRC, formerly known as Media Rights Capital. The company has vast media holdings and has backed projects including Ozark, Baby Driver, Knives Out, and Ted.
“My agent sent it to MRC. They read it the same night, they met me the next day,” she says. “They were super excited about the script, and they jumped on it. They were really aggressive, and there was no bullshit with them. They were like, ‘We want this to be the first movie to launch our emerging filmmaker program.’
“And they just aggressively championed it. And they signed on the next day. So from there, it was just like, ‘OK, where are we going to shoot? How are we going to shoot this?’ We went straight into pre-production.”
The emerging filmmaker program is between MRC and T-Street Productions, founded by Knives Out director Rian Johnson and his producing partner, Ram Bergman. Both Johnson and Bergman are among the executive producers of Fair Play — as is Domont.
The emerging filmmakers program addresses a common industry problem: Screenwriters often struggle to convince their backers to let them direct their scripts.
Even Quentin Tarantino has talked about refusing to take meetings, three decades ago, with people who wouldn’t entertain the idea of letting him direct the screenplay for his debut, Reservoir Dogs.
But there was never any question that Domont would direct Fair Play. Not only had she proved herself with her short films and TV directing, but she was also telling a very personal story.
“I don’t think anyone really saw me as a first-time filmmaker, even though I was a first-time feature director. I don’t think anyone had any doubts,” she says. “But also, this movie — it’s so me. And there was never any question. It’s either, ‘Are we making this movie, or not?’”
Chloe Domont on Going Into ‘Killer Mode’ in Production
Making Fair Play had its problems, because all filmmaking has its problems. But Domont’s work in TV — from writing and directing on Ballers to directing episodes of Suits, Star Trek: Discovery, Clarice and Billions — prepared her well.
“Filmmaking is nothing but getting hit with problems and getting told you can’t do this and you can’t do that,” she laughs.
“It’s nothing but that every single day: ‘Oh, you gotta cut one more scene, and you gotta cut this character, and you’re just like, Fuck, man. But my experience in TV set me up for success in that way. Because working in TV teaches you how to think so quickly, and teaches you how to pivot very quickly and come up with creative solutions, on the spot. And so I never felt discouraged by any of these problems. I didn’t take it personally. I’m like, that is what filmmaking is.”
She continues: “In fact, I think I get some sort of sick pleasure out of things going wrong, because in my head, I’m like, Oh, the world’s trying to stop me. It starts this fire inside of me, and I go into, like, killer mode: Okay, this is what we’re gonna do. And this is how we’re going to fix it.
The problems were nothing out of the ordinary, she explains.
“No matter what your budget is, you’re always over budget. And you always don’t have enough days to shoot. And so it was just constantly that problem. You come up with a solution and you take a cost down for a day, and then somehow you get the numbers in for the next day, for construction for a different thing, and suddenly you’re back at that number.
“It’s just this thing you’re constantly trying to push down that keeps popping up in different ways. It’s always fighting the numbers and time. The most important thing was shoot days — I wanted as many shoot days as possible, and I was willing to compromise on other things in order to afford more shoot time.”
To watch Fair Play, you would think it was shot entirely in Manhattan, where the story takes place, taking over the city’s many real hedge-fund offices and overpriced apartments, restaurants and bars.
In fact, the production was based in Belgrade, Serbia — where Fair Play executive producers Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman had recently made much of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
“Ram was advocating for us building there, because he was like, ‘This is the way to build a set the way you want. This is a way to put the most amount of money on the screen. And the crews are excellent.’ So that was what we did. We built all the sets in Serbia. And then we shot all the exteriors in New York, because the movie does not work if you don’t shoot the exteriors in New York,” Domont says.
She took full advantage of being able to have sets designed to her specifications.
“I intended for it to be kind of a claustrophobic film in the sense that the characters are trapped between their home life and the workspace, and they go from one enclosed space to another and they can never escape each other,” she explains. “And because we’re in these same spaces for so long, I wanted to build them. And it was very important for me to build them. I had a very specific idea for how those spaces should be and feel, to feel claustrophobic in different ways.”
Luke and Emily’s apartment becomes the most claustrophobic location of all, as they bring their workplace problems home.
“In the apartment space, it was important to me that we were able to bring the walls in as the conflict escalates in the film,” Domont says. “So we were physically bringing in the walls of their apartment as the tension is increasing. It was never anything I wanted the audience to physically note — it was just that you start to feel like the world is closing in on them.”
Turning the Dials During Post for Fair Play
The post production of Fair Play was “painful, actually,” says Domont. The hardest part was keeping perspective on a story she’d been so close to for so long.
“You start to lose perspective when you’re editing a film that you’ve lived with, that you’ve written, for years. So we’re in the edit and two-and-a-half years into the process, and now you’re three months into the edit, and it’s just inevitable that you start to lose perspective on it. And so that was, I think, the hardest process for me — trying to make decisions when I was losing perspective in the edit.”
She would often leave scenes alone for a while and move on to others, then return with fresh eyes. Her hardest problem was something that also came up in the screenwriting process: how to present the slippery Luke, who is both the fiancé and nemesis of the fast-rising Emily.
Emily is the better partner in the relationship, which means she is often reacting to Luke’s resentment, and trying to restore harmony between them. Domont and editor Franklin Peterson carefully calibrated the balance between Emily and Luke.
“What I found really fascinating with this film, more than anything else I’ve worked on, is that if you dial a little bit more towards Luke’s favor in one scene — more in his favor in terms of looks or comments or whatever — it completely changes the way you think about her for the next 20 minutes. And if you dial a little bit to the right toward her, it completely changes the way you think about him for the next 20 minutes.
“And I’ve never experienced that in anything else that I’ve worked on. Something about this film, and this dynamic, and these circumstances, was like being in a science lab and putting a little more potion in this one and a little more potion in that one, and then testing it and seeing how people felt about the characters at certain moments.”
She test screened Fair Play several times, often for friends of friends. She often had the same question.
“How do we want to feel about him in this moment? How do we want to feel about him in this moment? And it was a lot of monitoring that.”
Her original perspective changed a bit because of the nuances of her actors.
“Alden’s performance gave me empathy for the character in certain scenes when I didn’t particularly empathize with him when I was writing it,” she says.
“I just think he did such an incredible job at showing his duality and internal struggle — wanting to support her and being so proud of her, because that’s why he’s with her. He adores her because she’s intelligent, because she’s a killer, right? So he loves her for the very same things that he’s also threatened by.”
Deals In Snowy Cabins: Getting the Best Distribution for Fair Play
The Sundance Film Festival had rejected Chloe Domont’s short films in the past. So when its programmers embraced Fair Play, she says, it felt like a dream. All of her hard work would pay off with a January 20 premiere at Park City’s lovely Library Center Theatre, at one of the most prestigious film festivals of all.
The night before, Domont went for a walk in the snow, and roasted a chicken.
“I hid from people before my big night,” she says. “Just to ground myself. You can get caught up in — I don’t know — in stuff. I was grounding myself in what’s most important, and what was most important was being in Park City with an audience and showing this movie for the first time. …. Whatever happened after that was gonna happen. And that was out of my control.”
What happened was wonderful.
Audiences responded rapturously to Fair Play. A review in Variety called it one of the “rare Sundance movies that could break through in the real world,” adding that it was full of “sex, money, corporate backstabbing, and a lot of other things that are fun to watch” — and also happened to be “a good little movie.”
Or maybe not so little. A bidding war quickly broke out between distributors who wanted the film.
“Then it was press meetings, distributors pitching,” Domont says. “It was just non-stop for 48 hours, which was the most exciting 48 hours ever. I think I got like one hour of sleep that whole weekend.”
The plan had always been to hold off on meeting with distributors until the film debuted at a festival. But a Sundance bidding war is the best-case scenario — the kind of dreamy motivation that keeps thousands of filmmakers squinting at their footage in the small hours.
How does it feel to be at the center of such a bidding war?
“I mean, it feels awesome,” Domont says with a laugh. “I killed myself to make this movie. It’s been an incredibly painful process to get to this place. And it’s been my dream to get to this place. And to have people as excited about this movie as I was — as I am — was the most rewarding thing in the world.”
Many filmmakers dread attending pitch meetings to try to convince executives of the value of their work. But now Domont was the one being pitched, from distributors promising her film the biggest platform possible. She wanted the best deal, yes, but also one that would ensure her film was released in theaters — and then the chance to reach a vast audience at home.
“We had a bunch of distributors pitch us different numbers and different plans and different rollouts and different marketing campaigns and Netflix — it was just apparent that they were going to be the best partner for this movie,” she says.
“In terms of the global reach, it was very important to me that as many people saw this film as possible, and that they were still going to put this in theaters, even in select theaters — that it would have a theatrical run. And, that they were going to get behind this movie and make it a huge priority to get it out to the world.”
It helped that Fair Play executive producers Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman had recently had “a great experience” working with Netflix on Glass Onion, she says.
In Fair Play, our protagonist Emily’s fate turns on a 2 a.m. meeting with her boss in a bar. Domont’s fate also turned on a late-night meeting, but a much more positive one — with the Netflix team.
“The first time I met all of them was probably midnight, in a snowy condo in Park City. That, I thought, was actually the most beautiful thing about the business — that all these deals get made in snowy cabins and you’re trudging through the snow in the odd hours of the morning and talking about the possible future of the life of your movie,” she says.
“It was fun. It was unexpected. And it was just magical.”
The roughly $20 million that Netflix paid for the rights to Fair Play comes close to the record $25 million that Apple paid for CODA in 2021. CODA went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and Best Adapted Screenplay for writer-director Sian Heder.
How does your life change when Netflix buys your film for $20 million?
“It hasn’t changed me. I don’t see myself in a different way,” Domont says. “The next day or the next week, I was back to my neurotic state of thinking about the next movie and walking and talking in circles to myself.
“The one really exciting change is I know I’m gonna be able to get to make my next movie. And that’s great.”
Fair Play is now in theaters and streaming on Netflix.
Main image: Phoebe Dynevor as Emily and Alden Ehrenreich as Luke in Fair Play. Photo credit: Sergej Radovic, courtesy of Netflix.