'The Domestics' Set Visit: A Brief Trip To The Post-Apocalypse

Standing on the set of Mike P. Nelson's directorial debut, The Domestics, it looks like the world has visibly turned rotten. A flipped plow truck, the fake blood strewn about, and the beefed-up muscle cars have turned a suburban neighborhood not too far outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, into a battleground between the survivors of a chemical attack.

When we visited the set of the Orion release, the firefight was nearing the end but not quite over, and we witnessed one of the violent dustups Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina West (Kate Bosworth) experience during their bumpy road trip.

Below, check out what we learned from The Domestics set visit.

Building A New World

The Domestics is a post-apocalyptic movie with a few more ties than usual to the old world. Some people still want to eat dinner as a family, and some people still just want to dance like nobody's watching. Those lucky enough to have survived the U.S. government's gas attack on its own people are still their old selves in some ways, but they now live fearfully in a country run by ruthless gangs with ominous names like the Gamblers, Cherries, Nailers, Plow Boys, and Sheets. The distant married couple at the heart of the story desperately tries to avoid these mobs as they keep on moving, hopelessly trying to get to Nina's parents' house in Milwaukee.

The new world is built almost entirely from Mark and Nina's point-of-view and experience, not so much from huge swaths of expositions and news clippings. Nelson wanted some mystery with his dangerous world, which he knew the ins-and-outs of thanks to his own personal bible dedicated to world building:

I remember it was literally just like a text document on my computer that I just opened up and I would just like flood with what the gangs are like. For instances, the Sheets show up for two-seconds in the beginning of the movie, and you don't see them again. That's okay. Because I know what they are, I know what they are all about, and for me, I like having some mystery behind it for the audience because they can always popup, "Well, who were those guys what were they all about?" I know what they are all about, and as long as I know what they're about, I can make that sort of thing on screen. Yes, the bible was a huge part of it, the mood board showing images of what each gang should feel and look like, and what the world should feel and look like, and just small little notes about things that were important. I think that was a huge part of how [DP] Maxime Alexandre (High Tension) and I were able to then capture that sort of again that sort of desolate but also claustrophobic world.

Nelson thought as much about Mark and Nina's relationship as he did the world. The two were nearing the end of their marriage until the end of the world came along to keep them together out of circumstance. It's a relationship story inspired by some of Nelson's own personal experiences. If he was going to dig deep and tell a personal story, though, he wanted to do it with plenty of squibs and firepower.

An Unabashed Reverence For Mad Max

A few people behind The Domestics mention Mad Max as a touchstone, but they stress The Domestics is its own thing, and not a collection of pieces we've already seen. (To Bosworth, the atmospheric story even reminded her a little of Cormac McCarthy.) Nelson is A-OK with any comparisons made to George Miller's Mad Max, especially the original film. The initial sparseness of Miller's world-gone-mad does come across as an influence in The Domestics' desolate but familiar surroundings, but it was an idea, not the aesthetic, that Nelson took to heart most:

I've no shame saying that Mad Max is an inspiration, and I say that mainly about the 1979 version. Fury Road, Road Warrior, they're great, and I love them, but the original Mad Max had such a unique quality about it because something feels off but it's not that really the world has gone to shit; it's that people have turned bad. To me, that was sort of the idea behind this: I wanted the people in the movie to be the thing that brought forth the post-apocalyptic vibe the most. I know that we're kind of in some of these desolate areas, and everything is quiet, and there is not a lot of people around, and there is some degradation in the world, but the main thing was is when certain people walk on screen or certain people's presence are there you're like, oh yeah, we are in a bad place.

While Mike and Nina are often in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nelson hasn't made an end of the world movie without any humanity or kindness. There's still good left in some people, but trust is hard to come by in The Domestics. The leads barely even trust each other over their journey, which took Nelson and his quick crew 26 days to shoot. When we arrived on set with a few other bloggers, they were close to the end and were filming some of the movie's final and most crucial scenes. These also happen to be the movie's bloodiest scenes.

One impressive piece of carnage: a prop head busted open from a shotgun blast. The effect's nastiness comes from the subtle details, and from a distance, most would swear it's the real deal. At one point, the actor it's based on stared at it, and the resemblance led to a surreal moment that showed the fine craftsmanship that went into making the torn-open face look as disturbing as it does.

Amassing Big Guns and Funky Vehicles 

Nelson sounds a bit like a kid in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory when he describes picking and choosing all the muscle cars, weaponry, and the array of bizarro outfits for his first feature. Previously, Nelson has worn all sorts of hats as a sound editor on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, an editor of various short films, and the director of a music video for Sleep Thieves.

Speaking with us, the writer-director's voice was filled with joy while discussing all the resources that went into the movie:

I've never had so much of that stuff at my disposal in my entire life. I've made short films for a while now, and basically I was kind of used what I had or knew I could get my hands on. But Richard Brown, who is the vehicle guy, and Brian Carpenter, who is the weapons guy, and even Sandy Werch, who is the props guy, the stuff that those guys could find...I could say I want this and and they would find it. Very rarely would I get a no.

When I was talking to Richard about the cars, I had all these cars planned out the styles of cars I wanted. They found stuff, if it wasn't spot on, it was close in that vein. It was so much fun. Brian Carpenter, not only would he show me the guns – but he would take me out to the range and let me fire each gun. I got to fire every single gun that we got to use in the movie. It was incredible because I got to show the true raw power behind the fire power in the movie, and what that should feel like, and what it should sound like, and that was just incredible.

Nelson was usually surrounded by 70 people on set, but he told us, "There were many times where it felt exactly like me on a shoe-string budget with my friends going out and shooting a movie." To the director, there's no major difference between his past work and The Domestics – except, of course, the scale of the project and having more people ready to make his ideas happen.

The Most Dangerous Cherry in the Midwest

Sonoya Mizuno is an actor whose career everyone should keep their eyes on. She let out some remarkable moves in her already iconic dance with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, in addition to her work in La La Land, Frank Ocean's "Nikes" video, and a hypnotic Chemical Brothers music video (which you can watch below). Mizuno, who also played the humanoid at the end of Alex Garland's Annihilation, is an exceptionally physical actor who quickly establishes a presence. Garland called her "an incredibly gifted actor but also incredibly gifted dancer and can communicate an enormous amount physically."

Mizuno doesn't need much dialogue as Betsy to create the fully-realized and deadly Cherry, who's left her gang and gone rogue, acting as a guardian angel for Mark and Nina and women in peril. Nelson lets the actress' silent and imposing presence in the movie do the talking. On the set, we hear one of her few spoken lines in the movie.

Before cameras are rolling and rehearsals are underway, Mizuno appeared totally immersed as Betsy as she approaches Hoechlin. In her boots and long black jacket and armed with a silver pistol sporting a silencer, the actress moves methodically like a killer, which is what Nelson and her talked about from day one:

When we spoke, I said, "You fully embraced that you a basically a killer and that's who you are. So, you are fully immersed in this world, and when you're kidnapped by the Plow Boys, it's obviously a blow to you. And then when you escape, and you find Mark and Nina, it's almost a beacon of hope." Mark and Nina are this broken couple in this movie, and to any normal person in the world, a broken divorced couple is not really a beacon of hope. But she sees them as this because there's this relationship where everything has gone away, and so she follows them. I honestly told her I want you to feel like it's your job to protect this thing, this beacon of hope that this couple represents.

When all hell breaks loose at the end, Cherry fires a mammoth weapon, a MG-42 machine gun, before switching to her rifle. The actor provides some of the movie's big bang moments, but she's as effective during the movie's quieter scenes. We'll soon see her talents at work again in Crazy Rich Asians, Cary Fukanaga's new Netflix series, and probably a whole lot more to come.

We didn't interview Mizuno or any of the other actors from The Domestics on set, but we did watch them act in a scene that's a complete spoiler. It's impressive how precise Mizuno and Hoechlin are with the few takes they get. Nelson kindly suggests "more compassion" after one take, and it then shows in the next take through some subtle but impactful adjustments.

Filming the Big Finish 

Six days out of the month-long shoot were dedicated to the big finale – a swift and hard-hitting final showdown between Mark and Nina, Betsy, and the Gamblers (led by The Hateful Eight's Dana Gourrier). So much fake blood is shed during this sequence that the production eventually ran out of the red stuff (they had tested 16 different kinds and went with the one called "Red Rum"). Prior to our visit, the production also had the pleasure of setting off an explosion and flipping over a plow truck with a built-in 50-caliber machine gun, which was lying in the middle of the road of a mostly abandoned suburban neighborhood. Not far from the truck: the Gamblers' cars with machine guns and antlers on the front hoods, a phony dead body wearing a large buffalo mask in a backyard, and a house covered in fake bloody footprints from killer kids.

Nelson and the crew are relying on practical effects, so there's not much CGI in the finished movie. Nelson told us about making the big finale and other major sequences, like when Mark and Nina are captured and forced to play a game similar to Russian roulette, were executed so quickly:

Well, here's the story that kind of sums that up. So, I'm on the set and we were on our first week, and I'm thinking that I don't have many shots [for an earlier sequence]; I got six shots for this moment. Bill looks at me and says, "You got time for two." And I was like, "You gotta be kidding me." "Nope, you got time for two." Luckily we had two cameras for most of the shoot, so I was able to make that sort of work for me.

I cheated sometimes and I was able to get a third shot in there, but on average we were two to three takes for everything – with the exception of some technical shit went down. It was two to three takes overall, and our scenes were shot listed very, very minimally. Our DP, Maxine, was helping me pinpoint how I could take like five shots that I wanted and break them down into one or two, and how we could get all that stuff. So, the visual language of the film I was originally planning for changed a bit, but as the film went on, I think we kind of got hold of a vibe and just really ran with it. It really helps keep the movie going and allowed us to get our action and our excitement and still get our performances.

Time was short, but production was never short on tenacity. Nelson calls his crew "amazingly tight," and that appears to be the case on the set. There was a lot more camaraderie and happy faces among the crew than usual on this day of filming. "There were so many times where if we did not have the crew that we had we wouldn't have finished the movie," Nelson concludes, summing up the experience of his first movie. "We just squeaked by, and it was because everybody stayed a little bit longer or worked a little bit harder and everybody was cool with it and nobody complained. It was just like everybody wanted to go the extra mile, and that was something that I wasn't sure I was going to get and I was legitimately blessed with at the end of the day."

Based on the first wave of positive reviews for The Domestics, all that hard work produced a post-apocalyptic movie that has more going for it than just some more Mad Max-inspired mayhem.  


The Domestics is now available in limited release and on VOD.