Nine years after Zachary Wigon’s feature debut The Heart Machine, the writer-director returns with another lean thriller, again with elements of romance and comedy. Sanctuary, coming in at a speedy 96 minutes, only features two characters––a dominatrix named Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) and a hotel heir named Hal (Christopher Abbott)––and a single location: the heir’s hotel room. It’s taut, sexy, and explosive, even with its clear theatrical leanings. 

Wigon’s film, penned by Micah Bloomberg, follows Hal as he tries to end his business relationship with Rebecca, cornering these two characters into this hotel room, along with the corresponding hallway and elevator. The discussions soon turn personal, giving Abbott and Qualley ample opportunities to flex their chops. They devour Bloomberg’s script, and Wigon seems happy to honor these monologues, consistently pushing his lens closer and closer to their faces. It’s a showcase for two of Hollywood’s most versatile young stars. Actors that have shown their taste and willingness to work in the independent space. 

As the extent of their relationship expands, so does the apartment. Sanctuary intentionally spins out of control, with both characters oscillating between reality and a pseudo-fiction, playing versions of themselves seen in previous, mutually agreed sessions. There’s a level of inherent confusion for the audience, an exciting inability to decipher which of these people is telling the truth. It has an effect of reeling the audience in, forcing each person in their seats to join this guessing game between Hal and Rebecca. Violence and sex become intertwined in this game, and Wigon is apt with these changing tones. 

Ahead the film’s release this Friday, I chatted with Wigon about his return to directing, his style on set, and his method for managing Sanctuary’s tonal shifts. 

The Film Stage: It’s been nine years since your last feature. How did it feel coming back to direct another film? 

Zachary Wigon: It’s been a great joy and a great pleasure. As a filmmaker, at least for me, it’s always been about trying to get stuff made under the right conditions. The right way, the right story, a story that you feel is going to be meaningful to people. And that’s what I’ve always been striving toward, and to be able to do that with a script that you love enormously, and actors that you think are absolutely phenomenal. It’s a great joy. It’s a great pleasure. The first day back on the set, it was just very, very emotional. You’re focused, and you’re working, but there’s a part of you inside that’s like, “I remember what this feels like. This is great.” So it’s been wonderful.

Did it take a minute for it to kind of come back to you, or did you feel like you picked it back up right away?

It was basically in stride, because a lot of the work that I do as a director, maybe even the majority of the work that I do as a director, is actually done in prep. Because I pre-visualize everything. And while I don’t believe in rehearsing enormously with the actors, I do talk with them a lot about the roles and what the story is about. We did a couple of rehearsals, but the pre-visualization work is really important to me. So when I step on the set for the beginning of day one, the whole movie has already been shot-listed. There’s a pre-visualization shot for everything in the movie already, so we can watch it edited in my head before we start shooting, which is just what works for me. 

Director Zachary Wigon. Photo courtesy Keith Barraclough.

Are you someone that likes to shoot lots of takes? Are you able to move quickly through the script? 

As far as the takes, well, we had 18 days to shoot this. We had to move quickly––relatively quickly. But Margaret and Chris are so exceptionally talented, we were in a great position. Because of that we were able to move quickly and we had a great crew, a really great crew. But then as far as knowing what I want, typically, if there’s a complex camera movement, that is something that I’ll be able to see very, very clearly. For example, there’s a shot in the movie where the camera’s on Chris in a close-up and it inverts. And then it comes to Margaret as she’s crossing the room inverted and pushes in on her, and then it inverts. That’s something I could see very clearly in my head, and I wanted to capture that.

What I don’t see in advance is what the performances are going to be like. That is the most exciting part of being on the set, looking at the monitor as you’ve got all the visual work taken care of––now you can focus one-hundred percent entirely on what’s happening with the performances. What you want with the performances, for me anyway, is you always want to be surprised, but it’s also truthful. It’s something that you never would have expected. But as soon as you see the actor do it you realize that it’s absolutely truthful to what’s going on with the character.

You mentioned how much you love the script. How do you adapt a script that can often feel stagey, almost like a one-act play, into an even more visual medium? 

That was one of the really interesting challenges about this. That was one of the things that made me super-excited to direct this movie, that level of difficulty. When I started talking about the concept with Micah, I thought to myself “Okay, this will be very, very hard. It’s tough to do that because you’re just so limited with your options visually.” As far as how that was solved: there were a couple craft things. One: I wanted to make sure that we never repeated blocking positions. So over the course of the movie, the actors are never actually in the same positions in this space. And then the other thing was I wanted to make sure that we never repeated camera positions or compositions, which was difficult, but we had 1,200 square feet in the hotel suite. So it was difficult, but it was not impossible. Between the hotel suite and the hallway and elevator, I had enough that we could make it work. So those were the key things. 

The other thing to speak to your question is: there was this idea of varying the visual approach in different sequences. I like to break scripts down into sequences or chapters. The opening sequence, for example: the camera moves very, very little, almost not at all. It’s almost all static shots. And then the second sequence, which is after the characters break from the script––apparently, seemingly––that was all Steadicam until you get to the bathroom door, and then it goes into a different idea. So just starting at the first sequence being all static, and the second sequence being all Steadicam. It goes like that for the rest of the movie.

There’s a sequence later on, by the elevators, where it’s a long handheld oner. Because the actors were going to be the same throughout and the set was going to be the same throughout, I felt like I had more creative liberty with mixing different visual styles in a way that you normally wouldn’t be able to do. I feel like normally, in a movie, what you want is a cohesive visual style to unite many locations and many actors. This was one location and two actors. So the visual style was almost doing some of the work that, in a regular movie, the different locations and actors would’ve done. 

I think as you’re watching it, you can feel the apartment almost expand. And this little world feels a lot larger than it did when the film begins.

I wanted it to feel like you were almost getting lost in it. It was almost a psychic space at a certain point, that these two are sort of falling through quicksand into this impossible-to-leave psychic space in the hotel room. So that’s great that it started to feel larger to you. Because they can’t leave, right? It’s this normal hotel suite as it goes on, [but] they can’t leave and so why can’t they leave? Well, if they can’t leave, it should be partially because it feels larger and larger and larger.

These sequences that you’re talking about, most of them happen with tonal shifts within the script. How do you guide the audience along these shifts in the film? 

There’s two ways to do that. One, you have to understand the script completely and understand how and why the script is making the tonal shifts. So it’s either logical that the tonal shifts are occurring in the story, or it’s not. The first thing is just making sure the way that the script is shifting totally is not gratuitous or just to be provocative. It actually logically follows a row of dominoes. There’s a reason that this is happening. Then the other way to do it that I discovered for myself, that I thought was really interesting, was I called them these “drop-down moments,” or respites.

So basically, what worked for me––when you build an atmosphere, you build a tone. You’re dialing up the volume of that effect, right? So if you’re creating a suspenseful atmosphere, it could be a one out of 10. It could be a three out of 10. It could be a five out of 10. That’s the suspense style, right? Then let’s say you’ve got a comedy dial and you want to dial down from the suspense––like you’re at a seven on suspense and you want to get to like a five on comedy. What I found was you have to dial it down to a one or zero and then you can jump anywhere you want. You have to give these palate-cleansers in between.

You mentioned you’ve been looking for a script or a story that you thought would be important to people. How did you find ways for audiences to relate to this story about a dominatrix and a hotel heir, two hyper-specific characters and professions? 

In my opinion, the only way that audiences can ever really relate to a story is through human psychology. The idea that was so fascinating here, to me, was the idea of two characters who are not very comfortable, and perhaps not very happy with who they are in reality. But there’s one space where they go once a week, where there’s a particular set of rules, and inside this one space with this one other person and these very specific rules, they delve into artifice. But inside the artifice they find a much truer version of themselves than the version of themselves that they are playing as themselves in reality.

For me, that’s very relatable. It makes me think a little bit about making movies for a living, because you’re out in the world, you’re being yourself, and then you go to this specific place with these specific rules. All of a sudden you’re in make-believe, but the make-believe almost feels truer than reality in a certain way. So I found it enormously relatable, but I think that my hope, and my belief, is that other people probably feel this way too. That when they’re going through their waking lives they’re not necessarily being the truest version of themselves. Maybe they need the veneer of artifice to give themselves permission, ironically, to be who they actually are. There’s just something very poetic for me about that idea.

Working with only these two actors, how did you attempt to create that intimacy within the set so that they felt a connection and felt comfortable throughout the entire experience?

When you cast really phenomenal actors, I really think that there’s only so much you need to do. And I felt really grateful. Margaret and Chris are extremely talented. I talked with them about who the characters were and what the characters felt about each other. We did a read-through and we rehearsed a couple of scenes, but there really wasn’t a whole lot that I needed to do there. They’re both just exceptionally talented. They were friends and I think they trusted each other and they trusted me, and it just flowed pretty naturally. There weren’t really any speed bumps that we had to navigate. I think the key thing when I think about just working with actors through difficult stuff is just making sure everyone’s on the same page about what we’re trying to accomplish and the way we’re trying to go about accomplishing it.

Sanctuary opens on Friday, May 19.

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