Is there anything scarier than walking through the streets, in the dark, alone, and something catches your attention from the corner of your eye? More often than not it is a tree branch swaying in the wind…but what if it isn't? That uncertainty when it comes to the prospect of being stalked is something explored in Chloe Okuno‘s debut feature film Watcher. Here, the director talks to FILMHOUNDS about the process of making the film, and how she built tension in the thrilling narrative.
Last year you released Watcher which was your feature film directorial debut after directing a short for V/H/S/94, what was the process of directing the film like for you?
It's always a very intimidating leap going from shorts to features. A feature film is the big, white whale. I had no experience at all with selling the movie, marketing, or promoting it. So it was kind of a huge learning process. But the filmmaking process itself is very similar. Honestly, though, it's not that different. I feel like doing short films prepares you quite well to make features, especially if the shorts are like the ones we did at the American Film Institute – where I went to school – that were very narrative-focused and tended to be on the longer side. In some ways, the process of making a feature film is very similar to a short, and you get the same essential difficulties. It's all about navigating personalities, communication, and making sure that you are sticking to your guns, but also being collaborative and open to new ideas. In a feature as well, I think there tends to be more people weighing in, which adds an extra layer of sort of political manoeuvring.
You also wrote for the film, based on Zack Ford's original screenplay, what do you, as a female director and writer, feel you brought with your rewrites to the screenplay, originally by a male writer?
The basic premise of the original script was very similar. It was about a couple that moves into an apartment and Julia begins to feel that there's this man watching her. But in Zach's screenplay, the characterisation of The Watcher was slightly different. He was a more outwardly antagonistic figure who stalked her through the streets in a way that was overtly scary. When I came on board, I was really pushing to give it as much ambiguity as possible and hopefully still making it scary in the way that, as a woman walking down the street, you might feel like someone is following you. But he's not a hulking slobbering monster, he could just be this sort of person that you sense something and he's off.
When I came to writing and characterising The Watcher character, I wondered ‘how do we find ways to almost make the audience feel pity for him or sympathetic?” And by doing that, it heightens Julia's own anxiety over whether or not what she's feeling is real. A lot of my work was on the character of Julia and bringing the weight of my own personal experience and making sure that at any given moment, she was reacting in a way that I feel like I would react in the same situation.
As a female viewer, what I found particularly terrifying – on top of watching women being stalked and murdered in the film – was how the character's around them dismissed their fears. How did you balance this with the implication in the film that it could all be in Julia's mind?
I think it's a feeling that a lot of women have, unfortunately. It's infuriating, probably because we've encountered it so often. Even in the course of making this movie, I would find myself in weirdly similar scenarios, as a woman directing and needing to get my point of view across if not always being listened to. In some ways, it's a very rich subject matter for horror. There have been movies that have dealt with the paranoid woman trope, but for me, it's still relevant. It's still something that women and I have dealt with on a very regular basis – a sort of daily horror.
The film, from start to finish, builds a steady sense of dread – how did you achieve this?
A lot of it was on the page, and a lot of it was also what we touched upon with building reasons for Julia to have evidence that what is happening is not all in her mind. Navigating that was a very tricky line, but I think it helps to add to the emotional tension of the piece. With my DP [director of photography] we talked about how we wanted to photograph The Watcher so we never quite see his face very clearly. And that almost becomes the sort of driving mystery, the fact Julia can't see him so she can't know with 100% certainty that it is the same man watching her.
As the movie progresses and the stakes become higher for her, The Watcher is progressively making his way closer to her. What started in her peripheral vision, or a silhouette in the window across the way, is now somebody who is at her door confronting her. The choice of lensing and framing physically bring this threat closer and closer to her in a way that almost feels inevitable. The sound design was also huge and a lot of it was about putting you into her point of view to feel what she is feeling at that moment. Things like the sound of a train passing by and that moment would feel louder to her to hopefully bring you as an audience member into what she's feeling – the sort of heightened state of driving anxiety.
The role of Julia is portrayed expertly by Maika Monroe, how did she get involved with the project and what was she like to work with?
I think she's so magnificent in this. I was a huge fan of hers because of It Follows and The Guest. She's such a wonderfully expressive actress. In It Follows she wasn't always given a lot to say necessarily, but a lot of the horror in her performance came through her expression. When it came to how she got involved, in my head I was like ‘Maika Monroe is never going to do this movie. We're not on that level. We can't get her'. And then somehow, miraculously, she responded to the script. I heard later that she had seen the short film that I directed a few years prior called Slut and she was a fan. So when she was sent the script for Watcher she read it and she wanted to meet with me. I was already in Romania prepping for the movie, so we got on a Zoom and it was just immediately clear she was a lovely person and she had such an interesting take on the character. Like Julia, she also lived abroad in a country in a foreign country where she didn't speak the language, and she understands the feeling of being a woman and not having her voice heard. We just really connected and I truly am so thankful for her. I feel like could not have had a better partner on my first feature. I really hope we get to work together again at some point.
You also have Burn Gorman on board as The Watcher, why did you choose to have him in this role?
I've always been a huge fan of his and he's amazing. But I didn't think he would do the movie. And again to my delight, he was really enthusiastic. There are many reasons I wanted him for the role. He is an amazing actor and he's very good at bringing that sense of unease to people through his characterisation. I was initially concerned as I think he has gotten a bit of a reputation for playing these characters because he does it so well, so are people immediately going to immediately recognise that? But in my mind, I thought that was okay.
Even if you're seeing these facets of his character, he also makes you believe maybe it's not him. There's also this trope of the American girl in a scary foreign country that you can almost see playing into Julia's psychology. Is she just freaking out because this is a slightly creepy-looking guy? So that also went into my thinking. With Burn I got so lucky, he's just a delightful person. He's very charming and brings the best energy. I was so intimidated by him because he worked with Guillermo del Toro and Christopher Nolan. How do I direct this person who has been directed by some of the best? But he made it easy.
Why did you choose to set the film in Bucharest, and was it filmed in the city? I read that the film was originally set in New York.
Yes, that's true, it was initially set in New York. What inspired the change was the producers coming to me and saying ‘hey, financially, because of the pandemic, we can't afford to shoot this in North America anymore. How do you feel about Bucharest?' And I said, ‘I feel great. We can make the movie'. They have a really good film infrastructure in Romania, and the production company had worked there before so it made a lot of sense. And then as I started to think about it, I got really excited because I felt like there was this additional part of Julia's story that we weren't tapping into. This strong and intense feeling of being in a different country and not speaking the language. I lived abroad before, in France and Russia, and I had had that firsthand experience of living somewhere where I didn't speak the language very well and I was just completely out of my depth every waking moment. I was very interested in how I could bring that feeling of total isolation into the movie, and I think that's part of it.
You mentioned COVID-19 impacting the location of the film – what was it like directing and shooting a film during the pandemic?
It was hard. Just before Watcher, I directed a segment of V/H/S/94 in Canada, so I had previously had the experience of directing during the pandemic. Outside of filming, I was very much one of those people who was not leaving my apartment and not wanting to get exposed. even pre-pandemic, making any movie, I'm always so paranoid about getting sick as a director because it requires such a tremendous amount of energy. It's very long working hours, it's very strenuous and if you get sick it makes your job 1000 times harder. COVID just exacerbated that feeling. I was very lucky, I didn't get it when I was there, and we had strict COVID protocols in place with testing and masking. But it's just an added burden. Any movie feels like it can be derailed at any moment, you're really at the mercy of the universe and forces that are totally beyond your control. And COVID throws an even bigger wrench into that. One of our actors got COVID right when they were supposed to start shooting, so we had to rearrange the entire shoot, there was a moment when we thought we had to recast, and it made things way, way, way more complicated and stressful.
In terms of Watcher's look, it felt very different from your V/H/S/94 short Storm Drain in that its colour palette was a lot brighter, the scenes more expansive and less claustrophobic, and the camera a lot more static – was it a conscious decision to make them so different?
I guess in some ways it was a conscious decision, but I didn't necessarily go into Watcher wanting to do something different than Storm Drain. The nature of found footage influences a lot of the visual choices in Storm Drain. We were trying to make it look like it was shot on VHS and keep it authentic to this news film team. So of course, it's all handheld. And because of this, it had this graininess and messiness to it. But then with Watcher, when I read the initial script it reminded me of films like Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion.
It also reminded me of the work of David Fincher because there was a sort of wonderful thriller, serial killer element. And because of these works, I was drawn more to a very different style of filmmaking that I really love, which is a lot more restrained, minimalistic, and elegant. We made some very intentional choices of colour palette that bring brightness to Julia's wardrobe initially, before sapping the world of colour and making her blend into her environment. I'm certainly not like an auteur like Wes Anderson or someone like that who brings a very similar visual sensibility to every movie. Every script tells me a different story, visually. And I try to do what's best for that.
Watcher is available to buy from Monday, February 6.