[Interview] Randall Okita for SEE FOR ME
Courtesy IFC Midnight
When blind former skier Sophie accepts a last-minute house-sitting job in a secluded mansion, she awakes in the middle of the night to find the house under invasion by a group of thieves seeking a hidden safe. Her only means of defense: a new app called “See For Me”, which matches her with a volunteer across the country who uses Sophie’s cell phone to see on her behalf.

Stubbornly independent, Sophie is reluctant to accept help until she is connected to Kelly, an army veteran who spends her days playing first person shooter games. As the game of cat-and-mouse with the intruders escalates, Sophie is forced to learn that if she’s going to survive the night, she’ll need to take all the help she can get.

For the upcoming release of SEE FOR ME, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke with director Randall Okita, where they discussed what initially drew him to the project, how they worked on crafting a safe, accommodating set for Skyler Davenport, who portrays Sophie in the film, and how COVID ended up impacting the shooting process on the director’s sophomore feature.

Randall Okita

I enjoyed SEE FOR ME. I had way too much fun with the character Sophie, because she’s not what you typically see with disabled characters onscreen, but also how the home invasion thriller itself gets tweaked to keep us on edge. To start things off, how did you come to be involved with the project?

Randall Okita: I was sent this wonderful original script written by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue, and I was immediately struck by the tightness, of the twists and turns and the kind of clockwork that really is involved in trying to create a sharp thriller that has this ratcheting up in suspense and intensity. Within it is embedded this lovely take on representation of somebody who was differently-abled, and how that sort of sense of abled-ness and independence and teamwork was reflected in the story. And so, when I read it, I was like, this is everything that I love. It’s a different take on those elements. There’s lots of originality, which is within the thriller/genre space. But then also, having this character at the heart of it that has this different arc, in terms of perspectives that we may not have seen before, but to still be able to deliver this fantastic thrill ride is like everything that I think that I want to do.

And did you guys originally intend to cast someone who’s visually impaired?

Randall Okita: Absolutely. Yeah, it was a big part of what we fought for, and just what I think is important about making things. It certainly wasn’t the easiest route. But I think that that’s worth it. I think that is more than worth it. I think that being able to collaborate with Skyler [Davenport] and to involve Skyler’s lived experiences and authentic take on how somebody moves through the world and how they move the world, as well as how they felt when they lost their sight and the loss of that sense of independence, and that dance between collaboration and accepting some sort of help, versus being autonomous and fighting to kind of hold on to that sense of independence and autonomy just makes the film so much richer and gave me so much to work with in terms of how to represent the way that Sophie would move through the world and move through those spaces. Which then I think becomes the kind of character and human anchor to then this heightened space of having fun in this thrill ride of cat and mouse through a mansion at night

Skyler Davenport as “Sophie” in SEE FOR ME l IFC Midnight

One of the things I was wondering was how you guys made adjustments to filming and also selecting the setting, because I’ve been on a couple of sets. They’re not generally the most sensory-friendly, physically friendly experiences, which is why I don’t go on them much anymore. So, can you talk about that a little bit?

Randall Okita: For sure, and I do not blame you. Well, there’s a couple of ways. I think what was really interesting about this shoot is that we had to anticipate that and we had to really think about there’s a way that productions normally look, and we had to kind of stop and consider how to make things safe. And not just safe in the most basic sense of the word, although that too, but how to make things safe and comfortable and inviting for somebody who was visually impaired. And we’re talking about shooting at night in a large mansion. It’s set at night. So, things are generally dark, and to really examine how we were approaching the production process, and I think that that was a challenge. But it was also this kind of opportunity to really look at the way things are done. And I think that that really made the team better and stronger and made the process better and stronger. Because if you can do that, especially with this sense of care, and safety at the core of it, then all of a sudden, you’re building this sense of trust, and you are, I think building into the process, a sense that that is a priority for us. So then, when everybody’s feeling safe and comfortable, then you can really let things go in terms of performance, in terms of drama, in terms of sharing the talents, that is the reason that people are there. And I think that that was a really wonderful process to engage in.

And then, fortunately, unfortunately, we were shut down due to COVID. But also in coming back, we had to kind of engage in that process again. Because we were sort of put on hold and everybody was waiting, and we were one of the first ones back. And so, we were a part of that first batch of shows that had to come back to finish once we were given the go-ahead. But we were very much in the group that was still figuring out those protocols. And there were a lot of challenges. We started in winter. And then, when we came back, it was summer, and there was a lot of greenery outside these beautiful windows that were part of the aspect of the location that we chose so that we can see those snowy landscapes and indicate the sense of isolation. But, as part of that process of figuring out how to come back, we had to ask how to do that safely. In this case, if we’re for everybody’s safety, and I really thought that was it was kind of a beautiful opportunity to show that we could do these things that we love doing while taking care of each other.

And I also love the sense of modesty that happened between unions and guilds and departments, because nobody was the expert in that moment. There’s a lot of sense of like, well, this is how we do things. But this is how we’ve always done it. Whereas this was just…there was a really beautiful sense of collaboration, because it was like, Here, here’s our set of suggestions. Here are our protocols, but tell us what you think. Tell us what works. Tell us what’s realistic, and let’s keep making these better. And I love that! It took a lot of time, and it certainly cost some of the hours from shooting. But also, I think that sense of like, hey, we want to take care of each other while doing this, and we’re not going to do it if we can’t take care of each other, which I think is not a philosophy that’s always followed in the industry.

I live in Los Angeles so we’re all up in…[laughs] You hear things.

Randall Okita: Well, that’s it, right? And so, to be able to sort of a) take on the sense that, you know, listen, none of us have been here before so let’s figure this out together. Which I think is actually true on every set all the time forever, because we’ve never been in this sort of space so let’s not get too confident about what we’re doing. Let’s not get too lazy. But then also again that sense of trust and like okay, now we’re here taking care of each other on a very basic level. Your health is my health. Now let’s do something that we love, and let’s see if we can we can deliver something that people can enjoy and take something from it and find meaning, but also have a great time, which they deserve, because we’re also getting through it all here, right?

Jessica Parker Kennedy as “Kelly” in SEE FOR ME l IFC Midnight

Yeah. So, with the ‘See for Me’ app moments, as well as other video caller moments in the film, was that added in post-COVID surging, or was that already in the script?

Randall Okita: Oh, that was already in the script.

Okay. And then how did you tackle directing someone through the phone, because I never know how they shoot those particular types of scenes.

Randall Okita: Oh, I see. Yeah. Great question. So, we did a combination of fancy footwork, and a lot of it was movie magic because, in the film, a lot of the conversations are happening between Sophie and Kelly. Particularly, they’re happening while they’re in two different spaces. And so, those things were shot at different times and, as a testament to Skyler’s incredible performance, Kelly, played by the wonderful Jessica Parker Kennedy, wasn’t there for a lot of those moments. So, Skyler was performing with somebody like me, who is a terrible actor, or somebody else off-screen would be reading those lines. We knew and we talked about where Sophie was at in different moments and how scared she was, or where Sophie was just coming from and so, we would calibrate that performance. And then, of course, we shot Jessica at a different time. So, they actually hadn’t spent a lot of time in the same spaces.

Which works out, considering they don’t know each other.

Randall Okita: Well, that’s it. That’s it, and they were still able to build this sort of sense of camaraderie through these conversations. And so, it was a little complicated in that we had to keep those things in mind. But it was also a lot of fun. And, as you said, it sort of reflects what’s happening in the film. So, the sense of isolation for Sophie, I think, certainly played into the way we were shooting.

I always like to ask what from previous projects people learned and applied to current projects. So, from The Lock Picker, was there anything that you learned from that project that you applied to SEE FOR ME? Or did that all go out the window with COVID?

Randall Okita: No, absolutely. I think one of the biggest things that I took from The Lock Picker…so, The Lock Picker, we made in a kind of unique partnership with a high school in Toronto, and there was a lot of students from the school that were involved in the film in front of the camera, and behind the camera and our lead. It was his first role as an actor. And so, building that sense of trust, and kind of creating a language around the character performance and creating it for the first time, and something that we could sort of develop a shorthand while engaging in the process I think that was a big part of it. Skyler is a very accomplished voice performer, and they’ve done a ton of video games and animation and things like that. But this was their first lead role in a feature film. And so, we were able to figure out a way to talk and figure out a way to talk about the character and build that trust and build that shorthand in terms of performance and what we were shooting. And so, I think I took that from that experience, and that didn’t throw me off the fact that Skyler hadn’t done a bunch of feature films before. Yeah, I think that was maybe the biggest one.

Skyler Davenport as “Sophie” in SEE FOR ME l IFC Midnight

You had a ton of curveballs in this shoot, but what was the most difficult scene that you guys had to execute? Like, difficult for you either on a technical level? On location level? Logistics?

Randall Okita: Great question. There [were] a lot of challenges. I think what comes to mind is there was a particular scene where we were…it was a little bit complicated, and there were some complicated effects happening, and we were running out of time. I think because our hours were shortened by COVID and our hours were short by the protocols. Because everything took a little more time, so we had actually less time to shoot. And then again, coming back when we started shooting in winter, then now it’s summer, we had less night to fit everything into.

And so, I think I remember I had to say that the crew like, we have to be so ahead of the game. Obviously, everybody’s efficient, and everybody’s good at their jobs when they’re doing these things. But just to let you know this, I had to explain sort of the math of like, we had this many hours, and that was the plan. We had this many days. We still only have this many days, but within those days, there’s less time. Plus, we have to do all these protocols, so there’s less time. So we really need it, but we still have to finish shooting the story. So we need everybody to come with everything memorized and have to be like Navy SEAL ninjas with telepathic communication, and just to be able to not to do all the bells and whistles and the fancy things of the many takes just to have the story completed.

And everybody just really stepped up. It’s one of those things where I think everybody really appreciated being able to come back to work after that was taken away for a little bit. People were grateful to be there and willing to really fight to get the film done, and wanting to see the end of the story of the film itself, and then for us to get it out there. So then there was a particular night where all that kind of complexity came to a head and it was like, Okay, guys, here we go, we really have to show up. And it happened and people really, again, with that sense of taking care of each other, and being safe, and also, we got to get this all done and really make sure that we got it canned. That’s what comes to mind.

So there was nothing that you guys had to cut for time?

Randall Okita: There were a few things that were trimmed, but nothing that was cut for time, because of that, which is in and of itself, kind of a miracle and a big testament to our producers, Kristy Neville and Matt Code, who were able to keep us moving and keep us functional.

To wrap things up, what would you like viewers to take from the film? 

Randall Okita: I hope that they have a great time. First and foremost, I hope that they come along for that thrill ride, and I hope that they get into the adventure and get behind our underdog character of Sophie. And then, I think underneath that, if I can examine those layers or put a little extra, since different opportunities, different stories that represent characters that we haven’t seen before can add a sort of richness and a unique and lovely element to stories, and that they can elevate them as well while still having a great time. While still being able to go on these fun cinematic rides. That’s what I would hope that would also sort of percolate in there.

SEE FOR ME will be released by IFC Midnight in select theaters, on Digital Platforms, and Video On Demand on January 7, 2022. In our review, DarkSkyLady said that SEE FOR ME is “not only a lively watch, but it has also added twists beyond the standard fare of the genre of a home invasion.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Musnicky
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