[Sundance Interview] Chloe Okuno for WATCHER

[Sundance Interview] Chloe Okuno for WATCHER
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
In WATCHER, a young woman moves into a new apartment with her fiancé and is tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent building.

Chloe Okuno has directed two short films, Slut and V/H/S/94’s “Storm Drain” with fan-favorite character Raatma. HAIL RAATMA.  Her first feature-length film is WATCHER, which stars Maika Monroe and WATCHER had its world premiere at Sundance last week. I spoke with Okuno about the film’s influences, her directing style, how all of her films have addressed what it’s like to be a woman, and Elvis the Cat.

I read that WATCHER was originally set in New York and you had to change the setting to Romania.

Chloe Okuno: Yes, because of the pandemic.

I wanted to ask, was it intentional to not translate the Romanian speech in the film?

Chloe Okuno: Yes, it is very intentional. So early on, when I was rewriting the script to take place in Romania, obviously, in the script, there’s quite a bit of Romanian dialogue. I think that was one of the first things I did. I put a note in the script that said, “This is the Romanian dialogue, but we’re trying to stay true to Julia’s perspective, so we’re not using subtitles for this.” I think I knew that would be controversial, of course. I think it can be a little bit alienating for some people, especially if they watch the movie with closed captions. I really do give great credit to the producers here, because they were really supportive of the choice, and they totally got it.  I think that a lot of people really appreciate the fact that even if it is uncomfortable for you as a viewer, that’s kind of the point. We’re forcing you to experience what Julia is experiencing. It is very, very uncomfortable to not be able to understand people when they’re talking around you. I’ve experienced that having lived abroad. I knew that could be very, very isolating, very alienating.

That was the conversation that I had with my editor. Sarah. Wow, if this is this intentional, and we both suspected that it was, then it was a stellar storytelling device, because it immediately made both of us, in our respective viewings of the film, feel like we were alone. It worked splendidly in my opinion.

Chloe Okuno: Oh, that’s amazing. Thank you. I feel like I don’t think there’s almost nothing that the Romanians are saying that is any kind of crucial information. You know, they’re probably saying approximately what you expect and the information eventually comes across whether via Francis, although sometimes he doesn’t exactly translate what they’re saying, because he also has an agenda. But I think there’s maybe only one tiny piece of information that you get if you’re a Romanian speaker that you wouldn’t get if you’re an English speaker and it has to do with Elvis the cat. It’s pretty minor.

I did like Elvis. There’s the tradition of the cat scare and I think it was also very well done, because yeah, it got me. It worked. I noticed that you worked with horror film and psychological film tropes and standards and used them to your advantage. Obviously, you put a lot of thought and planning into your films. What makes you work with those tropes?

Chloe Okuno: I think for every movie I make, and certainly for this movie, I’m looking very carefully at the work of other filmmakers who are the greats. How could you not be inspired by people who have done things that made you want to be a filmmaker in the first place? I really enjoy looking at the work of people like Polanski and Fincher and just sort of seeing how they use the craft to their advantage. Is there anything I can do to sort of follow their lead, but at the same time, I hope that you know, it’s not just an homage film. As much as Polanski and Fincher and Hitchcock and De Palma are present in the DNA of the movie, my hope is that I’m bringing enough of my own personal experience into it and details that are really true and unique to me that it still feels like something that is not just sort of rehashing tropes. Some people may disagree with that and have vocally.

That’s the thing. I think that using the standards and the setups that are traditional in horror and putting your own stamp on them is a very clever way to sneak up on your audience because they’re expecting that standard. I think what you’ve done is you have put a real stamp of your own self and who you are on the film through the story, and the character that Maika Monroe is playing. I think you’ve really given, obviously, women a lot to relate to. But I also think you’ve given men an example of how what they’re doing isn’t exactly fair.

Chloe Okuno: Yeah, no, thank you for that. I definitely wanted to show these moments that have happened in my life that I think a lot of women experience that maybe don’t seem on the surface, like overtly and intensely scary, but they actually are. Especially when you sort of live with them for the entirety of your life. Even things like walking down the street or going to the supermarket or going into a movie theater, if you feel like there is a possible threat. Oftentimes, I think that there is for women and we encounter that far too frequently. It’s certainly scary enough for me to justify making a movie about it. A lot of women have said to me that they connected with it, they felt it on a cellular level. Hopefully, the film is able to shed some light on what that’s like for men who don’t entirely understand that experience, having not had it for themselves. I also feel like, just to go back to the filmmaker discussion. Sorry, I don’t know why I’m talking about it. This is really random, but one of my favorite drag queens talked about how her drag [persona] is the expression of how [in the drag queen’s words] “I’m gonna take everything that I love and put it together into this character.” and how “that’s the true expression of myself.” I always feel like, for filmmakers, it’s kind of the same thing. Of course, we’re referencing and riffing on other filmmakers who have come before us. But what’s unique is these very particular filmmakers that I love so much and these influences that have shaped me. I’m taking that and putting that out into the world. That it becomes the true expression of me. Hopefully, that’s unique enough, even if it’s just like that very particular combination of influences.

I think sometimes people are looking for something to give you a hard time with.  I mean, really, every filmmaker is influenced by other filmmakers, and anybody who says, “Oh no, I’m totally original and I don’t use anything from anybody else.”? They are such liars.

Chloe Okuno: I would love to see what a movie would look like from someone who had never seen another movie before. It was fascinating, but it would also probably be terrible.

I really connected strongly with it. Because there’s a lot in it about how isolated you can feel as a woman and how regular, everyday things that you do are frightening. When you feel like somebody is following you. It’s even worse when everybody you know doesn’t believe you and calls your judgment and your intuition into question. They question you because, of course, there’s nothing wrong because when I walk out there nothing like this happens to me.

Chloe Okuno: Completely 100% Yeah, that’s what it is.

I did watch your first short Slut. It was great. Of course, with Slut and “Storm Drain” and now WATCHER, you’ve had three different sets of styles that you have worked with.  I noticed there’s a really icy elegance to WATCHER and that connects with the influence of DePalma and Hitchcock. I wanted to congratulate you on that. It’s really a very elegant film. I don’t know if that’s what you were aiming for, but if it was, you succeeded.

Chloe Okuno: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I mean, it. It absolutely was. I think that as always, as a filmmaker, you’re helped so much by your collaborators. But I think my job is to have conversations early on with the production designer, and the cinematographer and the costume designer to say, “Okay, this is the overall vision of what we’re going for. This is the color palette that we want to try to adhere to. This is the story of that and why, hopefully, it’s working in tandem with the emotional journey of our protagonist.” But their work is so spectacular and Bucharest itself, I think, is a staggeringly beautiful, but occasionally cold city in its architecture.

Even in the time of year we shot, it was freezing cold. It was always raining or snowing. So I love the mention of the sort of atmospheric nature of it, because I’m thinking yes, there was a lot of atmosphere. There was a lot of rain. There’s a lot of fog. It was freezing cold. I think from the very beginning, I wanted to have them, Julia and Francis, sort of live in this apartment that is very elegant, but a little bit cold. I think the idea of it is that when you walk in, this space, it feels like “Aren’t we so lucky to live in this beautiful large apartment?” But then it takes on this almost uncomfortable, chilliness and it allows you to feel the shadows creeping in on her. It allows you to shoot her in compositions where she looks very small. This is where, of course, Rosemary’s Baby was such a massive part of the visual inspiration for the story. Maika also really brought a lot into the style of the character. She really was a big part of those discussions. She just has such an innate sense of style. I think that really showed,

Yeah, it really did. She looked a lot different than she has in previous films and her character work was very good. I wanted to ask you how you work with actors and what it was like to work with her.

Chloe Okuno: Maika was so incredible. I adored her. She really is just a very delightful person to interact with on a daily basis. But she’s also extremely professional and so good at what she does. I mean, the thing that I love about her is that some actors, I think, can find it a little bit restrictive the way I work, because I really like to plan. I really have a very particular kind of blocking in mind, usually, because I’ve sort of like pre-visualized the entire story along with the DP.  I think some actors don’t enjoy that, because they feel like it’s limiting.

But Maika, I think, is such an incredible actress, and she works so well in the genre, because she’s very technical. She really enjoys trying to tailor her performance to what we’re trying to do with the camera. You know, I read about how it was, who was it? I think it was like Greta Garbo, she knew, in her bones, about lighting, and she could angle her face in a way to catch the lighting perfectly. Maika is one of those kinds of actors. She just has the best sense of the camera. She has the best sense of lighting, she has the best sense of physically what to do to sort of maximize what we’re shooting, in addition to just being such a powerful emotional force. I think she’s spectacular. I’m so glad that people are, I mean they already knew with It Follows and The Guest and all of her previous work, I was a massive fan, but I’m really happy that people are responding to her performance in this.

It’s really the centerpiece of the film but also the man who plays The Watcher and I hope I don’t get his name wrong, Burn?

Chloe Okuno: Burn Gorman.

You cast the role so well. He’s great, because his face is just…I mean, it’s off-putting and frightening, but it’s also kind of sad at the same time so you have sympathy for him.

Chloe Okuno: Completely. Burn was also, I mean, he is another truly wonderful human being and just brought such positive energy to the set. He’s not, at all, a scary creep, he’s a very wonderful man.

He’s just a really good actor.

Chloe Okuno: He is a really good actor, he plays it really, really well. I feel like if I had any concern casting Burn, it’s that if people are familiar with his previous work, I think he sort of already has a reputation for playing villains. But honestly, for me, I felt like we had to choose someone who would have that immediate, physical impact of “this is someone I’m a little bit afraid of”. Burn is able to do that. Also, to your point, he’s able to convey a kind of sadness and his character and even a tenderness that makes you think, maybe this person is just misunderstood. So, yeah,  he’s completely brilliant. Burn had ideas to show a more sweet side to the character. Sweet is maybe the wrong word. There’s a sequence where she’s following him through the streets. Burn said, “Can my character do something to show a different side of him?” Then in that location, there just happened to be all these pigeons around already. So we got him some bird feed. So there’s a moment where he feeds the pigeons.

I remember that. It’s a moment where it really kind of makes you think about where the story is going and makes you feel off-kilter which adds to the tension. It’s a great idea and makes his character much more than a one-dimensional portrayal.

The great news is that IFC Films and Shudder have picked up WATCHER for distribution as Sundance came to a close and that means you’ll be able to watch it sometime soon. Chloe Okuno is a director whose career I will follow with excitement and great interest and I recommend that you watch her films and do the same. She is a very intriguing emerging talent as a director and a writer with such an obvious love for cinema and all that it means to human beings. She has so much to say and the ability to bring an understanding of how human beings really feel to the audience through the genre of horror.

Want to learn more about the film? Check out my review from Sundance here!

Dolores Quintana
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