One thing great about Sundance is its ability to elevate new voices, perspectives, and topics. That's why playing the fest is always a major goal for filmmakers of all backgrounds—the event provides a platform like none other, and everybody's journey onto that platform is wonderfully different.
For first-time feature director Chloe Okuno, that meant taking her film Watcher through several years of development, shooting on location in Bucharest during a high point of the pandemic, and overcoming several challenges on set.
Watcher is a psychological thriller that follows Julia (played by Maika Monroe, in another delicious horror role). Julia has just moved to Romania with her fiancé (Karl Glusman) when she notices the man in the window across the way (Burn Gorman, giving an amazingly understated performance). He's always watching, it seems, but no one takes Julia seriously when she expresses her discomfort. She's very much alone, unable to speak the country's language, and increasingly paranoid. Oh, yeah, there's also a serial killer running rampant in the city.
It's a classic cat-and-mouse thriller, with masterful pacing from Okuno, and stunning cinematography by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, who makes it feel like danger is lurking around every corner. Horror fans will likely be seeing this one very soon, and they won't be disappointed.
No Film School spoke to Okuno via phone ahead of the film's premiere. Take a deep dive into her experiences, and learn from them!
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I know that your background is a lot of horror filmmaking and thrillers. So what do you like about working in those genres?
Chloe Okuno: I think for me—I grew up loving horror movies and genre movies—that they just spoke to me. I think obviously I wanted to emulate that in my own work. But on a deeper level, I always felt like the reason I probably am so attracted to genre movies and to horror movies specifically is because it's a way of controlling my anxiety, watching and absorbing things that are frightening. But you're doing it in a situation where you know it's not real.
And I think making horror movies, you can literally orchestrate something that maybe has been frightening you for years, but you are the person who's orchestrating it. So it loses some of its power in some way, or has a cathartic effect on your psyche. I don't know. But I think that's probably why it's just been something that's interested me for all these years.
NFS: I think that is one reason that this film resonated with me. I feel like anyone would be scared in a foreign country where they don't know the language, but especially a lone woman. When she's walking home alone at one point, I'm thinking, "I'm scared for her right now because it's late."
Okuno: That's great. Yeah. I've lived abroad. I've had the experience of, even not abroad, even here, walking home alone at night. It's small things that aren't like big horror set pieces, but they still get under your skin and feel frightening when you have to do them day after day.
'Watcher'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: The film visually is also really pretty on all levels—costuming, cinematography. What were some of your inspirations for the film's tone and the visual language?
Okuno: Yeah, there were quite a few. I think the big ones were—Rosemary's Baby was definitely an influence, certainly in composition, and I think narratively as well. Just it's a true psychological thriller and is an apartment-based movie, where we're really creating a tone and a feeling with the production design and the cinematography. Se7en was also an influence. I think David Fincher just generally always shoots his movies so beautifully. So also in terms of lighting and color palette, that was something that me and the DP and the production designer looked at quite heavily.
There's a movie called Perfect Blue, which is actually a Japanese animated movie from Satoshi Kon. But that also just has all of these gorgeous wide shots, where you have a woman who feels like she's being watched, and she's very isolated. So that ended up being a big influence.
The final one I would say is Three Colors: Blue from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Also a very different movie, but it is about a woman who is alone in this city trying to just navigate this trauma in her past. And that movie is photographed so beautifully, and I think had that European feel that we were going for.
NFS: I was also intrigued by the decision to obscure your villain's face, at least for most of the film. Burn Gorman is just so amazing. I love watching him as an actor. Can you talk about that decision to hide him for a lot of the film?
Okuno: From the beginning, that was such a big part of it. I wanted to make sure that we were doing everything we can, so that it feels like he's literally getting closer and closer to us and to Julia by extension. A big part of it was just finding ways to obscure him, shooting him in really wide shots, shooting him out of focus, making sure that if we see him, it's just like a sliver of the side of his face.
And then again as the movie progresses, I think he gets closer to her, and we physically get closer to him. There was a choice of having the camera closer, but also shooting him and shooting Julia on these wider lenses. So we move from a longer focal length to a wider focal length. So it's like the camera is physically moving closer and closer to her. Obviously, there are moments when we don't adhere to that sort of structure, but that was the goal.
'Watcher'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: I saw that you say the film took about six years to make. What did that development process look like?
Okuno: I was wrong. It was five years, because I got hired on the movie in 2017. It was a fairly standard situation, in that the script Watcher came to me, and I knew that they were talking to a few different filmmakers. And I went and pitched on it and got the job, I think, because I just put in this huge amount of effort and did this big presentation, and I was very motivated to get hired onto something.
Independent filmmaking is difficult because there [are] just so many times that the movie falls through for a variety of reasons. And on this one, we spent a couple years developing it. And then it sort of stagnated for a little bit. And then Roy Lee came on and Steven Schneider came on as producers, and we developed out the script even further. It takes a very long time for the magic combination of the script feeling ready and financing happening and the casting being in the right place at the right time.
And it just took that length of time for it to all come together the way it did. But obviously, I'm so happy with the way it turned out.
NFS: And you also said the shoot was difficult due to the pandemic, but can you talk more specifically about the challenges you faced on the film and how you overcame them?
Okuno: Yeah, the pandemic, certainly, that was a challenge. We shot, I think March, April, of 2021, on location in Bucharest. So the cases at the time were pretty high. People didn't really have access to the vaccine yet. And just on a basic practical level, it becomes very difficult. You have to portion a lot of your budget to things like testing and other measures. And it just means that you feel like you're on even more tenuous ground and the movie could be shut down at any moment. So we were very fortunate that we managed to make it all the way through. But that certainly was a challenge.
On the ground, I think the first couple weeks, we were doing night shoots on location in freezing cold weather, so that was another challenge.
And then for myself personally, I would just say that as a filmmaker, I've done enough shorts, and I had just come off of V/H/S/94. So I felt quite confident, but that doesn't mean that other people had that same level of confidence in me, because it was my first feature. And I was also in a different country. And frankly, I think the fact that I am a female director probably played some part in the dynamic of the set. So that's always challenging under any circumstance.
But in this movie, the nice thing was that I felt like it was speaking to the emotion of the character, of the movie that I'm making. And she's a person who's surrounded by doubt and has to navigate her way through it in a way that was very scary and hard. And I just felt like I could feed what I was feeling into the story, and I think it actually ended up in that way having a positive effect.
'Watcher'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance InstituteNFS: You mentioned the testing and the cost of a pandemic production. Do you think it's possible for indie filmmakers, in particular, to still make features during the pandemic with all of those added costs?
Okuno: Absolutely. Yeah. I think quite a few movies have—independent, low-budget movies—have managed to move forward. Obviously, it is a cost, but it just means that sometimes you might have to be a little more creative in your filmmaking and how you're achieving things. I mean, maybe it means you have a few less days, maybe it means there's some other part of your budget that you need to sacrifice, but the movie can absolutely still get made. No question.
NFS: What advice would you give to up-and-coming directors?
Okuno: It's a big question. God, what would I have told myself two years ago, or five years ago, or 10 years ago? I think for me, I felt like there is an extraordinary amount of pressure on any filmmaker when it comes to making their first feature. And I think you can oftentimes feel that it's sort of make-or-break, like it has to be perfect. It has to launch your career.
Certainly, I think we've all heard these fabulous stories about filmmakers, like Tarantino, who makes Reservoir Dogs, and it just launches them into the stratosphere. And I felt personally like that pressure probably prevented me in some ways from pursuing things that would've been really cool opportunities.
This movie is a movie that I came on as a director for hire. It wasn't like this insane passion project that was my particular story to tell. But at the same time, over those five years, I really felt like because I had the support of these wonderful producers, I was able to make it into my own story.
And I just think that for young filmmakers who are trying to make that first movie, I think you can really be open to opportunities and just know that it may take a long time, but there's definitely ways where you can evolve something. And if you have the passion for it, I think you can really put your stamp onto something and just be open to all the myriad ways that you can tell your story.