“I’m bringing it back! I’m leading the charge!” laughs Michael Mohan, a screenwriter and filmmaker known for the Netflix high school sitcom Everything Sucks! and the romantic dramedy Save the Date, whose latest film, The Voyeurs, is available for Amazon Prime subscribers right now. The comeback he’s taken upon himself to spearhead is that luridly popular genre that blazed through theaters in the 80’s and 90’s before mysteriously falling out of favor for nearly twenty years – the erotic thriller.
Remember those? They were the kinds of films that almost perfectly encapsulated the ‘guilty pleasure,’ and no one can fully dismiss or pretend to be AbOvE iT aLL because there’s at least one that you kinda sorta low-key love, don’t lie. Mohan certainly didn’t hold back the love himself with The Voyeurs, which goes all in on sex, infidelity, dual identities, subterfuge, emotional cruelty, and whole lot of other curveballs that often thrill.
It is not the kind of movie you would expect a filmmaker like Mohan to tackle with such enthusiasm, given his filmography leading up to it. “It’s interesting, the narrative of my career has not been a straight line, ‘point A to point B’ or anything,” he muses, “I will say I’ve always been interested in intimacy and human relationships. That was the focus of my short films. But your audiences is… more limited with short films. I wanted to expand.”
And he has reached a progressively wider audience with the comedies he worked on with Ben York Jones and Jeffrey Brown. But this is his first truly singular feature; “A lot of the projects I’ve been working on were collaborations. In between the features [and shows] have been my short films. This is the first feature-length project I conceived by myself.”
It can’t wait to get started – there are no expository ‘As you know…’ conversations, no lengthy dramaturgical table-setting. Just a brief minute-and-a-half long conversation between our POV couple Thomas and Pippa, and then straight to spying on our surveilled couple Seb and Julia. “Those ‘setup’ scenes always feel so obligatory,” says Mohan, “And yes, there are deeper themes, and all that, but more than anything I wanted this movie to be fun.”
He expands on the key to getting us into the headspace of our protagonists in such a short amount of time: “In casting Sydney [Sweeney] and Justice [Smith], I got really lucky. With Sydney, I needed an actress who was very grounded and relatable, and we’ve worked together on Everything Sucks!. She is such a down-to-earth person who I knew could communicate a range of emotions as Pippa falls down this rabbit hole and makes decisions that the audience won’t necessarily agree with. But as her friend, I was a little nervous about asking her to take such an intense role. She thankfully leapt at the opportunity.”
But while Sweeney (who was interviewed earlier this week by Joey) and Smith were more than game for the twisted histrionics of The Voyeurs, their director did his part to ease them to a level of familiarity that an audience would identify with. “We kept things really light and comfortable on set. One thing our crew did was build a giant set [of the studio apartment] in Montreal and we did rehearsals on set as it was being built. They are naturally funny together, and I wanted to lean into that instead of trying to shoehorn an outside sensibility.”
A very different approach, with its own set of challenges and opportunities, had to be taken for the other couple of this story, played by Ben Hardy and Natasha Liu Bordizzo, as they were the objects of Thomas and Pippa’s surveillance. Since Pippa’s point-of-view takes up the vast majority of the film, we are at an equal remove from their lives as she is, especially during the first half of the narrative. According to Mohan, this was very much an intentional decision, and every approach he took to showcasing the mysterious couple, from directing their performances to how to frame their scenes, was intended to heighten that remove. He explains, “It is a long time before we even hear their voices. Everything has to come off fluid and lived-in, and making it feel like we really were spying on them.”
Did that mean no surprises were allowed for their scenes? Not quite; “Ben and Natasha had free reign, but the catch was there were no cameras in their apartment room. We lit it in such a way that allowed for spontaneity and unpredictability.” For blocking, he had a special directive to ensure believability: “We created ‘anti-marks.’ Spots on the floor where they couldn’t stand. Aside from those areas, we encouraged them to stop and move around in ways that would make our camera operators ‘overcorrect’ to keep up with them, to add to the immersion and feeling that you’re with Pippa and following her gaze.”
So if you’re in the mood for sharing that feeling of perverse intrusion, that blend of emotional viciousness with absurdity that our parents’ generation were really ravenous for, Mohan’s latest may very well be what you’ve been desiring.
“Movies like Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle don’t restrain themselves. That’s what I love about them.”