If you are a fan of slow-burn thrillers, you’ll most likely be impressed with Chloe Okuno’s feature film debut Watcher, which editor Joey Magidson reviewed positively here out of the Sundance Film Festival. This tense, moody film follows Julia (Maika Monroe), an American who moves overseas with her Romanian husband (Karl Glusman) to his native Bucharest. While her husband is away at work, Julia is frequently alone, isolated in her apartment building. One night, while peering out of her window, she spots a stranger staring back at her from the shadows in the apartment across the way. She soon suspects she is being followed by this man. Local news reports sensationalize a serial killer dubbed “The Spider” hunting women in her neighborhood. Could her stalker be The Spider?
The premise may seem familiar from movies like Rear Window and its many scions, but Chloe Okuno wisely focuses her attention less on the plot and more on exploring Julia’s perspective. She portrays the helplessness and isolation Julia feels from moving across the world to a new culture without any friends or family. Julia is a stranger in a strange land. This helplessness is compounded by her career-focused husband who casually dismisses her fear that she is being followed as mere paranoia. It’s rare to see a thriller that exploits the “young pretty girl as victim” trope as a mirror into the everyday vulnerability of existing as a woman in society; the fear of violence by men, the objectifying gaze that is inescapable, the inability to be heard or believed.
“We leaned hard into this sort of question: is he watching her or is she watching him?” said Chloe.
“That can definitely be sort of a mindfuck. Obviously, a lot of this movie is about her feeling this oppressive gaze, which is both us [the audience] a little bit as the viewer of this movie, but sort of through the eyes of this watcher figure. And I think some of that is sort of speaking to what women generally feel in their lives being the sort of subjects of objectification and the male gaze, and how that can start to be a little exhausting. And the only way that she’s able to reclaim that power is to turn that gaze around on this person and become the watcher herself. So, yeah, I think that’s definitely that the title does a nice job of addressing that duality.”
Did you ever wonder why so many Canadian cities double as New York and LA? Locations are a huge part of producing any film. Tax incentives and production costs mostly determine where a film is produced. In fact, Bucharest was not originally the setting for Watcher at all, but a necessity for getting the film off the ground. But any good filmmaker treats these obstacles as an opportunity.
“The original script was set in New York,” said Chloe. “I think in that version Julia was from a small town and she was moving to a big city, it was sort of like the Gwyneth Paltrow and Seven approach a little bit.”
Instead of fighting against her producers, Chloe saw it as an opportunity.
“Even then I think I had a little bit of a sense that we could be doing more, an element that was missing. And when the producers told me, “Hey, we’re gonna go shoot this in Bucharest”, I was like, “perfect”. If they are willing to embrace this move and incorporate it into the scripts, then I think this could be the thing that sort of pushes us to where we need to be narratively,” said Chloe. “I love the idea of making a genre version of Lost In Translation. And it really helped sort of clarify her character’s journey, and just added this whole other layer to it.
Chloe referenced and pulled from some of her favorite directors to elevate her thriller.
“I think from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby was one we talked about a lot. Also The Tenant and Repulsion, Lost in Translation ended up being quite influential. When we moved it to Romania, there was a Krzysztof Kieślowski movie Three Colors Blue, that actually had a pretty big influence on the screenplay. And also the visuals of it, you know, even though it’s a very different movie in its own genre; it’s about a woman who is alone in this new apartment, recovering from a trauma. David Fincher, I think, is always a big reference to draw upon: Seven, Gone Girl.“
Chloe Okuno is definitely a fresh director to watch (pun intended) and we’ll be keeping an eye out for her future projects. Watcher is in theaters this weekend and will stream exclusively on Shudder later this year.
My interview with Chloe Okuno can be viewed in its entirety below.