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“What Would You Do?”: Writer/Director Michael Mohan on Screen Sex, Spying and the Making of His Erotic Thriller, The Voyeurs

The Voyeurs (Photo: Bertrand Calmeau, courtesy Amazon Studios)

The cinema of scopophilia is given a generational, technological and gender-reversing twist in Michael Mohan’s The Voyeurs, opening today on Amazon Prime. Pippa (Sydney Sweeney, of Euphoria and The White Lotus) and Thomas (Generation‘s Justice Smith) are a young couple who move into a gorgeous Montreal loft apartment sporting one ethically dubious perk: clear sightlines into an even more gorgeous pad occupied by an oversexed fashion photographer, Seb (Ben Hardy), and his striking girlfriend Julia (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). For the new couple, the action across the road is initially an aphrodisiac, a kickstart to libidos on the early wane. Soon, though, when Julia heads out of town and a Seb, in a Me Too-inspired storyline, begins to seduce the string of models arriving at his apartment on gosees, Pippa has feelings of solidarity with Julia. With the listening device Pippa and Thomas plant in the opposing apartment providing both aural eroticism as well as clues as to the ethical-or-not nature of Seb’s polyamory, The Voyeurs then spins itself into an increasingly complex game of paranoia, stalking and revenge, with Mohan cleverly riffing on so many of the sub-genre’s classics. Rear Window, of course, is the obvious reference, with James Stewart’s middle-aged commitment-phobe being replaced by Sweeney’s wide-eyed young young professional adjusting to life outside the dating apps. A Blow-Up poster is a hat tip to the film’s fashion milieu, while the auditory surveillance depicts the unsettling consumerization and democratization of technologies that were the power tools of specialists and elites in films like The Conversation and Blow Out. And if the actions of spying drive much of the film’s first two acts, the final act delves into the thorny questions of appropriation and image ownership in an age when everyone has surveillance tools in their back pocket. Amidst it all, however, Mohan remains fixed on the simple pleasures of the genre — the actual scenes of one couple looking across the street to the apartment of another are among the film’s best. He and DP Elisha Christian masterfully choreograph the gazes and sightlines, making Seb and Julia’s apartment both a believable real space as well as a site of complicated fantasy.

The Voyeurs is Mohan’s third feature; his first, the micro budget One Too Many Mornings, screened at Sundance back in 2010, and he followed it up with the 2012 comedy Save the Date. In the intervening years, Mohan continued to make shorts and created the Netflix series Everything Sucks. His career trajectory — including how this new film landed at Amazon — is one of the several topics he thoughtfully engaged with us on over email. Among the others: how he and Christian handled the spying scenes, the “steamy moral dilemma” sub-genre, and working with Sweeney to ground the film’s twists and turns in emotional reality.

Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about the film and its genre. The Voyeurs was announced early in Amazon head Jen Salke’s tenure as an example of a kind of “sexy date night” erotic thriller that hasn’t been made as much in recent years and that Amazon was reviving. Was The Voyeurs a film written and developed in response to this prompt or a film you had been working on previously? Tell us about the film’s origins.

Mohan: The exploration of these themes started about a decade ago for me. To take a tiny step back, I’ve often felt that scenes of intimacy in cinema tend to be obligatory.  You could theoretically remove them from the movie, and it’d have no impact on the story.  And more often than not, its portrayal is not only quite chaste but also emotionally redundant.  In real life, sex is sometimes funny, sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes sex is really sad; but it’s rarely depicted as such.

So I had made two short films (Ex-Sex in 2011, and Pink Grapefruit, in 2015), that endeavored to portray the act of sex as story, where the scenes of intimacy revealed something new about the characters, advanced the narrative, or built a sense of tension. I found that with my approach to these short films, the sex felt a bit more visceral than you’re used to. When the films played at Sundance, you could almost feel the temperature in the theater rise. And so I wanted to figure out how to retain what was unique about that work, while bringing it to a larger canvas.

Soon after, I discovered the lost genre of erotic thrillers, which I describe as junk food that’s secretly healthy for you.  They’re so effortless and fun to watch, but the great ones sneak in these complex relationships and themes. It’s a total mystery to me why the studios had stopped making them.  And so while this might sound lofty, I saw this great potential to harness the instincts that came naturally to me in these shorts, while simultaneously reinventing this genre for a modern audience.

As for this specific story, I was visiting a friend who had just moved to downtown LA.  I looked out his window, and I saw, across the street, a couple who were walking around their apartment totally naked. I immediately felt this sense of tension.  I wanted to look, but knew that I shouldn’t.

The lightbulb went off.

That said, the timing was everything, in that we presented the project to Amazon right around the time Jen Salke was looking for these “sexy date night” movies as you mentioned.  We were in pre-production a few months later.

Filmmaker: And with regards to erotic thrillers, what are some of the ones that were influential to The Voyeurs?

Mohan: To get more specific, I think the phrase “erotic thriller” might mean different things to different people.  One might think of the sweaty neo-noirs like Body Heat or Wild Things. You might also think of [blank] from hell movies, like the nanny from hell in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.  But this film was more inspired by what I call steamy moral dilemmas.

Think of Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal; where the questions the characters face have controversial answers (such as “Would you have an affair with Robert Redford for a million dollars?”)

What I love about these films is that you’re going to have an incredibly strong opinion about what the character should do.  And the person sitting next to you might have the exact opposite opinion. And you get to have this fun, passionate debate afterwards that might get a little uncomfortable by simply asking the question, “What would you do?”

My hope is that The Voyeurs is part of that tradition, where people don’t want to miss out on the argument that inevitably happens after the film’s over.

Filmmaker: One thing that’s changed so much since the heyday of the erotic thriller is the proliferation of new ways to communicate — as well as to spy on or to accidentally divulge — through technology. There’s a high-tech element to your movie, but the central act of voyeurism goes back to Rear Window and earlier — direct, visual witnessing from one window to another. Tell us about your choice to retain this visual directness in this age of high technology, and how did you achieve the sightlines between the two buildings? Did you employ VFX or do things practically?

Mohan: I knew that the very best way to believe the spatial relationship of these two apartments was to do it as practically as possible.  I’d need to find two perfectly suitable apartment buildings to shoot the exterior scenes, and then we’d construct the 9th story interiors and facades side-by-side on stage.

Montreal was the only city in North America that had an available soundstage large enough for our needs.  So myself, our production designer Adam Reamer, and our cinematographer Elisha Christian scoured the city, looking for two buildings that not only had the proper distance between them, but also felt representative of each of the characters.  Pippa and Thomas’ apartment had to feel down-to-earth, homey, and affordable, while Seb and Julia’s apartment needed to be a bit more upscale and cold.  We discovered our two buildings by happenstance, just looking into an alleyway and stumbling upon them.

Then our location manager, my hero, Lou Bengle had to pull off the impossible. He and his team needed to get approvals, not just by the building managers, but by every single tenant facing the courtyard our shoot would be happening in. Luckily, the people of Montreal are incredibly supportive of the arts, so culturally speaking we had a major advantage. Lou and his team worked his magic, and we landed the location.

We then built the ninth floor interiors to the specifications required by the story, keeping all the various sightlines in mind.  Reamer was so adept at creating subtle foreground elements as well to add further depth to these boxy spaces. And in looking off the set, we printed a massive photo backdrop of the city skyline from the exact perspective of our hero apartment that could be lit for both day and night.

When the actors walked onto this set, there was no confusion: you were there. The only VFX involved were in digital set extensions whenever we saw the floor or ceiling of the stage, and subtly bringing the static image of the city to life with digital steam or birds.

Filmmaker: Sydney Sweeney’s character undergoes a transformation in this film that’s also tied, in part, to her understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of relationships. The film starts with her moving in with her boyfriend for the first time. How did you conceive of her emotional journey, what sorts of conversations did you have with her about the part, and what were the characteristics of young relationships circa 2021 that interested you in relation to The Voyeurs?

Mohan: My hope is that the film is both timely and timeless at the same time. Here, we see Pippa take that step of moving in with a boyfriend she’s absolutely emotionally attracted to, only to become physically attracted to the man who lives across the courtyard. It’s prototypical “grass is greener” syndrome.

I think this sentiment has intensified over the last decade, because we now all have this app that allows us to peer into the window of the lives of other people any moment we want. If we discover someone who intrigues us, we might fall down the rabbit hole of pouring through their curated history, and then feel dissatisfied in our own lives or relationships by comparison.  So Pippa’s emotional journey, as she literally peers through the window of her neighbors, is an allegorical representation of what happens to us everyday online.

From a casting perspective, the challenging part about Pippa is that she makes a series of decisions the audience might actively disagree with, so I needed an actress who was incredibly down-to-earth and relatable in order for the audience to want to follow her down this morally nebulous rabbit hole. Having worked with Syd on our show Everything Sucks! several years ago (that I co-created with Ben York Jones), I knew that we had only scratched the surface of the depths she was capable of, and that this role would simultaneously show a side to her that is closer to her natural self, while also showcasing her vast range.

This is a character who reaches a level of extreme devastation, only to discover that her life gets even worse as we enter the third act of the film. So my early conversations with Syd were to figure out how her character would respond to each curveball thrown at her that would feel truthful without becoming emotionally redundant. And we use the stages of grief as our guide.  But to be honest, because of our prior working relationship, there was such a high level of mutual trust in each other’s instincts, that made collaborating on this film feel impossibly easy.

Filmmaker: Without going too much into spoilers, the story also deals with issues of consent, representation and who owns one’s own image within the world of visual art. These are also topics that have played out in the art world to various degrees — I’m thinking of pieces like Richard Prince’s Instagram series or, going way back, Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series. Were you inspired at all by works of contemporary artists when it comes to your exploration of these themes?

Mohan: Interestingly enough, I tracked down an out of print copy of Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows, and gave it as a gift to Amanda Blumenthal, our Intimacy Coordinator, after we wrapped!

So the screenplay for this film was reverse engineered; I knew the ending, and I had to work backwards to make sure that the story, and even the construction of the characters, were all in service of making that third act as powerful and devastating as it could possibly be.

The fact these secondary themes of consent bubbled up to the surface as this was happening was unexpected. It certainly wasn’t the raison d’etre behind making the film, but perhaps adds an additional layer to the conversation.

Filmmaker: What was the most challenging aspect of the film to realize?

Mohan: A few days into shooting the film, we had this realization that spending time shooting an insert shot (like a simple closeup of a pen signing a piece of paper) seemed wasteful to do on this massively large soundstage, surrounded by this massively large crew. These shots could easily be achieved in my living room with three people for no money. So we punted all of the inserts to a “TBD Los Angeles Insert Unit.”

We were three months into post when Covid struck, and the world stopped. Editing went on hiatus, and we tested the film remotely even though it had all of these teeny tiny holes throughout. The screening went so well beyond our wildest imaginations, but we learned that in addition to these insert shots, we needed one simple transition scene, and one simple piece of 2-shot coverage.

In a non-Covid world, this would have been a piece of cake, but during the height of the pandemic, the actors were now scattered all over the globe. Katharine King So was in Montreal, Natasha Liu Bordizzo was back in Australia, Ben Hardy was in London, and Sydney Sweeney was off in Hawaii shooting this little quarantine show called The White Lotus, so we had to orchestrate the most logistically complex shoot of our lives.

We managed to get Katharine across the border, and she quarantined for two weeks in West Hollywood.  Syd rushed back to LA right before Christmas. We hired an LA crew, a London-based crew, and a Sydney, Australia-based crew to all work together with green screen and duct tape to pull off what we needed.

And just as this multi-continent shoot was about to happen, there was a Covid scare at my child’s daycare center. Suddenly I had to move into a hotel, because if–God forbid–my daughter had Covid, she would become infectious later that evening, I would have been exposed and the two-day shoot we had been planning for ninth months would be cancelled.

Luckily that didn’t happen (and my daughter was negative), and the shoot went off without a hitch.  But in the future, I’m never going to punt the inserts. I’m going to get every. single. one.

Filmmaker: One notable element of your work as a director is the evolution of your relationship with DP Elisha Christian, who you’ve worked with since your ultra-low-budget debut, One Too Many Mornings. What’s it been like to both grow into larger budgets together? Have you managed to push and challenge each other? Also, when James Ponsoldt interviewed you for us about your short, Ex-Sex, you said that Jurgen Teller’s work for Marc Jacobs was a visual influence the two of you discussed. What kind of conversations did you have this time around?

Mohan: Elisha was my roommate in college, so we’ve been working together even longer than people might realize. As our budgets have grown, so has our ambition, but sadly, not at the same pace. Our creative aspirations seem to always begin from a wildly unrealistic place. But it’s through the shorthand we’ve cultivated over two decades that have allowed us to figure out the smartest compromises we can make to retain as much of our initial vision as possible, while still being rational partners to our producers and studio.

One thing we’ve learned is that the clock does not tick more slowly when you have more money, and you still only have a certain amount of time to get a certain amount of shots. The fundamental challenges really do remain the same.

As for the visual influences on this film, we were looking at the classic “binocular” movies like DePalma’s Body Double and Hitchcock’s Rear Window to see how we could innovate what’s typically a common trope. Tonally, we talked a lot about Blow Up and The Conversation, as each of those films feel visually down-to-earth, but you get that sense of someone’s obsession growing as they try to figure out the truth with the sliver of information they have.

But most importantly, because 75% of this film is set in one apartment, so many of our discussions were in trying to figure out a shot design for the movie that neither felt visually repetitive nor gimmicky. And trying to be specific in our lens choices so that as the character’s obsession grows, it subtly feels like the apartments are getting closer and closer together. This was done with us just sitting in a room, looking at an overhead view of what we hoped the set might look like, spending days upon days mapping it out.

This is my favorite part of the process, but it’s made even better when it’s with someone that feels like family.

Filmmaker: Finally, since that debut you’ve made a number of shorts, music videos, and you created and directed a series for Netflix. To what do you attribute this productivity, this ability to get work greenlit, to? And what advice would you have to up and coming filmmakers now who are coming out of independent film and trying to navigate the new environment?

Mohan: One of my very first jobs out of film school was working for the Sundance Writing and Directing Labs; and in addition to being able to watch incredibly insightful moments like Philip Seymour Hoffman giving directing advice to a young fresh-out-of-NYU Cary Fukunaga, I was also able to see how some of the filmmakers fared in the years after they made their first film.

I noticed that it’s very easy to get distracted by the romanticized success stories; the people who make one film and then manage to warp zone their way to a major studio film. When this doesn’t happen to you, it can feel disheartening, especially if your bank account is running low.

But the filmmakers who kept persevering were the ones who were able to transition into having a career.  I think a perfect example can be found in another filmmaker that went through the labs, Taika Waititi. He went from Eagle vs. Shark to Boy and eventually found his way in the directors chair for Thor: Ragnarok. But in the moments in between, the delusion that other people are going to give you money to turn a PDF of an idea into an actual movie is often the only currency you have.

As for myself, whenever I couldn’t land financing for a film, I would just set a date and make a short film with whatever resources I had at my disposal.  Oftentimes the benefits from those short films wouldn’t show up until years later. Like when I pitched this film to Amazon, Brandon Harris, one of our executives, used to teach Pink Grapefruit as part of his curriculum back when he was a college professor.

While my filmography doesn’t have the clean narrative that an auteur like Wes Anderson has where you can draw a straight line from Bottle Rocket to Rushmore to Royal Tenenbaums and so on, it is an accurate representation of the ups and downs and mistakes and good fortune that is unique to me. Regardless, while The Voyeurs represents a new chapter, it’s on me to figure out the next one. And so that’s my advice. Just keep going.

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