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“The Pandemic Just Exaggerates All the Issues You Already Face in Production to an Almost Comedic Level” | Chloe Okuno, Watcher

Maika Monroe in Chloe Okuno's WatcherMaika Monroe in Chloe Okuno's Watcher.

The last two years have prompted much contemplation and reconsideration of the reasons why we make our films as well as the ways in which we make them. What aspect of your filmmaking—whether in your creative process, the way you finance your films, your production methodology or the way you relate to your audience—did you have to reinvent in order to make and complete the film you are bringing to the festival this year?

Personally, I feel that the pandemic just exaggerates all the issues you already face in production to an almost comedic level… you have to laugh so you don’t cry. In independent filmmaking, it always seems like you’re one bad stroke of luck away from the whole thing unraveling—you’re at the mercy of weather, actor’s schedules, crew availability, equipment functionality, local bureaucracy… and you have a razor thin margin of error because your budget probably provides almost no cushion. With COVID, all shooting restrictions are tightened, your budget is even more limited since so much of it is dedicated to testing and other measures, and you’re constantly in fear that you’ll get the dreaded positive test and be forced to shut down.

When we were making Watcher in Romania, we auditioned an actor for a key role who was absolutely perfect for the part. The producers and I had previously been incredibly skeptical that we could find this person, and then it was like she fell out of the sky and landed right there in front of us, better than any of us could have hoped for. We had a great rehearsal, wardrobe fitting, and camera test. Then the day before she was set to start shooting, we heard that she’d tested positive for COVID. Very fortunately, it was a very mild case and the actress recovered quickly, but of course she couldn’t come to set until she’d had two negative tests.

Because we were toward the beginning of our shoot, we reshuffled the entirety of the schedule to bring her in at the end, hoping that during those couple weeks, she’d test negative and would be cleared to shoot. There was no guarantee that she would test negative in time, but we decided to move ahead with this plan even though it required an enormous amount of effort and would complicate our other shooting days. In the days before she was set to arrive, the actress continued to test positive for COVID. One day would pass, then another. We’d pushed the schedule to the limit, and as we got closer and closer to the point of no return, we eventually accepted that we’d have to audition other actresses as a backup. But finally we got the news that she’d been cleared. If it had been a day later, we’d have had to pull the trigger on another actress, but fortunately she was able to shoot her scenes and was predictably excellent.

The lesson for me here is that everyone has to up their game. Producers have to be even more creative. Assistant directors and crew have to be more flexible. Directors have to make harder decisions. And you still need a little luck on your side.

See all responses to our annual Sundance Question here.

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