“What Does ‘Quiet’ Sound Like When You’re Trying to Express the Correct Emotion?”: Editor Michael Block on Watcher
Watcher is a psychological thriller that follows Julia, an American woman who moves to Romania when her husband receives a work opportunity. After seeing a neighbor watching her, Julia begins to think she is being stalked by the serial killer known as “The Spider” that is currently on the loose. Editor Michael Block explained how he led the audience to experience events the same way as its protagonist, the creative compositing in the film, and the different kinds of quiet in the sound design.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Block: I’ve known the writer/director, Chloe Okuno, since 2012, when we were both at the AFI Conservatory. I edited her thesis film, Slut, and we’ve been close friends and colleagues ever since. She sent me the script for Watcher in 2020 and I loved it. It was so scary that I jumped while reading it! Even better, the emotional core and genre elements really complimented each other.
Sometimes you can tell when a movie’s emotions feel imagined and not rooted in life experience. Reading Watcher, I could absolutely feel the life experience. I told Chloe how excited I was about it, and luckily she brought me aboard!
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor?
Block: My primary goal was always to get the viewer as deep as possible into the emotional headspace of our protagonist, Julia. The movie is designed to be very subjective, so I always wanted the viewer to experience events as Julia does. I knew that the big set piece sequences were going to work because they were tense even at early stages. However, the more closely Julia’s emotions were tracked before, during and after those scenes, the more that the viewer would be afraid because these terrible things were happening to her, specifically.
Filmmaker: What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Block: The movie always had a very clear stylistic identity—Chloe designed it to be a slow burn with longer takes and an editing style that wasn’t self-conscious. Once I started putting scenes together, I could see that style working and I became very protective of it. Chloe and I knew what aesthetic devices we wanted to avoid, thus we had to work from a narrower toolset when solving puzzles. The creative challenge ultimately paid off, as the movie feels very confident and organic to me.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals?
Block: A lot of this was approached through sound design, which presented unique challenges. Watcher is often a very quiet movie and takes place in a big empty apartment. So, what does “quiet” sound like when you’re trying to express the correct emotion? What was tense quiet vs lonely quiet vs calm quiet? Also, the sound design had to live within the established aesthetic/genre. We couldn’t stray too much from “thriller” devices into “horror” devices because they would stick out. There was much discussion of finding contemporary thriller stings or “classy stings,” as we jokingly called them. On top of all of this, we were dealing with locations in Bucharest, which do not sound like those in the US. Luckily, our amazing sound designer Fred Dubois and his team were able to guide us through these nuances. In fact, to make sure the internal phone ring SFX were accurate, the sound team called hotels in Bucharest to hear what they sounded like! That’s dedication.
We also made a big visual decision early on, which was removing the subtitles for Romanian dialogue. This helped a lot in scenes where Julia asks her husband to translate for her. Without subs, we learn what was said when Julia learns. It’s more subjective and also more efficient for a scene because we aren’t being told something twice. There’s a risk that removing subtitles may come off as xenophobic, but in this case I feel that it’s the truth of Julia’s situation—if she doesn’t understand the language, ideally the viewer shouldn’t either.
Filmmaker: What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Block: During production, Chloe would sometimes request working versions of a scene. This is because we only had access to a location for a limited time and she wanted to see if we needed additional shots there. An added wrinkle was the 10-hour time difference between Bucharest where she was shooting and Los Angeles where I was cutting. Sometimes this resulted in big scenes needing to be put together much quicker than I was used to. Initially, I found this to be pretty intimidating, especially when I received a full day’s dailies at 5:30am and needed to send the finished scenes back in six hours. As the shoot went on and we did this more, I came to really appreciate the process. Not having time to overthink a scene absolutely led to better work.
Once we got into the director’s cut stage and beyond, Chloe was back in LA, so the process was more familiar. When needed, we used Evercast (remote editing software). This became very handy, if not often essential, during the pandemic. Most importantly, we were lucky enough to have a large, in-person test screening. This really helped us assess what was and wasn’t working at that point. The experience of just observing an audience is invaluable, even more so than their written feedback. If they’re shifting around and not reacting, that’s not good. Or worse, you don’t know what it means! The good news is, our audience got increasingly engaged as the movie progressed. By the end, they were laughing, screaming, even cheering! We now knew what sections were already working great and what sections should elicit big reactions and didn’t yet.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Block: I enrolled in the AFI Conservatory Editing Program ten years ago, and I can’t say enough good things about that program. It taught me about the technique, collaboration, organization and politics of being a working editor. From there, I wanted to work union, which led me to assistant editing in scripted television. I grew leaps and bounds as an editor by first being an assistant. I loved learning from my editors and seeing how they approached tricky issues. I also remained in contact with many of my classmates at AFI, some of whom also have projects at Sundance this year. It’s a very supportive group and I’m extremely lucky to know them.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Block: I cut Watcher on Avid Media Composer. I was trained on Avid at AFI and have used it on almost every job since. At this point I barely feel the software and it doesn’t get in the way of trying to work. Well, most of the time…
I also use Avid’s script based editing tools, which made a big difference in quickly reviewing takes and recutting scenes.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Block: The scene that we re-cut the most was of Julia and her husband first entering the apartment. This is in the beginning, before the main title sequence. We cut it every possible way and, by the end, we had 30 separate versions. The tricky thing about it was that it was objectively a good scene, but it wasn’t the “right” scene for that moment. We needed to get to know Julia better and we just couldn’t get it as specific as we’d like. Ultimately the issue didn’t lie with that scene, but the opening as a whole. If we looked at our movie as a written essay, the introduction wasn’t matching up with the thesis yet.
We pushed very hard for a pickup day and we were lucky enough to get it! Chloe shot a new opening scene, which anchored us immediately with Julia and established the visual language of the movie. From there, the scene we’d been re-cutting suddenly felt natural and we changed it very little!
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Block: Watcher isn’t an overtly VFX-heavy movie but we constantly used Avid VFX to create invisible edits. This includes fluid morphs and split screens combining different takes into the same shot. This gave us the freedom to change dialogue, refine performances and tighten action without compromising the aesthetic. We could also sometimes stay on a shot as long as we wanted and remove lines, beats, etc. without cutting away.
We were surprised at what we kept getting away with, and it allowed us to get pretty bold: I think we replaced characters’ eyeballs a few times to change eyelines/remove blinks. We composited freeze frames of dead bodies to make sure they didn’t breathe. Characters were added to new shots and sometimes removed. Things like that. This also led to moments of much needed levity—Chloe was always amused when a VFX shot didn’t work and we got a good laugh out of how insane something looked.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Block: The element that I found most eye-opening brings me back to the idea of the movie having “life experience.” Specifically, I’m thinking about viewer reactions to early cuts of the movie.
People who lived in countries outside of their home, whether abroad or in the US, consistently said they really connected with Julia’s sense of isolation. They recognized her wanting to be happy in her new surroundings, but it wasn’t turning out that way. I hadn’t considered that element of the movie and was excited that the depiction of living somewhere new was ringing true. On the flip side of that, there’s an element of the movie’s life experience that was darker and more disturbing—after screenings or in written notes, female viewer after female viewer noted one of the stalking scenes and said they’d experienced something similar. Surprising would be the wrong word, but it gave me plenty to reflect on about how women are treated, regardless of the location.