“The Oppressive Voyeurism You’re Constantly Surrounded By As a Woman”: Writer/Director Chloe Okuno and Co-Writer Zack Ford on Watcher
The eerie, nagging feeling of being watched is elevated to a hauntingly tangible reality in Watcher, the feature directorial debut of Chloe Okuno. Co-written by Okuno (recently acclaimed for helming the “Storm Drain” segment in the horror anthology V/H/S/94) and seasoned screenwriter Zack Ford (who in 2021 ran for mayor of Skaneateles, NY before ultimately relocating to L.A.), the film follows Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman), a young American couple who relocate to Bucharest for Francis’s work. Shortly after settling into their minimalist new digs, Julia begins to notice an unsettling presence in her most intimate spaces. As she walks within her apartment, it appears that a pair of invisible eyes follow her wherever she goes, peering in through the windows from across the courtyard. Her unease is only amplified when her lonely strolls around the Romanian metropolis begin to suggest that she’s also being followed. News of a serial killer dubbed “The Spider” who preys upon lone women as they dwell in their apartments only stokes the flames of Julia’s mounting paranoia.
What initially presents itself as a straightforward thriller quickly transforms into an examination of the omnipresence of the male gaze in even women’s most banal private moments. Watcher additionally explores what it might feel like for that gaze to be reflected back upon the gawker. Yet the film’s feminist streak never feels forced or entrenched in a tepid girlboss-ism, focusing instead on ratcheting up tension through the jarringly authentic sensation of being watched, pursued, and sized-up—targeted to suffer at random for having simply been perceived.
Okuno and Ford spoke to Filmmaker via two individual Zoom calls ahead of the film’s virtual premiere at Sundance on Friday, January 21.
Filmmaker: First off, how did both of you become attached to the project?
Ford: I wrote Watcher as an original screenplay in 2016 when I was still living in New York. I took that script, pretended to be my own manager for about two years and eventually sold that original spec. After it was optioned, I did two rewrites, and they ended up buying the screenplay from me.
Okuno: I was hired in 2017 to direct the movie. At that point, it was Zack’s original script, and the producers, Zack and I communicated our notes and what we thought the direction needed to be. Based on that conversation, Zack went ahead and wrote another draft of the script. I think the initial round of notes were about making sure that the lead character of Julia felt authentic to my own experience [as a woman]. We did some work on the [titular] watcher character as well. After that, I was quite fortunate in that the producers entrusted me to start working on the script—because I am a writer-director, as well.
Filmmaker: You’re both credited as co-writers, and I wanted to ask what each of you brought to the script in the process. Zack, where did the idea for Watcher originate from? As for Chloe, what about Zack’s original script did you find most rewarding to expand upon?
Ford: I was specifically living in Manhattan at the time, and as I’m sure you know, there were a lot of buildings and windows around. If you see the movie, you can piece together how someone living in New York and looking into other people’s windows all the time—simply because you can’t avoid it—might have gotten that idea.
Okuno: Psychological thrillers can be very tricky, because you’re trying to make sure that the level of fear in your protagonist is always justified. But at the same time, you need to give them enough reason to doubt themselves so that it continues to be interesting, which is a really fine line to walk. That’s what I was really excited to do when I came onto the script—from a writing perspective, that definitely continued to be sort of one of the bigger challenges. Zack’s original draft was a little bit more of a two-hander; we would have spent a lot of time with Francis. Then Roy [Lee, prolific horror producer] said, “Spiritually, this feels like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, so let’s do that.” I completely agreed with him, and I think that’s where my instincts had been heading. When we focused solely on Julia’s perspective, that was another massive evolution in the story.
Filmmaker: Though there’s a storied tradition of a woman being labeled as “crazy” in the face of encroaching danger in thrillers, Watcher still manages to feel fresh. What elements of suspense felt important to incorporate into the film?
Ford: When I wrote the movie theater scene and the subway scene, I remember thinking, “This could be something that grabs attention.” I knew there was something sustainable there, but there was always a question of if those setpieces would come through after some of the rewrites.
Okuno: Suspense is about making sure that Julia is always going back and forth. She finds evidence that convinces her completely that her fears are justified, but at the same time the people who don’t believe make her think, “Maybe I am overreacting to this—even though every instinct in my body tells me that I’m not.” So a lot of that was about her, but it was also about building the character of the Watcher in a way where we could see that the threat was there. In Zack’s original version, the killer was more of a hulking, menacing presence that felt like an overt physical threat right away. I wanted to take it in a direction where he was a guy who you maybe even felt a little bit sorry for.
Filmmaker: Chloe, I think a lot of women will particularly find that this film touches a nerve, and I’m wondering how you navigated the inherent gendered element of being incessantly gawked at, stalked and fetishized?
Okuno: My goal was always to have that feeling sort of creep up on you. When Julia first gets to Romania, we have scenes where she’s just walking around the streets of Bucharest, and it was really important for me not to necessarily have any overt threats, but to still show the scary experiences a lot of women have on a day to day basis. It was about elevating the ways in which you start to feel the oppressive voyeurism you’re constantly surrounded by as a woman. Early on in my career, I read Ways of Seeing by John Berger, and it got into the philosophy of how women are essentially trained to see themselves through the eyes of men, because the vast majority of women in art have been portrayed, unfortunately, by men. So, we can’t really separate ourselves from the vision that men have on us.
Filmmaker: I also think there’s a sort of metatextual element to the film—the idea that Julia’s being watched and followed, but she watches and follows right back. I think that in a patriarchal society, nothing is more threatening than a woman being objectified and just gazing right back. Look at the controversy surrounding Édouard Manet’s Olympia or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. I was just wondering if you had any comment on how you incorporated this throughline into the film?
Okuno: I love that you picked up on that. I felt like one of the only ways that Julia could take control of her own narrative was to turn the tables and be the person who’s watching him. In terms of suspense, it was an important aspect of the movie, because it makes you start to question her and wonder whether she’s the aggressor. But it was also really important to me to reclaim the male gaze and turn it around on him and see how that could potentially make someone feel uncomfortable.
Filmmaker: I’d also love to talk about the set design, which I feel adds so much to this looming threat of an intruder in these intimate spaces. The thing is, a lot of these spaces don’t necessarily seem menacing—their apartment is quite lovely, the grocery store well-lit and well-stocked, the subway a hell of a lot cleaner than in NYC. What was the process of creating these seemingly tranquil spaces and transforming them into spaces of increased anxiety and paranoia?
Okuno: We had a very brilliant local production designer in Bucharest named Nora Dumitrescu. Early on, I wanted the space to feel a little bit luxurious, but also a little bit cold and slightly impersonal. When they first enter the apartment, it does feel like a nice space. But as we went further into the movie—in partnership with the director of photography, Benjamin Kirk Nielsen—we wanted to frame and compose the shots in a way that made Julia feel increasingly smaller. So, the space goes from being open and airy and luxurious to suddenly highlighting the fact that she’s very much alone. We also used lighting to darken the space and make it feel like the darkness was sort of creeping in on her. Even in the coloring session with our brilliant colorist Stephen Nakamura, he did a lot of vignetting effects to help with the sense that the walls are kind of closing in, and things are becoming a little bit more oppressive and claustrophobic. That extended even to the choice of locations. We choose spaces that, even if they’re not insanely scary, they’re a little bit more oppressive. Bucharest has a lot of that oppressive Soviet architecture, so it really allowed us to tailor the visual design to get more unsettling as the film goes on, but in a way that’s relatively subtle.
Filmmaker: It’s also interesting that the one space she does enter that does immediately feel threatening is the strip club, which brings it back to the danger of the patriarchal gaze.
Okuno: Completely. I mean, I decided to call the strip club “Museum,” so there’s nothing subtle about that!
Filmmaker: And what, if any, significance was there in having the film set in Romania?
Ford: Whenever [a script] goes into production, you never know where it’s going to be shot. There are a lot of things that come into play, like tax breaks or budget restraints. The script I originally wrote could have been in Cleveland, it could have been in New York. It was actually written for a lesser-New York, so that it’s not so specific it can’t be translated to Toronto or some other place. I wasn’t expecting Romania but I think it really served the story.
Okuno: The initial script was set in New York City, and for a while I wanted to make it set in a nameless North American city. I was very inspired by David Fincher and what he did in Seven. Maybe a year or so into the pandemic, when we were talking seriously about finally making the film, I heard that we were going to be shooting it in Bucharest, Romania, because the production company had previous experience there. They have a great infrastructure, and there were a lot of practical budgetary reasons to go shoot there. That was the moment where the script really evolved the most, because I rewrote it to take place in Bucharest, which becomes such a big part of the story. I was really excited to do that, because I’d previously lived abroad and knew firsthand how it felt to be alone in a foreign country where you don’t really speak the language that well. It’s so incredibly isolating.
Filmmaker: I wonder if there’s also an underlying theme concerning the paranoia and discomfort Americans often seem hyper-aware of when they’re visiting or living in other non-Anglophone countries?
Okuno: Absolutely, I think there was an awareness of it. I love Dario Argento movies like Suspiria, and it’s always the American girl going into a new culture that probably seems a little bit threatening in a way that’s maybe problematic. But at the same time, I felt like it was important to write the Romanian characters in a way where they’re not threatening or scary people. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t ever falling into some of the tropes that we associate with the genre. And it really helps that—with the exception of myself, the producers, and my director of photography—every single person on the crew was Romanian. I really did try to make sure I was representing Romania authentically.
Filmmaker: It was also really clever to have Maika Monroe cast in the lead role, considering the similarities to her role in It Follows. This film also has the looming dread of being pursued or watched from afar. Did you always imagine her in the role, or was it a happy coincidence?
Ford: I wasn’t involved in the casting, but it makes sense, and I think she did such a wonderful job.
Okuno: You know, I was a really big fan of hers from It Follows, but I didn’t necessarily set out saying, “We must have Maika!” But it is an interesting follow-up from that movie, it’s like her character is all grown up and in Bucharest. My editor likes to joke that in Italy, they’re going to market this movie as It Follows 2. But Maika is a very good actress, she is a very interesting presence. She’s particularly amazing at conveying dread, and she has the most expressive face. She can do so much wordlessly, which was so important with this movie. She really brought a lot into this character, and she dug deep. In some ways, she really surprised me—just the depth of emotion that she would bring to everything. But, yeah, I’m a Maika Monroe stan.
Filmmaker: Finally, what is it about the horror genre that continues to inspire both of your work? Zack, I know you also penned the script for the 2007 horror film Scar, and the 2017 thriller Girls’ Night Out, while Chloe is hot off directing the “Storm Drain” segment of V/H/S/94.
Ford: An easy answer is I liked monsters as a kid and was always a horror fan. I had some luck with horror films early on andI have continued to write them. Horror films are similar to action films, in that they’re fun to write and people know what to expect, so you can really focus on the set pieces and expectations. It’s fun to write in a genre where people know what their expectations are, so you’re almost writing to subterfuge them, which can be fun. But I wouldn’t consider myself a total horror guy. I just wrote a sports comedy, and I’m working on a few other things in different genres. But if horror is working, I’ll keep doing it. It’s fun, I like it and the audiences are great.
Okuno: V/H/S/94 was such a fun project. I’ve always really loved genre movies, and this is definitely where I love to work. Watcher is probably maybe more in the realm of psychological thriller than horror, but it certainly goes to horrific places. I mean, growing up I loved John Carpenter and the Coen brothers and Wes Craven. One of my favorite horror movies is Alien. I think it was something about seeing the heightened scenario that unlocks fear, and it sort of hits you in a place that a regular drama doesn’t always do for me, personally. So yeah, I love working in genre and that’s definitely where I want to keep living.