Exclusive Interview: Director Chloe Okuno On Her Acclaimed Stalker Thriller WATCHER (Special NYC Screening Tonight!)

We chat with the director of the best new thrillers of the year.

By Michael Gingold · May 25, 2022, 7:38 AM PDT
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Maika Monroe in WATCHER.

Moving into a new city is always a little nerve-wracking, but Julia (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) has it especially bad in Watcher. She’s moved to Bucharest, Romania with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman), who has taken a job there, and while alone in their apartment, she begins to think she sees someone in the building across the street spying on her. Soon this man (Burn Gorman) appears to be stalking her through the city’s streets as well — but Julia can’t get Francis or the police to believe her. It doesn’t help that a serial killer known as “The Spider” has been claiming victims in her neighborhood, and soon Julia becomes convinced that she’s his latest target.

Watcher is the tense, consistently intriguing feature debut of director/co-writer Chloe Okuno, following short films (including the multi-award-winning Slut) and the “Storm Drain” segment of V/H/S/94. IFC Midnight releases Watcher to select theaters June 3 and VOD/digital platforms June 21, and it also has a special screening tonight at Industry City, 268 36th Street, Brooklyn, NY, accompanied by Sophie Koko Gate’s short film Hotel Kalura, live music by Hannah Sumner and an after-party, hosted by Rooftop Films. Below, Okuno discusses Watcher, shooting on location, its relation to her own experiences, and more.

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The Watcher script was originally set in New York City, so can you talk about the reasons and process of changing the setting to Bucharest?

I think the original writer [Zack Ford] is from New York, or at least had been in New York when he got the idea for the story. But then, when the pandemic happened, the burden of COVID costs became a bit too much for our low-budget movie, and the producers suggested we shoot this in Bucharest. It was obviously a financial incentive, but also, they had shot movies in Romania before, and they had wonderful production infrastructure there. When I heard that, actually, I was initially a little bit like, “What? [Laughs] How’s that gonna work?” But then I felt like there was something still missing from the script, and that changed this notion of moving Julia into, not just a new city, the way it had been in New York, but an entirely new country and new culture, and that felt like it worked so well with the existing narrative. It unlocked new stories and new characters, and Bucharest itself, as a location, was hugely inspirational.

Did you get to go to Bucharest to scout around before you began shooting there?

No, I did not. Because we were in the throes of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to travel, but I did my best to get on the old Google machine and look up what I could. And the production team on the ground there sent a lot of photos of locations, which ended up being helpful in the writing process.

How did you find just the right settings and just the right apartment?

That was probably one of the more difficult aspects of this movie. We scouted for weeks when we first got there; we actually had a fairly long preproduction, which was great and essential. And Bucharest has this incredible metro system; it was like an embarrassment of riches when it came to the subway stations. Everything about Julia walking around the city, we had so many beautiful options.

The one thing we could not find was a good apartment, because if we were going to do it at a location, it would have to be Julia’s apartment, and then across the way, the watcher’s place. Apartments in Bucharest are very small for the most part, and they don’t really have those massive windows we needed. So after looking for a solid month, maybe more, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it had to be a set. We did find one apartment with big windows, and a building across the way, and for a while we were exploring using that. But after trying to get that apartment forever, we heard that we wouldn’t be allowed to shoot there because the building across the way that we needed as the watcher’s building was, like, the site of some secret Romanian police headquarters. But I’m so glad we ended up doing it as a build. Our production designer, Nora Dumitrescu, did a staggering job, and then everything you see outside the window is bluescreen or a Translight. The watcher building was a totally different location; it was an abandoned building where we could redo some of the exteriors and occupy all the floors we needed to.

The original screenwriter [Zack Ford] was a man; as a female filmmaker, what do you think you brought to WATCHER specifically in your rewrites and then in directing the story?

I feel like I brought a certain amount of empathy to Julia, and also the benefit of my experience, having been in similar situations. Of course men write from the perspective of being a man, so sometimes the way they see women, to me, doesn’t reflect the reality of what I believe women are like, or the reality of my experience. So I hope that I brought some level of emotional authenticity to it.

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It’s interesting that Watcher is coming out at the same time as Men, which deals with similar themes, albeit in very different ways. Have you seen Men, and if so do you see any kind of connection there?

I haven’t seen it yet. I’m the biggest fan of Alex Garland; I loved Annihilation and Ex Machina, so I really would like to see it. I’ve actually heard some people making the comparison, and any comparison to Alex Garland is flattering. But it also seems like Men is a very different movie, and goes into pretty wild territory.

Are there any through-lines between any of your short films and Watcher?

I think so. When I was making Slut, my short film at AFI, a lot of what I was thinking about was the experience as a young woman, when you feel like you are sort of there as the object of a man’s gaze, and your desires are tailor-made to suit men and not the other way around. I was trying to tell a story in which a woman’s primary value isn’t only in her sexuality, and how she looks, and reclaiming something of herself. That has a lot of similarities to Watcher; I think those themes carry across the two movies.

For V/H/S/94… [Laughs] I mean, there is an aspect across everything I’ve done, I guess. I try not to be too analytical about it, but I think there’s a theme of a woman who is fairly normal in the sense that she hasn’t encountered anything profound or weird, and then slowly encounters things that are bizarre, or have the potential for violence, and seeing how she deals with that.

One of the intriguing things about Watcher is the balance it strikes with Julia’s character, where you empathize with her not being believed by the men around her when she tells them about being stalked, but the movie also suggests that perhaps it’s in her mind, as a reaction to being in this new, unfamiliar and threatening environment.

I did try to set her up in a way that we could believe that this is her reaction to being in this country, and being alone and isolated and alienated. I’ve lived abroad before; I was in France for about nine months when I was 16, and spent a semester of college in Russia. So I’ve had the experience of not really speaking the language and being around a bunch of people who are saying things I don’t understand, and not being able to express myself.

In that sense, the choice to leave some of the Romanian dialogue unsubtitled is very effective.

That was a simple decision, because our whole mission statement was to make the movie 100 percent from Julia’s perspective. For me, it wouldn’t make sense to have subtitles when Julia can’t understand what they’re saying. It would put the audience ahead of her, in a way, and we wanted them to be with her through the entirety of the film. I know it’s a decision some people love and some people find intensely frustrating, but the frustration is the point. As I was saying, there’s nothing worse than a bunch of people saying things around you that you can’t understand. And just walking down the street to buy something from the store feels scary, because you don’t really know the rules, you always feel like you’re doing something wrong, and it starts to make you feel alone, in a way that has stuck with me all these years later. So I did try to mine what I had experienced and put it into the movie. I would be very happy if people thought maybe Julia can’t trust herself in this moment, because there is a lot going on around her to make her feel ill at ease, and less confident than she normally would be.

On the other hand, when you look at Burn Gorman, you can’t help thinking he’s up to something. Did you intentionally cast him for his appearance?

Yes and no. When I was initially thinking about the watcher, I wanted him to feel like he could be misunderstood—somebody who physically, when you look at him, you believe maybe he’s an outsider or a loner or somebody you have a level of sympathy for. But also, you can see how Julia would be wary of him, because he seems like somebody who is off-putting to people in some fundamental way. So it’s like, either she, in a way that’s also playing into the trope of American women going abroad and being afraid of the scary foreign people, is misunderstanding him, or she has an instinct that is totally correct. Burn actually fits into that brief pretty nicely. For people familiar with Burn’s work, he’s probably known a little bit as a villain, and I thought that could play to our advantage, because he is somebody Julia is looking at and feeling she should be afraid of. And Burn is such a good actor—and such a delightful human being, by the way.

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Maika Monroe obviously has experience being followed in horror films, so did that play into her casting in Watcher?

Well, her prior work definitely influenced her casting, but I didn’t necessarily set out to make It Follows 2 [laughs]. I feel like those comparisons are only made because Maika is in the movie; I think they’re actually pretty different. But I did cast Maika because I’m a huge fan of her, and I thought she was so incredible in It Follows and The Guest. Those are two movies I absolutely adore, and the reason she’s so effective, in everything but in genre in particular, is that she is very compelling to watch even when she’s not saying a word. A lot of genre movies rely on what an actor can bring to moments of silence, the physicality of performance, and Maika is better than anyone at that.

Where do you go from here? Do you have any genre projects in the works?

I’m hopefully shooting a movie soon that was previously called Rodney & Sheryl, and is now The Dating Game. It’s about real-life serial killer Rodney Alcala, who is most notorious for appearing on [TV’s] The Dating Game in the 1970s. It’s a very interesting script, because although we see Rodney and learn a little about him, the story is primarily told from the perspective of the woman who was on The Dating Game, as the bachelorette. It’s a horrifying story that clearly shares some DNA with Watcher.

Chloe Okuno Director Headshot

Get tickets to tonight's NYC screening of Watcher here.