Sundance Exclusive Interview: WATCHER With Director/Writer Chloe Okuno

From reigning and ruling the sewers with Raatma to being stalked in Bucharest.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · January 26, 2022, 12:00 PM PST
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WATCHER (2022)

How do you build on so perfect a film as 2014's feminist horror short Slut? For writer/director Chloe Okuno, you start hailing Raatma, that's how. There may have been other great segments in last year's smash horror anthology V/H/S/94, but for all intents and purposes it was Okuno's "Storm Drain" that truly smashed it out of the ballpark, hardcore horror fans and casual genre observers alike dazzled by Okuno's audacious, unhinged vision of things that go 'squeak' in the night.

Yet, as so fiercely demonstrated in her feature film debut Watcher, which recently premiered at Sundance, this is a filmmaker with an extraordinary depth and range in terms of how she approaches her various projects. Starring Maika Monroe as Jules, Watcher follows a young woman who has just moved to Romania with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his work. Bored, lonely, and isolated, Jules senses that a man whose apartment window looks onto hers is surveilling her, a feeling that grows in intensity as she wanders through the streets of this new, unknown city. When she reaches out for help as she believes she is being stalked, no one - including her husband - believes her. Meanwhile, a serial killer is prowling the streets of Bucharest…

Watcher may tonally and narratively be a world apart from "Storm Drain" and Slut on the surface, but as Okuno notes, there's something much stronger that unites them. "The common denominator between all of these movies is that I get to tell the story of these interesting women in moments of crisis, confronted with the embodiment of their fears," she said. "I always feel like horror can speak to the depth of our emotion in a way that other genres can't. There is nothing more cathartic than female rage - getting to slay our monsters."

It is this precise kind of rage that increasingly builds up in Jules throughout Watcher, not just at the man who is stalking her, but at her husband for not taking her fears seriously. This feeling that she won't be believed was crucial to not just the plot of the film, but to Jules's character development. "A lot of what I discussed with Maika on set was about how Julia would choose to present her fears to Francis and others around her - even if she was deeply disturbed by what was happening," said Okuno. "I think women often consciously or unconsciously modify how we speak to others because we know it's very easy for us to be written off as overly emotional. What I love about Maika's performance is that you can sense this growing frustration underneath every interaction - how the process of trying to convince people is what's really starting to enrage her."

In Watcher, it is this very fact that Jules's emotional journey is so familiar for so many women - even if the details of her story are not - that makes the film ring so powerfully true. Reflecting on a broad taste in women audiences for true crime, Okuno suggests that "we fixate on it because we're surrounded by this potential for violence at all moments." She continues, "I think we're just hypervigilant by nature because we have so many of these experiences. They may seem mundane on the surface, but when you live with that low-grade fear just as a constant in your life - it starts to wear on you. And certainly, maybe sometimes that hypervigilance can tip over into obsession, but I think at the end of the day, it's a survival mechanism."

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Although her screenplay was originally set in New York City, she welcomed the opportunity to relocate it to Bucharest when she discovered the film was to be shot there. Working in her own experiences as an American living far away from home and the isolation it brings to Jules's character rings of an authenticity that will be familiar for anyone who has found themselves flung into a new life far away from home. But the local color of Bucharest itself found its way into Watcher in ways well beyond the tourist shots we see early in the film as Jules familiarizes herself with her new city. "There's a scene where Julia is chased out of a museum by an angry security guard who yells at her in Romanian," Okuna reflects light-heartedly. "I wrote that into the movie because we literally went to that location, and when I took out my phone to take photos, this angry security guard ran at me screaming in Romanian. He was so good, we cast him in the movie as the angry security guard who screams at her in Romanian."

Watcher is a taut thriller, but it never undermines Okuno's clear love of horror, the serial killer plot, in particular, giving it a subtle but distinct hybrid energy. Far from marking a departure from horror, however, Okuno is passionate about her affection for the genre. "It seems like horror will go through stages, so you have periods where people don't take it that seriously and then periods where it's more respected. But in the end, people who love horror will always love it and are probably unbothered by what the 'mainstream' thinks about it." She adds, "I think all you can do as a filmmaker is make movies that you love - and hopefully, it will reach other people who also love the same movies that formed you."

So does this mean there is a Raatma feature movie on the horizon? "I love the people who love Raatma!" she states emphatically, adding "Raatma exists in his own universe, of which he is king." So is that a yes? Okuno gives us hope; "I have an idea about what I'd like to do, but I haven't really talked about it with anyone, so right now it's just an idea." Now that Watcher has proven beyond a doubt what an exciting filmmaker she is, we can only dream that this potential Raatma feature lies just around the corner, hiding patiently in the drain pipes.