Horror, as a genre, is a catch-all for the movies that terrorize audiences or gross them out or otherwise bring to life their greatest fears in ways that linger as nightmares for years to come. Within that framework of horror, there are any number of ways to scare: Slashers and splatter films, body horror, the paranormal, creature features, monster movies, ghost stories and folk horror, to name but a few.
Watcher, from writer-director Chloe Okuno, is psychological horror, a thriller about a young American woman, Julia (Maika Monroe), who moves to Romania with her husband and quickly begins to believe she is being watched. But is she? Her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) doesn't believe that she is, and the police prove less than helpful — even as Julia becomes increasingly convinced that she is indeed being followed. All the while, a serial killer known as The Spider is stalking the city.
"It has been a subject matter for films, in particular, for some time now. It's not just women who respond to it," Okuno explains. "I mean, women can maybe relate to that more so than anyone, but it's a very human thing to feel like there's some kind of injustice where you are not believed. We all experience that at one time or another. And it's very frustrating and no one wants to think that they're crazy. You always want to believe that you're right. It taps into something that, for everyone, is pretty triggering. Maybe especially for women."
With Watcher, Okuno expertly builds to a constant, uncomfortable dread, with Julia descending into a paranoid disequilibrium as the tension is ratcheted up and up and up. In conversation with A.frame, the filmmaker breaks down the process of building suspense on-screen.
On the page
Okuno first read Zack Ford's screenplay for Watcher in 2017, when she was hired to direct the film. At the time, the story was set in New York City and played with perspective (from both Julia and the eponymous watcher's points of views).
"When I came onboard and took over some of the writing, I wanted to make sure that the character of Julia, in particular, reflected my experience of being a woman in the world," Okuno says. Even as those around Julia write her off as irrational and overly sensitive, she knows the threat is real. While that threat is heightened within the horror genre, Okuno wanted to capture a feeling many women would have felt in their everyday lives, which makes Julia's own peril that much more relatable.
"She knows that her credibility will be doubted. She knows that she has to give the disclaimer, 'I know this sounds insane. It's not a big deal, but there's this thing that's been happening…'" the director says. "It really does start to make you sort of quietly angry, but you know that you can't express that anger because that will give people more reason to doubt you. It's this frustrating, vicious circle in which your emotion becomes more and more heightened, and yet, you know that you can't let anyone see it. That's what I wanted to tap into."
Okuno shifted the focus to be from Julia's perspective, while production demands relocated the movie to Romania — which ultimately allowed the filmmaker to build upon feelings of alienation and loneliness in the story. But Okuno's initial draw to Watcher endured through every draft. "I responded to the simplicity of the story in a lot of ways and the minimalism of it," she recalls. "As a director, it really gave me a chance to express a lot of what was happening visually, which is always really exciting."
"A lot of the work happens in pre-production," Okuno says. "In conversations with the production designer, and the costume designer, and the director of photography to make sure we're all on the same page about the ways in which we're employing tools to elevate the tension and to create a sense of claustrophobia."
In that way, the team weaves suspense into the very fabric of the film — literally, in the case of costume designer Claudia Bunea. At the start of the movie, Julia is clothed in vivid reds. "She is not afraid to be bold and be seen," Okuno notes. As the anxiety builds, Julia's color palette is washed out in neutrals to match the sets around her. "It's like she's literally trying to disappear from the gaze of this watcher."
"With my production designer [Nora Dumitrescu], we talked a lot about creating this elegant space in the apartment, which is pretty and monochromatic and minimalist in a way that is visually appealing, initially," she elaborates. "But, as the movie goes on, especially the way that the DP [Benjamin Kirk Nielsen] lights it and shoots it — embracing shadow and darkness, [framing] compositions where Julia is really minimized within the frame — we create a world that's actually a little bit more cold and claustrophobic."
"And, of course," Okuno adds, "I think the total insane massiveness of the windows themselves makes you feel like there is no escape from the gaze of this man."
Principal photography took place in Bucharest in the Spring of 2021 under COVID protocols, a source of tension for even the most seasoned of filmmakers. "When you're actually on set," Okuno says, "for me, it's just, 'How do I stick to the plan and execute it and don't totally f--k it up?'"
Maika Monroe (a veteran of the genre who broke out with 2014's It Follows) stars as Julia, the role upon which the entire movie hinges. "Maika's very good at adjusting and doing these subtle changes. You can interpret a lot from a very small expression in Maika's face," her director says. "It's one of the reasons I think she's one of the greats of the genre."
"A lot of directing this movie and directing her was about finding variations in her performance, especially when it came to her level of anxiety, her level of outward stress. It was a very delicate arc to track and you always want to make sure she's frightened enough, but not so frightened that she loses credibility," Okuno explains. "And I think we were able to find that balance by giving variety, take to take."
To play the Watcher, Okuno cast Burn Gorman, an actor who is no stranger to villainous turns on-screen, as in movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Pacific Rim: Uprising, as well as on the small screen as Karl Tanner in HBO's Game of Thrones. Okuno has a theory as to why. "He has muscles in his face that other humans don't possess," she laughs. "He can twitch certain things that are like, 'I don't know how you did that, Burn, but you just created this whole other genre of facial expression.' It's just masterful."
As the adage goes, a film is made three times: First on the page, then on set, and finally in the editing room. That is especially true for a taut thriller like Watcher, in which ever music cue (from composer Nathan Halpern) and every cut (by editor Michael Block) needs to be executed with knifelike precision.
"Michael Block is brilliant. We both approach editing from the same place, we try to link it to the lead character. We try to let her and her journey and emotions dictate the cutting," says Okuno. "But we also have sort of opposite instincts, which I think was great. I always want to hold on shots as long as possible, and he's the person being like, 'No, we need to pace this out more quickly.' I know this movie is already quite a slow burn, but it would be even slower if it hadn't been for my editor."
Post-production, as Okuno learned, is where moviemaking truly embraces the magic. "You would be shocked at how many VFX there are," she points out. "Not even blue screens or snow VFX, but things like split screens and fluid morphs that are designed to be invisible but helped with the very deliberate holding on shots and allowed us to piece together different takes and different performances. They're things David Fincher's known for, honestly, that we tried to do on our more limited scale."
To understand the true impact of post-production, consider one key scene: Julia slips into a nearly-empty movie theater screening director Stanley Donen's Oscar-nominated 1963 film, Charade. (Okuno admits the movie was initially chosen because it is in the public domain.) As Julia watches, a man sits down directly behind her, ominously inching closer and closer, while Audrey Hepburn shrieks in terror on the big screen. But, when she shot the scene, it had been something completely different.
"It was Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant at this jazz party, and it was a little bit more silly and upbeat," Okuno reveals. "In the edit, we changed it to a scene where Audrey's being attacked. We needed to [portray] a little bit more of the stress of her struggling, to express what Julia's feeling in the moment and to increase the anxiety overall."
Reporting by John Boone