In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window led to the creation of an important cinematic subgenre: the voyeuristic thriller centered on a protagonist who peers curiously into the apartment complex directly across the street. Almost seven decades later, Chloe Okuno’s Watcher joins this genre, while slyly subverting its formula.
In the film, Julia (Maika Monroe), acts not as the watcher, but as the watched. Each night in her Bucharest apartment, she notices a mysterious man (Burn Gorman) who peers down on her from his own apartment window. Julia begins to suspect he is the same person following her around town — and that he might even be a local serial killer known as The Spider.
After directing a segment in last year’s anthology horror film V/H/S/94, Okuno reteams with cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen – who lensed her 2014 horror short “Slut.” Nielsen’s framing evolves throughout Watcher.
“In the beginning, we’re always obscuring the watcher,” Okuno says. “Benji was so brilliant about doing it, where he’s just out of focus or just slightly on the edge of the frame.”
This visual approach shifts as Julia becomes more confident in her suspicions, and as the watcher gets closer to her.
“Our conversations were about how to increase her level of fear and the level of her feeling like she’s coming further and further into the watcher’s sights,” Okuno says.
“As the movie goes on, we embrace more symmetry and center her in the frame. So it feels like she’s more and more directly within his line of vision,” she adds. “We move from longer focal lengths to wider focal lengths. That’s the cameras physically getting close to her — we’re doing little things to increase her anxiety.”
Eventually, obscured and off-center shots of Gorman are replaced by “very extreme close-ups of him just staring straight at her, directly in her eye line,” Okuno says.
The film enlists graceful dolly moves, but also static setups that Nielsen describes as “so still that it’s scary.”
“What we discovered making the movie, is there’s so many different ways to communicate the feeling of someone being watched,” Okuno says. “And we would try multiple approaches sometimes: OK, let’s shoot from a distance on a longer focal length, and just pan with her as she’s walking. And then other times: Let’s go handheld following behind her, which they do a lot in Black Swan. They both communicate the sense of voyeurism. We used any and all techniques that felt right, either in our planning or in the moment.”
Finding the appropriate apartments for both the watcher (Gorman) and the watched (Julia) was essential to the mood and tension in Watcher. So Okuno and her team scoured Romania for weeks.
The watcher’s apartment eventually came down to two choices. One had “an inherent strangeness” that intrigued Okuno — but she found that the strangeness was too on the nose. She ultimately went with a dirtier and more rundown Soviet-style building that contrasted well with “Julia’s very beautiful, elegant apartment,” Okuno says.
Julia’s apartment, like those of many past apartment-voyeur films, was built on a soundstage.
The watcher’s apartment is always visible through Julia’s oversized apartment windows. It was represented by the occasional green screen, but also a translight, which is “a backdrop that you put outside the window of the set,” Nielsen says. “Ours was a Rosco SoftDrop.”
One helpful feature of the translight is that it’s double-sided. One side represents the watcher’s apartment in daylight, and is lit from the front with artificial sunlight. The other side is the apartment at night, and is lit from the back so that individual apartment windows can light up.
To create the image for the translight, Nielsen needed day and night photos of the building being used for the watcher’s apartment. So he went to the apartment building location, rode a scissor lift up to the height of Julia’s fictional apartment (about 40 feet) and snapped around 300 photos of the watcher’s building.
Okuno knew that Gorman’s silhouette in the window required a test shoot, so she and Nielsen returned to the watcher’s building. She went up in the lift and took more photos as Nielsen lit a stand-in for the watcher.
“I would use an LED tube and light him from the top, from the side and from the background to silhouette him — all these different scenarios,” he says.
“It was always, How much do you obscure him? How do you also light him in a way that seems disturbing?” Okuno says.
They also did some subtle fine-tuning in post production to make him more or less visible at different points in the film.
“We did things to find that perfect ambivalence where you can’t quite recognize him, but you see enough so that you can see how Julia would try to connect in her mind what she’s seeing in the window with the man who’s following her on the street,” Okuno explains. They also used the lift to decide exactly where the watcher’s window should be in relation to Julia’s.
“We’re on the scissor lift and we’re having them raise us higher or lower, just figuring out: At what height do we feel most threatened?” Okuno says.
“The reasoning behind the placement of the watcher’s apartment was wanting to feel the power dynamic of him slightly above her.”
When it came time to shoot the watcher’s scenes, Okuno and Gorman returned again to the lift. This time Gorman was in the window, rather than a stand-in.
“He was just the best silhouette,” says Nielsen.
Watcher, directed by Chloe Okuno and lensed by Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, opens in theaters on June 3, from IFC Films.
Main image: In a key moment, Julia flips the script and decides to follower the watcher (Burn Gorman) herself in Watcher, directed by Chloe Okuno.