Maika, you work with a lot of exciting directors making their feature debuts, like Chloe. Is there something appealing about that for you, being a part of these filmmakers’ visions just as they’re beginning?
Monroe: Oh, absolutely. I saw Chloe’s short before ever receiving this script and meeting Chloe. A producer friend I respect said, “You have to see this short film.” It was six, eight months before I was even sent “Watcher.” I saw it and I was just like, “This person knows what they’re doing.” It blew me away with the cinematography, the music, how it was put together, I was just like, “Oh my God.” And then six months later I received [“Watcher”] in my email and I was like, “I remember that name. Oh my God, I hope this script is amazing because I want to work with her.” Read it, loved it, and we met. I meet a lot of people, but there are certain people that standout, like, I think this person has a vision, and that’s how I felt immediately meeting Chloe and seeing her work.
The final shot of that short film is fantastic.
Monroe: It’s amazing.
Chloe, after the short hit the festival circuit and was released, what opportunities did it create for you?
Okuno: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, it was great. I was so happy that people responded to it and it did festivals and it definitely got me meetings with producers and apparently even made its way to Maika Monroe, which is awesome. Still, for me, the journey from short to feature certainly didn’t happen immediately. I made that short film in 2014 and I did get hired on some jobs off of it. Obviously, we didn’t make “Watcher,” which is my first feature, until last year. I think even the most successful short — at least for me, it might be different for some people — it gives you opportunities, but it’s not a golden ticket. It still takes an insanely long time to get that first feature off the ground.
I just noticed, Chloe, is that a “Charade” poster behind you?
Okuno: Yeah, it is. It’s actually the “Charade” poster from our movie.
Fitting for the movie, thematically, but kind of like that film, you and [the cinematographer] Benjamin [Kirk Nielsen] let certain colors really pop, even with the darkness present.
Okuno: Benjamin is obviously so incredibly talented, and we worked together as well on the short film. We have very similar tastes when it comes to movies and we also approach filmmaking the same way, partially because of our background at AFI. It’s just a sensibility thing: We’re always trying to find the story based off of the protagonist’s emotions and her journey, and how do we visually film that?
The color was a big part of the story of this film. It was something that we talked about with the costume designer and with a production designer extensively. We wanted to build the story where when Maika first shows up as Julia, she’s confident and she wears these bright reds. The story starts with her initially being this vibrant person, not afraid to be seen. And then she disappears into herself a little bit and we put her more in neutrals and found clothes to match the locations and the sets. So yeah, that was the color story of the movie.
The camera gets closer and closer to Julia throughout the movie, but how did you also want the sound to convey that sense of discomfort?
Okuno: We had a brilliant sound designer, but my editor and I also from the beginning worked a lot of sound design into our cuts, which is something that editors don’t always do. Some of them just leave sound for the end, but for me, sound dictates the picture, so we put a lot of that into our early cuts.
We looked at “Perfect Blue,” the Satoshi Kon movie, which was also about a woman being stalked. They use a lot of ambient noise to get under your skin — not noise, but sounds that are organic to the atmosphere you’re in. But you design it in a way where it supports the horror and the genre and the suspense.
This is a movie where I think one of our biggest challenges from the sound level is, we want this to feel like a cold European thriller that’s kind of classic. We didn’t want to use the sort of big sound cues that you usually get in horror movies. We’re always looking for classy stings, which don’t really exist. It’s finding ways to build that stuff in from the actual environment as much as possible.
Speaking of horror movies, you want to make a mermaid horror movie next, right? Maika, I hope you end up in that one, too.
Okuno: Oh, man. Well, this is an idea I’ve had forever and I adore it. Maybe a long story, but basically, my major in college was Russian. When I was living in Russia, I heard about the particular Russian folklore around mermaids called Rusalka. They’re women who have been killed or have killed themselves in water, mostly because of men. You know, men kill them or they kill themselves because of heartbreak. They come back as these vengeful spirits who lure men to their death in water. I was just like, “That’s such a cool concept. I really want to see that movie.” I’m working on it, actually. I’m developing it now with “Watcher” producers. Hopefully at some point, Maika will be playing a killer mermaid.
Monroe: I’m in. Sign me up.
“Watcher” is now playing in theaters.