‘Watcher’ explained: Indie thriller mines the dangers of not believing women

A brunette woman in black and a blond woman in a light-colored dress stand side by side outdoors.
Director Chloe Okuno, left, and actor Maika Monroe photographed in Los Angeles.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

At a cultural moment when the rights of women are under direct attack, the new film “Watcher” feels unnervingly well-timed. Using the genre of the psychological thriller, “Watcher” skillfully examines the experience of unsettled isolation that often comes simply from being a woman in a world that won’t listen and won’t believe.

Directed by Chloe Okuno from a script co-written by Okuno and Zack Ford, the film stars Maika Monroe in a powerful performance as Julia, a young woman who moves to Bucharest, Romania, when her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), is transferred for work. A former actress trying to decide what to do next, Julia spends most of her days alone in a place where she does not speak the language. Convinced that a man (Burn Gorman) with an apartment across the way is spying on and even following her around the city, Julia’s growing anxiety is compounded by news reports of a brutal serial killer targeting women around her age. And yet no one, including Francis, will believe her concerns about feeling increasingly unsafe.

Having premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and now playing in wide release and set for a VOD release June 21, “Watcher” is the feature debut for Okuno, whose work includes 2014 short film “Slut” and a segment in 2021’s anthology “V/H/S/94.” The screenplay for “Watcher” originally was set in New York City, but it was relocated to Bucharest for production reasons; Okuno takes full advantage of the city’s mix of old-world romanticism and Soviet-era gloom. She even cast an actual museum security guard who had chased her away for taking photographs to do the same to Monroe in the film.


Okuno and Monroe recently got together on Zoom for an interview.

A blond woman sits in a chair, gazing off to the side.
Actor Maika Monroe is known to genre fans for films including “It Follows” and “The Guest.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Chloe, you’ve said the script originally focused more on the couple, it wasn’t focused as strongly on Julia. How did you go about reshaping Zack Ford’s script?

Chloe Okuno: In Zack‘s original script, it was kind of a two-hander; it was split between Julia and Francis’ point of view. I wanted to make this spiritually feel like something in the realm of “Rosemary’s Baby” ... to be a kind of classic psychological thriller, where we’re really telling the story from a singular point of view. So it made a lot of sense to me to just make that shift. A lot of my work writing on the script was about pulling in from my own experience about what it’s like to be a woman in the world, what it’s like to be confronted with people who are doubting you and just knowing that as women, unfortunately, we already know that we’re going to be doubted.

We already have to sort of police our own emotions and approach things very delicately, and that in and of itself can be very frustrating. So I feel like that’s the journey that you see Julia on in this movie. ... [In Maika’s performance] I saw her self-regulating and I saw the sort of quiet frustration in having to do that constantly. And I love the moments in the movie when you see that anger in Maika, because that’s what I feel a lot of times as well.

Maika, was that aspect of the story something you recognized as well?


Maika Monroe: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why I connected with this story just immediately. It’s obviously a thriller and it’s a heightened story, but the character is so grounded and the story that is being told is so grounded and it’s believable. Because this sort of stuff happens.

I mean, I’ve dealt with it. Even within relationships that I’ve had, that a person that I consider to be maybe one of the closest people in my life, when that person doesn’t have my back or doesn’t believe me, I think it’s the most lonely that I have ever felt. And that’s something that Julia experiences — this person that is supposed to be there for her isn’t. That’s heartbreaking to me.

Even within relationships that I’ve had ... when that person doesn’t have my back or doesn’t believe me, I think it’s the most lonely that I have ever felt.

— “Watcher” star Maika Monroe

I feel such sympathy for Karl as a performer because on the one hand, his character is nice enough, but he’s just totally oblivious. He doesn’t get it. Chloe, what was it like conceiving of that character? He’s not bad, but he doesn’t exactly help either.

Okuno: There was an earnest effort to keep making Francis less of a d—, honestly. Of course at a certain point he’s no longer supportive of her, but early on, I feel like he does try to be proactive and he does try to listen to her. But for me, Francis’ fundamental failing isn’t even that he’s an ass— or dismissive, it’s that he cannot actually empathize with what she’s going through because he hasn’t really been there himself.


He just fundamentally doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a woman and to have an experience of being followed and to have that experience supported by a lifetime’s worth of little moments that add up to just generally feeling unsafe or always having to look around and always being aware, always having this omnipresent gaze on the back of your head. Ultimately of course he’s dismissive. Nobody’s rooting for Francis, but I do think in my mind it was more of the tragedy of a lack of basic understanding because he’s not capable of it.

A man embraces a woman from behind as they stand in a modern kitchen.
Married couple Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) move to Bucharest for his job in Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher.”
(IFC Midnight)

Chloe, what draws you to genre filmmaking? The movie made me think about the early films of Kathryn Bigelow or Stephanie Rothman, and I’ve heard you talk about Mary Harron as an influence. Female filmmakers transform the genre into this space to talk about their experiences. What is it about genre filmmaking that allows like you to explore the issues of being a woman?

Okuno: I was just doing an interview where someone asked me, “At what point did you realize that to be a woman is to live inside of a horror movie?” And I loved that question and I really feel like there’s a lot of truth to it. I feel like that’s the reason that I’m so drawn to it and why a lot of women actually love genre and they’re very well suited to be filmmakers of genre movies.

I really feel like it’s because we, unfortunately, live with a sort of elevated level of fear and anxiety because we live in a world where there is a huge amount of violence against women. A lot of times it happens at the hands of men. And it’s just a reality. So for me, it’s the only way I can confront those anxieties. Being a filmmaker, of course, so much of it is about being in control. So when I’m shooting a scene that I’ve written that is essentially some version of a nightmare, it’s not like the fear exactly goes away, but it’s a way of having some momentary respite because I’m in control of it. I don’t know if that’s the case for other female filmmakers, but I would bet that’s probably a big part of it.


When I’m shooting a scene that I’ve written that is essentially some version of a nightmare, it’s not like the fear exactly goes away, but it’s a way of having some momentary respite because I’m in control of it.

— Chloe Okuno, director of “Watcher”

Maika, you’re still best known for “It Follows,” but also with films like “The Guest” and “Greta,” you have a lot of experience in genre. What do you like about acting in genre films?

Monroe: I grew up loving horror movies. I loved the feeling that you would get watching them. And in my career, I’m so lucky, but a lot of it is just by chance. I was sent “It Follows” and I read the script and I was like, “This is insane, I don’t know about this,” but I needed to pay my rent and feed myself. ... Then I auditioned and met with [writer-director] David [Robert Mitchell] and David was incredible. And I saw his previous film [“The Myth of the American Sleepover”] and I was just like, “Oh my God, OK, maybe this will be something cool.” And then it came out and it just really kind of changed everything for me.

There’s something about shooting genre films that is maybe the most challenging for me. I feel like I grow so much as an actor from these experiences because it’s so intense. It’s chance that I’m sent these scripts, but I also think genre movies have come such a long way. I think “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” those all came out around the same time. And I think it was really transformative for the horror genre. There’s a lot of really great scripts and great characters. And also a lot of really cool filmmakers, up-and-coming filmmakers, female filmmakers. So here I am.

A woman stands alone on a deserted subway platform at night.
Maika Monroe as Julia in Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher.”
(IFC Midnight)


[Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview addresses the ending of “Watcher.” If you haven’t yet seen it and want to preserve the suspense, we recommend saving this to read later.]

What are some of the visual strategies to create the sense of isolation for Julia? Chloe, how did you figure out how to convey some of what’s going on inside of the character?

Okuno: That for me was the whole trick of the movie — visually, how do I show Julia’s interiority? And it was a lot of different things. It’s a lot of conversations early on with the production designer and the cinematographer and the costume designer. I think it was important to have a color story that supported her journey. So initially she’s wearing these very bright reds that pop because she’s sort of unafraid to be bold and a lot of her wardrobe is a little bit more feminine. Then as the movie goes on and as she’s feeling more fearful and feeling the weight of this Watcher’s gaze upon her, we wanted to put her in these more muted, neutral colors that sort of matched our locations and our sets.

It’s like she’s physically trying to disappear, up until the very last scene — spoilers — when she’s in red again, because she’s covered in blood. So that was a big part of it. Of course as a director, I feel like it’s your job to come in with ideas, but really you’re drawing upon the expertise of all of your collaborators. So of course our set was so brilliantly and beautifully designed. And it was a lot again about color palette, but also about creating a space that has frames within frames. We can use those kind of Polanski-esque compositions. It was about choosing locations that were grand enough that we could have these massive wide shots where Maika was really, really tiny. And as the movie goes on, my DP and I used a combination of longer lenses and wider lenses. And we tried to have that help the story.

There’s always exceptions to these rules. If people really break the movie apart, you’re going to find moments that don’t adhere to this exactly, but early on, we tried to shoot Maika with longer lenses so the camera is physically further away from her. That’s a very voyeuristic style of shooting. But then as we progress, we switch to wider lenses. The camera is physically closer to her. You should feel like the camera itself is sort of a stand-in for the Watcher. And the Watcher himself is physically getting closer and closer until that moment on the train, when he’s right in her face and we’re in these very extreme closeups on both of them.


A woman with long dark hair in a black shirt stands in front of plants.
Chloe Okuno makes her feature directorial debut with “Watcher.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

One really crucial question that I want to hear both of you talk about is simply that it turns out that Julia was right. The guy she thought was stalking her was totally the guy who was stalking her. From a storytelling standpoint, that almost seems too straightforward, but the truth of that is what’s devastating about it. Was it important to you that in this story, where she’s not being believed, that she had to be right? It had to be the guy she was saying it was.

Okuno: Yes, absolutely. It would’ve felt like a betrayal of Julia and a betrayal of what the movie was trying to say to turn around and be like, “Oh, actually it was Francis the whole time.” I personally love twists, but I don’t love twists that are there just to be twists. I like a twist to be connected to some kind of emotion. There were times when I think we discussed, is there an alternate ending to this? Is it too straightforward? But for me, I think the whole point of the movie is that the whole time she’s like, “Hey, it’s this guy,” and nobody believes her. And then at the end, it’s the guy. The twist is sort of that there is no twist.

Monroe: A reason why I love this script so much is that it was so simple and straightforward. And that’s what it needed to be, like Chloe was just saying; that’s the point. She needs to be right. Because that’s the message that we’re saying. And so I loved it. I just thought it was so great, just the blunt end to the movie. There didn’t need to be anything else explained. That’s it. That’s all you’re getting.