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IFH 548: Sundance 2022 – The Watcher with Chloe Okuno

Sundance, Chloe Okuno, The Watcher

Well Sundance 2022 has begun and so has our coverage. Today on the show we have writer/director Chloe Okuno.

Chloe is a graduate of UC Berkeley with a masters degree from the American Film Institute Conservatory. There she received the Franklin J. Shaffner Fellow Award, and directed the award-winning horror short film SLUT.

Her recent work includes writing a remake of “Audrey Rose” for Orion Pictures and writing and directing a segment of the anthology series V/H/S/94. She’s the director of this year’s Sundance feature film Watcher.

Julia joins her husband when he relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job. Having recently abandoned her acting career, she finds herself frequently alone and unoccupied. One night, people-watching from her picture window, she spots a vague figure in an adjacent building, who seems to be looking back at her. Soon after, while alone at a local movie theater, Julia’s sense of being watched intensifies, and she becomes certain she’s being followed — could it be the same unknown neighbor? Meanwhile, a serial killer known as The Spider stalks the city.

Below is the story of making The Watcher from Chloe’s POV.

In making “Watcher,” I wanted to capture a kind of constant, uncomfortable dread that accompanies many women throughout their lives- one that is expressed through the character of Julia. Julia moves into this apartment building with her husband and quickly begins to believe she is being watched.

She recognizes that the Watcher is a threat. She feels it very clearly- even if it’s difficult to articulate the extent of that threat to the people around her. It’s a situation that’s probably quite familiar to most women. We experience the world in a different way than men and then when we try to express that experience, we’re often doubted- written off as paranoid, irrational, or overly sensitive… which in turn can make us begin to doubt ourselves. 

This has always been at the core of a story that in other ways has evolved greatly since I was first hired to direct it in 2017. Initially, the script was set in New York City, but when it became clear that we would be shooting the movie in Romania, I decided to rewrite it to take place in Bucharest.

Sundance, Chloe Okuno, The Watcher

There are times as a filmmaker where practical limitations end up being creatively very freeing- unlocking something great when you’re willing to embrace the unexpected. This was one of those times. Suddenly, Julia’s experience as a foreigner in this new city heightens all her other feelings of unease and uncertainty.

She finds herself increasingly isolated- largely unable to speak the language and therefore alienated from everyone around her. There were of course natural (sometimes uncomfortable) parallels shooting the movie on location in Romania: unable to speak the language, oftentimes sequestered in a hotel room amidst the raging pandemic, and occasionally fighting against the doubt that surrounds you as a woman working in a male dominated profession.

Fortunately, life didn’t fully imitate art. I finished the movie without any nightmarish descent into Watcher-style darkness, content with the hope that all of the tension found its way on screen. 

The filmmakers I admire are the ones who are able to create a language for emotion through their craft, translating what they feel into a form that other people can see and experience for themselves.

For Watcher I was inspired by the work of David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Satoshi Kon, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Mary Harron- filmmakers who have excelled at translating fear, loneliness, and alienation. The hope is always that there will be someone else who can empathize- telling stories so that we can take comfort in the recognition of ourselves in others. As a person filled with seemingly endless anxieties, making films is the best- and possibly the only- way I’ve found to confront them.

I’ve done my best to portray them honestly in this film, and I can only hope that those who have experienced similar fears and anxieties will find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone. 

Enjoy my conversation with Chloe Okuno.

Right-click here to download the MP3

Alex Ferrari 0:00
I'd like to welcome to the show, Chloe Okuno. How're you doing?

Chloe Okuno 0:15
I'm doing good. Thank you. How are you?

Alex Ferrari 0:18
I'm doing I'm doing great. Thank you so much for being on the show. I had the pleasure of watching your new film, your new Sundance film, The Watcher today, and it was it was creepy is pretty, pretty creepy. So we will get into it. But before we get started, how did you? And why did you want to get into this insanity? That is the film industry?

Chloe Okuno 0:40
Oh, wow. Yeah. What a question. I've asked myself that question many times over the years. questioning my decision to do this instead of going to law school. So I, I'm from Pasadena. So I guess I grew up on the periphery of the business, but my family isn't in the business at all. And I think when I was around in high school, I just, I loved movies. And it was the only thing I was really passionate about. And I sort of started to, you know, consider the idea which seemed very far fetched at the time of being a filmmaker, because there were so many filmmakers who I just had completely fallen in love with. So yeah, I think around high school, I thought about getting into the business. And I did like a six week directing course at the New York Film Academy, where they left us with like 16 millimeter cameras, and like four screws, and none of us knew what we were doing. But they taught us the very basics of cinematography and film editing. And I completely, you know, fell in love with the process of actually making movies. So yeah, it was it was it's been quite a few years now that I've sort of tried to make my way through this very difficult business.

Alex Ferrari 1:58
And was there a film that lit your fire? To do this?

Chloe Okuno 2:02
Oh, god, that's such a good question. I mean, I think there were probably quite a few. I'll be honest, I was a major Quentin Tarantino Stan when I was in high school, and I want you to think he's fantastic. So when I was, I was living abroad in France for like a year. And it was kind of a terrible experience. In a way I was really lonely and miserable. But I went to see Kill Bill like seven times in the theater. And it just provided such a source of comfort and escapism. And I think like that sort of solidified for me the idea that this is what I wanted to do.

Alex Ferrari 2:38
That was not a bad movie to be inspired by. And queenless inspired a couple filmmakers, not many, but a couple. over the over the years. Now, I've noticed that from your filmography, you've kind of lean towards the horror and suspense genre. Is there a specific thing that kind of caught your eye and why you kind of love, you know, telling stories in those genres?

Chloe Okuno 3:04
I think for me, it's just a particularly intense and therefore cathartic experience, to be afraid and to get your heart rate elevated. And I just I love, you know, filmmakers who work across the horror and thriller genres. You know, I like growing up Tarantino, but it was also David Fincher, and the Coen Brothers and John Carpenter and, you know, Toby Hooper and Wes Craven and I just I really fell in love with people who were able to make movies that like, terrified me, but also energized me because I think just their filmmaking craft is for me personally, the most exciting.

Alex Ferrari 3:49
Yeah, without without question, now you start off as a PA, like many of us do. And was there something those was there a time? Is there some Is there a question or excuse me, is there something that you wish someone would have told you some piece of advice? Back when you started this ridiculous, insane adventure filmmaker? Because I say that because I say that with it. I call it the beautiful disease because of the beautiful sickness because it is it's like it's a sickness, but it's a beautiful one. It's the it's the path of the artists. But it's insanity. We're carnies. I mean, we're essentially carnies. We went went off and joined the circus.

Chloe Okuno 4:31
Yeah, completely. Yeah. No, I mean, I think it is weird. I was thinking about like this when I even first started making movies and how intensely stressful it was, but you even sort of fall in love with the stress, you know, your highs and the lows and you definitely fall in love. I think with sort of, like you said, that carny lifestyle of like going from movie to movie and having these really, you know, incredible like experiences with these people and then moving on to the next But yeah, I mean, I wish that I don't know that anyone could have given me any advice that like would have persuaded me one way or the other. You know, I think in this you're in it and like you just, you, you, as long as you continue to love it, you keep going. And I think there are a lot of people who ultimately get disillusioned with this business. And why wouldn't they because it's just heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak. And I've certainly experienced that. I mean, I've been working, you know, since graduating AFI in 2014, I've had so many projects kind of fall through the way it's

Alex Ferrari 5:35
Shocking, shocking!

Chloe Okuno 5:38
What a shock. And you really do, I think the other thing is, like, coming up with, you know, your fellow filmmaking friends, you really see that this business is just you're on a roller coaster, and sometimes people will have very high moment in their careers, and you'll feel very low by comparison, oh, then that verts immediately, you know, and I think it's just like, if there was advice, and I sort of just learned it by sticking with it for this long. But, you know, if someone had just sort of told me, like, just sort of ride the ups and downs, because that is part of it, you know, don't get discouraged too much. But at the same time, I certainly, like have a hyper awareness that I need to enjoy this moment in which my career is going well. And I have a movie in Sundance, because, you know, in a year from now, it could be a totally different situation. So I think you just sort of have to, to keep going and try not to let it psychologically damage you permanently.

Alex Ferrari 6:44
Because this is the thing that they don't teach you like at film school, they don't talk about this, this is not part of the curriculum, very often, they teach you how to run a camera, they teach you how to work with an actor, they teach you how to light something, but they don't teach you about the realities, and the hardships and the resilience that is needed. And I know you know this as well, coming up, there are people, you know, colleagues of yours that you look at, and like how are they directing? Like, how did they get that job? You know, because there's people who are not as talented sometimes, but they're more resilient. And, and some and you just look at you like, man, they just hustled harder than everybody else and don't work in. You gotta hustle. Right? It's, but is that resilience that is not that is the that's the thing that I try to preach on the show so much is that resilience that you need to handle the those blows those as Rocky Balboa says, take the hits and keep on and keep on moving forward?

Chloe Okuno 7:40
I mean, 100% that's what it feels like. I sort of feel like it's, it's about tenacity and resilience, it's almost a war of attrition, like who can stay here the longest and take the most time. And I genuinely feel like one of the reasons that I'm still here in this business, is that unfortunately, or fortunately, I have a very high tolerance for other people's bullshit. You know, I just I actually don't It bothers me. But at the same time, I understand that you just sort of have to take a lot of bullshit in this business and like, navigate it and keep, you know, figuring out how you can make your movies but also whether all the stupidity that surrounds you constantly. So

Alex Ferrari 8:22
I'd love to just dig in a little bit on your common is like, you know, it's who was willing to stay here and continue to take the hit. That is the definition of insanity. Like that is literally like you don't see that in the cookie, the cookie business like you know, you don't see that. It's just like, it's this constant, just constant thing. And I always find these, you could, you've won in many ways, there is a lottery ticket mentality to filmmakers, like the next one. It's like we're, we're constantly betting on black, or betting, you know, at the roulette table, like the next projects don't like a blow me up the next project, someone that's going to get me that the big. And the dream of most independent filmmakers is to get a film into Sundance, because back in the 90s, that was what happened. And you saw all of that success of filmmakers who got into Sundance and it blew their careers up and everything like that. But is that kind of weird mentality of just always hoping that the next thing will blow you up? And I found in these my experience as a filmmaker, I finally realized that I'm just going to do the work. And whatever happens happens, did you kind of find Have you found that kind of groove for yourself?

Chloe Okuno 9:29
Oh, completely. Yeah. But I also never really assumed I mean, of course, like, getting into Sundance was incredible. And genuine surprise, I think for me and everyone else who worked on this movie who loved this movie, and we're so proud of it. But Sundance didn't necessarily feel like a realistic goal for us. No, it was kind of a dream. And I in some ways, it is for everyone, because it's so unlikely that you get in because it's so competitive. But yeah, I mean, even now, I certainly don't think like what Well, I've done.

Alex Ferrari 10:00
I've, I've arrived, I have arrived.

Chloe Okuno 10:04
I have arrived. Yeah. No, I think you're probably always feeling that, you know, every movie you work on could be your last, you know. And it's like,

Alex Ferrari 10:13
It's so funny because I talked to I mean, I've, I've had the pleasure of talking to some very, you know, successful filmmakers on the show, Oscar winners and all this kind of stuff. And they're just like, you're only as good as your last project. Like, just because you won the Oscar just because you, Sundance that will open some doors for you. But it, you know, the trucks of money, it's not going to just come and they're not going to just go well, you got into Sundance, oh, how many projects do you want to do will finance all of them and take as long as you need? Like, that's not. But a lot of filmmakers think that that's what happens. Like, oh, you got into Sundance your Sundance Film Festival filmmaker. Now, the doors wide open, the doors creaked open. You know, and it's great. Don't get me wrong. It's absolutely great. And anybody would kill for it. But I just always like to, because I've had films in Sundance, and I've worked on projects with them. And I've seen what happens. Like, okay, great was awesome. Now get to work.

Chloe Okuno 11:06
And, and you have to have, I think a lot of projects going at the same time, because inevitably, only one of the five will go through if you're lucky. So yeah, that's also been kind of the thing that was difficult. Like, I went straight from making VHS 94 into watcher. So I was trying to like, finish up editing VHS while I was in pre production on watcher. And I had a script that I had been contracted to write for a studio. So all of this sort of fell on me at the same time. And, of course, it's like no complaints having things to do. But also it's like, in order to have a viable career and like to increase your chances, you have to be involved with so many things. But then, of course, inevitably, you end up having to do all of them at once.

Alex Ferrari 11:54
Right! Yeah, yeah, we can all wish for these problems. Like, oh, I'm too busy.

Chloe Okuno 11:59
It feels terrible. I'm complaining about that.

Alex Ferrari 12:01
No, no, but no, but you're absolutely right. But there's still a stress and a pressure to that you're like, Okay, great. I just got into Sundance didn't expect that. Oh, God, I got to finish this thing. Oh, God, I gotta do this now. And now it's it. There's a lot of pressure on you. And I can only imagine, you know, being in the orbit of filmmakers who've been in Sundance, you know, working with them on on their on their projects. I see the pressure of what, you know what near like, Oh, God, all this stuff. And you know, before you should be able to go to Sundance now this year, unfortunately, we can't experience the Park City. Have you ever been?

Chloe Okuno 12:33
Oh, no, I've never been.

Alex Ferrari 12:37
I don't think I don't think you'll ever be what it was prior to 2020. Again, because I can't I can't see 60,000 100,000 People walking in a two block radius.

Chloe Okuno 12:47
I mean, right now, yeah, that seems like a futuristic sort of dream.

Alex Ferrari 12:53
Exactly. No, but and I always love asking, How did you get the news? And how did like what was I always love that story? Because those are so much fun.

Chloe Okuno 13:00
Yes. So it was funny, like, from the time resubmitted, like every single week after every time I got a call from my agents, I just braced myself because I was convinced they were calling to tell me that we didn't get in. Right, of course. But no, I got the news. I think it was I can't remember exactly what it was. But I was just at my desk working. And I got an email from a Sundance programmer. I don't know if it's okay to say her name. But I'll say her first name Heidi. And I didn't know her. Personally, I didn't know who this person was. I was like, Who's this email from? And I look and I see she's, like a senior Sundance programmer, and she just says, Are you available to hop on a zoom with me? And like the next 10 minutes? Like, what? Okay, surely they wouldn't be zooming me to tell me I didn't get in, right? They're just gonna give me the bad news through my agents. But I still wasn't like, totally sure. So I hopped on the Zoom. And it's just her and me. And she gives me the good news. And I think I started crying.

Alex Ferrari 14:00
Oh, of course, as you should, I would have cried.

Chloe Okuno 14:04
It was very overwhelming, but it was really nice. I love that they sort of, you know, they give you the news themselves, and and one on one. And it was sort of perfect the way it just totally came out of nowhere.

Alex Ferrari 14:15
Yeah, you're just hanging out. And then you just get that call. It's yeah, that time of year during Thanksgiving. That that's that that's that little two, three week window where they start letting people know and you're just like, and every day that goes by, you're like, I didn't get in. I didn't get in. I didn't get in. And then like December 1, like I definitely didn't get it. I've had some people get called December, like early December, and they're like, Oh my God. But it's, it's an amazing experience. It really is an amazing experience. Now, how did watcher come to be? How did you get watcher off the ground?

Chloe Okuno 14:46
Yes. So um, I was hired to do it in 2017. And it was actually a fairly sort of, you know, typical origin story and that I think the scripts came to me through my agency And I read it and they said that this company is hiring a director. They're talking to a handful of people. And I just at the time, I think I was a few years out of film school, I'd had a one really pretty painful setback in my career, and I was more determined than ever to land the job. So I'm pretty sure they just gave it to me because I like put together a 20 page presentation. And just like, you know, Reese Witherspoon and election style tried harder than everyone else.

Alex Ferrari 15:35
That's a great analogy, by the way, that was awesome. Let's call back. So that says, you basically was a work for hire, you just landed the job.

Chloe Okuno 15:44
It was initially Yeah, it was I laid out the job. It was work for hire. This script by Zack Ford was very interesting. It was, you know, this, the core story was about this couple, Julia and Francis move into an apartment and Julia becomes convinced there's a guy watching her. But then over the five years that it took, you know, for me getting hired to the movie getting made. It actually there was a significant amount of evolution. And I think the the biggest evolution really was when the script initially was set in New York City. I heard pretty, you know, late in the game that we were going to shoot in Toronto, and then that fell through, and then they talked about shooting it in Bucharest, in Romania. And I just decided to totally embrace that and rewrite the script to take place in Romania, which ended up being a real creative blessing, because it kind of took the narrative in this in this whole other direction, that really just sort of help, you know, bolster, what was already there in terms of the emotional journey of our protagonist, and just helping to increase her sense of isolation and alienation. And, you know, suddenly she shows up, and she can't speak the language. And it just brought this whole other level to it. So it was, yeah, it was a very interesting evolution over over those five years,

Alex Ferrari 17:04
I was gonna ask you how Bucharest came to be? Because it was kind of like, that's very unlikely. Do you normally New York, LA, you know, kind of plays, but it actually added such a level of just another texture to the whole story that really made it stand out for me when I was watching it.

Chloe Okuno 17:24
That's awesome. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was, um, you know, I think there were some budgetary incentives, certainly shooting mania the way Yeah, it's a very common common destination, partially for that reason, but also because, you know, they have the infrastructure there to make good movies, they have really good crew. And I think the financing company had worked in Romania before, so they had experienced there. So there were a lot of practical reasons to go shoot it there. And then I really did. You know, I tried to absorb everything I could, when I was there. I'd never been to Romania previously, I'd lived in in Russia. So I had at least some former Soviet Union experience. But Romania was new to me. But it was great because I really was able to sort of like infuse little details into the script based on experiences I had in pre production. Like, there's a scene where Julia goes into this beautiful sort of museum, and she gets chased by this angry security guard who's screaming at her and Romanian, and she doesn't understand what he's saying, that literally happened to us, like we went that location, like that actual location. And I take out my phone to take pictures, and this guy just comes running out and screaming it. Wow, we actually that's the guy who's in the movie, we cast him. You're terrifying. Like, let's put you in the film.

Alex Ferrari 18:49
He was cooler than after you offered him the part. He was a lot cooler,

Chloe Okuno 18:53
Way cooler. But the greatest thing was that I think he clearly was really nervous because he wasn't an actor. So the first few takes, he wasn't he wasn't like doing the thing that he did to us and in person. But we eventually we got him there.

Alex Ferrari 19:08
That's, that's amazing. That's a great. That's a great story. Now, I didn't notice that this film had a Hitchcockian vibe to it. Was he an influence at all, when you were making this?

Chloe Okuno 19:18
So I mean, definitely, from a pure narrative perspective, like rear window, I think was massively influential on this movie. You know, it's sort of, I think, like, directly referencing it in many ways. Sure. And visually, as well, and I think we're all trying in some ways to emulate Hitchcock in terms of, you know, his ability to create tension and suspense. So yeah, he was a reference. Um, David Fincher was the reference.

Alex Ferrari 19:46
I could see that that could see Fincher Yes, thing in there. No question.

Chloe Okuno 19:50
Absolutely. Yeah. There is a great Japanese movie called Perfect Blue by Satoshi alone, which actually ended up being quite influential as well. Well, it's about like a Japanese Popstar who's being stalked by one of her fans. So yeah, there, there were quite a few influences. And I hope that, you know, they came together in some way that makes sense.

Alex Ferrari 20:15
Now, as a director, you know, when we're on set, you way it's such it's such an interesting thing as directors as artists, we don't get to practice our craft very often, actually directing, it's mostly years of getting things off the ground. Unless you're Ridley Scott, then if you're Ridley Scott, you're directing all the time.

Chloe Okuno 20:36
Gladiator and like Blackhawk down, and like another

Alex Ferrari 20:39
House of Gucci, the last king aliens, like he's doing all of them at the same time. But generally speaking, we don't get to do it very often. And when we're there, I always find them like, it's the hat. I'm the happiest ever being on set. It's just like, Ah, it's great. Is there and there was but with the happiness there have comes that day, where you feel like the entire world's coming crashing around you. You've lost, you've lost. Like, she's not everyone lives who's listening? She's laughing. The second I said that she's like, You mean every day. But there's that specific day that you feel like you lost a location. Actor broke his leg? The sun is you're losing the sun? What was that for you in this project? And how did you overcome it?

Chloe Okuno 21:29
I'm laughing because I'm thinking of like, seven or eight different things

Alex Ferrari 21:36
A couple A couple of them, that would be good.

Chloe Okuno 21:38
Um, okay, so the first one, I think was because of a variety of scheduling issues. Obviously, scheduling is always a nightmare. And indie film, like you put COVID on top of it gets like 50 times harder. So for scheduling reasons, I think on our on day four, we had to do this massive scene, which takes place at the end of the movie, and is probably one of like, the heaviest emotional moments for our two lead characters. And it involves all these extras in an indoor space, so there's no COVID on top of it. And it just was a very, very difficult night, it was also a night shoot. So I think we were shooting from like, 5pm to 5am. So just a lot of difficult circumstances. And again, this is day four on my first feature film, so I'm also just, you know, trying to get my bearings in some way. So that was very hard. And in, without going too into detail, I think, you know, because of that level of stress on every single person in the production, there was a little bit of drama,

Alex Ferrari 22:58
No honest sets stop it!

Chloe Okuno 23:02
A little bit of drama. Um, and I, I feel like I, I, you know, got through it the way that you usually do, which is to sort of just grit your teeth, and like, you know, write it out and try not to get too rattled, and try not to let it make you too emotional, because I will say like, like genuinely, women on set, especially when you're in a position of power you people don't, will not give you a lot of grace, when it comes to showing your emotions, you have to be very careful about it, you have to in a way that, you know, I'm sort of making a movie about that, you know, like Riley to do the same thing. It's just constantly sort of modifying what she feels so that people will, you know, write her off as lacking credibility. Being a female director, you're kind of doing the same thing. So I think it was really just a matter of in some ways, unfortunately, I have a lot of practice with that. So but it still is very difficult. And it just, you know, you had to sort of like take a deep breath, and like, make sure that as much as possible, in spite of all the drama we were getting through our day. And at the end of it, it did feel fairly miraculous that we, we made

Alex Ferrari 24:25
Which, which is interesting, because I've had multiple female directors on the show, and I love talking to female directors because it's a perspective of direct and I don't have I'm a Latino filmmaker, so I have that perspective. But, you know, I've never dealt with a lot of things that female directors have to deal with and vice versa. Is there any advice you could give a young female director listening right now or watching right now on how to deal with difficult situations on set? Because look, I when I was coming up, I was always the youngest guy in the room. That's that's not the case anymore. But I was always like I was was a kid in the room and I would walk on some of these sets as a director and, you know, you'd have the the, the grizzled, you know, 60 year old grip, who you know, who's like, this kid doesn't know what he's doing, or, or the DP that is going his own way, or things like that. It was difficult for me to deal with that coming up, I could only imagine what it'd be like it was, especially in the came up in the 90s. It's not the same world for female directors as it is today. It's gotten better from my understanding, is there things that you can give any tips on how to maneuver those for female directors, or even just young directors? Who just when you've got a DP who's like, Yeah, I'm gonna shoot it my way? What are you going to do? What are you going to do about it? You know, or production designers? Like, no, I don't think that's the way to do it. And like, and you've got to, you've got to kind of show some teeth.

Chloe Okuno 25:50
Yeah, you do. I mean, I think my, my advice would be I, I find it very difficult to stand up for myself and advocate for myself as an individual. And I think that's not uncommon with women, for whatever reason, we've sort of been taught not to do that. And if anything, I think we're sort of it's ingrained in us to try to make other people around us comfortable, right. And that's not what you need to do when you're directing the movie. But what has really helped me is sort of telling myself, Okay, I'm not standing up for myself, Chloe Okuno, I'm standing up for this movie that I'm trying to make. So the movie, like the movie that you're trying to make the thing that is going to exist at the end of the day outside of you, in some ways, that becomes the thing that I'm just like, I'm protecting this. And it doesn't really matter what people think of me, I'm, I'm standing up for what I believe is right? For the sake of this movie that I'm trying to make, it almost becomes like a separate entity, like a little baby that you're trying to protect.

Alex Ferrari 26:54
Okay. That makes sense. That's a good way of looking at it. Like, you separate yourself. You take yourself out of it. And now you're like, No, I'm the mom or the Papa Bear of the of the movie.

Chloe Okuno 27:06
Yeah, no, exactly. And and even doing that, it's still very hard. You know, and it's always hard when you're a director, because you're working with people who are experts in their fields, and you are not, so they're looking at you like, what do you know, it's your first movie, you know? Or no, I've been doing this so many more years than you have. But truly, like, I really find, first of all, if I make the wrong decision, I'd rather it be my wrong decision, then, me accepting someone else's wrong decision and living with that, you know, that's always better. But also, I really feel like, you know, the thing that directors have, that no one else does is we've lived with the movie for probably years, like we know it inside and out, we should know why we're making a certain decision. It's not kind of, for other people, it might be isolated. But for you, you're taking it within the context of the entirety of the movie. So how is production design going to work with cinematography, and the actors and everything else that you've planned to tell this very particular kind of story in the way you want to? So it, I find it constantly challenging every day, to have the sort of confidence to tell people what I want, especially when they give me a lot of pushback. But that's sort of, I feel for me, like, that's the essence of the job in some ways.

Alex Ferrari 28:26
Yeah. And I mean, I, you know, I forgot that this was your first feature. So you had that to deal with? And how did you get from, you know, how did you get your agent from shorts, because I know a lot of people listening are like, this is your first you know, everybody wants their first feature. Everybody wants to get their first feature gig, especially work for hire is unheard of, you know, you normally have to build it all yourself and find the financing yourself and cast by yourself and all this stuff. So this is a very unique scenario. How did you get your first agent? And how did that process go from from short?

Chloe Okuno 28:58
Yeah, so I got it, I had a the short that I made coming out of AFI was called slet. And it was like a coming of age for movie, which did pretty well on the festival circuit. So I can't even remember exactly how they saw it. But they saw the movie, my former agency and reached out to me and wanted to read me, which was incredible. Also something I wasn't necessarily expecting to make the film school. So that's how that happened. But like I said, you know, that was in 2014. And it's now 2022. And I'm you only now premiering my first feature. So that tells you how long it took to get to this point.

Alex Ferrari 29:38
Even with it even with agents, even with agents,

Chloe Okuno 29:41
Even with agents. Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 29:43
That's the thing that a lot of filmmakers and screenwriters need to understand is like just because you have an agent doesn't mean that you're gonna just be working all the time.

Chloe Okuno 29:50
Oh, no, no. No, no, even with agents, I think you you know, you still have to really be pushing all the time yourself.

Alex Ferrari 30:00
You got to be hustling and they might open some doors for you like this opportunity that presented you with the watcher you know and you were you are you election did out. It got it got it got it. Now going back to I think was full circle your first short film that kind of made the rounds?

Chloe Okuno 30:18
I guess it will full circle was a not exactly. So when I was 19. And I had been like working as a PA on all these indie sets, I made this little movie called Birdman. And I didn't know what I was doing. It was one of those ones where I like wrote it produced, directed and edited. And it's a miracle that even got made because it was just me stumbling around in the dark. But yeah, there was that one. And then when I was at AFI made a few shorts, one of which was full circle, which hasn't really been seen, because at AFI your first year you make these shorts, but they're sort of designed to be done very quickly for no money and you don't get the rights anything. So you can't really be distributed or go to festivals.

Alex Ferrari 30:58
Of course not why would they right? Yeah. So was there a were there some major takeaways early on in your career that you kind of brought into your careers because I remember one big first first time I did my commercial reels, this is back in the 90s. Where's I shot on 35 I hired to DPS. There were two dps on set. This is how bad the situation was. I've never had any ever since and the professional crew that was hired. They're like, why are there two DPS? Like why? They owned a grip truck. And they had access to a film camera. So I say, Well, if they own the gear, they must know what they're doing. mistake that I never ever made again. And that was something I brought in from those early days of me starting out as a director. So is there anything that you brought from those early days doing your shorts?

Chloe Okuno 31:55
Yeah, I never want to produce something that I'm directing at the same time.

Alex Ferrari 32:02
You said no, I'm good. I'm good.

Chloe Okuno 32:04
Yeah. I mean, it was probably it was a good experience. But no, I mean, it's just like directing, if you're really lucky, and you have good producers. You know, they're the people who allow you to focus creatively, because just that just the creative focus takes up 100% of your time. So when you're trying to like, make the movie, but you're also thinking about like when craft services can arrive. Is this not conducive to?

Alex Ferrari 32:30
I'll tell you what, I've most of the things I've done. I've also produced and I agree with you like and there's been times where I've been in work for hire. I'm like, This is so much easier. It's you mean, I don't have to sign checks during lunch. Like, it's insanity.

Chloe Okuno 32:48
That is it's so hard. Yeah, I don't know how you continue to do it. Because I did it once, like on a tiny little note budget movie. And I was done.

Alex Ferrari 32:57
I think for me, it's just I didn't have a choice. I didn't have a producer. So I was just like, well, I got to do it myself. I came from Florida. So in Florida, there wasn't a plethora, you know, of filmmakers that I could work with. So I was just like, Alright, I got to just sign the checks and produce it and get it done myself. And it was a good horror stories, horror stories growing up during that time. But but you know, it's the shrapnel it's the shrapnel that you you gather along the way, and it makes you who you are as a filmmaker. And, you know, looking back again, I always like going back, especially when we start when you're starting out? Is there something that you wish someone would have told you at the beginning, not in a way to dissuade you from being a filmmaker, but to actually help you on your path? Like if you could go back and say, listen closely. It's gonna be it's gonna take you twice as long and twice as hard as you think it's gonna be. Now you really should think about being a lawyer. But if you're not, if you're going to go down this path, this is this is probably something to look out for.

Chloe Okuno 33:58
Oh, man. I mean, honestly, I'm sort of worried I'm even now making mistakes that I'm not aware of, like, go back and give myself advice when I feel like I'm still sort of in the thick of it, like, ask me again. And I'm 75. And I've done a couple more movies, but I don't know. I mean, I'll be very honest, like, a thing that has been sort of very difficult and surprising to me is that, like you said, you would assume that the easier thing to do as a independent young filmmaker would be to get your own movies made, as opposed to getting hired to direct something else being a director for hire. I actually found it's been the opposite. For me. I'm a writer, director, and I write scripts that I guess are I think accessible, but also they cross a lot of different genres. And I don't know for whatever reason, I found it very difficult to actually get those scripts made, and I found it easier. To get hired on projects, which like us again, it's just, it's upside down world. But, um, I don't know what my advice is because I haven't figured out how to fix it yet. But I guess

Alex Ferrari 35:14
One piece of advice, I think it's wear comfortable shoes, wear comfortable shoes. That's always.

Chloe Okuno 35:20
That's great advice. Yeah, we're comfortable shoes have a lot of pockets. Pockets are essential.

Alex Ferrari 35:26
You remember those pictures of those directors, especially commercial directors had that vest on that they had like 1000s of pockets, and they could stick them in the back and you would just look at them and like, and they were always khaki pants with tons of pockets. And you're like, wow, that's what a director wears. And then when you're on set, you're like, Yeah, that makes so much sense. I always wear khakis. I always have pockets everywhere, just because I'm shoving stuff in all over the place. Here's my shot list over here. Here's, here's the schedule over here. And I'm just constantly Oh, yeah. Unless again, unless you're Ridley Scott.

Chloe Okuno 35:59
Please got released his own director's jacket. I think?

Alex Ferrari 36:02
Did he? Of course he did. Why? Why wouldn't he? I just adore Ridley because he first of all, he didn't give a crap when he was in his 40s which was by the way his first movie was in his early. His very first feature was, I think it was 40 or 41. But by the time he made that first feature, he had directed 2500 commercials. Wow. So he was a professional right I mean, he more proficient and more time on set then all the Masters working at the time, so he was very proficient at it. Same thing for Fincher, same thing for like Bay and Fuqua, these commercial directors. They just constantly worked for decades. But him and Tony both did that. And then they got off the ground with the with the with the directing, but now I don't know, Tony, I think he's just rushing against the clock, because he's just like, I need to make five movies a year.

Chloe Okuno 36:52
I really respect it. Yeah, I've heard that. So we were so lucky. We had the most amazing colorist on watcher named Stephen Nakamura. Gorgeous, gorgeous. Were Yeah, I mean, he did he and my DP Benji Kirk Nielsen. Both did amazing work. But Stephen has worked with Ridley Scott, you know, he he was the colorist on the last tool. And he, and I hope I'm not talking out of turn. But yeah. And he told me that, you know, Ridley is one of these guys who shoots with multiple cameras.

Alex Ferrari 37:23
But the time that I five cameras, I heard five cameras at the same time. Yeah.

Chloe Okuno 37:27
5 Cameras, you know, doesn't like to do a ton of takes. But also, the really big thing that I took away from why Ridley is able to move so quickly, aside from just being a genius, and being in the business for decades, is that the actors show up and immediately respect him. You're not going to get any pushback when you're Ridley Scott, even for movie stars. So I think that's probably helpful.

Alex Ferrari 37:48
And you know what that is, I've noticed that as I've gotten, I've gotten a little bit and I'm a little older now. And I've been doing this for a little bit longer. When I walk on set, I'll still get a pushback sometimes from someone older than me. And I have no I definitely don't have the reputation for at least a stretch of the imagination. Nobody has the reputation everyone's got. But yeah, at a certain point. You, you made enough movies, they just know like, oh, he he or she knows what they're doing. You know, you know, but I still remember the day I walked out on a TV show I was doing which I was producing, and paying everybody out of like I was the production company. And this first ad didn't know who I was. I didn't hire him. And he started giving me crap on day one. And I'm like, dude, like I might I might DP I've been working with forever. My product. My, my line producer I've been working for in the line producer hired him because it was a last minute hire because my first ad was booked. So I was like, okay, and this guy just started giving me crap. And I'm like, dude, come here. Come in for a second. Just pull them aside. It's like, if you don't like the way I'm working, you can leave. I've been doing this close to 30 years, and I could do the show without you. And after that, and I go oh, and oh, by the way, I'm paying you. After that. It was very smooth sailing. It was very calm, quiet. Just chill that he was like the best friend.

Chloe Okuno 39:17
Yeah, oh my God. That's amazing. I mean, I would love to get to that point where I can just pick some one aside, and very quietly tell them that I'm better at this than you are shut up.

Alex Ferrari 39:28
Like, I'm like, dude, between me and my DP we can run the set. Dude, we don't need you on this production. This is not the last duel. I don't need you. If you're gonna give me attitude and be toxic on the set. Like, I don't need that. But by the way, also congratulations on being nominated for the grand prize. The Grand Jury Prize for Sundance I saw on your IMDB that you were nominated.

Chloe Okuno 39:51
Oh wait, I didn't I this is news to me.

Alex Ferrari 39:55
Well, congratulations. But listen, I just saw it on your IMDB that you got it says nominated for Grand Jury Prize at Sundance,

Chloe Okuno 40:02
Isn't aren't all the films who are in competition nominated? I don't know

Alex Ferrari 40:06
If they are, if they are, enjoy it, if they aren't enjoy it, but I saw it on your IMDB. I was like, Oh, that's really cool.

Chloe Okuno 40:15
Love it.

Alex Ferrari 40:17
I'm glad to give you that news.

Chloe Okuno 40:19
I know breaking news

Alex Ferrari 40:23
Now I'm gonna ask you a few questions I asked all of my guests, what advice would you give a filmmaker or screenwriter trying to break into the business today?

Chloe Okuno 40:36
My advice would be to, like I said, it could sort of backfire in some ways. But don't be too precious. First of all, because there's no perfect project. And you'd be shocked. I think even sometimes, if you're a director and a script comes to you, that's not perfect. Or if you're a writer, director and writing your own script, and you just feel like, okay, it's not Citizen Kane yet. Don't be afraid, I think to put it out into the world. And don't be afraid to take on jobs that maybe still need some work. Because in this industry, things always a lot of times, they take a lot of time or they happen in like a minute, it's one or the other. But you can you can evolve things. And I just think, you know, there's there's a lot of potential and projects, and there's a lot of pressure on young filmmakers to do something that is sort of perfect their first time out of the gate. And you know, on second and third time filmmakers, you know, you're only as good as your last movie. But I would just say don't get too caught up in that. And don't let that psych you out too much. Because I think to a certain extent, I spent a lot of years. So fearful of making a movie that was bad. It probably prevented me in some ways from taking opportunities that would have been good. So that would be my advice.

Alex Ferrari 41:52
Great advice. i Yeah, before I made my first feature, it was always like I have to be Reservoir Dogs has to be El Mariachi has it has to be cooler has to be this thing that blows up. And it's not. That's an anomaly. Just do the best work, you can move forward. Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Chloe Okuno 42:17
Um, I'm still continuing to learn to weave I mean, we had just such a long conversation about it before. But I really am still learning to stand up for myself and to trust my instincts. And you know, every single day, you're sort of confronted with a million different decisions as a director. And if you're a person like me, who's kind of anxious and tends to overly intellectualize everything, like every single one of those decisions, even if they seem really small and unimportant suddenly feels like it could make or break your movie. And maybe that's true, but it's probably not true. And I think it's just like, literally every single day I direct I'm, I'm having to push to believe in my instincts and just believe in myself. And I don't know if I'll ever fully learn that lesson. Because I think it's part of the process like going through that struggle. And maybe that's what makes things interesting. Like there's the inherent tension there.

Alex Ferrari 43:23
Well, I'll tell you what, don't feel bad because I've talked to some of the biggest people in the business and they all feel the exact same way that imposter syndrome. It's a it's a real thing. I think it's just inherent of being an artist. So it happens to all of us. When I hear when I hear that, when I hear certain Oscar winners going, Yeah, I don't know if I can write this. I'm like, Dude, you just won the Oscar. What's wrong with you? Like yeah, I don't know. I still can't I don't think I could do it. And last question, three of your favorite films of all time.

Chloe Okuno 43:52
Oh, okay. Um, Harold and Maude. Way, way up there. Yes. Alien. Also probably my favorite horror movie of all time. And the last one. I'm going to say Once Upon a Time in the West,

Alex Ferrari 44:11
Oh, nice, very good, especially that opening sequence

Chloe Okuno 44:14
The opening sequence. I think that opening sequence and also the sequence where they're like, at the well, like the good shot and the music that like Ennio Morricone score, just that there was something about that, that just sort of like changed me when I saw it.

Alex Ferrari 44:30
So it's a great choices. Chloe, thank you so much for being on the show. I wish you nothing but success. And congratulations again on being at Sundance. Enjoy this moment. It does go fast. Just Just enjoy the ride because it's going to be a fun ride for you. So continued success, my dear.

Chloe Okuno 44:47
Thank you so much. Thank you

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