Yoko Okumura’s directorial debut, Unseen, is so fucking good. I have not seen a film with such strong female leads in a long time. Midori Francis (Grey’s Anatomy) and Jolene Purdy (Donnie Darko) carry this film from start to finish and I am here for it. All of it. Even though they don’t physically share any scenes with each other, the strength behind their characters, and the unlikely friendship and bond formed through trauma, and just being there for each other, is so inspiring. Written by Salvatore Cardoni and Brian Rawlins, this Blumhouse horror thriller is what to watch next.
Two women form an unlikely connection when a depressed gas station clerk, Sam (Jolene Purdy) receives a call from Emily (Midori Francis), a nearly blind woman who is running from her murderous ex in the woods. Emily must survive the ordeal with Sam being her eyes from afar using video call.
To celebrate the release of the film, I chatted with director Yoko about body diversity, what intrigued her about the script, what’s up next, and more!
PopHorror: I watched Unseen the other night and I loved it. I went in totally blind, and it was so entertaining, and so balls to the wall. I thought it was a ton of fun. I’m super excited to speak with you.
Yoko Okumura: Thank you!
PopHorror: I sincerely appreciate the casting in this. Being someone of a “non-normal” body size, I appreciate the casting. Jolene’s character is just amazing. Did you get any backlash for casting who you wanted?
Yoko Okumura: Not backlash. Specifically in the actual casting process, as far as working with Blumhouse, and MGM, they were actually very supportive of who I wanted to cast in these roles. When they hired me to direct it, they knew the direction I wanted to push it, and the kind of characters I wanted to make of these women so in that actual process, it was actually really supportive. It was really about, do these women have chemistry? Do these women have contrast between each other? Hopefully I don’t have backlash when the movie comes out, but it was actually a quite smooth process. Body diversity is incredibly important to me, and to create heroes out of people who don’t get to be heroes on screen all the time. I think I’m very clear about my mission as a filmmaker, so I think the studio was very aware of that and was very supportive.
PopHorror: Good, I’m glad they let you do what you wanted. What intrigued you about the script and made you want to be a part of the project?
Yoko Okumura: I had so much fun just flipping through the pages of the intensely building crisis. One thing goes wrong after another and I was like, this is such a well written tension ride. But what really made me go, “I could be the right director for this,” is the anchoring relationship in the movie is the unlikely friendship between two women. My female friendships have been the most important relationships in my life. I consider them my soulmates, so it just felt like terrain that I had a real immediate, intimate access to emotionally. That’s what made me think, this is on par with who I am, what I can do, and what I can offer.
PopHorror: This film deals with some pretty sensitive themes like depression, suicide, domestic violence, kidnapping. Was there anything that you were adamant about keeping in the film, no matter what?
Yoko Okumura: No spoilers, but the ending reveal… I don’t know if this is interesting because we can’t spoil it, but I’ll just say it. But the ending reveal as to why Sam was calling Emily, that was there in the very beginning of the movie. And actually, that ending was what made me go like, oohh, this really has heart, and this reveal at the end tells you that this not like a frivolous thriller with larger-than-life villains. This really is speaking about something, and it really is about these two women having saved each other. Not just one through the other. So that moment, for me, was pivotal and was never going to go away.
PopHorror: You spend the whole movie like, why was she calling her? What was the whole point of that? I thought I had missed something, and was like, I’m going to have to go back and rewatch the beginning because I must have missed something. Because of these themes, how did you convey your vision to the cast and crew?
Yoko Okumura: It has these real, serious themes that I never wanted to trivialize, as far as the real violence against women, and the depression and darkness that we all do experience, but it also has a sense of humor and this whirlwind of madness of these villains kind of swirling around you.
PopHorror: The couple with guns!
Yoko Okumura: Especially the couple with the guns! It could be ridiculous, but I never wanted to trivialize the real danger that even that couple was presenting for Sam. So for me, I said it like, “Look. This movie is emotionally grounded with the two leads, and there’s madness swirling around them.” I wanted to make sure, “The danger is real for you guys, Midori, Jolene. The danger is real. Take it seriously. It is life or death for you guys.” I let them know though, the villains are a few notches above reality, but you don’t have to worry about that. But just know that the ending movie, there is a stylization to the villains but you guys don’t have to worry about it. You guys just react to the given scenarios as truthfully as you want to.”
PopHorror: What is up next for you?
Yoko Okumura: I would love… My big goal is a theatrical feature that I direct. What that is, is yet to be seen, but I’m certainly and absolutely still in love with the horror and thriller genre. So I really want to make something again. I thrive at the intersection of grit and glamor, so I love colors, and sparkles, and feminine things, but like covered in blood and dirt. I would love to make a horror film that’s in the fashion world. I would love to make a body horror film that speaks about body dysmorphia and women’s experiences in their body. Several different projects that I’m in different writing stages and attachments, so hopefully that goes and can be a theatrical film.
PopHorror: You had me at body horror so that’s exciting. I am so impressed with this one and I can’t wait to see what you have coming up for us. That’s super exciting.
Yoko Okumura: Thank you so much!
PopHorror: Of course! Just one last question for you today. What’s your favorite scary movie?
Yoko Okumura: Oohh, my favorite scary movie… The fact that The Shining’s on your shirt obviously makes me think of The Shining but actually, I love The Descent. There are so many that I love conceptually and aesthetically, but when it comes to what actually scared me and what took me on an emotional thrillride, and then gutted me at the end, was The Descent. I felt physically affected.
Thank you so much to Yoko for taking the time to speak with us. Unseen is available now on digital and On Demand!