How ‘Unseen’ Director Yoko Okumura Cast Against the Hollywood Grain in Debut Film: ‘Was Kind of a Miracle’

“I always love showing diversity within diversity — being a Japanese American woman means so many different things,” she told TheWrap


When “Unseen” director Yoko Okumura was growing up as a Japanese-American in Minneapolis, the idea of being a director felt completely anathema to her. “Directing was the farthest thing from my mind. My imagination couldn’t go there,” Okumura told TheWrap. “It’s not like I ever saw a Scorsese film and was like, ‘I could be him someday.’ Nobody who looked like me did this job.”

Okumura has used that lack of representation in cinema to cultivate a career as a filmmaker determined to change the paradigm. And it’s paying off, considering she will be making her feature-length directorial debut for Blumhouse with “Unseen,” an intense thriller about Emily, (Midori Francis, “Dash & Lily”) who is kidnapped by her obsessive boyfriend and held captive in the woods. With her glasses smashed in an altercation with her captor, Emily blindly makes a phone call that connects her to a stranger named Sam (Jolene Purdy, “The White Lotus”) who might be Emily’s only chance to make it out alive.

Drawing inspiration from the likes of “The Boondock Saints,” Okumura strived for authenticity with “Unseen,” even going so far as to cast Purdy as the film’s hero. “She’s the hero that I need in the world,” Okumura said. “I definitely grew up with a lot of body-image issues and food issues. I just look back at the people that were supposed to be our role models growing up and nobody looked like me. It was a culture of thinness that was idealized so much.”

Okumura went on to discuss representation in the industry, working with Blumhouse, and drawing from reality to make “Unseen.” The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The odds are stacked against female directors of color. What drew you to enter the industry knowing the issues within it?

Yoko Okumura: Growing up in Minneapolis as a Japanese-American immigrant kid. Directing was the farthest thing from my mind and my imagination couldn’t go there. It’s not like I ever saw a Scorsese film and was like, “I could be him someday.” Nobody who looked like me did this job, so, to me, it was really the love of the camera. I loved the technology since I was a kid, 10 years old. I had a mini VHS camera in my hand and followed the passion of that piece of technology, went to Arts High School in Minneapolis and then Cal Arts for undergrad film video. I kept going to film schools because I loved film.

But even during that time I don’t think my brain was able to fully imagine that I could actually [be] a director as a career. You just embrace the idea of the starving artist and you’re just going to probably work at a sushi restaurant for the rest of your life while like making art films with your friends. But it didn’t really click into my brain, like, “Oh, I could be a director and do this as a career” until I was already at AFI and I started seeing directors who were really working, and who are alumni of AFI come back to the school and talk to us and be like, “This could be you. I was where you were before.” It took a lifetime of being a student of film to even get to conceptualizing that I, as a woman of color, a Japanese immigrant, could imagine myself as a director.

How did that translate into working on “Unseen?”

What was amazing about AFI is I got to hone, to discover what it is to be a personal filmmaker. That also translates that into a larger fictional universe. I made a short film called “Kimmy Kabuki” that was about a housewife [who] follows her deceptive husband to a porn convention and then learns about intimacy from his favorite porn star. I’ve never been a woman following my husband to a porn convention but emotionally, I was like, “I’ve been hurt by adult media when I was a younger girl and not being able to really understand it.” How can I take that emotional reality and authenticity and put it into a film that’s fiction?

[“Unseen”] was a script that I pitched as a director to come on to and make my own. When I read the script, I was like at the end of the day, it’s a wild ride. It’s a thriller. It’s a little ridiculous and larger than life, but at the center is a story about friendship and beating an abuser, and winning against an abuser. That’s a story that I can imbue my own personal emotional experiences that are authentic on to and make it a personal film, even if it’s something I didn’t originate.

I saw a lot of comparisons to “Run, Lola, Run” and “Good Time.” Did you draw from any specific films?

I didn’t directly pull from [“Lola”], but I just want to say how much I love that movie. When I read the script, I’m like “This could go in several different directions.” What my stylistic choice would be is to utilize the camera to have fun, to have visual entertainment. Because watching two people talk over FaceTime could be really tedious, could be really boring. What I often like to do is like pull from films that I love the odd cinematic audacity but they’re often made in a time that’s incredibly misogynistic. I pull from incredibly masculine storytelling and try to learn what they did with the camera and then recontextualize it through my feminine lens.

So I pulled a lot of camera angle and sought inspiration from “Boondock Saints.” It’s really over the top and there’s a madness to it that I do appreciate even though the content of it is so far from what I’m trying to do. That’s similar with Quentin Tarantino too, these larger-than-life villains could be in the vein of “Kill Bill.” Now I’m trying to reclaim those styles into what does it mean to be a Japanese-American woman making movies like that?

Did Blumhouse have any resistance to your casting?

They were very supportive from the very beginning. They knew who I was as a filmmaker and were very supportive of making sure these two lead women felt authentic to me. [Jolene’s Sam is] the hero I need in the world. I grew up with a lot of body-image issues and food issues, and I just look back at the people that were supposed to be our role models growing up and nobody looked like me. It was a culture in which thinness was idealized so much and heroines never had body diversity. It was very important to me to have Jolene be this unlikely hero and Jolene is somebody that I saw her in “White Lotus” and was like, “I need her. I want her.” I called her out by name, “This is the person I need for this role.”

In her [Midori Francis’] role, specifically, I had in the pitch [I] want to make this character Asian American because she was an ER doctor and I want to honor the presence of AAPI people in the medical field because we’re so prevalent there. Amidst all the casting processes you go through, the fact that I landed with not only one but two mixed Japanese American women was kind of a miracle and I love that they have this shared identity, but they’re both so different. I always love showing diversity within diversity — being a Japanese American woman means so many different things.

Do you want to stick to horror in the future?

I’m always the kind of person who has so many eggs in so many baskets, and plates spinning. I want to continue making colorful, gritty, glamorous, horror films, thriller films. I want to work in genre but bring my feminine pop culture sensibility to it and start making my own version of what horror can be. I would love to make a body horror film that’s about women in the fashion world. Body horror has been a really powerful genre for me to watch, but then I keep going “I want body horror with characters who deeply and toxically care about their bodies and how they look.”

I’m ready to claim that area and see what infusion I can make from my own personal experiences being a girl and body being such a cultural obsession put upon us. I love the glittery with the blood and the dark with the fun and feminine. I would love to do a super villain prequel story. If I could do the Ursula prequel or the Poison Ivy prequel that would be the gold star.

“Unseen” is on digital and VOD on March 7.