ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Unseen director Yoko Okumura and stars Midori Francis and Jolene Purdy about the upcoming thriller. The trio discussed female friendship and implementing consistent tension. Paramount Home Entertainment releases Unseen digitally and through video-on-demand today, and it will begin streaming on MGM+ in May.
“Two women form an unlikely connection when a depressed gas station clerk Sam, receives a call from Emily, a nearly blind woman who is running from her murderous ex in the woods,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Emily must survive the ordeal with Sam being her eyes from afar using video call.”
Tyler Treese: Yoko, female friendship is at the core of Unseen. Can you speak to getting these two great leads and making that story, that relationship between them that happens all over the phone, a compelling part of this thriller?
Yoko Okumura: Yeah, the female friendship at the anchor of the story was what made me want to make the movie. I read the script and I was like, “This is the key component where I can really imbue my own authentic experiences into.” My female friendships have been the most important friendships in my life and the most important relationships in my life. So I really knew in the casting process, I really wanted to find some two people who brought very different strengths and very different vulnerabilities to the table that would be complimentary to each other.
You know, Midori immediately brought this raw intensity and strength to Emily and Jolene brought this immediate vulnerability, but this kind of quieter strength that was really buried underneath. So I just knew that together, it was going to be like fire, like sparks. It was going to be a really amazing thing — and thank goodness, I was right, because it really was. Even on the first Zoom table read, which can be hard, everybody was complimenting how much chemistry they had immediately.
Midori, like Yoko said, there’s a strength to your character and I love that you weren’t just a damsel in distress. You’re not just helpless, you are whooping some ass in the beginning of the movie. While you need assistance, there’s still a lot of strength to this character. What did you like about Emily being proactive in the script?
Midori Francis: Yeah, man, it’s funny. Even hearing you say that, I’m like, “Ah yeah, Emily,” you know what I mean? As actors, you have so many different parts to yourself, but then a movie or a TV role comes up and then you take one of those aspects and then you kind of blow it up to become a character. So it was so nice to play somebody where strength and fortitude and resilience and just raw survival was the characteristic.
It was so empowering and so fun. I’m not going to lie, I felt like a superhero on some days and, I don’t know, do I feel like that in my day-to-day life very often? Absolutely not. So it was awesome and I’m so grateful I got to do the part and work opposite Jolene who … when I first read the scripts, I’ll say — I loved my side, don’t get me wrong — but when I saw what happens with Sam towards the end and the twist and what she’s been going through, that’s the part that really moved me. And so seeing Jolene bring that to life on the screen and I was rooting for her so much like, “Sam, go Sam!” It was awesome.
Jolene, there is that quiet strength to Sam as was mentioned and she seems over her head and she has her self doubts throughout the beginning, but she’s always doing her best to be of assistance. Can you speak to her resilience and her desire to help?
Jolene Purdy: Yeah. I think she’s just weighed down by life, doesn’t see any hope, and then gets this phone call and I think it is just the trust and just — even though Emily is literally about to die, she’s my cheerleader, right? She’s Sam’s cheerleader, she’s what keeps her going. She tells her that she is strong. So even though you have that small strength inside of you, if someone else shows you that you’re of value, it can be amplified. So it really shows the power of community, the power of friendship.
And I do want say, Midori, you looked like a superhero while I was watching you shoot. You absolutely — scaling walls, climbing through bushes and trees — you absolutely looked like a superhero. I just was in awe of your strength. Physically, yes — getting up the wall, but like, just in the elements and just powering through everything and your work ethic and you were just … you’re Superwoman.
Midori Francis: Oh, thank you. And let’s just make this a compliment session, because Jolene, yes, you would always joke [that] you’re Sam, but you’re not Sam. Your ability, I feel like just so … what’s the word? When you don’t care what anyone thinks. I don’t … wow, I’m losing all my words. But that sense of just like … you were going there with Sam, no matter how it looks, no matter how it came across, and you had no issue or no pride about going to those places and being that insecure, which I think is a hard thing to do, and a hard space. In a way, I think Jolene living in that space might have been harder, honestly, than me living in my space, because I’m like, “Argh! I’m going to live!” And then she’s like … your space was just so much anxiety and an end to play. I feel like you always had that ending in you, the whole movie, and it was just heartbreaking. And I love you, Jolene!
Jolene Purdy: I love you!
Yoko, I was so impressed that this was your feature debut and you shoot it so confidently. What did it mean for you to have these two great Japanese American women as your lead for a film that’s so personal and is your debut here?
Yoko Okumura: Yeah, I mean, I’m just thrilled and grateful to have these two women in general, right? Their talents were just so mind-blowing and their commitment and enthusiasm to the project was so above and beyond. And during the casting process, it really just was like, “Who’s going to be the two best people for this role that has the best freaking chemistry, that can carry this movie and make everybody care about them and their friendship?” And then this like wonderful little miracle happened that they happen to both be Japanese American and that we happened to share this identity even though we’re all from different places, you know? Like Jolene’s Japanese from Torrance and Midori’s from New Jersey and I’m born in Japan and grew up in Minneapolis, like we’re actually quite diverse within ourselves, but have a shared common background.
So it was this extra special little gift that I got to get and to expand the what genre filmmaking is, what horror [is], what thriller is and who gets to be the heroes in those movies. So I was stoked to be able to expand the representation of who gets to be heroes in those worlds and to have these two ladies. So it meant the world to me. And again, it was a happy accident that just makes me smile every day about.
Midori, what I love about Unseen is that this core idea of you being unable to see and needing guidance is so basic. It feels fresh, it’s so smart as well. How was stumbling around in the forest and making that seem convincing? You play it so convincing when you’re searching around in the forest.
Midori Francis: Thank you. I mean, that was something I was worried about. I think Yoko and I had a talk about all the things I was worried about, how to do that, and how to maintain that sort of impediment, I guess you would say, throughout the film. One thing that did help and, and what was cool when I first read the script, is I am -6.00, -6.00 in each eye, meaning when I take out my contacts, I certainly cannot drive. If my little cute kitten was right there, I might not even see him unless he moved — which is a very bizarre example, but I just got a cat and I’m very excited about my cat. So I think that a fear of mine has been, in the back of my mind when I’m laying in bed, I’m like, “What if I was somewhere and I couldn’t get my contacts back in?”
Like, I’ve actually thought about that. Now, Emily’s more visually impaired than I am, for sure. But that experience of feeling like … when I wake up in the morning, I hate that moment, actually. Because I need my contacts, you know? So what would it be like to live in that space? I actually got to practice a lot. When I got cast in the role, I went out into Central Park without my contacts and just experienced the world in that way. I would do that and just try and take little glimpses of that. I noticed that I’m looking more about light as opposed to shape. And then when I would film it, I would focus on light, you know? Little things like that. So I hope I pulled it off.
Yeah, you definitely pulled it off. Jolene, you have some really hilarious scenes with Missi Pyle and we see Sam’s shift at the gas station go hilariously off the rails. Can you speak to working with Missi? She just seems like so much fun.
Jolene Purdy: Missi Pyle is terrible! She’s the most fantastic human being. I would love for her to spit Skittles at me every day. She is as funny off-camera as on-camera. We had worked on a project a couple months prior, so it was fun getting to be reunited and getting to be like a little bit more zany. That girl … when she commits, she commits. The names that she called me — that Yoko had to cut out for time, probably — they were very creative. She is the dream. She’s lovely. We had a great time, having guns pointed at me and, and harsh words being said, but it was in love and I loved it.
Yoko I was really impressed with the tension that the movie gives to the viewer. There’s always that sense of foreboding dread that the ex-boyfriend is going to catch up. Can you speak to your approach to the film’s pacing and keeping that tension high throughout? I thought that having that in the background, even during the slower moments, really kept the viewer on edge.
Yoko Okumura: I’m so glad you say that because that’s absolutely something we — me and my editor, my cinematographer — we all were very cognizant of making sure that that tension never let up. That was a very intentionally designed thing. Even with the producers, [there was] always a discussion of like, “Oh, have we lost Charlie for too long? Oh, are they feeling a little too casual right now? Let’s never lose the fear that should be motivating everything that’s going on here.” But yeah, in order to make that occur, I think keeping the fast-paced pacing and making sure there was something always going on and the next crisis occurring was really important. That “one thing after another” crisis situation was definitely written into the script of the two writers, who were great.
But again, I think a lot of that was just me also being in the audience’s shoes. I always like to step back and be like, “If I was a viewer, how would I feel right now? What would I be thinking right now as these scenes are going by?” And I think as a viewer, I’m actually quite an impatient one who’s always can easily get bored. So I think that pacing came from my desire to just never let the audience take a deep breath until the end of the movie and give them relief then.
Midori, Michael Patrick Lane just gives such an intense performance. He comes across as just a total creep. What stood out about him as a scene partner?
Midori Francis: Yeah, I mean, Michael was in it! He was very committed and very down to be terrifying [Laughs]. And you know what? That’s what you need. Because all acting takes courage and commitment, and there would be probably nothing worse than some guy coming in being like, “Oh, I’m too scared to be mean.” We need that. We need that. And he brought it, you know? Yeah, it was … it was a lot. It was a lot, I think, that we went through together. Having someone put their hands around your neck … it’s a lot.
And even if you can try and separate it, your body still goes through all of that stuff. So I think that as much as I tried to separate that, there was a little bit of a mythology in my head about Charlie and probably when I see Michael tonight, I’ll be like, “Oh God!” [Laughs]. But I know he’s just Michael, but he really was so committed. So committed. So props to that, for sure.