Writer-director Michael Mohan on creating his erotic thriller ‘The Voyeurs’
October 11, 2021
Michael Mohan tinkered away at his script in a spare room that would become his soon-to-be daughter’s nursery. Papers holding lines of dialogue and various outlined elements years in the making were tacked on every wall, while an unbuilt crib rested in the corner of the room. For Mohan, it was a reminder of his deadline for a spec script that would eventually become The Voyeurs.
"It was like this car in the garage that you sort of work on on nights and weekends while doing another job," Mohan said.
"So it was this thing that I was always tinkering with until my wife got pregnant and I knew, okay, I better finish that weird Voyeurs script that I've been working on all these years."
The Voyeurs is an erotic thriller on Amazon Prime Video that follows Pippa (Sydney Sweeney) and her boyfriend, Thomas (Justice Smith), as they move into a new apartment overlooking the inside of the home of a couple living in a neighboring building. Their curiosity gets to them as they try to get closer and closer to the subjects they observe almost daily, and eventually they find themselves caught up in a larger scheme of troubles.
Mohan said he started writing the script in 2016 and didn’t complete it until 2018. It is also the first script he has written on his own. The dark, erotic film feels out of left field from his previous writing. After working on Everything Sucks!, Mohan would go home to pursue his spec.
"So I was working on that during the day, like writing this sweet, good-natured, coming-of-age story from like, [9 a.m. to 6 p.m.] and then from like, 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. I was in the back making this dark, erotic thriller," he said.
The story originated from his own experience seeing a couple outside a friend’s window, living as if no one was watching. The debate of whether to look spawned the concept of the movie.
"I was visiting a friend who moved to downtown L.A., and I walked into his apartment to check it out," he said.
"I looked out his window and across the way there was a couple wandering around totally naked. And there was that push and pull of like, I kind of wanted to look, I knew that I shouldn't. And there was that sense of tension that I thought actually mirrored something that we all feel every day, in terms of browsing Instagram."
Erotic thrillers were something Mohan was fascinated by and couldn’t help but make one of his own. In the research phase of creating the script, he said he watched every single erotic thriller out there, picking up on the elements and essence of what makes them tick.
"I call them kind of like junk food that is secretly healthy for you, you know, because they're so easy to watch but yet the good ones have these complex relationships and themes," he said.
Getting to a full script didn’t come easy. Mohan began with short films, exploring his writing and creativity with low stakes. Slowly, he started to pull together different tools and practices that are present in The Voyeurs.
"Ten years ago, I made this one short film called Ex-Sex, and I made another one a few years later called Pink Grapefruit," he said.
"I would make them in between features as a way to indulge in whatever sort of creative idea I had at the time without any pressure."
One of the things he worked on was making sex part of the story to reveal more about the character, rather than including it for the sake of sex being in the film.
"I wanted to use the act of sex as the story, where the narrative is being pushed forward through the act of sex, or where you're learning something new about the characters, or you're building the sense of tension," Mohan said.
"Because oftentimes when you see a sex scene, it can be cut out of the movie and the movie’s story would still work."
While writing, Mohan constantly had the audience’s experience in mind. Part of keeping the audience engaged was making the film unpredictable and to do that, he had to forget about the three-act structure when writing it. It brought a different sort of freedom in crafting the story, allowing him to follow his intuition.
"I hope that this movie inspires people to maybe try not to think too much about that [traditional structure] and work instinctually because I think the only way you can truly surprise people is if you have those story beats happen in places they're not supposed to," he said.
Mohan also thought about how audiences would view the characters’ actions and what needed to happen onscreen to ensure tension arose. When characters debated and couldn’t help but peep at the lives of their neighbors, he wanted to make sure the audience was also there experiencing the struggle to look away. Watching his film play at Sundance, Mohan saw his work come to fruition as he "could feel the temperature rise in the audience when these scenes would happen."
From the unexpected turns in Pippa’s social circle to the tension of the sex scenes, he made a film that was visceral and unsettling, but kept eyes glued to the screen no matter what happened.
"There's a sex scene in this movie that is the best thing I've ever done — it's by far the best thing I've ever directed," Mohan said.
"I hope it's very deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for the audience."
There is no right or wrong answer in what each character does; audiences will feel justified no matter what side of the conflict they are on, Mohan said. Was it okay for Pippa to watch at that moment? Did Thomas do the right thing by doing nothing when he saw tragedy take place outside his window? Why don’t they leave?
The Voyeurs encourages people to question their morals along with that of the characters. As a man slips his fingers into a new woman’s hair, Pippa holds her breath as she watches. Glass and air are all that’s between them, yet the tension makes each material dense. And while she slips into unknown visual territory, so does the audience, breath tightened and teeth clenched, wondering where the eyes will wander next.
"When you watch this movie, you’re going to have an opinion and that opinion is going to be very strong," Mohan said.
"There are going to be people that are team Pippa that are like, 'yeah, you have to tell her.' And there are going to be people that are team Thomas that are like, 'no, get some curtains and figure out how to not look. Move out of that apartment, get out of there.' At various points in the movie, each one is going to feel justified from one scene to the next."
Written by: Steven VargasSteven Vargas is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles whose work focuses on arts, entertainment and activism. He is a current grad student at USC Annenberg pursuing an MA in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) and previously graduated from USC with a BA in Theatre and Journalism with a minor in Dance. He is a current member of the Equity Board, a new initiative at Annenberg Media dedicated to diversifying sourcing and promoting inclusive coverage across the publication. His short doc, “Dancing at Home,” earned first place in the LA Press Club’s “Life in the Time of the Coronavirus Contest" in May 2020. More recently, he co-directed "Two Paths: One Direction," an award-winning short documentary produced with students from the USC and Prairie View A&M University about their experiences of 2020. He produced work for ET Live, TheWrap, Dance Magazine, BuzzFeed News, and more. His work can be found here: https://www.vargassteven.com/