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Let’s start with The Voyeurs (2021). On Letterboxd you have indicated a list of films that have been a source of direct inspiration to make yours. Almost all of them can be identified with a specific genre (the erotic thriller) and a particular historical period between the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, the Hitchcock universe also seems to have made its contribution. Which of the two “genres” was most decisive in your training as a director, and in particular in the making of The Voyeurs?

Maybe I should start by sharing where the idea first came from.

One afternoon I was checking out my friend Chris’ new apartment over on 6th and Main here in downtown LA. He had just moved in with his girlfriend, and their place was marvelous: a huge open loft with tremendous windows that happened to look out onto a similar building across the street.

Taking in the view, you couldn’t help but see all of his neighbors on display, like little dioramas come to life. And among them I discovered a young man and a young woman lounging about their apartment completely naked. I remember the young woman rubbing a wet spot on their bed with a washcloth, while the young man casually steeped a cup of tea, his receding erection on display for all to appreciate.

At that moment, I wondered, quite simply: “Do they want me to look?”.

The story for The Voyeurs arrived quickly thereafter.

Around this time I was positively devouring what I lovingly refer to as the “lost genre” of erotic thrillers. After having directed several sexually charged short films, I was searching for inspiration. Discovering these movies provided a road map as to how I could broaden my scope and challenge my storytelling skills in order to justify painting on a larger canvas.

Now, I think it’s important to get on the same page about what “erotic thriller” means to your readers. Because some people might first associate that term with sweaty neo-noirs, like Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) or Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981). With characters speaking in repartee, the camerawork dripping with style, and sex scenes that feel distinctly like movie sex.

basic instinct

body heatThe sweaty neo-noirs: Basic Instinct and Body Heat.

Or they might think of [blank] from hell films, like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992) or Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, 1992). These usually feature a stranger unexpectedly entering an innocent person’s life, only to deviously undermine all of their relationships one by one.

the hand that rocks the cradle

single white femaleThe [fill the blank] from hell films: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female.

But the sub-sub-sub-genre that interested me the most I call steamy moral dilemmas. These feature everyday, ordinary people being faced with an illicit opportunity that could forever change their lives. Adrian Lyne is the king of these types of films, having directed Indecent Proposal (1993), Unfaithful (2002), and Fatal Attraction (1987), which people forget was nominated for Best Picture.

indecent proposal lyne


fatal attractionA sub-sub-sub-genre: steamy moral dilemmas like Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful, and Fatal Attraction.

I love these films for so many reasons. There’s wish fulfillment. There’s stakes. There’s relatable characters. There’s sex, almost always illicit. But most importantly, they’re so goddamn fun to talk about. You walk away with such strong opinions on what the characters should have done, and can’t wait to argue your perspective with your friends.

Because of this, these films also stand the test of time. Next time you find yourself at a dinner party, for real, ask everyone around you,“Would you sleep with 1993 Robert Redford for $1,000,000?” It’s still a great conversation starter, and I bet you might learn something new about someone you’re close to.

So I began studying their architecture. I wanted to understand how they could take premises that are in some ways kind of ridiculous, and make them seem plausible. And I wanted to really get a handle on how the tone was calibrated, because these films are unafraid to go to some incredibly dark places, yet it never stops feeling like fun.

At the same time, the milieu of my story was so obviously similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), so I went ahead and watched that too. I went back into my journals from that night, and found this entry:

The very best of Hitchcock’s films encourage the audience to ask questions: where you think the story might be going, who is the antagonist and why, and what you predict the upcoming twists and turns might be. It’s simple enough that you can keep a running tab of all of those questions in your head, but complex enough so that as the story unfolds, you’re able to continue brainstorming on your own in the back of your mind. (Or in the best case, you’re collectively brainstorming along with the rest of the audience together).

It’s far more of an active viewing experience vs. a passive one, and what makes it so enjoyable is the viewer not only gets the satisfaction of putting forth the effort in trying to solve a puzzle, they get the extra benefit when the film does something unexpected to solve it.

So there you have it. It’s impossible for me to determine which one was more influential, but hopefully this illustrates the headspace I was in as the film was revealing what it wanted to be.

The prominent presence of eyeball imagery and the incorporation of objects resembling the shape of an eye, like the eggs, are notable aspects in your film. Do you think that the erotic thriller is always a reflection on the act of seeing? Do you think that the contemporary forms of voyeurism and, in particular, social media can offer new ideas to the genre?

Films like Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984) or Sliver (Philip Noyce, 1993) certainly have those themes running rampant, don’t they? But I don’t know that I’d prescribe this intellectual agenda to all erotic thrillers. For instance, Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989) is a fantastic movie, with flawless performances by Ellen Barkin and Al Pacino, but the visual style of Harold Becker deliberately stays out of the way; conservative and utilitarian. So it feels like a classy, emotionally charged procedural more than a cinematic rumination on the way people see. At least to me.

sea of loveThe erotic thriller Sea of Love is a classy procedural more than a cinematic rumination on voyeurism.

But voyeurism is certainly baked into the concept of mine, with characters feeling this carnal desire compelling them to observe something they don’t have permission to view. And this might sound a little cerebral, but I wanted to manipulate the limbic system in our audience’s brains to elicit a similar intracranial response.

Hand in hand with Sydney Sweeney, we created an arc to how Pippa’s body is revealed to the audience. Early on we leer at her through the curtains in a dressing room. We peer at her through the crack in a partially closed door while she disrobes. The first 75 minutes of the film serve almost as cinematic foreplay by tantalizing the audience with this deliberate tease.

the voyeurs michael mohan interview erotic thrillerThe opening shot of The Voyeurs: we leer at Pippa through the curtains in a dressing room.

But when Pippa finally indulges in her inner desires, so do we. But it is suddenly incredibly visceral, playing out in real time, the close handheld camera making us feel like we’re right there with them. For many, this might feel like too much, and that’s the point. We are conflicted by our own desires to watch these two beautiful human beings have sex onscreen, knowing that the circumstances that brought them together are supremely unsettling.

the voyeurs sydney sweeneyPippa indulges in her desires.

Biologically speaking, what’s happening here is that the part of our brain that makes us feel turned on (the amydgala) and the part of our brain that makes us feel fear (the anterior cingulate cortex) are firing at the same time, creating within the audience that same damaged lust of a voyeur.

To answer the other part of your question, as far as social media goes, people could certainly view our film as an allegory for Instagram and the like, specifically the fascinations we develop for total strangers via the curated window they allow us to peer inside. That certainly made this project feel urgent to me. But I was also comforted in the fact I could tap into those zeitgeisty feelings in such a way where if you don’t read into it, the film is still a fun ride.

That said, I have been pondering what the impact of the metaverse (or what the metaverse evolves into) might have on sexual dynamics. Is it considered cheating if you have virtual sex with a stranger? Will it be easier for couples to attempt polyamory if there is a veil of anonymity? Will sexual assault be given the same attention if it didn’t happen IRL? All of these aspects are interesting to me, but whether there’s a movie in it, I’m not quite sure yet.

Nowadays, our relationship with the genre seems to have changed. Theoretical reflections on genre are foregrounded (for example, think of Scream [2022] or Matrix: The Resurrections [2021]) or there is the need to “elevate” the genre (again, think about what has recently happened with the “elevated horror” wave). It seems to us that The Voyeurs, despite your knowledge of the genre, presents a different approach. We would like to know your opinion on this matter.

I think it’s an impossible comparison. Horror and science fiction films have endured since the 1920’s, while erotic thrillers only existed for a brief period between 1984 and 2002. Some people may disagree, but I view Unfaithful as the last major studio movie that fully embraced it’s identity as an erotic thriller.

So my aspirations weren’t to elevate the genre. My aspirations were to resurrect it from the dead. And The Voyeurs is merely step one for me.

And I knew that if I only succeeded in one single thing, it had to be this: there are too many awful stories from actors who felt manipulated into going outside of their comfort zone due to the power dynamics on set, and this film needed to set a new standard for how productions handle scenes of intimacy.

This took an enormous amount of preparation and consideration. With my intimacy coordinator Amanda Blumenthal, the two of us took an abundantly thoughtful approach, resulting in scenes that feel stunning and original, but where the actors walked away feeling energized and empowered by their work.

Whether that’s considered “elevating” the genre is for others to decide, but being able to build off of this reputation for my next one is something I am enormously proud of.

In the last twenty years, the erotic thriller seemed to have lost relevance. In your opinion, what is this progressive marginalisation due to? And what about the recent partial revival (your film, but also Fatale [2020], Deadly Illusions [2021], 365 Days [2020-22], and the return of Adrian Lyne)? Do you think that the success of TV shows with an increasingly explicit sexual content (Euphoria [2019-present], Bridgerton [2020-present], The Idol [2023-present]…), and streaming platforms are facilitating the return of a genre of films that was successful in movie theaters but had even more success later, when watched at home?

The vanishing of the erotic thriller is something I get asked about a lot. I’m hoping Karina Longworth will cover this on her podcast You Must Remember This (which all of your readers should listen to– it’s so enlightening). Her take will surely come from a more informed place than my own speculation.

However, since you’ve asked, my theory is this. In the fall of 1995, in spite of being so brilliantly subversive, Showgirls [Paul Verhoeven, 1995] didn’t perform as well as MGM had hoped. This was followed 3 weeks later by Jade [William Friedkin, 1995], which ended up losing money for Paramount as well. If you’re a studio executive, I can only imagine it might seem risky to lobby for another film in this genre. You might make an exception for someone whose work undeniably connected with audiences, like Adrian Lyne, who made Unfaithful 7 years later. But otherwise, it probably seemed like too big of a risk. That’s my theory.

(That said, you can poke holes in this immediately because of the existence of 1998’s Wild Things, which feels like a bizarre miracle to me.)

jade linda fiorentino

showgirls Did Jade and Showgirls kill the erotic thriller?

As for today, I wouldn’t call the phase we are in a “partial” revival, because it’s just beginning. There’s been such an avalanche of terrific, thoughtfully written pieces about the genre in so many notable publications this year. Vulture devoted an entire week to erotic thrillers. The smartest executives all listen to Karina’s podcast. They get it. This is what is in the zeitgeist. This is what audiences are craving right now. And to your point, the sexually frank voices in television definitely support that as well.

What are the main difficulties you encountered in the making of The Voyeurs, starting with the pitching of the film? Were there any special requests from the production that changed the script? Some online rumors suggest that the director’s cut is much more explicit…

When I and my producers (Adam Hendricks and Greg Gilreath) were trying to find a financier for the film, erotic thrillers were very much not in the zeitgeist. And when very smart people were reading the script, they felt that audiences would disengage during the sequence where Pippa follows Seb home from the bar.

With that knowledge, we realized that we needed to provide more context before anyone new read the script. Moving forward, we would set pitch meetings first. That way I could passionately express why I thought the genre needed to be revitalized, and why it’s so alluring to watch one fucked up person fuck another fucked up person.

And then I would tell the story, and they could hear it coming straight from the mouth of the person most excited to tell it. And I do think telling a story verbally is much more effective and fun than simply reading it on the page. Enthusiasm is contagious. And so when I got to the sequence where Pippa follows Seb home from the bar, the listeners were so excited by what was going to happen next, versus being turned off by it.

So right after that moment, right when I had them, I stopped. I’d place the script on the table, the meeting would end on a cliffhanger, and we would leave the room.

It was a deliberately cheeky move, and everyone knew it. But it functioned as an example of the kind of mischievous amusement I wanted the audience to feel when they watched the eventual film. More importantly, after months of rejections, implementing this new strategy inspired a bidding war between three different studios, leading to the film being greenlit rather quickly.

As for your other question, the online rumors are incorrect. This is my cut of the movie, and we received an R rating the first and only time we submitted it to the MPAA.

The impression is that the current film industry is not in line with the type of content typical of the studio erotic thrillers of the 80s-90s, which is, moreover, intrinsically heteronormative. Are these issues considered by producers, and, if so, how do you think the genre can evolve to be more in line with our times?

I’m actively trying. Something most people don’t know about me is that I don’t identify as straight. It’s not something I really talk about all that much because I have conflicting feelings over whether or not the enjoyment one takes in a film is informed by the public’s perception of the private life of the creator. Having young children has made the time previously spent on introspection to be spent on extrospection, and I don’t quite know how I define myself even to myself, making it challenging to define myself to others, especially knowing that this would be presented via a curated and cultivated persona that is fully augmentable. But, alas, I am attracted to people of all genders, and acknowledging that truth quietly has resulted in a better existence.

On a related note, I do have a tinfoil hat theory that I’d like to share. If 21% of Gen Z identify as queer, but only 7% of adults in other generations do, it’s an entirely rational assumption to think there is a huge number of adults who are at least partially in the closet but aren’t able to recognize or reconcile those feelings within themselves. And maybe cinema can ignite that awareness. In one extremely self indulgent moment in The Voyeurs, I do convey a mysterious same sex attraction within Pippa that perhaps she herself isn’t aware of, all conveyed via the abstract intimacy of an eye exam. In this particular film, I needed it to be subtle, so as not to come across as queerbaiting. But I do aspire to take things further in the future, by speaking to the bizarre truth inside of me.

the voyeurs erotic thriller michael mohan interviewOne moment of The Voyeurs: a mysterious same sex attraction within Pippa.

Like I said before, I do think the powers that be are paying attention to what audiences have been clamoring for. We all want this, and so it’s only a matter of time.

How was The Voyeurs received? Was it successful on Amazon Prime Video? Do you think there are still many viewers interested in watching an erotic thriller?

As far as viewership goes, the following is 100% true: Amazon held a meeting to show us some “data” for how the film performed in the first 28 days on the platform. This involved a crude powerpoint presentation, a series of four bar graphs showing a single rectangle stretching upwards. I believe that represented our films’ viewership. In each one, the rectangle was intersected by a dotted line. I believe that represented their expectations.

There were no numbers on this bar graph, and no additional lines or rectangles to put into context how our film performed in comparison to others. We also do not know how the expectations were set or even defined for that matter, but apparently we vastly exceeded them.

I do have sympathy for the executives who have to participate in this kafkaesque charade, due to the secrecy involved in working for a tech company. But as someone whose job it is to judge the authenticity of performance, I do believe they were all genuinely so happy by how well it performed. My executives on the project, Jules Claassen, Julie Rapoport, and Brandon Harris all went so far out on a limb through the ups and downs of the pandemic, and I hope the elusively defined success of my film allows them to feel more comfortable taking similar risks in the future.

As for your 2nd question, I recently read a study where 52% of men and 48% of women in serious relationships are massively disappointed with their sex life. This number has apparently been growing and growing since the early 2000’s. I recently asked Adrian Lyne as to whether or not there’s a direct correlation between this statistic and his sabbatical from filmmaking, and he said, quite simply “yes.”

And even though I’m saying this in jest, I do think the depiction of eroticism in mainstream cinema, especially in the context of a fun popcorn movie like mine, can ignite the libidos of couples with dead bedrooms. Which makes me believe that we need these films more than ever.

Critics have always had a complicated relationship with erotic thrillers, condemning the genre above all from an ideological point of view. Even today, we talk about how much the politics of Fatal Attraction is “icky” (Allison P. Davis on Vulture). In your opinion, are films like Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and Basic Instinct really “unacceptable” today? Do we really need a feminist remake of Fatal Attraction? How difficult is it for an author to make a film which, for the genre to which it belongs, must necessarily deal with issues such as desire and the power relationship between the sexes with the awareness that their film will then be analyzed by critics and viewers in an increasingly radicalized cultural context?

This is a complicated series of questions that require a nuanced answer; apologies in advance for my continued lack of brevity. In terms of the three films you mention, I feel differently about each one individually, and therefore will address them as such:

With Fatal Attraction, it is especially complex. If I’m not mistaken, I believe Glenn Close had issues with the fact she did not play Alex Forest as the “psychopath” trope people interpreted her to be, but as someone suffering from severe mental health problems. It’s an all time great performance; Alex’ arc is tracked to perfection so that when she so poetically takes her own life at the end of the story, it is both surprising and feels inevitable.

Except that’s not what happens. She doesn’t take her life at the end of the story.

After that ending tested poorly with audiences, they reshot the ending so that Alex is more actively and overtly terrorizing Michael Douglas’ character’s family. And in Alex’ final moments, she practically turns into a Michael Myers-esque slasher villain by springing up from the dead, only to be mortally shot in the chest by Anne Archer. Even the score is handled like a horror movie, treating this character like the monster Glenn was actively avoiding portraying.

fatal attraction psychoIn Fatal Attraction‘s final moments, Alex turns into a Michael Myers-esque slasher villain.

I think the current debate about whether this film is acceptable or problematic is so interesting, because in a recent public screening, the majority of the audience burst into applause when Alex finally dies. (I did too, primarily because of how audacious it is to so overtly prioritize entertainment above realism.)

However, to question whether deriving joy from watching a sick woman get murdered due to the severity of her mental health problems is valid. But to me, acknowledging this dichotomy in the work, and the audiences who validate such creative choices, make Fatal Attraction that much more compelling.

As for the remake, I’m in. I’m so excited for it. I was so fortunate to work with Lizzy Caplan on one of my early features, and she’s the best. There’s no doubt her take on the character is going to be full of surprises, and it’s only going to invigorate the genre further. Bring it on.

As far as Indecent Proposal, my answer is much simpler. While the conceit of the movie is about a man acting in problematic ways, I think it would be silly to assume the film itself is problematic because of this. Especially since the purpose of the movie seems to encourage the audience to question the morality at hand. I still find a lot of enjoyment in it, and quite frankly, I would personally love to remake it using a modern lens.

As for Basic Instinct, I feel the opposite. There was a period of time where I stopped watching this movie because Sharon Stone alleged that the close up of her vagina was nonconsensual. And so therefore the film itself is a document of her violation.

basic instinct erotic thriller interrogation sceneThe infamous Basic Instinct interrogation room scene.

After reading Sharon’s memoir, it does seem like she’s made peace with the shot, and is so proud of how her performance has endured, that I am planning to revisit the film soon. But unlike Fatal Attraction or Indecent Proposal, Basic Instinct is a film that I’ll never 100% be able to enjoy.

So this is perhaps a very long winded way of expressing I don’t think we can make broad generalizations about each past entry from the genre, because the voices of the filmmakers involved are so unique.

On the topic of critics, after making this film I now have a much deeper level of affinity towards them. It’s such a necessary job, yet everyone in journalism has to hustle even harder. The weekend The Voyeurs came out happened to be the same weekend as the start of the Toronto Film Festival, and we opened against films with much larger marketing budgets like Malignant (James Wan, 2021), The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021), and Netflix’s Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, 2021). So I’m really grateful for all of the people who thoughtfully covered our film, due to it being a lower priority that weekend. We received a very poor Rotten Tomatoes score ultimately, but the people who disliked our film did so with a gleeful abundance of vitriol that probably ended up resulting in more people watching the film.

But I don’t necessarily think scrutiny is a bad thing. I’m asking people to take two hours out of their daily lives to consume a piece of art I made. That’s a lot to ask, and it’s just as important for the films to be as entertaining as they are reflective of the world we currently inhabit. It just takes more consideration to tell provocative stories in a way that is empathetic to the audience who will receive them.

In a sense, The Voyeurs also plays with narrative conventions, for example by focusing on a young voyeur woman, Pippa, obsessed with photographer Seb… How much awareness is there on your part in the choice of making a film centered on a female gaze rather than a male gaze?

For two seconds I thought about flipping the genders, but immediately realized that watching a 20 something man lust after his female neighbor felt gross to me.

Flipping the genders: The Voyeurs is centered on a female gaze.

Generalizing gaze by gender is something that I do struggle with as it pertains to the present, because it feels like we’re just starting to redefine what gender means. Separate from this, my doctor recently diagnosed me with having incredibly low testosterone levels; so much that I need to go on supplements, and my favorite films about masculinity are Point Break (Kathrun Bigelow, 1991) and Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006). So as an unmanly quietly queer person who prefers his men movies to be directed by women, I just don’t think it would be truthful to prescribe all of the stereotypes associated with the male gaze to me or my characters. Roll your eyes all you want, but this is my gaze, and I get to be the god of the worlds I create.