Hot in the City

Steamy subgenre enthusiast Justine Smith chats with filmmaker Michael Mohan about how his new feature, The Voyeurs, taps into the excesses and fun of erotic thrillers past.

I think you can only enjoy the film if you know that the people involved have agency and a real voice in how their bodies are shown.” —⁠Michael Mohan

Each city represents new opportunities—a chance to rewrite your history. In the realm of the erotic thriller, cityscapes offer their characters chance encounters, voyeuristic indulgences and new identities.

While there are notable erotic thrillers that take place in backwoods and small-towns, the most emblematic films of the genre unfold under the shadows of skyscrapers, crowded underground interiors, and vistas overlooking ant-like citizens going about their day. It’s a landscape of anonymity, of possibility and doppelgangers. You are a part of the crowd and also desperately lonely.

With The Voyeurs, director Michael Mohan brings the erotic thriller to Montréal, Canada. Director of photography Elisha Christian—who brought to life the crisp retro-futurism of Indiana’s modernist culture in Columbus—presents a new, charged vision of a city gripped by the contradictions and opportunities of its past. Stuck between its colonial beginnings and a modernist vision of a future that never came to be, Montréal’s skyline and narrow streets lend the film a cozy claustrophobia. As the snow begins to fall, it’s easy to understand why its characters retreat to their small, interior worlds.

The film is about a young couple, Pippa (Sydney SweeneyNocturne, The White Lotus, Euphoria) and Thomas (Justice SmithJurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who move into a too-good-to-be-true apartment. It doesn’t take long for them to notice the couple across the way, having sex. For Pippa especially, curiosity turns to obsession, especially as she realizes that the man may be cheating on his wife. Rather than let it go, she decides to take action in the real world, much to the chagrin of Thomas.

The Voyeurs draws heavily on a legacy of erotic thrillers, and (as the film title suggests) it reflects on the prurient impulse to sit in a dark room and spy on people’s lives. By integrating a backdrop of social media and new technology, it also taps into the artifice of contemporary life and the act of living vicariously through the catered reality of others.

Above all else, though, The Voyeurs taps into the excesses and fun so emblematic of films like Basic Instinct, Body Double and Indecent Proposal. Its many intimate scenes serve to advance character and plot functionally and gleefully. It’s a movie that embraces style and color as it dives deeper into the fractured psyches of relationships on the brink of collapse, asking the audience, “what would you do?” and inviting us to implicate ourselves in its crimes.

Over Zoom, Mohan spoke to Letterboxd about the invaluable presence of intimacy coordinators, the performative nature of the social-media age, recreating Montréal on a sound stage, and the fun of writing a “steamy moral-dilemma movie”.

Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith keeping tabs on their neighbors.
Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith keeping tabs on their neighbors.

You directed, but you also wrote the screenplay. Do you want to talk about the inspiration for the script?
Michael Mohan: It all started about ten years ago. I made these two short films, one of them is called Ex-Sex, and the other is called Pink Grapefruit. Both explore the notion of using sex as story, where the narrative pushes forward through the act of sex, or character revealed through sex. Often when you see a sex scene in a movie, it’s obligatory, you can cut it, and it doesn’t need to be there. It’s often quite chaste, or they all have the same emotional tenor. It’s movie sex. In real life, sex is sometimes sad, and it’s awkward, sometimes it’s funny, and it’s rarely depicted as such. In those short films, I experimented with those ideas and to see if it worked.

We were lucky enough to screen at Sundance, and when you were sitting with the audience, you could feel the temperature rise. I knew I was onto something. Around that time, I discovered what I will now call the “lost genre of erotic thrillers”. They’re films I describe as junk food, but junk food that’s secretly healthy for you. They’re so easy to watch, and at the same time, the smart ones incorporate elevated themes and elevated character dynamics.

At this point, I do this thing that comes very instinctually to me, where I take what I’ve learned from these $2,000 short films and simultaneously bring back this genre and reboot it for a modern audience.

Natasha Liu Bordizzo in The Voyeurs.
Natasha Liu Bordizzo in The Voyeurs.

Where are you from?
I’m originally from south-eastern Massachusetts, but I’ve been living in Los Angeles.

How did you come to make a film in Montréal, Canada?
Montréal is such a great city. The film was originally written for Downtown LA. I visited a friend who had just moved into a loft space downtown, and I looked out his window, and across the street, there was this couple wandering around their apartment completely naked. I looked at him, “do you know that they’re naked?” And he’s like, “yeah, they’re naked all the time. We just all co-exist here.” He had these vintage binoculars and asked if I wanted to take a look. I said no, I wanted to, but I shouldn’t!

The spark came from that and figuring out how to create a believable reality where you have these two apartments side by side. It was a giant technical challenge. We knew we would have to build two sets in a giant sound stage. There wasn’t a sound stage big enough and available anywhere in North America except for Montréal. We went and started scouting. The city was just so beautiful, multicultural; there’s just so much beautiful texture that I fell in love with.

I was shocked. There’s a whole industry there, many French Canadian TV shows and movies are made in Montréal, though [in the States] we only get a small fraction of them. I thought, “Why would we want to hide this? Why don’t we embrace it?”

We had a local crew, and when we’re trying to build shots and pick our locations, we’d suggest things like, “how about a drone shot of the Five Roses Sign”, or, the character walks in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral, and all the locals were like, “dude, you can do that, but that’s just for tourists. You need to show the real Montréal.” So hopefully, we avoided all those tropes.

Cinematographer Elisha Christian and Sydney Sweeney on the Montréal set.
Cinematographer Elisha Christian and Sydney Sweeney on the Montréal set.

The film is shot by Elisha Christian, who, among other notable films, shot Columbus, a film that centers beautifully on the modernist architecture of Columbus, Ohio, as a backdrop to this budding romance. What is your working relationship like and how did you craft the look of The Voyeurs?
Elisha and I were roommates in college, and we’ve been working on movies together for a long time. He shot my student films, and he shot my first feature, which was made for $20,000. We’ve almost worked exclusively together and developed this language. I’m always a little jealous when he works with other directors, and Columbus is so good, and it’s also so Elisha. It’s just how his brain works.

Even though erotic thrillers inspired us, we were also inspired by many other films—obviously, Rear Window. Visually, we drew on Coppola’s The Conversation, Blow-up and Klute. Also, the work of this photographer, Gail Albert Halaban. She has a series of photographs called ‘Out My Window’— tableaus where you see a person through a window.

There’s style in the movie, but we wanted to make this as grounded as humanly possible in the visual sense. Artifice is already such a big part of it because we’re on a stage, and one side of it is just this giant matte painting of the Montréal skyline. Everything we did, we approached by asking ourselves, “How do we ground this? How do we make this relatable?” Keeping the colour palette natural and trying to keep the quality of light as natural as possible was the goal even though we’re in the most unnatural setting.

Sydney Sweeney in The Voyeurs.
Sydney Sweeney in The Voyeurs.

The film features several sex scenes and intimate acts. Your team worked with Amanda Blumenthal, an intimacy coordinator. Can you discuss the process of working with her on the film?
In 2021, the world has become a much more empathetic place. When you make a film like mine, where we want to make things as visceral as possible, I think you can only enjoy the film if you know that the people involved have agency and a real voice in how their bodies are shown. I always try to involve the cast and learn about people’s boundaries by setting expectations and ensuring those expectations are met.

The great thing about having an intimacy coordinator is that even though I consider myself a pretty down-to-earth and approachable person, no matter what, there’s a power dynamic. When a director asks or suggests an actor do something, for the actor who wants to please the director, it can be difficult for the actor to say, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” The intimacy coordinator provides a completely safe and judgment-free environment for those conversations to transpire without me.

The intimacy coordinator takes those conversations and discreetly communicates the information to their scene partners or me. Then I can develop the shot design with Elisha to capture that as sensually as possible. Amanda is invaluable in a movie like this one and a large reason why these scenes are so visceral. It’s because of the actors’ bravery, but also because of the way Amanda was able to have those conversations sensitively.

One thing about some of the most noted erotic thrillers is a kind of maximalism in style. One of the ways you carry that over in this film is through these clever and fun transitions, such as eyes cutting to eggs. Can you discuss the inspiration for these transitions?
The last feature film I made was in 2012. I directed this film as if it were my last. A big influence was De Palma’s Body Double, a movie that throws everything and the kitchen sink onto the screen. Even though the film can be dark and allegorical, I knew above all else I wanted it to be fun. For me, stretching my filmic muscle is to give things to the audience and give them a little chuckle as you go into the next thing. We’re going through these dark places, but you want to permit them to enjoy the ride.

For me, erotic thrillers fall into three main categories. That term can mean different things to different people. Some people call movies like Body Heat or Wild Things erotic thrillers; I call them the ‘sweaty neo-noirs’. You might think of films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a nanny from hell, or Single White Female, a roommate from hell. But, I think ours is the third film, which I call the ‘steamy moral-dilemma movie’. Movies like Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal.

The line between all these subgenres is a bit blurry, but the fun of the [moral-dilemma] movie is that it asks questions to the audience. If you were to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, what would you do? I remember walking out of the cinema after Indecent Proposal and people asking themselves if they would sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars. My real hope is that people will have fun arguments within this canon of erotic thrillers after the movie is over.

Sydney Sweeney on set with writer-director Michael Mohan.
Sydney Sweeney on set with writer-director Michael Mohan.

The film also embraces the current time and seems to comment on the performative nature of our present age without being too obvious about its intentions. Was it challenging to write a film that incorporates social media elements and how it impacts our behavior?
We incorporated it naturally. Every film is a product of a time. I knew the themes of the movie were both timely and timeless. I think all of us have experienced the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. Even if you’re in a committed relationship, those feelings permeate. But, it’s never been more intense than it is right now. We all have little apps in our pockets that allow us to spy on people whenever we want. Or, we discover someone who intrigues us, and we fall down a rabbit hole, looking through someone’s curated history.

We know it’s not real; we know there are filters and face-tunes, that so much of this reality is unattainable, but we still sometimes feel dissatisfied by our own lives because of it. I hope that people can watch the film and don’t read any of what you’re saying into it. Though I intend to explore those ideas, I hope people can enjoy the film at face value.


The Voyeurs’ is now on Amazon Prime.

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