Horror fans who enjoy the suspense of "Unseen" can thank the Linden Hills Co-op, Walker Art Center and Perpich School of the Arts.
That's where director Yoko Okumura, whose "Unseen" debuts Tuesday on-demand (it'll stream on MGM Plus this May), cut her moviemaking teeth — with a VHS camera given to her by her grandmother. She hauled it everywhere, including the co-op, where mom Yuko ran the sushi counter.
"I was the girl who brought the camera to school or Lake Harriet or the co-op, running around interviewing people," said the 35-year-old Okumura.
Okumura, whose father Shohaku was head monk at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, attended the City of Lakes Waldorf School, with weekend classes in Japanese at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The arts were encouraged at Waldorf, where Okumura documented theatrical productions, but moviemaking was not.
"I was a bit of a rebel and definitely a pop culture lover," said Okumura, who attended high school at Perpich School of the Arts. "I was always taking City Pages and snipping out movie showtimes and posters and making collages. The impetus of me asking my parents to get the internet in our house was me wanting to look up old 'X Files' episodes, being a fangirl."
All of that paid off in "Unseen," in which a nearly blind woman named Emily escapes from her abusive lover in a remote cabin but can't see well enough to return to civilization. For help, she randomly dials Sam, a clerk in a convenience store several states away, and asks her to be her "eyes." While Emily uses her phone to show Sam where she is, the latter tries to describe what she sees and guide Emily to help.
Although "Unseen" is bypassing theaters, it's a big deal — it's from Blumhouse, the studio that brought us this year's smash "M3gan" as well as the recent "Halloween" sequels. Okumura, who had directed episodes of "The Bold Type" and "Good Trouble" for TV, said a combination of elements made "Unseen" the ideal feature debut.
"When I was consuming TV I loved, it was those late-night shows on Fox, 'Stargate SG-1' or 'X-Files.' The nerdy stuff," said Okumura, who started figuring out how to make "Unseen" personal when she read the script.
"Two women coming together in this unlikely friendship to fight back against an abuser, that was a core nugget of an emotional story I could make my own," Okumura said.
It became even more personal when she cast two leads who are, like Kyoto-born Okumura, Japanese American. The script didn't specify ethnicity but, knowing that Emily (Midori Francis) was described as being in medicine, a field many of her peers gravitate toward, Okumura wanted an Asian American performer.
For Sam, watching TV came in handy again.
"I wanted Jolene Purdy from the beginning, from the time I saw her on 'White Lotus,'" said Okumura of the actor who played a pregnant hotel employee on the first season of that HBO series. "And she just happened to be Japanese American, too."
Blumhouse enthusiastically supported the casting but Purdy was skeptical: "She told me when she heard Midori was in the running for the other role, she thought, 'I'm never getting hired. They won't hire both of us.' It's that 'only one' mentality and it happens: people hedging their bets with a one-of-each kind of diversity."
Okumura had her own doubts on the set. She had been directing since the co-op and she fell in love with editing way back in high school — at Perpich and at a program at the Walker Art Center — but she doubted her crew members had taken direction from anyone who looked like her.
"I had internalized a lot of 'Maybe I'm too feminine, too girly,'" worried Okumura, who has acid-green hair and matching nails. "I worried the neon colors and glitter would be a detriment to me: 'Do I need to wear all black to be taken seriously?' So it really surprised me how the crew and executives embraced who I was authentically, wearing my glittery pink hat to the set."
In fact, she discovered that being herself gave her more authority when it came to choosing an unconventional lens or putting together surprising angles.
Now, Okumura has a couple of possible projects, including one that could return her to the state whose outline she has tattooed on her ankle (best friend Anna, who still lives in Minnesota, also has one).
"I miss living in that white apartment, overlooking the trolley tracks, with Lake Harriet as the front yard," said Okumura. "Minnesota is a very nostalgic place. It has my heart."
It also may have her next project, if things work out. It's a script she wrote and it could not be more personal: It's about a girl who investigates a mystery when she and her dad, a Buddhist monk, move to Minnesota.