‘Gazer’ filmmakers Ryan Sloan and Ariella Mastroianni Interview.

Ryan J. Sloan‘s “Gazer” is a classic thriller that will surely have Cannes audiences on the edge of their seats when it world premieres in competition in Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s festival.

Set in New Jersey and starring Sloan’s partner Ariella Mastroianni, “Gazer” is the story of Frankie, a young mother with a rare degenerative brain condition called dyschronometria. The disease causes her to struggle to perceive time, which makes holding down a steady job nearly impossible. So, when a mysterious woman offers her a risky job, she takes it, unaware of the dark consequences of her decision.

While the thematic notes of a classic Hitchcockian thriller are plain to see on screen, one thing that really sets “Gazer” apart from most films – especially American films – that make it to Cannes is that the project was entirely self-financed and produced.

There were no production companies (apart from Sloan and Mastroianni’s own Telstar Films), sales agents, tax rebates, or pre-sales to help keep filming on track. The only thing that ensured “Gazer” made it to the big screen was the creative drive of the artists who worked on it. Sloan and Mastroianni co-wrote and produced “Gazer” with support from co-producers Bruce Wemple, Mason Dwinell, Mitchell Cetuk and Matheus Bastos. Executive producers are Sean Glass, Emily Korteweg and Jillian Iscaro. Sloan also edited alongside Jordan Toussaint. Matheus Bastos is the film’s DoP.

Making a Cannes appearance even more spectacular, neither Sloan nor Mastroianni is traditionally trained in filmmaking. Instead, the duo spent years watching films, reading scripts and dissecting the techniques of their favorite directors in an admirable feat of self-education. The result is a modern-day thriller with mid-century touches that demonstrates the best qualities of the genre

Variety sat down with Sloan and Mastroianni ahead of the “Gazer” world premiere to discuss their informal training, a pieced-together production schedule and their unwavering resolve to get the film into Cannes.

How did this project get started?

Sloan: We started developing and writing “Gazer” during the COVID lockdown. Ariella was furloughed from her job at the Angelika Film Center, and I was working as an electrician. We were forced to reflect on where we were and how far we were from what we wanted to do, which was make movies together. The whole world had stopped, and we didn’t know where it was gonna go, but if we were going to do something, it was the right time to figure it out so that when the world did start up again, we could at least do something we loved.

Since you come from outside the filmmaking business, what research and preparation did you do before production?

Sloan: We watched a lot of movies, from Hitchcock to Kubrick, and there was this one film that I shared with Ariella – I love sharing films with Ariella; we have the same taste in movies – and it was Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” which immediately became her favorite film. That film gave us the courage to throw out all the preconceptions we needed to write a story like this. Simultaneously, Ariella was reading this novel by Oliver Sacks called “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” It’s all about neurological disorders, and she found this condition called chronometry there.

Mastroianni: It’s basically a distorted time perception. When I came across that condition, I became obsessed with what was happening during those long blackout moments in between, and that became the jump-off point for us. We had identified in many of these older mystery films, older noirs, that they shared a similar structure, and when we came across this condition, it became the starting point for us to create a mystery.

Can you discuss the writing process? The screenplay is so richly layered that you must have spent a lot of time on it.

Mastroianni: Ryan and I have no formal screenwriting training. We just sat down with our favorite movies, got all the scripts we could find online, and started reading screenplays while watching the films.

Sloan: We would talk about what worked for us and what didn’t. We weren’t necessarily breaking things down; it was more like how it felt to experience these films. We did it with a handful of titles, “The Conversation,” Burning,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” A lot of dense, plot-heavy mysteries. We went into production in 2021 and continued to write until the end of filming because we were writing while shooting on weekends when we had the money to shoot. In the time between, we would return to work and play music together to help pay the bills. We would use the time in between to reflect on what we had and plan.

How many hours of film did you have in the end?

Sloan: We only had about 32 shoot days, so we were pretty sparing because we were shooting on film. We only did one or two takes, so rehearsing with the actors before shooting was very important. Everything came out of our pockets, so we had to be very judicious about what we were getting and how we were getting it.

How did you finance the film?

Sloan: We were working 12-14 hours every day. Sundays, we were mostly taking off, and we would take off the shooting weekends, but we worked our butts off to get it financed. Many people our age are buying houses and having kids, and Ariella and I committed that our children will be our films. This is what we want to do with our lives.

Mastroianni: We worked about seven jobs. Everything was self-financed, self-developed. There were no producers, but we had some people come on and help us in other ways. We were able to do it because we had this amazing group of friends who wanted to see the project get past the finish line.

Sloan: And every location belonged to customers I did electrical work for. It was pretty much, “I know you know me as your electrician, but I’m also a filmmaker. Can I shoot on your property or in your home?” They were all very welcoming and respectful.

How did you get the film into Cannes, then? That’s a huge step.

Sloan: This was our goal from the beginning. As crazy as it sounds, when we started writing, Ariella was like, “We should submit this to Directors’ Fortnight.” I think a lot of it had to do with right time, right place, and right film. What Julien [Rejl] is doing with Director’s Fortnight is how it always should have been and how it was in the beginning. We submitted on the final day of submissions, and I wrote Julien a very passionate message asking for them to just give our film five minutes, sure that if they did, they’d watch more. He responded two days later and said we were in.

Mastroianni: We were very discouraged by a lot of other people in terms of our goals. I think that’s common for a lot of independent filmmakers. You have this sense that there are a lot of politics, and people have made us very aware of that. But we believed in the film.

What are you working on now? Have you abandoned your other jobs?

Mastroianni: Since we don’t have any team behind us, the last couple of weeks have been a lot of learning. We’ve been taking a lot of calls while still working our day jobs. Ryan was in a bucket truck, 30 feet in the air, putting wires together and doing interviews. I work as a waiter, and I took some of the calls behind the cash register while giving people their lasagna.

Sloan: We haven’t told many people, but “Gazer” is part of a voyeur trilogy we’re working on in the same universe. It shares similar themes but with different characters and stories. It’s three separate films that take place in the same world. When you rewatch “Gazer,” in the background, we have hints about the next films. We put a lot of thought into these next couple of movies, and we’re very excited about them.

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