Gazer: The psychological drama that’s a cult hit-in-waiting

Gazer: The psychological drama that’s a cult hit-in-waiting

A new psychological thriller has debuted at Cannes that looks destined for cult status.

Titled Gazer, the film was screened as part of the film festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section, a strand that, since the late 1960s, has introduced the world to filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese and Chantal Akerman to Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee.

Add Ryan J Sloan and his co-writer Ariella Mastroianni to that list. Their film, which the pair completely self-financed and shot in New Jersey for two years, follows Frankie (Mastroianni), a young mother with dyschronometria – a degenerative dysfunction that leaves her struggling to perceive how much time has elapsed.

Struggling financially, Frankie accepts a job that sees her embroiled in a dangerous case involving a missing woman, and she must use cassette tapes for guidance. The Hitchcockian plot, inspired by Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has shades of Memento that will leave fans of Christopher Nolan’s salivating – but for Sloan and Mastroanni, the influences run deeper.

“We were very honed in on Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is one of the greatest films ever made,” Sloan told The Independent at Cannes. “It rewards you on a second watch and we knew we wanted to make a film like that.”

Sloan also cited Lee Chang-dong’s Burning as a key inspiration – particularly when it came to the character of Frankie. “It just cast all preconceived notions of what you had to do out the window,” Sloan said of the 2017 film, while also citing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Brian De Palma’s remake Blow-Out and Francis Ford Coppola’s spiritual reimagining The Conversation as reference points. In fact, while crafting Gazer, Sloan says they were “very curious what that fourth film could be in today’s day and age”.

Gazer marks the feature debut for both Sloan and Mastroianni, who, somewhat impressively, made the film despite no formal training in screenwriting or filmmaking. Before starting work on the film in 2020, Sloan had been working as an electrician since the age of 13, with Mastroianni, a theatre-trained actor, working at US cinema chain Angelika Film Centre. It was the latter being put on furlough during Covid that saw the pair – a real-life couple – throw caution to the wind and decided to make Gazer a reality.

Making the film independently, free from the obstructive meddling of studio bosses, was a freeing experience, but a tumultuous one, too: the pair maxed out multiple credit cards and had their electricity shut off throughout the shoot. The cast – comprised of aspiring actors from Mastroianni’s acting classes – were paid “peanuts” for their roles, with both Sloan and Mastroianni ensuring “everyone was fed really well” to compensate their faith.

“We don’t know what we’re going home to,” Mastroianni said. “We put everything that we have into this, which I think gives you perspective – to me, it makes you really mindful about how you use your budget on set, because it was our own investment.”

Gazer is yet to pick up distribution, but the gripping film, admirably accomplished for a debut, surely has a bright future ahead. If there’s any justice, the film – which is ready-made for cult status – will receive a worldwide release. However, with success comes increased temptation – and studios, thinking they’ve stumbled upon the next Memento or Brick, will certainly be looking at Sloan and Mastroianni with dollar signs in their eyes. Is Sloan worried about being muzzled creatively?

”We’re having a lot of those conversations now and we’re basically cutting off ties with anyone who isn’t willing to come to the table the way we want them to,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, we did this without them, we’ll do it again without them.”