The Stranger is a thirteen minute psychological thriller that follows a young woman when she returns home for Christmas and discovers a stranger claiming to be her sister.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR “THE STRANGER”?
The concept was created as my MFA thesis directing project for Florida State University. And, as you can imagine after two years in an incredible, but intensive program, much like Blake, I was beginning to question what was real. It was exciting to play with a story that bridged the gap between grounded reality and influenced perception.
The Stranger was my maiden voyage into genre and we made that choice for a few reasons. The first was because although character-driven drama is near and dear to my co-writer and my hearts, we’d seen a lot of student / short drama films fall flat. It’s wildly tricky to convey heavy themes during a small time frame in a way that feels authentic. We hoped that by dabbling in the thriller / horror space, we would be able to access an audience’s suspension of disbelief by building tension — and use that as a device to connect them with our characters on a faster timeline. From there, we could communicate dramatic themes through elevated circumstances that elicited a natural rawness from our characters.
Secondly, genre has such a rich cinematic aesthetic. Across the board, there are so many wonderful tropes, styles, and scares to be explored and, at times, subverted. It provided us with such a fun playground to stretch our young filmmaker muscles. In our early conversations about the tone of the film, we were inspired by films like Birth (2004), The Hunt (2012), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and It Follows (2014).
WHAT DREW YOU TO PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS SPECIFICALLY?
There’s something fundamentally haunting about psychological thrillers. They scare you, not because they’re gruesome, but because they manifest immersive nightmares from a simple doubt — a doubt we’ve all had. They usually start with a very simple question. In our case: “What if you came home and your family had replaced you?”
Obviously, it’s a pretty unlikely scenario — especially when you add in being replaced by a memory-projecting alien — but the fear connects with something deeply grounded in the human psyche. The fear of not being valued and the fear of not being believed.
If you can get the audience to buy into that initial question, you are free to explore so many visceral manifestations of that fear. Black Swan (2010) does this so well. Because the audience has bought into your characters’ journey (and empathized with their fear), viewers will be more receptive to an almost fantastical style of filmmaking as you define what that fear looks and feels like.
As a storyteller, this allows you to tell two stories simultaneously: the grounded drama of reality combined with an imaginative element of anxiety personified. This juxtaposition allows you to show the inner life of a character in an avant-garde way that carries emotional resonance.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE SETTING FOR “THE STRANGER”?
The short version is that my co-writer (Carolina Garrigo) and I bonded early on over the love of two things: Christmas and aliens. We both come from Christmas celebrating families and all the traditions and family dynamics that come with themed gatherings. We’re also massive sci-fi nerds. (We once drove four hours to see a Star Wars movie on a domed screen, just because).
Given those two loves, we wanted to find a way to tell this story that felt both grounded as well as high concept. Some Christmas lights and telepathy seemed to do the trick for an indie budget!
Story wise, Christmas provided a reason for Blake to come home to see her mom after being estranged. Out of all the holidays, Christmas has a visually warm, family aesthetic that jived with the themes we were trying to convey. There’s also this interesting underlying dichotomy surrounding Christmas specifically because people are trying to be even more present and authentic and yet, simultaneously, the holiday’s traditions have a bit of pageantry to them. What you end up with is a superficial feeling of closeness but a peripheral awareness that it won’t last. Definitely on brand for this story.
Plus, we were kind of excited to make an inside-out Hallmark movie.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF WITH THIS FILM?
Honestly, the most rewarding thing is getting to hear the responses of people who enjoyed it. The film is designed to have an open ending because we wanted audience members to walk away thinking. We wanted them to question what the film meant. And, by extension, what their own relationships meant.
Listening to viewers’ theories about Lily’s origins or motives, what was real vs. what wasn’t, and how all of that factors into the themes of reconciliation and memory is the best thing in this world. Those are my favorite films to watch as well — the ones that don’t give all the answers but are still able to make me connect and care enough to understand its implications long after the credits roll.
So in that sense, I’m really proud that we made something that people want to talk about, understand, and relate to. There are so many stories out in the world — it’s the greatest compliment when someone is willing to engage with yours.
WHY DO YOU THINK THIS FILM IS RELEVANT TODAY?
In some ways, this story has come to feel a little bit prophetic. We were writing an exaggerated account of interactions we’d seen play out in our own families — and identifying a universal truth about how differing perspectives can tear people apart.
In the last few years, so many families have played out this same narrative. Whether by political or other affiliations, people will choose their narrative and perception of the ways things are, often refusing to acknowledge the way someone else might see it. As a result, they’re ostracizing members of their own family. People they’ve promised to love unconditionally.
That ultimately is the theme of this film. It’s a story about a mother and a daughter who cannot step outside of their own pain long enough to meet the other where they need to be met.
If you watch the film closely, you’ll notice we don’t acknowledge who is right in this circumstance. We don't tell you what is real. What we focus on is these two people who have handled their pain in two separate ways: Trudy chose to forget and reinvent herself with happier memories while Blake chose to run and hold onto that pain as her identity.
In the end, the point of it all isn’t what’s real at all. It’s that neither of these two characters were able to be selfless enough to love each other. And that’s the true tragedy.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS FOR “THE STRANGER”?
We have a feature script currently in development that is even more mind-bending and exciting than the short. It dives deeper into Lily and her abilities as well the relationship between Blake, her mom, and her hometown. It’s a rollercoaster of a ride that is emotional and thrilling and, yes, involves more spooky Christmas. Hopefully, we’ll get to make that and share it with you soon.
For more behind the scenes and updates on upcoming projects,
check out Katherine Oostman on Instagram.
Special thanks to Top Shorts Film Festival &
Filmmakers Connect for recognizing and promoting this project.
Writer / director Katherine Oostman grew up in Chicago, solidifying her love for three things: pizza, snow, and storytelling. Homeschooled until college, her childhood was steeped in curiosity, a calling that took her around the world - from working the 2014 Sochi Olympics, to studying at Oxford University, to aiding sex trafficking victims in India. She has worked in development capacities for companies such as Protozoa Pictures, The Kennedy Marshall Company, Partizan, and 1stAveMachine.
Her graduate thesis film, The Stranger, a psychological thriller, screened at San Diego Comic-Con, the TCL Chinese Theater, the Atlanta Film Festival, and the Florida Film Festival. The Stranger was a winner of a 2018 bronze Telly Award for directing. 2019 Gasparilla Film Festival Grand Jury Best College Short Film winner. Winner of Film of the Month, Best Narrative Film, Best Director, Best Ensemble, and Best Editing from Top Shorts Film Festival with an Honorable Mention for Best Actress and Best Score. Winner of two Awards of Excellence for Direction and Women Filmmakers from Accolade Global Film Competition.
The feature script, based on the short, was a 2018 American Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition Quarterfinalist and a 2020 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest quarterfinalist.