Q&A with CAMP X-RAY Director, Peter Sattler



via Press Kit

Q: In your own words can you describe what this film is about? 

At its most basic level, CAMP X-RAY is a story about two people trapped in a very strange place that manage to find a connection with each other.  But of course, it’s about a lot of other things too. It’s about a young woman who leaves her home for the first time. A woman who joins the army to find purpose, only to end up in a place where that purpose couldn’t be less pure. It’s about a man desperate to reach out beyond his world as well. To experience something outside the routine of his tiny cell.

Q: What was the inspiration for CAMP X-RAY?

It all started with the book cart. I saw some documentary footage of a guard and a detainee arguing about the different books on the library cart. Their exchange was so mundane, so idiosyncratic, so utterly ridiculous given the context of where they were. And in that exact moment, I could see an entire film. One hallway, two people, and the utterly absurd relationship that they are forced to have. And that’s what I was drawn to. I just wanted to put those two characters in a room and see what they said to each other, which is very much the way I started writing. Having no direction at all. Just dropping them in a test tube and seeing what words came out of their mouths. And the more banal their conversation, the more interested I was in it, because it was the absurdity of these moments that most perfectly captured my feelings on Guantanamo Bay. I very much wanted to paint our portrayal of this place in stark absurdist colors.

Q: Why did you decide to set the film at Guantanamo?

Guantanamo is a fascinating place to me, and it’s a place I knew very little about before I started researching it. So part of my attraction was to explore untrodden territory. To make a movie about something you haven’t seen before. But at its core, this movie isn’t really about Guantanamo as much as it is about the PEOPLE who are down there. It’s not a political film; it’s a deeply human one.

The setting of Gitmo really serves as the pressure cooker that amplifies and complicates a very personal relationship between two strangers who are forced to find a way to live together.

Q: Can you talk about the casting process and how you ended up working with Kristen, Payman and the rest of the cast?

We started with a Hail Mary to Kristen. It was certainly a long shot, but she was absolutely perfect for the role, so we had to try.  Her character requires a lot of acting without words, a lot of living in the moment, and that is something Kristen absolutely excels at. Her character also needed a mixture of toughness and vulnerability which, to me, are traits that she embodies perfectly. So we got the script to Ken Kaplan, her agent, who, much to his credit, sent it on to her, and a few weeks later we sat down to talk about the film. And in that first meeting, I was blown away by her approach to the material, her dedication to the details, and her passion for independent cinema. I think we could both tell that we were pointing in the same direction, so off we went. It all happened pretty quickly by Hollywood standards.

Payman’s a funny story. I adored his performance in the Academy Award winning Iranian film, A Separation, but he was so stern in that role, I didn’t see him as our loud-mouthed detainee. We scheduled a video chat with him in Iran anyway, and the moment he popped up on my screen, everything was different. He was the most buoyant, vibrant man you’ll ever meet, he talked a mile a minute. I loved him, and the fact that he was so different in A Separation just testified to his incredible range as an actor. I remember that night very vividly because I couldn’t get Payman out of my head. I knew that he had to be the one.

But first I needed to see what they were like together. The entire movie hinges on their relationship. So we arranged another video chat, and the second they started speaking, it was like they were already their characters. Payman was talking and talking and talking, and Kristen was kind of quietly listening to him, wryly observing, chiming in, Payman would coax a laugh out of her. It was like I was literally watching a scene from the script play out before my eyes. I gave Payman the job right then and there during the phone call. We all knew there was a magical chemistry between the two of them.

I remember the first time I met Lane Garrison, I couldn’t help but notice that he literally had a red neck. We joked about it, but in truth, it’s not insignificant. It helps that he knows the world of a West Texas soldier inside and out, it’s very much the world he came from. But what really makes him special is the kind of sad sweetness and intelligence he could bring out underneath that veneer. THAT was the undertone that I really responded to in Lane, and something he nailed in the movie. I really gravitate to actors who can play two tones at once. It creates such depth.

John Carroll Lynch’s name was brought up by my casting director, Richard Hicks. Now there’s an actor who’s got range. Comedy, drama, lovable, intimidating; he’s a damn chameleon. I really loved watching him bring his colonel character to life. He brought such a wonderful reality to a role that, in the wrong hands, could have been just another military brass cliché. His performance really played into the larger approach we had, which was to make a film with no ‘bad guys.’ Characters can do bad things, everyone can make bad decisions, but we need to understand, and to some degree sympathize with, why they’re doing what they’re doing. Everyone has an opinion, and if you took the time to talk to them about it, you’d probably find a reason or two to agree with them. And John really understood that, and really worked hard to show the other side of the military’s thinking.

Q: What was your favorite scene to write, and what was your favorite scene to shoot?

I most enjoyed writing the scene that inspired the entire film: the first exchange over the book cart. It is the scene where Kristen and Payman’s characters first meet. We open the movie as a young woman enters the detention camp, which is, understandably, a very intense and frightening place. But when she first meets Payman’s character, we are given a very surprising moment of levity. It underscores the surreal duality of this place and these characters, where one moment you can be literally fighting for your life, but the next, you find yourself arguing with a detainee over Harry Potter.

I also just loved the idea of doing a movie about Gitmo, but not focusing on torture or politics and instead writing scenes about the stupid little things. These two sides are set up to be antagonistic to each other. It’s unavoidably engineered into their relationship. But they can’t fight a real war, so instead they fight it through these little idiosyncratic battles. Arguing about what’s on the lunch menu today or about when they’re getting new books. Stupid arguments, but to these characters, they’re supremely important. This is their Bunker Hill. This is their jihad.  And I loved writing those scenes because they were an amusing way to illustrate the idiocy of their conflict in the first place.

My favorite scenes to shoot were always the ones with Kristen and Payman. They were, on the whole, the more daunting ones to film because they were big scenes. But every moment, every take that those two interacted had a real magic to it. They would find their own rhythms and create little interchanges. It was always so effortless and natural. You usually have to fight to get a scene on its feet before you can start working it, but with those two, it was always just there, which meant the three of us could focus on shaping and molding that reality instead of trying to bring it to life.

Q: What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

The end of the movie was the most difficult to shoot. Reel six is essentially one giant 21-minute scene divided into three or four sections. It was terribly difficult to stage and direct such a massive piece of drama. And to add to the pressure, it is the emotional climax of the film, one that required both actors to reach into the absolute depths.

Q: Why did the story of these two intersecting characters appeal to you? 

One of the primary dramatic interchanges we have in our day-to-day life is meeting and dealing with strangers. Anytime you meet someone, there’s posturing, subtle bragging, feeling one another out. Whether it’s a first date, your first day at school, or the first time you meet a guy you’re supposed to be guarding. It really all comes down to that primal fight or flight instinct. Can I trust this guy? Is he nice? Is he being too nice because he’s trying to play me? I see it happen every single day all around me, in small and large ways. A million scared little monkeys trying to figure one another out. Ali and Cole, to me, are just playing out that intrinsic eternal dance of raising and lowering your defenses when you meet a stranger.

Q: The story of a woman in the service is one not often told – what attracted you to that angle? 

My initial reason for writing a woman in this film was one of contrast. How do I make these two characters start as far apart as possible at the beginning. And from the research I had done and given the very complicated relationship Muslim extremists have with women, it was clearly the most interesting way to go.

But in a way, it was about more than that. As I was writing this film, my wife was pregnant with our first child, a daughter, and it made me see much more clearly how few films are told from a female point of view. It was kind of an eye-opening realization for me, and it only made me more determined to create a strong woman who wanted something more than to just be rescued.

Q: When and where was the film shot, and how long was the shoot? 

We shot in the summer of 2013, mostly in an abandoned juvenile prison in Whittier, CA, which is just outside of Los Angeles. We shot for 21 days.

Q: How did you prepare the actors for their roles before production? Was there a rehearsal process? 

Kristen and Payman are interesting in that they both work in very different ways.

Kristen really loves intellectualizing her character because she absolutely wants to live in the moment. And to do that, it requires truly knowing your character from the inside out. So we spent a lot of time talking about girls we knew that were like Cole. Really just talking around the character, building out her backstory. Going back and forth about little awkward moments from her fictional life that we felt was the type of girl we were building.

Payman, to some degree, had a similar approach. He would share stories with me about people who knew who had been imprisoned in Iran, and he would invent little rules which he felt defined who Ali was. But what’s interesting about Payman is that he’s an accomplished writer and filmmaker as well as an actor. So he would most often gravitate towards little turns of a phrase, or try and establish very visual reactions or ticks his character could employ on-screen.

I had some time to develop both of these methods with Kristen and Payman separately, but due to Payman’s schedule, we were only able to get him in the states to rehearse a few weeks before shooting. In that time, the three of us spent as much time as possible together. We concentrated mostly on the big scenes. There’s about four or five of them, really long scenes that are the crux of the film. In the first pass, we mostly just dialed in intentions and wants and particular approaches to certain lines. We also auditioned new lines and improvised around the scenes a little to find truth. The script was never sacrosanct; it was always just about getting to the truth of their interaction.

But the most helpful thing we did was actually to go rehearse in the actual prison where we shot. It was here that we worked out the dance of how to play the back and forth of lines as Kristen’s character was patrolling the hallway. What line she said where and how that was going to all work out. As I’ve said before, those scenes are incredibly complicated to stage properly, so it was something we definitely had to work out before hand.

And then, finally, during our last rehearsal at the location, I left Payman in his cell, and had Kristen walk in circles around that hallway for about twenty minutes. We left them there alone to try and get some sense of what it would actually be like to be spend all day stuck there. There’s a very palpable reality to being behind those thick doors, walking those long hallways.

Q: How much historical research did you do while writing the film? Were some scenes influenced by real life events? 

CAMP X-RAY required an immense amount of research, most of which was done during the writing process. The idea I had was to focus on the mundane minutiae of life at Gitmo, but to really pull that off required the kind of details that reporters don’t normally cover. So I watched lots of documentaries, read lots of books and news articles. One unlikely asset in all this was through Wikileaks. They had leaked the Standard Operating Procedure for Gitmo’s Camp Delta. It was a treasure trove of microscopic military procedural details. Exactly the kind of material I needed to write the type of movie I was attempting.

And while the film wasn’t inspired by any real events, I did, as much as possible, try to weave true elements into the film. So for example, if I read about a certain nickname that soldiers would use for detainees, I’d try and work that into the movie. Or if there was some small detail about the mess hall, or about life on the base, or a story about something weird that happened down there, I’d very much try to find a way to digest and regurgitate that into the script.

The broad movements we approached like a work of art. The small details we treated like a documentary.

Q: How did you find the location, and what went into recreating Guantanamo?

Camp Delta, where our film is set, looks almost exactly like any high security prison you’d find in the states. And the reason for that is simple. That’s who the military hired to build it. So early in preproduction, I started looking for prisons to shoot in. Lo and behold, I found one right in my own backyard, not thirty minutes from downtown LA. An abandoned juvenile prison.  The bones were exactly like the detention blocks at Gitmo. It would take a lot of work to transform the rest of it, but we knew that the location had given us a huge head start.

There were two phases of research that went into our film. The first was done by myself during the writing process. But the second was done almost entirely by my production designer, Richard Wright. I always knew that we were facing a challenge in trying to recreate life at Guantanamo, but Richard pushed the design of the film further than I had ever imagined. He painstakingly analyzed Department of Defense videos to try and measure the size of the food slots in the detention doors. He worked with our Muslim consultant Suhad Obeidi to track down appropriate Arabic books. He studied everything from Middle East geometric art to military police procedure to get all the props and dressing correct.

Richard would come in almost every day with a new photo he had found and wanted to recreate. So we eventually ended up making him our second unit director. We’d send him off with our second unit D.P., Adam Stone, and they’d just go stage all these amazing little slices of life that he’d found in his research. Guards wrapping Korans. Detainees hanging their laundry out to dry on a chain link fence.

And this was very much the side of Gitmo that we wanted to focus on. From the beginning, Richard and I wanted to limit the scope of our world to the things that our characters would actually experience. If you actually worked down there, you wouldn’t experience some sweeping helicopter shot over a thousand miles of fence line. You’d actually spend far more time looking at dorky military issue motivational posters and coffee makers. So that’s where we put our focus. We wanted to recreate Gitmo on a very human scale.

Q: What are you working on next?

I can’t really work on two things at once. I kind of just need to go all in on something. So it’s only now that the movie is completely finished that I can start to purge the old film and make room from a new one. Ironically, the film I plan on writing next is, in many ways, a two-hander like CAMP X-RAY. I’m not sure if that’s by design. I think it’s just hard for me to think of a character without thinking of the other character they’ll be in opposition to. No character can exist in a void.

Camp X-Ray premieres at Sundance Film Festival on January 18th!

Author: Melissa Frost

A recent college graduate from The University of Texas at Austin. Interests include but are not limited to ... film, fashion, and music. Currently working as a social media coordinator at a digital entertainment industry agency. On the weekends, works as a PA for some high-profile productions. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

2 thoughts on “Q&A with CAMP X-RAY Director, Peter Sattler”

  1. Terrific interview! It’s so interesting to hear about the detail and prep that goes into a film before it even starts shooting. So much detail. I love that Kristen supports independent film.

  2. This is an amazing interview! The depth and clarity of Peter Sattler’s answers is magnificent and shows his film making passion and understanding he has of the characters to bring them to life on the screen. I say BRAVO! I hope they find the distributors they need to have a wide release as I am sure this will appeal to all audiences. Can”t wait to see it on the big screen.

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