Peter Sattler had just graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts before Guantanamo Bay became a media flashpoint in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time, he had been nominated for a Student Academy Award for his thesis film “Newton” and was seemingly primed to follow in the footsteps of UNCSA contemporaries Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), Jeff Nichols (“Mud”) and David Gordon Green, who gave him one of his first jobs in the art department of “All the Real Girls.” Yet it wouldn’t be until a decade later that Sattler would find himself behind the camera again, toiling away on studio rewrites and for-hire work in the art department before ascending to the director’s chair again for his first feature.
Given the skill set he cultivated as a graphic designer in the mean time, it only seems natural in retrospect that it was a single image that unlocked what would become his debut “Camp X-Ray” – the intriguing sight of a collection of “Harry Potter” books in Arabic sitting on a cart of books loaned out to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In “Camp X-Ray,” it is the fact that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” isn’t on the cart that initially causes friction between detainee number 471 (Peyman Moaadi), a Muslim held at Gitmo for undisclosed reasons and Army Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), the soldier assigned to watch over his cellblock, the former desperately searching for closure — at least for the boy wizard — in a place that offers none.
However, the experience Sattler gained between directorial outings also pays dividends in his great consideration of space – aesthetically in how Cole and the inmate she eventually comes to know as Ali grow closer throughout the film, bonded by their isolation, while always being on opposite sides of the physical barriers between them and in terms of perspective, as the distance of time has allowed for a sophisticated contemplation of who exactly is being imprisoned by who in the fear-based, post-9/11 culture. Anchored by two fierce, unstinting performances from Moaadi and Stewart, “Camp X-Ray” is effortlessly taut and provocative and shortly before the film’s release, Sattler spoke about the difficulty of attempting to tackle a political hot potato apolitically, how he put pieces of himself into both of the film’s central characters and the danger of getting everything you wish for.
So did the setting come first or the dynamic between the characters that powers the film?
It’s hard to unwind those two. I was more motivated by the interesting situation that these two characters found themselves in [since] I wasn’t motivated to shine the light on Guantanamo Bay and make some message movie. Naturally, there’s a curiosity factor to see what life it like down there, but from the beginning, I was just really fascinated by this really strange dynamic as to what these two people must talk about all day.
It’s not only a strange dynamic between the characters, but what was striking was how you could see either one as being imprisoned, either Ali who is actually in a cell or Sgt. Cole who is often alone as she’s patrolling the premises, watched and harassed by the inmates. How intentional was it to blur those lines?
That was a side of the Guantanamo Bay story I hadn’t seen told before. Naturally, everyone sympathy towards the detainees, because no matter what you think about [who is in the right] or the good guys or bad guys, they’re in a very unfortunate position, but I really have sympathies for the soldiers down there because they’re very much prisoners of this world as well. When I started doing research, reading about these soldiers and watching documentaries, I could tell that these kids didn’t really want to be down there either. They knew the mission they were given was a flawed one from the beginning and they’re stuck there, inside the cell, just like the detainees are. It was very conscious because the whole point of the movie is to find a commonality between the two people.
There’s a great line in the film where Sgt. Cole says that “I wanted to do something with my life,” which is how she ended up in Guantanamo since she came from a small town. Coming from Indiana, was that your way into writing that character?
Absolutely. With a film like this one, it’s a very intimate film about very deep personal things and as a writer, you have to write from a place that you know. So there are pieces of me in Kristen’s character, there’s a lot of me in Peyman’s character and people I know are mixed into that. But you’re right, I came from a small town and I remember very consciously having the feeling when I was in the middle of high school this desire to do something important with my life. I didn’t want to just get a regular job and get married and have some kids. I don’t know how to describe it, but I know other people have the same feelings and they just verbalize it in different ways, so that’s something I wanted to put in there because I enjoyed illustrating the irony of that.
This girl really wants to do something important and she goes out and takes this big adventure, joins the army to get out of her comfort zone and is proud of the big step that she’s taking to leave her small town roots and maybe go see the world, then she ends up in a place where the purpose is very muddled. I really love that irony because that’s a very universal thing that everyone encounters in life. We all kind of look towards the future and look outside of ourselves and say “You know what, if I just get to go do that, then that will make me happy and that will be it,” but when Kristen’s character basically gets what she asks for, she realizes it wasn’t the way she imagined it.
It’s something I’ve always been very conscious of. I also like the unspoken idea of, [which is] very subtly dropped in the movie, that these detainees wanted to do something important as well. They wanted to fight for a cause and you can argue to say that cause is extremely flawed and that’s not what the movie’s about, but there is a commonality between soldiers on both sides of war.
I’ve heard at one point, you were talking to Peyman about his character and he actually changed your mind about a certain trait of his. Would your ideas about what you were making as you were filming?
Anytime you make a piece of art that is as large an undertaking of so many different moving pieces and so many other collaborators having their fingerprints on it, a film evolves and it grows. It’s like raising a child. You can guide it in the right direction, but there’s a point where it will just take on its own life. You can say that’s a bad thing that you lose control, but I think it’s a great thing because you discover things along the way. That happened a lot with Peyman and Kristen in terms of really shaping and molding these characters through rehearsal and then through filming because they’re amazing actors, but Peyman and Kristen are also very interesting and intelligent human beings and you’d be a fool not to let them have a say in what these characters are going to be.
So I thrived on those discussions when Kristen or Peyman would come up and try to argue with me that something should be different. It was great because ultimately, as the director you’re just the gatekeeper. If Kristen can come up or Peyman can come up and say “Hey, I just thought about something, I think we should do this,” then it’s like “Hey, let’s take it to trial and I’ll hear it out” and run the pros and cons of everything that I know about the film, then if it wins, I’m like “Great, you won, we get to add this new thing to the movie.”
Often, you’ll shoot conversations through windows and gates. Was it difficult to visually build an intimate relationship between two people who are always divided?
From the beginning, I worked with my director of photography James Laxton very closely and we talked intensely about how I wanted to slowly put the camera where it is. There were two ways it was challenging – one, I wanted to make the film very austere, because I didn’t want the audience to feel manipulated. It’s a simple, quiet film about two people in an intense situation and I knew that if the audience could feel the hand of the author too strongly, then it would distract them from the reality that they are seeing. At the same time, we have two people in a room largely not moving, talking through a 5-inch piece of glass and how do you slowly change how the audience feels about a situation which is physically the same?
One of the few things you can change, obviously besides performance, is the camera. A choice we faced was when do we take the camera inside of the cell? Because [once] the audience is inside that room with Peyman’s character is when you start to inch toward some sort of sympathy or understanding of who this guy is, whether they’re conscious of it or not, so little things like that were very meticulously planned as best we could.
As you’ve said, you tried to make the most apolitical film you could, but has it been interesting to see how others have impressed their politics upon it after you premiered it?
It’s been very interesting because anyone who has an agenda can cherry pick anything to support or deny whatever they’re trying to do. To some degree, people have done that with the movie, most of the time sight unseen. People will be like, “Oh, I can’t believe this movie is sympathetic for terrorists” and it’s like well, if you saw the film, it’s not entirely sympathetic. We try to present a very balanced look at life [in Guantanamo Bay]. We have some very nasty detainees in there that are not nice at all and we try and do the balance thing, but it’s interesting because in this day and age with media, everyone is just looking for a headline, something they can drill on Twitter, so it’s a mentality of everyone wanting to make a snap judgment about something, when it reality, everything, especially a situation a complex as Guantanamo Bay, is more nuanced than that.
All that being said, it’s actually been really remarkable because the majority of the time, people, no matter what they’ve come into the movie expecting, have come out understanding the intention that we had, which has been satisfying. I don’t want to end the screening with everybody arguing with one another about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy because that’s not the way I see it. Every human has the capacity to be an angel or a devil and no one is excluded from that. From the President down to the worst people on earth, everyone can do good and bad at the same time and that’s [how] I wanted to try and present life in Guantanamo Bay so that we don’t talk about who’s right or wrong, but just say, hey, here are two people, they’re lonely, they’re in this messed up situation and [they’re trying] to find some way to move forward, not as animals but as elevated beings.
It’s been a long road to make your first feature since you graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts in the early 2000s. Was the job of directing what you thought it would be? Was it as satisfying?
It’s a crazy emotional journey that anyone goes on trying to establish themselves or just to make a piece of art that hopefully other people respond to. If you know enough about movies and been on film sets, it is like you imagine, but the same time, it’s exponentially different. I don’t know any other way to explain it that just to have gone through it, but it is without a doubt the most intense intellectual and emotional experience I’ve ever been through. This goes for any creative aspect of what you’re trying to do, but at every point along the way, everything is trying to get you to stop caring about the movie. Everybody wants to say, “Isn’t this good enough? Just let it fly” or “Does it matter what this set really looks like? It’s a small detail.” I feel very strongly that if you’re going to make a film, you have to go all in and every little detail forms the mass which creates whether a movie really works or doesn’t, so that was very intense.
But to go back to your question about Kristen’s character was going through, I think as an artist you want to do one big piece of work that will live beyond your years. After I made the movie, I realized some girl in Kansas may watch this movie 10 years from now and it’s going to move her. That’s all I ever wanted out of film because I adore it as an art form, as a piece of entertainment, as everything — I just wanted to add to that conversation. I wanted to make a film that I could drop into the bucket of all these amazing other films in as much as I remember when I was younger and you first see some film and it changes your life. I wanted to hopefully create something that would have that experience on someone else.
“Camp X-Ray” opens on Oct. 17 in New York at the IFC Center and Oct. 24 in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset. It is also available on VOD.