Sean Wilson talks to Jordan Graham, the filmmaker behind the bold and arresting new horror-chiller Sator, uncovering his inspirations and the challenges in making the project…
Many movies take a considerable amount of time to reach the big screen, but unsettling new chiller Sator is the real deal. It’s the debut director of Jordan Graham, a project he has been working on and reshaping for the past seven years. The resulting movie defies expectations, criss-crossing folk horror in the manner of The Witch with near-imperceptible grace notes of personal documentary realism.
Nominally, the movie is about one man (Gabe Nicholson) in an isolated cabin preparing to face down an unholy evil. But cutaways to an old woman living in her home bring a different texture entirely – and this all came out of Graham’s torturously protracted production process.
Sator has been described as “strikingly atmospheric” by Variety and has generated buzz on the indie horror circuit. We caught up with Jordan to discuss the origins of the project and what it takes to scare an audience, as opposed to simply making them jump.
Disclaimer: if one wants to preserve the surprises in Sator, it’s advisable to watch the movie first and return to this interview later…
So, Jordan, in the current circumstances, I’m happy to be able to multitask around the house. But, on Sator, you acted as director, writer, producer, cinematographer and editor. That’s truly amazing – how did you pull that off?
[Laughs] Well, it took seven years. Over the last 21 years, I’ve been so used to doing everything by myself. I didn’t really have money to offer people in terms of them providing assistance. I also don’t like the feeling that I’m using people.
So, I’ve just been doing it all myself for a long time. You just get used to it, I guess. I’m never going to do it again, by the way! I was expecting this to be a three-year project at most. At the same time, I’m always trying to step up in terms of quality, and the more you want a movie to look and sound a certain way, the harder that is when you’re doing it by yourself.
It was more like one step at a time. So I built the cabin for the film, and that first day, I levelled the ground in my mom’s back yard, and then put the cabin on pallets. Just levelling the ground for one pallet took me an hour and I was like, “holy shit, I haven’t even started on this thing”. I was conscious that everything I was going to have to do would overwhelm me, so I told myself to calm down and take it one step at a time. I didn’t have a schedule or anything. I financed it myself.
What was the inspiration for the story? Because on one level, it’s a folkloric, forest-based horror tale, but there’s more to the movie than that. Where did the idea come from?
I had one story that I’d written before I started shooting the film. And then as I was shooting it, it completely changed. The biggest inspiration was the character of my grandmother – she plays Noni in the film. And Sator was very real to her in real life. In 1968, she brought home an ouija board and conjured up Sator. She then spent the next three months talking with him through something called ‘automatic writings’. She sat in a chair with a pen and let Sator speak through her. She wrote thousands and thousands of pages across the course of three months. And then, at the end of those three months, she ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
I had no idea any of this had happened before I made the movie. Before I was shooting the movie, neither Sator nor my grandmother was a part of it. I had a lot of budget constraints and I couldn’t find anything that looked as cool as the cabin. So when we decided to use my grandmother’s house as an actual location, I thought I’d just put her in a quick cameo. We’ll just do a quick improvisational scene with one of the actors.
When they meet in the movie is the first time they met in real life. I told him beforehand to talk about spirits because she likes talking about it, and maybe we can get some cool material. Then, he came into the scene, pretended to be the grandson and started to talk about spirits. That’s when she, completely unprompted, started to talk about her automatic writings. It wasn’t something that she’d ever shared with me, ever. She just happened to share it while we were filming.
After that day, I went home and I started to wonder about these automatic writings. I did a bunch of research on my family’s history and her history, and then, I became aware that I had something very unique. I was already making the movie by myself, so having my grandmother in it would make the movie even more personal.
So, how would I incorporate the story I already had with her story? That to me was the biggest challenge in this film. Trying to get these two stories to align, because you couldn’t get my grandmother to say anything. She’s not an actress, she just enjoyed us coming over and hanging out with her. I would give my actors more prompts to get her to talk about the automatic writings. She would then talk about them in a completely different way, and I would then go home and figure out how to incorporate this.
Every time we’d do a scene with her, I’d have to take a week off to figure out how to make it work in the story. As for having Sator in the film, that didn’t come until I was in post-production. During post, my grandmother’s dementia was worsening and she couldn’t be in the house anymore where it was unsafe. We put her in a care home. And as I was cleaning out her back closet, I found two boxes. One contained thousands of pages of her automatic writings, which my family believed that she’d burned years before.
I also found a journal documenting those three months with Sator. Every single day, about three pages a day. I always knew about him in the sense of being a guardian, but I didn’t realise how much of an impact he had on her life. Now, I realised, I had to put Sator into the film. However, with my grandmother’s dementia getting worse, it was almost a race against time to go and get her speaking about him on camera. Then going home, editing it and understanding I needed to get more stories about Sator.
The very last day I was able to shoot my grandmother resulted in the opening shot of the movie. She said, “It’s like he’s in charge of me” and I had the camera on her for about 40 minutes, asking who Sator was in order to try and elicit more information about him.
You get the home movie footage, which is very unsettling because it crafts a level of intimacy between the audience and the events being depicted. It takes one closer to whatever this perceived threat, Sator, is. How did that approach come into it?
Originally, I wanted to do just one flashback, shot on Super 8, but I’d never messed with film before and that was going to be really expensive. My mom got a load of Hi8’s transferred to DVD, so I went through them and watched them. I ended up finding a birthday scene in my grandmother’s house from 25 years ago.
The house looked exactly the same and my grandmother and grandfather were situated in that scene perfectly, one off to each side. In the middle, where the birthday was happening, it was open to me to create my own scene. I bought the exact same Hi8 camera with the exact same tapes. I made a cake and presents that looked very similar. I was then able to shoot a new scene around the old home movie footage. I loved the quality of that Hi8 camera so much that I went out and kept shooting more with it.
Both of the elements you’ve described, your grandmother’s interviews and the home movie footage, sit alongside the traditional anamorphic presentation of the sequences in and around the cabin. I really like your emphasis on disquiet and unease, as opposed to jump scares, and we’ve seen a build back towards that atmospheric approach in many recent horror films. What are your thoughts about the tensions inherent in spooking an audience? Is it better to generate a visceral shock or deploy a long fuse?
When I watch horror movies and they start bringing music in to scare you, I’m no longer afraid. What gets me the most is the stretch before the music comes in, when sound effects suggest something that’s out to get you.
One of the scariest movie experiences I ever had was watching No Country For Old Men because there’s no obvious music in there. During one scene, the main character played by Josh Brolin has arrived at the aftermath of a drug deal and he’s walking around amidst all these dead bodies. He walks very slowly towards a car and opens the door, and that noise made me jump, the suddenness of it. You just don’t know when something loud is going to get you.
There are a couple of pop-outs in Sator although I wasn’t trying to do a bunch of those. I went into this with the intention of making a movie that won’t cue you up as to what’s scary. That’s the story as far as the music goes. I feel like the film’s lack of dialogue is another source of tension. As a result, you’re hearing everything and it’s not covered up with talking.
There is a scene that, for me, elicited a shock in a very natural way when our main character sits down and then spins around, having been made aware there’s something in the room behind him. It’s not augmented with sound or music, which I really liked. It reminded me of the revulsion and terror brought on by classic ghost stories.
Yeah. In the original version of that scene, the character went outside, saw some other things, went back inside, sat down and then saw the object. It wasn’t tense for me and it felt like I was doing a cheap scare.
After the film was done, I went back to the footage, and by this stage, of course, the cabin was torn down. In the finished film, there’s a shot of the blinds. The camera’s just sitting on the blinds looking out on the blackness outside. I had blinds on a couple of stands and the camera set up. That was me acting in that moment; it’s my hand that you see in the movie opening the blinds up. To me, that approach, when you’re expecting something to pop out, had way more tension than the character running outside.
There are great demands placed on your lead actor, Gabe Nicholson, who plays Adam. He has to carry so much of the film without saying anything. What was your direction to him?
Well, he’s very expressive. I think the big thing was having him calm down. One of the biggest inspirations for this film was the first season of True Detective. That was very quiet and subdued, and that’s what I wanted out of Gabe for the entire film. But he’s very expressive in general.
You have to remember I shot this film over five years ago, so remembering exact details of how I got him to do stuff is tricky. There were times where things were getting chaotic in terms of laughing and not taking it seriously. So, we would sit down in the cabin and have a beer and just bring the mood down. Since we were alone, with no-one else working on the film, we already had that atmosphere of quietness and tension. Then we’d go and shoot it! [laughs]
I had a major rule during the outdoor shots that I didn’t want sun. Sometimes I’d see that the weather was perfect and was racing to get the shots that we needed. I’m very particular about how my shots are set up and how the lighting is, especially when I’m using natural light outdoors. Just to create atmosphere throughout the whole film, because if there was sun blasting in there, it would have ruined the mood. I wanted to maintain that mood throughout the whole process.
On this film, I was using some decent equipment. I’m so used to shooting on DSLR cameras and the dynamic range on those, in terms of capturing the forest, is awful. The sun peeking through is either over-exposed or under-exposed. I wanted to be able to see everything, and that all the visuals had a consistently soft look. If one had sunspots peeking through in random areas, that wouldn’t have been possible.
You mentioned that you self-financed the movie. How did you do that? Did you pitch the idea out to people? Was it crowd-funded?
Yeah, so the process is also what led me to making the film by myself. I did try to do crowd-funding and it failed. That’s fine, that was on me. After that, I was in a low spot wondering how I would get funding for this film. There were local filmmakers in my area who were willing to give me advice. I was totally open for that and I met up with them, but instead of giving me advice, I felt like they were talking down to me. In other words: you can’t do this without this, and you can’t do that without that. I was just thinking that I don’t have the means, and you’re telling me I’m not good enough to do this.
I was really bitter after that and I thought, if I ever get funding, I’m going to do this myself. I wanted to show that it would be possible to make a film of quality by myself. As for the funding, I’m a wedding videographer by trade, so I saved up via that. I also had a friend who said he would loan me $20,000 as long as I paid him back and gave him a percentage of the movie. I paid him back $4,000 a year, every year. The movie wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for that.
Everything just aligned. A lot of things happened at the right time. There are definitely things I would change on the movie, things that could have been done better. But as far as what I was able to accomplish with my grandmother, and what I was able to do on my own, I’m proud to have got this far.
Throughout the movie, by nature of the production, you’re shifting between different realms, aesthetics, aspect ratios and shooting styles. What effect do you hope that the finished film will have on people who watch it?
I feel like it’s almost a film for filmmakers. I feel that knowing my history and knowing how I made it would make the experience a lot more enjoyable. It’s a slow-burn movie and it’s quiet. The ultimate goal is to attract enough people who can see what I’m able to accomplish. Hopefully, someone can see something of value in this and maybe they would like to work with me. But I won’t do it alone again.
I’d love to stay in the realm of atmospheric and artistic films, but I’d love to make films that are a lot more accessible. This was definitely very ‘artsy’ I feel. [laughs]
To wrap up, in terms of what you go onto next, would you be evolving towards working with a crew?
I’m not writing my projects to be massive, I guess. They’re bigger than this one. But such is the nature of what I’m writing that I wouldn’t be able to make them on my own. All the actors in Sator were my friends and I wrote to their capabilities. Since then, it’s been really nice to write and not have anybody in mind as to who will play a certain part.
Doors have started to open, a little bit. I’m always cautiously optimistic. I have two scripts, one I’m finishing, and the other I’ve spent two years writing. I wrote the latter not expecting to have certain people reach out to me. Those that have are more commercial and the script itself deals with very heavy subject matter. In the Hollywood realm, I don’t think I’d be able to get funding for that. Maybe I’d have to come to the UK or find foreign financing somewhere.
But now, I am actually in contact with people who get films made. I have a script I’ve written that is more commercial, or at least it reads that way. Sator has taken up so much of my life, seven years. There are filmmakers I idolise who have made their first film during that same stretch of time, plus two other ones. I’d love to be able to make a film every couple of years.
There’s a temptation with Sator to think that if nothing happens with it, my life is over. But I can always make other movies, right? I just need to get out of the whole seven-year mindset.
Regardless, you’ve made something with this film. It’s tangible, it’s out there and people will discover it.
Yeah, it’s a calling card. Another little side note is the sound took me a year and four months to do. The whole film, besides the footage with my grandmother, involved me creating the sound. Every little rustle and breath, every little smack or foot-crunching, lips smacking together – that was all done in post. I had to learn how to do 5.1 mixing. I don’t want to do sound again, but at least I have a knowledge of it now.
I feel like if I have a crew that knows this stuff and can streamline the process, then it can advance more quickly. I can then relay to people what I want. I’ll know what I want the sound to sound like, and I’ll know how I want things to be coloured. I had to learn how to colour-grade and that took 1,000 hours. I had to learn the software. I’m hoping this will be a calling card movie that will get people in the industry to recognise how much I care for this medium.
I’d like to stay within the horror genre while staying away from the jumping out stuff. I love The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for example, so something more in that realm. That’s a big influence on one of the scripts that I’m writing. I feel good about everything at the moment.
Many thanks to Jordan Graham for taking the time for this interview.
Sator is out in the UK on digital download platforms from February 15th and on DVD from February 22nd.