Peter Sattler is bringing an intimate setting to the war film sub-genre with “Camp X-Ray,” starring Kristen Stewart and Peyman Maadi as two individuals–a soldier and a captive–stuck in Guantanamo Bay who end up finding common ground. Shockya was happy to speak with Sattler about the film and how he views war films in a post 9/11 world. “Camp X-Ray” is now in theaters and available on VOD.
I’m really excited for this film, since we get to see a new side to Kristen Stewart.
Peter Sattler: It’s a really remarkable role for her and I’m excited for people to see this side of her. You know, everyone knows her from these fun…movies that she’s done, but she’s really a remarkable actress capable of an incredible amount of subtlety and nuance, which is really what this role thrives on. So, I’m excited to be a part of this transitioning and redefining of what people expect from her.
I read that you read and directed this film. What was the inspiration for the film?
Peter Sattler: You know, I’d always been interested in Guantanamo Bay, but it started when I’d seen a documentary and started to see what it was like now. And I saw now that, basically, these detainees and soldiers are just walking around. They’re stuck there and they just kind of start to talk to each other. Just seeing that kind of dramatic setup, with these two people stuck in a room together, being at the tip of both of these sharp and political forces aiming at each other, but at the end of the day, they’re just these two everyday people–they’re just these two poor schmucks stuck down there–that strange dramatic relationship fascinated me and that was the impetus for the whole film…The whole thing came to me in a flash.
[I thought] “What a perfect little film.” It’s character-based, it’s a very small, contained and personal way to touch on a much larger subject that is fraught with such intellectual and political minefields, but to me, this was just the perfect way to address it and to brush across it without making the movie all about Guantanamo and all about one political message. That’s not what the movie is about. It’s about people.
I also read that you’d changed the main character from male to female. What was the impetus for that decision?
Peter Sattler: You know, that was very early on when I was thinking about the film. I was thinking about [it focusing on] two guys and…actually writing it more, I was struck by first, in my research, that a lot of women are down there. There are a lot of women guards down there, so that inspired some of the reality behind it because also…in a film, you want to have as much conflict between characters as possible.
[Having a male character and female character] made these characters so different, especially given the very complicated relationship that a Muslim needs to have with a woman and the various taboos that exist in there. It’s so fascinating, and on top of that, being a woman in the army. That’s intense. I mean, it’s a very honorable and great thing, but there are pressures. There are sexual pressures, there sexism, there’s all these things that all factor in to affect that relationship and, at the end of the day, put so much pressure on these characters[.]
How was it directing the cast, especially Stewart? How was it to see the actors embody your characters?
Peter Sattler: It was really amazing and really remarkable because the movie lives and dies by these two characters[.] I had a vision in my head and on the page of what they were, and at the end of the day, it’s all about seeing those characters come to life. And the remarkable thing is that Kristen and Peyman aren’t just actors, but they’re remarkable artists in their own right. They love to create their own art. Peyman has written and directed numerous Iranian films and Kristen writes and plays music and all these things, so as a director, it’s great.
I can tell these actors what to do all day long, sure, but it’s so much better when you have someone to collaborate with and they give you ideas. All you have to do as a director is filter that and channel that energy and say, “I love your ideas, and of those five ideas, this is the one that’s right for the movie.” They can just throw them at me and I can be the filter them and suggest and help channel and help steer that energy. It’s so much easier when someone’s coming at you with this force and throwing things at you instead of having to try and get it off its feet…With some scenes and some actors, is to just make it feel real and to just have something on screen.
When you have actors like Kristen and Peyman, [just] based on cold reads from them, it’s amazing because they’re inventing stuff. They’re doing things on screen. They’re filling every moment with nuances and idiosyncrasies. Then it’s easier, because as a director, all we need to talk about now is how do we shape and choose and decide the exact path this film is going to take.
We’re now in a time in film and TV where we’re in post-9/11 world. We’ve had “24,” Kathryn Bigelow’s films, and others that show America’s relationship with war and the military. What do you think “Camp X-Ray” has to add to the conversation?
Peter Sattler: I’m so glad you asked that question, and it’s totally right on and its so fascinating not just for this film, but for the landscape of war films in general. In a post 9/11 world, war films are different. We don’t have the Nazi that Indiana Jones was fighting. We don’t even have the Russian quote-unquote Ruskies that Arnold Schwarzenegger was fighting. There is no big bad wolf that we can fight a brave and just war against. Part of the reason I was interested in this film as well is that 9/11 was a big deal. I felt that it dealt a psychic blow to the heart of America and I feel like America never really coped with it, never really dealt with it. It just kind of covered it up and limped on, and we’ve been walking with a limp ever since that happened. What I wanted to explore in this film is to talk about how this has changed.
If you look at the films that are coming out now about war…they’re very different. It’s not about heroism, it’s about trying to hold on to your ethics and morality in the face of a war that’s not black or white–it’s shades of gray. “The Hurt Locker” dealt with that. These other films deal with these things in that way. Even “Generation Kill”–[taking place during the invasion of Iraq], which is to some degree a war that everyone was behind–it still does it in a different way because it’s modern, everyone’s more jaded. Everything’s a little bit different. It’s fascinating–these films are just a wonderful way to hold a mirror up to society, and it’s been fascinating to see how our perception of war and media are so very different.
It’s almost like we’re in a time like the period of Vietnam War movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”
Peter Sattler: Yeah, you’re exactly right. It’s not that “Let’s hit ’em, let’s charge the hill” bravado of World War II. You’re exactly right–the Vietnam War is that first war where there was major dissent as to what was going on and it turned into much of what you were saying. It’s not about a story about “How do I triumph over evil.” It’s about how you go into the heart of evil, not just external evil but internal evil. I’m being pushed through this very dark and sinister situation; how do I maintain my humanity through this, you know?
What do you hope audiences take away from “Camp X-Ray”?
Peter Sattler: You know…there’s a feeling that I love in art and movies that…we all as humans–and this sounds cheesy–are connected. There’s this shared bond and there’s this communal experience that we all have. That’s what the film is all about. There are these two people and everyone’s telling them that they’re enemies and they’re set up in this position to be enemies, but they find a way to look at each other not as cardboard cutouts of a soldier or of a quote-unquote terrorist, but as human beings. To me, that’s one of the most powerful emotions on the earth. I love when movies make me feel connected to everyone else, especially in the modern age. We’re all so isolated and we’re inundated with quick black-and-white answers. So, when you can feel that connection to another human being, it’s the most powerful thing in the world.