Director Interview: Jordan Graham

Following up from his review of Sator, Hugh has a chat with the film’s director, Jordan Graham. 

First of all, congratulations on Sator. It’s a terrific film, I watched it and enjoyed it thoroughly last night.

Thank you.

 

Well, I say enjoyed it… I don’t know if that’s the right word.

It’s definitely a slower paced film, and I understand it won’t be for everybody. I made it myself to sort of show something really unique in a really unique way, so that if you saw it you might wanna work with me and make a film with me that’s a little more accessible!

I wanna keep things beautiful and artistic, but maybe not so subjective and left to interpretation.

What I enjoyed about it most was the way it gets under your skin, and after I had finished watching the film it kept coming back to me throughout the day. I think that refusal to explain everything really helps with that. Had you been a big horror fan growing up?

No not at all! (laughs) I mean, I am now, and I have been for the last nine years or so. I was terrified of horror films. Have you seen The Descent?

Yes!

Well when that came out in theatres, all of my friends wanted to go and see it and I stood out front and waited for them because I was too afraid to go in! And I didn’t really appreciate horror films either. I started off making action films when I was younger, and in my late teens and early twenties I only wanted to make dramas. I think I thought that horror movies were like below me or something, but in 2011 I made my first film (which I do not like at all and really don’t want people to seek out). I was never expecting people to see it, but my friend and I had some gear and just went out and made this found footage horror thing.

Around then I started watching a whole bunch of horror films to make sure I wasn’t copying anyone! And I really started enjoying them. I think it was season one of True Detective that really made me realise that you could make something scary but still really intelligent. And I know there were those kind of films out there already, but that was the one that inspired me to get my next film going.

And while making this film I came to love the sort of art house horror films, some that might not even consider themselves as horror. Directors like Gasper Noe, Nicolas Winding Refn, and the film Under the Skin was a huge inspiration to me. Killing of a Sacred Deer is a huge inspiration to me.

 

It’s interesting that you mention Winding Refn. While watching Sator, it gave me that vaguely surreal and nightmarish feeling that his films capture so well, where everything is seen through a wild haze.

Yeah that’s the feel I wanted.

 

I understand the film began life as something else entirely?

I couldn’t tell you what the original idea was because I can’t really remember anymore (laughs). It did have something to do with aliens which you can kind of see a little in the film still. But if I had made that original film as it was in the first script I had written, I doubt you and I would be having this conversation right now.

My Grandmother changed everything about me and this film and made me want to make everything more real and more personal.

So, my budget was really low, and even the cabin I have I built myself in my Mom’s backyard. But I needed another location that was similar and I couldn’t find one. So, I decided to use my Grandmother’s house and have her do a quick cameo in the film. I told Michael (Daniel) that we were going to do an improvisational scene with her and that he would meet her on camera for the first time. And so we got there, and he hid out in the back room while I set up the lights. I told him to talk to her about spirits when he came out, because I knew my Grandmother was a very spiritual person and she might give us some interesting things.

That’s when she started talking about the voices in her head and automatic writing, which I had never heard before in my life. So much of this film was about the luck of her willing to share that with us at that time. I went home and did some research into my family’s past.

My Grandmother would sit in a room with a pad and a pen and would just zone out and let ‘Sator’ (the voice in her head) speak through her and she would write it down. I asked my family if there was any of these pages left but they said no, that they were burned years ago. So, I continued figuring this out and wanted to see what I could do with it.

I spent a week re-writing the film to work around that scene we filmed with my Grandmother. I went back to film more, and I still had no idea what she was going to say, so every time I would film more and do more improvisational scenes with her, I would have to rewrite more of the film to fit what she had said. Luckily, I didn’t have a schedule for this film. I financed it myself and had all the time in the world to make it. So that happened maybe five or so times, and when I finished shooting the film, my Grandmother’s dementia had gotten pretty bad so we had to put her in a care home.

When I was clearing out her house I found two boxes; one was a thousand page journal and the other was a box filled with hundreds of pages of automatic writing. What you see in the film is all her writing, I didn’t make any of it up. And the journal documented every single day of her experience with Sator over a three-month period.

She had come into possession of a Ouija board and Sator and a bunch of other characters had come to her. Their names were mostly initials like QXS, ANN and QXI which was an evil spirit, and Sator was the only one that was an actual name. He was the leader of everyone, and he stayed with my Grandmother for three months. Things started to get a little insane and she actually ended up in a psychiatric hospital because of it.

And through this journal I learned that my Great-Great Grandmother had voices in her head and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and my Great Grandmother had voices in her head and committed suicide over it. This journal was a goldmine, and I wish I had it before I started filming.

I would love to make that journal into a film one day, I would love to adapt it but not make it a horror movie. I need to get away from Sator for a while, it’s been my life for so long. But I want to come back to that journal down the line.

So Sator didn’t even really come into the film until post-production! It became a race against time to get my Grandmother talking about Sator on camera as her illness was getting bad. I ended up getting everything I needed the first time I spoke to her, and on the very last day we caught the opening shot of the movie that is just her face in black and white. I just filmed her face for forty minutes and asked questions about Sator, and I was so lucky to get what I got.

One of the things that feels threaded through the film is the ambiguity of the piece; that we may not be watching a supernatural horror but a man’s descent into mental illness. Gabriel Nicholson’s central performance was amazing, a big hook to hang the film on. How did you go about casting?

They have been my friends for years. I’ve known Michael (Daniel) since I was thirteen and have been best friends since then. I have been making short films since I was thirteen and Michael has always been involved. We made our own production company when we were kids called Michael Jordan Films (laughs)! He’s been acting with me forever!

Gabe Nicholson I met in High School and we were skateboard buddies! He would act in a lot of things I did, too. He is so expressive in general, and I had to try and make him not so expressive in the film! I wanted it to be a very quiet film, and he conveys so many different emotions just with his face.

I really care about the eyes! I really focussed on colouring them when I was going back through the film.

Evie (Rachel Johnson) is my fiancé, we’ve been together for ten years, and Aurora Lowe is someone I knew in high school, so it was good to work with people that I knew.

 

The film took seven years to film and complete. You were doing so much behind the scenes; how did you manage that?

One step at a time.

I built the cabin, which took a month and a half to build. The very first day I was levelling out my Mom’s yard and it took so long to build just the very first section of the cabin, and I almost had a panic attack worrying about the idea that I had this whole movie to do and sort of how much I am going to have to learn to get this put together.

So, I stopped, took a step back and decided just to deal with one thing at a time.

There were some hiccups in the technical side of things because it can be a little tedious putting it together. It was complicated, and it took so long, but I knew what I wanted it to be and I knew I would finish it.

I was shooting 120 days in total, and I was effectively doing everything besides acting. I had an assistant for a little while, but only to do the most basic of things like holding and umbrella if it was raining and stuff like that. The beard burning scene was way too dangerous to do by myself so I had three people come in to help me with that too.

But it wasn’t until post-production that things started to drive me insane. Everything you hear in the film besides my Grandmother speaking I did completely in post. The ticking clock, the breathing of the actors, that’s all me! It took me a year and four months just to do that side of the film. I had never messed with sound before to this degree, and I wanted everything to be mine and of high quality.

The same with colour grading, I had never colour graded before. I think that took about a thousand hours to do, and the process was just me being in isolation to just slowly do what I needed to do. So you almost cut yourself off from the world for four or five years while working on post-production.

It was rough for sure.

 

It’s to your enormous credit that the film looks so polished. When you hear you are going to watch a low budget indie film, you have certain preconceptions about how it is going to look, and this film completely blows that all away. It looks much better than a lot of mainstream films that I have seen in recent years.

Thank you, and I mean it wouldn’t look that way if I didn’t love it so damn much! I love this medium and I care about it. These days you see people shooting things really quickly just to get it out there, but I care so much about things looking good. I mean, this film is going to be my calling card, so I wanted to do it right. I had the luxury of taking my time.

My one rule for the film was that I didn’t want any evidence of sun. We were shooting on portable cameras, and there’s this thing called dynamic range. If there is light coming into the forest through the trees the camera wants to pick up everything so it makes everything over exposed and all the shadows would be really black and dark, and it didn’t look good. We would go out to locations and we would wait until the sun had gone behind the trees just to make sure we had the best shot.

 

You can really tell that the film was made with a lot of love, and that it is a very personal film for you.

Thank you.

The look of the demons in the forest is so striking, where did the inspiration there come from?

An inspiration at first was The Blair Witch Project. I love how you don’t see the witch at the end of the film. And if I could, I wouldn’t have shown anything. But as this is a slower paced film, I felt I had to show something.

So, I wanted that same sort of mystery where you see something, but you still aren’t exactly sure what it is. I figured that they are wearing something, and you wouldn’t know what was underneath that. So, there is the deer skull rather than a mask. I wanted it to be as organic as possible, and I wanted it to come from the forest. It’s why you don’t hear the sounds of any animals in the film other than the crows because, in my mind, the entity that is out there has killed everything and has decided to wear it.

I went on Etsy and eBay and bought sixty or so animal pelts and rat tails (laughs). There was boar skin and coyote pelts, just to give it that organic feel. I carved out the deer skull to use as a mask, and folded up some socks to put on the actors face. But it was still really heavy and painful to wear, and it would just fall off really quickly, so they had to be as still as possible. I didn’t stitch anything together, but the outfits are all held together with rope!

At the end of the movie, you see the ram’s skull on the entity. But it was way too small to be imposing! So, I built a wooden cross with the big top torso part draped over it and then the ram’s skull and used a fishing line on the skull to make the head move. But there wasn’t even anyone in there! (laughs).

 

It’s funny you mention The Blair Witch Project, that is my all-time favourite horror film.

Yeah, there aren’t too many films that get under my skin the way that does. Still to this day I watch that film at one o’clock in the morning on my own and get in this really weird mood! And the song that plays over the end credits inspired the sound of this film, its all pots and pans and nuts and bolts.

 

I watched The Blair Witch Project around Halloween last year with my fourteen-year-old daughter for the first time, and I was delighted to see that it really still works.

Yeah! You know, there are a lot of people who don’t get it and don’t like it, but I feel like it is just masterful filmmaking in general.

The film I made before Sator was a found footage film, but its all digitised and you can tell its all planned out. But with Blair Witch it just feels so real, like they are really there in that situation. I watched it at Halloween last year too!

We always like to ask our guests for there favourite horror film. Is Blair Witch up there for you, or is there something else that really gets under your skin?

Blair Witch is the scariest, and it’s the film that gets to me the most.

I love films that can get me thinking and put me in a weird, messed up place. The Shinning and Salo definitely have that sort of impact. But I would still say The Blair Witch because it’s all left to your interpretation and it really creeps me out.

 

I must’ve seen that film about twenty times, and every time Heather goes down to the basement and sees Mike it gives me goosebumps, it doesn’t matter that I know exactly what’s coming.

I’m the same way. It puts you in a mood, in a weird spot.

And the quality of the camera has such a texture to it that is gritty and real, and if I were to do anything with handheld camera’s again, I would want a Hi8 like that.

 

What’s coming up next for you Jordan?

I have a couple of things I’m working on; I have two scripts that I have ready to go.

One is inspired by the child abductions that happened in Belgium in the nineties, and there are weird conspiracy theories with that case that really get under my skin.

During COVID I have also written something that is dark but more fun! It’s about an impossibly long shipping container and has a sort of cosmic horror feel to it.

Who knows if they will get made? But doors have opened because of Sator, so I am cautiously optimistic. It’s nice to know I can write something and send it to someone, people who can get it made if they like it enough.

 

I wish you nothing but the best of luck Jordan, Sator was such an unusual and unique film that it is exciting to see what will come next.

Thank you, I appreciate it.

By Hugh McStay

 

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