Peter Sattler Talks Kristen and Camp X-Ray

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Our sister site, Fanspired.com, posted this awesome interview of Peter Sattler talking about what inspired Camp X-Ray and how incredible Kristen is in this film. Here’s an excerpt:

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: 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.

Check out the rest of the interview here.

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