Jordan Graham, the filmmaker behind Sator spoke with Borrowing Tape interviewer Nace DeSanders on his impressive directorial debut feature. Graham worked on the film's entire production — including writing, directing, cinematography, editing, score, and audio, and took a total of seven years to complete. Sator is available to purchase or rent on VOD and digital platforms now, starting February 9th, 2021.
Listen to the podcast episode and read the interview transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Hi everyone. I’m Nace DeSanders of Borrowing Tape, and today I am here with Jordan Graham - The writer, and director of the latest horror film, Sator, which follows a secluded family under the constant watch of a supernatural entity who intends to claim them. Sator comes out on February 9th. Be sure to have a look. Thank you for joining us, Jordan!
So, let's hop right in. Jordan, you were not only the writer and director on this project but also the film’s cinematographer, editor and you even did the music! I have a huge respect for jack-of-all-trades types. How did you do it?
Wow, one step at a time. There was a lot I had to learn, while I was going along. Like I've been making projects forever but actually shooting the cinematography — that came kind of natural to me. As far as doing the sound, and coloring the film when it was over, I had to learn that as I was going along. So, yeah, I also built the cabin.
That's amazing. Were there a lot of people on set, or was it just you running around?
So, I shot for 120 days. For a majority of those days, it was just myself and one or two of the actors. Bout ten of those days, I had one person assist me with basic tasks. Like there was a fire that I started, somebody was there holding a hose, or like I had to shoot from a back of a truck once. Then there was one day where I had three people help me and that was a dangerous day that I couldn't have done by myself. Yeah, there was a lot of days that I was just by myself too.
Wow, so do you always plan on taking on these roles, or was it more out of necessity?
Necessity. There was a lot of reasons. There were three main reasons. One was budget restraints, I don't like using people unless I have something to offer them, that was one. Another one is that it's really hard to get noticed in this industry, so I wanted to do something in a very unique way, and have the most unique possible story I could tell. The other reason was, I had a really hard time getting financing for the film and I tried doing crowdfunding and that didn't work out, which was fine, but I was kind of in a low spot. I had local filmmakers in my area that were like, "Hey I'd like to give you advice!" and I was like, "I love it, let's give me advice". And their advice meant basically talking down to me and telling me that in order for me to make a movie of quality, I need to have this, I need to have this. Like yes, I would love that, but I don't have the means of getting that, and you're basically telling me that I'm not good enough to do it. And so, I decided basically then, if I ever get financing for this film, or if I ever get a chance to make this film, I'm going to do it myself, and prove to you and other filmmakers that make a film of quality, and you don't need a whole bunch of people to do it. I don't recommend anybody do what I did — that was seven years on my own and it took a toll on me. So, I mean I'm glad I did it, but I'll never do it again.
That's awesome, I've been on the film festival circuit for a bit and I definitely know what you're talking about. There's is that air of "I did it". I'm glad you proved them wrong, I like it.
Yeah, well, we'll see, we'll see. Hopefully, it worked out, and hopefully, people like it.
Yeah, it's a super funky film.
I read that Sator was in post-production for almost six years. What was the editing process like?
I started the film in June 2015 is when I started shooting, and I finished 2016 — so, as far as shooting goes. Yeah, the process though, I went into special effects first right after that, and it took only about a week to do the special effects because most of the stuff is on camera. So I had a lot of Photoshop and After Effects, so that was fine, but then I went to coloring the film and that took 1000 hours because I had to learn the software. And then from that, I went to sound design, and sound design was one of the most tedious and exhausting parts — so, like everything you hear in the film, besides my grandmother speaking, everything that you hear, I had to do in post-production. So every cloth, every little clicking, mouth going *makes sounds* like that and every little breath. A lot of the actors breathing in the film was actually my breath. It took a year and four months to record, just the audio. And I had to learn how to mix it in 5.1. Yeah, it was a long process for sure.
Well, you're definitely walking out of this with a lot of new skills!
Again, I would rather not mess with audio again. I don't think I would want to be grading a feature film again. And I lose my memory, like sometimes I'd go back. Again I told you at the beginning, that like I do things in steps. And I'd have to learn it and then I would go back on certain things and totally forgot, like with some special effects shot, I would have to go back and relearn how to do it again. Or with coloring, I would forget. So, I feel like have a good knowledge of how I want things to look or sound, so when/if I ever work with a team of people, I'll be able to help work with them and direct them, because I know exactly what I want things to look and sound like.
Yeah, that's awesome., where did the story come from? I understand that it's a very personal story. What was your inspiration for writing the script?
Yeah, that question is always like...there's so many different inspirations and the main one is my grandmother, and that didn't come until I was actually shooting the film. So, my grandmother in 1968, she bought home an Ouija board and she conquered up an entity named Sator and throughout that summer. So three months of being with him doing something called automatic writings, which is where she had a glass of gin in one hand and a pen in the other hand, and she'd let Sator speak through her, and she would write down what he said. So, at the end of that three months, she ended up at a psychiatric hospital because of that. I didn't know any of this before I was making the film. So, I started shooting the film with a script that I already had. Since I decided to use cabin, or sorry, her house as a location for the film, I was like, let's get a quick cameo with her in the film. Let's just put her in the film for a little bit and then I'll be able to memorialize her and that was it. So the actor, Michael Daniel, who plays Pete in the film, I told him that we're going to do an improvisational scene with my grandmother, you're going to meet her on camera for the first time, you're going to pretend to be the grandson and maybe talk about spirits because she likes talking about spiritual stuff and just go from there. And so, we started the scene and that's when she randomly started talking about the voices that were in her head and the automatic writings. And, I've never heard of her automatic writings before. So after that day was done, I went home and I was reviewing the footage, and was like, what is this automatic writings? Then I started doing research on my family's history, and her with the voices in her head, and I would go back and shoot more. I was like, I have to put this in the film like this is so personal and so unique, and I have to pursue this more. So, I went back to my grandmother, shot more footage with her, went back home, tried putting it in the film. But you can never... when you're with her, you can't tell her what to say, and you have no idea what she's going to be talking about. So, a lot of the things that she would say, would not work in the current story that we already had. So, I would have to go home, rewrite, spend a week, take a week break, and just rewrite what she just said into this film, and then I would go back and shoot and the same cycle would happen. So that happened probably like, five times or so. Yeah, so that's kind of how the inspiration...it was evolving the whole time, the story just kept evolving throughout the process of this film.
At times the film was shot like a home movie, and at times the screen format would change. Were these real home movies? Could you tell us a bit about those choices?
Yeah, so originally there was going to be a flashback scene in the film and I wanted to shoot it in 16mm. Nah, not even that. In Hi8/Super 8, but I didn't know and had never messed with film before, it would be too expensive. So my mom got a bunch of old Hi8 tapes transferred to DVD, and I was just looking through them, I wasn't looking for anything for the film, I was just watching them and I ended up coming to a birthday scene, from like 25 years ago. I'm in it, but I was like five, or six, maybe nine, I don't know. I'm watching this footage in my grandmother's house, the house looked exactly the same. Everything was set up so perfectly already, like my grandmother was on one side, and my grandfather was on the other side, and I had this scene in the middle that I could create my own scene. So I went out and bought or I made the same cake/or similar-looking cake. I made similar-looking presents, I bought the same camera and I bought the same Hi8 tape and I shot a scene around that footage. I shot my own birthday scene and was able to incorporate this 25, 6, 7, 8-year-old footage into that flashback scene and I love the quality so much in that camera that I ended up just, I kept shooting with it. Seeing if I could put it in the film at all.
Wow, that's movie magic right there!
Yeah, yeah. Even at the end of the film with the credits, where she's just speaking, like thats... I film that later.
Where was the film shot? Those creepy, foggy woods were absolutely beautiful.
Thank you. Yeah, it was shot in the Santa Cruz mountains. So, I live in a suburban area here in Santa Cruz, California — we have forests like 40 minutes away. A lot of it was shot at the side of the road because I had to carry my gear and everything. And then, the snow was in Yosemite Valley in California. The snow was only two days of shooting. Most, 180 days was in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Cool. The Sator has a signature sound, a screech. How did you come up with and make that sound?
Oh, I wish I had it here. I was actually looking for it earlier. One second, hold on. Yeah, I don't know where it is. It's a death whistle. Like there's something called an Aztec death whistle, where they would blow into it before, I guess before to scare other villagers. But I found it on Etsy, I think I found this whistle thing that you blow into it and it makes that sound. Yeah, I was looking for it earlier, because if someone asked me about it — no one's asked about it in the interviews yet — so I'd blow it, but oh, sorry.
That's super cool. Were you looking specifically for something like that or did you just happen upon it?
Originally the sound was going to be a deer whistle, like hunting deer. But that sound is a bunch of popping, it didn't sound good. Okay so I need to find something more haunting, I guess.
So, could you tell us a bit about the Sator’s design? It looked super cool and like oddly real.
Oh yeah, off Etsy again I bought a whole bunch of animal pelts and bones. I only built one costume because it cost too much. But there's like 60 dead animals on one costume. There's like four coyote pelts on one arm, and I had like a bull. Each hand had like mice on it with raccoon jaws and yeah, and I just put it together with rope basically, I went and bought some rope and I tied it together. Was that what you're asking?
Okay, yeah, they're real animals.
That's cool. So being that it's so personal, does the idea of Sator scare you personally? And, was making this film at all cathartic for you?
Sator did not scare me personally. Sator to me was just a mental health thing going on with my grandmother, that's what I believe. My mother thinks he was a wonderful guardian. My aunt thinks he's Satan. But I just think it was just my grandmother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia back in the day. So, I just think it was a mental health thing. What was the other question with that? You had two there.
Was making this film at all cathartic for you?
Um, no. [laugh] Cathartic. It was stressful, well not stressful. It was so tedious. I worked on this thing for seven years. And it wasn't exactly hard I guess to make. But it was just really, really, really tedious. And, when you're locked away, I was in isolation for about five years/ four years with this project — I didn't talk to anybody. So, no it wasn't very cathartic at all. It was cathartic when it was finished and being able to show it to people and having interviews like this, that to me is cathartic.
Which films and directors have had an impact on you as a filmmaker and particularly on your film, Sator?
I'll just say with Sator, again it took seven years to make. I had a lot of inspiration throughout the process of it. So like, the very beginning, my first inspiration was the first season of True Detective (Cary Fukunaga directed that season) — that was a huge inspiration. And then, another one was Jeremy Saulnier, whose his Blue Ruin movie — that was a major inspiration because of just how much he gave to that film, himself, and how he put his house up for mortgage to make it, or I think he refinanced his house to make it. Those were two major inspirations just trying to get the film made. And then, while I was making it, Jonathan Glazer. So, Under the Skin was a big influence. What else? The very last shot of the movie has a little David Lynch's Rabbits was in there. Another one is like Only God Forgives, so Nicolas Winding Refn. So that was while shooting it. So post-production, The Witch. Robert Eggers, and Ari Aster. I get a lot of inspiration from a lot of directors as I go along.
What are some of your favorite movies from the past decade?
Past decade...Mandy, Midsommar. Man, that's a rough one. Oh, any film by Nicolas Winding Refn. Yorgos Lanthimos, so I love The Killing of A Sacred Dear. Man, the 2010's. I guess The Master. I think The Master is one of my favorite films, yeah.
Last question and I'll let you go. Do you have any upcoming projects you can let us in on?
I am writing, right now because I'll never make another film by myself again. So hopefully I can get a couple of projects made. I wrote like a little, because I don't want to share too much, but I have two scripts. One of them is very heavily influenced by the child abductions that went on in Belgium in the 90s. And then another one, the blurb that I'll give you for that is: it's about an impossibly long shipping container with a touch of Cosmic Horror. If I can get it made, then I'd love to get them made one day, but we'll see.