Interview : director Jordan Graham on DIY filmmaking and the haunting family history behind Sator

As the great David Lynch has often referred to them, sometimes a great movie is the culmination of “happy accidents”. For all the meticulous pre-production that goes into crafting a film, more often than not, it doesn’t go according to plan – and if you’re lucky, that’s where the real magic falls into place.

That’s exactly what happened for Jordan Graham, whose superbly atmospheric folk horror film Sator releases this week.

This chilling and atmospheric slice of slow-burn horror is set in a desolate forest, where a broken family is being observed by Sator; a supernatural entity who is attempting to claim them.

Kyle had the opportunity to speak with Jordan at length about the long, complicated process of almost single-handedly bringing Sator to life over seven years, as well as the fascinating true family history that bled its way into the film’s narrative.

I’m amazed how many different hats you had to wear on the production of this film, so to speak. Pretty much all of them, in fact!

Yeah, basically. I shot for 120 days, and about 100 of those were just myself and one or two of the actors. There were some days where I might have a single person assist me with some things, and one big shoot day – the beard-burning scene – where I had three people help me for an hour. But other than that, including post-production, I was on my own for years.

How much of doing it yourself was down to budget and the scope of the project, and how much was a preference for doing it your way?

Well, there were three reasons why I did it this way. 

The first was a minor one: I don’t like using people unless I have something to give to them. And since I didn’t have any money, I wasn’t going to let that happen. 

Another reason is a bigger one: I’ve been trying to make films or get noticed by anybody in the industry now for 21 years. It’s really hard to get anybody to really notice you. With all the films out there in the world, things get swept under the rug really quickly. So I wanted to try and make a film that was as unique as I possibly could.

I didn’t really care if it was going to be commercial for this particular project, I just wanted to make something as different as I could in the most unique way possible, to show that I have value in this industry. And hopefully, people will want to work with me.

The really big deciding factor was trying to get financing for the film. I had a crowdfunding campaign that failed, but I had local filmmakers in my area contact me. They’re like, “I want to meet up and give you advice on how to move forward”. I was excited about that, so I met up with them – but their advice was talking down to me. 

They said that in order to make a film of quality, you need to have this and this and this. And yeah, I would love to have all that – but I don’t have the money to pay for any of that. And you’re kind of telling me right now that I’m not really good enough to do this.

So, since I was already in kind of a low spot, I thought that if I ever get funding on this film, I’m going to do as much as I can on my own; to prove to them and to other filmmakers that you can make good quality films without all the bells and whistles.

For sure. There might be a magic formula to getting movies made in Hollywood to some degree, but that’s not the art part, that’s the business part.

I won’t go down that road. I’ll never make films by myself again. If someone gave me a few million dollars or even a million dollar budget back when I started the film, I wouldn’t have been ready to do it. So I definitely learned a lot of things as I went along.

There’s a lot of aspects that I had never even approached; software I had never messed with before. So yeah, now I’m ready. But I want to make films a little bit more accessible. I still want my things to be beautiful and atmospheric and set a certain mood. 

But Sator is left up to interpretation. There’s a lot of that, and I feel it works well with this project, but I would like to appeal to more people in future projects. I kind of made this film for filmmakers, basically. I think of it as more of a calling card.

One of the things that makes Sator so striking is the use of different kinds of media. Obviously, most of it is traditional cinematic shooting, but you mix in a lot of elements of found footage, shifting aspect ratio, etc. They add a lot to the unique atmosphere of the film, and I’m curious about how much of that was planned out from the beginning.

Oh, not at all. While I was shooting, there was going to be a flashback at one point, and I was thinking about perhaps using Super 8. But I’d never worked with film before, and that would have cost a lot of money. 

As for the found footage, it was literally found footage that I came across after my mom got a bunch of our home movies transferred over to DVD. I was going through them one day, not looking for anything for the film in particular, when I came across a birthday party scene that was at my grandmother’s house. That house looked exactly the same twenty years ago as it did when I was shooting the film.

What’s great about that footage is that my grandmother was off to one side, and my grandfather was off to another side, and then you have a scene in the middle where I could create my own scene. So I went out and bought the exact same camera, I bought the same Hi8 tapes, I made a cake that was very similar, and I even made presents that were similar. 

I shot a scene around that footage, and was able to edit it in when I was finished. I went and found the original footage, got it as high quality as I could on the computer, blew it up to 4K and was able to edit around it. I really love the quality of the Hi8 camera, the grittiness of the tape; so I just kept shooting with it so I could see if it could be sprinkled around the film if possible.

You’ll see that in the credits – I love the credits scene where my grandmother is just talking. She’s saying all the right things at the right time and then she just kind of zones out for a while.

It really does add an element of unreality to the film. Sometimes when films do mixed-media like that, it can take you out of the atmosphere – but the way you’ve edited it all, I think it works very well.

I think what also helps with that, too, is that the scenes with my grandmother where it’s shot in traditional cinematic style are still almost documentary, because she’s just expressing her thoughts about the spirits that used to talk to her. It’s almost a documentary feel, so maybe that transitions well into the found footage.

Speaking of your grandmother; I’m fascinated by the snippets of the true story of your grandmother that bled into the production of the film. 

My grandmother wasn’t even going to be part of the film, originally. But because of the budget constraints, we used her. I built the main cabin that much of the film takes place in, but I needed a second location. I couldn’t find anything that was as cool-looking as the cabin – I hadn’t expected it to look so good. So we decided to use my grandmother’s house.

I thought, okay, let’s do a quick cameo with her in the film, and if I can use it, we’ll pop the scene in there and it’ll be a cool way to memorialise her. I went out there with Michael Daniel – the actor who plays Pete – and I told him, “you’re going to pretend to be the grandson, and you’re going to bring up spirits. That’ll get her talking, because she’s a spiritual person”. 

He did, and she just happened to bring up the voices in her head and what they call automatic writing. I went home and researched it a little bit, asked my family if they had any stories about it they could give me. Unfortunately, all of my family were way too young to really remember anything.

But I knew this was a very unique and interesting thing, and I had to incorporate it into the film. This was more interesting than the story I already had, which I don’t even really remember – it was so long ago now. 

So I’d go and shoot with my grandmother more. You can’t predict what she’d say, and you can’t really tell her to say anything, so a lot of what she was saying didn’t really work with the story I was already trying to tell. I would take week-long breaks to try to work all of this into the movie, and each time I’d go back and shoot more, I’d have to take another week’s break. It’s lucky I shot it all myself and had no real schedule to stick to.

When I was in post-production, my grandmother’s dementia was getting to her pretty badly. It wasn’t safe for her to be in that house anymore, so we moved her into a care home. I was cleaning out their house, and in the back room – the room you’ll see in the very last shot of the movie where you see everybody looking at the camera – I found two boxes. 

One had a whole bunch of her automatic writings, and the other had a journal. It was talking about her time with Sator for three months, and how she ended up in a psychiatric hospital because of it. I was like, okay, I have to incorporate Sator into this movie now.

At that point, it was a race against time to get my grandmother to speak on camera about Sator before dementia took over. That first time shooting was great, we got a whole bunch of stuff; the last time shooting, Sator was basically gone in her mind. So it was a lot. It was definitely an interesting process trying to figure out how to incorporate my family’s history into this fictional story in a way that works and makes sense.

So Sator was something you’d heard about before producing the film, but not something you were deeply familiar with.

Yeah. How Sator came about was that my grandmother brought home a Ouija board in 1968, and conjured up Sator with a bunch of other spirits. All the other spirits just had initials – Sator was the only one with a proper name. He was the leader of all of them.

Then my grandmother fell in love with Sator. He would tell her what to do and make her do things, and ultimately she ended up in a psychiatric hospital because of it all. I didn’t know all that before making the film; not until I found the journal.

All my family knew until that point was that he was my grandmother’s guardian spirit. That’s not something that I believe in, so I feel like it was a lot to do with her mental health. And she was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in the hospital.

I had a great uncle who I never got to meet, but he had a very similar case of schizophrenia – visions of spiritual and religious beings, eventually landing him in psychiatric care. So it really fascinates me that you were able to shape that personal story into the narrative of the film, to memorialise it and contextualise it in some form.

I agree. I’m still blown away that I was able to capture that. If I had waited another month or so to make the film, I wouldn’t have been able to get any of it. It would have been a completely different film. My grandmother just happened to share all of it while we were filming – she didn’t have to say any of that. 

The first time around, I just wanted her to talk about spirits. I wasn’t expecting her to dig up the past.

In terms of the film’s interpretation of Sator, I very much got a vibe of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan – this all-seeing, very powerful entity of nature. Whether they were conscious influences or not, what were your main inspirations and objectives behind crafting the look, feel and mythology of Sator on-screen?

I guess the reason why I wanted it to be what it ended up being was that I didn’t want an actual creature in there. I love The Blair Witch Project and how you don’t see the witch, and that’s what I originally would’ve wanted to do. But since the film has a slower pace, I feel like I would’ve been cheating the audience if I didn’t give them something

So it came down to: how do I show something, but still not show something? I wanted them to be as organic as possible. You don’t know what’s underneath that costume; you don’t know what they truly look like. 

They come from the forest. It’s easy to shoot in the woods; I live really close to them, so that’s an easy place to shoot without permits. And so the most organic way to create a costume out there is from the forest. That’s why, besides the crows, you don’t hear any animals at all in the film. My understanding of that would be that this entity killed everything in that area of the forest and crafted it into a costume.

Mystery can be so much more effective than just telling the audience everything. There are people who will watch movies, and if they don’t understand everything by the end, they’re frustrated. I get that, but it doesn’t make for a particularly effective horror film in a lot of cases.

Oh, yeah. I leave a lot open to interpretation, and I’m happy as long as it makes sense to me by the end of it. I would always ask myself questions like, does this make sense? Why am I doing this particular thing – like with the black & white footage? Yeah, I can shoot it, but there needs to be some kind of meaning to it before I do it. And if nobody else gets that meaning, that’s fine. But if I’m okay with it, that’s all that really matters for me to be able to feel like the project is complete and ready to show to people.

I mean, your movie’s your baby, you’ve got to be satisfied with it as much as you can be. Whether other people like it is another whole story.

There are a lot of subtle elements at play, from the mixed media to the sound design. Much of that is very trance-like.

Yeah, exactly. Keeping it quiet, not a lot of animals. That goes along with the main character not speaking very much, he’s often just breathing. I did all that sound design completely in post-production, besides my grandmother speaking. 

The same goes for the music. I had a couple of inspirations for the music; one of them was the credit song to The Blair Witch Project. I love that. In Santa Cruz, we have a bunch of hippies. They’re down at this one beach, and this woman will have a bunch of crystal containers or pots. These people would sit around and she would rub the top of these things, and it would create this sound that just puts you in this trance. 

I love it, but it was a higher-pitched sound. I wanted mine to be lower, and so much of my score was created with that as well as pots, pans, nuts and bolts. I also had a bass guitar. I’m not a musician, so I had a violin bow and just made sound effects with that and the bass guitar. In post and editing, I slowed things down and did all kinds of experimentation.

Because I was watching the movie late at night, I was using noise-cancelling headphones with plenty of low-end bass. I was completely sucked into it because of the sound design, it’s so immersive.

It took a year and four months to do all the sound design. That’s everything – the creeks, the claw, lips moving. Because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue and not a lot of music, and are no animals out in the woods or nearby traffic, I can’t cover up stuff. You have to hear everything, so I had to record it all. It’s a lot of work.

I imagine you listened to it with a stereo mix, but I actually mixed it in 5.1. That’s really fun to listen to. I don’t know if that’ll happen on streaming or on the Blu-Ray, but it’s a lot of fun. It was all done in a room about the size of the one you’re in, and I didn’t have the greatest speakers in the world. They were alright, but I’m only listening in this intimate sound space, not a professional studio environment.

So when I heard it at the Fantasia Film Festival…I didn’t even know it sounded that good. That was such an experience hearing it there, being able to hear the death whistles and the wind blowing all around you. That’s definitely how I would recommend listening to it.

I had to learn how to do it all as I went along, so I’m pretty proud of the audio – just because it was the one thing I was very uncomfortable with. I’ve been doing film projects forever, learning how to make things look good; but as far as sound, there was a lot of dread behind that. Taking as long as it did, I’m glad it turned out so well.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

Well, I’ve written a couple of scripts. One script took a couple of years to write, and that one’s heavily influenced by the Belgian abductions that happened to children in the 90s. But that’s dealing with a pretty heavy subject matter, so since Covid-19 is happening, I’ve been writing another script which is a little bit lighter. It’s still dark, but more fun. That one’s about an impossibly long shipping container that has a cosmic horror feel to it.

So I’m writing, but I’m not ever going to make a movie by myself again. There’s no way I could even make these movies by myself. So I’m hoping that Sator reaches enough people that the right kind of people want to work with me. All I really wanted was for some doors to open, and with this film, I wasn’t expecting the type of doors that opened. I’m cautiously optimistic. I had no connections going into this movie, and now there are people who are talking to me. So there’s the possibility of stuff actually happening in the future, but Covid needs to end first.

Sator will be available on UK Digital Download from 15th February, DVD from 22nd February and can be pre-ordered on iTunes here.

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