This year, Hollywood imagined a group of space criminals trying to save the galaxy. It imagined Moses’s rise against the Pharaoh. It even dared to imagine two cancer-stricken teenagers falling in love as they prepare for death. So why hasn’t it ventured inside one of America’s most controversial public missteps in recent history?
Peter Sattler didn’t know much about Guantanamo Bay before he started writing his directorial debut, “Camp X-Ray.” Like most Americans, he had the stark facts: torture, dubiously tried detainees, and a big political quagmire. But what interested him more than ideology was the humanity of the place.”I wanted to capture the emotional zeitgeist of Guantanamo Bay,” Sattler said. “What does it feel like to be down there?” After conducting intense research and making contact with ex-guards, Sattler found a discrepancy between the reality of the detention camp and its overblown media image. “We have this image of Guantanamo Bay as this very heightened, intense place, with barbed wire and torture,” he explained. “But when I looked at what’s actually going on there, it’s very mundane! Yes, it’s punctuated by these moments of violence and insanity, but a lot of it is this very banal stuff.”
Did he still want to make the movie? Absolutely. “I’m drawn to very small stories inside of big situations,” said Sattler. “I love films that have a very relatable, very everyday quality, but are wrapped up in an extraordinary shell.” “Camp-X-Ray” was clearly borne of this sentiment; the film is predicated on a thick layer of dramatic tension, but the most compelling scenes are the subtle windows into what constitutes “normalcy” at Guantanamo. “As an ex-soldier who’d been stationed down there once told me,” Sattler said, “you have 90% boredom, 10% insanity. How do you convey that monotony without boring an audience?”
The character’s interactions evolve from a lurid game of cat-and-mouse to meaningful attempts at connection, and Sattler chronicles them with an understated emphasis on emotion as opposed to diatribe. “What’s on the page doesn’t matter. What matters is what you’re capturing on the camera,” Sattler said.
While filming, Sattler encouraged the cast to rewrite their own lines in order to enhance authenticity. “Ultimately, it has to work for the actors,” he said. “In saying it, and in reading it, Peyman or Kristen understood what that beat was about. And they understood it so well that they could experience it on their face. We cut a lot of monologues because we realized we didn’t even need the rest of the line. A lot of it is learning that you can do so much with so little.” But prioritizing subtletly didn’t have to come at the cost of confronting some of Guantanamo’s harshest realities. The film tackles suicide, various methods of torture, and heavy existential themes to boot. “You can’t just be cavalier about it,” said Sattler. “You’re shooting some really intense stuff and you have to create an environment that fosters that intensity from your actors.”
Living the indie filmmaker’s dream
It’s every first-time indie director’s dream to write a hot-button script, cast a famous actor with an established fan base in the lead role, direct the film yourself, and premiere it at Sundance. This was Sattler’s reality. “When you’re just starting out, you have no currency,” he said. “The only currency you can really create in Hollywood is a hot script.” But even an absorbing script about a hot-button issue like Guantanamo isn’t guaranteed to secure financing. What it did do, however, was attract Kristen Stewart. “Kristen read it, and she loved it,” Sattler said. “It’s just as simple as that. She told me she hadn’t done a movie for two years. And when she sat down she said, ‘You know, I was waiting for something to grab me.”
“Having Kristen attached helped everything,” Sattler said. It was not only the vote of confidence the film needed to get financed, but it also attracted other seasoned cast members to the project, such as Peyman Moaadi and John Carroll Lynch. “You can call someone and say, ‘I’m making an indie film about Gitmo,’ and they’ll say, ‘And?’ But if you call and say, ‘I’m making an independent film. It’s about Guantanamo Bay. It stars Kristen Stewart,’ they’re like, ‘Oh, really!'”
Sattler can’t sing Kristen’s praises highly enough: “She took a real leap of faith jumping into this role. It’s a very challenging role for anyone to master.” “Camp X-Ray” also bolstered Kristen’s career by helping to diversify her public image. “Based on the reviews she’s been getting, people have been really surprised that she pulled off this nuanced and internalized role,” said Sattler. “I’m extremely proud that people are starting to look at her in a different way. There’s been this great renaissance in the way people think about Kristen. And that’s all to her credit, because she made a very conscious choice to make some bold, aggressive moves in the movies she was doing. I’m super excited to be the first film in this new chapter of Kristen Stewart.”
“Camp X-Ray” is currently playing in select theaters and is available to view on video on demand platforms.