Packed with stunning, otherworldly imagery, a believable central performance, and effective score and sound design, Sator is one of the most unsettling films of the year. Even more unsettling, in fact, is the combination of its backstory—bathed in a unique and chilling family history—and its original mixture of documentary and traditional filmmaking.
It’s a strong showcase for director Jordan Graham, who not only wrote and directed the film—he produced, shot, scored, and edited the horror entry, in addition to building the cabin it’s filmed in. I talked to the multi-multi-hyphenate director about Sator, its origins in his own family background, and its novel blend of documentary and narrative elements.
JE: Why take on this project, this story?
JG: I went into this project because… there are so many films out there that they will skip people’s radar. I just really wanted to make something as unique as I possibly could, which is my grandmother’s story, in the most unique way, which is me doing it myself. I didn’t care how commercial it was for this project. For this film I wanted people to notice […] my work, and I personally thought the way to do that was just to do something as unique as I possibly could and not care if it was commercial [and] hopefully it hits certain people.
JE: It’s rare to have a blend of fiction and documentary in a horror tale—what gave you the idea for that style?
JG: I wasn’t expecting to do that in the first place. My grandmother wasn’t even supposed to be a part of the film… I had a whole different story that I was going to make… I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was because that was seven years ago. With a budget restraint, I couldn’t find anything that was as cool looking as that cabin [that was built for the film]. I built the cabin in my mom’s backyard, and I wasn’t expecting it to look so old and rustic.
I thought we would use [my grandmother’s house for a scene] and I’ll put my grandmother in the film for a quick cameo… if I like it, I’ll keep it, this might be a cool little moment to memorialize her in the film… I went over to that house [with the lead] actor, who has been a friend of mine since I was 13 years old, and I’m like ‘so you’re going to meet my grandmother on camera, and you’re going to pretend to be the grandson… She’s very spiritual, so bring up spirits and stuff and maybe you’ll get her talking.’
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He comes out and starts talking about spirits, and she randomly brings up the voices in her head and how they communicate with her through automatic writing… that was the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard about that, she’s never shared it with anybody in the family and she just happened to share it while we were filming. After that, I went home and did research on the family history, and about the automatic writings.
JE: How did that change your plan for the film?
JG: My mom, aunt, and uncle were too young to remember [them] fully. I asked if there are any of these automatic writings around and they’re like ‘No, she burned them all’… I kept shooting with my grandmother, and I wanted to explore this automatic writing stuff. I kept trying to make it work into the film and it was rough. [I took] the time to rewrite and make what she says work—it almost became her movie, and then I got into post production and my grandmother’s dementia was starting to get really bad, so we made a decision to put her into a care home.
I was clearing out her house, and in the back room […] I found two boxes. One was all of her automatic writings that my family thought that she burned. Every one that you see in the film […] those were hers. The other box was a 1,000 page journal documenting her journey with Sator when she conjured him up, fell in love with him, and then became obsessed with him and he convinced her that she was the biblical Eve.
After three months of being with him she ended up having to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. So I’m reading this journal and I think ‘I have something so unique that I’d love to adapt it to a film one day’, but I have this person alive right now to actually talk about it [with], so then it was a race against time to go and get my grandmother to speak about Sator before her dementia totally wiped him from her mind. The first day I got her to talk all about him, which was great. By the third or fourth day, Sator was completely gone from her mind.
JE: Tell me a bit more about your overall family history.
JG: I’m just going off my grandmother’s journals. Reading through these journals, it wasn’t like me being invasive and [just] reading through it, she wanted to publish these journals. She wrote it like a story and she actually tried [to publish] them. In this story she talks about her past. My great, great grandmother had voices in her head and ended up in a psychiatric hospital herself. When my grandmother was […] either four or six, her mother got voices in her head and at one point tried to kill herself and my grandmother.
She put my grandmother in a car and was driving along the coast, really high up on the cliffs, and pulled up next to the edge of the cliff. [She] was about to drive off and she was… I guess crying, and she looks over and sees my grandmother, sees her crying, and decides not to drive off a cliff that time. Shortly after that, my grandmother was in a babysitting children’s group, and [they got] a phone call that her mom killed herself—put a shotgun in her mouth because of the voices in her head.
When my grandmother turned 40, she got in possession of a Ouiji Board and summoned up a whole bunch of voices. Most of them were initials… A.N.N., there was Q.X.S., and Q.X.I., and Q.X.I. was ‘the evil one’. And then there was ‘Sator,’ Sator was the master of all of them. She fell in love with Sator, and the whole family was involved with Sator.
JE: How were your family involved?
JG: How they first started communicating with Sator was [with] glasses [and] a Ouiji board, and they would allow the glass to move to the letters… you can tell by the way she’s writing that she’s the one moving these glasses, and they’re moving all around the house and everybody was laughing… it just seemed like this chaotic craziness with the glasses.
The family was like ‘what is the meaning of this’… [grandma would say] ‘oh, it’s patience, we are learning patience’ … it was all about learning, Sator is ‘teaching everybody something’. Later on, Sator taught her how to do something called automatic writing […] my uncle would even tell me that she would put the kids to bed, then she’d zone out, write, and when he was getting ready to go to school she was still sitting there in the morning doing it. So she learned how to do that, and she was talking to the voices in her head all the time. There was an incident where she is driving her car and all the voices are telling her where to go… she had to meet somebody but she didn’t know how to get there, so she allowed the voices to tell her. They would, all the voices would argue with each other… and my grandmother ended up getting lost.
So you can imagine… when I’m shooting the movie, I found this in post production, and I’m reading this and reading all this stuff about Sator… I want to at least touch on him somehow in this film. What she’s saying she believes, but he is so fictionalized in this story because I made him more demonic in this.
JE: What’s your family’s take on the whole situation?
JG: My mom thinks Sator was a wonderful being, like her guardian. My aunt thinks he was Satan. My uncle was way too young to really remember. He just thought it was… crazy, I guess. Just a really weird time. My aunt told me she went to one of the seances and saw this woman completely morph into somebody else… into an Irish man… I don’t believe any of this and my aunt was young, so she was probably thinking things were bigger than what probably happened, but my aunt was saying things were actually moving around the house.
JE: That’s so fascinating! Tell me about building the cabin by yourself.
JG: The first thing I had to do was level the ground out there… it took me a while […] I was trying to figure out how to finance this thing and I was going around collecting stuff because I know how long this process is going to take. I was already starting to gather materials, things that I could use that weren’t going to cost me very much, so I found a bunch of pallets and then that’s what I had laid the foundation out [with].
I had to still build this cabin and I had to shoot the film… I was going through a list in my head of all the different things I had to do, and then at that moment I was like ‘okay, one step at a time, I’m going to finish this cabin then we’ll move onto the other stuff’. Our fence was falling down, so I tore the rest of it down and use that for the walls. My neighbor was building a new deck, and the day I started construction he decided he was going to rip up his deck and build a new one, so he gave me all that wood for the flooring.
For the rock furnace, I went up into the mountains with my truck and came back and forth all day just putting rocks into the truck. I went back to the house and got cement and then was able to make that furnace with cement… everything else was a lot of stuff donated to me like the deer head. The framing I had to purchase [but] the whole cabin cost me $1500 to build, it took me two months.
JE: Do you have any interesting stories from the shoot?
JG: Well, I wanted to get snow in the film. We got to Yosemite, which is about three hours away from here. I got there with just Michael, and I wanted snow on the trees and it was 80% supposed to be snowing… we go out there and it didn’t snow. I got the coyote, I got a beautiful opening shot of the snow, and that was it. We got home, and I was looking at the weather being like ‘I need to get snow’. We’re getting close to spring, and I see one day where there’s a 30% chance of snow and it’s only going to get a half inch and then it’s nothing but sunny. We’re at the end of winter.
We had that beautiful opening shot and it said 30%, I just need to get snow on the ground. I couldn’t afford to get a hotel so we get up at two o’clock in the morning, go drive out there, and before we even get into Yosemite it’s snowing and snowing. We drive in there, we’re waiting for the sun to get just bright enough for the camera to capture anything. Finally it got bright enough, and that’s where you see all the snow coming down and it’s collapsing on the trees.
I’m hearing these trees collapse all around me and I’m trying to aim the camera to capture it and I did get that one show where he’s walking in it and it comes and collapses. There wasn’t a bulldozer anywhere that clears the road out there, so the road was getting packed with snow and we’re driving super slow down to get towards the valley. It was snowing all day when it said it was going to be barely anything… I lucked out. Looking at the footage… at that moment I knew I cannot wait for people to see this film, that is my climax of the movie.
Sator is available on VOD on every major platform.