In the early days of film’s rise as a global phenomenon, European filmmakers developed the idea of “pure cinema,” a style that relies as much as possible on visual storytelling. For its most extreme adherents, any exposition at all delivered by title cards (in the silent era), narration or even dialogue is considered a betrayal of the cinematic ideal.
“Pure cinema is what I believe in,” Alfred Hitchcock, the director often credited with bringing the philosophy to American suspense films, once told an interviewer. “The assembly of pieces of film to create fright is the essential part of my job.”
Sator, the newest feature from Santa Cruz filmmaker Jordan Graham, is likely as close as indie horror can come to pure cinema. Quiet, beautiful and yet chilling, it’s a movie that demands the viewer pay close attention to its visual clues—even more than the characters’ sparse, guarded dialogue—to unlock its mysteries.
In a film like this, the setting has to almost be a character in itself, and Graham gave the Santa Cruz Mountains, where most of Sator was shot, a major starring role. From ghostly fog to majestic sunrises to the deep greens and blacks of the forest interiors, these are undoubtedly the most gorgeous shots of the local landscape ever captured for a dramatic film. But over the long process of making the movie, Graham and his cast—especially lead actor Gabriel Nicholson, who plays Adam—learned nature can be a temperamental star that always decides when it’s ready for its close-up.
“The shots where there was really dramatic weather, where it’s just completely foggy in the trees, that was just complete luck,” says Graham. “It was me driving around the mountains by myself—I think I was looking for a location to shoot at—and I came across that. It was like 12 noon, and that fog was so packed in there. I race out of the mountains and call Gabe and say, ‘Are you off work right now? I’d like to go and shoot this.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m getting off right now, come pick me up.’”
Aurora Wonder Lowe, who plays Adam’s sister Deborah, remembers the unorthodox shooting schedule, and how long it lasted. “We’d film at night a lot of times. And there’d be times where we would wait hours to get the right lighting,” she says. “I was pregnant with my first child when we started filming, and I was pregnant with my second child when we ended filming. That’s how long the whole process took.”
What’s especially surprising in this age of digital filmmaking, when post-production can improve the look of any shot, is the authenticity of the camerawork.
“A big thing was I did not want to do sky replacements. There’s barely any digital stuff in there,” says Graham. “I was very particular about the weather. One of my rules was ‘No sun coming through the trees.’ I didn’t want to see any evidence of sun.”
He also wanted to “show Santa Cruz without showing Santa Cruz, so only locals would know,” giving the forest an unsettling, almost alien feel while throwing in little clues here and there for those who know the area, like a shot of a banana slug, or the lime kilns, or the Moon Rocks.
“I got lucky with the one major sunset where he’s up on top of the Moon Rocks in Bonny Doon and you can look over and see everything. We were coming from shooting somewhere else and it was like, ‘It’s a beautiful sunset!’ We park and I’m running up the hill with all my heavy gear, and we were luckily just able to set up and get that in five minutes.”
Since Sator’s release on VOD and Apple TV (it comes to the Shudder streaming service on May 10), reviewers have taken note of Graham’s arrival as a director. Variety called Sator “strikingly atmospheric,” while The Guardian, in its four-star review, said the film is “not quite like anything else” and declared it “a truly disturbing work that relies not so much on gore as the uncanny in its most potent form: stillness, pools of darkness and just-visible figures.”
Graham is delighted by the response; it’s exactly why the 34-year-old filmmaker, who has been making movies in Santa Cruz since he was 13 with his friends in middle school and high school (some of whom are also in Sator), spent so long crafting it on a minimal budget, handling almost every aspect of production himself.
“This film was very important to me, because I wanted it to be my calling card. I was like, ‘I’m going to give my all to this, but I want to do it in a particular way where I can show different parts of myself, with sound and visuals and writing,” he says.
“I didn’t care how many years it was going to take; I thought it was going to take three years, but it took seven years by the end.”
THE CABIN NOT IN THE WOODS
I last interviewed Graham several years ago, after he sold his micro-budget found-footage film Specter. (His first foray into full-length filmmaking, 2008’s Midground, almost made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for cheapest feature film ever made.) I thought Specter was a clever piece of filmmaking with a satisfying Twilight Zone-type twist. But Graham, always overly self-critical, could barely stand to watch it even then (and likes it even less now). At the time, he was already deep into prepping his next film, which he told me would be about a main character who seems to be slowly losing his mind while living in isolation in a cabin in the woods.
To start pre-production, he knew he at least needed a cabin. So he built one.
“There was a house I originally wanted to shoot that didn’t look anything like a cabin. It was in Paradise Park, and the woman who owned the place said she’d allow me to do it,” he says. “Then I was thinking of the stuff I wanted to do to that house, like redecorating it, and I didn’t know if she would be down for that. Then it took a lot longer to get financing for the film, and she was starting to get iffy about it. And I was like, ‘I don’t even know how long this film’s going to take, I’d love to have a place I can just go to wherever I want and mess it up however I want.’ I was looking at my mom’s backyard, which is in the Circles, and I was like, ‘Can I build a cabin in your backyard?’ It’s only six blocks away from the ocean.”
One person who wasn’t surprised by that decision was Michael Daniel, who plays Adam’s brother Pete in Sator and has been working with Graham on his films and in their longtime videography company Ocean House Productions since they were teenagers. Well, maybe kind of surprised.
“He built a fucking studio in his mom’s backyard,” says Daniel. “It’s insane, Jordan’s attention to detail. Especially with sound design and production, as well. Jordan had to create every single sound in this film. He spent over a year just on sound. It’s crazy, I can’t believe it.”
“Since Santa Cruz is so loud, I could only record from 11 o’clock at night until 4 in the morning,” says Graham. “That was one of the most difficult things on this film, doing the audio. I could predict the lighthouse, because that was like every 30 seconds. But we have our mile buoy out here, and that drove me insane, because I could never predict it. I got to the point where I wanted to find a boat, go out there really late at night and destroy that buoy. It was doing this, ‘Naaaaaaa, naaaaaaa,’ and it would go off at random times, and I couldn’t figure it out.”
It was times like that, or when he was spending 1,000 hours in a blacked-out room getting the colors right on the film, that made doing Sator mostly by himself a test of endurance. Or a downright hazard to his health, as when he made a fireplace for the cabin out of cement and then had to install it.
“I couldn’t lift that thing by myself. It was three or four panels of this heavy rock,” says Graham. “When we went to lift it, something popped in my chest, and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder what that’s about.’ The next morning I woke up at 2am and could barely move. I ended up going to the doctor and was diagnosed with something called costo condritis, which is an inflammation of the ribs that attach to the sternum. There was part of the joint there that was inflamed. It’s supposed to go away with rest, but I couldn’t rest because I had a movie to do. I can still feel it. It’s still there.”
MAKE WAY FOR SATOR
The central premise of a man in the cabin in the woods actually did stay the same over the course of making Sator—but almost nothing else did.
“The film started very differently, we had a completely different storyline,” says Lowe. “The one that we table read and workshopped was a completely different movie, pretty much.”
Sator tells the story of Adam, a quiet loner living in a cabin near Midground (Graham’s stand-in name for Santa Cruz, where all of his movies have been set). Glassy-eyed and quiet—he doesn’t even speak until 15 minutes into the film—he spends all of his time hunting in the woods and obsessing over tapes recorded by his mother, who has disappeared. The tapes tell of a creature of some type called Sator: “All upon the face of the forest shall tremble at his presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, for Sator’s eyes are in every place on those who fear him, on those who hope for his coming, his acceptance. Every beast of the forest, every thing that moves, is his.”
What makes Adam’s fate and questionable mental state even more complicated is that the lines his mom recorded come straight from journals kept by her own mother. Indeed, back in the family home, Adam’s grandmother Nonny (June Peterson) regales his brother Pete and sister Deborah with tales of Sator, the being she’s obsessed over for years in journal after journal filled with automatic writing. The family has fractured after the death of Nonny’s husband and the disappearance of Adam’s mom. Pete is an alcoholic whose body was wrecked in some kind of accident; he goes hunting with Adam regularly, but they can barely look at each other, let alone communicate. Meanwhile, Deborah is trying to hold the family together—it was her who sent Adam off to live in the woods, just to get him away from the ever-growing toxicity of their family life. But it doesn’t seem to be helping, as he is visited by mysterious creatures clad in furs and deer skulls, and by an equally mysterious woman named Evie (Rachel Johnson). Or is he? Are these things all in his head, manifestations of the mental illness that runs in his family? Or are they signs that Sator is really coming for him, and perhaps for everyone?
CLOSE TO HOME
That question of monster versus mental illness, of internal versus external threat, is a big part of what has fascinated reviewers and fans. And Sator’s ambiguity around the issue (although I personally believe it is undeniably settled by the haunting final scene) is purposeful. Not only is the issue of mental illness something Graham pulled from his real family history, but in fact the idea of Sator is something that was, at one time at least, very real to Peterson, who plays Nonny. All the pages of automatic writing used in the film really were written by her. She heard voices in her head on and off throughout her life, and was briefly institutionalized in 1968. Over the years, Sator became a family story.
“I knew about Sator. But all I knew was that he was a guardian of my grandmother, a guardian spirit. I’d known that my entire life, I just didn’t know the extent of it,” says Graham. At first, he thought he would have her improvise with the actors in a quick cameo. But the stories she told (a few of which are in the film) piqued his interest.
“We brought up the spirits, and then she started talking about the voices that came into her head and how she used to communicate with them through the automatic writing,” says Graham. “I went home and was editing the footage and started asking my family, ‘What is this automatic writing stuff?’ My mom was saying, ‘Oh yeah, she used to write with spirits that way, but she burnt all that years ago.’ But my mom was way too young at the time that was happening, so I didn’t really get a lot of information out of it.”
When Peterson had to be moved to a home, Graham helped pack her belongings—and discovered two boxes, one with thousands of pages of her automatic writing that her family thought had been burned, and one with a 1,000-page journal in which she documented every day she had spent with Sator over a three-month period before she was institutionalized.
“Then I learned about more family history,” says Graham. “My great-great-grandmother also had voices in her head, and had been in a psychiatric hospital. My great-grandmother had voices in her head, and killed herself because of it. It wasn’t Sator, it was just voices talking. Then when my grandmother was in her 40s, that’s when Sator came to her.”
Even though he’d already completed shooting, Graham began rewriting his script radically and reshooting with his grandmother as a central character. Peterson is a natural presence onscreen; warm and jovial in contrast to the other characters’ tight-lipped anxiety—even when she is talking about some unsettling things. But everyone involved knew time was short, as Peterson’s growing dementia further complicated shooting.
“She was such a good sport,” says Lowe. “She’d be like, ‘Oh, you guys are filming again.’ But then she’d go into these moments where she’d talk about Sator. And when I looked through all of those papers—I mean, that was all real stuff. It was kind of creepy. But when you think about mental illness as something someone is going through, you hold compassion for them; that’s real to them, and it’s not real to us. Going through all the drawings, those were pretty trippy. Faces that she had seen in the past, you know? She was fine talking about it, so for that there wasn’t a problem. It was, like, you don’t want to conjure it up or anything. But she didn’t have any negative feelings about it. To her, It was like an old friend. That’s what it seemed like.”
And Graham wasn’t the only person on the shoot for whom the issues explored were very real.
“It was interesting,” says Lowe, “because I come from a family with mental illness in it. Dealing with that and then dealing with the movie—talk about method acting.”
Peterson died in 2019, and the movie is dedicated to her. Most dedications are placed at the end of a film; Graham placed Peterson’s at the beginning, a sign of her inestimable impact on Sator, and on him as he works on his next scripts.
“My grandmother changed me, how I want to approach things in the future,” he says. “I was so lucky, having her stories and having them be as interesting as they are. I’ll never get that opportunity again. But it did make me want to approach things in a more real way.”
MAKING THE SCENE
Sator comes at a time when horror movies like The Witch, Hereditary and Midsommar have redefined the genre. Like Sator, they take a moodier, more dramatic and naturalistic approach, focusing more on family stories and big ideas than jump scares. In one case, director Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary, Graham even worried they might be too similar.
“Hereditary, I was in in postproduction when that came out. When I first heard about it, when it played at Sundance, what I read about it is that it’s about the Graham family, which is my last name, it’s about a grandmother who’s dealing with spirits, and I was like, ‘Dude, this guy stole my movie.’ So I went and found a screenplay and read through that thing as quick as I could. His script is so well-written, but nothing like my film. I was very, very happy about that.”
Seeing this new wave of films, especially The Witch, made him more confident about how Sator would be received.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, there are movies coming out like this. This is right where I want to be. I want to be associated with these people. I want to get this thing out there,’” he remembers.
When he did, he was still a bit shocked at first when film festival offers began rolling in—he even got to go to a couple before Covid-19 hit—and the movie rose to number two on Apple TV’s horror charts.
When it was distributed overseas, the press started telling him how much Sator recalled European filmmaking, with its ideal of pure cinema. It was one of the highest compliments he could get.
“When I was a teenager, horror movies were the ‘dumb’ movies,” he says. “It was like, ‘You can’t get any prestige out of that, you can’t be taken seriously if you’re doing a horror movie.’ That was what was in my mind back then. I don’t feel like that now at all. Now you have these indie filmmakers who want to tell good stories with horror. It’s changing the direction, where you don’t have to have pop-outs all the time. You don’t need it to be cheesy. You can make these dramas, but have them be maybe a little more marketable by having them be horror.”
Meanwhile, the friends who have come up with Graham over the years aren’t shocked that Graham—like the mythical Sator itself—has arrived. Daniel says Graham’s breakthrough film was not a question of if, but when.
“I always believed in Jordan,” says Daniel. “I’ve been friends with him for so long, and I always had faith. I knew he was insanely talented, and in the back of my head, I knew—but, I mean, I didn’t know I would be acting in it.”
‘Sator’ begins streaming on Shudder on May 10, and is available for digital rental and purchase on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Google Play.