Sundance Preview: Kristen Stewart Plays a Gitmo Guard in Buzzy 'Camp X-Ray'

Beth Dubber, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Writer-director Peter Sattler is ready to tell a different kind of Guantanamo Bay story in one of this year's major competition films.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch-up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who/what/where/when/why on films worth putting on your radar.

Peter Sattler's Camp X-Ray will undoubtedly stir the pot when it premieres on Thursday, Jan. 17, the first full day of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. First there are the political provocations: The film follows a young woman recently assigned to prison guard duty at Guantanamo Bay who finds herself befriending an inmate. Then there are both critics and fans of Kristen Stewart, anxious to see how the film subverts the actress' assumed evolution (and judging from the sold-out screenings, the latter will be coming out in throngs). Camp X-Ray marks Sattler's directorial debut, though it would be an ambitious project for even a seasoned filmmaker. Before it bows at Sundance '14, we talked to Sattler about his career, developing Camp X-Ray, and his hopes for this competition film.

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Background: Sattler studied film at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he befriended filmmakers like David Gordon Green (who executive produced Camp X-Ray), Jeff Nichols and Craig Zobel. There he took to experimental filmmaking, directing the Student Academy Award-nominated short Newton. When Green directed his second feature, All the Real Girls, he grabbed his college buddies, including Sattler, to work as below-the-line crew. "I worked in the art department and I told him, 'I don't know the first thing about the art department,' " recalls Sattler. "And he said, 'That's OK, we'll work it out.' "

The Big Break: After years of working in art departments, Sattler turned a passion for screenwriting into a full-time job. With writing partner Geoff Davey, he tackled studio genre assignments and rewrite jobs, slowly putting his graphic design work behind him. In 2008, he set up an adaptation of the graphic novel Freaks of the Heartland at Overture with Green attached to direct. All the while, Sattler toiled away on Camp X-Ray, the result of a newfound obsession with character and classic storytelling.

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Getting the Film Off the Ground: When Sattler's script for Camp X-Ray was production-ready, he handed it to Green, who had been anxious to help his former collaborator get a feature off the ground. Sattler explains Green's willingness to help him in simple terms: "David just wants to see movies made." Together they attracted investors, along with a lead actress who gave Sattler's debut a star-power boost. "It was the script and David's involvement that got Kristen interested," he says. "She took a huge risk, jumping on to this movie with a director who hadn't directed a feature, but I think she responded to the power of the script."

When It All Seemed to Click: Knowing that many first-time directors stumble with style over substance, Sattler opted to shoot Camp X-Ray as "a very classic, very elegant film" that let the script and performances do the talking. So it wasn't until he met with Stewart and talked through the character of Amy that his vision began to coalesce. "The weird thing about Kristen is that there's Kristen Stewart the star and Kristen Stewart the actor," he says of his lead. Together, they started asking questions that acted as the foundation for the film's main action. Sattler rattles off examples: "Who is this girl? She didn't do that, she did this. OK, what did she do in high school? Was she involved in sports? Was she a virgin?" He says Stewart filled in many of the blanks and added dimension to the ideas he had put on the page.

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For a low-budget drama, finding a Gitmo stand-in could've proved difficult. But that's what the Internet is for. Sattler began researching and discovered that Guantanamo Bay was designed by a U.S. contractor known for its maximum security prisons. Then he stumbled upon a juvenile prison in Whittier, Calif. (just outside of L.A.), that just so happened to have a block of cells mimicking maximum security prisons. Stars aligned. Sattler believes the verisimilitude was essential to Camp X-Ray. "The movie basically has three characters, three primary elements: Kirsten, Peyman [Moaadi, of A Separation, as inmate Ali] and the character of this place."

The Mission for Camp X-Ray: Sattler didn't want to make a movie about Guantanamo Bay that was politically charged and reflective of a big picture. He wanted to make a movie about Guantanamo Bay as a home to inmates and guards alike. "What if a movie could be about Guantanamo Bay without focusing on the 100 miles of fence line and, instead, focused on the smaller details. The microscopic view instead of a grand scale. Not Zero Dark Thirty but an intimate look at a world. These characters don't experience amazing helicopter shots over Guantanamo. They basically experience those four walls they see day in and day out," Sattler says.

Twitter: @misterpatches