Reality Winner served in the US Air Force before transferring to the National Security Agency as a multilingual translator. In 2017, she leaked an intelligence report showing Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Consequently, she received the longest custodial sentence in US history for whistleblowing. A hero to many, and a traitor to others, Reality’s interrogation by the FBI has been brought to the screen by US theatre-maker Tina Satter in her directorial debut. Satter decided to base the screenplay verbatim on the interrogation transcription. We spoke with Satter to find out more.
When were you first aware of Reality Winner’s story?
The movie happened on June 3rd, 2017, and by the next day, Reality was in the news, but her story didn’t get much coverage. I vaguely heard her name because the name is memorable, and I saw a flash of a mugshot in a newspaper, but I didn’t follow the story. About six months later, there was an article about her in New York Magazine, and I was clicking [online] killing time, and I saw the article. The title was “America’s Biggest Terrorist has a Pikachu Bedspread”. There were pictures of Reality, and it struck me how young she was; there was something very engaging about her. I saw another picture of her with a Pikachu hoodie. The article mentioned that she did yoga and spoke Arabic, and I was getting really intrigued by this person. She is a fascinating young American. I clicked a hyperlink about the day the FBI visited her home, and it took me to [the website] Politico, where they had a scanned PDF on the screen. It was a verbatim transcription and listed participants in her interrogation. Reading the transcript, I became more fascinated by her and how that day unfolded. There was humour in those lines on the page, and I could hear her voice. The theatre maker in me thought it felt like a play but also like a movie. It was my kind of thriller: a young girl in jean shorts going head-to-head with a bunch of men. As I read that first document, I got that artistic tingle that told me I could do something with it.”
Why did you stage it as a play first and then bring it to the screen?
I had a play commissioned at The Kitchen, a great theatre in New York City. I was starting to work on it, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to figure out what I could do with Reality’s story. I printed copies of the transcript and got together with actor friends in New York City and read it repeatedly to see if there was something there. Getting the play [staged] was the easiest, quickest way to work on it. Plays require a lot of people but not as many as a film. Very excitingly, the play was very well received and took on a life of its own. We started off-Broadway, and then it moved to Broadway. In the first couple of weeks of lockdown, I started writing the first screenplay for the movie.
I work in theatre and used extracts from actual documents to write a play, but I had to fill in the blank spaces and create new dialogue to make it work. I am fascinated to hear why you chose to use the interrogation transcript verbatim.
The first time reading, I knew there was no way we could keep it all. It repeats itself; that’s the nature of an interrogation, they repeatedly ask the same questions. My first thought was that I didn’t want to screw with any of the lines somehow. Instinctually I knew I would never want to make a line say something different than it did on the page. The challenge became keeping as much of it as we could and keeping it in order, even if we had to remove something. We had to make it work; in the edit, you normally have the freedom to move scenes around if something isn’t working, but that wasn’t the case here. We had to keep going exactly as it happened to Reality. It was an exciting constraint, it gave it an energy and tension.
Casting an actor to play a real person can be challenging. How did you know that Sydney was Reality?
She’s phenomenal; she is such an interesting young American actress, you can see it in the work she has already done. She is a strong emotional actor, which I knew was going to be important for this role, to be able to hold the screen in the same outfit in lots of close-ups. Sydney and I Zoomed before she read for the role, and it was clear that she is really smart. There is a similarity between Reality and Sydney. They are two strong young American women who had goals to get the life they wanted. That Zoom conversation sealed that she got what I was trying to craft, and then she read for the role and was great. In the edit, when I saw all the footage, I could see the incredibly rich emotional terrain she played throughout all the takes.
Sydney is the leading player, but you have two key FBI agents. Those types of characters are often stereotypically strait-laced and often one-dimensional, but your characters are warm and funny at times, as well as creepy. How did you create that dynamic with Marchánt Davis and Josh Hamilton?
That’s a great way of putting it; they are warm, funny, and creepy. Good actors can hold all these elements, and Marchánt and Josh are great. It was important that they weren’t going to be archetypal male jerks. They say all this stuff in the transcript that suggests that they were either acting that day, performing a version of themselves to get Reality to relax or were genuinely warm and funny. I needed actors who could hold warmth and humour and then suddenly switch tactics. The whole time they are talking to her, they know they are ruining her life, but they don’t show it.
Theatre is a vastly different medium to film. What was it like making the transition?
It was daunting and exciting. I kept saying, “I can do this. I can do this.” I had the most incredible collaborators; the producers, the director of photography the editor, and everyone I worked with was so creative. I have instincts, I know my strengths with actors, and I know how I want things to look and feel, but I had none of the film language or the technical acumen, but everyone was so helpful in guiding me through translating my language to film language. Every second was an amazing learning curve. It’s been such a gift to learn a new way of making art.
What do you want audiences to take from the film?
I want them to know that Reality Winner is real and how what she did affects US and global politics. It is a dark coming-of-age story to me, and it’s a geopolitical story. If you understand what Reality Winner did at that moment and what has happened to her since, you can understand more about how the state operates in these times. It is worth understanding that she was just a young American who didn’t think we should be lied to.