Originally conceived as the Off-Broadway play Is This A Room (2019), Tina Satter's Reality transforms a genuine FBI transcript into a taut thriller, as two agents interrogate NSA translator Reality Winner (played by Sydney Sweeney) at her suburban home, after she leaked confidential documents confirming interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Here, Satter explains how she stumbled upon Winner's remarkable story, and how Michael Haneke inspired her striking debut.
Hannah Strong: I'd love to know how you became aware of Reality Winner's story – in the UK, it wasn't really a big headline, so the first time I heard about her case was when I discovered your work.
Tina Satter: You know, it wasn't even a huge story here in the US. So Reality first came into the news in June 2017, because the arrest happened. That summer, you might hear the name Reality Winner, and maybe you’d see a mugshot of her, but it truly wasn’t a large news story. It was six months later, in December, that I came across a long-form article about her that had pictures. There was a photo of her in a Pikachu hoodie, and I was really taken by that image. Then, as I was reading the details of who she actually was in this article, like her teaching yoga, being in the Air Force and owning these pink guns, I thought, ‘Wow, she's super interesting.’
So that took me to Politico, which had this scanned PDF of the verbatim transcript. At the top, it listed participants like characters in a play: so there was Reality, the two FBI agents and then it says Unknown Male. I thought, ‘What is going on with this document?’ And as soon as I started reading it, I thought it was wild. It felt like a crazy thriller. And I'm reading it, knowing that Reality has been in prison at that point for about five months, so I know she gets caught, but I’m so drawn to the way she’s evading their questions. The thing that I found fascinating was how Reality was coming off, and I thought, ‘This is my kind of thriller, a girl in jean shorts, going head to head with these dudes.’
HS: Did you have much contact with Reality herself, between working on your play and then making the film?
TS: Well, when I was at the very start of the process deciding to make the play, Reality was still in prison, and then this crazy, amazing thing happened. I got an email out of the blue from her mom, Billie Winner Davis, who had heard that this play was potentially in the works. She was like, ‘I heard you're doing something on my daughter,’ and I really thought the next sentence was gonna say, ‘Please do not do that.’ But she actually said, ‘I'm really happy you're doing something, could you send us a video if you ever do the play?’ She just gave this implicit support.
But Reality finally got released in June 2021, and so I was able to start being in touch with her. She had home confinement, and she’s still restricted to living in the Southern District of Texas for another year, but I was able to be in touch with her via phone and Zoom. At that point, I knew sort of what this project was because I had made it without her direct input, but what was really great for the movie was that Reality was able to recall actual details of that day of her life, about how everything happened. The other cool thing is that she and Sydney [Sweeney] had their own conversations, and I think that was really helpful and special for Sydney, getting to build that into her performance.
HS: Sydney is really remarkable in the film, and it's such a change of pace from her big breakout role in Euphoria. Was she already on your radar?
TS: So Sydney read for the part, and it was clear that she was really talented. We had a Zoom call just to chat, and we actually weren’t sure that she had time in her schedule to commit to this. But when we had this Zoom, it was clear she was super smart, and she’d already taken to Reality. Reality is a little older, and they have very different lives, but they're both these super smart, unexpected young women moving through very specific trajectories in life. There’s even resonances in their backgrounds, and commonality with their experiences of American girlhood and coming of age, despite how different they are. Once we were on set, she just killed it.
HS: Did you have any kind of cinematic reference points that you talked about with your DoP or with Sydney?
TS: Hilariously, most of my references were not thrillers because I wanted to cut against the normal way that we see the genre. I was more interested in making sure we focused on the details of Reality as a person, particularly her intelligence and the tête-à-tête of the situation. So I was interested in the fact it happened on a sunny day in Augusta, Georgia, and wanted to get some sort of Sofia Coppola lightness to it. But actually, Michael Haneke's films were my main references, and it's not a thriller, but Force Majeure (2014). I like the tension of a normal event with a simmering undercurrent. We looked at a load of films set in single locations too, like Locke (2013), y'know, with Tom Hardy in the car, but I was really focused on this idea of an intense, emotional, feminine space, and the unexpectedness of Haneke's filmmaking.
HS: The power dynamics between Reality and the FBI agents are something that I found really chilling – there’s this sense from the beginning that something isn’t right. Was that something that struck you immediately when you read the transcript?
TS: 100%. They roll up, they know what’s gonna go down. But from reading the transcript, and then making both versions of this story, what was so chilling and strange, and what we wanted to show, was what it’s like to be a young woman to be in a space with these men who have all the power at that point. They have her car keys, her cell phone and they are going to talk to her in these small spaces. So I had to find ways to make that happen. On the film, we had a lot of choreography, and then thought about using the camera for a little bit of subjectivity on what it felt like for Reality – and at times the agents – to all be in that small space together.
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