Jonathan W. Stokes on writing and directing ‘Wildcat’

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Jonathan W. Stokes brings us an incredibly intense hostage thriller in his new film Wildcat, which he wrote and directed. 

Synopsis: An ambitious reporter (Georgina Campbell) stationed in the Middle East is taken captive after a militant group ambushes her convoy. Convinced that the young woman is hiding her true identity, they’ll stop at nothing to extract information crucial to the success of their upcoming terrorist attack.  With time running out, she must find a way to survive and turn the tables on her assailants.

Wildcat stars Georgina Campbell, Luke Benward, Ibrahim Renno, Mido Hamada and Ali Olomi.

Check out my Q&A with Jonathan.

What is it about doing both writing and directing, that you love so much?

Jonathan: Well, I wanted to be a writer since the second grade, it’s my first love and my last love, but getting to see what you write actually made is hugely cathartic and fun and important as well. So with Wildcat, writing a movie that takes place entirely in one location, I figured, if I’m not qualified to direct a movie with three actors in one room, then what am I qualified to do? So, it was fun to write something that I could also direct and see through production… I can elaborate on that more- I don’t know if your high school English teacher ever told you to write three pages about the back of a penny. I think it was junior in high school for us, it was to teach us the law of creative limitation. And you start to think, ‘how am I gonna write three pages about the back of a penny?’ And then the next thing you know, you’ve written 10 pages. It’s suddenly not creatively limiting, it turns out to be creatively freeing. So, once I set myself the assignment of writing an actor piece for an actress in one room, it made it enormously liberating, I was able to pump out that script in four days because it just told me exactly where it needed to go because of limitations. 

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
What inspired the hostage story?

Jonathan: I think once I decided that it needed to be in one room, then I had to think, well, why is she in one room? Well, she’s been taken hostage, well who took her and why, and just sort of asking those questions, led to the answers… Asking lots of questions is, I think, a great way to discover the truth. And so that’s a big part of my writing process.

What I thought was interesting is that this is a bilingual movie with English and Arabic. Do you speak both languages?

Jonathan: I don’t speak Arabic but I traveled to many if not most of the Arabic speaking countries and have read the Quran twice and I feel very much steeped in Middle Eastern culture. For whatever reason, this is one of my interests. So it’s it’s an area of the world that I like to write about and like to learn about. 

Can you explain why you don’t use subtitles?

Jonathan: Yeah, I wanted to immerse the audience in reality. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite living author and he never bothers to translate when he writes in Spanish, for instance. And I think as soon as there are subtitles on the screen, it breaks suture for me as an audience member. I suddenly am aware that I am a person watching a movie, and I like the audience to be as immersed as possible and not reminded that they’re watching a movie. So, in certain cases I felt like if the viewer does not speak Arabic, great. That feeling of disorientation and confusion that they may feel when things are being shouted in Arabic will help the viewers’ experience become more immersive and not less immersive.

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
You mentioned that your favorite author is Cormac McCarthy, who else kind of inspired the way you shot this film or the way you wrote it?

Jonathan: Oh wow, so many people. There were real life influences, there were journalists like Amanda Lindhout or the war photographer Lynsey Addario. These are women who were imprisoned in very similar situations in the course of their work. In terms of filmmakers that inspired me, I kept going back to Sidney Lumet and 12 Angry Men, which is an amazing one room movie that constantly builds tension. So we cribbed from Sidney Lumet quite a bit. He increased the pace throughout the course to 12 Angry Men, there’s twice as many shots in the second half of the movie as in the first half. So, we emulated that in the edit with Matt Blundell, our wonderful editor.  Sidney Lumet also started off using long lenses and then got shallower and shallower, we did that as well. So, the characters are very isolated in act one from one another, alone in their frames. Then our shots get dirtier and dirtier with more and more overlap until they become two shots and then group shots by the end of the movie as their characters were closer together.

What’s the significance of calling this film Wildcat

Jonathan: Oh man, that’s a good question. Why did I do that? Oh, it’s a question that I have not asked myself, why ‘Wildcat?’ I mean it’s so singularly her movie. I mean, I so wanted it to be entirely a performance piece for one actress, when she carries the entire movie, she is in every single scene, she’s our entire point of view. So, I think I knew that whatever I would call the movie would be her. And, yeah, I think that, you know, ‘Wildcat’ does tell her story a bit because it’s her code name, or what she would like to become her code name, but it was originally a name that was given to her to sort of bully her character. And so if her character arc is moving from victim to victor and sort of owning all the stuff of her past, taking on this nickname that was originally used to tease her or belittle her, and turning that into this empowering name, you know, her CIA code name, helps chart the growth of her character.

Why was it important for Khadija to emerge victorious from this situation to the point where she refused help and insisted that the agents call her by her title?

Jonathan: The entire story, for me, is about empowerment, becoming powerful in a powerless situation. That was what the script meant to me when I was writing it. I was feeling powerless in my own life at the time, and was reading Victor Frankel’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about his experiences surviving the concentration camps in World War Two. And even when you’re in a powerless situation, if you maintain your self respect and your belief, that you can find a way through. You really do increase your chances of survival and success. And so I wanted Khadija to really demonstrate that theme. There are lines throughout the script about, you know, if you’re lying down, they can take you when you’re lying down, so you’ve got to stand up, always stand up. And so having Khadija stand up on her own two feet at the end, I knew that that was going to be the closing image that I really wanted to work toward. The very first opening image is of Khadija sinking to the floor, so I knew that the very last image of Khadija needed to be her rising to her feet.

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
What was it like working with the cast?

Jonathan: Oh what a pleasure. My opinion is that Georgina is just a towering talent. She’s just so staggeringly good at her job. She had to carry the entire movie on her shoulders. There was no 15 minute break if you’re Georgina in this movie, she’s in every single scene, playing every emotion to the nth degree. It must have been exhausting for her. She just fearlessly did take after take where she is exploring the wretched depths of human emotions. All of our actors really had to go to some scary places because the trauma is quite heavy. So, I just couldn’t be more thrilled with it. They were all such a pleasure to work with and all so talented, not just for Georgina, but the work that Mido Hamada and Luke Benward and Ibrahim Renno and all of our actors, even the actors that have a single sentence. I was so thrilled with their performances throughout.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Jonathan: You know, my mother hasn’t seen this movie yet and what I would tell my mother is that the first two minutes of the movie are violent. But stick with it, because this isn’t just some action movie, this isn’t just torture porn at all. I really hope that it is a great actor piece and I really can’t wait for the audiences to see the wonderful work that the actors did. And the wonderful work that our DP Adam Lee and our editor Matt Blundell and our composer Nick Jacobson Larson did. Everyone just did such terrific work and I hope that audiences see it and appreciate all the talent that this team put into this movie.

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
Wildcat hits theaters today and will be available On Demand and Digital April 27.