Premiering on Monday, June 19th as part of the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival lineup is director Julius Ramsay’s intense and masterfully constructed thriller, Midnighters, which was penned by Julius’ brother, Alston Ramsay. The story follows a young couple, Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee), who accidentally hit a strange man on their way home from a New Year’s Eve party, only to discover their victim was headed to their abode. As it turns out, Lindsey’s sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), who recently came to stay with her family, had been mixed up in a rather serious predicament, and Hannah’s past is about to come crashing down on the trio in some rather horrendous ways.
Daily Dead recently spoke with Ramsay about his first time at the helm of a feature, how his prior industry experiences helped prepare him to take on directing Midnighters, working with his incredible cast (which also includes Ward Horton as the dangerously enigmatic "Smith"), and much more.
To get the details on Midnighters and all of the great projects being featured at LAFF 2017, click HERE.
I noticed from your résumé that you had worked a lot in editing prior to Midnighters. I always feel like having that perspective going into the realm of directing is super helpful and beneficial. Can you discuss how those experiences helped prepare you to take on this project, which is also your feature film debut?
Julius Ramsay: I would say that editing is a really great training ground for directors. For starters, you get to learn a lot from many different directors, and you can see what works, what doesn't work. Essentially, you can study the styles of various directors. Secondly, they say a film was made three times: once in the script, once on the set, and once in the editing room. I firmly believe that's true. By the time you get to the editing room, you can really reshape a film. You conceptualize, you can reshape performances. Having a thorough understanding of everything which, in many ways is the most nebulous of the arts that is involved with filmmaking, is critical. They call editing the invisible art. It really is the only aspect of filmmaking that is wholly unique to filmmaking.
The editing of the moving picture, and the different kinds of situations that can be brought to life by juxtaposing images against other images, is wholly unique to filmmaking. I think that's a critical set of skills for a director to have, and to have a really thorough understanding. Not to mention, it's invaluable on the set because you have the opportunity to figure out ways to save yourself time, when you get into a situation when you need to save time. You've done the performance because you can edit it in your head. The ability to edit things in my head while I'm directing, in truth that was incredibly helpful.
I know you also directed a few episodes of The Walking Dead and [MTV's] Scream as well. How much did playing around in those genre-related sandboxes inspire you to tackle making a genre film yourself?
Julius Ramsay: My brother and I are fans of films like Shallow Grave by Danny Boyle and Blood Simple by the Coen brothers. We really wanted to make a film, and I think it was because I worked in various genres that had dealt a lot with the supernatural before, so we wanted to make a film that issues all of that and was more of a traditional type of thriller, but with a really fast, gory pace to it all. Given those limitations, we said, "We're going to do this as a low-budget film, and we won't be using any magical Ouija boards or anything undead." As much as I love the aspects to those elements in films, to make a good film, we wanted to do something that didn't use anything of the supernatural realm. That was really the starting point.
My brother had read an article about a woman who hit somebody and was driving home. The woman, the person she hit, was stuck in her windshield and she went to park her car, leaving the person to die for three days. That was the origin of the kernel of this story for this script. He and I spent a lot of time breaking down the story, and then he went and wrote the script. It got tweaked a couple times from that point on. It really just kind of all came together.
I enjoyed the fact that you played around with all the characters’ moral compasses a bit in this film, but at the same time, you could relate to all of them in some way, because most of us have been in that situation where times are tough and you think money is the only solution. I felt like the film was very grounded in that way, reflecting our country’s prior economic downturn and what people are willing to do in order to "get ahead in life."
Julius Ramsay: That was certainly a big part of the film. I think we've all known or have experienced economic hardship. That's really embodied by these characters in the film, especially Jeff and Lindsey. They really are a couple that would start out with a lot of promise earlier in their lives, and things just didn't quite live up to their expectations. I think that happens to a lot of people, with the world that they envision when they're younger. They get to a certain point in life, and they feel like everything's kind of slipped out of their fingers. That's very much reflected in today's political climate.
People like Jeff and Lindsey, they live these lives out of desperation. Then, when they're placed into an extraordinary situation, they react in a way that is not necessarily in line with how they might had otherwise reacted if they didn't have these other pressures in their life that were just bearing down on them day in and day out. The film is simplified by the house that they live in, which is this behemoth of a house that they have purchased in order to renovate and then sell it, which would be their ticket out. Jess is unemployed because he lost his job, so he’s taken it upon himself to renovate the house.
One of the things we liked about filming a large house that was half under renovation was that it makes the film feel just a little off-kilter, like everything's in process. There are areas that are open to the outside, so you're not in a safe, secure home. You're in this thing that's in the process of being ripped apart and rebuilt. There are tarps everywhere and power saws and saw blocks. That's very much how their life is. If they were living in a nice, normal house and they didn't have these other pressures, and they both had great jobs, and Jess didn't feel like he had been emasculated by Lindsey in terms of her job versus his job, they probably would have made very different decisions.
Before we go, I’d love to have you talk about your cast. You have Alex, Perla, Dylan, and Ward, and this film itself is so character-driven. Can you discuss bringing them together for this project, and how you may have worked with them ahead of time to dig into these characters?
Julius Ramsay: We spent a lot of time, particularly with Alex, Perla, and Dylan, because they arrived first. We filmed this in Rhode Island last year in the winter and spring. So because Alex, Perla, and Dylan arrived early, at the beginning of production, they really had time to spend together. We spent a lot of time rehearsing whenever we had spare time. Every Sunday night, we would meet up and have dinner in the house where some of us were living, and we would go through the script and rehearse scenes from the upcoming week. That was really a great way to build that bond between the three of them, so that when Ward and his character show up, he's coming into a dynamic that is already fully developed, and he feels like an outsider, because that reflects his character in the story.