We chat with Julius and Alston Ramsay about achieving the gothic noir aesthetic of their New Year’s horror thriller, Midnighters.
If your relationship is on the rocks, do not attempt a criminal cover-up together. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and couples who thought they could make it work while burying corpses in the backwoods. That’s how that saying goes, right?
Having made his bones cutting and directing episodes of The Walking Dead, Julius Ramsay wanted to venture into the morally murky world of the Hitchcockian thriller for his directorial debut. His brother Alston pushed pause on his career as a political speechwriter and flew across the country to realize his dreams of noir treachery. Together they’d find the money and the means to unleash Midnighters into the genre landscape.
A New Year’s party quickly descends into a nightmarish morality play after a couple collides their car into a stumbling passerby. What are spouses with tremendous debt and marital anxiety to do? One part Hitchcock, two parts Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Midnighters delights in torturing the wedded bliss with one snowballing horror after the other.
I chatted with the brothers over the phone to discuss the curious dynamics of sibling creators, as well as the inspirations behind their gothic noir esthetic. We dig deep into the process of capturing the tone, assembling your crew, and how Alston’s time as an advisor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates prepared him for shooting a movie.
Here is our conversation in full:
What is it about New Year’s that makes it the perfect setting for a criminal, moral play?
Julius: I think that New Year’s is the perfect setting for a morality play set against a noir thriller because it’s the time of year when people have an opportunity to reinvent themselves and at the same time discover, perhaps, who they really are. And I think that is a great theme in a noir thriller because I think that every great character is either reinventing themselves or discovering their true selves. So that’s kind of how we stumbled upon New Year’s.
And I love how early on you can still see that Christmas tree propped up in the corner of the house and how you use it to light the whole scene.
Julius: Oh, thank you.
Was there a particular cinematic inspiration behind how you lit the film?
Julius: In terms of the lighting, we really wanted to play with the colors, and play with the color palette, and have it have this very accentuated style. We wanted it to feel a little … it’s a little bit like a gothic fairy tale, as I like to say. And I think it’s heightened circumstances, but we wanted the visuals as well to feel tightened and elevated, and we used lenses that are called the Hawk Vintage 74 lenses, and they emulate the look of the old Panavision lenses from the 1970s, and they help bring out those colors in a very specific way. I think that, with the director of photography [Alexander Alexandrov], and our gaffer [Nghia Khuu], who were both incredible, it all kind of works … the lenses, and the camera, and the lighting, it all kind of worked- and the colors all worked together to create that style and that feeling.
Yeah, I appreciated the texture of the shadows and the general darkness of the film. I thought it was incredibly effective, played into the noir/gothic aesthetic.
Julius: Thank you very much.
Could you expand a little bit on the gothic fairy tale label that you like to label Midnighters as?
Julius: Sure. It’s two people, two characters wandering in the woods, and they’re … if you look at a Hans Christian Andersen or a Grimm fairy tale, it’s two characters, quite literally wandering in the woods on their way home, and they are faced with a morality, a dilemma of morality, and that’s what our characters are faced with. And once they make the choice, and in this case, they make the wrong choice. And frankly, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they made the right choice from the very beginning. They make that wrong choice, and that kind of sends them off on an adventure. And in this case, the environment of the adventure is their own house, but the stakes of it are certainly not the normal world that they are from. And then, quite literally, half way through the film, the Big Bad Wolf shows up and turns everything on its head, when the detective shows up. Those are kind of the elements I like to think about when I describe Midnighters as a gothic fairy tale.
And you know, that house – Are you shooting on location? Is that an actual house?
Julius: Yes. Everything was done on location. We found a large house in Rhode Island that worked really, really well and because it was so big, it doubled as both a set, and we could have changing rooms for the cast, and a place for the crew to have meals, and things like that. So it kind of worked- and a production office, it allowed us all to be under one roof, whereas if you’d had a smaller house, you wouldn’t have had room for all the support stuff that you really need, and when you’re in New England in the middle of winter, it gets pretty cold standing outside changing clothes.
Alston: We found the house and realized it was such a gem aesthetically, first of all, just because of the wallpaper and just these … sort of this vibe from the ’50s and 60’s and it’s just all there. And we realized it was such a great place; we actually had to adjust the story some to take accounts for why they were in this kind of house when they’re sort of squarely a middle to a lower-class working couple. The original script didn’t have any of the construction going on in the office, which adds a whole ‘nother layer. There’s also some element of disrepair about these people as well as where they are on their vibes in their relationship.
Alston, could you talk about what your initial idea was that launched the screenplay?
Alston: Yes, yes, yes. So, I was in the process of moving to L.A., and I had come out here to visit Julius ’cause he’s lived up here for a long time. We wanted to come up with a script that could be done, that was a contained drama, which is Julius’s wheelhouse, and then what could be done with a limited budget so that it was actually feasibly and practical to go make. And so with those sort of boundaries in place, we were brainstorming ideas.
Of the things that I brought up was this weird news article I had read several years before about a truly horrific, real story of a woman driving home one night, a nurse, hit a homeless guy, and he went halfway through the windshield, was still alive, she drove home and he begged for help over the course of 24, 48 hours, and bled to death because she and her boyfriend did not help him. I mentioned this article, this story, and it was four or five years previous at that point, and strangely enough, Julius had read it too, and it had stuck in his mind. So that was very much just the jumping off point. I mean, obviously the story is dramatically different, but it was just that initial seed of an idea that led to the rest. So then we started crafting, okay how many characters should we have, how do we design this and structure it in a way that it’s a good thriller but is self-contained and takes place mostly in this one location.
The idea of the writer/director sibling dynamic is fascinating to me. Maybe because I am an only child myself. What is that process like between the two of you? How did your family relationship affect your creative relationship? How does your creative relationship affect your family relationship?
Julius: It’s a changing dynamic. It’s a lot of … it’s work. I think like any relationship, it’s work. But I’m not sure, how it affects the dynamic. I mean it’s one of those things where it’s got a lot of positives, I think, I dunno. Maybe Alston can answer that question a little better than me.
Alston: The positives far outweigh the negatives. I think, on one hand, you can get into arguments that are kind of nonsensical, and you realize that at some point. Where you’re not arguing over whatever it is you think you are, it’s probably more something that happened to us when we were like five, that we’re still having some sort of discussion about a Snoopy toy or something like that. And you realize that and it’s almost laughable. So that’s the downside, sometimes you get in arguments where there’s no reason we should be arguing. The positive side, that so far outweighs and dwarfs that, is that it’s a tough business where it is difficult to find business partners that you can rely on, that you can trust, and the thing about working with a sibling is you know that at the end of the day, they always have your best interests in mind, and this is someone that is never gonna push you in front of a bus or anything like that for their own advancement, because that’s just the nature of it. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say all siblings, but certainly with us, there’s sort of a fundamental level of trust that transcends any day-to-day arguments that you might have.
The other thing I’d say is that from a creative standpoint, we had very few disagreements in general. On all the major things whether it was casting or the location or who hires the crew, there just was no real debate. I think part of that is because we have a shared upbringing with film and 99 out of 100 times, we’re going to have the same taste on movies or television.
Alston, I just finished reading your “Four Lessons You Learned as a Speech-Writer for Secretary Gates,” and the one lesson that really…
Alston: What? That was just released a couple of hours ago.
That’s right. I literally just finished it before we got on the phone. The lesson that struck me was: Stay calm and listen to the experts, in which you relate this perilous barbecue in Azerbaijan to the opening car stunt of Midnighters. This doesn’t get talked about that often, but you just mentioned how the two of you determine who brings who on board your crew. So, how do you go about assembling a team of experts?
Alston: You mean, for film? Or just…
Yes, for film. For Midnighters.
Alston: I think it’s the process of hiring anyone, really, where there are these two things you have to look at: First, you have to look at credits as a proxy for someone, or not necessarily credits, but in the case of, like the Director of Photography, you’re looking at their dimmer reels, right? ‘Cause you’re trying to figure out what’s someone’s style and aesthetic and what not. So there’s a certain talent, and the same thing with the actors as well. You’re looking at their audition reels; you’re looking at other things that they’ve done. And then there’s this secondary part, which is sitting down and meeting with them, and talking to them, and then getting into the details and into the weeds, and that’s a different vetting process because it’s part of the … Well is this someone that you’re going to trust on set with something.
As an example, and Julius could probably talk more about this, but we met the stunt director [Paul Marini], he came highly recommended from some independent filmmakers in Rhode Island who’ve worked with him, and we sat down, and you can tell he had read the script, he had a lot of ideas, he’s worked on very big movies and is very highly regarded, and you could tell with him, when he’s talking about safety and how it’s done, he knows it at such a level that this is someone who is very trustworthy and dependable. And you meet with some people where you don’t get that vibe, they only speak in generalities, they don’t necessarily get way down into the level of detail that you kind of want to hear from someone who obviously knows their craft inside and out. And I feel like Julius has been around sets a lot more, so he might have more insight on that, too.
Julius: I mean it’s just important to have people that you really respect, and you can work with. You pick the best person for the job, no matter what their background or their experience level is. Who you think is the most talented and is gonna bring fresh and original look, and tone, and feel to your project. And I think it’s the most critical piece of the whole puzzle.
Midnighters operates in the same quagmire world as several Hitchcockian thrillers. How much do you compare or absorb of other films when you’re creating your screenplay, or in the production?
Julius: Yeah, I think is very important to have a relationship with other films, in particular among filmmakers and I really consider everybody on our crew to be a filmmaker. You all speak in terms of other films, that’s part of the language and the vernacular. That said, you want your film to be original, and you want it to be a unique film, you don’t wanna copy other filmmakers, but we all do steal and utilize techniques, and shots, and set-ups, and tricks, and whatnot from the films that we’ve watched our entire lives. In particular, the film, Shallow Grave. That was an inspiration for this movie.
Alston: Yeah, I was thinking that as well.
Julius: From a writing standpoint.
Alston: You’re absolutely right. I was watching the Hitchcock films and really trying to understand the structure of them, and I think that was very useful and influential.
Midnighters is currently in select theaters and available On Demand and Digital HD.