With their thriller Midnighters, Julius and Alston Ramsay have brought to the screen an effective minimalist story of crime, deceit, and familial bonds in the face of great tragedy. In it, a young couple is heading home from a New Years Eve celebration when they accidentally run over a pedestrian with their car. In an effort to avoid DUI and manslaughter charges, they make an attempt to fix the scene into something less dubious, and as these things go, their well-intentioned descent into sin only makes things worse. Much, much worse. Cinedelphia caught up with Midnighters during its Philadelphia run, as well as the siblings behind this white-knuckle chiller.
Cinedelphia: Midnighters reminded me quite a bit of A Simple Plan, meaning that it’s a movie about ostensibly decent people digging themselves deeper into trouble despite having the best intentions. I’d imagine that this is a difficult thing to write without making it a frustrating experience for the audience. Alston, can you talk a little bit about how you developed this plot?
Alston Ramsay: The initial germ of an idea for the story came from a grisly, petrifying true story. What caught our attention was not the actual event – a woman who hit a man with her car – but more that a seemingly normal person could find themselves in circumstances where they make truly terrible decisions with unfathomable consequences. Call it the horror of real human behavior. It’s the kind of story that sends shivers up your spine.
With that initial beginning, we developed the plot with a few things in mind. First, we wanted to humanize the characters to the point the audience could feel sympathy for them – or at the very least understand the decisions they were making under duress. Second, we wanted to have the structure of old thrillers like the ones in the Hitchock canon – where it’s real-world but surreal as well. And third, we wanted the fast-moving and action-oriented pace of contemporary thrillers. With those in mind, we had many iterations of the script to get it to the point where we felt it achieved those objectives as effectively as possible.
Cinedelphia: What struck me most about the story is the way the characters relate to one another. I was able to sense the marital tensions between Lindsey and Jeff, as well as the strained but loving relationship between Lindsey and Hannah. How did you bring such things to life without clunky exposition? What did the performers bring to their roles that maybe wasn’t on the page?
Alston: In the initial script, the characters – and the relationships among them – were much colder, and perhaps thinner. The actors added incredible depth and warmth. Because we filmed the movie largely in sequence, we were able to rewrite the script to leverage what the actors were bringing to their roles in the latter parts of the film.
Cinedelphia: I, for one, could not imagine having the patience to collaborate on even the smallest project with my sister. What is it like to make a film with a sibling? Did this bring anything invaluable to the film?
Alston: Like any relationship, ones with a sibling require work. It will come as no surprise that it was difficult at times. But all in all, it’s such a great thing to do because you can work with someone with whom you have complete trust that they have your (and the film’s) best interest in mind.
Cinedelphia: Alston, I’ve done some research and I see that you’ve got quite the background in the political sector. Has your background writing speeches informed your screenplay in any way?
Alston: I had the incredible opportunity to work as a speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon and General David Petraeus in Afghanistan. From a purely technical standpoint, I think speechwriting prepared me in two critical ways. The first is with dialogue: as a speechwriter you focus on the spoken language and learn to write in someone else’s diction – which is the same thing you do with well-written characters and well-written dialogue. The second skill is research. Whether a screenplay or a speech, the foundation of good writing with both is in-depth research of the subject matter. That’s where you find the gems that really make something sing.
Cinedelphia: Julius, You’ve worked previously on The Walking Dead. Despite Midnighters being a non-supernatural tale, I feel like it’s stylistically adjacent. Do you think of yourself as a genre filmmaker, or is this just by chance? Do you have interest in working outside of horror/thriller material?
Julius: I don’t think of myself as a genre filmmaker, although I do love genre work and have been fortunate to work on many incredible genre projects in film and television. I wouldn’t say it’s by chance; I actively pursued the projects that I’ve worked on and they were in genre. All that said, I also love dramas and romances, and would like to do projects that explore those areas. I think the best films and television, whether they’re genre or not, incorporate many themes and I for one never want to limit myself in that regard.
Cinedelphia: Where did you draw inspiration for Midnighters (thematically, stylistically, etc)?
Alston: In terms of the script, the Hitchcock canon was the biggest inspiration – as well as Danny Boyle’s film Shallow Grave and a smaller British film called The Disappearance of Alice Creed.
Cinedelphia: I ask this of every filmmaker I speak with: You get only one movie to watch for the rest of your life. What’s your pick?
Alston: The Hunt for Red October.
Julius: Days of Heaven
Midnighters stars Alex Essoe, Perla Haney-Jardine, Dylan McTee, and Ward Horton. Written by Alston Ramsay. Directed by Julius Ramsay. Now available On Demand.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.