Nine months after its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, IFC Midnight has unleashed the Ramsay brothers’ thriller MIDNIGHTERS upon the world, where it has been well-received by genre fans and critics alike. I mean, how many genre movies rate 92 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes?
Set on New Year’s Eve, the film follows a couple whose strained marriage is put to the ultimate test after they cover up a terrible crime and find themselves entangled in a Hitchcockian web of deceit and madness. The Hollywood Reporter called Midnighters “efficiently tense” and said it “represents an excellent Hollywood calling card for its sibling creators.” Variety called the film “brisk and eventful,” and said that the director “evinces a good feel for claustrophobic suspense punctuated by bursts of visceral violence.”
That director would be big brother Julius, whose youngest brother, Alston, wrote the script and produced the film with him, leaving middle brother Burke to serve as executive producer. The siblings hail from North Carolina, and went on to very different careers before harnessing their collective talents and collaborating on Midnighters together. Burke runs a textile factory, having worked in private equity after attending both Harvard and Princeton. Alston spent a year in Afghanistan and has worked as a speechwriter. It was Julius who lured them to Hollywood, where he served as an editor for hit TV shows like Alias and Battlestar Galactica before becoming a TV director, with credits ranging from The Walking Dead to Scream.
The Tracking Board spoke to Julius (aka Jute) and Alston Ramsay several months ago, and came away impressed by the story these guys had to tell. I hope you enjoy our chat.
So I’m sitting there last night, deciding whether or not to interview you guys, quite frankly, and up comes the nail-on-nail scene. I said to myself, “well now I have to interview those guys.” It’s as visceral and disturbing as the hobbling scene in Misery. What gives?
Jute: I’ll let Alston field that one, since it comes from his demented mind.
Alston: I hate to think what was actually going through my mind on the day I got to that scene. I remember thinking that I wanted it to be something different and novel, yet subtle and exquisitely painful. Something that would be within the character of Lindsey (Alex Essoe), and something that she might actually think up. Smith (Ward Horton) is kind of unbreakable. He’s sort of a machine. So what could you do to him that would really throw him off? Something exquisite, but not over the top. Something unexpected, and out of the blue. If I was taped to that chair, what’s something awful that someone could do to me? That comes through in the acting and the directing. It’s definitely a turning point for all three characters that adds a whole new layer to the scene.
I was wondering if you learned that move in Afghanistan?
Alston: Fortunately, no. I was mostly just a Power Point jockey in a windowless office doing computer-related things.
What’s your working dynamic like as brothers, because I come from a family of three boys, and I can’t imagine us getting anything done, let alone making a feature film? Julius, are you hounding Alston for pages? Alston, are you arguing for different shots?
Jute: It’s always a learning experience. I think the best thing about working with a sibling is, you always know that somebody’s got your back and you have total trust in that person. That’s certainly not always the case in Hollywood, or the film business. It can be a bit of a shark’s nest out there. You can have arguments and differences, but there’s an underlying sense of trust that makes working with a sibling a lot more comfortable than other people, in a purely professional context. The dynamics from when Alston was five or six and I was 10 play out, and you don’t have the same filter when speaking to a sibling. I’m sure we’re both guilty of saying things to each other that we’d never say to a cast member or someone else working on the crew, so it’s a double-edged sword, but it’s a very powerful bond. You see brothers working together in film a lot, but it’s always two brothers, not three.
Alston: From my perspective, I’d add that tempers can flare more than they would otherwise, because in reality, you’re arguing over a toy from when you were five years old. But the way it played out on set, as in the number of times we had a substantial creative disagreement, was nil. When there were business decisions that had to be made, yes, but on set there was a good understanding of where our strengths lie. We were on the same page creatively. I kind of served as the script supervisor, where Jute would ask my opinion on something and I’d give him something. I trust him to direct, because he knows hell of a lot more about it than I do, but generally speaking, we were on the same page.
I know your parents are divorced, and there’s some marital tension between the lead couple in the film. How much did your real life upbringing influence this story.
Jute: I don’t think my parents ever killed anybody, to the best of my knowledge, but they certainly struggled as a couple — as many couples do — and they decided to part ways for everyone’s benefit. You go through an experience like that and you learn from it, and then they made up and were stronger than they ever were before. These characters never get a chance to mend those broken fences. We wanted to put them in a very real-world situation, with a wife who’s the breadwinner and a husband who isn’t making any money. It’s a reversal of the patriarchal American relationship, and it’s far more common today than it ever was before. It’s true that for Jeff (Dylan McTee), it’s an emasculating experience. Even though he’s the beneficiary of her economic success, he’s resentful of that and has a bitterness in his heart, so as it erodes, what happens happens. He’s just at a low point in his life, staring into an abyss, and he thinks he can’t fall any further, so that’s sort of the mindset that leads him to make a terrible decision.
Alston: We also had a relative going through a divorce when this was being drafted, and I think it helped provide psychological insight into building a character. When you see divorce up close and personal, you start to get a better sense of what this could look like. It was important to us to make a film in this genre that understands the depth and psychology of relationships, and the fault lines that can be exposed when disaster strikes and everything goes to hell.
In the notes I was sent, you guys really went out of your way to credit Alex Essoe with helping you develop her character Lindsey. Can you elaborate on that?
Jute: Alex and the cast got to Rhode Island a few days before shooting and spent a lot of time bonding In terms of how Alex developed the character, she’s such an intuitive actress that she understands things in a way that helped her build the character from the inside out. She has a certain strength to her, and she’s great about taking notes. She’s comfortable coming into every take with a distinct point of view, so we just let Alex do her thing, and if we had to make an adjustment, we’d talk to her. She can take notes like a champ. She took the character Alston had written and she made it her own. That’s the hallmark of a truly exceptional actress.
Alston: All of the actors brought empathy to their characters, which made the relationships deeper than they originally were on the page. It was more heartfelt, which ultimately made for a better film. Also, while we shot the vast majority of this in chronological order, we did go back and make the characters a little bit warmer.
Why did you decide to set the film on New Year’s Eve?
Alston: I’d never really heard of a horror film that was set on New Year’s Eve. That’s always a time of internal questioning. A time to be reflective of your past, as well as your future. The holiday offers a weird mix of nostalgia and anticipation of the future. New Year’s Eve is that moment in time where we all inhale collectively and hold our breath for a few hours, and then exhale and get on with our lives. I thought it would be all the more impactful to set a suspense thriller during that time frame, from midnight on New Year’s Eve to midnight on New Year’s Day.
Can you explain the title?
Alston: We had cycled through so many different working title, and nothing felt quite like Midnighters. It’s a little different and mysterious, and it kind of cuts glass a little bit. We liked the general darkness of it, because there’s something about the term that encapsulates elements of the film.
Jute: It plays off the phrase “dark night of the soul.” These characters are facing this critical point in their lives. Some will pass the test, and some will fail, literally and metaphorically, along the way.
Julius, you directed the short film Pivot before breaking into TV. Was that experience helpful for you, or do you feel like making a short isn’t opening as many doors these days, and that it offers no return on investment?
Jute: It was incredibly important for me as a filmmaker. It wasn’t nearly as big of an investment as a feature film. It won’t land you the keys to the kingdom but it does open doors. It’ll just only get you so far. That’s why you’ve gotta do it for yourself. Don’t do it expecting it’s going to get you something in terms of your career. If you want to make a feature film, you need to do everything you can to artistically prepare for that, and if making a short is one of those things, then you should absolutely do it. We’re realistic about the fact that this film won’t receive wide theatrical distribution, but I [think it’ll]screen in a number of cities and arthouse venues.
What are some of your genre inspirations?
Alston: One of the big inspirations for both of us on this film was Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Perla [Haney-Jardine] was actually in Boyle’s Steve Jobs movie, which is funny. But yeah, Jute and I are big fans of Shallow Grave. We watch it every couple of years. And the movie Blue Ruin was also inspirational, because I think our movie shares a lot of the same DNA in terms of the look and the feel and the characters and the originality.
Last question, and it’s an important one: Alston, what’s the secret to your award-winning chili recipe?
To find out where you can watch Midnighters, click here.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief