“My dad said guys are either wolves or wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine) tells her date at the end of the evening in Julius Ramsay’s “Midnighters.” It’s the wee hours of New Year’s Day, just after the ball has already dropped, and she’s not about to let her gentleman caller into the house. Yet if she had any idea what was going on inside, she wouldn’t want to go inside either, unaware that her sister Lindsay (Alex Essoe) and brother-in-law Jeff (Dylan McTee) are scrambling to figure out what to do about a man they hit on the road on their way back home, currently laid up in their garage. For most thrillers, this dilemma might represent the dramatic high point, but Ramsay is just getting started with throwing curveballs at the the trio as the decision on how to cover up for the crime exposes already existing fissures in the relationships between the three and suggesting that Hannah and Lindsay’s father might’ve been onto something in thinking we’re all animals under a veneer of civility.
In many ways, “Midnighters” could be described the same way in just how wild it is under the surface. Not entirely accurate to describe as a horror film, the film still manages to be every bit as lacerating as Lindsay, Jeff and Hannah make decisions out of fear rather than practical considerations, devolving into their worst selves once they enter panic mode. Beginning at a genteel New Year’s eve party in town straight out of the 1950s, “Midnighters” would seem to hint at the noir throwback it could’ve easily been before taking everything the audience knows about the way these mysteries unfold in the years since and upends them with postmodern twists, likely owing a great deal of its surprise to the fact that Ramsay and his brother Alston, who wrote the film, gave themselves the creative autonomy to play by their own rules after setting up a small-scale production in East Greenwich, Rhode Island and going nuts.
The result of an unusual combination of a skilled hand behind the camera with Julius, a veteran editor/director regularly hired for such shows as “Scream” and “The Walking Dead,” and Alston, who migrated to the film business after serving in the U.S. government as a speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Midnighters” is entirely unpredictable while being driven by a clear sense of purpose and now arrives in theaters following its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer. On the eve of its release, Julius took time out of a rigorous schedule to talk about how the film came together, finding its spooky central location and making the transition from working in television to making a feature film.
How did this come about?
My brother had moved out to Los Angeles to work in screenwriting and we decided that we wanted to do a low-budget thriller, something in the genre without any supernatural aspects or gimmicks, if you will, like no magical ouija boards. My brother had read a news article that had something very, very loosely related to this and from there, we broke a story and my brother went and wrote the screenplay.
We wanted it to be a human drama [because] I think you always learn a lot more about people when they’re under pressure than when they’re coasting, so from the beginning, it was [also] about a couple’s unhappy marriage and what happens when a strained relationship is put under the microscope [as well as] other relationships which are in some way reflections of the same central relationship. We noodled that for a while and eventually, we were able to raise the money to go and make this movie.
Your other brother Burke is a producer on the film and it sounds like you guys were self-sufficient. How did the decision come about to set this up independently on your own?
We had partners. There were a couple different Hollywood entities that we had partnered with at various points and it just was not moving forward. It’s a really tricky time to make independent films in general, so we just decided, “You know what? If we’re going to get this done, and we have a real shot at ever getting this made, we’ve got to just do it ourselves.” And that’s pretty much what we did. We were able to assemble the money through a variety of various private investors and built up this coalition and then when it came time, we had a great crew that helped us, but certainly we were the ones making all the decisions with regard to the production of the film.
Was this a real house you shot in?
It’s all real. We looked at about 200 different places online and physically, I probably looked at 20 or 30 different houses. This house was much bigger than the one we had originally anticipated for the film, but when we saw it, it was just so visual and so striking and because it was so big, we were able to combine and use some of the parts of the house that weren’t used in the film, we could use those for production aspects like offices and crew catering. Given that we were shooting in Rhode Island in the winter, we really needed the room to stage all of that stuff.
There are scenes in the garage where you can see the actors’ breath hanging in the air, was it actually as cold as it looked on screen?
Yeah, it was freezing. It was like 10 degrees, really cold.
There’s also a great scene that’s lit with a Christmas tree in the distance inside the house that’s all the more remarkable if you didn’t have the greater wherewithal of a set – was something you could do because of how expansive the house was?
Very much so. That was a shot I had planned to make for a very long time and we had the production designer kind of dirty up the house just to make it look like it was under construction and play into the storyline about the house being underwater and then they’re renovating it. That was added after finding that particular location and [seeing] what it all looked like. Once we got in there, I knew what the various angles could be and how cinematic that house could look, so I really pushed to try and exploit that and use it as much as possible.
You make great use of a wide frame of this and the blues at the beginning are a great fusion of the dark with some vibrancy to it. Did you have strong ideas about how this would look from the start?
Yeah, I knew all along that I wanted an anamorphic, widescreen format and working with our director of photography Alexander Alexandrov, a great young Russian guy, we brainstormed a lot of ideas and I had a pretty extensive look book looks that we followed. I think we really succeeded in delivering the look that I was going for from the beginning.
Is it true you shot in chronological sequence?
Yeah, because if we had not shot it chronologically, we would’ve basically shot the whole second half of the film first and given the nature of the film, I felt like it was better to have the option to change stuff as we went along, just in case things came up. There weren’t major things that changed over time, but we definitely shaded things and I think it allowed the actors to chart where they were psychologically and emotionally as they go through this film, which in the timeline of the film is just 24 hours.
You have a wealth of experience, coming from television, but was working on a feature any different for you?
It was definitely very different because when you work on TV, you’re landing on a train that’s already moving. The whole crew is built, the cast is more or less built and you come in and you’re the captain for a couple weeks whereas on a feature film, you’re really not only building the train, but you’re building the train tracks. We were involved in every aspect of hiring every single person right down to catering. Every element of it was more or less incumbent upon us as to how to get it there, so it was a lot more responsibility, but on the flip side, you have a lot more creative control. When you’re working on a television show, you’re partners with the head writer of the show, the studio, the network and all those people. On this, it was really no one above my brother and me.
What’s it like getting to the finish line and showing it to people?
It’s great. It’s just we’re tired [because] it’s been a long run. We’re going to the Sedona International Film Festival next week and then coming back [to Los Angeles] Friday night, doing a Q & A at our first screening in Hollywood and we’re excited to finally get it out into the world and show people what we’ve been working on all this time.