Julius Ramsay has spent the last two decades keeping busy on TV. First as an editor on series like Alias, Battlestar Galactica, and ultimately The Walking Dead, where he hung up his editor’s hat and slid into the director’s chair, helming two episodes of AMC’s hit horror series before taking his talents to episodes of MTV’s Scream and Cinemax’s Outcast. Now, dips a toe in horror once again with his feature film debut, Midnighters, a tightly-wound, elegantly shot thriller that takes a hard look at what drives human desperation and what it takes to get away with murder.
Set on the hopeful occasion of New Year’s Eve, Midnighters stars Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes) and Dylan McTee (Sweet/Vicious) as a married couple looking for a fresh start in their strained marriage. Instead, they do a murder. After accidentally hitting a man on the side of the road, the pair find themselves tangled up in a web of lies, suspicion, and desperation, going to whatever means necessary to cover up their crimes.
With Midnighters arriving in theaters this weekend, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Ramsay to talk about the journey to his first feature film, working on it with his brother — scriptwriter turned screenwriter Alston Ramsay, and how his editing background shapes him as a filmmaker. He also talked about working on Syfy’s new Superman spinoff series Krypton, which sees Ramsay at the helm of the fifth episode, his proudest accomplishment from his Emmy-nominated work on Battlestar Galactica, and the genre he wants to try next.
This is your first feature film. You started in TV as an editor before moving into directing, and ultimately a now feature. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to getting here?
RAMSAY: I was an editor on a lot of different television shows. Mainly in the genre world, science fiction and horror. I did Battlestar Galactica for a few years, Alias, a show called Flash Forward, and then The Walking Dead. I got a couple Emmy nominations. Two Emmy nominations when I was working on Battlestar Galactica, for my editing work. All along though my goal was to become a director. I directed a number of short films. One I made when I was working on Alias with a lot of the camera team and one of the actors, and got into a bunch of film festivals. Then when I was working on the Walking Dead I expressed a lot of interest in directing. Eventually I was allowed to direct a couple episodes of the Walking Dead, and then started directing some other television shows. Meanwhile we had been working on this film. That was kind of the next step for me.
Was it hard to find the financing? Or was this one of those miracle projects that came together easy?
RAMSAY: No. It was definitely hard. It’s never easy. It certainly wasn’t for us. We definitely went through a lot of different venues, and worked with some people that we thought things were going to work out and then they didn’t. Eventually we were able to built it all up through a variety of sources, and get to that point where we were able to afford to start shooting.
Editing is very much its own form of storytelling. I’m curious, how did your years of editing experience prepare you for directing your first feature film?
RAMSAY: I had also, by the time I directed the feature I’d already directed four hours of episodic television. I wasn’t coming into directing the movie with no directorial experience. The short films. I mean I would say I think one of the biggest skills I get as an editor is that, as we’re filming I can really be assembling the film inside my head as we’re going along, so I know the pieces that we’re missing. It just makes me I think a lot more efficient in terms of being able to get things, because I can pre-visualize it in my head. I know just the various ingredients that are going to be needed.
It’s like when you’re directing, you’re really going to a grocery store, buying a lot of ingredients, and then as the editor you’re assembling all those ingredients. When I’m directing I know what the things are that I’m going to need in editing to make a film.
Like you said, you directed first on television. You did Scream and you did The Walking Dead. Now you’ve made this sort of horror-tinged thriller. Is genre storytelling the kind of storytelling that has your heart?
RAMSAY: Absolutely. I’ve always loved genre storytelling. I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing that appeals to me, but it’s certainly something I’ve been interested in since I was a teenager. I’ve always kind of gravitated towards it and done a lot of work in that space. I really enjoy it. I will say I don’t always want to do things that are really dark in tone. I think there’s a lot of room in the genre world. I recently directed an episode of the upcoming series Krypton for SyFy channel, which is a prequel to Superman. That very much has a lighter tone to it. It’s not so dark, as dark as The Walking Dead or as dark as Midnighters.
How did you take to that? That’s kind of a fun sci-fi world to play in.
RAMSAY: Oh it was amazing. It was a really incredible show to work on. Just amazing cast, amazing crew. We really got to build, you’re building an entire world for the first time. Aside from brief snippets in some of the feature films, no one’s really done an in-depth exploration of the planet Krypton in a television show. Actually, not even that much in the comics. We’re really getting to create a lot of things from scratch, or elaborate and flesh out some smaller ideas that were present in the comics.
I’m excited to check it out.
RAMSAY: Yeah. It’s pretty cool. It’s really cool.
I read that you very much were pulling from the tradition of contained, tightly wound thrillers when you were coming up with Midnighters. I’m curious, for you as a filmmaker and a storyteller, what it was like tapping into that wellspring of reference and inspiration.
RAMSAY: I think when we made this, we really wanted to do something that didn’t rely on a single kind of gimmick or trope, like a magical Ouija board or something like that. We also didn’t want to do anything that was paranormal. I think we wanted to do something that was based in reality. To that end, that’s the screenplay that my brother wrote so well. Then we had written the story together, then he wrote the screenplay. Then we worked on it for a while after that before we actually got to the filmmaking process. I think it was really cool to do that, where you’re really basing it all in a real world and not jumping out of that to something that’s more supernatural.
Within those confines you set for yourself, what’s your approach to creating tension and intrigue in a scene?
RAMSAY: I think it’s really understanding what the audience’s expectation might be, and then working to either subvert that or forward it in a clever way. Or perhaps deliver what is expected but deliver it in a new way that hopefully hasn’t really been seen before. I think as you create tension there’s sort of, there’s different kinds of tension. There’s the tension of knowing something’s right around the corner. Or there’s the dread of, you’re expecting some more distant outcome that’s going to pop up in the near future. Or there’s the more traditional boo scare, like someone just jumping out, and there’s a moment of shock.
I think there’s different ways you can play with it and build it into your film or your television show. I try to use all three in my filmmaking.
With thrillers you have such a variety of options when it comes to how much of the violence you want to show. You can play it coy and do things off screen, or take it farther. I’m curious how you decided how far you wanted to go with violence in your film.
RAMSAY: I think we definitely went for it with the violence. I think we definitely had quite a bit. I don’t think any of it is gratuitous, although there is definitely one scene that’s pretty violent. But we felt like that, without giving it away, that’s certainly an important character turn for our lead character. That particular scene felt like, in that scene it was merited. I have plans that, we’re going to film it, but maybe once we get to the editing room we won’t actually show that specific bit of violence. But once we got in there we felt that it worked, and we decided to go for it and put it in the movie.
Your brother comes from this impressive career as a speechwriter. But obviously screenwriting is a different form, and probably a bit of a creative journey when you’re making your first feature. What was it like for you guys to take that together?
RAMSAY: It was really great. He had written a couple screenplays prior to this. This is really a world that he knows very well. These schools of Alfred Hitchcock canon, and lots of other thrillers and films that are out there. I think it was a really great entrée into the world of film and television. Then we also wound up producing the movie ourselves. That in itself has been, what’s now a three year odyssey to get it to the screen.
I’m such an enormous fan of Battlestar Galactica. I was wondering if you have any memories you’d be willing to share of maybe an episode that was hard to crack, or something you were really proud of that you accomplished on that series.
RAMSAY: Sure! Probably my favorite episode in terms of my editing there was the boxing episode. I think it was season three, episode, don’t quote me on this but I want to say like episode five. Maybe episode eight. But it’s the episode where they basically have these boxing matches to let off steam between all the pent up aggression between everybody on the ship. It sort of ends with Starbuck and Apollo in this boxing match. But in between we did all these flashbacks where you see some of their time on New Caprica. It kind of lets you understand why there’s all this animosity and tension between the various characters.
It was just a really, I don’t know, magical experience editing that episode. I did that with a good friend of mine, another editor named Michael O’Halloran. A brilliant editor. It was one of my best memories ever working on that, because there were so many different ways that it could be edited, because it’s very nonlinear and non-traditional in its style. It was really just an incredible experience doing that particular episode. But I mean, I have a lot of great memories of the show. It was a wonderful show to be a part of
Yeah. It’s such an amazing series. Do you have any projects in the works right now? Are you working on scripts? What’s happening for you next?
RAMSAY: I’m working on a couple different scripted projects. One television show and one feature film.
Is there a genre that you really have your eye on that you haven’t had an opportunity to tackle yet?
RAMSAY: Honestly, science fiction was the one I wanted to direct, and doing Krypton really fulfilled that. Actually, I’d like to do a period drama. Like a straight period drama, yeah, and that’s actually a television show that I’m working on. It’s in that vein.
What about the period drama appeals to?
RAMSAY: I just like exploring other times. I think it’s almost as different as going to other planets sometimes. Seeing how people thought and how they acted, and all the trappings of an era. I just really it’d be a fascinating thing to do as a filmmaker.
Midnighters is now playing in theaters, on VOD, and Digital HD. Find out where to watch here and get a peek in the exclusive clip below.