Ramsay went from speech-writing for D.C. glitterati to writing screenplays with his brother in L.A.
I caught up with screenwriter Alston Ramsay to talk film, techniques of great screenwriting (and indeed, all writing), film-making, the art of the thriller and balancing of tension, and his debut feature, directed by his brother Julius Ramsay (Scream: The TV Series, The Walking Dead) and executive produced by his other brother Burke H. Ramsay, the taut thriller Midnighters, on-demand now…
Alston has quite an extraordinary background. He was a speechwriter in Washington, D.C., prior to moving to Los Angeles to pursue filmmaking. He has written for and been a senior advisor to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
In those roles, he traveled to at least three dozen countries and finished it off with a year in Kabul, Afghanistan. Following that, he earned an M.B.A. from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and worked in management consulting and as a marketing executive at a start-up. When he’s not busy looking for new script ideas to write and produce, he’s taking landscape photos in the dead of night, perfecting his award-winning chili recipe, and obsessively hitting refresh on online UNC basketball forums.
Midnighters as his break-out film is a taut and effective exercise in tension – something that reminded of Hitchcock, had he done a picture with bloodshot in all the wonders of Technicolor – versus the chocolate sauce he infamously used against the moonlight in Psycho.
Of course, this is not what makes a great, effective thriller – that lies in how the tension is balanced on a razor’s edge, which the best filmmakers and writers walk like an accomplished performer on a wire a few hundred feet in the air – something the Ramsay’s artfully did with this film along with a cast that brought plenty of depth to the characters as their nerves are shredded along with ours as an audience.
In Midnighters, a New Year's night becomes a long day’s journey into dread for one seriously unlucky couple. On their way home from ringing in midnight on December 31, Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) accidentally run down a man in the middle of the road. Things look bad when they panic and stash the body in the backseat. Things look worse when they discover that the stranger they hit had sinister intentions involving the couple and their family. And things go off the rails when a certain psychotic “Detective Smith” (Ward Horton) comes calling …
I heartily give Midnighters my full recommendation if you are a fan of the thriller, and very much look forward to seeing more from Alston and his brothers. Catch it on VOD and On-Demand now.
Hey Wess! How’s it going?
Wonderful, how about you?
I’m doing pretty well. I have a question: I was googling your name and it kicked back that you’re a photographer as well. Are you the right person or is there a different “Wess” out there?
I am a photographer.
I do this as well. [Laughs]
I’m an enthusiast myself – hadn’t done any in a while, but you know… I upgraded to a large sensor camera last year, so … yeah, a year and a half ago. I think I’m like 8 months behind on editing photos from random trips… [Laughs]
At some point in time, I need to carve out like 2 days just to sit in Lightroom and tweak things…
Absolutely. Finding that time can be a struggle – I should know…
Getting into the meat of the questions…
Absolutely, I’m ready…
I’d like to start if I may be by touching a bit on your history. You’ve been a speechwriter for some very important people. What prompted you to make that switch to film? And how does that experience inform your work now?
Sure, sure. I grew up with an older brother who loved movies – particularly horror movies – that’d be Julius, the director…
I have a third brother as well who was an executive producer on the film – I was really exposed to a number of movies that I maybe should not have been exposed to as a young teen and what not. [Laughs]
That really fostered in me a love of film, a love of art, and as I got older and went through school, I really gravitated toward writing. I was in journalism for… I ran one of the college papers and then did a stint as a magazine editor in New York – I got to work for William F. Buckley…
I don’t know if you’re of the age to be familiar with Buckley…
Yep, I’m pretty familiar with his writing, his prose… great looks at history.
Yeah, not a lot of people are… That’s amazing, that’s like on top of all the Cabinet Secretaries and government officials, that’s another one where yeah, I got to like edit a book of his and hang out with him at his house – it was just an extraordinary experience.
When I was in D.C., screenwriting – I guess you’d call it a hobby. Like with most hobbies, you just get into it, like I read books on screenwriting and I would download screenplays and read screenplays. I remember sitting there with a couple of movies I knew really well and I would have the screenplay in front of me while the moving was going, to sort of ask: what is a screenplay? What’s going on at its heart?
So, after Washington, after Afghanistan, I was in business school and then finished business school, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to go into the startup world there in North Carolina – or, this sort of itch I had in the back of my head, that said, “you should try to screen write and see how that is.”
I just kind of felt if I didn’t try screenwriting – I was at a juncture in my life, where, if I didn’t try it then, I was going to regret it the rest of my life, to where I would’ve kept asking myself, “could I have made it as a screenwriter?”
So, that was really it. I threw my stuff in the trunk of my car – or what little could fit – and I drove across the country and I had the advantage of having a brother here who’s in the business. Before I came out here, we had talked about working on a movie together because he was TV directing but wanted to do a feature.
So we came up with a sort of loose idea that I had been working on and outlining. I got here, I want to say it was like the first two weeks I was here, was when I wrote the first draft of the script. I had also written one other script when I was back in North Carolina to sort of determining whether the idea and the reality of writing a screenplay would match up – as well as, I had the question of, “am I any good at this?” because I had been writing many speeches and a bunch of journalism but a screenplay is a very different beast.
Never know unless you try.
I think that’s got to your second question of how did speech writing play into it? You know, a lot of people have said, “speech writing and screenwriting, those are such different things! They’re so dramatically different!”
When I got into it, I realized there’s a tremendous amount of overlap.
The biggest one is when it comes to dialogue. For 4 or 5 years, all that I had done was written things that were meant to be spoken and sat in a room and listened to the way someone spoke and listened to the rhythms of the spoken language, and written in someone else’s voices – because that is what you have to do as a speechwriter – and the rhythms and the cadence, and everything like that, I think I was surprised by how easily it came to me that I felt I could write dialogue that would sound as good as spoken as well as I thought I could give people…
…more different styles of talking the way that in real life everyone speaks differently. They construct sentences differently when they speak – some people talk fast, some people talk slow…
That was the biggest thing. I would say the other factor – this is one of those that when people say “what is the key to good speech writing?”, I give an answer one my mentors gave me who was the chief speechwriter for the Reagan Administration. He said, in a word, “research.”
You know, your research, and the best example for speech writing is let’s say you have a place in the speech where you need a good quote about some topic, you find 10 or 15 good quotes, and you use the best of those. You’re only using a fraction of the research material you find.
I think it’s the same thing with screenplays. I think the screenwriting guru Robert McKee would say the same thing – you’re researching all these ideas, and you’re throwing out like 9 out of 10 of them, and ideally, you’re left with the best.
The numbers being on your side. I can relate to that sales approach.
Some of that’s book research – I have some scripts that is more book research – there’s also a different kind of research where you’re sitting there, really thinking about humanity and people’s motivations.
Almost objective versus speculative.
With Midnighters, at some point in the exercise of writing the script, my brother and I had like these 5, 7 pages single-spaced about each of the characters that never – you don’t really see this in the screenplay at all, it’s all sort of beneath the surface.
Jeff, the husband, who’s sort of… I don’t know how you would describe him [Laughs]
…he’s just kind of the failed athlete who’s… he never amounts to his own dreams of what he could be. At some point, we literally had his daily schedule – he’s supposed to be at home working on this project to renovate this house, but he’s kind of dicking around. He’s like playing video games and watching things on his computer that his wife wouldn’t be happy that he’s watching.
He’s watching while she’s at work to pay the bills, but we literally had his schedule – what he does every minute of every day to occupy the 9 or 10 hours that his wife is gone.
It’s not the same book research we’d do with speeches but it’s on a level of research.
Absolutely fascinating window into your process there, Alston. I think Hitchcock would’ve been proud of Midnighters. The tension is well-balanced through much of the film – keeping the audience off-balance. What is the trick to that when writing? To walking that razor effectively?
Let’s see: that’s a good question. I’d have to say a lot of that is in the directing and editing.
A screenplay is a skeleton. It’s really a framework for the movie – it has the structure, yes it has the dialogue but even some of that changes on set. It’s a blueprint and all the other artistry goes on top of that – the look and feel of the movie, the production design, which is going to feed into the feelings of paranoia and tension to the performances themselves to the music and the edit which is all ultimately the work of the director. They’re driving that whole thing.
The tension specifically in this film, was a dark script, to begin with, and we kept it pretty tight in terms of… 105 or 110 pages, and then we were pretty merciless in the editing room. Julius is an Emmy-nominated editor – that’s his background.
You know it was just… we kept cutting stuff. We wanted to get it down to about 90 minutes because that’s where… if you get longer than that, you might lose some of the tension, if you don’t have good material.
A natural movie length.
So, we had to drop some things we liked. You know, there’s the old thing in writing “kill your darlings…”
...we had to do that. We had one scene about two-thirds through the film where this other couple who are a sort of funhouse mirror version of Jeff and Lindsey, come to the door because they had been invited to watch the New Year’s Day football game.
So, in the middle of this madness going on, this couple comes into their house and they’re trying to get them out of their house. It’s very… the actors are great, it’s really funny because Jeff’s watching football and Lindsey’s thinking “you need to leave,” and the other couple is thinking it’s like marital strife and all of this.
[SPOILER] The problem was, we watched it in the context of the rest of the film, and it’s kind of like… it came right at the moment – you’ve seen the film, we don’t want to give it away – where Lindsey realizes Smith and Hannah are an item. Right then, it’s in this critical part of the tension.
The idea of that scene was that we thought the movie would be too tense there and that it needed almost comic relief – not like slapstick comedy, but just a breath of some sort.
Except at that point, the film had become its own thing and if you tried to put that in, you’d be fighting against it. I think that was the same thing on set was that a movie takes on a life of its own. The actors, they’re performing a certain way – and you roll with that. If you try to fight what’s happening, I think you’re making a mistake.
We rewrote while we were shooting – a lot of the dialogue and we sort of rewrote the characters to take advantage of how the actors were performing them and their take on them.
I think that helped just to, in terms of finding the real DNA of the film. It is tense. It is dark. The script was I think thinner in some ways – the characters didn’t have as much depth and the actors brought that to the table, and we said “this is great. Let’s roll with it and add more to them.”
I like the emphasis you guys had on keeping much of that organic. Certainly added dimensions to the final film. What makes a great film? Or a great story?
Let’s see… that’s a big question because there are really so many. Do you mean just a story or like a film/television story?
I was thinking of film/television.
I think the easy part of that, for it to be really good and compelling, there’s all the technical and artistic things that sort of are aside from the story at its heart like there will be movies out there that will be wonderful but the story at its heart might not be super compelling. You know you have the performances, the cinematography, and scoring that is so great that it overwhelms that. Conversely, you can have an amazing story in the hands of a director who doesn’t take advantage of that and ends up falling on his face.
It’s hard to say because they come in so many forms and that’s where I would come around and I’d say I think it has to do with a creative team that has a real vision and real passion for what they’re doing. I just feel that when everyone is passionate about the material – you have to have everyone sort of in on it – that’s when can people can make something magical out of almost any story and that feeds into it.
I don’t know if that’s a particularly insightful answer…
It is. It’s something I ask…
It’s like I’m thinking of something that makes a great story – that has an emotional impact on me – when I really think about that, it’s like it’s an orchestra. There are so many different instruments that get played.
So, where there’s a piece of music with an amazing soloist, that might bring tears to your eyes, you say “well, that was great”, and then you might have the rare occasion that’s like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony where every piece is working in concert with each other, and it’s just an incredible experience.
Certainly. That’s a question I like to ask most everybody I talk to…
[Laughs] Uh-huh. Well, hopefully, I didn’t give the worst answer…
[Laughs] No, not at all. What’s a big part of that question is the variety of responses that it elicits.
Sure, sure. No, it’s a good one.