The cogent and complex thriller Midnighters, which recently premiered at this year’s LA Film Festival marks the more than impressive theatrical debut of director Julius Ramsay (director/editor of AMC’s “The Walking Dead, “Cinemax’s “Outcast,” “Battlestar Galactica”). Penned by his brother Alston Ramsay, the film is set on New Year’s Eve, that time of year when everyone’s hopes of new beginnings come to life, or so we like to think. But that’s far from the case for the film’s two leads, Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff Pittman (Dylan McTee) when cracks in their marriage start to explode as they scramble to cover up a terrible crime only to find themselves neck deep in a Hitchcockian web of deceit and staggering surprises.
Following the LA premiere, SCREAM caught up with the film’s leading lady, Alex Essoe as she explained how the classic thriller aspects of the film that transcend the genre lured her in and how the physicality the project demanded took absolutely everything out of her…
SCREAM: Thematically, Midnighters shares a lot of common ground with another recent film you shot called The Neighbor. Was that a complete coincidence or did you audition for those around the same time and were you looking to film something a bit less supernatural a la Starry Eyes, and a lot more grounded in the horror of real stories about real people?
Alex Essoe: Although I did film these movies basically in succession, any thematic similarities are certainly a coincidence. However, I do think the characters of Rosie and Lindsey required a similar shyness and vulnerability, the difference being that Rosie’s comes from a need to guard herself while Lindsey’s is more rooted in a natural passivity.
I was definitely attracted to the real-world conflicts these projects promised, but I wouldn’t call either of them horror. The Neighbour I consider more in the action-suspense category (I love action movies) and Midnighters is a classic thriller.
SCREAM: The film starts off in typical hit-and-run horror fashion but then switches things on its head as it focuses on the tensions and mistrust between the three leading members of the cast. I’m guessing that was the main draw? Also, did you sit down to really map out the background with your family members in the film, Perla Haney-Jardine and Dylan McTee?
That’s exactly what resonated with me, actually, the human drama aspect. Perla and Dylan were totally committed to building our collective history and relationships; in fact, even while shooting we would meet every weekend with Julius [Ramsay] to rehearse our scenes for the upcoming week.
SCREAM: Your character is the breadwinner in the family, which leads to pretty much everyone in the film- even those you love the most – envious of you. Obviously this theme of the woman wearing the pants in the family is a big talking point. How did you and the rest of the cast tap into this aspect of the film and was it an aspect that writer/director Julius Ramsay and Alston Ramsay were very adamant on driving home?
I don’t think their intention was to touch on a popular talking point so much as to make their lead character more sympathetic. Lindsey is the breadwinner but that comes from a place of necessity more so than empowerment. Lindsey would be very happy for Jeff to pull his weight financially or for Hannah to contribute more, but she’s too passive, too willing to make excuses for people, so she ends up being taken advantage of. I think the other characters are, in fact, resentful as opposed to envious, and what they resent is her “goodness”- she holds down a steady job, she does her taxes, she budgets her money, she’s on the straight and narrow. She’s an adult supporting two “children,” and their reliance on her support breeds resentment towards her.
SCREAM: Although this is their first feature, Julius and Alston have a strong pedigree having worked on shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Scream,” etc. What was the working relationship with them like. Was it much different working with them in terms of them having worked on TV shows in the past where timeframes, deadlines, etc, are very different?
As far as I know, this was Alston’s first project. Julius has the extensive TV background but Alston was actually a speechwriter in DC before penning this script. That being said, Alston took to filmmaking and set life quite easily and had a great feel for story and character. They were both delightful to work with. Julius as a director knew exactly what he wanted and was great at making difficult decisions quickly, so I’m sure his background in TV was a big contributor.
SCREAM: You bear the brunt of most of the intense scenes, particularly with Ward Horton. Those must have been some of the most challenging shoots in the film? Did you try not to spend too much time with him off set to create more of a “cold” chemistry?
That’s exactly what we did! Ward also joined us about two or three weeks into shooting and by that time, the rest of us had developed a strong rapport, so he was already an outsider of sorts. We just built upon that. And yes, those were by far my most challenging scenes, but not just because of the physicality involved. Ward is such a consummate professional and was so well prepared; you could feel a palpable shift on set as everyone upped their game.
SCREAM: At the same time it poses a big question to the audience: whether blood is thicker than water. I’m guessing most, if not all of that was down on paper when you read the script but was there anything in the script that you had difficulty imagining how to emote, as the relationships in this film are far from typical? Was there anything you really needed to sit down with the writers/directors to really prepare?
I’d say the biggest challenge in that regard was trying not to emote. There are so many instances in the script where my impulse as a person would be to fight back or stand my ground or express my emotions, but Lindsey didn’t learn how to do any of that. She’s the kind of person who, because of her own emotional trauma, suppresses these impulses, which fascinated me.
SCREAM: Although the film is very character-based, things get pretty graphically violent towards the end. Without giving too much away, can you walk us through the sterner moments of the film and how they were shot? What was the toughest and/or most fun?
Our shoot schedule was pretty intense, and I worked every single day of it, so about ¾ into the shoot I was sufficiently sleep deprived. One funny moment was during a scene where I’m duct taped to a chair by Ward. I’m taped to this little metal chair in a freezing basement and Ward is sitting across from me. We’re both listening to Julius give us directions when, the next thing I know, I jolt awake to see Julius and Ward both staring at me. I had fallen asleep with my mouth agape and had NO idea!
Apart from that, the most taxing scene I would say was the final showdown between Ward and Lindsey. It was that last day of filming and the last scene of that day. We were on the 18th hour (we shot for 20 hours that day) and we were at the end of a very long week, so of course we decided to close it out with the most stunt-heavy scene. Those stunts, man. Those took everything I had.
SCREAM: You have quite a few disparate projects on the horizon. Are you able to share a bit of info about any of those?
There’s a lot I’m excited about! I shot a horror/comedy in December called The Drone, helmed by Jordan Rubin who directed the hilarious Zombeavers, which should be out by the end of this year. Then there’s Bloodloss that I’m really excited for but we probably won’t begin shooting until fall. Fran Kranz has signed on and I just love his work so I can’t wait to get started. The Super (starring Val Kilmer) is coming out this year and I cannot wait to see that one. Also, as a change of pace, I play Cyd Charisse in the upcoming period drama The Maestro, a true story about film composer Jerry Herst and his tutelage by infamous master teacher Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (played by the brilliant Xander Berkeley). What a dream that was.
Whilst no news of further dates has rolled out just yet, we’re sure a full-scale assault of the festival circuit is imminent. In the meanwhile, we’ll leave you with the latest trailer for Midnighters…
Words: Howard Gorman – @HowardGorman