Dead men tell no tales, but they do take some interesting secrets to the grave. Brazilian writer and director Dennison Ramalho is anything but silent on his love and appreciation for cinema’s ability to delve into themes of violence, sex, and darkness, especially when it comes to the horror genre. His latest film adaptation refuses to shy away from the emotional devastation death and loss and embraces the cultural shortcomings of his story’s powerful setting.
The Nightshifter, starring Daniel de Oliveira (Liquid Truth), Bianca Comparato (3%), and Fabiula Nascimento (Segundo Sol), is a new Shudder Exclusive bringing another fresh and unique foreign voice to the streaming platform. The spooky story focuses on Stenio, an assistant coroner who has the special gift of being able to speak with the dead. When his home life begins to crumble, Stenio uses his unique ability to orchestrate an act of vengeance that comes at very heavy price. Ramalho was kind enough to share the history of bringing The Nightshifter to life, his insight on Brazilian film, and what it takes to breathe life into a truly scary story.
“I do recommend you watch a lot of world horror from everywhere because it’s worlds opening to us”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare On Film Street: Dennison, I enjoyed The Nightshifter so much. It was really refreshing and unique. I’m obviously a huge horror fan, but I’ve recently been delving into more foreign horror and I’m really blown away by everything I’m exposed to so far. It’s unbelievable to see different unique perspectives there can be from different worlds separate from my own. I really appreciate everything that’s being put into the horror genre from everywhere now.
Dennison Ramalho: Yeah, I do recommend you watch a lot of world horror from everywhere because it’s worlds opening to us, like the universe is opening to us.
NOFS: It is and it’s different. It’s interesting to see different walks of life and socioeconomic classes and how all these different parts of the world are so different from ours. I like the way that it’s portrayed in horror. It’s really it’s moving. A lot of the foreign horror I’ve seen lately has scared me to death. It’s fresh and fun, so I’m excited to explore that more. I really liked the premise beginning with Stenio’s career and communicating with the dead. What inspired that story? You co-wrote the screenplay, I understand?
DR: Yes, I wrote the screenplay with a very dear, intimate friend of mine, she’s a creative collaborator. Her name is Cláudia Jouvin. The Nightshifter had a very interesting story before becoming a feature film. It was a short story that was written by Marco de Castro, he’s a Brazilian law author and a self-published internet writer. He writes short stories, he never wrote a novel. He’s a good friend of mine. We both became friends way back in the day because of our love for horror in literature, comics, and movies. I got to read his short stories and I liked him a lot because what drove him to write horror stories was that he was a he was a journalist and used to work for a huge Brazilian newspaper. He was a nightshifter himself.
He used to cover crime stories and usually ones involving some sort of urban calamities like arson, landslide incidents where people had their whole houses wrecked all in the outskirts of San Paulo, which is a huge city. So his life was basically caught covering tragedies and crime stories. He used to go to the morgue to get information about victims and he got acquainted with this this whole parallel world of the people who work nights, in general, as their profession, but especially the people who worked at the morgue. He saw how others took care of the bodies of criminals, of people killed in gangland warfare. Here in Brazil it is a huge problem. I read the short story and saw some potential in there because I liked it a lot. Even before I made The Nightshifter I adapted another short story of his, it’s a short film I made in 2010 called Ninjas. It’s a horror story about the military police.
The Nightshifter had the first iteration as a series actually. I was living in New York working on my Master’s in film at Columbia in New York. I was approached by this producer who also had a long history story with me, her name is Nora Golar. She’s one of the partners in the film’s production company and she told me that she had some interests from the lead major television television network in Brazil, the global network, to make a horror series. They never did horror before, their thing is mostly like soap operas, the Brazilian telenovelas which are famous worldwide. Now they want to compete in the international markets and they want to meet international competing levels with a TV series and they wanted to do horror. They want to make a horror series which is something they’ve never done before. With my short films, I built myself a reputation in Brazil as a horror filmmaker making these extreme short films that had a very good international career and won a lot of awards at festivals. Nowadays we have a lot of Brazilian horror filmmakers which is something that makes me very proud.
I was approached to develop a horror series for the global network and Nora asked me, “Do you have anything in stock for us. Do you have anything in your drawers to offer us?” and I said, “Well, right now I don’t have anything solid to offer you, but I do know a short story that has this fascinating character which is a guy who works the night shift at the morgue as an assistant coroner. This character talks to the dead, he exchanges secrets with the dead.
“I wanted to expose all the sickness of Brazilian society in the film and how this whole climate of resentment generates crime…”
She said “Okay, well, we like that!” so I wrote a pilot episode for the series that was presented to the horror to the global network and they fell head over heels for it. They loved it and they hired me. To this day I work writing as a series screenwriter for the network. So, I started working for them developing The Nightshifter into a series. During a year and a half I was paired with Claude Jesu Von who wrote the screenplay of the feature film with me and the two of us wrote the entire first season for The Nightshifter series. When it was read and analyzed by the network there was backlash. They got scared, they said too dark and too violent.
They wanted something more accessible, especially for younger audiences. There was a whole discussion about what is proper horror versus fake horror. I had to take a stand as a longtime appreciator of the genre and I said, ‘Look, in order for this to be horror, and to do it for real, you’ve got to have a measure of violence, of sex, and of dark subjects to be touched upon’. And I did convince them to meet halfway so they said ‘Okay, let’s do it first as a feature film. We’ll find that measure of violence, of the darkness, of sex so that we can find something that teens can watch. We’re going to produce the movie, we’re going to release it into theaters, we’re going to release it into festivals internationally, we’re going to sell it internationally’. That’s how we got to become a Shudder Exclusive.
NOFS: Stenio makes a pretty bad decision, but we’re rooting for him.
DR: He does, he makes an evil decision and he pays dearly for it. His journey might be continued on the second incarnation of the series. He has to redeem himself. He’s a tragic hero. He’s a Brazilian. He’s every man. This story is a very Brazilian story. You know, it’s a story about the Brazilian working class where every man has multiple crises happening in his life. He’s fighting to keep his head above water in a country that is very poor. He has problems at his home with his family and he becomes a very resented person, which is very typical. Unfortunately, it’s a very typical trait of Brazilian people. They are very resented because they’re poor, resented because they are misrepresented, they become sexist, they’re going to be racist and all that. This is all in the film as much as possible. I wanted to expose all the sickness of Brazilian society in the film and how this whole climate of resentment generates crime, drug trafficking, gangs, gang warfare. All of these maladies of Brazilian society are exposed in this supernatural horror story of The Nightshifter. They’re the real horrors.
NOFS: You obviously didn’t shy away from the blood and the gore, which is great, but you also restrained yourself a little bit there too. Could you speak to how you made your choices as to what you wanted to show versus what you held back on?
DR: One interesting thing, and this is something I’ve never said in an interview before, it relates to a need to relate to what you said about keeping some integrity and having a very fiery love of the genre in order to not let it be like a halfway horror. I think it also came, not only from this, but almost political demands from the network, but also because they had the Brazilian audiences that have a problem with Brazilian cinema in general. The Brazilian population nowadays have a very serious self-esteem problem. They always tend to think that whatever comes from abroad is better than anything Brazilian industrious people could ever do.
So there were, in fact, in the past failed attempts by Brazilian filmmakers to make horror films and and these shows were very badly criticized by Brazilian audiencesthat’s not being full all out or as being like yeah. This is kind of a horror film.And this is something that I would not allow to be said about any of my films. So that’s why I was really a stickler to the cinema conventions and to what is expected of my film. I had to protect the levels of violence I chose because I won’t I will never tolerate hearing that it was “kind of a horror film”. No, it is a balls out horror film.
“There is no right or wrong for any film.”
NOFS: I feel like you put a lot of substance over style and that’s not something that we see. Could you speak to your approach in directing.
DR: I was the violence and sex and brutality author, like that’s what dictated whatever films I made. If you see my short films you’ll see they are brutal. They are sexy, they are disorientating, they are shock oriented. In recent years I became more of a drama person. I think we need to try to reach the human substance of the story and we need to tell them stories about people. I changed my angle. I am still going to incorporate shock, brutality, violence, and sex into my writing, but now I also want to incorporate drama. That did become a priority for me during this process, to find the character’s voices, to find out what my characters drives and goals were. That was what needed to be protected the most, even over style.
There is no right or wrong for any film. We are so used to this western way of telling stories and that everything is possible and everything is permitted and every project is a project and the decisions I took for The Nightshifter were the ones adequate for this project which was a commercial project. It was a commission. I hear a lot of critique about, for example, the jump scares. That was something that was a decision based on this commercial demand. People love jump scares, especially teenagers, so let’s give them a little.
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