There’s a lot of common factors when it comes to the world of politics and the realm of horror as writer Alston Ramsay joins the two together for the latest installment of Into The Dark, The Current Occupant. Previously working as a speechwriter in D.C. for the likes of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Ramsay has the knowledge of political content in his back pocket and the talents in his hands to craft a relevant, surprising psychological horror.
Working with his director brother Julius Ramsay (Midnighters), the two combine their backgrounds in synergy to produce a wildly topical presidential treatment that viewers won’t see coming. Wanting to know more about how he went from one to the other, Ramsay graciously shared his application of political writing to his brother’s genre skills and the kindred connection between the two.
“We wanted [The Current Occupant] to be something that would be disorienting in the best way that good horror films are…”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare On Film Street: I really loved The Current Occupant. I couldn’t believe how surprised I was. The entire film, for lack of a better word, jerks you around in the best way possible. I promise I’m more eloquent with my words.
Alston Ramsay: No, no! Thank you! I actually find it incredibly gratifying. Struggling to find the right words, to me, is like the highest compliment. It is a strange film on many many levels. My brother and I are really proud of that because that’s what we wanted. We wanted it to be something that would be disorienting in the best way that good horror films are and to just be something that’s novel and unique that it’s hard to really pin down and describe.
NOFS: It’s really original and fresh and very topical. It didn’t make me hate the president as a character, which I thought was really refreshing. I think it’s easy to hate anybody in that seat, but I really enjoyed Henry Cameron as a character. I thought that Barry Watson really knocked it out of the park. He was really great.
AR: He is incredible. He was such a great sport. If you noticed in the movie, he’s in every scene, every single scene. There’s no subplot that veers off. If you think about it, just from a production standpoint, that means he’s literally there all day, every day. He just brought such incredible energy and a sense of humor through everything we made him do, which was a lot. The first day of shooting he had to lick the boot, his neck is broken, and he’s sprayed down with the hose and we shot that opening sequence, where he is on the operating table and my brother is just pouring jugs of fake blood all over him. It was all on the first day of the movie.
NOFS: That neck-breaking scene got me so bad! You really couldn’t tell what was reality or what was his version of reality. It all blended so organically. I was thinking, “This is how you do twists and turns in horror without people seeing it coming” and I still feel like I can’t put my finger on it. Can you tell me a little bit about how you and Julius got involved with Blumhouse, especially given your background. How did you and your brother get involved with the whole Into The Dark project to make The Current Occupant?
AR: Most of that is going to be coming from him as he has a long background in genre. He’s been nominated for a couple of Emmys for editing. He cut his teeth on Battlestar Galactica and Alias and then he transitioned to editing early on in The Walking Dead before transitioning to directing on The Purge. He’s in the genre world and that’s always been his passion and his career. He talked to Blumhouse very early on about Into The Dark and was just aware of the project. At the beginning of last year, we pitched them an idea or two and it didn’t stick because they were working on something similar. We were just trying to come up with ideas because it’s a really great opportunity and it’s a cool premise to have holiday-themed feature films.
We knew that July was open and it was a natural fit for really finding that nexus where my background in politics intersects with his background in genre. We went to Blumhouse with the pitch for The Current Occupant and we’re just so grateful that they saw the same potential we did and they gave us the opportunity to go and make it. We landed the project last October and I wrote the script in early November and then pre-production started in January and we shot in February. It was all done really quickly, which is a cool thing about the model, going from that very early stage to being on the air in six or seven months.
“I’m hesitant to give a specific message or say anything political although […] I think people are going to have to take away the message from The Current Occupant that they want to take away.”
NOFS: I know that they go so quickly, it just blows my mind and it’s just so interesting. I bet you don’t have time to think almost, you just kind of do it.
AR: There’s aspects of it that are really hard, but it concentrates the mind. It makes you work much smarter. It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about that. I think that it’s a good challenge. Anytime you get to make a movie it’s a great opportunity.
NOFS: None of them ever feel rushed to me. These are all feature-length films, or episodes as they call them, that never seem like they were shot over three months. They all look like they’re films that have been in production for a year or two. I think that that’s really cool, that they’re all consistent in quality. Now, you have a background in politics. How did you go from political writing to film writing?
AR: I’ve always been passionate about film and my brother’s been in the industry for a long time. After speech writing in Washington D.C., I spent a year on the commanding general staff in Afghanistan. I went and got an MBA and then was trying to figure out what to do next when I reached the fork in the road and so I wanted to try screenwriting. I had been a hobbyist before coming into it professionally, so I knew a lot about it. I found when I made the transition that there’s a lot of overlapping skills. I think the primary one is really when it comes to dialogue and speaking because, as a speechwriter, I had spent five years where all I had been doing was studying the spoken language, the rhythms of it, the cadence of it, getting into someone else’s mind and someone else’s voice. That skill allows you, in the screenplay, to give each character a way of talking.
I’ve studied the spoken language, so I know how things sound versus what’s on the written page. I think that’s an overlapping skill. The foundation of good writing is research and I believe that’s very similar to screenwriting. It’s a different type of research, but it’s still research. The writing process is probably the smallest portion of the actual time you spend writing a script. You have to come up with the stories and ideas. You have to do research, think through the characters, research their backgrounds, and invent a lot. Once you’ve done all that is when you start putting it on paper.
NOFS: One of the big things I wanted to know is that with The Current Occupant, what influenced you and Julius to tell this particular story? What kind of message did you want viewers to take away from it?
AR: Good fiction, if there is an underlying message, it should not be so obvious that it whacks the viewer upside the head. Certainly with this, the primary goal was to make it good and interesting, at times scary, fascinating story where you never quite know what’s going to happen or what’s real. I’m hesitant to give a specific message or say anything political although, clearly I think it works with undercurrents of our contemporary political moment just because ultimately it is a horror movie about the President of the United States anyway you cut it. I think people are going to have to take away the message from The Current Occupant that they want to take away. I’m kind of dancing around the question a little bit.
NOFS: I like that. I think it’s perfect because that’s kind of what the movie is like. That’s kind of what the story is like and I think that that’s the way it should be. I’ve been infuriated by some films that beat me over the head with the themes and the message. I get it. Your audience will get it and they can form their opinion on their own. I appreciate that The Current Occupant was far from that. It makes you think.
AR: I feel like audiences are very sophisticated. People watching movies, I know I’ve seen a lot of movies and TV shows, they understand a lot. You have to give audiences credit for being very sophisticated as well as understanding the visual language. I think just the filmmaking process, from script to screen, understanding that allows you to make something that’s impactful on a really visceral level.
“I feel like audiences are very sophisticated […] understanding that allows you to make something that’s impactful on a really visceral level.”
Into The Dark’s July episode, The Current Occupant, written by Alston Ramsay and directed by his brother, Julius Ramsay, is now exclusively streaming on Hulu. Are you watching the second season of Hulu and Blumhouse’s Into The Dark anthology series? Have you watched the latest episode, The Current Occupant? What did you think about the Ramsay brothers’ work? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!