Discussing Into the Dark’s Current Occupant with Writer Alston Ramsay

Getting into all things political with Into the Dark writer Alston Ramsay.

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Into the Dark

Current Occupant Synopsis

Trapped in a mysterious psychiatric ward, a man with no memory comes to believe that he’s the President of the United States and the subject of a diabolical political conspiracy. As the asylum’s soul-crushing forces bear down on him, he fights to preserve his sanity and escape so that he can return to power.

An Interview With Alston Ramsay

So this installment of Into the Dark was obviously very politically driven, did the last four years play any part in the process?

Alston Ramsay (AR): I think if you’re going to make a horror movie about the president of the united states in a time period like this it would be impossible to say it didn’t effect things. Cause it certainly does and I was very amused and also just kind of shocked and surprised when a few weeks ago the White House bunker actually became a news story right before the big Trump Bible photo op because our film takes place theoretically maybe not in the bunker underneath the White House. So it’s just one of those examples of life imitating art and art imitating life so on forever.

I think the film is colored some by what’s gone on, it’s certainly informed by my experience working in Washington; for four years I was a speech writer and just being in the corridors of power and seeing the people there, seeing the people that wield power. I was very blessed to work for very humble people, exactly the kind of folks you’d want in those positions but I did witness some others that you know you would see those aspects of megalomania.

If you think about it anyone who runs for President is saying “I think that I deserve to be the most powerful person on the planet” and you’ve gotta be a little bit crazy to think that whether it’s Trump or anyone else; so you know that was sort of the starting point for the film was: what would happen if you took the most powerful person in the world and put them in the most perilous situation? Which is, you know the foundation of a lot of institutional films whether it’s institutional drama or institutional horror.

In terms of specific current events you know I don’t feel like good narrative fiction should come along and wack you over the head with a political message, so if there is anything I hope that it’s buried in the film and that it’s more thematic and evocative and you might feel these things on a visceral level. It’s certainly not meant to be really specific political commentary about the current occupant of the White House.

Into The Dark – The Current Occupant

For sure yeah. I definitely thought more about you know the political side of it after the film if that makes sense, so looking back on certain parts of the film I’m like oh I can see that’s kind of like overshadowing or kind of giving a nudge to certain parts of the government or like you said putting someone of power in a powerless situation and kind of seeing what would happen but that’s a perfect way to put it.

AR: Exactly, and you know I think my background did effect it. My favorite part of the film is those series of sessions that are sort of our version of mind de-programming and they range different topics. Again it’s more working under the surface but some of the exchanges are certainly informed by political philosophy and my about thinking about the question should anyone have the power to destroy the world and on screen there’s an atom bomb and the idea of at some point you know would you kill one person you love or a thousand innocent people?

These are real calculations that senior people in the government and the President of the United States have to make. They have to make these decisions that are really bizarre and incomprehensible and horrific but you know that’s sort of the nature of the beast. A lot of that is in there but again I think it’s more interesting that it’s under the surface. It informs the story as well as what you’re watching and the impact of it but I hope it doesn’t dominate it by any means on the surface.

Into The Dark – The Current Occupant

No for sure it definitely plays more of a psychological, almost like a scifi asylum horror so it’s like is this even happening? Is the political-ness even happening?

AR: There was so many wonderful creative people involved in making this film work, you know a wonderful production designer and the props people and the director of photography. We were all on the same page that you pointed out, I’d call it sort of a retro noir tech vibe. This whole universe feels like it exists somewhere in like what the future looks like as viewed from the 1980’s in terms of technology, and so it’s this weird combination of almost period as well as it exists out of time. That was all I think by design and it’s interesting and original and overall I believe it’s a bit unsettling cause it keeps you on your toes and precisely like you said you don’t know what’s real and what’s not and it’s all following the insight of a person who’s cracking up or maybe he’s not. He’s finding the truth one way or another.

Exactly, it reminded me of like Harrison Bergeron. I don’t know if you ever read that short story, but Harrison Bergeron is this couple is sitting on the couch watching tv and one of the characters on tv kinda goes out of character and freaks out and is going against the grain of this political like I guess the government controls everything that everyone does and basically you find out at the end of the story that that’s their kid on tv but they don’t remember it because the government has put these like things in your ears to make you forget so you’ll just hear a high pitched sound and then forget.

The whole story is them finding out that that’s their son kind of and then forgetting it because the government controls it. So this reminded me of Harrison Bergeron meets like A Clockwork Orange, probably because of all the headgear and stuff in the rooms but what were some inspirations that you took from other films to make this one?

AR: Several. I think it started with; we wanted to make an institutional horror film so we started by looking at institutional films more broadly because the theme of institutional films are really about the destruction of ones autonomy and agency by these bureaucratic forces, an instituion that’s unthinking, uncaring. It’s kind of like the Terminator in the famous scene where Kyle Reese is explaining and says you can’t reason with it you can’t discuss with it, it will keep coming after you until you are dead. That’s really the nature of institutional films so I went as far back as Cool Hand Luke. That’s a great one, One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest is certainly a classic and even The Shawshank Redemption you know, a true masterpiece as well as you look at something like American Horror Story the asylum season is certainly a masterpiece of the genre. There’s a number of other films, you noted one A Clockwork Orange, certainly when we were looking at sort of mind deprogramming sequences and trying to think well what’s out take on this. Some of the seventies paranoid political thrillers; Three Days of the Condor and there’s one called Paralax View that has a crazy mind deprogramming sequence. Jacobs Ladder had an influence which was great, our director of photography that’s one of the first films he mentioned when we started talking to him after reading the script and he was spot on with that and the disillusion of reality.

Into The Dark – The Current Occupant

For sure. Even with how the would have discussions in the kind of “alternate reality” or what he was remembering where it would kind of slow down and get choppy the reminded me of those like seventies and eighties sci-fi psychological movies.

AR: I should throw some credit on that point to our editor. Wonderful editor named Thad Nurski, it’s just real challenging editing those sessions I mean they’re crazy but a lot of the unique aspects of it he brought to the table and whether it was just the crossfades or the pacing of it he just gave it that very cool vibe that you’re talking about.

That’s so cool, and you’ve done multiple films and projects with your brother Julius directing so that’s pretty cool. What’s that like working with him?

AR: So we’re three brother and we have a brother who is not in the industry but you know there are ups and downs for working with a sibling and the ups far outweigh the downs. We’ll start with the latter.With siblings I think there’s a certain amount of tension in the way that you deal with each other. You can fight about nothing, you can literally have a three hour fight and then after the fact be like what were we even arguing about? You’re baffled and that’s the good thing is you just sort of move passed it. The points of conflict you know aren’t personal that’s just how it is. The interesting thing I find with our relationship is stuff we argue about is the most insignificant things that have nothing to do creatively whatsoever.

When we get into creative stuff we are ninety-nine percent of the time in complete harmony. If you think about the stuff that can really blow up a project it’s creative differences and that just doesn’t happen I think it’s partially because I’m the younger one and he was letting me watch horror films that I shouldn’t have been watching when I was too young, but it means we have this sort of shared film base so we have like a language we can speak to each other so at any moment I can cite an obscure movie and be like “Yeah you know it’s like that scene in X where Y and Z get together and do this.” and he’ll just be like I got it and vice versa.

So that’s awesome and I think the other thing; I was talking t someone a few days ago and they said you know someone told me you should never make a movie with anyone who is not either your sibling or a childhood friend, and I thought that was an interesting way of putting it and my response to them was “yeah I think that’s right.” because at the end of the day anytime you make a movie it’s like going to work. It’s just a battle and it’s just tough and difficult and I think anyone who says otherwise is probably telling little white lies so the whole question is who you want in the trenches with you when things get really bad? Who are the people on the planet that you can trust to have your back always, no matter what? Even if you have your ups and downs you know that they’re always going to be behind you and they’re going to be there until the bitter end. There are not many people I think that anyone has that they can depend on in that way and so that’s the greatest aspect of working with my brother.

Yeah absolutely. When I saw that you guys were brothers working on this movie and also you guys worked on midnighters.

AR: Yeah, Midnighters and the Current Occupant are the ones that made it to the finish line.

Gotchya, yeah that reminded me of the Farmiga sisters. Vera Farmiga was always into like film and wanted to be an actress and did all this stuff and Taissa who was in American Horror Story as Violet she didn’t want to be an actress and Vera was like why don’t you just try it? Why don’t you just try and go to Hollywood to be an actress and now she is. Was that the same since you were the little brother or did you guys both kinda have film industry aspirations.

AR: I think that’s a fair comparison in many respects. He came out here many years ago, this is what he’s wanted to do is direct since he was a teenager. I had my career in Washington and then went to business school to get and MBA and tried to figure out what to do with myself after that and decided to come out here. With that said, it had always been a pretty serious hobby you know even when I was speech writing like I’ve always been a film buff and read books on screenwriting and read screenplays and taken seminars and classes and so it was a pretty serious hobby before I decided to do it professionally.

There was certainly an appeal to the fact that he had been out here and in the business for a long time that it makes it easier to take the leap. When I moved out here he was transitioning from editing to directing and part of my coming out here was lets make a film. It’s either now or never you know if you’re gonna make a movie you gotta make a movie so that’s where we came up with the idea for Midnighters and put it together and you know we produced that film ourselves and did it fully independent and that was a really cool experience and it led us to this next one. So yeah we had slightly different paths, and even now like we work together on some stuff but we also have our own separate projects that we’re passionate about so not all of our interests overlap but he’s super supportive of my projects and vice versa.

The horror industry and really just the film industry, in general, you can do so many different things, I mean you’re not stuck just directing or just producing so I like that about it. So tell us how producing an installment of Into the Dark came into fruition with Blumhouse.

AR: Sure sure. This was really through Julius. He was aware of the series from really I think when they were getting it off the ground originally. Sort of spring of last year we went in with a couple of ideas and it turned out they were already working on stuff that was sort of similar for future episodes and as you know they’re holiday themed so you’re looking at well which months are still available. We saw that July twenty twenty was available and we said hey that’s a perfect oppurtunity to come up with something that really takes advantage of my background in politics and his background in genre having worked on Alias, Battlestar Gallactica, Walking Dead. And he had directed an episode of the Purge for Blumhouse so we came up with a story and we hashed out a lot of it.

We went in and pitched the whole thing to them and it was really fortunate that they saw that it had the same potential we did so they supported us and said yeah let’s do this. The whole series is like jumping on a moving train because it’s this wonderful hybrid of TV and feature film and crew that run from show to show and so you hop on the train and then you hop off but it means that the timelines are pretty condensed. I only started writing the script in early November, pre-production was January we shot in February and then there was this global pandemic that slowed down post-production it had to be done remotely and here we are.

If you think about most feature films it can really be several years from initial conception to distribution and in this case, it was we started working on the script in early November and we’re gonna be on air this Friday in mid-July. The pandemic really only slowed us down two weeks. We were very fortunate, we finished principal photography about a week and a half before Hollywood shut down production and I think that’s just dumb luck in a lot of respects. We got just so lucky and modern technology allows one to do all of post-production remotely, there were challenges and hiccups along the way but it’s pretty cool seeing how that works and figuring out solutions to it all.

Do you have any future plans for the horror industry that you can share or any projects?

AR: Working on a TV series that creates a new genre and we’ll see where that goes. I don’t really want to say too much more about it but I’m sure when there’s news you’ll hear.

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