How a former Pentagon speechwriter made the switch to the independent film business

Key Points
  • Alston Ramsay is the writer of the new independent thriller "Midnighters."
  • Before entering the film industry, Ramsay worked as a speechwriter at the Pentagon and spent a year in Kabul, Afghanistan.
  • To pay for his first feature film, Ramsay approached the situation as if seeking start-up money from angel investors.
Alex Essoe as Lindsey, Dylan McTee as Jeff and K.C. Faldasz as Vic in the thriller film “MIDNIGHTERS”
Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight.

How did a Pentagon speechwriter pivot to writing screenplays for independent films? For Alston Ramsay, writer of the new thriller "Midnighters," it took risk, research and a group effort from his family.

The taut, paranoid "Midnighters" follows Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff Pittman (Dylan McTee), a young couple straining to contain their simmering marital discord during a party on New Year's Eve. A few drinks past midnight, Jeff's lapse in focus on the drive home causes a life-changing accident.

To cover it up, the Pittmans resolve to take matters into their own hands — and into their own house, where the true consequences of their crime begin to take shape.

Ramsay's first credit as a writer and producer made its debut Friday. Ramsay said he re-watched the majority of Alfred Hitchcock's canon while writing "Midnighters," and was heavily influenced by the black comedy of the Coen brothers, as well as Danny Boyle's early film, "Shallow Grave."

Yet "Midnighters," peppered with arguments over money and hush-toned plots, exudes the kind of cynicism and sense of self-preservation that comes from years in Washington, the writer explained to CNBC.

"Working in D.C. for that long you see some twisted motivations, and you see people make bad mistakes and bad human errors," Ramsay said. "You know the classic thing of, like, 'Well I never would have thought he would be capable of that.'"

Searching for angel investors

The story and aesthetic of "Midnighters," which is being distributed by IFC Midnight, feel far removed from Ramsay's past life in the halls of the Pentagon. But while he did write a military-action screenplay (he called it a "'Taken'-meets-'Rambo' situation" in the style of old Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks), Ramsay and his brother, director Julius Ramsay, made a pragmatic decision to do something different.

"We wanted to do something in the thriller-suspense genre because that's his bread and butter," Alston Ramsay said of his brother, "and we wanted to do something in a budget-conscious fashion."

Director Julius Ramsay and writer Alston Ramsay on the set of "MIDNIGHTERS."
Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight.

Julius Ramsay had a number of television credits to his name when the brothers began to pursue "Midnighters," having directed episodes of "The Walking Dead," Cinemax horror series "Outcast" and MTV's "Scream" series. But even with his brother's resume to boast, bagging the first film contract is always a challenge.

"I pooled together what was very much an angel investor-style presentation, and did the typical start-up fundraising process," Alston Ramsay said. For low-budget films, he said it's possible to "kind of piece together a budget with smaller investments, very much the same way you would with an angel round of a start up."

The economical script, mainly set in one location and involving a small handful of characters, was only half the battle. "You can make the same movie for 10 times more, but you don't have to," Alston Ramsay said.

One way the producers cut costs for the film was by venturing outside of Los Angeles to shoot it. "Midnighters" was produced in Rhode Island, where locations can be rented for a sliver of the cost of a Hollywood lot. Even better for indie filmmakers: The state offers a generous 25 percent transferable tax credit for film and television productions.

Alston Ramsay said the film falls under the category of "Modified Low Budget" — a term which, according to the Screen Actors Guild website, refers to movies made for under $700,000.

The cast and crew rented houses in Providence through Airbnb during the production, which lasted less than three months.

On to Los Angeles

Since college, Ramsay had been paving a straight path toward a career in politics. After studying government at Dartmouth, Ramsay worked as an associate editor at National Review, the flagship periodical of American conservative intellectuals. He was tapped in 2006 to work for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but his tenure was cut short after a few months when Rumsfeld was "unceremoniously kicked to the curb" following the midterm elections.

Soon after, Ramsay was hired by Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, who served under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama until 2011. After four years as a Pentagon speechwriter, Ramsay shipped off to Kabul, Afghanistan, writing for Gen. David Petraeus for another year. He eventually worked as a senior speechwriter for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

After years of writing speeches for government officials, Ramsay had had enough.

"I just got to a point where I felt like it was time to move on to something else," he said.

After earning an MBA in 2013, Ramsay found himself at a crossroads: Should he follow the safer, more natural progression into business, or "throw caution to the wind" and pursue screenwriting?

He made the impractical choice. "Even when I was at the Pentagon, I read books on screenplays," Ramsay said, "to sort of understand the art and the craft of it."

The risks were clear: At that point, Ramsay wasn't sure if he would be any good at screenwriting, or if he would even enjoy it.

But his prior work, he said with a laugh, endowed him with some transferable skills. "Political speechwriting is its own form of fiction, right?"

Wolves in sheep's clothing

One of the characters in "Midnighters" says that no matter who you are, you fall into one of two categories: "either wolves, or wolves in sheep's clothing."

In due course, Ramsay's characters in the film embody that cynical sketch of human nature: Relationships, family, loyalty and mercy are supplanted by venality, avarice and paranoia as the Pittmans struggle to cover their increasingly bloody tracks.

Alex Essoe as Lindsey in the thriller film “MIDNIGHTERS”
Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight.

A film that hinges on trust issues may not seem like a strong choice for a first-time collaboration among brothers. But unlike his characters, Alston said the family affair — working alongside Julius and his other brother, executive producer Burke Ramsay — provided a sense of security.

"You always know someone who's got your back, and that you can trust in them and rely on them at the end of the day," Alston Ramsay said. "That's a very unheard-of thing when you think about the stories and the rumors and the reputations of Hollywood."

That's not to say their relationships weren't tested, however. "You find yourself in arguments that are just so unimportant, and you realize you're arguing about something that probably took place when you were five," he said. "It can be kind of flammable in that situation."

But the childhood gripes are outweighed by the simple fact of knowing, in an industry as cutthroat and capricious as D.C., "they're never going to stab you in the back or push you in front of a bus."

"Midnighters" was produced by Graystone Pictures and distributed by IFC Midnight. It is available now to stream on VOD and digital HD, and opened in select cities Friday.