Alston Ramsay is no political stranger in Washinton, D.C. He worked for many high-level political operatives before he switched careers for Hollywood. With the political climate changed in the past few years, he saw an opportunity to write a political horror film for Hulu’s Into The Dark series with The Current Occupant.
The film stars Barry Watson, Sonita Henry, Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III, Lilli Birdsell, Kate Cobb, Ezra Buzzington, and Joshua Burge. Alston Ramsay wrote the screenplay with his brother, Julius Ramsay, at the helm.
Here’s the 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.
LRM Online spoke at screenwriter Alston Ramsay over the phone last week. We talked about the script development process and how he utilized his political experiences to develop a thrilling storyline.
Into the Dark: The Current Occupant is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu today.
Read the interview below.
Gig Patta: I’ve checked out Into the Dark: The Current Occupant here. Could you tell me where did the original idea come from when you wrote the script?
Alston Ramsay: That’s an interesting question. Some ideas spring out of nowhere. Then others are shaped by background, experiences, and circumstances. This one came from several places. I’m not going to give you the easy answer.
First, it was my background by having worked in Washington, D.C., at high levels. I’ve seen power, people who wield power, and people who do it better than other people. Then that in the context of sort of our current political moment, there’s this aspect of a megalomaniac, for lack of a better word. You should wield that power is to suggest that you’ve got a little touch of the crazy going on. Not always the case, but often the case.
This question of that power dynamic leads to this bigger question–what would happen if you put the most powerful person on the planet in the most powerless situation? That’s the starting premise of this movie. Potentially, the President of the United States confined in an asylum.
With that idea and my background, it intersected with my brother Julius’ genre background as a director. He worked on a series from Battlestar Galactica to Alias to The Walking Dead and The Purge. It all came together that we had always wanted to do an institutional horror film. All the pieces came together.
Plus, with the series Into the Dark holiday theme, we knew that July was open. Therefore, we rolled in with a pitch that leveraged my political background in my brother’s genre background. It felt like a home run. We’re lucky that we had great partners in Blumhouse who saw the potential for the movie. They gave us the opportunity. That’s a long answer to potentially a short question.
Gig Patta: With your political background, have you met the President before?
Alston Ramsay: I’d never met this President.
Gig Patta: But, you have met megalomaniacs before in your political field.
Alston Ramsay: Luckily, I didn’t work directly for any of them. The two main people I worked with worked for the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus. They are amazing, incredible, wonderful leaders. Being around the corridors of power in that world, you get to see senators, congress members, and the White House up close. They are some of the larger than life personalities that are in those roles. Just being that hyper-focused on politics and living in that world, you certainly see a lot of that, especially among aides. In this current White House, you see all of that just taken to an extreme.
Gig Patta: Absolutely. It all lives up onto a news program even though it should be in a fictional world sometimes.
Alston Ramsay: Yeah, it’s just an example of life imitating art. There was particularly the case a few weeks back when all of a sudden, the White House bunker becomes a news story. I’m sitting there thinking about the President, may or may not be crazy, got whisked away to the White House bunker. That’s the starting premise of this movie. You can’t make this stuff up.
Gig Patta: In terms of the other half of the story, which is a psych ward, how, how do you come about that part of the story? Did you research that side of the world?
Alston Ramsay: You see this as the background for many institutional horror films for a reason. The genre of the institution has a rich history outside of horror. You think about Cool Hand Luke is an incredible institutional film. Or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not horror, but drama. Shawshank Redemption is one of the great masterpieces in film history. They’re all institutional.
Institutional films always have this idea of freedom, the lack of freedom, and the loss of agency as an institution. The bureaucracy tries to crush the human spirit. In horror, it’s taken to another extreme. In institutional horror films, you have people stuck in this insane world. The more they fight back that proves to the powers that be that they deserve to be there.
It’s wholly damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s at the foundation of an institutional horror film. So the idea of the psych ward, the problem it’s baked into the premise. What other institutions are there that you could do? Prisons and psych wards are the primary ones.
It’s an essential parcel of this genre. We wanted to do something different with our psych ward. It’s to bring in this idea that it may or may not be a bunker under the White House. Our production designer and our director of photography did a fantastic job of creating the tone that feels like something you’ve never seen in this type of world. Is it this bizarre, creepy hospital? Is it a bunker? They made it. They did an incredible job bringing that to life. As well as infusing, this weird techno retro element to it, which was also the props team, did an excellent job with that.
Gig Patta: So, the psych experiment was added into the script initially?
Alston Ramsay: The psych experiments, or we call them the sessions, it’s part of the protocols of whatever they may be doing to the poor guy by Dr. Larson and her cohorts. That was always a critical element of the film. We felt it was going to be the most important part of the movie in terms of visually. Just the feel of it, it would be something that you had never seen or experienced before.
It would be this mind deprogramming. We were looking at the famous scenes, whether it’s Manchurian candidate, other paranoid political thrillers from the seventies, or the brainwashing scenes in Clockwork Orange. There’s a famous one in the Parallax View as well. We asked ourselves how do we do a sequence like that to the point that no one’s ever seen before. It was in the script initially.
As a writer, I benefited from my relationship with my brother Julius as a director. One of the things with having this kind of creative relationship, I have a better understanding of tone, what he wants to do, how he wants the movie to look and feel. I can work that into the script early in the process. That’s already more closely aligned with his vision. It’s versus if you go to the linear process, where you write a script, and then the director has to reinterpret it. I can do it in a way like it is almost reverse engineer it. He was the guiding force behind a lot of the sessions and the imagery.
I had it on-page and the way it came about. The editor of the film did a lot of work in preproduction. This amazing work to put those videos together that we then shot in real-time. None of that was done in post-production. What you’re watching is a prerecorded thing playing, and Barry [Watson], the actor, is acting against this prerecorded version of Dr. Larson. We recorded them one of the first days of the shoot, edited it together, and filmed those sequences later in the shoot. It’s a fun way of doing the whole schedule.
Gig Patta: Let me wrap it up with one more question with you. Hopefully, it’s a fun question, and you could quickly answer it. In your opinion, due to the political climate today, what’s more, plausible that a psych ward patient waking up to be the President or the President ending up in the psych ward?
Alston Ramsay: I feel like we see both take place simultaneously. [Laughs] How’s that? Does that work for you?
Gig Patta: Well, if everyone watches your movie, they would know the answer.
Alston Ramsay: I appreciate that question just because that’s one of my favorite questions in the sessions. It has that underlying element of life imitating art. It does directly hint at our current political moment.
Gig Patta: Absolutely. Hey, thank you very much for this talk. I appreciate that.
Alston Ramsay: Thank you.
Into the Dark: The Current Occupant is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu today.
Source: LRM Online Exclusive, Hulu