Julius Ramsay has made his living editing a number of the better genre television shows of the last couple decades, including “Battlestar Galactica,” “Alias,” and now “The Walking Dead.” With an eye toward making his own films, in 2008 he directed a 20-minute short, “Pivot,” that achieved some success on the film festival circuit.
“When I joined ‘The Walking Dead’ in season one as an editor, I expressed an interest in directing,” said Ramsay. “I showed the producers and the network my film, and after working on the show for a few years, I was fortunate enough to earn their trust and get a chance to direct my first episode.”
Ramsay believes editing is a good training ground for directors, forcing you to find the essence of a story and distill it into a series of shots, sounds, and impressions.
“Being able to edit a scene in my mind has made me a more effective director, and better able to communicate my vision to collaborators on a film,” said Ramsay.
There were also some more specific lessons he took from the hit AMC show when it came time to make his first horror feature, “Midnighters,” which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week.
“‘The Walking Dead’ has a deliberate, measured pace that’s a large part of what makes its tone so effective,” said Ramsay. “I think of it as the heartbeat of the series, and it’s most often set in the editing room. It determines everything about how an audience experiences a film. When directing and editing ‘Midnighters,’ I knew that I similarly had to find the film’s heartbeat and set it to the right rhythm.”
Getting a few “Walking Dead” directing credits under his belt also gave “Midnighters” some credibility and a track record when it came time to fundraising. The show also gave him a cast member, Andrew Rothenberg, who played Jim in season one. But while his TV experience helped make him a better filmmaker and get the project off the ground, Ramsay said the parallels between shooting a massive TV show and an indie film are few and far between.
“On a major TV series, there’s a massive infrastructure in place to deal with nearly every contingency you could imagine,” said Ramsay. “This is particularly true on ‘The Walking Dead,’ which has an insane number of moving parts, and is produced by a brilliant group of producers in Georgia and Los Angeles. On ‘Midnighters,’ we had limited resources and money, so our infrastructure was much smaller. Hence, when something went wrong, we had to improvise.”
For example, one morning the lead makeup artist on “Midnighters” went to the emergency room with a stomach virus. Ramsay scrambled to find a backup, since what they were shooting that day called for star Alex Essoe to have a wound on her forehead.
“We found a replacement who could arrive that afternoon, but that meant we’d lose hours of filming,” said Ramsay. “When she heard about the problem, Alex Essoe said that she actually knew how to apply prosthetic wounds from her experience on another film. We gathered the materials and she did it herself – 30 minutes later, we were filming.”
There are benefits to an indie DIY mentality, as it’s not always about powering through the limitations. Sometimes those limitations can lead to ingenuity and better use of the medium itself.
“On an indie, you can’t rely on big budget special effects or monsters to scare the audience – you have to milk the horror of the human experience for all it’s worth,” said Ramsay. “I think fewer resources force a director to put a lot more emphasis on the horror of the unknown, and in the end that’s more frightening than anything else.”
“Midnighters” premiered at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival.