Into the Dark’s THE CURRENT OCCUPANT is a film that brilliantly toes the line between fantasy and reality. The film centers around a man (Barry Watson) who finds himself trapped in a mysterious psychiatric ward with no memory but comes to believe that he’s the President of the United States and the subject of a diabolical political conspiracy. The film features stunning visuals as well as an unsettling narrative that feels ripped out of today’s headlines.
Prior to the release of the film, I had the opportunity to chat with writer Alston Ramsay. A former speechwriter in Washington, D.C., Ramsay shifted gears into the world of filmmaking, collaborating with his brother, director Julius Ramsay, on their first film, Midnighters, and now for THE CURRENT OCCUPANT. During our chat, we discussed everything from how working in politics helped shape the inspiration for this film to seeing his script come to life on the big screen.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Alston. Can you talk a little bit about the film and what inspired the story for it?
Alston Ramsay: The top line premise of the film is the President of the United States a paranoid schizophrenic or does a paranoid schizophrenic think he’s the President of the United States. It’s a story told from the perspective of a guy in a weird recovery hospital who had lost his memory and starts to believe he’s the President of the United States. This leads him to be incarcerated in a very bizarre, strange and out there psych ward as he’s also part of some advanced neurotechnological experiment that looks an awful lot like brainwashing. That’s what the films about.
I think the genesis of the idea was sort of a nexus between my background in politics and my brother, who directed the film, his background in genre, going back to many shows he cut his teeth on such as Battlestar Galactica, Alias, The Walking Dead, The Purge, this is really his passion. I spent about five years as a speechwriter in Washington, first at the Pentagon. Then I spent a year working with the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the Bush and Obama administrations and then I spent a year in Afghanistan with General David Petraeus when he was commanding general there. I was very fortunate that the high-ranking officials I worked for were really the best of the best, just incredible people. But being in Washington, D.C. you see up close and personal a lot of people at high-levels of power. One of the things one starts to realize and think about is that to even want to be in those worlds, there is a touch of megalomania involved. If you think about just running for the President of the United States, just by virtue of dipping your toes in the water to say “I’m going to campaign for this”, it’s suggesting that you believe that you should be the most powerful person on the planet and that you are capable of wielding the most awesome powers and making life and death decisions for millions, if not billions of people.
It’s starting from that foundation – we asked the question, “What’s it like if the most powerful person on the planet is put in the most powerless situation on the planet?”. It’s really this idea of losing autonomy and agency is at the heart of not just institutional horror films but institutional films, more broadly speaking. This is definitely a genre film but we were also looking at the great institutional films for inspirations about a lot of the underlying ideas. We went to movies like Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption as well as horror like American Horror Story: Asylum. They’re a great inspiration to see how other people have dealt with these same big ideas.
I also noticed that portions of the film had a very A Clockwork Orange feel to them.
Alston Ramsay: Yeah, the session sequences were, from the moment we started working on this… we always knew that those would really be the showcase and they would be the most original parts of what I think is an all-around original film. We wanted them to stand out like something you had never seen and A Clockwork Orange was one of the big inspirations for brainwashing-type sequences. The other big one is a movie called The Parallax View, it has a bizarre sequence that was useful to think through. I think it’s literally like a seven-minute sequence of photos and words and other things. It’s incredible that in a theatrical film they had just a seven-minute sequence where you aren’t cutting between anything else, it’s just what the guy is seeing. We took those ideas and then we made it completely our own with the Rorschach imagery and everything. That was one of the coolest parts, I think, production-wise, that my brother and the editor and the production team and the cinematographer – everyone did such an awesome job. To make that come together we actually filmed Dr. Larson’s (Sonita Henry) side of that conversation early in the shoot and then all those video sequences were edited together while we were making the movie. Then when we got towards the end of the shoot we filmed the session scenes. What you are actually looking at, this is if people want to geek out on production stuff, Barry Watson was acting against a video recording that had been pre-recorded and pre-edited. Barry is incredible every moment of the film but just from an acting challenge, that’s not easy to do and he just absolutely killed it.
Everyone that was cast did such a fantastic job, but Barry really brought his everything into his role. It was a truly phenomenal performance.
Alston Ramsay: I would point out that if you watch the movie, he’s actually in every single scene which there are not many movies where literally the lead is in every single scene. That means he had to be there day in and day out, from opening to closing. He just brought such a wonderful attitude and is just such an amazing presence to have on set which I think you really have to have on something where it’s a short shoot and it’s tough to get through. The energy he brought was really amazing.
There’s an indication of the period in time in which the film is taking place but it’s never specifically stated. Can you talk a bit about the time period the film takes place in?
Alston Ramsay: I’m not going to pawn it off to my brother because he’s not on the phone but it was really a directing sensibility and tone idea. Originally we wanted to do a period piece, like what would the future of technology look like sitting at the vantage point of the early 80s. It’s like a futuristic view from there of technology gone in this weird, creepy direction. My brother, the production design team, and the DP, they really all got it that this tone thing is creepy. It’s like retro but futuristic period but timeless, that it’s all this weird mixture that I think gives it a really distinct look. It also just makes it unsettling. It’s unsettling in that way that good horror is. It just kind of gets under your skin and shows you something you haven’t seen before.
Lastly, when writing the story, was there a scene that you couldn’t wait to see come alive on the big screen?
Alston Ramsay: There were many! I think I’m going to give you two answers. I’ll give you the part that I think, from filmmaking and creative standpoint, was awesome and then I’ll give you my kind of guilty pleasure scene. The filmmaking one is the sessions. I think that it’s because there’s so much going on there that… filmmaking is a collaborative process where many artists are involved and then the best aspects and the best moments you are bringing together many people’s best qualities. In those scenes, the writing is in the dialogue and I had talked to Julius about visuals and aesthetics and the tone he wanted, so I’ll take credit for the dialogue but all the visuals… I had ideas but I didn’t know how to make that work because what I described on the page I’m like, “I don’t know how to actually film this or what it looks like.” That’s where everyone played such a vital role – the production team, the editors editing the videos while we’re filming, the director of photography with the look and the feel and the lights and special lens, and the props team did an awesome job in capturing the weird aspect of retro technology gone crazy. To watch what that ended up with is so much cooler and more bizarre and scary and weird. It all came [together] into something that’s so unique and bizarre and disturbing and weird all at once. That was the most gratifying part to me.
My guilty pleasure… the boot-licking scene (laughs). That was the first day of the shoot. Think about that from an acting standpoint, Marvin Jones III, who played the orderly and was amazing, barely… it’s like their [Marvin and Barry] first day working together. To up the ante, that same first day included Barry getting hosed down, him cleaning the toilets, him getting his neck broken, and him getting bathed in fake blood. Talk about a trial by fire. Barry and Marvin were such incredible talents to work with and they gave it they’re all. That day was wild and that scene ended up being really disturbing in a great way. Yeah, that was my guilty pleasure.