'Into the Dark: The Current Occupant' Writer on "Insane" Trump and Life Imitating Art
During his four-year stint as deputy chief speech writer to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Alston Ramsay traveled like few can — namely, in a modified 747 jet dubbed the doomsday plane because it could withstand a nuclear attack. That experience proved to be valuable when it came time to write his first major Hollywood screenplay, Hulu’s Into the Dark: The Current Occupant, the latest chapter in the Blumhouse-produced horror anthology. Drawing on his time working in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Ramsay crafted an inadvertently timely protagonist — an amnesiac (played by Barry Watson) who is trapped in a mysterious psychiatric ward and believes he’s the U.S. president and victim of a nefarious political conspiracy.
“The premise of the film is that it may be taking place in the bunker at the White House,” says Ramsay, who also served as a senior adviser to General David Petraeus and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. “And the doomsday plane is not dissimilar to the bunker at the White House that Trump was hiding in a few weeks ago. So, it's one of those cases where life imitates art. But even I couldn't make up the fact that the White House bunker became an actual news story, and add to that a president who is insane. That's the premise of Current Occupant.”
Heat Vision breakdown
The feature-length episode premieres on July 17 and marks Ramsay’s second collaboration with his brother, the film’s director Julius Ramsay (they previously teamed on the 2017 indie film Midnighters). Alston spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from his home in Santa Monica, where he lives a mile from his brother about how he landed the gig and how Current Occupant caught several lucky breaks over the past few months.
How did your previous career in the Bush and Obama administrations prepare you for screenwriting?
As a speech writer, all you think about is the way that people talk and how you mimic their voice and the spoken language as opposed to written language. And when you think about a screenplay, a huge part of it is dialogue and about giving characters different voices and being able to hear the way they're going to talk. So that was great, an incredible preparation, just studying the cadence of the language and the patterns and rhythms. The other thing was honing my research skills, which is the foundation of good speech writing. I had a mentor early on who had been [Ronald] Reagan's chief speech writer. He said for every 10 interesting items you find, you might only use one, and you need to use the most interesting. So, it was going out and researching people and experiences and really trying to find the kernels of truth that make for good drama. And the notes process of Hollywood here is similar [to that in Washington]. You have to know what to fight for and what not to fight for.
How did you and your brother get The Current Occupant gig?
Julius had been talking with [the producers], like two years ago. Early conversations. Into the Dark was just getting off the ground, season one. And then, last spring, we pitched an idea or two, but they were already working on stuff that was sort of similar. And we just kept going back because we thought this was a cool series. And with the anthology format, you get to do a feature film. So, you get the best of both worlds of TV and features, like they've already got a lot of the crew in place. We heard that the July episode for this year was still an open assignment, and I was like, “We should be able to hit this out of the park because it's tied to July 4, the patriotic theme. We have to be able to come up with something.” And that's where I think my background and his directing sensibility really came together in an awesome way as well as the fact drop of current events. We knew there was an institutional horror film in here somewhere. So all of these ideas came together, and Blumhouse loved it, and they brought us on. We didn't start working on the script until November. I wrote the first draft in about a week, and we had November and December to work through notes and kinks in the process. And then, preproduction started the beginning of January with casting, and then we're shooting by the beginning of February.
Were you interrupted at all by the coronavirus lockdown?
We got so exceedingly lucky in a way that I cannot even really fathom. We finished a week and a half before production everywhere shut down. The [Into the Dark] feature after ours got six days into their shoot before it shut down. I can't imagine how heartbreaking it would be to have everything shut down partway through your shoot and just not know when it's going to come back. The challenge for us was to figure out how to do all the postproduction remotely. And it was 100 percent remote postproduction, the sound mixes, everything. That's where my brother's background in editing helped out. He knows postproduction inside out.
Will you and your brother be involved in any future Into the Dark chapters?
It's a one-off, and I don't really know the details of the series going forward. But some directors have done multiple episodes, so you never know. I'd obviously love to see what we can come up with, but I think it's going to be hard to top to this one, just because so many things came together — there's the presidential and political angle of the alt-right now, and there's a pandemic that has us all trapped, whether that's in our own heads or literally trapped in our own apartments. And we're all held hostage to the political powers who can be making decisions with catastrophic consequences.
Is that what drew you to the institutional setting?
Yeah. Institutional films are about the loss of agency and autonomy and the way that bureaucracies just sit there and destroy the individual, whether they mean to or not. They're unthinking and uncaring, and you can't bargain with them. That's certainly how I feel with the pandemic. It's a disease. You can't do anything about that. It doesn't listen to reason. And you look at the government response, especially the White House, and, if it weren't so tragic, it would almost be comical. But it's not comical because it's real life.