Bruce Willis (Die Hard franchise) and Megan Fox (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) lead a powerful cast including Emile Hirsch (Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood), Lukas Haas (Inception), and Colson Baker (Bird Box) in this gritty and intense crime-thriller. While in Florida on another case, FBI agents Helter (Willis) and Lombardo (Fox) cross paths with state cop Crawford (Hirsch), who’s investigating a string of female murders that appear to be related. Lombardo and Crawford team up for an undercover sting, but it goes horribly wrong, plunging Lombardo into grave danger and pitting Crawford against a serial killer in a twisted game of cat and mouse.
Midnight in the Switchgrass comes from first-time helmer Randall Emmett. A prolific producer, Randall has worked with some of the greatest talents in Hollywood over the last 20 years. In his feature directorial debut, he offers viewers a guttural punch with nuanced characters, story and delivers social justice to those lowest on the totem pole.
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Randall about why this story resonated with him, working closely with his actors, diving deep into character development, his directing idols and above all else, his respect to the craft, process and collaboration with screenwriter Alan Horsnail.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was it about this story and script that made you decide to make this your feature directing debut?
Randall Emmett: I really loved the characters and what they stood for. I really liked Emile and Megan's fight for people that don't have a voice that gets lost in society. I just felt like these girls didn't have anybody to speak for them and they were willing to risk their careers and their lives to stand up for them. I feel like society when people have an addiction, or they fall into whether it's prostitution or whatever it may be, it's easy for society to just say, “Hey you know what, they're messed up and they're not important to care about,” and I felt like this story showed us that they are human beings, and even though they're down and out or have addictions or different issues, everybody's worth fighting for and everybody's a human being and everybody should deserve that respect.
Sadie: Going into the characters, there is this resonating theme of who's on the right side of justice where you have Peter taking out prostitutes because he thinks it's the right thing to do, which it is definitely not, and then there’s Byron and Rebecca approaching it from different angles but are doing the right thing. And to top it off, there’s the character element with Peter, where he’s unsettling in that he plays the nice guy so well. How did you mentally prepare yourself for these archetypes and what were some challenges that you found along the way in how you would portray these characters visually?
Randall: With Peters character, I was so fascinated when I did the table read, I really started deep-diving into the character of the backstory, where he just so believes that he's such a good person and doing the right thing, and I felt when I spoke with Lukas [Haas], we did a lot of character research on former serial killers and the one thorough line is that they all believe what they're doing is the right thing, whatever it may be, whatever kind of demented serial killer they may be. And I really emphasized with Lukas, that I wanted him to have this extreme, where he’s the perfect family guy with a perfect family, making sure he's there for dinner, making sure he's helping his daughter, to being the most demented sick human. And I wanted the audience to feel how dark these kinds of people in the world that we know of are, and I feel like we fought to normalize as much as we could when he was with his family.
For me as a director when I was on set, it became really unsettling, because I would have to remember, like, “OK we're eating dinner now and I really want you to have a romantic moment with your wife,” and I would get nauseous because a day earlier, he's tormenting and torturing you know, Caitlin in the box. It is a balancing act. You're trying to find that line, but I really did enjoy watching his character be able to do that dance on both sides of the line and that he could switch so quick.
Sadie: Stepping into your producing side, you've produced a lot of big movies with powerhouse teams from cast to crew. Did you ever find yourself taking note of how these directors worked on these pictures from communicating with their crew, their actors to maybe even their unique visual style?
Randall: Yeah, I mean for sure, I definitely felt going in, even though I was petrified and felt like a freshman in high school, I think had a lot of tools. I definitely enjoyed watching Scorsese and Peter Berg and all these men and women that I've worked with that I've looked up to, I definitely took a lot away from their rehearsing. I wanted a lot of extra rehearsal. I wanted to have moments alone with them in rehearsal before the crew was around. So that we could kind of dial in whatever they were not sure about where things they wanted to try, things I wanted to try, things that I didn't know if they would work, sometimes my ideas were as they would say or Emile would say were great and sometimes my ideas just would fall flat and that's OK. And I feel like what I learned most from the best directors that I look up to, is that it's OK to try something and it not work. And I think that's what makes great art. I think you have to try. You have to really push yourself to be brave and try something, and sometimes you have to own it that it just didn't work, it was a dumb idea. You came up with it, but it just didn't work and then there are ideas you come up with like a moment and you're just like, “Oh my God,” that's why we make movies.
But I feel like I took a lot from the directors – preparation. Really doing your homework, of really prepping the right way. When I first started, some maybe phoned it in a little more. But the great ones, the ones that I look up to are the ones that I have the, you know all the respect for in the world, they did the work, Scorsese, Peter, Michael Polish, all these great filmmakers I've worked with, they are all in the trenches. If they could have another four weeks or three, they would take it. That's something that I just appreciate - that time is so valuable as a director in prepping a film.
Sadie: You got to work with some of the greats who are definitely the masters of their craft, and there's something definitely about having that kind of creative environment to fail, and it be OK, which says a lot.
Randall: Correct, correct.
Sadie: What was the collaboration process like with screenwriter Alan Horsnail?
Randall: Alan was amazing! I called him during pre-production more so than production, he came out a lot for when we were filming, but in pre, I called him a lot because I wanted to know sometimes where he came up with this shit. [laughs] There was a great moment I'll never forget, there was a moment in the movie, it's not in the movie, it’s out, where Bruce Willis comes through when he tries to save the day with Megan after she knocks out MGK. And he walks in the door and he says, “We got to get out of here.” And in the script, Alan had written and where he kicks in the door and he comes flying in the air, and it's like some big Die Hard moment, and I call him up and said, “Alan, what are you doing? What is this? Why is he kicking in the door and flying through the air?” and he goes, “Can I be honest?” and I was like, “Yeah, please.” And he goes, “I really thought nobody was ever gonna make my movie, so I just wrote the shit out of it.” [laughs] I said, “Well, Alan, I love the real and raw authenticity of your script, I want to keep it in that world.” He’s like, “Absolutely!”
Alan was really helpful because I would ask a lot of questions in pre like, “Where did Peter grow up? What was Peter's childhood because this is what I think Peter’s childhood was like,” and he's like, “You nailed it.” I wanted to know a lot of backstory before I even went to the actors. I really wanted to get my backstory of what I believe was close to accurate and if not, if Alan didn't have the answer, I wanted to formulate the answer with him so we both kind of were telling that story that he wrote because I just thought his writing was so beautifully executed. I worked with Alan a lot, and I called him, many, many times, I had a lot of specific things I wanted to know and then I would internalize that myself.
I couldn't have asked for a better partner. He was so supportive. He was so gracious in his time. I’d call him a lot at two in the morning when I was freaking out, like, “Well, what if Peter does this?” And he would always just answer the phone and calm me down and say, “No, no, you're right, where you're going with this is exactly what I wanted” or “Randy, I thought about it a little differently this way.” To have a writer so available as a first-time director, I was very, very, lucky because a lot of writers get super busy, they’re on multiple assignments, and they're not as available, so I was very grateful for that relationship.
Sadie: You're, you're definitely a screenwriter’s dream in a director, having that open communication is very rare. Thanks for doing that from all of us writers.
Randall: Yes! I've watched the great filmmakers, as you say, I got lucky enough to make some movies with some of the greats and, and I saw their relationship with the writers when I saw how valuable that is and I wanted to be very respectful to that process, so I appreciate what you just said as well.
Sadie: Yeah, thank you. Taking a step back from the film itself, what was your journey in wanting to become a producer and then getting in the director's seat?
Randall: My journey was simple. As a kid, I was so obsessed with movies, and I grew up as an actor very young. I went to a performing arts high school, went on a full scholarship for acting my first year. I made a lot of short films with one of my best friends as a kid, and in high school, I went to New York and I worked on a movie as a PA, and I call my parents at seven in the morning because we were on a night shoot with my little walkie talkie as a PA [laughs] and I called them and I said, “I'm never going back to acting,” and they thought I had lost my mind, because that's all they knew I knew. And I said, “I said, “I just want to be on a set for the rest of my life. I don't know what that means. I don't know what job I'm going to do Mom and Dad, but I love film. And, and I want to go to film school.” And that was the beginning of me finding my journey.
When I got to film school, I wanted to be a voice for directors and writers. I like putting it all together and being involved in every aspect. As a producer, I really love being the voice for the director and for the writer. They’re such artists and are so talented, that sometimes they just don't have somebody to go and raise the money for them, to help package the movie for them. And I was really good at that and I enjoyed that a lot.
What happened was over 20 years and a lot of films, I started to lose some of my artistic self because, you know, business is business, and I just was burning out a little bit. And about two years ago I said I really want to challenge myself and I love actors and I know a lot of them, and I've made a lot of movies. I've watched the best, I've watched the worst and I wanted to challenge myself and I found this script, and I went and asked Emile Hirsch to do a table read with me and 20 minutes into the table read, I said, “Will you do this movie for me, I'm gonna direct it.” And he said, “yes absolutely.’ And Megan was my first choice and we got her, and the rest was history.
Sadie: What is a mindset or maybe a tool that you carried over from your producing background to directing?
Randall: Time. I'm really good at managing time. [laughs] My whole career I’ve been looking at a watch. We only have so much time to make a day. When we're struggling on a day, how can we make up time? How can we maximize what we have in the budget? And I feel like going into this movie, I only had a certain amount of money, I didn't have an unlimited budget, this was my first film obviously and I had to prove to people that I'm worthy of directing, and I was able to be creative because of my experience as a producer. I was able to maximize the budget, probably more so than, let's say a typical first director would, just because I know the ins and outs of the logistics of making a film so well. Creatively, I was definitely petrified and freaking out, but from when I was producing the movie, you have such an edge, because you've been doing it for so long, I was able to stretch the money pretty far, and make decisions on the set. They would come to me on the set and say you know “we're two hours behind today because of rain, what do you want to do?” and I could make a decision right there very quickly, not as the director, but as the producer benefiting the director, which is the same person. I was able to make the best decision for me as the director and not hurt the movie, that's because I have all that experience as a producer. I definitely had an edge, because of my experience as a producer.
Sadie: That's quite the superpower to have on any set. Well Randall, thank you so much. I really hope that you get back in that director's chair and keep doing it, trust in your gut, and best of luck with the movie.
Randall: Thank you, very kind, I really appreciate the support because this is obviously a new road I'm on, and anybody that gives me that support, really, it means a lot to me. Thank you.
Midnight in the Switchgrass is available in Theaters, On Demand, Digital July 23 and available on DVD and Blu-Ray July 27.