The Night Stalker examines of the final days of real-life 1980s California serial killer Richard Ramirez. The film unfolds largely through a series of fictional one-on-one meetings between Ramirez and a lawyer (Bellamy Young), as she tries to coax a murder confession out of him. But The Night Stalker, which premieres at SIFF later this week, is much more than just another serial killer movie, thanks to writer/director Megan Griffiths’ unerring knack for characterization and a compelling star turn by Lou Diamond Phillips as Ramirez. The story also has personal resonance for Griffiths, who was a child growing up in Southern California when Ramirez’s reign of terror was at its peak.
Griffiths (Lucky Them, Eden, The Off Hours) sat down to talk with me about sculpting some of those memories into her fifth feature film, shooting in LA and keeping the movie industry alive in Seattle.
Let's get the most obvious question out of the way: Why make a serial killer movie?
It was therapeutic and ultimately cathartic to at least dig into and sort of humanize [Ramirez], and to understand what made him who he was. I really wanted to take him away from being this faceless inhuman monster. The fictional character of the lawyer, Kit, was created as a counterpart that ran parallel to him. Richard Ramirez was a person who was very damaged by a very damaging life. He was formed and shaped by traumatic incidents. Then he went on to do horrible things that became one of the traumatic elements in her life. Kit's story is more of a hopeful version of the story he had.
What were your memories of that time, as a kid living in Southern California at the time?
I was 10 at the time and Ramirez was a real boogeyman to everyone. The idea of closing the curtains, locking the windows, clipping the curtains closed so there was no way to see in, that’s all just my own memory. And the way people talked about him: “Yeah, he chooses yellow and beige houses.” I just remember those conversations as a 10-year-old in the schoolyard. The first thing that anyone says if they were around LA at that time was, “Oh God, it was so hot that summer and you couldn’t open a window.” It’s a line in the movie because I heard it so many times. I was trying to get the heat across, and the fear, how people were shutting themselves in their homes.
So it was shot on location.
Yeah, I shot the entire film in Los Angeles, and did all the post here [in Seattle]. In this case, it was such an LA story, I couldn’t imagine not shooting it there. As much as I believe you can shoot anything in Seattle and Washington state, it just felt like it would be wrong not to shoot it in LA. There are so many flashbacks of 1985 LA—and so many parts of the city feel exactly the same. We shot the sequence where young Ramirez is captured on the street where it really happened, and we only had to cover a couple of street signs and move a couple of cars.
You’ve worked with a local crew for a long time…
I call them Crewtopia…
So what was it like working with a mostly LA crew?
It worked out great. I was a little unsure going into it, because I’ve developed such a shorthand, and such trust, and so much comfort with this local crew. I love them so much. A couple of people came with me—Rebecca Luke, who did costumes on everything else I’ve done, and Erin O. Kay, who was doing props, also came down. But otherwise I built it from the ground up. I ended up with this amazing gender equity across the board: We have about 50 percent females on the crew. That was something that was a benefit of building a new crew, because I could make that a priority. I could specifically seek out these talented, awesome ladies to lead these departments.
Your success as a film director has made you sort of a poster child for Northwest cinema.
I’ll take it. [laughs] It’s so funny. The only film I’ve shot in Seattle that’s supposed to be Seattle is Lucky Them. The rest of the time, Washington state has been subbing for somewhere else. I do want to continue to live here and make things here. Really, that’s the plan. But there’s that, and there’s there’s also the element of “what are these opportunities that are open in front of me?”
My preference is to shoot everything here, because my apartment’s in Ballard and I want to live here. I want to be close to home, and sleep in my own bed, work with my friends and keep this industry growing. One of the contributing factors—not to get too into it—is that [Washington state’s] film incentive program is so precarious. It just makes it really challenging. If we could get it renewed next year, and upped a little bit and more competitive, it’d be so much easier to bring projects into Seattle.
The world premiere of The Night Stalker is June 4 at the SIFF Cinema Uptown as part of the 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival. Tickets at www.siff.net.