Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

Megan Griffiths: A fascination with ‘The Night Stalker’

Lou Diamond Phillips is Richard Ramirez in ‘The Night Stalker’

Megan Griffiths debuts her fourth feature, The Night Stalker, at the Seattle International film Festival on Saturday, June 4. It’s the story of Richard Ramirez, who was branded The Night Stalker during his 14 month reign of terror in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1984 and 1985, but it’s just as much about how his actions reverberated through the culture of Southern California.

“Everyone who I’ve encountered who lived in California at all in the eighties have these visceral memories of that summer,” recalls Griffiths. “I lived in Riverside and he never came to Riverside but it felt like he could.” The story made national headlines but he the effect on those living in Southern California was immediate and powerful “I didn’t remember seeing that explored and I was interested in that and wanted to explore it.”

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Ramirez at age 53, after spending 23 years on death row, and he looks eerily like the real-life Ramirez, and Bellamy Young (Scandal) is a lawyer named Kit, a fictional character created for the film who interviews Ramirez in the hopes of getting a confession to murder he was never prosecuted for. Ramirez demands a trade, that she spill her own secrets, and the film becomes as much if not more about her. Chelle Sherrill plays the young Kit and Benjamin Barrett is the 26-year-old Richard Ramirez.

The film will play select theaters in Southern California on Friday, June 10 before it makes its television premiere on the Lifetime network on Sunday, June 12. The Night Stalker was not produced with a television premiere in mind but the network stepped up while the film was in post-production.

“Ultimately you want an audience and you take the audience however you can get the audience,” acknowledges Griffiths. “So if it’s people watching it on VOD or, in this case, if it’s people watching it on Lifetime, they have a huge audience. That’s probably more eyes on my film on the night of the premiere than I’ve had on any of my films in the theater.”

Lifetime was supportive of her vision, she insists, and her production. “Their statistics for supporting women in the director’s chair is far above the industry norm so that’s for sure something I was looking at in this collaboration.”

I talked with Megan Griffiths by phone a few days before its premiere. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Plays at SIFF on Saturday, June 4, 5:30pm, Uptown; Sunday, June 5, 1:30pm, Pacific Place. Director Megan Griffiths and other members of the production will attend both screenings.

Sean Axmaker: How did SIFF land the world premiere of The Night Stalker?

Megan Griffiths: I suppose the answer to that question is convergence. The film was acquired by Lifetime and they wanted to premiere it on television on June 12. I showed SIFF a screener and they were excited about it and it felt like the best of all worlds because we could consolidate the time between the festival premier and the release of the movie to the point where all the press could happen at once, which is the day-and-date model of normal independent film distribution thinking. It’s the idea of not having to get people excited about your movie over and over again and have it all converge on one ten day period where everything is happening. We’re doing a theatrical showing in Southern California and we’re doing the TV premiere and we’re doing the festival premiere all at the same time.

SA: The Night Stalker is ostensibly about Richard Ramirez, the real-life serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles and San Francisco in the eighties, but the story really belongs to Kit, a lawyer who interviews him to help a client convicted of a murder she thinks was actually committed by Ramirez. And in your flashback structure, when you slip back from 2013, where Ramirez is in prison, to the 1980s, when his psychosis was shaped and he went on his spree, it is completely wound up in Kit’s own story of growing up in the shadow of his reign of terror.

MG: Exactly. When I was still determining whether I was going to work on this project, my producer, Alisa Tager, had a friend who had given her the biography and she and I were meeting and she mentioned it and I perked up to the idea. She said, ‘I have this book about the Night Stalker,’ and I said, ‘Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker?’ I grew up in Riverside, California, I was 10 years old when this was all going on, so I was very, very aware of him. He was not quite as formative in my life as he was in Kit’s but I certainly credit him with fear of home invasion and locking my windows and doors every night because he was that first specter of darkness and violence that I had in my childhood that invaded my own mind. And so when I was thinking about doing it, I wanted to have that perspective of a person who was affected by him who hadn’t met him and someone whose life paralleled his. In Ramirez’s childhood there were a lot of traumatic experiences, more than I’ve seen in most people that I’ve come across by a lot. He was really impacted by these bad influences in his life—his cousin who was PTSD war vet who brought back all these horrible images and stories from Vietnam and shot someone right in front of Ramirez when he was 12—all that stuff is pulled from the biography and as far as I know is all true. He was impacted by that in a way that is horrific and he did all these things that are horrifying and are completely unjustifiable but knowing all this about his history helped me understand who he was a little bit and I wanted to parallel that with the Kit story. One of the people who traumatized her and shifted her whole life was Ramirez, and the idea of sitting down across from Ramirez and trying to figure out why he did all these things was a driving force into creating this other fiction character.

Chelle Sherrill in Megan Griffith’s ‘The Night Stalker’

SA: Is Kit inspired by a real-life character or is she a complete fiction? Was there a lawyer who went to Ramirez to clear someone convicted of one of his murders?

MG: Not as far as I know. I know that her story and the case she’s working are fiction because I created them but there was a prevailing idea that Ramirez was responsible for additional crimes that he wasn’t prosecuted for. The detective who worked that case from beginning to end, Gil Carrillo, was a consultant on the movie and he said that after the conviction, Ramirez copped to additional crimes, “You didn’t get me for all of them” and those kinds of comments. And they knew that. [Carrillo] said that when they were forming these cases, they took the 13 cases that were the most airtight and that they knew they would the conviction on. Because that’s plenty. 13 convictions for murder is going to get someone either the death penalty or put in prison forever. So they didn’t really pursue some cases that they suspected might have been him as well. So there is a plausible case that there were other murders or other rapes and abductions that he was responsible for that were never pursued. That was the inspiration to build that storyline.

SA: I know that you are a fan of The Silence of the Lambs

MG: (laughs) I am!

SA: …and you consulted a number of movies while preparing The Night Stalker. Knowing that there are parallels with Silence of the Lambs in these scenes between Kit and Ramirez, how did you approach your film so it would be distinctive and different?

MG: It just came out of the character development of Richard and Kit. Richard is a real life human being who is now deceased and I couldn’t talk to, so I had to do a lot of research around him and figure out how he spoke. That was another question I asked Gil Carrillo, who has been in a room with and talked to Ramirez. He dropped out of high school and he had no real formal education beyond tenth grade but was an avid reader and always wanted to sound very literate and educated when he spoke, especially when he was on trial and he would get quoted by the media, so we always had these answer that felt very scripted. And he was, by all accounts, remorseless to the end. So creating a character around that, I had to interpolate how he would be in the scenario from what I knew and it felt like to have a character like him who was guarded but interested in the subject matter…. it just grew out of that and the idea of him trying to pull something out of her, not wanting to give away all his secrets for free. And then her being someone who is so closely guarded and so unwilling to part with that that it nearly sabotages her entire mission.

SA: I was fascinated by the scenes in the waiting room at the prison where women are lining up to talk to Ramirez. At first Kit has a similar perverse fascination but after she’s met him and as he pulls these confessions out of her, she becomes more introspective and her attitude toward them changes. She’s a lot more unsettled by these women who want to meet this guy.

MG: That also comes from the research. He had a bevy of what they would call groupies in the courtroom for the four year trial, people would come every day and just swoon over him, and he had this rock star persona, which is unimaginable to so many people, and then he got married to one of those people, Doreen Lioy, who is depicted in a small way in the movie. She was one of these people who started following him when he was on trial and continued throughout. That was interesting to me, and playing with the idea that Kit is in that category because of the fact that she was so completely fascinated by him in her youth and hasn’t quite shaken that. Where is that line between fear and fascination, and fascination and attraction? That was the interesting thing to me about the groupies and I wanted to put that into the character of Kit to explore it a little bit.

SA: Most films about serial killers focus on the reign of terror or on the manhunt. You made this about someone else, her fascination with Ramirez and his impact on her life decades later. Why?

MG: I was interested in the psychology of him and getting to the bottom of what created him. It’s Kit’s story and it’s an examination of a character formed by a fascination with Ramirez but the story all grew out of his childhood and his trajectory and his inability to overcome his own childhood trauma and the way he dealt with it. I’m fascinated by what creates people like him and so I wanted to build around that, but I really did have this reaction when I was first revisiting the material when the opportunity came my way to write it. I was like, ‘I just don’t want to follow him and watch him murder all these people.’ Just looking through all the different crime descriptions that are even just on Wikipedia but are much more detailed in the book, it just doesn’t sound like an interesting movie to me, to just go around watching murder happen. I was much more interested in the psychological aspect to it and wanted to dig into that. There is definitely a good movie that has yet to be made about the manhunt. There are a lot interesting stories that I heard when I was doing research and talking to Gil Carrillo. I did have this thought where, ‘That is another good movie that I could make at some point but I’m not going to make that movie now. This is the movie I’m making.’

SA: There aren’t that many films that take such a different approach. Summer of Sam and Zodiac are both as much about how the crimes and the notoriety of the killer reverberates through the culture as they are about the killer or the manhunt. In The Night Stalker, Kit is our point of view for that approach because she was particularly fascinated by him.

MG: I think the obvious victims were the people who came face to face with Ramirez and either didn’t live beyond that or lived beyond that highly, highly traumatized. And then there are a lot of other people, and I include myself in this group, who were in the same area, were hearing these stories, and had this level of fear that was added to our daily lives that felt new and unsettling and that hurt people who never came face to face with this dangerous individual but still are affected by it. I think that’s interesting.

* Spoiler alert * The last paragraphs discuss a revelation from the end of the film

SA: Kit’s childhood was informed by violence and sexual assault. When she talks with Ramirez, she says “When my mother’s boyfriend made me have sex with him…” She doesn’t use the word rape, which I found very telling about the way she removes herself from her past.

MG: She does get around to using the R-word but it isn’t immediate, she has to get there, even over the course of that speech.

SA: Her life has been impacted by violence against her.

MG: When I was talking about creating her character as a parallel to Ramirez, that was where that came from, building up to giving them common ground, somewhere they could meet, this sort of shared experience that’s different but similar. I’m sure they are not the only two people who have experienced trauma in their childhood so hopefully it will mean something to other trauma survivors in the audience. My mother was a social worker and she worked with abused children her whole career and that was very informative to my point of view as a filmmaker to grow up with her, watching her exhibit that level of caring and empathy in our home and outside of our home. That informs the whole movie too.

Plays at SIFF on Saturday, June 4, 5:30pm, Uptown; Sunday, June 5, 1:30pm, Pacific Place. Director Megan Griffiths and other members of the production will attend both screenings.