Lee Martin wants Lee Martin’s The Midnight Hour to be a household name, and he’s willing to put in the work to get there.
“If you want to be a baseball player professionally, you can’t sit home and say, ‘I’m going to wait until I get an $8 million contract,'” Martin says. “You’ve got to get up there, honing your craft for free at high schools and parks and stuff like that, until you’re really good and you know what you’re doing.”
The Redford Township resident has been honing his craft relentlessly for six years now, writing and directing one 30-minute episode of The Midnight Hour per month while also holding down a full-time job as a data support technician. The anthology horror TV show airs on cable channels 12 and 18 in Oakland County, and recent episodes stream on the show’s website. Martin conceived the show in 2007 after pumping $4,000 of his own money into a failed feature film project, Phantoms of Route 13.
“I was really disappointed in what we got considering the money that was spent,” he says. “And then the money ran out.”
So Martin created The Midnight Hour, theorizing that “nothing else would give me so much experience so fast.” His early stories went for a Creepshow vibe — horror with a comic edge — but he says he felt fans of that style were loyal to the classics and uninterested in new material. So he refocused on another of his favorite varieties of horror: the pulpy Italian genre of giallo, known for its gory murder mysteries laced with erotic content. He also added an element straight out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook: black-and-white opening and closing scenes in which Martin himself directly addresses the viewer, introducing and later concluding the story. With impeccably coiffed hair, a mellifluous voice and a slightly eerie gaze, Martin bears comparison to one of Hitchcock’s infamous leading men, Anthony Perkins.
“I remember watching the rough cut [of Phantoms of Route 13] and thinking, ‘Wow, if you didn’t know what the story was, you wouldn’t know what’s going on,'” he says. “The editor really didn’t do a cohesive edit. When I did the series, I thought I might have the same problem again. So I thought I’d have a host come on in the beginning and set things up, and then come on in the end and recap what happened just in case people don’t get it.”
Occasionally, you might just need that recap to fully grasp what’s happened at the end of one of the half-hour episodes. The show’s seedy, soapy and often sexual murder plots are usually capped with a last-minute twist. Although the twists come way out of left field, Martin prides himself on fully laying the groundwork for them.
“Probably the most important thing for me is that all the ‘T’s are crossed and all the ‘I’s are dotted,” he says. “I really hate it when I’m watching a thriller or a giallo or mystery or something and you can tell where they cheated and something doesn’t make sense once you know the ending.”
In the early days, Martin spent thousands of his own dollars to pay his cast and crew; he says he’s “never received a penny” himself from doing the show. But he ended up getting better results when he began advertising all jobs as unpaid positions via his website and various online film forums.
“The quality actually went up,” he says. “Back when I was paying people, all they did was complain that they weren’t getting paid enough. I think it actually worked out for the best because we found the passionate people in that process.”
Nearly 300 actors have worked on the show over its run, coming mostly from Michigan and Ohio but also from as far away as Louisiana and California. Crewmembers varied for the show’s first few years, but in late 2012 Martin began regularly working with cinematographer Nic Carr and post-production supervisor Fred Mossman, who runs Mossman Editorial by day.
“They’re by far the most professional crew people I’ve ever worked with,” Martin says. “They’ve really raised the standard and given the show a great look.”
Mossman, however, says the show’s long-running success is thanks to Martin’s “sheer tenacity and willpower.”
“He’s amazing to watch him work because he’s just so full of energy,” Mossman says. “He’s an everywhere-all-the-time kind of guy. He just leaps around the set like a circus animal.”
Although Martin shot skits on 8mm and 16mm film in high school, Phantoms of Route 13 was the first project he’d attempted since those days, and he’s had no formal training in filmmaking. He holds a bachelor’s in business administration from Oakland University. While he regrets not getting into filmmaking earlier, he says his past work experience in project management has made him “pretty comfortable” with directing.
“I had 15 or 20 years of that before I started doing this show and it really helped,” he says. “There’s so many details and so many deadlines, but I’m a pretty organized person.”
Last year Martin signed a contract with a New York distributor, which is currently shopping The Midnight Hour to Netflix and other streaming video services. Martin says he plans to “keep pushing and pushing” until he gets the show to a point where he and his crew can make a career of it.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, because we all have a lot to learn,” he says.
But Mossman is convinced that Martin has the drive to make it happen.
“It’s never easy, but Lee is the kind of guy who’s going to get it done, and he does,” Mossman says. “I think if you look at the production of the show over the six years, you’ll see that it continually gets better.”
Martin’s particularly interested in leaving behind a quality product because he’s already got an eye towards the show’s legacy. Horror has a long half-life, especially on late-night cable.
“I think there’s people who will be watching this 20 years from now in the middle of the night on some channel somewhere,” Martin says. “I try to do work that I’ll be proud of and that we can all be proud of, because it’s out there and it’s going to stay out there for a long time.”