EXCL: Joshua Director George Ratliff

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His creepy bad kid thriller opens on July 6!

Joshua is far from the normal “bad kid” horror flick we’ve seen so much in recent years—it leans more towards ‘50s classic The Bad Seed rather than following the supernatural thread of The Exorcist or The Omen, even though it has a similar ’70s feel of those. It’s an interesting choice as a second film for director George Ratliff, who last explored a very different kind of horror with his documentary Hell House, about the haunted mansions set-up by Evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt. His latest movie was one of the surprise treats at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, being the type of creepy and eerie thriller where you’re shocked by what you’re watching, because the film’s title star, played by newcomer Jacob Kogan, really gets up to some messed-up sh*t!

ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to talk with George Ratliff as he reunited with his cast in the film’s New York setting. (After the interview, you can also check out an audio interview with his star Jacob Kogan.)

ShockTillYouDrop: What was the most interesting thing about exploring this idea of a kid who terrorizes his parents after they have another baby?

George Ratliff: What interested me most was tapping into a primal fear, and I think all the movies that are the scariest tap into these primal fears. I don’t want to go to deep into that, but I think one primal fear everyone has in human nature is to be afraid your child is going to turn out bad. When my brother first had a kid, I was really excited and I talked about he could be a lawyer, a doctor, he could be all these things and he was driving and very solemnly he said, “Yeah, but he could be a serial killer, too.” [Laughs] That’s when I started thinking about this, but the idea was not mine, it was David’s. Once we tapped into the things that I think were most interesting, like keeping it based in reality and tapping into that fear, is when I found what I thought would be great. We wanted to provide red herrings for people. I think that the scariest possibility is that he’s bad because he’s bad and there’s nothing supernatural about it. I think there’s enough people who possibly think he’s possessed or people think there’s ghosts upstairs or we’re setting up all these possible reasons for this to be, and then slowly they’re stripped away and you’re left with the kid is just bad.

Shock: What’s interesting about the movie is that it deals with new baby syndrome, a very common problem faced by families, so would you say that was the turning point for Joshua to start going bad?

Ratliff: For me, thinking in terms of the turning point of the kid, is the recital. He’s been going through the motions of being good this whole time. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do and he’s so talented, everyone’s ogling him, but playing that song when he hits the bad note, there’s a power to that, that sort of irks people, that’s kind of more interesting, then playing something that’s good, then he takes it further and he sort of gets caught up and it sort of spirals down into this chaos that takes over and I think he found a real power in that and he sort of found himself after that and never really could go back after that. For me, as far as thinking about his psychology, that was the moment that it happened for him. And actually, that’s the part of the movie that the bleach bypass starts as well. It’s very subtle, but for me that’s kind of the beginning of his going down this path.

Shock: I forgot to ask Jacob if he improvised the “Twinkle, Twinkle” little star moment.

Ratliff: Well no, that was the first piece of music written for the movie. The composer for this movie, his name is Niko Muli and he’s only 25.

Shock: Wow, you got a lot of young people working on this.

Ratliff: Yeah, he did the music for this tiny movie called “Choking Man” and I really liked the music for that and he’s worked for Philip Glass for seven years. Philip Glass tapped him out of Julliard when he was 18; he’s an amazing talent.

Shock: It’s a great score.

Ratliff: I really believed in him but it was hard. The producers were taking lots of gambles on me and on everything, didn’t really want to gamble on this kid, so on spec, he and I and David worked on the Twinkle, Twinkle evolving into chaos and found that and that sort of became the microcosm of the whole movie and we all became obsessed with it. Listening to it over and over again, the movie really starts out as this one beautiful thing and kind of turns into something else.

Shock: I remember that in one scene, there’s just the one piano note which was so daunting.

Ratliff: Well, that’s the thing about Joshua’s music. It has the same sort of breakdown that the visuals do. It starts off quite beautiful, melodic and becomes more and more atolital until it ends up as these single notes that are very frightening and they’re just single notes. And that’s Niko and Niko did all the big score evolution as well. It was quite a huge undertaking for very little money. We had to get someone that was young and it worked out very well. He’s an amazing talent.

Shock: I wanted to ask you about shooting in New York, especially in Central Park, because it must have made it more expensive for an indie film.

Ratliff: Yeah, we were in Central Park. New York provides a lot of incentives for shooting in New York. They’re sick of people going to Canada to shoot New York. It was actually put on the table that we should shoot this in Montreal, and we really thought to shoot in New York because it adds so much and there’s so much great baggage when it’s really New York. We get a lot of the “Rosemary’s Baby” baggage without even trying half the time

Shock: That leads perfectly into my next question…

Ratliff: [Laughs] But Central Park, we had to get the permissions and everything, which is kind of difficult, which is kind of difficult but once you’re there, you just have to play by the rules, which you can’t bring a lot of lights and everything so you really have to think about where the lights are going to be and shoot at certain times and plan ahead but it’s great to shoot on city-owned property. Actually, I didn’t find it difficult at all to shoot in New York. I thought it was great.

Shock: In talking about “Rosemary’s Baby”, it’s one of those movies that directors often reference, so how do you feel about the comparison? It’s obviously a different type of movie because of the supernatural element.

Ratliff: I think Rosemary’s Baby is the good kind of baggage to have because it’s such an ominous, scary thing, but it’s nothing like that, like we’re doing a take-off on Rosemary’s Baby, I like the baggage, I don’t think, you’ll never fair well in comparison to classics like that, but it’s just a feeling that it adds to the movie.

Shock: It’s better than being compared to “Birth.”

Ratliff: I was personally trying to stay away from “Birth” as much as possible, although there are scenes in “Birth” that I absolutely, absolutely loved.

Shock: Yeah, I have a love/hate thing going on with that movie, too.

Ratliff: I know what you mean. I had the exact same experience with that movie. I was so in love with so many parts and then afterwards I was like, “What the f*ck?”

Shock: Can you talk about how you approached religion in the film, especially in the form of Joshua’s grandmother, played by Celia Weston?

Ratliff: She’s a fun character to dislike. Celia gave her such a heart. The scene where it’s just Celia and Brad and his mother in the hallway, I think you feel ashamed of disliking Hazel after that, it really breathes such a life into that character. Celia is just one of those amazing actors that she just believes it every step of the way. I don’t know how I got that cast, actually. It was a miracle.

Shock: I also was curious about the amount of humor you put in the movie. You have Michael McKean playing a serious role, but then you have Sam keeping things fairly light despite everything that’s going on in his life.

Ratliff: Part of the way we got such a great cast is that we gave them roles they’re not typically offered. I knew Sam could do this, and I knew Sam would be amazing. I really felt in my gut that he was the right person. We wrote it with Sam in mind, David felt the same thing. When we sort of pitched Sam as an actor, most people would think why would the hedge fund manager father be Sam Rockwell?

Shock: Right, yet somehow that’s why it works.

Ratliff: Yes. I knew he could do it. It’s yours to judge, but he brought so much more to the page, he was amazing. Then to sort of top it off, Michael McKean as his boss [laughs] we were just crazy enough to do it. I knew he had that gravitas. I don’t know if you’ve spoken to him, but he’s such a smart man. He’s brilliant. He plays such a dope most of the time, people don’t realize he’s got that in him, but he brings a lot of weight to whatever he does. If he wants it, it’s there.

Shock: I was laughing a lot while watching the movie and I wondered how much of what I thought was funny was intentionally so.

Ratliff: Absolutely. For example, I think Hell House is a very funny movie and I liked the connection between anxiety and humor and I think it’s more nervous laughter than humor and it feeds anxiety and Joshua really plays with that and so all the laughs, I promise you, are intentional. I kept telling the producers that this movie was going to be funny and they didn’t believe me until we started shooting. I think people were worried whether or not that would work but I always felt confident that it would and I feel like the humor is very important and it feeds into the anxiety.

Shock: I won’t spoil the ending, but when I talked to Dallas Roberts about what happens after that last scene, and he said, “Oh that’s for Joshua 2.” Is there anything else to do with this that might be good for a sequel?

Ratliff: That’s kind of my biggest fear, a sequel to this. My biggest fear in making this was that we were going to lose control and someone was going to want to do a string of direct-to-video movies, like “Joshua Goes to Summer Camp.” [laughs] I’ve got some degree of control but I don’t know, I don’t think so. They’re might be something interesting way down the line, but I really hope not.

Shock: What was the most challenging thing about going from documentaries to dramatic films?

Ratliff: “Hell House” really prepared me for this, because when you’re doing a verité movie like a documentary, basically you’re covering scenes, you’re covering events and every scene has a beginning, middle and end and every scene has characters that have an arc. You build it like you would a narrative movie except you just have to do it at the spur of the moment. You have to visualize how you’re going to shoot it, how you’re going to cut this thing, if there’s a hairdryer going up the stairs, you have to go and get a shot of that and then come down and then you’re in the editing room with the stuff, agonizing over that shot you wish you had, so doing Joshua was kind of a luxury because I could storyboard the whole thing, I could rehearse with the actors, I could think the whole thing out and visualize it several times before we ever got on the set, so actually I was primed for it because I knew how lucky I was.

Shock: Was there anything you shot that is left over for the DVD?

Ratliff: Yeah, actually, there are a couple scenes we took out. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie we took out just for the pace of the movie, but it’s an amazing confrontation between Joshua and his mom. It’s when she discovers the latex gloves under his bed. God, it’s such a great scene. That will be on the DVD. There’s also a lot more to the Brooklyn Museum scene that we took out that’s fantastic. There’s not a lot, but there’s some good gems that we took out. You have to lose great things that you really like or you’re not doing your job.

Shock: What are you doing next? Are you doing another dramatic film?

Ratliff: Yeah. We’re writing a movie right now, but we finished a movie that ATO Pictures, the same guys that produced “Joshua,” are going to produce. We still have a lot of hurdles to jump. It’s an adaptation of a Dom DeLillo novel called “End Zone.” It’s that big football satire. It’s a very funny political, sort of football-as-war, “M.A.S.H.” on the football field.

Shock: Are you going to try and do that a little bit bigger than this?

Ratliff: It has to be a little bit bigger just because of the subject matter of the games and everything. It just takes a lot more coverage, but it will be contained as much as possible because that’s the only way I think to really maintain quality control.

Here’s more with Ratliff from the roundtables he conducted earlier in the day:

CS: Before this, you did “Hell House” so how did that inspire this movie, particularly Celia Weston’s character?

Ratliff: Well, it’s funny. David Gilbert wrote this with me and really, he’s much better writer than I am, but we wrote it together. He was really gunning for her to be a Catholic, and I don’t know why but I thought the conflict was better and is more interesting if she was an Evangelical and I think it was more pertinent to today. Clearly, I’m interested in it and it was funny. That was how that came about.

CS: Can you talking about casting Jacob in this? Obviously, he has to carry the movie and it all relies on his performance, but how did you find him and what did you tell him to get into that head?

Ratliff: Yeah, well that’s tough because the lynchpin of the movie is a kid, and you know what you’re getting into when you’re working with actors like Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, ‘cause they have a track record and you know what they’re capable of but it’s not like we could research kids, so we had to basically discover a kid. It was very fortunate that I knew a guy who created a show on MTV2 called “Wonder Showzen.” It’s a take on Sesame Street. These guys were obsessed with Sesame Street. It’s on late at night but it involves these kid actors and it’s this twisted—just when you think television can’t go anywhere different—it’s very funny or horrifying depending on what sketch they’re doing. I knew that they had worked with every kid actor in the five boroughs, so I asked for a short list, but they said that Jacob kogan is amazing, he’s a huge talent. He was the first kid we brought in, and we auditioned 75 other kids, but we all knew when we met him that he was our guy. It’s not that he’s like Joshua. The real difficulty with Joshua is that you have to believe the kid is that smart, and Jacob’s that smart. It’s really frightening how smart he is. He’s incredibly well-read and he has a real sense of movies and he’s seen and read so much that you’re wondering how he could have packed it in by the ripe old age of 10 when we were first auditioning him. His only downside is that he didn’t play the piano, and Joshua’s a piano prodigy, so while we were auditioning hand doubles, we decided to put Jacob in piano lessons and see how it went. We got a great Julliard teacher and I went there with him and gave him this Beethoven sonata that he plays a lot and she’s like “This is the most difficult pieces on the piano. Beethoven’s hands were huge. You can’t possibly expect this child to do this.” And he learned it in two weeks. I think he took lessons when he was a young kid, but he is a musician, he’s a great guitarist, but he didn’t play piano. I went there two weeks later and before we sat down for rehearsal, he went to the piano and started playing it. It was a very frightening moment.

CS: What else did he offer in terms of making the film so creepy?

Ratliff: He’s still 10, but the funny thing about Jacob—and no one kind of teaches you this–is that his instinct was always to justify what Joshua was doing, like when we were going over the script. That’s what, as an actor, you really need to do. You need to fight for why you believe in your character and why what he’s doing is right. He was fighting for Joshua the whole time. What he was trying to do in the script was trying to make Joshua a better guy than he actually is. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in the movie about what’s going on, because you don’t actually see Joshua do anything really. I think the instinct is that you always think there’s no such thing as a bad kid, and the premise of the movie is that…and the hunch we had is that the audience would continue to believe that he was going to come out okay, so when you finally accept that the kid is just bad, you feel that much more devastated. I found that people are really angry with Joshua, not with the filmmakers but they’re angry at the kid in the movie.

If you want to hear something REALLY scary, confirming what George says about Jacob Kogan being smart, you can hear our audio interview with the young actor who plays the title roll by clicking (or right clicking) here. Remember, this guy is just 12 years old! (Thanks to Jennifer Merin from the New York Press and Paul Madrid from Dread-Central for contributing questions.)

Joshua opens on Friday, July 6 in New York and L.A. and expands elsewhere in the coming weeks. Look for an exclusive video interview with Sam Rockwell and Jacob Kogan later this week.

Source: Edward Douglas