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THE LITTLE DEVIL
Known for his documentaries that focus on American eccentrics, George Ratliff makes an unexpected move to genre filmmaking with the ambiguously creepy Joshua.

BY PETER BOWEN

JACOB KOGAN IN JOSHUA. PHOTO BY: JO JO WHILDEN

George Ratliff’s Joshua (due out this summer from Fox Searchlight) offers a new take on one of cinema’s best guilty pleasures — the evil-kid film. Begun in the ’60s with films like The Village of the Damned and The Bad Seed, the genre reached its glory days in the ’70s, when its naughty children took on demonic and supernatural qualities in such films as The Omen, The Exorcist and Audrey Rose. But in Joshua, which Ratliff co-wrote with David Gilbert, the evil-kid genre is stripped of its satanic lineage, psychic powers and extraterrestrial connections. Here Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is just the razor-smart, musically talented son of successful hedge fund manager Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) and his wife Abby (Vera Farmiga). At first all seems fine with the Cairn family, but when a new baby daughter is brought into their elegantly appointed Central Park apartment and Joshua is no longer the family’s focal point, bad things begin to happen. Soon enough this perfect Upper East Side family begins to implode — his emotionally fragile mom starts to crack, and his jocular, outgoing dad retreats into paranoia. Indeed the only one that Joshua seems to connect to is his dandyish gay uncle (Dallas Roberts).

For Ratliff, who made his name with documentaries detailing odd slices of American — or, more specifically, Texan — life, Joshua seems an odd next step. But in many ways it extends his fascinated gaze into the peculiarities of social behavior. Just after attending film school at the University of Texas, Ratliff returned to his hometown of Amarillo, Tex., to make Plutonium Circus (1995), an offbeat look at a nuclear-weapons factory and the community it supports. A few years later, Ratliff took a more vérité approach to document Hell House, a Christian fright-night showcase that reproduces tableaux — a botched abortion, a dying AIDS patient, a date rape — dramatizing the tragic rewards of modern secular life. What Ratliff’s films all share, however, is a cool, careful eye on characters and situations which one might otherwise be too quick to form an opinion about.

JOSHUA - PHOTO BY: JO JO WHILDEN

Joshua deals with an evil kid. Your earlier documentary Hell House dealt with a Christian fun house portraying the wages of sin, and your first doc, Plutonium Circus, deals with a nuclear-weapons factory. Overall your films seem to revolve around the idea of evil. It certainly does appear that way, although it is not intentional. My only defense is that Joshua was not my idea but that of my co-screenwriter David Gilbert. It’s true that my first films were obsessed with end-time thinking. Now Joshua mixes it up a little since it is about a beginning.

The evil-kid genre at some level necessarily engages in a discussion about human nature and evil. What were your and David’s thoughts on it? We wanted to play with the nature versus nurture debate, and just make it all nature with Joshua. I think that’s what is so scary, that the kid is just bad. As we wrote the script we put in some reasons for his behavior, but we started with the premise that he was just a bad kid.

You said you didn’t originally intend to make Joshua. No, I was interested in adapting Don DeLillo’s End Zone. I had begged for the rights for two years. I sent DeLillo a spec script, which he liked enough to give me an option. That’s when I teamed up with David Gilbert to help me write a much better draft. In the end, we had a great script but had a hard time setting it up. All that I had to my credit was Hell House. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t get it set up. And so David had the idea to write Joshua, and I was not interested in doing it since I was just having kids, and I didn’t want to get involved in making a story about an evil one.

Was your wife worried about the story? My wife had real reservations about me doing this film. She feared that I would become obsessed and put it on our kids. But that is not what happened at all. The funny thing about being a parent is that kids are what they are, despite whatever you do. You just feed them and keep a roof over their head, and they do the rest.

Why was Joshua so much easier to make than End Zone? It happened very quickly, but in a strange roundabout way. Johnathan Dorfman of ATO Pictures got sent a copy of the script. The script sat on Johnathan’s desk for nine months. And when Johnathan read it and was interested, the producer who sent it to him was no long a producer but a producer’s rep. So Johnathan took it over.

Did you find it easier getting interest in a genre story? People were really interested in doing genre because they think it’s safe. So the idea was to do a smart genre movie. But for a lot of people it was too close to a family drama. They would have really loved it if the kid could levitate and rays could shoot out of his eyes.

If you don’t like stories about kids with ray-gun eyes, what did interest you about the genre? What I find interesting right now in movies is, for lack of better words, naturalistic thrillers — [films that are] scary as hell but there is nothing supernatural about them. Finding the horror in the mundane. I think it is happening more in Europe than here in films like With A Friend Like Harry, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips and even Caché. These are anxiety-provoking thrillers. I saw the opportunity in Joshua to do something akin to that.

How did you cast the film? When David and I were writing it, I always had Sam Rockwell in mind. Joshua looks supernatural, but it is bound in realism, which is why I wanted Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga — two of the best realistic Method actors out there.

JOSHUA. PHOTO BY: JO JO WHILDEN

The film has to rest on the shoulders of an eight-year-old. How did you find Jacob Kogan? I contacted a producer of this MTV2 show, Wonder Showzen, which is kind of a Sesame Street spoof, with some of the darkest humor you have ever seen. I asked him for a short list of kids, but he told me that I really had to look at Jacob Kogan. It is hard when you are casting a kid, because there is no real track record. We interviewed about 75 kids, but Jacob blew them all out of the water. He is a really smart kid. He seems to have read everything that we have read and seen all of the same movies, but he is only 10. One of the most amazing things is how quick Jacob was. The character is a piano protégé, but Jacob did not play any piano, and in two weeks he learned to play a Beethoven sonata that would have been difficult for most adults.

What was Jacob’s take on Joshua? I remember sitting with him at the house, going through the script page by page, and his instinct was always to justify what Joshua is doing. At times I had to remind him that what his character was doing was actually bad. But an actor’s first instinct is to rationalize his character. And that was his instinct, to always justify what he was doing. My pitch to Jacob is that Joshua was creating order out of disorder — that is the David Mamet line about making movies. Joshua at the beginning of the movie sees his dad, who is a poser, and his mother, who is psychotic, trying to act like normal parents. In some ways he is just trying to put things right.

Putting things right means ending up with a gay uncle in this story? In some ways yes, not because he is gay but because the uncle is the one creative parent figure who gets him. From his temperament, you could imagine him becoming an artist.

You mentioned that the film was inspired by the European neo-noir movement. What did you bring from that tradition in terms of your filmmaking? One thing that I brought was a Belgian d.p., Benoît Debie. He’s best known for shooting [Gaspar Noé’s] Irréversible. From that he went on to make [Fabrice Du Welz’s] The Ordeal. I put together a DVD list of movies to describe what I was trying to do for every scene of Joshua. I described it as a European naturalistic thriller combined with a ’70s horror film like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby — the ’70s reference more for the feel of New York with these big, long lens zooms. As far as the look of the movie, what those European films do is create a cold look that is not blue. American movies, when they want to look cold, they just throw blue gels up and make everything look blue, like The Ring. Benoît can capture coolness with the colors being true.

JOSHUA DIRECTOR-CO-WRITER GEORGE RATLIFF.

Obviously this movie is all about mood. How did your visual design for the film establish that mood? The look of the movie evolves. We started off with big, long lenses, and the tone of the movie is cool. As the movie progresses, and as Joshua takes over, the angles get lower, the shooting is more precise, and the lenses get wider. And then we added a bleach bypass — which means you skip one of the baths in the processing of the film, and it gives the work a starker look, more contrasty. The way we did it is that the first reel is normal; there is no bleach process. Reels 2, 3 and 4, there is half of a bleach bypass, and 5 and 6 it is a full skip. So the movie gets less saturated, more contrasty, the angle gets lower and lower and the moves get more and more precise. People never notice this when it is happening, but if you looked at the first reel and the last reel, it would not look like the same movie.

The movie takes place among upper-crust Manhattan society. How did you get that look — and how did you manage to get it so cheaply? We had 25 days to shoot. We managed to shoot over half this movie in Queens at Fort Totten, a park that is partially owned by the city of New York. It houses their fire department. One of the incentives of shooting in New York is that if you shoot on city property, it is free. We didn’t have to pay any location fees — the apartment is actually a two-story house in Fort Totten that we completely redid. It is an army base, and the home of the Queens fire department.

Their Central Park apartment is crucial to the story. Was that also created in Queens? You know, to rent that apartment in the movie would have been the entire budget of the movie. And besides, when you consider New York City apartment rules in terms of use of service elevator, approval from co-op boards and such, the film would have been impossible. So we created the apartment in this wonderful prewar building — it had the right floors, the right tiles, baseboards and windows. And then we spent our design budget on completely redoing the house top to bottom to make it look like a one-level apartment.

Like so many apartments in this genre, the layout of the apartment seems impossible to figure out. It is impossible to follow. I drew out several blueprints of what the apartment could be, but we never followed any of them. At one point, the person doing the sound mix tried to map it out, and it came out as this wonderful, impossible scrawl.

Can you talk a little about the music for this film? Our musical composer was a guy named Nico Muhly, who is 25-years-old and has been working with Philip Glass for seven years. At 18 he was pulled out of Julliard by Glass. Niko is sort of Joshua 15 years later. He did an amazing job, but his musical inclination is very different from what I wanted. I was thinking very much like [Krzysztof] Penderecki, who did “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” and the music that was in The Shining and The Exorcist. It is modern-classical, dark, wonderful stuff. Niko is more comfortable in atonal minimalism, but he got what we wanted.

The movie leaves itself open to lots of interpretations. What have been the responses to the film? There are so many people who come up after screenings to tell me that they’ve cracked the code and they know what I was really trying to say. Some people think it’s an elaborate gay coming-out story from the kid’s point of view. Another thought that when Joshua is nearly hit by a car in the beginning, he actually died and the rest is a dream. Then there is the version that believes it is all Abby’s psychosis.

Before Joshua, you made two docs. This film is very undocumentary-like, so what, if anything, did you bring from your documentary days? There is a scene in Hell House when people are getting ready and the kid has a seizure. It was all happening in real time, and to get it I had to storyboard it in my head. You are shooting and you are thinking that I need a cutaway of her blow-drying her hair, and then run down and get the ambulance. You are forced to put these scenes together in your head. And then when you are in the editing room, you wish you could have gotten this angle or that shot. All that longing for coverage really primes you for narrative filmmaking. It is such a luxury to draw out what you wish you could have.



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