Capone discusses Sam Rockwell, Austin and evil kiddies with JOSHUA director George Ratliff!!!
Published at: July 11, 2007, 3:44 a.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. So there's this film coming out in a bunch of cities this week called JOSHUA, and it's kind of fucking creepy. Not purely a horror film, not really a family drama, but certainly it draws from both genres to create a perfectly realized modern Gothic tale of two well-to-do New York parents (Sam Rockwell and my new girlfriend Vera Farmiga) who have a son named Joshua. When Joshua gets a sister, he starts acting strange, or maybe it's the parents just being paranoid, or maybe we as audience members are just looking for weirdness.
Director/co-writer George Ratliff (who made the astonishing documentary HELL HOUSE a couple years back; JOSHUA is his first feature) has created a work that will make those of you with young children scared of your own offspring. Are they plotting against you? Are they smarter than you? Are you so insecure that you would wonder these things about your own kids, you bastards? There's nothing supernatural going on here, just good old-fashioned angst and suspicion that goes places I don't even want to consider.
I had a chance recently to sit down with Ratliff, a one-time/long-time Austin resident to talk about his time as a young filmmaker in that town, as well as one or two things about the state of horror films today and why children scare us.
George Ratliff: What alias do you use on the site?
Capone: I write as Capone. And the fact that you even know we write under aliases tells me something about you.
GR: Oh yeah. That's one of those sites…I've been traveling a lot lately, and Ain't It Cool is one of the sites I go to pretty much on a daily basis. I'm originally from Texas, and I lived in Austin, off and on, for about six years.
C: I'd read somewhere that you were part of the filmmaking scene when you lived down there. Who were you friendly with?
GR: Rick Linklater was always great to us in the early days of the Austin film scene. But once asked me to introduce my favorite noir movie at a screening. And I got to pick it out. And I picked, it wasn't a typical noir movie, but I picked KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE and I was going to talk about that, but they couldn't get that, so I got to do THE LONG GOODBYE. He was great. I did a documentary, the first thing I did actually, played at SXSW in 1995.
C: Are you talking about PLUTONIUM CIRCUS?
GR: Right. And that movie was a tiny movie, and it got almost no release, but it was on the cover of the Austin Chronicle and played at the Dobie for six weeks. It's just a really supportive community.
C: I was just down there this past weekend for one of the events commemorating the closing…
GR: …of the Alamo Drafthouse. That's such a cool place.
C: I think yesterday was the final event.
GR: But Tim's going to open something new, right?
C: At the old Ritz Theater on 6th Street, yeah. Harry drove me past it when I was down there.
GR: That's right. I always told people in New York about how you put your little piece of paper up and the wait staff would come by. That's the greatest thing.
C: Okay, we should talk about the film. On the way to this interview today, I was standing on a bus over a guy who was reading the bible, and he actually had it opened to the Book of Joshua. I considered not even telling you that story, because I was convinced you wouldn't believe me. But the name Joshua is obviously a biblical name, but I'm afraid I don't know enough about the bible to see if there are any points of reference in your film.
GR: [laughs] We didn't name him because of the bible, but it's certainly baggage that works.
C: Plus the baggage of having your last film being about haunted houses run by religious groups.
GR: Well, that baggage is going to follow me around forever.
C: So you must really hate children. Tell the truth. Why do you hate children?
GR: [laughs] I really hate overpopulation; I'm trying to do my part to keep the population down.
C: In what ways are children scary? That's quite a commitment to making a child your fear's focal point.
GR: There are a couple reasons. First of all, I have children. I have two sons and a third due in October. For one thing, if you ever come across a kid who's smarter than you, it's really disconcerting, and it doesn't matter if he's a nice kid. If he's smarter than you, it's nerve wracking. So there's that. But there's one thing that happened when my first son was born. The second he was born, I knew his personality, I knew his character. And he was a good guy, but I found that incredibly strange that I was sure he was born himself. I was under the impression that your parents or your environment forms you so much, and I feel as a parent I could really screw my kid up. But I think his character was his character from the beginning, and I could tell who he was, and he's becoming that person. But it freaked me out.
The real basic premise of JOSHUA is what if you had a kid that was bad for no good reason and there was nothing you could do about it. And it really wasn't even your fault, and everyone is going to blame you because they're your genes and you raised him, but he's just a bad kid. And on top of that, he's smart of you. In the course of writing the script, we gave possible reasons of why he was the way he was, but to me the most frightening idea is that he's bad.
C: Not only to you not give a reason for it, but you leave open the small chance that it's not him at all. The mother has had post-partum depression issues before, and you never actually see him do the things he's accused of doing. There's always that option that the parents are just crazy or paranoid.
GR: Sure. We very purposely left room for different interpretations of this movie. I think movies are much more interesting when you have to talk about them afterwards. This movie is much more influenced by movies like WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY… and CACHE and READ MY LIPS.
C: So you're a fan of the modern French crime dramas?
GR: I'm a fan. It's a movement that's happening there, these naturalistic thrillers. These are finding the horror in the every day. These are things that can happen to you. I was scared to death of movies like THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY, but now as an adult those sort of movies don't do it for me, because I don't buy it. But movies like these French thrillers, I find very unnerving.
C: By setting JOSHUA in this upper-class apartment in Manhattan, you do beg the comparison to ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE OMEN, both of which are set among the elite.
GR: I do, I know. And it was not accidental. One thing I connected with--and the producers did too, who were so kind to take a gamble on letting me make this movie--is that I referenced those French films. I said, it's that combined with ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE SHINING. It's the feel of a big '70s movie combined with this very realistic thriller. And they totally connected with me and got it.
C: I was lucky enough to go into JOSHUA not knowing much about it.
GR: That's the best way to see a movie.
C: I agree, and it doesn't happen nearly enough in my life. But the film I'd most heard JOSHUA compared with is THE OMEN, which couldn't be more off base.
GR: Totally off base. I have to say, I don't think the original OMEN even holds up at all. THE EXORCIST holds up, as do ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE SHINING. I watch it and I don't find it scary at all.
C: I watched it again just before the remake came out, and I have to confess I agree with you. But I'm not sure it ever scared me that much as a youngster.
GR: It's an idea that was scary.
C: Were there any films that you looked to in terms of mood and atmosphere in which children were at the center of the action before you started shooting?
GR: I think the best evil child movie is VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. That's not really here. But there is one part of a movie called BEST INTENTIONS. Do you know that movie?
C: The Bergman film?
GR: Right, it's kind of about Ingmar Bergman's parents. There's a section of that movie where they take in this orphan boy. They're nice people, and they take him in, and he's just an evil little bastard. It's only a 15-minute section of the movie, but it's such a chilling portrayal of this kid. And he tries to drown their new baby to get all the attention. And my wife and I really remembered that sequence, and even before JOSHUA, we had to go find that and watch that again because it's so damn scary. That was one sort thing, the power of that moment, because as a parent, it taps into a primal fear. I think there are a lot of primal fears that anyone can identify with, like being eaten by a big animal, drowning. I think part of the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is that it taps into this very primal fear of getting lost in the woods. I wasn't a big fan of the movie, but I thought that's what it did really well. But having a bad kid is one of those things, biologically, it unnerves you.
C: Were you at all concerned--you and you co-screenwriter [David Gilbert]--when you were putting together the script, look at what we're tackling here, we're demonizing a child. Who's going to put money into this, and what parent is going to admit to having these fears?
GR: [laughs] I have to say I was very weary about this, and this movie was David Gilbert's idea. David and I have collaborated on screenplays before, and collaboration is really difficult, so the thing I do is collaborate with someone who's a much better writer than I am, and much smarter than me. And I get to ride in the glory of his good writing. But he had this idea, and I didn't want to do it at all, partly because I was just starting to have a family and I thought it would be full of cliches. And when we would talk about it, I was constantly say why this wouldn't work, and we would actually find really interesting solutions how we could make this cool. And the more we talked about it, the more we sort of mapped it out and we both got really excited and had to do it. I think that it's interesting how it tackles all of this, and I was such a naysayer to the whole possibility of doing this.
C: Usually filmmakers who come out of documentaries make it easy on themselves with their first feature by incorporating a documentary-like style to the shooting or by tackling a subject that is more true to life. JOSHUA is the exact opposite that. It's very atmospheric, and the cinematography is beautiful. Was your thought that if you were going to make this jump, you were going to do so all the way?
GR: I have to say, I'd always intended and always wanted to make narrative films. This sounds really crazy, but one of the reason I moved from Austin to New York was so that I could secretly study acting. I always felt like I had a good visual sense of how to make a movie, and when I made a documentary, I wasn't just pointing the camera trying to capture things. I was always thinking about it cinematically. But the one shortcoming I had was that I had never really properly worked with actors, and I knew that that would be an issue. So I secretly studied acting for a couple of years, posing as an actor and not telling anyone about it and really getting comfortable with the process and working with actors. But HELL HOUSE looks like a verite film, but we studied not just verite films--it's actually hard to achieve that look. What annoys some people, those sort of finding zooms, that was very much on purpose. We watched HUSBANDS AND WIVES a lot, me and the DP, because we wanted to capture that sort of a '70s documentary when we were making HELL HOUSE. HUSBANDS AND WIVES really went for it, with those big dirty zoom finding these shots, and then the classic interview set ups.
PLUTONIUM CIRCUS was all about the composition. It's done in the style of an old Errol Morris documentaries like GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON, FLORIDA, with these lock downs, but it had this compositions that really informed everything that was going on, and it was as much about the composition as it was about what the people were saying. I do think there are a lot of documentaries that are only as good as their subject, but I always try to bring something cinematic to it as well. It didn't seem like a big leap at all. For JOSHUA, I actually created a DVD, I stole scenes from movies and put them together to show what I wasn't going for or what I was going for for certain parts of the movie. And that's how I got the producers behind exactly what I was doing, and showed the production designer. I really broke it down.
And finding the visual sense for this movie, it's fairly complex what we did. I would only trust Benoît [Debie, JOSHUA's cinematographer] with this. I don't know if you noticed but there's a shift in the visual of this movie. It begins with longer lenses, and the color is cool but on. There's a lot of hand-held, but smooth hand-held, it's kind of a living frame. And as the movie progresses and Joshua takes over, the lenses become wider and wider, and the height gets lower and lower, down to Joshua's perspective, and the moves became these precision moves or lockdowns, very controlled, whereas in the beginning it's kind of freewheeling. But we also a progressive bleach bypass, which I don't know if it's ever been done before. Bleach bypass is very old school photography trick where you actually skip one of the baths that you process the film in. And what it does is create quite a bit more contrast and less saturation and does something great with the grain. I think it makes it scarier, and the blacks are much more interesting. So Reel 1 is normal; Reels 2, 3, and 4 is half of a skip--it goes into the bath for half of the time; and Reels 5 and 6 is full skip. So it's the progressive thing that's happening that you don't notice while you're watching it because it's gradual, and you just attribute it emotionally to what Brad's [Joshua's father, played by Sam Rockwell] going through, because he's having the same process of breaking down. But you look at the beginning and end of the movie side by side, they look like totally different movies.
C: So you mentioned that you went to New York to better work with actors, tell me about your two leads, because these are two of my favorite actors working right now. And Vera Farmiga is about to blast into the stratosphere.
GR: They are two of the most exciting actors working. For one thing, I don't think they could do any scene that they didn't absolutely believe. But it's there job to absolutely believe it.
C: I'm guessing you've seen Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE, because her role in JOSHUA is probably the closest I've seen her come to that level of intensity.
GR: Oh God, yes. That's the film that sold me on her. Casting the part of Joshua was very scary for me because it's the lynch pin, and the movie kind of rides on the kid's shoulder. And it was very scary finding the right kid. But casting Abby was very scary for me, because any lesser actress could have really tanked this movie, because basically she's going insane during the course of the movie, and that's not an easy thing to pull off. Vera Farmiga was THE person I wanted, and I really wanted no one else. I was really lucky that the producers and I saw eye to eye on this, and it was one of the producers showed me DOWN TO THE BONE, this was before DOWN TO THE BONE was released.
C: If you can call it a release.
GR: Yeah. Now Sam, oddly enough, I visualized him from the beginning when we were writing it. I'm a big fan of his, and I thought it would be a really interesting role for him to play, and I thought he could bring so much to it. And it's not the typical thing you would think of him in, but I think he can do anything, and just believed in him in this role. And I thought we had a good chance of getting him because people don't offer his these types of roles. And if you're a producer, you might want a very different cast, you know, Charlie Sheen [laughs]. But it was hard getting Sam, because Sam's a really fickle guy. But he liked the script, and we got along really well, but he was still on the fence. But it was when I brought up Vera Farmiga as Abby that he said, "If you get Vera, I'm in." And Vera had the same thing. They had never worked together, and they had the utmost respect for each other, because they're cut from the same cloth.
C: I'm a big believer that part of selling a character on screen is their haircut, and there are quite a few crazy hairstyles happening in JOSHUA beginning with Joshua's Richie Cunningham/Donald Trump thing. Did you have any requirement for Joshua's hair.
GR: We talked about his hair a lot. And actually the hairstyles came from this woman Coleen, this old-school stylist, and she nailed that. But Vera, about two weeks after we cast her, she sent pictures of herself with this Mia Farrow bob. And I was like, shouldn't you run this by me? But she just did it, she just cut her hair crazy short. It happened to be about two weeks after my wife had done the same thing, so I was like, Oh great! [laughs] But what ended up happening is that Vera did another movie in Russia [IN TRANZIT], and her hair ended up growing out to this great crazy length. I would love to take credit for that haircut, but it was just by chance that it was perfect.
C: Talk about finding Jacob Kogan as Joshua.
GR: It was not an easy thing that we wanted to do: find a kid who was basically an unknown, who's an amazing little method actor, who was a piano protege, and who is believably a genius. And we cast a pretty wide net. But I did have a trick, in that I know one of the two guys who created the show "Wonder Showzen," his name is John Lee. It's a really good show, and I knew that they had worked with basically kid actor in the Five Boroughs. So I thought it would be a short cut and got recommendations from him. And he looked at the script and sent a couple of names, and at the top was Jacob Kogan, who is a really, really amazing talent. We ended up auditioning about 70 kids, which doesn't seems like a lot, but that's after culling through tons of head shots. And I was actually kind of amazed at how many of them were really good little actors, but none of them were as believably smart as Jacob, and Jacob's believably that smart because he is that smart, which is really disconcerting, like I said.
C: It's almost more important to the film that we believe he's smart than we believe he's evil.
GR: Exactly. You can play evil, but you can't play smart. He had this sense of confidence in everything about him, because he's that kid. But he's nothing like Joshua. When the camera stops, the stillness of the character is gone, and he's this really overactive kid.
C: I think I need to see what he acts like out of character.
GR: Yeah, he scares people. But the downside was that he didn't play piano; he played guitar, and this was kind of scary. I thought I'd put him in lessons so I could get him to maybe pretend to play pieces of this sonata, so it could look like he's playing. So I took him to this Juilliard piano teacher, and I brought him this Beethoven sonata, "The Funeral March," it's this really difficult pierce, and she almost kicked us out. "This is one of the most difficult pieces on piano. Beethoven had huge hands, and there's no way a child could play this." And he took lessons with this woman and practiced really hard, and two weeks later he knew it cold. And he ended up learning six pieces for it, and just picked them off. He's an amazing kid.
C: Is the film in any way a criticism of rich parents who treat their kids like an accessory, and don't really take the time to raise them or get to know them? I know the parents in JOSHUA don't do that, but certainly some of their friends appear to.
GR: Oh yeah. It absolutely is, but that's part of giving some possible reasons for him to act out the way he did. There's sort of Parenting 101 about how to introduce an older sibling to a new sibling that they…I mean the movie begins with a huge parenting fuck up, and everytime I see that scene, I think, that's so wrong how they handled that.
C: I have to ask you at least one question about HELL HOUSE. How did you find out about the phenomenon that was that place? And are there other places like that?
GR: Oh yeah. There all sorts of crazy stories like that, because this is a huge movement going on. Not just the Evangelical movement, but HELL HOUSE is from an Assembly of God Church, which is an offshoot of Pentecostal Church, which is a crazy movement on its own. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, so everyday of my life, I would come across this kind of movement that was happening. And I knew how big this was and how this was growing and how it would affect world politics. So when I moved to New York, I was basically ruining dinner parties trying to explain this to people. I was really looking for a way to tackle this as a documentary--it's too big to tackle the whole Evangelical movement--but I was looking for something that could be a microcosm of the larger thing. I actually read about these houses in the New York Times, to be honest.
I read about it on a Friday in 1999, and I flew to there the next day with [HELL HOUSE cinematographer] Jawad Metni. And we both had video cameras, and we shot several versions of the house. And the next Sunday, which was Halloween, we went to church and filmed the church, and ended up interviewing a lot of them, trying to get behind the theology behind why they thought this was a good idea [the film is about church-run haunted houses in which each room illustrates a different sin against God, such as abortion and taking drugs]. We made that into a 10-minute short that we could show people what we wanted to do with a feature, and that's how we got financing. But that short, the church saw it, and they said that this was the first time anyone had asked them what they believed in. So that's why they let us in.
C: What did you think of JESUS CAMP?
GR: I liked JESUS CAMP, I like those girls [co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady].
C: But that film also employing horror film music and camera angles.
GR: Yeah. I talked to those girls before they did JESUS CAMP, which was put out at a much better time than ours. I think people were a little more ready and aware of the situation.