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George Ratliff on “Joshua”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Jacob Kogan in “Joshua,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]

As fact and fiction have become ever more manipulated and merged in our daily lives, it probably wasn’t too shocking that three of the programming slots in this year’s Sundance dramatic competition were filled by former documentary filmmakers. One of them was George Ratliff, whose 2001 doc feature “Hell House” chronicled the terrifyingly true tale of Texas zealots who put on a haunted house to, well, scare the be-Jesus into people. Keeping with that theme of fear, Ratliff’s transition to the realm of fiction is “Joshua,” a familial suspense thriller (or is it a pitch-black comedy?) that centers around a nine-year-old piano prodigy who may or may not be exhibiting sociopathic tendencies. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga star as Upper East Side parents who suspect that their ultra-precocious son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is subtly tormenting them to spite their incessant doting on their newborn daughter. The premise certainly falls in line with bad-seed horrors like “The Omen” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” though the menace is icily psychological and far more naturalistic in tone. Co-writer/director Ratliff himself says he was sooner inspired by the recent wave of domestic French thrillers like “Read My Lips,” “With a Friend Like Harry,” and “Caché,” his reasoning discussed during our brief conversation in New York.

What prompted you to make the leap from documentary to narrative filmmaking?

I always wanted to do narratives. I mean, I aspire to be able to do both. But no, I secretly studied acting in New York, which was one of the reasons I came here, so I could feel comfortable working with actors. I studied with Uta Hagen and Austin Pendleton for a couple of years, posing as an actor. [laughs] I ended up telling Austin, who’s been letting me keep sitting in on classes. It’s great, I learned so much about the process. It really helped me in “Joshua” to be able to deal with actors and realize when it’s appropriate to talk to them about things.

How different are your working methods in each format?

In some ways, docs are more exciting, because you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, and you’re figuring it out as it’s happening. A lot of times, people actually write documentaries before they shoot, and they get financed by writing out the beginning, middle and end. I think that’s bullshit, because in a real documentary, you’re there finding and capturing the best things that happen, then building on that. In “Hell House,” we’d go into a morning routine at the household with no idea what was going to happen that day. So we’re building a scene, these characters need an arc, you have to establish a sense of geography, of where they are, and you have to do all that on the fly. And then the ambulance comes in, the kid has a seizure, the daughter’s upstairs blow-drying her hair… we have to get a shot of her while she’s still doing that! I covered the ambulance guys dealing with the kid on the bed, then we ran upstairs to get a shot of the blow dryer, then ran back down and got the [ambulance’s] exit. You have to map out, storyboard and edit this in your head, it’s very exciting. But then you’re in the edit room, agonizing: “I wish I just got that one other shot!”

So the jump from that to narrative was a luxury because I could storyboard and know every shot. Still, Joshua was a fairly complex movie that we did on a short schedule, and in order to do that, I needed to average 20 setups a day. So we moved quickly, we had very long days, and we had to keep energy up. Somehow, miraculously, everyone really stayed excited about it. I sound like a cheerleader, but you hear so many horror stories, and I don’t regret anything. It’s really the movie we set out to make, and I would’ve been happy with a lot less because I was expecting to make so many compromises.

I laughed a lot in the film’s second half, when Rockwell begins passive-aggressively accusing his son of various misdeeds that we’ve never actually seen him do. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a thriller with moments of levity, or a dark, dark comedy. Was this tonal ambiguity intentional?

That’s really what we wanted to do, and what I find interesting. For example, I think “Hell House” is a very, very funny movie. Sometimes I’d be in a screening, and I’m laughing the whole way, and people think I’m just a sick bastard. And “Joshua” was funny to begin with. I mean, for God’s sakes, we cast Sam Rockwell and Michael McKean in it. I don’t think that’s a conflict because I think there’s a deep connection between anxiety and laughter that goes way back in human development. I think laughter meant something different before it meant being happy. It was a nervous reaction first. “Hell House” exploits that, and I feel like this is taking it a step further.

You elude to, but never pose a direct psychological reasoning as to how this young piano prodigy from a good home could become psychotic. The film aside, do you think this kind of phenomenon is possible?

There’s the “nature vs. nurture” argument, and I was always the nurture guy, that we really are influenced by our surroundings and become the people we are based on those influences. Now that I’m a parent, I don’t think that at all anymore. The day my oldest son was born, I felt like I knew who he was, and I feel like he’s become that person. All I can really do is screw that up. [laughs] It’s very scary that genes have so much to do with who we are — that’s a good and bad thing. It’s a stretch of the imagination and a primal fear that your kid is going to be a Joshua and associated with you whether it’s your fault or not, but I think it’s totally possible.

What did you find so influential about modern French thrillers?

Those films find horror in the mundane of everyday life, and that’s something I can relate to. It’s much scarier because it can really happen to you, or be happening around you. There’s something to be said for the supernatural movies, but I just don’t buy it anymore. Just like I don’t buy into religion, I don’t believe in ghosts and all that stuff. “With a Friend Like Harry” was scary because it was steeped in a reality that affected me more deeply than, say, “Hostel.” There’s also a naturalism to those films that grounds them, and a coldness to their look.

That’s why we wanted [“Day Night Day Night” and “Irreversible” cinematographer] Benoît Debie; he’s amazing, he really captured what we wanted. This movie starts kind of happy and [spirals downward], and the look of the film follows that. The beginning of the movie uses longer lenses, which makes everyone look a little nicer. It’s more handheld, which is kind of a living frame. As the movie progresses, the lenses become wider, which is a little starker. And the angle gets lower as Joshua takes over, coming down to his POV, and the movements become very precise or locked down. As you’re watching the film, it’s visually taking you through the same path the characters are going through emotionally. We did the same thing with the music and sound, too. There’s a slow transition on all possible fronts of the movie. Everyone just thinks it’s the performances, but there’s more to it.

I especially loved Joshua’s avant-garde deconstruction of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

That’s right, the music he’s playing begins quite beautifully, then devolves into single notes. That was the first bit of music that Nico Muhly did for the movie. He’s the most accomplished 25-year-old you’ve ever met. He’s worked for Philip Glass for the last seven years, orchestrating. He’s written loads of symphonies and things in his own right. But he’s still 25, so to sell him to the producers, he did that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” first, and everyone became obsessed because it became this microcosm of the movie — it starts out as one thing, and devolves into chaos so wonderfully. He had to write a lot ahead of time because Jacob had to learn to play it.

Was it tough for Jacob to learn complicated piano compositions?

Yeah, Jacob didn’t play piano when we cast him. I think he had taken lessons when he was six or seven. But he plays guitar, so that really helped. Secretly, we were auditioning hand doubles. [laughs] But we found a Juilliard teacher for him for piano. I presented them with the Beethoven sonata he plays at the beginning of the movie, and she’s like, “This is one of the most difficult pieces on piano. Beethoven had huge hands, there’s no way he can play this.” Two weeks later, he learned it cold. Then he had to learn six more songs for the movie. Some of them were just single notes, but it’s quite a talent.

Do you still have any childhood phobias, like heights or snakes?

Well, I grew up catching snakes, and I’m not afraid of heights. I think I had no fears, but I was surrounded by end-time thinkers and apocalyptic talk. I [was raised] in Amarillo, Texas, where the number one industry was nuclear weapons, so we grew up thinking that when that bomb hit, it would hit us first. We walked a little taller when we thought about that. I made a movie about the nuclear bomb plant called “Plutonium Circus.” It was pretty funny, too. I’m kind of obsessed with that thing, and there’s clearly a theme going on with these underlying-fear movies I’m making, so there has to be some fear that I’m not admitting to.

“Joshua” opens in limited release on July 6th (official site).


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.