By Aaron Hillis
[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).