Celebrated at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered the Best Cinematography Award, as one of the smartest and most shockingly suspenseful psychological thrillers to hit the independent film world in years, JOSHUA presents the perfect New York couple in the perfect swank apartment with their two perfect children, a brilliant prodigy and a brand-new baby - and witnesses as they unravel into total chaos, seemingly driven to madness by the darkness within their 9 year-old son. Harrowingly real, rather than supernatural, the film's deft blend of dark comedy and obsessive fear left an indelible mark on audiences who couldn't shake the experience.
TAKING A STORY TO UNEXPECTED PLACES : PLAYING AGAINST GENRE
At its core, the film grabs onto the provocative notion of what happens to a family when their most basic belief in the goodness of the world falls out from under them - and runs with it.
Not surprisingly, JOSHUA emerged from the mind of a director who has long been fascinated by the psychological machinations of fear. The film marks the feature debut of George Ratliff, but he earlier came to the fore with the acclaimed documentary HELL HOUSE, which explored the creation of a sinister and graphic haunted house, intended to scare sinners, by a Pentecostal Texas high school. On the heels of that film, Ratliff wanted to explore the idea of a terror and human vulnerability from a more everyday, naturalist point-of-view. The story of JOSHUA emerged when he and his writing partner, the novelist and short story writer David Gilbert, hit upon the scariest, most anxiety-filled, everyday activity they could think of: parenting. "Kids can be scary and the scariest kids are the ones who are smarter than you," observes Ratliff.
It was Gilbert, in turn, who came up with the character of Joshua, who joins the brief but powerful list of complex child villains in thrillers that range from THE BAD SEED to THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN and THE SHINING. The idea of Joshua was so frightening, that Ratliff himself was almost scared away. "I was just starting to have kids myself and at first, I really wasn't sure I wanted to do a movie about an evil child," Ratliff admits. Yet, as he and Gilbert further developed the story, it became more and more irresistible to take the story to unexpected places.
Explains Ratliff: "Part of what we tried to do with JOSHUA is to play against the genre and conventions of the indie family drama, so that it sort of feels like one in every scene -- yet the mood and events keep getting darker and darker and darker," says the director. "I wanted audiences to be able to absolutely believe in this family, which drove us to figure out the inner psychology of every single character." Ratliff and Gilbert also began to look at the story from Joshua's POV, which turns the perspective of what a wealthy, contented family is supposed to be completely inside out - exposing the primal feelings of anxiety, obsession and paranoia that lie in the shadows of family relations. "I think for most people, the story would appear to begin in perfect harmony with this happy couple and their new baby, but for Joshua that view is skewed," Ratliff observes. "What he sees is chaos - his mom seems crazy, his dad is a social climber, and he believes he has to try to create order."
The result of telling the story of the Cairn family from inside their dizzying psychological descent was a superbly crafted, edge-of-your-seat screenplay which immediately drew the attention of producer Johnathan Dorfman and executive producer Temple Fennell at ATO Films. "It was a thumping good read that you couldn't put down until the last word," Dorfman says of the screenplay for JOSHUA.
"What this story does, and what the character of Joshua does, is to tap into all of our innermost fears," continues Dorfman, who previously produced the acclaimed South African documentary AMANDLA! and is co-founder of ATO Films. "We all imagine that children start from a pure place and are innately good. The idea that a kid might be bad for no apparent reason is one of our scariest thoughts."
A SCREENPLAY THAT DEFIED CATEGORISATION
Dorfman was also impressed by how the screenplay for JOSHUA seemed to defy categorization with its intense dramatic realism that is rarely seen in stories of such abject terror - and how it let the audience draw its own conclusions. "The story moves deftly between being a family drama and a psychological horror story," he notes. "There are a lot of elements of the story to which we can all relate - especially the idea of a new child coming into the home and the jealousy that can initiate. In some ways, Joshua seems to be having a very normal reaction. But only in retrospect, when things fall apart, do we really see what might be going on."
Co-producer George Paaswell was also fascinated by the concept of a child being the ultimate suspense catalyst. "Children are potentially terrifying because they are seemingly blank slates; but there's a mind at work," he notes. "The gears are always working and they're learning and… processing… and they pick things up. We know that kids feel stuff on a real visceral level, but for a child to act that out with such precision and intelligence is truly frightening."
Inspired, Dorfman was able to put the film rapidly into production, with principal photography beginning just four months after he first met George Ratliff. "After seeing HELL HOUSE, I had every confidence George could direct a mainstream feature," Dorfman says, "and our company is in the fortunate position to be able to make decisions quickly and not by committee. Temple and I were ready and eager to make the film."
So is JOSHUA ultimately a thriller, a horror story or a psychological mind-bender? Dorfman believes it is all three - and also, its own intriguing take on the unsettling fears harbored by both parents and children as families grow and develop. "It's that rare film that scares you and also makes you think," he summarizes.
JACOB KOGAN PLAYS A TERRIFYING NINE YEAR-OLD
The gripping suspense of JOSHUA would now hinge on finding a young actor who could bring alive the unusual title character, a fiercely intelligent 9 year-old boy who reveals himself to be as skilled at manipulation and mayhem as he is at the piano. The filmmakers knew they needed someone who would drive the audience to question whether Joshua is an innocent child caught up in terrible circumstances or a deviously evil mind in the making - no easy bill to fill.
In beginning a concerted search for a child who might be able to pull this subtle task off, director George Ratliff contacted a friend who had produced the kids show Wondershowzen for MTV 2 to see if he could help with a list of potential talent. "Forget the list," Ratliff recalls his friend saying. "The kid you are looking for is Jacob Kogan."
Although the filmmakers went on to audition 70 rising young actors, upon meeting Kogan, they instantly agreed with that assessment. Kogan had an uncanny ability to seem at once child-like and yet suspiciously cool, collected and intelligent far beyond his years. Co-producer George Paaswell remembers well encountering Jacob for the first time. "We watched many other actors, and some of them were good, but Jacob was so calm and he looked at the camera and nailed every emotion, or lack of emotion, that needed to happen. He's got that precision and intentness that, in Joshua, becomes so scary."
Adds Johnathan Dorfman: "We knew we had the right kid instantly when we saw Jacob. He's a complete natural and he doesn't force it. He plays the character very, very straight, which is exactly what we needed."
Kogan also proved to be almost as much of a prodigy as Joshua, highly intelligent and also musically talented. Recalls Dorfman: "We put him into piano lessons right away when we cast him because we knew he had to learn how to play the Beethoven sonata. The piano teacher at first didn't think his hands were big enough to play the sonata, but he cracked it within two weeks. And now, the piano teacher insists that he stay with piano lessons."
For Kogan, despite his young age, this unusually intense childhood role was a thrilling challenge. Right from the start, he had a rich understanding of the eerie melancholy that makes Joshua so mysterious and, ultimately, dangerous. "He was born cold and emotionless, but not like really bad," says Kogan of Joshua. "I think the only reason he possibly became evil was the birth of his sister Lily. He was never that connected to his mother, and after Lily is born, I think all the bonds that were there were just sort of lost. He's not really mad at Lily in particular, it's just all the love and affection he thinks she's getting instead of him that makes him jealous. Whether or not his parents love him is questionable, but he thinks they don't - and he wants them to."
The superficial similarities between Jacob and his character were also not lost on the young New York-based actor. "He's a lot like me. I mean the personality isn't like me, but the background is, because the character has a baby sister, he lives on the Upper West Side, he goes to a private school and he plays the piano," says Kogan. "I took piano for two years when I was six and seven, but then I stopped and started playing guitar." On the set, Ratliff marveled at how Kogan bonded with Sam Rockwell in the role of his father, who becomes engaged in increasingly high-stakes mind-games with Joshua. "It was fascinating to watch Jacob suck up all of Sam's techniques," says Ratliff. "As we made the movie he got so much better, becoming a profoundly good method actor. Jacob is much smarter than I am, and his performance is truly scary. He was wonderful to work with."
Sums up Rockwell of Jacob Kogan: "He's a very charming kid and a hard worker. He's got great qualities for this role: he's incredibly bright, he's a bit of a savant with the piano, and he really got the part."
SAM ROCKWELL AND VERA FARMIGA AS PARENTS UNDER PRESSURE
Behind Joshua's strange and disturbing behaviors are his parents, who are completely bewildered and blind-sided by the unnerving acts of a boy who once seemed to them a perfect angel. Just as Joshua seems "normal" on the exterior, so do his parents, but they too are hiding deeper anxieties, which come to the fore in nuanced performances from the dynamic indie leading man Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, who recently came to international attention in Martin Scorsese's Oscar®-winning THE DEPARTED.
Says George Ratliff of the pair: "Sam and Vera are like rock stars together. They're amazing and so much chemistry comes out between them. In my opinion they're two of the most exciting actors working right now, because you believe everything they do. They really put it out there and take risks."
Ratliff had been impressed by how Sam Rockwell had navigated the border between fantasy and reality in his award-winning role as Chuck Barris in George Clooney's CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND - and envisioned him as Brad Cairn even while he and Gilbert were writing the script. Brad may look like the well-heeled New York hedge fund manager at a high-risk investment company - athletic, ambitious and charismatic - but turmoil simmers underneath his exterior. Of his character Rockwell says, "I do think Brad has a dark side that he has repressed. He doesn't come from money, but rather a religious, blue-collar background and he's tried to reinvent himself. He's always been a problem solver, the guy who is going to make everything OK." Only now, Brad seems incapable of making things OK, as his family life starts to go terribly awry and his son seems determined to undermine the family's very structure. "The interesting thing is that Joshua, in his own diabolical way, really outs Brad and Abby for who they really are," Rockwell observes.
To get deeper into Brad Cairn's head, Rockwell spent time with a real hedge-fund manager, soaking up the essence of the pressure-cooker atmosphere that Brad experiences at work. But Rockwell believes the real core of Brad's story lies in his marriage and his relationship with his wife, as well Joshua and the new baby. "The story is very much about the psychological breakdown of a couple," he says. "The center of it all is the strain this couple is feeling in their marriage, accentuated by the suspense element."
As for Brad's relationship with Joshua, Rockwell believes the character just can't imagine it is futile to try to make his son happy. "I think the fact that Brad's son is so different from him, so cerebral and eccentric is hard for him. He struggles with it but I do think Brad loves Josh and he truly wants to accept him no matter what," he explains.
Yet that acceptance, and Brad's façade of confidence, begins to crumble as strange events begin to unfold. For Johnathan Dorfman, the beauty of Rockwell's performance lies in his ability to make Brad's ever more frantic attempts to keep the family together so human and sympathetic, even as they grow darker, ratcheting up the suspense. "Sam has a real believability in the role," says Dorfman. "He has a fatherly innocence that allows you to accept that he could be duped by a 9 year-old. He brings a very strong sense of a concerned father who, at heart, wants to believe the world is a good place."
By contrast, Joshua's mother, Abby, veers into hysterical madness as post-partum depression and strange events push her beyond the breaking point. Capturing her rapid descent with palpable intensity is Vera Farmiga, who was also the filmmakers' first choice for the role, riveted by her role as a drug-addicted mother in DOWN TO THE BONE, for which she garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
"We had all seen her in DOWN TO THE BONE, and we didn't need to see anything else," says Ratliff. "JOSHUA is a movie about a woman who goes crazy before your eyes, which with the wrong actress would not have worked. But, with Vera, I felt totally safe."
Farmiga was drawn in by the script's keen insight into the Cairn family and the story's willingness to let the characters, especially Abby, be flawed and wrenchingly human even amidst the thriller structure.
"It's not like anything I've ever seen in a film," Farmiga says. "I immediately had an empathy with Abby even though she isn't the ultimate devoted wife and loving mother. To me, it wasn't so much a horror film as it is about a woman who has an incredible, reality- altering experience, aggravated by this kid who thinks she's evil. It's amazing the way it shifts from intense psychological thriller to family drama and back again."
Farmiga was also drawn to one of the film's sub-themes. "Reading the script, I realized that post-partum depression is a major women's public health issue that I didn't know much about." To remedy that, the actress dove into research on the phenomenon - the so-called "baby blues" that can make new mothers feel anxious, worried, sad and, in the most severe cases, delusional or paranoid. Reading firsthand accounts of women who suffered from this illness in its most severe form was eye-opening for Farmiga. "I had a sort of immediate yearning to defend Abby because you can see that all these women were incredibly bright and loving women and yet they became capable of horrific thoughts and emotions," she comments.
Personal observances also became a part of her portrait of Abby's unexpected encounter with madness. "As it happens, at the very time of filming, someone very, very close to me was going through a similar thing that Abby was going through," Farmiga notes. "It wasn't psychotic post-partum syndrome, but it was a hormone induced psychosis, which is very similar. It was a chemical brain imbalance and severe depression, so that made Abby's situation even more real to me."
Sam Rockwell was impressed by the depths to which Farmiga went in preparing for the part. "Vera is fantastic in this movie. She was very thorough and shared her research about post-traumatic stress with me, including some stuff from the point of view of the father," he recalls. "I had no idea how severe the depression that some of these women go through can be." For her part, Farmiga was thrilled to be paired with Rockwell. "He is one of the most inventive and surprising partners I've ever had," she says. "It was a brilliant coupling because we have a natural ease with each other. That was really important because Brad and Abby go through so much confusion, so much heartache and tumult within their marriage that you had to establish a loving history so the audience would yearn for them to persevere."
Adding to that history are two key characters who form the backdrop of the Cairn family: Abby's gay, art-loving brother Ned, played by stage and screen star Dallas Roberts who was recently seen as Sam Phillips in WALK THE LINE, and Brad's evangelical mother Hazel, portrayed by Celia Weston, the award-winning actress who was worked with directors ranging from Ang Lee to Todd Field and Woody Allen.
"I am a huge fan of both Dallas Roberts and Celia Weston," says Ratliff. "They are perfect for these parts and both had a perfect understanding of their characters. For Uncle Ned we needed someone who could portray a man who was finally comfortable in his own skin after going through a lot to get there, someone Joshua could ultimately, although in a very unsettling way, look up to. And no one telegraphs empathy like Dallas." Sums up Dorfman of the entire cast of JOSHUA: "I think we were incredibly lucky to get such unbelievable talent. Whether it's the acting talent or the crew I think what has brought us all together on this film is a belief in smart, psychological storytelling. There are a lot of genre films out there, but not a lot of smart ones."
George Ratliff, a Texas native, began his career in journalism. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin film program, Ratliff moved to Costa Rica to write for a Central American newsmagazine and become a correspondent for a Texas newspaper. After returning to the states, Ratliff redirected his efforts to film and has written and directed features, shorts, and television programs.
His feature credits include the documentaries HELL HOUSE, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and received a theatrical release from 7th Art Releasing and was distributed on DVD by Plexifilm; and PLUTONIUM CIRCUS, which won Best Documentary Feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
David Gilbert is the author of the short story collection, "Remote Feed" (Scribners, 1998), and the novel, The Normals (Bloomsbury, 2004). His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, GQ, Bomb as well as other magazines. He is currently at work on a new novel. JOSHUA is his first produced screenplay.
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