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An Interview with ‘Orphan’ Director Jaume Collet-Serra and Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson

July 21, 2009

In the horror flick Orphan, parents Kate and John (played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopt a third child in the months after Kate’s miscarriage. The new girl, Esther (played by Isabelle Fuhrman), is a charmer and more. And when Orphan opens in theaters this Friday, film-goers will find out exactly what’s wrong with Esther.

Having seen the movie, I’ll say director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson (the forthcoming film Lake Mungo) accomplished their mission: It’s berserko.

Collet-Serra and Johnson recently spoke with journalists about the making of Orphan.

Now don’t worry. There are no spoilers here; mostly background information on how they enabled young Ms Fuhrman to deliver the year’s most frighteningly good performance.

BEANYWOOD: Vera [Farmiga] was talking about how much she loved the script because it kind of reminded her of having the feel of a Polanski film; his early stuff like The Tenant, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Are you fan of the [Roman] Polanski stuff? When you were writing this, what kind of tone were you going for?

DAVID LESLIE JOHNSON: It’s really interesting to me. First of all, I’m blown away that she made that comparison. Definitely I had in mind this sort of feel of a ’70s horror and ’70s drama and things like that. I think it’s one of the things that Jaume really [wanted].

JAUME COLLET-SERRA: I’m a big Polanski fan. I was drawn to the script for similar reasons. It’s a movie that characters that are very well developed. Their back-story is important to the movie, and it comes back to haunt them later. I’m a big fan of Polanski in the way that he explores the psychology and the fears that we all have in our daily lives. That’s what makes it really scary. I think people can relate to the characters and the story.


‘Orphan’ Director Jaume Collet-Serra

BEANYWOOD: That’s one of the things that I appreciated most about the movie, that it doesn’t relay on something necessarily supernatural. There aren’t ghosts in the attic. But I wonder if that’s more of a challenge to create the suspense, because you’re dealing with real life situations.

COLLET-SERRA: Yes, it is. It’s my personal preference to do movies that don’t have supernatural elements. That doesn’t mean that one day if I find one that, you know, is interesting that I won’t do it. But, like in House of Wax, we didn’t have supernatural elements either, and I just feel that movies are grounded in something. Again, for me [a supernatural story] is easier to tell. It’s challenging, but it’s challenging more for the writer probably.

JOHNSON: It is more of a challenge, I think, but I like those movies myself. Even though it’s a little more difficult, it’s definitely what I like to do. It’s what scares me. I like a horror movie that when I leave the theater I’m not necessarily thinking ‘Where do you want to go to eat?’ I like something that sticks with you and something that’s more grounded; it’s sort of the stuff that I respond to.


Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman)

BEANYWOOD: How does it feel to write a screenplay, and, usually to get it sold is one thing, and usually scripts are turned into really bad movies, but your screenplay was turned into a good movie. How did that feel just watching this process happen?

It’s almost ridiculously exciting every step of the way, because I feel like I’ve been really spoiled and very lucky. Everyone at Appian [Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions] was very supportive of my kind of radical take on the story. And Jaume came on board and really got it. And everything changed when he came on board. It was an improvement. And the cast. I couldn’t ask for a better cast. So, I’ve been sort of tremendously [lucky], down to the soundtrack. I was listening to John Ottman soundtracks when I was writing the screenplay, and by coincidence, he wound up doing the score for this. I know it doesn’t happen that way every time. And I’m not going to get used to it [he laughs], but

It doesn’t happen that way for a director either. I think that to come across a great script, and to get full support from Joel – he’s a great producer and he gives me the freedom to do my vision of the movie. So I’m lucky to work with him. He gives me the tools necessary to make a great movie.

BEANYWOOD: Having an excellent cast such as this, I think it really elevates the genre because of the quality of acting they give. But finding the kids that you found. That must have been a challenge. Starting with the character Max, played by Aryana [Engieer]. And of course Isabelle [Fuhrman]. Can you talk about that process of finding them?

SERRA: The usual casting for kids is difficult because they grow up so quickly. Whoever was a great kid in the last movie, now they’re like 15 by the time that you’re making their next movie. So you always have the time to find new and fresh people. Isabelle had done a couple of things, and she just came in and read and I was blown away by her performance. She just owned the character. She would say every line and she would make actual choices in delivering the line, which is something rare in a kid – they usually just deliver the line in the way that her mom told her to do it, basically, that’s what you get in a casting session.  I really felt that she was thinking about what she was saying and she was believing it. And that’s what we wanted, you know?

With Aryana, it was a very specific character. It was a young 5 or 6 year old little girl who has to play deaf/mute. There were two options. The obvious one was to hire a kid and to teach the kid sign language. But, you know, I wanted to keep it real. And we found her in Vancouver. Some neighbor suggested that she go to this audition. And she did it. And we brought her to LA and we met her. And she was so natural. And she was just a kid and she was so innocent that I think it really paid of. Because it’s that innocence that we’re really trying to protect in this movie. Because every time that she would step in front of the camera, even though we rehearsed it, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Because she didn’t really know what she was doing. She was reacting for real to what was happening. And that’s priceless when you get that. That’s like priceless.

BEANYWOOD: As a director, just to film those scenes with the kids, and they had to go through some really dark places. What is your job in just communicating and making sure they feel comfortable?

You have to obviously explain what they’re doing, mostly with Isabelle. Obviously she understood what she was doing, in most levels. You have to be careful in how you say things. And then you have to rehearse it over and over again; not so much that it becomes over-rehearsed. But then keep a playful sort of set, you know, so you can really disconnect from that right away. With Aryana it was different because she obviously didn’t understand what was happening. For her, everything was a game. She was going to school most of the time on set, and she would come to set and do her thing. She didn’t really know. I would ask her like, “Do you remember what we did yesterday?” And she would say, “No.” It was just a game. She didn’t really register anything.

BEANYWOOD: David, I was noticing in your background some work with Frank Darabont over several different projects. Was that sort of part of the plan? I can just imagine, your goal is to be a writer, attaching yourself to an excellent writer/director like Frank Darabont would be like having a workshop, a brilliant master class every day.

JOHNSON: It really, really was. I would like to take credit for being smart enough to have thought that ahead of time. But, I came out to LA. I met him on the set of Shawshank Redemption, just very casually. but I came out to LA and was looking for work and my bank account was dwindling and he happened to call up and needed an assistant. And it was just sort this phone call that change my life. He just sort of took me under his wing. And from our very first interview he said, I know you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life. And maybe sort of the plus side for you here is maybe I can help you. He was very encouraging. He looked at every script that I wrote, and vice-versa, which was amazing, like you said about being a masters class, about his Green Mile pages are coming out of the printer hot and he’s asking me my opinion. It’s like, who gets to do that? It was a really, really great experience and I felt really fortunate to have it.

BEANYWOOD: It sort of flies in the face of the image we have of everybody being so protective of, not only of their creative process but also their turf, saying ‘I don’t want these new, young upstarts coming in and getting the jobs that I could get.’ Is it more collaborative than we’re led to believe, or are there unique individuals like Frank?

JOHNSON: My experience is pretty much with Frank and I can say he’s very open, even pretty much on set as he’s directing, he’s a very open, collaborative person. He was always. He took it as my mentor in a way, and was really never guarded or protective at all.


(L to R) Parents John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) meet Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman)

BEANYWOOD: : You have your next project lined up. Do you think it’s hard to find really excellent material out there?

COLLET-SERRA: No. I have another movie with Joel. It’s called Unknown White Male. It shoots in January in Berlin. It’s another great script. But yes good scripts are had to come by. But you now, I’m spoiled by having worked with such great actors. Now I understand that you need a good script to attract good actors, and good actors make you life easy.  So, that’s what I’m looking for.

JOHNSON: And snow. You have to be in Canada in February.

COLLET-SERRA: And Berlin in January. [He laughs]

Orphan opens Friday, July 4th, in the Boston area at AMC Loews Boston Common, Regal Fenway, Fresh Pond, Showcase Cinemas Revere, and AMC Loews Liberty Tree Mall.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Domonique Hume permalink
    August 21, 2009 6:56 am

    I seriously love this movie. It is so creative. I hope to write something like this soon. I have created screenplays but nothing so wonderful. I hope to see this movie win some kind of award for its brilliants.

  2. kupo permalink
    November 30, 2009 1:58 am

    That is an evil girl

  3. lele permalink
    May 11, 2011 8:22 pm

    this movie was just wonderful, i can watch it so many times and still be freaked out and horrifyed. i can never get tired of it, unlike other movies, but that girl is crazy, but how do they get that girl to see inaprpiate things and words?

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