“This is a population-control movie,” Texas-born director George Ratliff said jokingly of his first fiction feature, “Joshua,” during a recent Dallas interview. (Ratliff previously directed several documentaries, including “Hell House.”) The picture is about a brilliant young boy who craftily maneuvers his way out of life with his yuppie parents and newborn sister to one he prefers. “I think it pulls on a primal fear,” he added. “What if you had a kid that was just bad, just because?” And though “Joshua” has been compared to “The Bad Seed” and “The Omen,” Ratliff, who also co-wrote the script with David Gilbert, says that their influence wasn’t direct.
“The crazy thing is,” he said, “that neither David nor I had seen or read ‘The Bad Seed’ until we had mapped out the movie. When we’d tell someone about it, they’d say, oh, like ‘The Bad Seed.’ But it was different enough that it was okay. But I’d love to see little Rhoda and Joshua in a cage fight. I think Joshua would take her, because of the pig tails.”
As to “The Omen” and its Satanic child, Ratliff added, “I’m not that interested in supernatural horror movies, or demon, alien horror movies. What scares me more is what’s scary in the everyday. I thought what would be most scary is if it were a story about a kid who was just evil. And there are some movies, out of Europe, mostly France, that I think were very influential for ‘Joshua.’ Like ‘With a Friend Like Harry,’ ‘Cache’ and ‘Read My Lips.’ These I think are very intense, very frightening movies, but about stories that could happen to anybody. And that’s really what we were setting out to do, and it informed every bit of the style and the casting and the performances. I felt that every beat of the movie had to be absolutely believable.
“That’s why we cast Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga [as Joshua’s parents]. They’re each stars of method acting, and I don’t think they’re capable of doing a line they don’t totally buy. I lucked out because I really wanted Sam and Vera. But he was sort of on the fence. The thing that sort of made him jump was when I told him we were really liking Vera for the wife. He goes, ‘You get Vera, I’m in.’ And the same thing happened with Vera. We said that we were looking at Sam, and Vera goes, ‘If you get Sam, I’m in.’ They just really respected each other and wanted to work together. And that really elevated the performances of everyone else. And I get to take credit for it.”
Of course, the movie needed a child who could play Joshua convincingly, too—and Ratliff felt himself lucky to have found ten-year old Jacob Kogan. “The scary thing about Jacob is that he really is that smart,” Ratliff said. “We auditioned a lot of kids, but he was the only one who was believably that smart.”
Kogan also mastered the piano playing that was an integral part of the boy’s character. Though a guitarist in a kids’ band (Ratliff noted the group also includes Sigmund Freud’s great-great grandnephew), he trained with a Juilliard professor who doubted his hands were large enough for the Beethoven sonata the boy was supposed to play. But shortly after the lessons had started, Ratliff visited Jacob at home for a reading, and “he sat down at the piano and played that sonata—which really frightened me. He’d learned it cold in two weeks.”
The music score for “Joshua” by Nico Muhly—who’s worked closely with Philip Glass—is also, Ratliff noted, an important part of the film’s narrative trajectory. He called a deconstruction of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that Joshua plays during a school recital “a microcosm of the whole movie. Everyone became obsessed with that piece. We listened to it over and over and over again.” And it mirrored the whole score, which, he noted, “begins beautiful…and then devolves into this atonal single-note score.
“A lot of the things about the movie mimic that route. The visuals of the movie go down that same degradation. As the movie progresses and Joshua takes over, the lenses get wider so it becomes a little more confining and the angle gets lower and lower and the movements become very precise.” The colors become more and more muted as well: a bleach-bypass was used, each succeeding reel was dipped in one fewer processing bath so that the images grow gradually starker as the movie progresses. “If you compare the beginning scene and the end scene,” Ratliff said, “they would look like two different movies. But because it happens gradually, no one notices—you just intuitively put it on Sam[‘s performance]. Everything’s working in symphony together to take you down this path.”
Ratliff concluded, “I didn’t have final cut on ‘Joshua,’ but it’s exactly the movie I wanted to make. I don’t regret a frame of the movie. We had a very limited amount of time and money, but we did exactly what I wanted. And the cast was my dream cast. There are bigger names out there, but these are the actors I was most excited to work with.”
And looking toward the future, he added with what was already a touch of nostalgia, “[‘Joshua’ has] opened a lot of doors for me, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be in as good a situation again.”