George Ratliff discusses “Joshua” with Jennifer Merin

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In “Joshua,“ director George Ratliff focuses on the bad child, a boy who’s antisocial behavior– everything from excising stuffing from his panda to brutalizing his baby brother– occurs without reassuring explanatory hook of supernatural cause or context. Joshua (played by Jacob Kogan) is just a creepy kid– brilliant and psychotic. And very disturbing to audiences.

Ratliff, who’s last film was a terrifying doc (“Hell House”) about haunted mansions established by Evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt to scare kids into being good, says he finds the ‘bad child‘ theme fascinating.< “I was primarily interested in tapping into a parent’s primal fear that their child is to turn out to be bad. My brother expressed this to me when he had his first kid and I was so excited about the possibility of what he might become-- a doctor or lawyer, or artist. My brother’s answer stunned me-- ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘or a serial killer.‘ I thought that it would be interesting-- and very scary-- to explore a child who‘s bad just because he‘s bad,“ says Ratliff.< MERIN: But throughout the film, there’re innuendos and hints that Joshua might be possessed, that there might something dark from outside the realm of his seemingly normal and privileged family environment that might be influencing him. Are they there as red herrings?< RATLIFF: Yes. We wanted to provide audiences into thinking they’ve found an explanation. People think he’s possessed or that there’re ghosts upstairs, or some other rationale. We’re setting up all these possible reasons for his behavior. Then, as we slowly strip them away, the audience feels greater and greater tension. They’re left with the uncomfortable understanding that the kid is just bad.

MERIN: There’s also a suggestion that Joshua’s bad behavior begins with the jealousy he feels when his baby brother comes home from the hospital, and his overwrought mother (Vera Farmiga) and overworked hedge fund manager father (Sam Rockwell) don’t pay enough attention to him. Is that a red herring, too?

RATLIFF: No, not exactly a red herring– not the way hints at the supernatural are. The family situation’s a real factor in Joshua’s crisis, but it still doesn’t explain the extremes of his behavioral badness. Lots of kids have younger siblings introduced to their homes, their families, but don’t behave as Joshua does.

I think another key to his behavior is that he’s such a brilliant child– a prodigy who clearly understands the concept of doing good for others or seeming to do good for others, when he gives away his toys, for example, and who’s a virtuoso pianist. Joshua learns fast, and I think a turning point for him is his piano recital where he hits a bad note and feels peoples’ reactions to that note, and he finds their discomfort more interesting than their applause when he’s playing perfectly, as expected. He senses he’s found a real power to effect people and he goes further with that, gets caught up in it and can’t step back from it. For me, that’s the beginning of Joshua’s shift to really bad behavior. The movie starts as one thing, then becomes something else.

MERIN: There seems to be a shift at that moment, too, in the way the film is shot. The visuals change in that the color seems to sort of wash off the screen in a subtle but progressive way, and the mood becomes darker, more mysterious. You want to rub your eyes to get a fresh look– to check your perceptions. Am I right?

RATLIFF: Yes, that’s exactly right. We did that intentionally by manipulating the development of the film– by shortening or bypassing one bleach bath that influences color saturation. That very decidedly changes the quality of the images on the screen. The shift is gradual, but this is the moment in the film where it starts.

As far as I know, this is the first time this technique has been used in a feature film. We’ve found that it does have a striking impact on the audience. It’s another way of challenging their perceptions– which gives rise to their heightened tensions, which heighten tensions in the theater.

MERIN: I trust you use the soundtrack to build tension, too. The devolution of “Twinkle Twinkle” into chaos is very disturbing. How did you come to that?

RATLIFF: That was the first piece of music composed for the film. The composer’s name is Niko Muli, he‘s very young, just 25, and has worked a lot with Philip Glass, who tapped him out of Julliard when he was 18. He‘s an amazing talent.

Joshua’s music has the same sort of breakdown the visuals have. The music starts off as quite beautifully melodic, but becomes more and more atonal until it ends up as a series of single notes that are very frightening. That’s Niko– he evolved the big score and designed the sound. It was a huge job and I think he did it brilliantly

And, Jacob, didn’t play the piano when we cast him– he learned how to play this music in several weeks, which I found amazing.

MERIN: How did you find Jacob, and how’d you know he could carry your film?

RATLIFF: It was rough– as you say, the movie is carried by the kid. When you’re working with actors like Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, you know what you‘re getting, what they‘re capable of. But we basically had to discover a kid who could do this part.

Fortunately, I knew a guy who created “Wonder Showzen,“ a late night MTV2 show that’s a sort of a twisted take on Sesame Street and involves kid actors. I knew they’d worked with every kid actor in New York and asked for a short list– but he said Jacob Kogan is amazing, a huge talent, see him first. We brought him in, and knew right away that we’d found our guy. Still, we auditioned 75 other kids to make sure. The casting challenge was that you have to believe Joshua is THAT smart. Jacob is really as smart as Joshua is supposed to be– frighteningly smart. He’s incredibly well-read, has a real sense of the movies. But, as I said, he didn’t play the piano. While we auditioned hand doubles, we put him in piano lessons at Julliard, figuring we’d see how it went. He had to learn a Beethoven sonata. The teacher said, “This is one of the most difficult pieces on the piano. Beethoven’s hands were huge. You can’t possibly expect this child to do this.” But, he learned it in two weeks. He’s amazingly talented and amazingly smart.< MERIN: Your last film, “Hell House,” is a doc, and you didn’t use actors. Was it challenging to shift from subjects in the doc to actors in the dramatic feature?

RATLIFF: They‘re not that different. “Hell House” prepared me for “Joshua.” When you’re making a verité movie like a documentary, you’re covering events as scenes, and every scene has a beginning, middle and end, and characters that have their arcs. You build a documentary like you would a narrative movie except you just have to do it at the spur of the moment, visualizing how you’re going to shoot, how you’re going to cut what you’ve shot. You wind up in the editing room agonizing over shots you wish you had– so, making Joshua was kind of a luxury because I could storyboard the whole thing, rehearse with actors, think the whole thing out and visualize it several times before we even got on the set. That seemed like a luxury.< MERIN: Did your work on “Hell House,” which is about children in the hands of the Christian right, influence your development of the character of Joshua’s Evangelical grandmother (Celia Weston)?

RATLIFF: Well, originally, when David Gilbert and I wrote this, he was gunning for her to be a Catholic, but I thought it would be more interesting with her as an Evangelical because I thought it’s a more pertinent angle for today. I’m clearly interested in that subject– and my interest wasn’t over with “Hell House,“ where I saw characters like her– but she’s not a continuation of anyone we met in that film. Celia makes her a fun character to dislike, but there are moments in the film where you feel ashamed for disliking her and that, too, adds to the tension.

MERIN: You refer often to building tension in the film, yet it’s got a lot of humor, many laugh-out-loud moments that I think I can safely assume are intentional….

RATLIFF: Absolutely. I like the connection between anxiety and humor. Well, I think in “Joshua,” it’s more like nervous laughter, and it actually feeds anxiety. All the laughs are intentional, I assure you– and audiences are surprised to find themselves laughing. I kept telling the producers that “Joshua” was going to be a funny movie, but they didn’t believe me until we started shooting. I think they were concerned that it might not work, but I was confident it would. In “Joshua,“ the humor is very important in precipitating the anxiety.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).