Director George Ratliff first made waves with 2001's Hell House, a blackly funny (yet remarkably evenhanded) documentary about a Dallas Christian Fundamentalist group's annual Halloween tradition, where Jason and Leatherface get swapped out for cautionary tales about abortion and date rape. Joshua, Ratliff's first narrative feature, moves back into more traditional horror territory, albeit with a modern, real-world sensibility. Boo.
When Joshua first played here for the film festival, I had some trouble getting the gist across in the brief capsule for the guide. It's a horror film, and a black comedy, and has elements of yuppie satire, and may even arguably be a musical in the last few minutes. If you had to pigeonhole it, how would you describe it?
Well... it's an evil-kid movie. [Laughs.] You know, there's a whole overdone genre of evil-kid movies, but we set out to make something that hopefully felt different. It's a scary movie, but I'm much more frightened by stuff that could actually happen. Supernatural movies don't do it for me. A fear that I've always had—I think it's a primal fear, really—is of having, through no fault of yours, a bad kid, someone that came from your genes and chromosomes and is just... wrong, and smarter than you are. It's a disconcerting thing. I've come across kids who are smarter than me, and I find that very disturbing.
But it's funny, too, in a queasy sort of way.
Yeah, definitely. I wouldn't really classify the film as a comedy, but I think that there's a real connection between laughter and anxiety, and that link is an interesting thing to pursue. We explored that a lot in Hell House, and just took it further in this.
It's been six years since Hell House. Talk about the genesis of this project.
The genesis of this project is that it was [cowriter] David Gilbert's idea, and I wanted nothing to do with it. [Laughs.] I'd just started having kids, and I really didn't want to wade into this whole bad-child genre. When I did Hell House, I got sort of emotionally wrapped up in the whole thing, and it was a difficult process. A great experience, ultimately, but a hard one. As a result, I'm very wary about the sort of things that I take on. But David really wanted to do this movie. So we'd talk a lot about it, and I'd always try to be very political, telling him why it wouldn't work, and why this one thing didn't scare me, and how it didn't interest me. But, during the process, we started to find really great solutions to everything I was presenting, and after a while I just realized that we had to do it.
So you kind of psyched yourself out.
Yeah, and hopefully into a much more interesting movie. I mean, David's first concept had a much more supernatural bent to it. One of his big initial ideas was that the kid, you know, levitates at the end of the movie, [laughs] and I just thought that that was so silly.
I think the kid you chose could pull that off.
He probably could. Anyway, I just have to say, I had a great collaboration with David, and collaborations are tough to pull off. Anyone who wants to try it should do what I did and find a writing partner who's much, much better than you are, and then just bask in his or her glory. He's an amazing writer.
Being a success as a documentary filmmaker doesn't always guarantee an easy transition into features. One of the Paradise Lost guys had Blair Witch 2, while Michael Moore had, um, Canadian Bacon. It's kind of a broad question, but what changes in your job when going between the two?
Well, I think that there are different styles of documentaries. Some are just really about their subjects, and are consequently only as strong as their subjects, while others are actually cinematic. Hell House, for example, is a vérité style documentary, which has the same kind of structure as a movie does. You don't have a voiceover narrator taking you through it; rather, each scene leads to another scene, and there's an ongoing arc, and there's a beginning, middle, and end, and you find out who the characters are through their dialogue and physicality. So, really, you put it together the way you would a narrative film, except that it's all happening live, and you have to kind of edit in your head as you go. I think that it's a great training ground for people looking to move into scripted movies, although you still have to figure out how to work with actors. After Hell House, I knew that I wanted to make narrative films, so I secretly studied acting for a few years in New York, which was enormously helpful for me, not only in the casting process, but in figuring out how to understand the different styles and how to approach the individual actors while filming.
Jacob Kogan, who plays Joshua, gives an interestingly modulated performance, which pays off really well during the movie's big scenes. How did you get that performance from him?
Jacob's just great. Every time I watch the movie, I get more impressed with what he did. He's not a heavily trained actor or anything, but his instincts were incredible. One of the first things we did was just sit down and go through the script line by line for a couple of days, and Jacob proceeded to defend and rationalize every action of Joshua. So many kids that we auditioned tried to put their most eeevil boy grin on and it just became absurd, but Jacob made it seem real.
Him being so in control feels like it allows the other actors to go broader.
Yeah, that's the thing. You know, while all the other characters in the movie are falling to pieces, Joshua is sort of this unchangingÉ force. That's one of the main pieces of his character, the idea that he's just lacking emotion. He knows how people are supposed to act, and mimics it. One thing that the actor nailed, which is especially difficult for a kid, is the physicality, the stillness of the part. Jacob's nothing like Joshua normally. He's a kid who would be bouncing off the walls and cracking jokes and doing, like, weird magic tricks between takes. And then when we were ready to go he'd just find his creepy spot.