Joshua's George Ratliff

“Joshua” is a psychological thriller about an upscale American family faced with an inner source of horror. In an Upper East Side Apartment, Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) are celebrating the birth of their second child, Lily. Lily is surrounded by love, toys, a doting uncle (Dallas Roberts) and an attentive grandmother (Celia Weston). But she is also surrounded by her 9 year-old brother, Joshua (Jacob Kogan), an exceptionally intelligent, precocious and unpredictable boy.

Hailed at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered the Cinematography Award, as a suspenseful psychological thriller, “Joshua” first presents the “perfect” New York couple in the perfect swank apartment with their two perfect children, then witnesses as they unravel into total chaos, seemingly driven to madness by the darkness within their son. Harrowingly real, rather than supernatural, the film's deft blend of dark comedy and obsessive fear made an indelible impression on audiences.

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. 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, who had earlier made the documentary “Hell House,” which explored the creation of a sinister and graphic haunted house, intended to scare sinners, by a Pentecostal Texas high school.

In his new feature, Ratliff wanted to explore the idea of a terror and human vulnerability from a more everyday, naturalist point-of-view. The story 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.

Evil Child

It was Gilbert, 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 wasnt 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. 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.

Perfect Family

Ratliff and Gilbert also began to look at the story from Joshuas 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 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 couldnt put down until the last word, Dorfman says of the screenplay.

Inner Fears

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 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.

What's Normal

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 theres a mind at work, he notes. The gears are always working and theyre 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.

Dorfman was able to put the film rapidly into production, with principal photography beginning four months after he first met George Ratliff. After seeing HELL HOUSE, I had 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” 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: Its that rare film that scares you and also makes you think.

George Ratliff and David Gilbert

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.

Co-writer 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 and other magazines. He is currently at work on a new novel. “JOSHUA” is his first produced screenplay.