Orphan by Director Jaume Collet-Serra

Working from a story by Appian Way's Alex Mace, screenwriter David Leslie Johnson wrote the script for “Orphan,” which Warner will release July 24.

After some difficulties in their marriage, culminating with the loss of an unborn child, Kate and John Coleman, who have a son and daughter, decide the best way to heal is to adopt a nine-year-old girl. Esther recently experienced the loss of her previous adoptive family in a house fire, from which she only narrowly escaped herself.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed the horror film “House of Wax” for producers Joel Silver and Susan Downey, describes Esther as “very mysterious, but at the same time, she seems very smart, very creative. Kate and John, the adoptive parents, want a child who is special. And they definitely get somebody who is really, really special,” he smiles.

Almost as soon as they welcome Esther into their home, however, alarming tragic events begins to unfold, leading Kate to believe that something isn't right—the seemingly angelic little girl is perhaps not what she appears to be.

“I think a villain like this is interesting to watch,” states producer Joel Silver. “You wouldn't want to see her in the real world, but it's fun to see her in a movie. She's a psychopath in the shape of a little girl who will stop at nothing.”  It doesn't take long to realize that there really is something wrong with Esther.

Producer Susan Downey relates, “Kate and John were ready to put their lives back on track, and they decided to adopt an older child. To fit in with the kids that they already had, they wanted to find one somewhere between their older son and their younger daughter, and hopefully have a really happy little fivesome.” But there's something about Esther that they don't know.

When John first happens upon her, Esther is singing sweetly and painting a beautiful picture. Kate joins them and the couple quickly find themselves drawn in by Esther's intelligence and her singular point of view. Conservative and shy, Esther is clearly a unique little girl. Kate, a musician, and John, an architect, easily see this exceptional child fitting into their family, despite–or perhaps even because of–her tragic past.

Collet-Serra observes, “Esther is welcomed into the family, but soon after her arrival we see that she's not as innocent as she seemed. In a film, when you have an evil kid who does evil things, you start small and more subtly than you might expect in a horror movie. Little things start happening, and before you realize it you have an enemy inside the house, this little girl manipulating the situation.”

The current state of the Coleman family is ripe for manipulation. Kate, still healing from her loss, is a recovering alcoholic, and her drinking has led to near-tragedy in the past when their daughter Max nearly drowned on her watch. John continues to fight the urge to blame his wife for what might have happened. The fractures in their relationship run deep, making them vulnerable and giving Esther an opportunity.

Leonardo DiCaprio, a partner at Appian Way and a producer on this film, states, “We were as excited as we were about the project because it felt like so much more than your typical genre film. A lot of its appeal has to do with the fact that there is a complex psychological drama playing itself out alongside the typical genre scares.”

Actress Vera Farmiga, who stars as Kate, remarks, “This story puts a new spin on the genre. It's not just bloodletting; it's horrifying events happening to real people with real problems. Events that make you shudder and say, 'Thank God that's not happening to me!'”

Peter Sarsgaard stars as Kate's husband, John. The actor also appreciated the realistic base to the story. “At its core, this is a family that was broken. Kate has extreme guilt over Max's accident, the drinking, and even the stillbirth. Despite trying to get past all of that, John's still not sure he can trust her, and even blames himself. Esther comes in and shines a light on these things, and uses them to her advantage. I think the best horror movies highlight the human condition and play on the fears and problems so many of us are faced with in our own lives.”

“David's screenplay delivered,” attests Silver. “He really made the story and the characters come to life.”

Bad Seed

For Johnson, it was a labor of love. “I've loved the genre ever since I saw 'The Bad Seed,'” he notes. “It's one of my favorite horror sub-genres–the evil child. There's something very visceral to it. Viewers have a strong reaction, whether it's a child being corrupted by the devil, or whether it's just a bad kid…we're very knee-jerk in our reaction to it. And I didn't want to do it in a way that it had been done before. I wanted to find a new way into it, to bring a new angle to the subject matter. I came up with the twist at the end, the secret, and sort of worked backward from there.”

“David's script was great,” says Collet-Serra. “The characters were so well-developed. I really saw the potential of making a movie that had all the elements: great acting, great atmosphere, tension, not to mention really scary. 'Orphan' is really a psychological thriller that turns into a horror movie. It's not straight horror. The whole story revolves around this secret, and it's very rare for me to read a script and be completely surprised by the ending. It was so believable. That's what got me hooked on it.”

Silver adds that, while audiences will recognize that there's something different about Esther, “I want them to have that shock, that never-saw-it-coming moment. I want them to leave the theatre talking about it the same way we did when we read the script.”

“David created characters that we could really invest in,” says Downey. “Kate and John are a couple that I think people can relate to, because they're very flawed. But their back stories aren't thrown out there as a crutch or just something to give the characters depth. That's what set this script apart for me–the realistic component of these people who we are investing in and believing in, just falling apart. And then there's this really surprising twist…”

Producer Jennifer Davisson Killoran agrees. “From its inception, I felt this story was fantastic fun. It keeps you guessing, and just when you think you know what the secret is, it throws another curveball and you're not sure.”

In addition to the thriller aspects of the film, Killoran was also drawn to the mother-child relationships at the heart of the story. “I think Kate is a wonderful portrayal of a woman trying desperately to do right by her children, whether biological or adopted. She just wants the best for them.”

“There's just something really primal in that mother-child relationship,” says Johnson, “so I felt like that was really the best relationship to exploit and corrupt; to take what should be the most natural bond in the world and turn them into enemies. And I gave the mother a troubled background so that when she starts saying there's something wrong with Esther, everyone has reason to doubt her because she's not the most reliable person.”

However, Johnson credits the director with “making it not only scary, but also bringing a sense of menace and mood to the family scenes. Even early on, when things haven't gone wrong yet, there is this feeling that something is going to go wrong, and that has a lot to do with the way he shot the film and the look he brought to it.”

“To be great, a thriller has to be smart; it has to have fresh ideas,” offers Silver. “And for it to really work it has to have suspense, and it has to take you on a journey. And Jaume does that brilliantly. He's a really patient storyteller who takes his time in luring an audience in.”

“I wanted to portray a family that has good moments and bad moments. I didn't want to put a finger on their pain from the very beginning; I wanted to see why they were together, to give them a chance for a happy ending,” Collet-Serra says. “Then, as things start to really go wrong, we see, just for a moment, the actual act of violence. The key for me is to show it in a very real but brief way, emphasizing the story and the performances.”