Orphan: Produced by Joel Silver

Working from a story by Alex Mace, screenwriter David Leslie Johnson wrote the script for the horror mystery film “Orphan,” which Warner will release July 24.

At the center of the tale is a family: After some difficulties in their marriage, culminating with the loss of an unborn child, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), 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.

Interesting Villain

“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.

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.

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

In addition to the thriller aspects of the film, Silver 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.”

However, Silver 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.”

Vera Farmiga's Kate

“Kate has been on a difficult journey,” notes Silver. “She lost a child in childbirth. She's an alcoholic, and she almost lost another one of her children because of it. She's tortured. But she's really tried to clean up her life and she's ready to move on, when she brings this little girl into her life, and that sends her back into a tailspin.”

Farmiga says she researched her part by “spending time on grief websites, reading stories about women coping after the loss of a baby. It's no small feat to put back the pieces of a broken heart after experiencing the agony of miscarriage. The ache is desperate, that of an empty womb and empty arms. These testimonies were eye-opening.”

Esther: the Young Character

Silver was taken aback by the young actress' ability to comprehend the part. “During the casting process, we all felt very strongly about Isabelle,” he says, “and I have to say, I think we were right. She is fantastic in this role.”

Downey attests, “Isabelle brought all these different layers–there's such a sophistication about her, and yet also a wide-eyed innocence when she wants to play that. At the beginning of the movie, you completely buy that she's this sweet little girl. Then, as Esther evolves during the story, Isabelle was able to pull off all the harder, edgier stuff, as well.”

Because Esther is supposed to be of Russian descent, and because the character Max uses sign language to communicate, Fuhrman was also busy behind the scenes learning both sign language and an accent for the role. “It was a lot of fun learning sign language,” she says. “And I liked the accent because having a different voice changed me a bit and helped me become the character.”

Producer Joel Silver sums it up, “'Orphan' is a sophisticated movie that's also scary and thrilling and disturbing. It's not just an evil child movie, there's something much more insidious going on. It's going to keep audiences guessing, 'What is wrong with Esther?' And of course, we want them talking about it. But we hope they don't spoil the secret.”