When Leonardo DiCaprio sends a film idea your way, you pay attention, even if it's written by a no-name like Alex Mace, whose sole claim to fame is that he's a good friend of the titanic star and works for his production company. Veteran producer Joel Silver (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) received Mace's short treatment for a horror movie about an adopted child who turns on her new family. He thought it was "a fresh idea," so he enlisted David Leslie Johnson, a production assistant on The Shawshank Redemption, to turn the treatment into the screenplay for Orphan, which opens areawide on Friday.
"I got three pages that outlined the family dynamics and the names of the characters," says Johnson. "I took that and came up with the ending and worked backwards."
Silver recruited Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) to helm the project. Collet-Serra cast Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Nothing But the Truth) to play Kate Coleman, a mother still grieving from a miscarriage. Farmiga suggested longtime friend Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry, Flightplan) play her husband John, and Isabelle Fuhrman was cast as the evil orphan Esther. A brunette, Fuhrman didn't fit the script's profile of the pale, blonde Esther, but Collet-Serra thought she was such a good actress that he re-wrote the part for her.
The film opens with a gruesome nightmare, as Kate imagines herself giving birth to a stillborn child. She awakes in a panic, but her bad dream makes her realize it's time for her and John to adopt a child to make up for their loss. Even though they already have two children, they want another one to take the place of the infant they lost. So they go to the local orphanage and pick out Esther because she seems artistic (Kate's a classical pianist and John is an architect).
At first, Esther adjusts to her new family nicely, befriending her deaf half-sister (Aryana Engineer) and tolerating her videogame obsessed half-brother (Jimmy Bennett). But it's not long before Kate realizes there's something incredibly wrong about the way Esther is attracted to John and suspects that Esther, whom Johnson describes as "Hannibal Lecter-smart," isn't the poor Russian girl she claims she is.
Farmiga says it was challenging to play Kate, a woman whose grief turned her into an alcoholic who John can't totally trust with the kids.
"I found the character to be really complex," says Farmiga. "She's suffering from grief and the dysfunction of her family. I wanted to defend the character and understand miscarriage grief at a time when I was desperately trying to get pregnant. There were so many issues that intrigued me. In recovery, the body heals before the soul does. I wanted to explore that."
John doubts his wife throughout the movie, which is typical of dysfunctional relationships, says Sarsgaard.
"You're just trying to make sure that you don't defy the emotional logic so that someone in the audience sits there and goes, 'No,'" he says. "That's the only thing that's necessary in a movie like this."
While the film careens over the top as it escalates toward its outlandish, violent ending (which includes an incredible twist along the way), its strength is that it's driven by psychological horror rather than supernatural phenomena. By the film's conclusion, all of Esther's actions can be completely explained.
"I wanted to develop the psychological aspect because that's where the tension comes from," says Collet-Serra, a fan of '70s horror films. "I wanted to make a really tense movie more than just something that's scary or shocking."
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