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Orphan – Writer David Leslie Johnson

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Isabelle Fuhrman © Warner Bros

David Leslie Johnson’s screenplay for the four-hour mini-series sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing brought him to the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, for which he wrote Orphan.
The movie tells the harrowing story of John and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard), who after losing their unborn baby decide to adopt an older child. They are both attracted to 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) and invite her to join their family; it’s a decision that will change their lives.


Will you tell us about the genesis of the project?

Isabelle Fuhrman © Warner Bros
Isabelle Fuhrman © Warner Bros

The project was developed internally at Appian Way, one of their executives, Alex Mace, wrote a 10-page treatment which was sort of their outline of the story. They were looking for writers to adapt it, to get fresh takes on it. They only gave me the first three pages which was sort of the premise, introduced the characters, the family dynamic, and it basically ended when Esther came home. And they were like, ‘Okay, so what happens next?’

And so, I took that, I knew more or less the kind of story they wanted to tell, and I came up with the ending and worked my way back towards their spot and pitched them my version of the story. They hired me to write it, then they gave me the rest of the treatment and it was kind of nice in that I had been thinking similarly in terms of the idea of this child coming in and manipulating the family. We were both on the same page there, and my ending was completely different from what they had originally thought, but they loved it.

The opening scene with the still birth pulled you right in and scared the hell out of you from the outset – was the fact that it was so graphic to kind of let the audience know, heads-up, this movie isn’t going to be just a spooky movie, it’s going to be really intense and there’s going to be kids holding guns and things like that?

Vera Farmiga © Warner Bros
Vera Farmiga © Warner Bros

It’s definitely a yellow caution flag, because I wanted it to have a slow burn. I really love horror movies that build to something, instead of just constant shock all the way through, I wanted it to take the time to get to know these people before having horrible things happen to them. But at the same time you want to know right away what kind of movie you’re in, so when the horrible stuff starts happening you’re not blindsided by it.

You seemed like you were very familiar with the child killer genre, and took the movie to new places.

I’ve been a fan of the genre, the sub-genre I guess, for a long time. I saw The Bad Seed in college and loved it, and that was actually one of the reasons when they brought me the idea and said, ‘Here’s the set up,’ it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is something I’d really like to take a crack at.’ Having been familiar with that sub-genre and seeing some of those movies it was helpful in that I was able to play with expectations somewhat, because if people have seen movies that they think are similar, you can sort of lead them along that path possibly and then take a sharp turn that they don’t see coming because they thought they were a half an hour ahead of the movie and it turns out that they weren’t.

Are you worried this will give adopting an orphan a bad rap?

I definitely see why [adoption agencies] are concerned. The process of adopting a child is very difficult, very expensive and a lot of people are very insensitive to adopted families. People that are your friends will say to you, ‘Do you think they’ll want to find their real mother?’ Well, you’re the parent of this child, you are the real mother. And that’s just a daily thing.

So when they see something like this come on television I think it’s very natural to be sensitive to it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, I don’t’ think the movie portrays adoption [negatively]. Right before I started writing this, my best friend has two adopted daughters, and before I even typed ‘Fade in’ I called him up and I was like, ‘Okay, here’s the premise of this movie, what do you think?’ And he came back to me very quickly and was like, ‘I don’t have a problem with it, I don’t see why this would damage adoption any more than The Bad Seed damaged procreation. I got that e-mail and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s right, that makes a lot of sense.’ That was basically good enough for me.