Sundance Features

January 15, 2007

George Ratliff, Joshua

"I've submitted so many damn things to this festival and just never got in. I'm just grateful I finally get to go."

Jacob Kogan as the title character in George Ratliff's Joshua

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

Thanks a lot for taking a few minutes to talk. I know how crazy things have to be right about now.

A lot less than you'd think; it's fairly calm before the storm, I think.

Really? You're one of the lucky ones. Or probably one of the better prepared ones, I guess.

Yeah, we actually finished it and the print is there.

You're obviously a seasoned festival veteran, but I was surprised to discover that this is your first Sundance. Despite all the other experience, are you still feeling any nerves or apprehensions?

Yeah, I am. I've always wanted to go, but I've never gotten in. I've submitted so many damn things to this festival and just never got in. I'm just grateful I finally get to go. A lot of my friends in the indie film world have just sort of shown up and experienced it or gotten writing assignments or done things there, but I've never even been to Park City. I made my first documentary in 1994.

It's so odd, because Plutonium Circus and the documentaries that followed were so successful. Yet you get in this year with a fiction film.

I don't know. Hell House was timing; we finished it in time to got to Toronto, and then Sundance doesn’t touch films that have seen the light of other festivals before. But I really think this is a Sundance kind of film in that it's very much an indie story. I was worried about them taking it; it has some genre elements to it, and I don't think they look too brightly on genre films. It's not a typical genre film, but it is a thriller.

You're a Texas guy, right?


And not only did you get into the festival with a fiction feature, but you've got this film about an upper-middle-class New York family in crisis. How and why did you decide this was a story you wanted to take on?

I'm a fifth-generation Texan from Amarillo, which is like the middle of nowhere. And I have to say that I've been Texas-obsessed my whole life -- everything I've done my whole life is based around Texas. I didn't mean to move to New York, but once I go here I realized, for one thing, it gave me perspective on Texas. And I think Hell House was a much better portrait of Texas than I had ever done before because I had distance to look at it. But I really wanted to get to do something not involving Texas at all. And that's why this was really appealing to me: There's no element of Texas. We could have made Brad come from Texas, but he came from Ohio, you know? There were many opportunities to involve Texas somehow, but I just felt like I had to exorcise Texas from myself for one movie. And it was really freeing, I think, because I've got a lot of sort of baggage wrapped up in Texas having come from there. My next movie that I want to do is set in Texas, so it's not like I'm turning my back on it. I just needed to step away from it.

Young Jacob Kogan plays the title character, and he's kind of terrifying. Where did you find this kid, and how did the two of you find Joshua?

The casting of Joshua is the linchpin for the movie, and we all knew it. Of course, we didn’t know any actors out there because they had to be young. So we knew we would probably be discovering someone, and I have a friend named John Lee, who created the show Wonder Showzen on MTV2. I had a feeling he had worked with every 9- to 11-year-old actor in the five boroughs. So he read the script and I asked for a short list, and he just gave me Jacob's name. He said, "This kid is a major talent; he's definitely your guy." We auditioned 75 kids, but Jacob was clearly the right one. And everyone agreed. I mean, he's an amazing actor; he's really, really smart -- by far the smartest guy on set. The only problem was that he didn’t play piano. And in the movie, he's supposed to be a piano prodigy. And he plays very complicated stuff. So we're auditioning hand doubles, and I thought we needed to get him into lessons to at least be able to fake some of it.

Just for giggles we gave him this very difficult Beethoven sonata that he plays a couple of times in the movie, but the piano teacher said that even if he was an adult and he had played all his life this was one of the most difficult pieces out there. And Jacob learned it in two weeks. So he's a savant on top of it all, which really sort of wowed everyone but sort of creeped us all out a little too. And the piano teacher was just, "I must have him for my student! I must have him! He must study! He must continue!"

Wow. Well, congrats on discovering a world-class young actor and a piano prodigy. That's a healthy two-fer.

Yeah, I know, huh? Thanks.

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Comments (1)

Jacob is my friend. I've known him since my infancy and I'm just congratulating him for his success.

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