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The Reeler Blog

George Ratliff, Back in the Day

George Ratliff with young star Jacob Kogan at the Brooklyn Museum set of Joshua (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Three Sundance '07 alumni are opening in New York theaters this week, but neither Jennifer Fox's Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman nor Cherie Rowland's Australian import Introducing the Dwights (which premiered in January as Clubland) are as distinctly NY-centric as George Ratliff's new thriller Joshua. The tale of an Upper East Side family picked to pieces by its evil 9-year-old piano prodigy son (Jacob Kogan), we've followed it since its trip to Park City, from its $4 million pick-up by Fox Searchlight to its semi-premiere Tuesday night in New York -- hell, since even before that, as evidenced by our pre-Sundance chat with Ratliff. For those of you who missed it (or forgot it -- it was, after all, a whole six months ago) I've restored an interesting section about Ratliff's famous Texas doc roots and his surprising transplant to urbane psychological horror.

STV: Not only did you get into (your first Sundance) 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?

GR:
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.

STV: 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?

GR: 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!"

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

GR: Yeah, I know, huh? Thanks.

Posted at July 6, 2007 8:02 AM

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