boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

His fear really is close to home

Director taps into 'horror of the everyday' for movie thriller

A startling admission came matter-of-factly, midway through a conversation with "Joshua" director and co-writer George Ratliff.

"My wife did not want this movie to happen," he said with a chuckle. "After a lot of talking and a counselor, some couples therapy, we sort of figured out that we could do this. She ended up loving the process. And she's a filmmaker, too. She was on set every day and loves the movie. But she had the exact same fear as I did."

As parents of one child with a second on the way, they feared they would find the subject matter hitting too close to home.

Post partum depression. Crushing family stress. The bad seed.

Opening Friday , the movie "stems from the idea that being a parent is one of the scariest things you could possibly do," Ratliff, 38, said. "I have been afraid of that: What if you have a kid who for no good reason is bad. Not that you're a bad parent or you've done it wrong -- it's just a bad kid."

Sam Rockwell stars as Brad Cairn , a New York hedge fund manager who can afford to keep his family in high style in a classic prewar apartment overlooking Central Park. But when he and wife Abby , played by Vera Farmiga , bring their second child, Lily , home from the hospital, things begin to go off the rails.

"It feels like this New York indie family drama . . . and it takes creepier and creepier and creepier turns," Ratliff said.

Abby is overwhelmed by the demands of mothering, increasingly dependent on pills and the help of her doting brother and Jesus-loving mother-in-law. Brad finds himself falling short at home and at work as he tries to keep the family together. The root of their escalating problems always seems to be Joshua (Jacob Kogan) , their scarily precocious firstborn, a gifted pianist who plays on their emotions like another set of 88s.

"It's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Deranged Young Man,' " David Gilbert, Ratliff's writing partner, said in a separate interview.

Did we mention the big picture of a straight razor on the wall? The high death rate of guinea pigs in Joshua's orbit? His fascination with Egyptian mummies?

The idea was hatched by Gilbert, a novelist ("The Normals") who grew up in Manhattan loving movies like "Rosemary's Baby."

"I have two kids born 15 months apart, so there was a moment there when I had two babies at home, and it was incredibly stressful," Gilbert said. "To me, a little bit like a psychological thriller, trying to take care of these two kids and a wife who was exhausted. . . . We obviously went to a stranger place once we started writing it."

Gilbert said that after surviving his daughter's colic, his wife didn't have a problem with the script. She did point out one odd fact: "I would tell my kids these stories about a boy and a girl and their adventures, which were basically their adventures. The names of the boy and the girl in the stories were Joshua and Abigail, and in the movie the kid's Joshua and the mother is Abigail. That was a strange little leak of the fiction world into my world."

Even before couples therapy, Ratliff had his doubts about the "Joshua" idea.

"I didn't want to write this script. I was very resistant. I didn't want to wade into that evil-kid pool. A lot of times when you're making films you get so caught up in it, it takes over your life, you get obsessed with it," Ratliff said. "So I would present reasons why this movie wouldn't work or why it'd be silly. And every time David and I would hash it out, talk it out, and find a really interesting way to solve all the problems I presented. And after a while, we had to write it."

The story comes swaddled in the sometimes comic trappings of classic 1960s and '70s fright fests like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen," minus Satan. Everything scary in "Joshua" is of domestic origin.

"We couldn't get away from nods to 'Rosemary's Baby' in this movie, but that works to our advantage," Ratliff said. "It creates expectations that something's going to happen that we don't fulfill. We go someplace completely different. But it still creates an anxiety."

Ratliff also points to the influence of a recent run of French thrillers, including "Read My Lips" and "Cache." "These movies I think are very, very frightening," he said, "but I think they are steeped in realism and naturalism -- the horror of the everyday."

Another scary player is the family's apartment, a pre war classic of high ceilings and dark woods that brings to mind the Manhattan apartment in "Rosemary's Baby." Ratliff said his team saved money by finding an abandoned period house in Queens, rebuilding it, and hanging a large image of Central Park outside the windows. Ratliff's wife, Bess Frelinghuysen , is credited as prop consultant.

"The funny thing is that the geography of the apartment is purposefully impossible to follow," Ratliff said with a chuckle. "It makes sense from point to point, but if you went to map out the apartment you wouldn't be able to actually do it."

"Joshua," a Sundance favorite this year, is the first feature for Amarillo, Texas, native Ratliff, a documentary filmmaker best known for "Hell House," his blackly hilarious look at Halloween festivities at one Christian school.

Having completed a hot genre picture, Ratliff and Gilbert might be expected to consolidate their gains via a similar film with a slightly higher budget and bigger stars.

But no, they're adapting -- gulp -- a Don DeLillo novel, "End Zone."

"This is the DeLillo that people don't know about," Ratliff said. "This is his second novel. It's a very funny football satire, but it's sort of football obsessed with, you know, apocalyptic warfare."

People are always saying how easy it is to film DeLillo, right? Ratliff laughed. "Yeah," he said. "DeLillo is sooo adaptable."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES