INTERVIEW Interview With ‘Orphan’ Screenwriter David Johnson

The Creepy, the Thrilling, the Adopted

If you haven’t had the curiosity (or stomach) to check Jaume Collet-Serra’s appropriately horrific horror thriller Orphan, this interview with screenwriter David L. Johnson might do the trick in explaining the motives behind the film’s mysterious topic. I caught up with the busy writer–first-time father-to-be at the Comic-Con in San Diego last month. Clearly a part of the Comic-Con community, Johnson has worked with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee when he adapted one of his original ideas into a two-hour teleplay for TBS Superstation.

The Tech: Mr. Johnson, how did the idea for the story come about? Where did you get your inspiration from? Why adoption? In addition to the usual effects of the horror genre, can we see also some social and/or psychological commentary behind the story, specifically on the theme of adoption? What were your intentions with this story?

David Johnson: There’s obviously been a lot of discussion about the implied message about adoption in this movie, but that was never the intention. Thematically, I was more interested in the way our society seems to be pushing our children to grow up too fast. Walk through your local Wal-Mart or Target and take a look at the provocative clothing that’s being sold to young girls or turn on your television and watch “Toddlers & Tiaras” for five minutes if you can stomach it. I feel like our kids are given less and less time to be kids. It’s something that I find disturbing and Esther was the result of that concern, rather than anything to do with adoption.

TT: Adoption and its related issues are familiar to tens of thousands of Americans, as I understand that the United States is one of the top adopting countries in the world for foreign adoptions. Some of these adoption cases that have gone wrong (parents beating their newly-adopted child, some leading to court cases) have been the subject of mass media focus. The Russian government, for example, is using its state media to highlight such cases for its own people as part of its anti-American/Western campaign and to discourage adoptions of Russian children by Americans and foreigners. Is this “image” aspect of adoption — or how it is perceived and sometimes used by governments — something you were aware of when you wrote the script? Did you have those unfortunate/unsuccessful cases of adoption in mind?

DJ: I was aware of many of the issues related to adoption. I did a lot of research when I was writing this script and talked to friends who had adopted children, but that had more to do with trying to be as sensitive as possible to the issue than actually seeking out cases of unsuccessful or disrupted adoptions. This was never a story about an unsuccessful adoption, it was about a little girl who was, let’s just say, wise beyond her years. The only way to tell that particular story was to have her be adopted.

TT: As a follow-up to the previous question: given that some adoptions do go wrong — although I would think it is a minority of them — how “realistic” did you want your story to appear? Was realism a concern? Some of the adoption cases I have read about are truly horrific, with parents strangling their newly adopted but uncontrollable baby, for example. Did you use those cases as a kind of barometer against which to measure your own script?

DJ: Not at all. There’s no evidence that adopted children are any more likely to “go wrong” than biological children. If anything, you’re more likely to conceive a “bad seed” than adopt one. And to take the issue of realism a step further, I think if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll have to agree that the events depicted in it are pretty unlikely (to say the least). The movie uses adoption as the means of introducing a villain into the family unit, but it’s not meant to suggest that adopted children are any more menacing in real life than nannies… or that adoption is any more perilous than getting remarried.

TT: How was the cast and production team selected for the film? Do the actors have a personal interest in adoption or children?

DJ: The cast and production team were assembled in the usual way. Jaume had directed House of Wax for Dark Castle and responded to the material. I know that Vera and Peter both have children, but I can’t speak to what their personal interests are with regards to adoption.

TT: I don’t usually ask personal questions in my interviews, but it seems a little logical here — so if I may, do you have children of your own, or any personal experience with adoption?

DJ: My wife and I are expecting our first child in December. I couldn’t be more excited, but we’re definitely getting teased by our friends about having our own little l’enfant terrible on the way. As regard to my personal experience with adoption, my best friend and his wife built their family through adoption and now have two young daughters. When it came time to start writing the script, I ran the story by him to see what he thought and he said that he didn’t see why this story would be any more damaging to adoption than The Bad Seed was to procreation.

TT: Why Comic-Con? What are your hopes and expectations regarding the event?

DJ: I’ve always loved Comic-Con and I think the movie will find a receptive audience here. There’s really no better place to launch a genre film, so hopefully they’ll enjoy it and tell their friends back home to go see it.

TT: Any future plans and projects?

DJ: I’m currently working on a fantasy/horror project inspired by a classic fairy tale for Warner Bros. and Appian Way. I’m also going to be starting work soon on The Colony, which is a suspense-thriller in the vein of The Birds. And soon after that, I’ll be writing an adaptation of an Australian movie called Lake Mungo, about a family that is haunted by the ghost of their dead daughter.

TT: Anything else you would like to say to your audience?

DJ: Just go see Orphan. If you enjoy being creeped out, I think you’ll like it.