"Orphan" marks the first produced screenplay by David Leslie Johnson, who crafted a chilling and compelling script for director Jaume Collet-Serra. Back Stage recently spoke to Johnson in a spoiler-free conversation about the film, which hits theaters July 24.
Back Stage: When did you first become interested in screenwriting?
David Leslie Johnson: It was kind of late. I'm from Ohio, and I wasn't one of those kids who grew up making movies or whatever, but I always wanted to write. I was probably in high school when I realized the things I was writing weren't books; they were movies, they were visual. So I went to the Ohio State Film School, and, sort of serendipitously, when I finished film school, a few months later "The Shawshank Redemption" started shooting in my old hometown. I had no Hollywood connections, I had no idea what I was going to do with my film degree, and then that movie came and shot locally at a prison near where I grew up. So I got a job there and met some people. The director on that, Frank Darabont, I was his assistant for five years, and he sort of mentored me and took me under his wing and helped me get my first job.
Back Stage: How did you meet him and make such an impression?
Johnson: I was working in the editorial department, and they had me doing a lot of odd jobs. One of them was running the dailies at the end of the day to the projectionist, so I was seeing Frank every day. I didn't really have any writing samples, so at night I would write a sample script that I then gave to him on the last day of shooting. Luckily, he had nothing better to do after the movie and happened to pick it up and read it and dug it and then called me afterwards to sort of touch base. He then had me in mind when he was looking for his new assistant.
Back Stage: What was the screenplay you gave him?
Johnson: [Laughs.] Actually, it was ridiculous! I read the novella of "Shawshank Redemption" in Stephen King's book "Different Seasons." So I turned the page after "Shawshank," and the next story was "Apt Pupil," and I was like, "Fine, I'll just write this." So I went and adapted "Apt Pupil," and he liked the script and called me about it and was like, "But you're aware that they're making this movie already and this is something you can't do anything with?" [Laughs.] But it did what it was supposed to do, I guess.
Back Stage: So working with Frank was sort of your film school in a way?
Johnson: It was definitely like my graduate program. It wasn't the time when he was directing; he was mostly writing. And at the time, I wanted to see him direct. But in retrospect, it was seeing him writing that was a really valuable thing. He was working on these projects, and he was very open. My first interview with him, he said, "I know you don't want to be my assistant forever," and "What do you want to do?" He was always really supportive, and he would read my stuff, and then he would give me his stuff. What did he need my opinion for, you know? But he would hand it to me and say, "What did you think?"
Back Stage: Had you written many screenplays before "Orphan"?
Johnson: I've been writing for about 20 years now, but I've been out in L.A. for close to 15 and written a lot of stuff. Frank got me my first paid job, and that sort of got me my agent. I started off writing kind of big summer, blockbustery kinds of movies, but at that time, I had no name, nobody knew who I was, and somebody told me I can't write movies that are going to cost $100 million to make and expect someone to buy them; it was just impractical. So I sort of moved to my other love, which was horror, and found my niche there, writing horror-thriller stuff. It just occurred to me that this wound up being a summer movie.
Back Stage: What was it about "Orphan" that took off?
Johnson: It was an executive at Appian Way, Alex Mace, that brought me in. He had written a treatment; it was, like, 10 pages, and they were looking for someone to adapt it. They had read some of my previous genre work and thought of me. They gave me the first three pages of it, which is sort of the first act and basically ended when Esther comes home. They said, "Okay, what happens?" So I took that home and knew it was an evil-kid movie; I knew the setup for it. I needed to come up with the ending and figure out how to end it. I came up with the ending and sort of worked my way backwards to the point that they had left off.
Back Stage: Were you a fan of evil-kid movies, like "Bad Seed" or "Village of the Damned"?
Johnson: Yes, oh yes. When they said, "Would you like to do something like this?" I was like, "Yeah, I would!" In college one of my favorite classes was a six-week class watching horror movies. "The Bad Seed" was one of them and was the first time I had seen it, and I really fell in love with it. It was one of my favorite little niche horror genres, so I was really anxious to take a crack at it.
Back Stage: Who do you think would win in a fight: Esther from "Orphan," Rhoda from "The Bad Seed," or Damien from "The Omen"?
Johnson: Having seen the final movie, I think Esther would kick Rhoda's ass. I would say actually she would kick Damien's ass too, but he has all the minions of Satan protecting him. He also has Mrs. Baylock protecting him, so I'm not sure that's necessarily fair. In a fair fight, Esther would win.
Back Stage: I don't want to give anything away to readers, but can you tell me what you thought the hardest part about writing this story was—what you struggled with the most?
Johnson: I think that with any kind of project like this, when there is a story where you are dealing with a child, ultimately you have to figure out, how do these parents not know what's going on?
Back Stage: Right. Then the movie would be 10 minutes long!
Johnson: Exactly. That's always frustrating to me, when you're looking at the movie screen and going, "Figure it out!" When the audience knows something bad is going on, you're really anxious for your heroes to figure it out too. What I was trying to do, and hopefully succeeded, was to make Esther not just evil but really smart. Make her this person who can walk into a room and sort of size everybody up, figure out where everybody's weak points are. She knows how to push people's buttons and knows how to get away with this stuff by preying on people's weaknesses and seizing on those weak spots and sort of distracting people by pitting them against one another.
Back Stage: Did you have any say in the casting at all?
Johnson: No. I didn't have any say, but for some reason when I was writing it, for Sister Abigail, I kept seeing CCH Pounder. I'm just a big fan of hers, and I'd be writing this dialogue, and it's all coming out in her voice because she has that unique voice. I happened to be around when they were talking about who they were going cast, and I said, "I wrote it in my mind for her." Everyone around the table looked at it again and sort of realized, "That's who it is." So I was very lucky that she said yes.
Back Stage: Does she know you wrote the role with her in mind?
Johnson: I told her that, and she laughed and said, "Well, I have to tell you something. I took the part because I've always wanted to play a nun." Nothing to do with the script; she just wanted to play a nun.
Back Stage: Are you happy to stick with the horror genre, or are you interested in exploring other stories?
Johnson: At some point I definitely want to go back and do those summer blockbusters. I grew up having a great time at "Star Wars" and "Jaws" and "E.T."—these are summer films getting nominated for Academy Awards. So at some point I'd like to get back to that. But I'm very happy with the horror genre for now.
Back Stage: What's your favorite horror film?
Johnson: I think probably "The Exorcist" is my favorite. I think a lot of it has to do with it being psychological. I like the kind of horror that really pushes your buttons—it's not just the jump-out-and-scare-you thing. Though I love those, too. But I like the kind of horror where when you leave the theater, you don't turn to the person you're with and say "So, what do you want to eat?" The story stays with you.