David Johnson, screenwriter of the film, Orphan (starring Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga), sat down and talked with me during Comic-Con.
Here’s David Johnson’s bio: He began his career as a production assistant on Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, which was filmed on location in Johnson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, at the historic Mansfield Reformatory, where Johnson’s great-grandfather had been a prison guard. Johnson spent the next five years as Darabont’s assistant, using the opportunity to hone his craft as a screenwriter.
In 1999, Johnson wrote an adaptation of the classic Doc Savage pulp novels, and later worked with Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, adapting an original idea of Lee’s into a two-hour teleplay. Johnson then wrote a four-hour miniseries sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which brought him to the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio’s producing shingle, Appian Way, for whom he wrote Orphan.
Johnson developed an early interest in storytelling and began writing plays in the second grade. He later became interested in film and, at age 19, wrote his first screenplay. He attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Photography and Cinema.
He currently has several projects in development, most recently re-teaming with Appian Way to pen an epic horror/fantasy inspired by a classic fairy tale. Johnson’s next project will be an adaptation of the Australian ghost story thriller Lake Mungo.
Daily Actor: Reading the notes that I was sent, everyone was completely praising the script and how you brought everything together and how you fleshed out the characters. How cool is it to know that all these people just loved the script, now saying your words and this multi-million dollar production exists because of you?
David Johnson: It’s kind of amazing. The finished product though is everybody brought so much to it. You’re talking about, you know, the actors. It’s kind of a dream cast and they’re so good. The first time I saw the movie, and some of the clips I saw before I saw the finished product, I would just get caught up in their performances and sort of afterwards remind myself that I had written it because they had just sort of brought it to life so well.
Regarding your dream cast, I know when you were writing you said the voice of CCH Pounder popped in as Sister Abigail. Did it happen with anybody else?
No, I don’t usually have a specific actor in mind when I’m writing a character. I don’t know whether that’s unusual or not. I don’t see anyone – sometimes like you know a voice from like the past will like, an actor who’s been dead and gone comes into my head and I sort of use that as an inspiration, but CC was the only one that just I couldn’t get her out of my head. At the time I would write Sister Abigail, I would start writing dialogue, and it sounded like it was coming out of her mouth.
Did you ever get the chance to mention, CCH Pound would be great for this role?
Yeah, I happened to in a meeting where they were spit-balling actors for Sister Abigail, and I was able to say, well, I kind of wrote it for CCH Pounder. I had never told anyone that before. And there was a moment where everyone sort of went, “Yeah, this is CCH Pounder.” And luckily she happened to be available, and they got her.
Were there any names where you were like, “Please, not this guy. No please.” You don’t have to mention any names.
No, I mean they started off with going to Vera and you know, I think Jaume was a little concerned she wouldn’t do it because she had just done Joshua, but she came on board. And you know, like everybody that they brought into it was just terrific.
It’s a great cast. From the beginning when you started writing until everything was finished and the production was started, was it a long process for you?
You know, it was probably about a year between you know maybe a little longer from the moment I got the phone call that it was happening to the producing the movie. Probably about a year.
What’s your day like when you’re actually working? You wake up super early and write all day?
I kind of have to keep focused on it. It’s probably frustrating for my wife. But I just have to get into the zone, and the music I listen to is keyed into what I’m writing, what I’m reading has something to do with what I’m writing. We go to the movies, I try to watch something similar just to try to keep my head in that space. I guess maybe I’m too easily distracted.
Its been said that you know when the cast that you end up with is the cast that you’re actually supposed to have. Do you think that’s true?
In this case, it certainly turned out to be. Peter and Vera really brought the characters to life in a way that if they hadn’t, none of this would have worked. The movie is going into sort of a larger than life place. But it starts out very grounded and very real. I think it has a lot to do with them. And they bring a real authenticity to those characters so that when things start beginning to get a little bit larger than life as the movie goes on, you buy it because it starts in such a grounded and rooted in reality.
Were you on the set working?
I wasn’t able to. It was during the writer’s strike, so I worked with the director extensively right before. I was hammering away at the keyboard right up until 11:59 on the deadline. But, I had seen a visual treatment that he had done. It was just images of what he thought the movie should look like, and I thought he just had a great idea of what it was going to be. And it was going to be in great hands. And everybody was sort of on the same page, I think, in terms of what the movie wanted to be.
What you wrote on the page, did the actors improvise at all? Or was it just pretty much that was it, locked script, this is what you’re saying?
No, obviously, not being able to be on set, you know, I can’t speak directly to, but I know that they did do some improvisation, and because Peter and Vera sort of really inhabited those people. And so they brought a lot of their own mojo to the character and took in some places that were unexpected. And like I said, really brought it to life.
Was it everything you could imagine? Like when you were writing it, did you say, “This is exactly what I wanted?”
To be honest, I think it wound up better than what I had in my head because like I said Jaume was great, the cast was great, production design was great. Everybody came into it really with their A game.
Actually I’ll tell a quick story about the production design on that aspect of it. The production designer looked at the script and had this idea for – there are two characters in the script, the father and the shrink, who don’t really figure out what’s going on. And so he designed the shrink’s office and the dad’s office to be underground with no windows because they can’t see what’s going on. And Kate is the one that does see what’s going on, and the room she’s associated with is the greenhouse, which is high in the house and is surrounded by glass. And it’s things in a million years I would not have thought of and in watching the movie you probably won’t consciously think of, but he was looking at the script and finding these metaphors to work into it that I was really impressed by the idea that he took the time and really got in there and brought something great to it.
You didn’t have any say in any sort of production or anything like that?
I was consulted beforehand. I was asked my opinion on a lot of script matters, but obviously during shooting it wasn’t possible.
How hard is that to give up your baby?
I have to say in this case, it just, I felt like it was in good hands. So, I wasn’t that worried about it. The process had gone really well and the script was – I think maybe because I’ve written for so long and had things not get made, I sort of find satisfaction in just writing the best script I can because if I try to find satisfaction in it getting made, I’m going to be disappointed. So I can write the best script I can write, and then after that, it goes out in the world, and it’s out of my hands.
When you finish a script, do you have people read it in front of you to get the voices down more?
I… No (laughter). My wife reads it and then my agent and whoever I’m working for will take a look at it, but I hear things in my head you know pretty specifically, and I guess that’s one of the things that I liked about – I mean this was my first experience of something getting made – was hearing it come back. I learned a lot from hearing actors of this caliber reading the words and noticing what they dropped and what they skipped to, you know? It really, I think, my writing will improve because I can say okay, that line didn’t need to be there. It all works and you know –
Was there anything specific – just kind of like throwaway lines?
There was… something as simple, I noticed last night when I saw it, there was a question that Vera is asked, and she answers, “Yes.” And I had written something like, “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life,” or something like that. And she says, “Yes,” but the way she says it, she says, “I’ve never been so certain.” The performance says all these things that I was using ten words to say.
When you watched the finished film, how many times have you watched it, by the way?
Twice. The completely finished film.
Does it get better each time you watch it or do you notice more?
Yeah. It might – the first time I saw it was on a smaller screen. Last night was the first time I saw it on like a really big screen with a crowd. And so, yeah, there are like lots of little things that Jaume did and the actors, too, that you pick up on in multiple viewings.
How many times do you think you’ll watch it before you’re like, “You know what? No more.”
I think we’re planning to see it two more times this week, and I think that’ll be it.
I’ve done some stuff where I’m like, you know what, just one viewing is enough for me (laughter). But I’ve done some awful stuff.
So when you watched the finished film, is there anything that you imagined differently or that you imagined the actors doing differently?
Absolutely. I think everybody came into it and improved it in terms of you were saying. It was actually more than I thought it would be. I keep going back to the performances just because I think that’s the stand out thing in the movie. Isabel, the girl that plays Esther, is astonishingly good. And she was the one thing when I was writing, I couldn’t have imagined who they were going to find to play this girl. I was writing this dialogue and thinking, if they don’t find the right girl to play it, I like this scene, this is really working, but the wrong girl playing this part, and it’s not working. And I had originally written it, she was sort of like an evil Shirley Temple. She was like blonde curls and everything like that. And Isabel, physically, didn’t look anything like what I had written. But she came in a so owned the character that it changed what everybody thought she should look like. It changed the picture of Esther in everybody’s head. So, that’s one thing that was unexpected.
A lot of actors write, as you probably know. Do you have any advice for fledgling screenwriters/actors?
This is probably a cop out, but don’t give up. I wrote my first screenplay 20 years ago, and it was one of those things where at any time, there were a number of times when I thought alright, “I’m just done. This is going nowhere.” But you know, the stuff I was writing 20 years ago was crap, and I was getting better.
Can you see your work getting better or feel it?
Yeah, you know, I didn’t, in retrospect for sure. But for like 5 years I was working for Frank Darabont and he was looking at sort of mentorship kind of thing, and I think the first time I really –
That’s a good mentor to have.
Amazing. And I think the first time I thought, oh I might be able to do this was the first time he read something and thought this is really good. The first time he said this is good that sort of – everything I had written before he said that, I just threw away (laughter) and said okay we’re starting fresh now and hopefully improving from there.
Your next film is something called Lake Mungo. That’s kind of in the same genre as Orphan, right?
Kind of. I mean, Orphan is more of like a suspense thriller with sort of horror elements. Lake Mungo is a straight ghost story. It’s based on an Australian movie. It’s just really good. It’s almost like a supernatural drama about a family that’s haunted by the ghost of their daughter who has recently died. And it’s a very interesting ghost story in that you know usually, the ghost that’s haunting you is the ghost of someone who died in a house fire a hundred years ago and you have no connection to them, and in this story, the ghost is someone you know.
So, you’ll start writing on Monday?