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Interview: Director William Brent Bell on the Unique Challenges of “ORPHAN: FIRST KILL”

Monday, September 5, 2022 | Interviews


Horror prequels are a dodgy proposition at best. Retroactively building on an established property, especially one that’s become a cult favorite, more often than not betrays what makes the original great. If a filmmaker gets it wrong, they can expect an immediate backlash. Loyal fans will take to the web, howling for blood like angry pitchfork-wielding villagers in a classic monster movie. More often than not, the fans are right, and their vitriol is borne out by equally scathing notices. The list of bad prequels reads like a horror hall of shame – no need to call out the offenders. Every horrorphile is well-aware of the notorious misfires and ignoble cash grabs that have marred the legacy of many of the genre’s greatest films.

This is the nearly insurmountable creative conundrum in which director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, Separation) found himself with ORPHAN: FIRST KILL. Released in 2009, Orphan was an unlikely horror hit that made its diminutive antagonist, the murderous child-woman Esther (brilliantly portrayed by a 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman), a horror icon for the new millennium. Thirteen years later, revisiting Esther’s “secret” was obviously a moot point for Bell and screenwriter David Coggeshal. However, matching the hammer blow of the original Orphan‘s twist was just one of many challenges Bell faced. With star Isabelle Fuhrman now a grown woman tasked with playing an even younger Esther, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL presented Bell and his team with some unique technical dilemmas. We sat down with Bell during ORPHAN: FIRST KILL’s pre-release to discuss how the film breaks the prequel curse.

Were you at all hesitant to take on a prequel to a film as beloved by horror fans as Orphan?

I wouldn’t say I was hesitant. I was skeptical at first when they approached me about it … because the twist was so great, because  Isabelle was so great as Esther, and I was like, those are a lot of hard things to take on. And when I read the script, and it had such a great twist, I was like, “Okay, this is a fresh take on the original movie.” Then, it became about how do we deal with finding a way to bring Esther back to life? Hopefully, with  Isabelle.

Esther has become a horror icon. Were you at all concerned with her becoming too broad or lapsing into self-parody like other favorite horror villains such as, for example, Freddy Krueger did, back in the 1980s?

I was definitely concerned … I would always kind of harken back to Hannibal Lecter. You laugh at what he does sometimes. He’s maniacal. He’s evil. He’s a genius. He never breaks a sweat. That’s very much what Esther is like. So depending on what was happening in the story, if it felt like it was getting too campy or too over-the-top, I’d be reminded of what Hannibal Lecter would do. We tried to kind of keep it in that range in a way. That was like my barometer. She was ridiculously intense in the first film, so it was always good to go back to that and go, “What would Esther do? We already kind of know;  We have some of the answers to that test.

One of the most fascinating aspects of ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is that no CGI or digital de-aging was used to make Isabelle Fuhrman appear younger. You used traditional techniques such as forced perspective to make her appear younger than her 25 years. While the first film hinges on Esther convincing everyone that she’s a child, we know she’s an adult in FIRST KILL. Did that foreknowledge on the part of the audience affect your approach to the material? And did that relieve some pressure or create other challenges?

I don’t think it affected much about how I approached the material. I think that what I realized after Isabelle was involved and Julia [Stiles] was involved, was how difficult it would have been with a child in the part. For technical reasons, [children] can’t work very long during the day. It’s such an iconic character to take over. And a child would really be playing a 30-year-old. That in and of itself would have been pulling a rabbit out of our hat to the degree that it isn’t the story.

So in a way, it was a relief because nobody can play this character better. Whenever I was in doubt as to what would Esther do, [I’d ask], “Isabelle, do you buy this? Would Esther do this?” And sometimes she’d tell me, “Absolutely not!” Sometimes she would be like, “Oh, yeah.” So it was freeing in the respect of there’s nobody better who can play the part. She just happens to be 24 now, so how do we technically make it work?

From a technical perspective, that became the biggest challenge of the movie for shooting and post, but it was also as fun as you could imagine. Every single shot was a challenge. There was nothing simple about any shot. If she was in a scene, there were one or two doubles. There was forced perspective going on. The camera always had a different set of rules depending on which character it was on. It was crazy.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL has a twist that rivals the one in the original movie. Without giving too much away, how did you react when you read the script?

It’s funny … Like I said, I was really skeptical at first, and I was like, “How do you live up to that great twist?” And then when I read it, I was shocked and excited. I sent a message to Alex Mace, who co-created the original and the story and this one and produced it. I was like, “Man,  you guys absolutely killed it! You cracked this twist.” I was even expecting a twist, and I didn’t see it coming. That’s a testament both to being lost in the story and just enjoying and then also just the fact that it comes at a time and from a direction that is just extremely unexpected. 

One of the most shocking and exciting parts of the film is that we see Esther put in a situation in which she’s vulnerable. That’s something we’ve never seen before. What were some of the challenges of balancing that vulnerability while still depicting Esther as the movie’s villain?

It was challenging because we knew that [Esther] has one hand tied behind her back for a lot of the story. For me, what was exciting about it was that we’re in on the secret from the very beginning. Even if you don’t know, the first film, we don’t try to hide it. So as a fan and as a viewer, I was constantly asking myself, “When is she going to snap?” Because we know she’s capable of doing it anytime, anywhere, which is very much what happens a couple of times in the story. It was a challenge, but from a storytelling perspective, it was a fun challenge.

What do you hope fans of the first film take away from ORPHAN: FIRST KILL?

I hope they have fun and feel great about it. I think this is a unique situation in creating a movie. It’s the closest to creating something for fans that I’ve ever been involved with. We all know, how much of a challenge it was to bring her back in the role. I want everybody to appreciate that and enjoy it. It doesn’t happen a lot in cinema at all, to do something like this, and it was done very much with the fans in mind. So I’m excited for them. And that’s what I told  Isabelle when the trailer first came out. I was like, “Your fans are just going to be so excited because they’re nuts!” I mean, they’re really passionate about her.

Obviously, there are more Esther stories to tell. Would you like to return to her world at some point?

Absolutely. There are 30 years [of material]. She’s 31 in this story, so we don’t know what she did for 30 years before that. Of course, if she wanted, Isabelle could play this character at any age. She could be any age, playing it, and the character could be actually eight years old or nine years old, all the way up to 60. There’s a whole world there. It’s just really about finding the right story.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is now playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+

William J. Wright
William J. Wright is RUE MORGUE's online managing editor. A two-time Rondo Classic Horror Award nominee and an active member of the Horror Writers Association, William is lifelong lover of the weird and macabre. His work has appeared in many popular (and a few unpopular) publications dedicated to horror and cult film. William earned a bachelor of arts degree from East Tennessee State University in 1998, majoring in English with a minor in Film Studies. He helped establish ETSU's Film Studies minor with professor and film scholar Mary Hurd and was the program's first graduate. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, three sons and a recalcitrant cat.