[Interview] Director William Brent Bell talks ‘SEPARATION’ and ‘ORPHAN: FIRST KILL’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director William Brent Bell gave us the heebie-jeebies with THE BOY franchise – and now he’s back to unsettle us further with SEPARATION. This ghoul-filled horror story is centered on comic book artist Jeff (Rupert Friend) and his 8-year-old daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw), who are haunted by the malevolent ghost of Jeff’s ex-wife/ Jenny’s mother Maggie (Mamie Gummer), who died in a horrific hit-and-run accident. As they both work to repair their lives after tragedy, the pair discover Maggie has unfinished business to attend to that mainly involves spooking them.

You’ve obviously done familial horror before with THE BOY series, but that was through a female lens. In SEPARATION, the story is anchored in the father’s POV. Was that a conscious decision when you chose to direct this?

Yes. The whole family, really. His story becoming a responsible parent was really important. Within that, [bringing out] how both of their irresponsibility affected, or could affect their daughter – how kids hear everything. That whole story of a family that’s dealing with that and growing from it was very personal to me.

Did you have any difficulty in casting the right Jenny? Violet McGraw is absolutely wonderful in this.

It was almost a nightmare trying to find her. Once we got into the swing of things, I’d seen every young actress imaginable. It hit me when we were 6 weeks out in Brooklyn. I was like, “We need to re-write the script and give her much less to do.” The character has to do everything and has to do more than what the adults do as far as range of emotions. Not to mention it’s the child who has to be good at memorizing lines and hitting marks, knowing we’d only get her for 4 hours a day. We needed to simplify the character. And then I saw Violet’s audition and it was a turning point. She can do everything. She’s charming and accessible. If anything, I ended up giving her more to do.

It was scary when we got down to it, it was an amazing feeling to know I had her to bring that character to life. She really was incredible. A funny thing Brian Cox said on set once. He’s watching her in between takes and we’d say “cut” and then she start doing cartwheels and bouncing around. And then we’d say, “We’re ready to start shooting,” and she’d run to her mark and she’d snap right into it. She was probably as interested, if not more than any of the actors involved, asking important questions about her character and why she might do what she did.

So what Brian Cox said, “She’s got it figured out. That’s what actors should be.” He’s like, “She goes with her instincts. She prepares, but she doesn’t overthink it. She can relax in between takes.” We all thought, and still do, that we’re looking at a future Jodie Foster. And she wants to be a filmmaker. At such a young age, the questions she was asking were stumping me. And her family is so supportive. They’re incredible.

She and Rupert Friend have a sweet chemistry. Was there time for them to bond a bit in advance? 

There wasn’t a lot of time. I have such respect for actors in that way. If they come in for a day, or the whole movie, they have to snap into the best case of making the crew their family. They have to connect with their cast members. In the case of this, Rupert has a very childish side to him and that’s very much what he wanted to bring to the character. Perhaps he’s more like Jenny’s best friend, which is irresponsible. They hung out and are just genuinely sweet people so the chemistry was natural. I’ve been in situations where the actors turn off and it’s very much a job. In the case of this, it was very fluid. He’s English and he dropped his British accent in the movie – and for the whole movie. I had forgot he had an accent until the wrap party. That kind of devotion made it, in between takes and days off, he stayed really open, and that played into their chemistry.

How many different iterations did you go through to get the final look for Maggie’s ghost? And I don’t know if you had a name “it” officially went by?

The name we called her was, “The Grim Figure.” On set, she was pretty infamous. I had a clear idea of what she was and we got there pretty quickly, in a way. Well. Down to the wire, since it was a tight schedule. A lot of her look was inspired by those antique French puppets, or those puppets from MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, that scared me to death even though they weren’t supposed to scare you. That’s the idea of her. Jennie buried herself in her parents macabre – their “ Grisly Kin” group. Something I was passionate about was this strange characters – this strange look. It was a nice progression. It wasn’t a lot of trial and error. It was just fine tuning her to the point she’s at.

Who drew the comic book art?

The artist is Zsombor Huszka. And a friend of mine, Ryan Colucci, is a comic book writer producer in the film and he was working a lot with Zsombor. The script didn’t go into detail about what was in the comics other than he drew comics and that they’d had a past in comics. A lot of the stuff in the background are comics that Zsombor had already created. He was basically Jeff’s voice.

The “Grisly Kin” then turned into a comic across the story, and the puppets and everything, are based on a group of character I had. I ended up licensing that to the movie. It wasn’t the masterplan, at first. It wasn’t until we got to the point of bringing these to life where I was all, “I have this whole world. It seems like it would be perfect.” I then got with Zsombor and Ryan and took them from the page to the puppets and everything else. For everybody, it was a super creative, very fun part of the process bringing the “Grisly Kin” “The Grim Figure” and everybody to life.

Actor Rupert Friend (left) and director William Brent Bell (right) on the set of SEPARATION, an Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment release. Credit : Blair Todd / Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

That’s so cool. You could have another franchise there.

It’s been really interesting. They’re also in BRAHMS. In his bedroom, he has a whole mural of them and he wears a shirt with them. It’s been fascinating in that when people discover who they are, they kind of fall in love with them. It’ll be fun to keep telling their story.

What struck me about this is how day and night share the same emotional throughlines in their color story – they both are powered by similar emotions from the characters. How was collaborating with your cinematographer to create a cohesive look?

That process was great. It was wild. Very early in that process, there was a separate DP who developed a lot of it. One thing led to another and he couldn’t do the movie. I knew Karl [Walter Lindenlaub] and he saved the day. A lot of this was created through what the comic books were and what that parallel story was saying and what the visual effects component was going to do and what this Crimson Void, Mom’s world, would be, and also bringing to life a version of Brooklyn. It was really tricky and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It was unorthodox for sure.

Since you’re now on ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, I’m wondering if you’ve encountered any fallacies about making a prequel? Does it require a change in your approach? And then on top of that, you’ve got filming in a pandemic.

Two separate huge things. And you’ve also got Isabelle [Fuhrman] playing herself at 10, when she’s 24. I definitely learned things – and I always do – when I execute what I’ve learned into whatever I’m doing. We’re right in the final stages of the cut with ESTHER and it’s this fine line of what the first movie was, and the tone of it, and then what’s different about now that we know certain aspects about the first story, how that shapes what the new story can be.

It’s a long story about Brahms, but it was my idea to go from the first movie and take the gloves off for the second movie. Kind of the opposite is what ended up being handled. It was a weird process. Going into Esther, I had just came off a situation like this where I learned good and bad things, so it’s been extremely helpful in trying to guide the tone and the story of ORPHAN – to not step into any traps of what hurt me, or the movie, before.

Shooting it during COVID was nuts. It was really fun and the best crew I’d ever worked with and such a nice environment. We dealt with such a crazy situation. It was Isabelle running around, looking like some stunt person – like this full grown person dressed up like a little girl. She had 5 doubles and stunt doubles. It was awesome to crack that egg and learn how to make all that stuff work.

On top of it, to have to be wearing a mask and goggles the entire time during prep was what it was. But nobody saw my face until the hour after we wrapped. It’s so weird. The second day shooting, Rossif Sutherland was like, “Look man. You’re wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat and I’m getting nothing from you.” I was like, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I forgot I was wearing sunglasses.” He was just looking at a black void as I’m trying to talk to him. It’s nobody’s fault, but it certainly was bizarre. I’m really grateful we were able to come out of it with such a cool movie.

Just a quick anecdote: my editor and his wife saw ORPHAN on their first date. So a lot is riding on this sequel.

No way! It’s going to be great. So much is riding on it! People love that character and she’s pretty clear to me. That’s so cool.

It must be such a fun thing for Isabelle to return to a role years later with greater insight and meshing ideas she had originally formulated for the character with what other creatives think.

She was 10 the first time. So she looks back and has all these stories about that. What’s cool is we know the twist of the first film, so that’s out of the bag in this movie, which means we know that she’s playing a 30-year-old, basically. In the first movie, as a 10-year-old, she was a 10-year-old. But in this one, she is playing a 30-year-old with other characters. Being that she’s 24 now, its so much more natural because she’s bringing her own adult experience when she had to hide it in the first movie. That’s a really cool chain of events that make it all come back together.

SEPARATION will be in theaters on April 30.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.