Orphan: First Kill Director William Brent Bell On Bringing Esther Back For A New Era [Interview]

Esther is back, baby. In "Orphan: First Kill," we get to see the origins of Esther, aka Leena Klammer, a homicidal adult with a rare hormonal disorder that makes her look like a child. The film is a prequel to 2009's "Orphan," and Isabelle Fuhrman reprises the role of Esther, even though she was 12 in the original movie and is in her mid-20s now. Director William Brent Bell ("The Boy") was tasked with bringing Esther back to the screen, and that meant he had to figure out how to make Fuhrman still look like a murderous child. Digital de-aging popularized by "The Irishman" and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was way too expensive for a smaller production like "First Kill," but rather than go with a younger actor, Bell and his team managed to make Fuhrman look like a kid. I spoke with Bell about bringing Esther back, and the challenges in tricking the audience into accepting Fuhrman in the role once again. 

'How do we do it?'

I love the original "Orphan." I re-watch it every year around Halloween, and I never once thought, "Oh, there's going to be a sequel to this or a prequel to this," especially after all these years. So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how this even came about all these years later — why we're getting a new "Orphan" movie now.

I never thought [there would be a sequel] either, as a fan of the movie. I watched it all the time [...] [A]bout three years ago or so that they gave me the script. And I think it was about a year before that I watched it and I found myself taking notes on the movie, which I'll do sometimes when I just get inspired to take notes on a film, but I never thought, "Boy, they need to make another one."

I mean, it never crossed my mind either, I think because Isabel [was] a child [when they made the first film], it just became an assumption. I think even Warner Brothers eventually gave the rights to Dark Castle because they didn't really see a path forward with the movie, but they got the rights back and they wrote the script. And when they gave it to me, I was like, "Well, as a fan, I'm excited to read another 'Orphan' movie," but I was like, the first movie is so great and it had such a great twist. And then Isabelle Fuhrman is that character. So it's like, it's going to be interesting to read it, but I doubt it's going to be something that resonates with me. And I loved the script and I love what they did with the concept of it and the tone of it.

And so then it became like, "Okay, well, what do we do about Esther?" How can we solve this? Because she's so uniquely her, which ultimately led to her being in the movie. So like you, it wasn't at the forefront of my mind. But after I read that script, I was like, "Wow, this is a really good movie. How do we do it?"

'She was really passionate about doing it'

So was it always the plan to bring back Isabelle Fuhrman? "We're not going to make this without her"?

No, I don't think that they saw how to do that. I think "The Irishman" had come out not that much before this and that technology was so-so. But of course, that [was] an extra zero in the budget — or more. [But] they had kept her in the loop to some degree, one of the writers. Our first big meeting, the talk was the idea of her being a major cameo, like being Anna, the doctor in the opening sequences in the movie [...] and it just didn't feel right.

I met Isabelle pretty quickly and she was really passionate about doing it, which I wasn't expecting. And I wasn't expecting her to look so proportionally similar as she did as a child. We had dinner, went through the script, and talked. And I was like, "Yeah, I think I can push this through." And that process took about a year and we cast parallel to that [...] child actors.

So it was touch and go the whole time, but I wanted to do it with her. And everybody involved, they loved that idea. They just weren't convinced it was possible. And now looking back, there's no other way I could have [done it]. I mean, either it works with her or it doesn't is the way I see it.

Old Hollywood beauty techniques

Can you talk a little bit about how you went about making it all work? Obviously, you did not use "The Irishman" technology. So can you talk a little bit about the process? Obviously, there are doubles and stuff like that, but there's a lot more going on there.

Every shot was some sort of trick, no matter how simple it was. And we tried so many things that we didn't use. So it was getting together with a lot of the collaborators I work with and makeup and special effects and visual effects and color correction, camera, production design, and going, "Okay, how could we approach this and do it in the most kind of organic way possible?" Because she is a fairly complex character in the movie who is playing most of the movie as an adult, pretending to be a child, [with] us not knowing what she is. And as a child actor, it would've been very difficult to pull that off as convincingly and as interestingly as she did. So every camera angle on her had a very different setup than the other actors.

It was kind of old school, old Hollywood beauty techniques, really, but just used to make her look like a child. And so we would give her extra light from different places. We would make sure the camera was always angled down on her. There would be a lot of short framing, in which case there's a lot more headroom in her shot compared to the other characters in the scenes. And of course, a lot of force perspective tricks. So if you ever see her in the shot with another character, there's nothing natural about that shot. Because if she's walking next to somebody, she's three steps behind and they're pretending to look at each other when they really aren't. And so it made the most simple things you could imagine really complex.

And also in some ways, it became very simple. The joke going in was we just need to put everybody on Gene Simmons boots but her, and it was like, "Ha-ha." And I had done that before in "Wer" [...] we made this character feel like seven-feet tall. So he's walking around in his these Gene Simmons boots a lot of times. And by about the first week of shooting, Kim, our wardrobe designer, she got these boots for everybody except of course Isabelle. And it became the go-to way ... It just made it more natural. Then [the actors] could move where they wanted. We didn't have to build platforms for them. Everybody could just walk the way they feel natural, other than the fact that they're wearing these platform boots.

'It's just part of her DNA'

Jaume Collet-Serra, the director of the first movie, has a very distinct style. And I was wondering if you felt pressure to recreate his style in any way, or if you were more interested in making this your own.

Well, it was in the middle really, because I wanted to ... The movie in many ways [feels like it's] from the same family as the first movie, but also has some different styles, so musically, tonally, visually, architecturally even. But the first movie's so great on so many levels and it does hold up really well. And still, it has a bit of a dated quality to it, strangely enough, being only 15 years old. But this movie takes place in that time period. So I still wanted it to feel like that while at the same time doing something a bit different. And it's like that even with the opening and ending credit sequences by using the blacklight. That was a great signature of the first [film]. And so we made it a signature of what could be a franchise. It's just part of her DNA.

Okay, this is my final question, and you're either going to think it's the stupidest question ever, or you'll go along with it.


Obviously, you directed the two "Boy" movies. So I want know who's going to win in a fight, Esther or Brahms, the boy?

Esther's just a much more cunning, conniving, murderous character. I feel like Brahms is more of a victim. He's more reactionary, whereas Esther [...] has had some real evil in her. Even though I do care for her a lot and I can see how difficult her life's been due to her plight, but she deals with it in a bad, bad way. So I think her. [...] She's always thinking. She's definitely evil and conniving.

"Orphan: First Kill" opens in Theaters, on Digital and streaming on Paramount+ on August 19, 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.