Director William Brent Bell Talks Bringing Esther Back In Orphan: First Kill

Making a prequel to Orphan more than a decade after the original was released isn’t exactly the easiest task.

The famous twist to the 2009 cult classic revealed that Esther, the Eastern-European girl adopted by the Coleman family, was secretly a 33-year-old woman all along – something easy to conceal due to the fact actor Isabelle Fuhrman was only 12 years old at the time.

Orphan: First Kill begins a couple of years earlier, but its returning actress is no longer young enough to appear like a kid on-screen, creating a challenge for filmmaker William Brent Bell.

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“When I went from 12 to 24 I became a completely different person, but Isabelle has the exact same facial dimensions”, Bell explained to Zavvi.

“She’s a foot taller, but you can see how it would be possible to make this movie with her. The challenge was trying to convince the studio who didn’t think it would work, even though they wanted her to return.

“But this is a different movie to the first – you’re introduced to her as an adult, so it would make no sense to find a 10-year-old to act like a 30-year-old for a large chunk of the film.”

The filmmaker still had to go through the required casting process, auditioning “every other young actress you could ever imagine” to take over the role from Fuhrman.

During this time, Bell was still trying to find ways he could make her return possible, at one point hiring a storyboard artist to create an early sequence from the movie, with the aim of giving it to a visual effects team who could advise on how it could be made with the now grown-up actress.

But this “killed the idea”, as every suggestion proved too costly and the special effects considered distracting. As Bell explains:

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“When COVID happened, everybody in the production was killing time before we could shoot. I had a crazy idea and called [cinematographer] Karim Hussain and our special effects makeup artist Doug Morrow asking them if there was anything we could do to get Isabelle back.

“They agreed to do a photo test in Canada, hiring a 35-year-old model with the aim of making her look like she’s 14, creating a full behind the scenes package to show to the studio that this could work.

“They eventually approved a day to shoot a camera test with Isabelle and we made this little teaser trailer – I was over the moon that we could pull this off!”

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“But when we started shooting we had different difficulties, as every shot was like a magic trick that we needed to solve. If she’s sat in a chair we had to play with perspective, seating her further from the characters she’s talking to who all had to pretend to be looking at her.

“But other things we built didn’t work – we had a hybrid wheelchair push car which we dubbed the ‘Esther Mobil’, with two guys driving her around to make her look shorter and Isabelle learning how to pretend that she was walking. We scrapped it after a day.

“Then we had a flesh mask for her young body doubles so it would look like Isabelle’s face from a distance – they got thrown out as well.”

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As a fan of the original movie, one of the main motivations for Bell signing on to direct was that the screenplay wasn’t repeating the same formula. Yes, the plot does involve her escaping to America to impersonate the missing daughter of the Albrights, led by Julia Stiles as matriarch Tricia, but it flips the perspective as we see the integration into the family unit from Esther’s point of view.

Also, her killing spree takes something of a turn, as the beloved horror icon goes on a journey that gradually makes her the most sympathetic character in the film. No, we’re not going to say any more than this.

Bell thought redeeming Esther was a “fun challenge”, stating: “To be a really great movie psychopath, you have to get to know them as more than just killers. We get to understand how hard Esther’s life has been up to that point, and how she is the way she is through people looking down at her.

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“It never will turn out well for the people who make fun of her, but here it was fun to find a way to hold back that animal, to understand why she was driven in this way.

“I thought of the film as being like Joker – he’s a movie villain, but it takes the time to help you
understand why he became that way. And just like that character, with this film you’re also deep inside the character’s mind, but here, there’s fun to be had with that – this time, we know her secret!

“But even with that, we didn’t want to just lead people down the same narrative path as that would be predictable, even if it’s from a new perspective. You might think you know where it’s going, but we plan on surprising you when you least expect it…”

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Through this backstory, Bell believes Esther now has more layers than she did in the 2009 film, with this prequel designed to enrich that experience when you revisit it. But above all else, First Kill has been made to elicit gasps and cheers from cinema audiences – even though it was recently announced that the film will largely be bypassing theaters in the US to release directly on streaming.

Naturally, the director has conflicted thoughts about this, as the movie was made to be seen with a crowd.

“Because of the past couple of years, of course I was prepared for this to go straight to streaming. But it’s a shame to see it happen.

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“I wanted to make a movie you want to see in theaters, where you can feel the adrenaline of a crowd. For me, the best part of making this film is the fact that it will likely split audiences down the middle – it’s a shame that you won’t get to hear all of the crazy reactions!”

Luckily moviegoers in the UK will get to experience Esther’s return exclusively on the big screen this August, a highly recommended experience if you want to hear gasps from fellow patrons when the story takes an unexpected left turn. Following First Kill’s extensive post-production (shooting wrapped in early 2021), Bell has already directed his next film, ghost story Lord Of Misrule starring Tuppence Middleton and Ralph Ineson, which is nearly complete.

But looking beyond that, Bell hasn’t ruled out a return to the Orphan universe – even though this is a prequel to a film which ends with the death of Fuhrman’s character.

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“We always joked on set that Isabelle could play this character for the rest of her life. This is a role with a lot of layers and there’s still a lot of story there to unpack, to give a better understanding of who she is.”

Does this mean that in 13 years’ time we can look forward to a 38-year-old Fuhrman once again transforming into the terrifying horror creation? Only time will tell – but until then, we have the bloody return of her pint-sized villain on the big screen.

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 edition of The Lowdown. Read here.

Orphan: First Kill is released in UK cinemas on 19th August.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.