How 'KISS boots' and a 'butt dolly' allowed Isabelle Fuhrman to play Esther again in Orphan: First Kill

·8 min read
How 'KISS boots' and a 'butt dolly' allowed Isabelle Fuhrman to play Esther again in Orphan: First Kill

Director William Brent Bell had a very particular problem when he set out to direct horror prequel Orphan: First Kill (out August 19). In the 2009 horror hit Orphan, a ten-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman had portrayed a diminutive 33-year-old Estonian con artist and killer named Leena Klammer who pretends to be a child named Esther and is adopted by an American couple played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. Bell was keen for Fuhrman to reprise the role of Esther in his new prequel but, in the time since the first film, the now grown-up actress had seemingly aged out of the role and could no longer easily pass herself off as a woman passing herself off as a child.

To make matters trickier, Bell was both unwilling and unable to use an abundance of digital effects to roll back the years.

"Everybody was like, it would be really cool if we could make it work with her," says the filmmaker, whose previous credits include 2016's The Boy and its 2020 sequel Brahms: The Boy II. "[But] I think a lot of people were like: That's a hundred million dollar movie. That's The Irishman and all this stuff. And I still don't even think that works well yet."

Orphan: First Kill
Orphan: First Kill

Steve Ackerman/Paramount Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan: First Kill'

Instead, Bell went the practical route while making the movie, in which Fuhrman's character presents herself as the long-ago-abducted daughter of a different couple, portrayed by Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland. The director explains that he used "every trick in the book" to make Fuhrman seem smaller, even casting people who were taller than his lead to help create the effect.

"It certainly was in my mind when we would talk about an actor," says Bell. "I'd be like, 'How tall's that person?' 'Oh, he's like six-four.' I'm like, 'Great!' But we still needed a lot more help with the size stuff."

For many shots in the film, the director utilized the technique known as forced perspective, the same trick Peter Jackson frequently employed on the Lord of the Rings films, to make Ian McKellen's Gandalf seem much taller than the Hobbits portrayed by Elijah Wood, Sean Astin et al.

"It's where, if we have two people in frame, if we want one person to be smaller, we put them further back," says Bell. "Then we use a lens and such that [when] they're moving together they look in proportion to one another."

As a result, when Fuhrman was speaking to another actor in the same shot, she would not actually be looking at them, but staring at a spot some distance behind her scene partner.

Orphan First Kill
Orphan First Kill

Paramount Julia Stiles and Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan: First Kill.'

"Any scene was like a magic trick because, even if it was a simple scene of two people walking down an alleyway, that means that Julia had to be two or three steps ahead of her," says Bell.

"It was difficult," says Fuhrman. "It's hard to remember that you can't look in the eyes of the person you're acting opposite, you have to look directly to the side."

Stiles recalls, with something of a shudder, that she was often required to wear the kind of giant footwear preferred by the rock band KISS while shooting scenes with Fuhrman.

"They had committed to not using any CGI or any digital effects, so it was all practical trickery, and that meant that I was subject to the daily humiliation of having to wear these platform [shoes]," says the actress with a laugh. "They tried all these different things. First, it was walking on platforms, like an actual box that they would build, but sometimes we didn't have time for that. So I would wind up wearing these Gene Simmons boots that made me five inches taller, then they kept growing, they made me like seven inches taller. So that was not distracting at all! I was like, 'Can't I just wear really tall stilettos or something fashionable?' 'No, no, no, no, no.' They couldn't find any high heels that were big enough. So it ended up being these platforms."

Fuhrman, meanwhile, was helping the illusion by propelling herself around the set on what she describes as a "butt dolly."

"It's for a camera operator, usually they hold a camera on it," says the actress. "It is a very small bicycle seat that's very short to the ground and you can put your feet on the ground and walk with it. That's essentially what a butt dolly is. It's not for actors to use, it's not very sturdy, it's for someone who actually knows how to do the camerawork with it. But we were trying to figure out how we were going to run around this kitchen, and Julia can't wear those shoes because they're too high, and I can't squat while I'm running, it's not possible. That was when we discovered the holy grail, which was the butt dolly that our camera operator had, because I could sit on it, and move my legs, and that was how I was able to drive it. So when we were doing that stunt scene I was on this little tiny chair walking around on it."

Bell cast a pair of young actresses, Kennedy Irwin and Sadie Lee, as body doubles for Fuhrman in shots where the audience wouldn't see the star's face.

"We worked together as a team every single day," says Fuhrman, "how Esther was going to move, how she was walking, how she should move her hand, how she would touch something. Those were conversations that we had every single day and they got to be an active part of it. I couldn't do this performance without them.

The wardrobe and make-up departments also played an important role in de-aging Fuhrman onscreen.

"Her clothing wasn't just made bigger to fit her but also to shape her to have more of a child-like appearance. You know, kids have bigger heads and smaller shoulders," says Bell. "And then we used a lot of beauty techniques, like enhanced beauty techniques, to make her younger. And then, when we came into post-production, we typically do [digital] clean-up on the actors and make them look pretty amazing, and we just took that to one degree further. So, [we used] every little tool we had."

Not every trick worked. At one point, Bell had a double wear a mask of Fuhrman's head. The result was terrifying but not in the right way.

"It's called a hyper-flesh mask and it was made from a 3D scan of Isabelle's head," says the director. "It looked amazing. But when we put it on the actual double, and she walked out for the camera test. it was obvious [it wasn't going to work]. It was really weird, and it was creepy, but it was not going to cut it for a movie."

Amidst all this on-set mayhem, Fuhrman was required to ignore the many distractions and once again embody, both physically and mentally, the psychotic Esther.

"In preparation for this, I really had to step back into those shoes that I was in when I was ten," says the actress. "I had to ask myself every single day what choices I would have made as a ten-year-old, not just as a twenty-three-year old, when I was filming this two years ago. I knew I couldn't just look at it from my adult perspective. I actually think I made some of my smarter decisions when I was ten years old on the first movie, and it was important for me constantly to remind myself not to intellectualize too much of everything on this one."

Given the KISS-style boots, the "butt dolly," and all the rest, it is no surprise to learn that Fuhrman was anxious before she saw the finished film.

"Honestly, when I saw the movie for the first time, I was really nervous, because I wasn't sure how it was going to look," says the actress. "My jaw just hit the floor. I was like, I can't figure out how we did it, and I was there, I was there every single day, I saw all of the tricks, and it's still shocking. I'm just so excited for the fans to see this one. I feel like they're really going to love it."

Orphan: First Kill is available to watch in cinemas, on digital, and streaming on Paramount+ August 19. Watch the film's trailer below and a scene from the movie above.

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