phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.
Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.
With this entry, we’ll be paying a visit to The Orphanage, the intended remake of the 2007Guillermo del Toro-produced, J.A. Bayona-directed supernatural chiller El Orfanato. To have been produced by del Toro and helmed by maverick indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo), The Orphanage would have seen the original film’s tale transported to the US and released by New Line Cinema, though the movie sadly never came to pass. Discussing this project is Mr. Fessenden, who details how he became involved, the process of penning the script alongside del Toro, why it didn’t happen, and whether it may yet make it to screens someday.
“Well, I was in my office in downtown New York City,” Mr. Fessenden begins. “I got a call from a Hollywood agent. They asked if I wanted representation. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know why you’d want to represent me. I’m just an indie filmmaker from the East Village.’ And they said, ‘Well, no. You’re going to remake The Orphanage.’ At that point, all I knew about the project is that it had been produced by Guillermo del Toro, and it hadn’t even been released yet.
“I said, ‘That is crazy.’ I told her I’d get back to her at some point. I called my pal Ron Perlman, who had been in my film The Last Winter. ‘Ron, what do you know about this?’ Because of course, Perlman was a friend of del Toro, and Perlman was on set doing Hellboy II, I think. He said, ‘Oh, well, Guillermo has news for you.’
“So it turned out that Guillermo had very kindly handpicked me to direct the remake. And it also turns out that Guillermo had been something of a fan of my work, starting with the movie Habit. We had never met, but I came to learn that he had been a supporter behind the scenes, which I’ve appreciated ever since. So I was hired by New Line, which was on a high right then because they’d made the Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson. They were a company that was going strong at the time.
“I got a translation of the original version of the script, and I went to a private screening of the movie. I thought it was beautiful. Lovely direction, a very elegant piece. The good thing is that I could still imagine what I would want to do with it. So I took the script, and my memories of the movie, and I actually wrote a draft before ever meeting Guillermo. I sent it to him and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Los Angeles, and we’ll work on this?’
“When I sat down with him, he said ‘Fessenden! It’s like you’re sleeping with my woman, writing a draft before we talk!’ And I laughed. I said, ‘Well, listen, man, I just wanted to get to know the material, and I look forward to talking to you about it further.’ So we kind of started over. Not as a rejection of my work, but to have a conversation in a very organic way about the remake.
“It was like being in a film noir or something. I was staying in a hotel in Thousand Oaks, which is sort of a mountain suburb of LA, and then in the morning I would drive up the long road to his house. His assistant would greet me at the door, and I would go into his little playhouse. This was his second house, not where his family lived a ways away, but just where all his monsters and toys lived. It was filled with beautiful books and art and sculptures of his favorite fantasy figures and props from his own movies.
“There was a Jaws room, and a Hitchcock room, a room of illuminated manuscripts. It was just a wonderful museum. In fact, he wrote a book about that house called Cabinet of Curiosities. You can see what I’m talking about. I think it got threatened by the fires last year. I hope it’s still there. And you know what else? Just to give some context, Guillermo was packing stuff to go down under to make The Hobbit. So that was the setting. Imagine sitting there with the maestro himself, talking about the script. What I found is that he’s just got such a deep knowledge of genre, but a depth derived from literature and mythology, high-brow and low-brow, and of course from movies, too.
“So we spent about four days where we would chat and then I would go back to the hotel and write stuff, and then I would come back and we would chat some more and we built the story together. We’re almost exactly the same age. But Guillermo, with his experience, his intelligence, and his success, felt like my elder.
“It was a real education. I believe we had fun together. I mean, I certainly had fun, but I think he got a kick out of it, too. Because when you are an artist, you enjoy the work, the problem solving, and the camaraderie.
“Then I went off back home to the East Coast and wrote the script. I would get notes from him, then we’d get studio notes. He would send me e-mails in ALL CAPS saying, ‘Fessenden! What are you, Agatha Christie?! There’s so much dialogue!’ And I’d be like, ‘Fuck you, man! I got all these points that need to be made!’ [laughs] All very inappropriate, I guess.
“I finally invited him to be billed as co-writer on the script because I just felt his influence had been so essential. He brought some very personal things to the story. For example, his own father had been kidnapped in Mexico when he first became famous. Guillermo had to figure out how to negotiate with the kidnappers to get his father back safely. He brought some of this personal experience to the story. As you know, the child goes missing in the story, and Guillermo was talking about how when a tragedy like that strikes, people show up and say they’re clairvoyant, that they can help you find your missing loved one. We incorporated that very personal experience into the script. The draft we came up with was not that different from the original, but very different in nuance and temperament.”
For those who haven’t yet seen the original film penned by Sergio G. Sánchez, a brief synopsis: Decades after having been adopted as a child, Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the shuttered orphanage where she had spent much of her youth. Accompanied by her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), Laura intends to reopen the orphanage to care for disabled children. While there, her son (revealed to be HIV positive) declares that he’s made a new friend in Tomás, who he illustrates as a child wearing a creepy sack mask.
Not long after Laura discovers sinister social worker Benigna Escobedo (Montserrat Carulla) sneaking about the orphanage, Simón goes missing. A police psychologist suggests that Benigna may have abducted Simón, all as Laura and Carlos search desperately for their son. Months pass, until Laura happens across Benigna in town just before the suspected kidnapper is hit and killed by an ambulance. In the aftermath, it’s discovered that Benigna had worked at Laura’s orphanage, hiding her deformed son Tomás there until a cruel prank by the other orphans inadvertently led to his death.
With no other leads to go on, Laura enlists medium Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) to suss out Simón’s whereabouts. Aurora holds a séance, telling Laura that she can see the ghosts of orphans from Laura’s own past, which leads our heroine to a terrible discovery: the bodies of the orphans, each having been poisoned by Benigna for their role in her son’s death.
The orphans’ ghosts guide Laura to her son, revealed to have died on the very night of his disappearance, having been trapped in a secret room beneath the orphanage. Laura overdoses on pills, freeing her spirit and taking her place as the caretaker of the orphanage’s ghostly residents, including her own son.
“The most substantial thing that I changed, that I really was passionate about, was I made it all happen in about six days,” Fessenden reveals, discussing his own take on the original material. “Whereas in the original film, it says ‘Six Months Later’ after the initial setup. When I see that in a movie, I always feel like, ‘Well, what the hell happened during those six months?’ I am quite literal that way. I just felt that I wanted to have the intensity of a mother not knowing where her child is, a child who was sick and needed to take medication. Every day, every hour would matter. I felt it was a revision to the original that would give it a different energy.
“And I wanted to make it a contemporary ghost story, set it in modern-day America. In my mind, I was going to shoot it differently than Bayona had by making it more naturalistic, with more of a Polanski vibe. I wanted to shoot in Gloucester, outside of Boston, on the shore. There would be a real, practical location with a lighthouse. We would have the orphanage there. I even traveled to Gloucester a few times because I knew the area. I had gone there and taken pictures, really getting a clear idea of how it would all go down. Guillermo and I had some differences about how it would be shot. He was more oriented to the control of working on a set. But, you know, I looked forward to the challenge of convincing him I was right.”
Was there any sort of mandate as to how faithful Fessenden had to be in adapting the original story? He explains: “Look, I like updating classic stories like Frankenstein and Dracula. And when you update them, you have to bring a psychological realism to the telling to reassert the vitality of the stories. I had slightly new perspectives about the characters’ relationships, about the agony the mother would have been going through. And about thematic things like the piano piece that the kid plays, and the details of the maps, and the clues and the games.
“One thing is, I didn’t even want the kid to be sick. I fought with New Line about it, and they won. I didn’t mind having them win, but I was like, ‘How many tragic storylines do you even need?’ You know? I didn’t need that, but it was fine.
“Guillermo was, I think, on the fence about that, and a number of my impulses. He of course had been involved in the first one. So he could see the merit of all the choices that had been made. He loved the original. I don’t think it was ever that he wanted to do it better. He just was curious to try it a different way, and I think he felt the property could afford a revisit. Anyway, we were pretty faithful all the way to the end.
“One thing that we brought out that I thought was cool was that they are reading Peter Panin the original, and I leaned into that. You know, I delved deep into that book by J.M. Barrie, which is a book about children that don’t grow up. And of course, if all the children are dead in the orphanage, they are suspended in their youthful state. So there are lots of themes and connections that we made that amounted to a difference in emphasis. I think that’s what can make a remake interesting.
“Also, remember, another fun thing is that the third part of the movie is basically like a Ghostbusters sequence. I watched all the Ghost Hunter TV shows and had a lot of fun doing that research, just to sort of evoke all of that. Now we can say it would be similar to a movie like Insidious, but those ghostbusters are kind of played for comedy, which never suited me. So we really leaned into what that experience would be like. Maybe nobody needs to make this movie now, because it’s kind of like the Conjuring movies in terms of ghosthunters showing up and dealing with family trauma. But this was before all of that. So at the time it seemed fresh. And I wanted to make that sequence terrifying and sad.”
Fessenden giggles at this point, thrilled at going back through the beats of his story. He laughs, puts on an old-timey, Mid-Atlantic accent: “Now I’m getting excited! I’m gonna call the coast! We’re gonna make this picture!”
Fessenden notes that his screenplay retained many of the same names as the original film, though the character of Benigna Escobedo was tweaked. “This character, [now named] Belinda … we expanded the character, and we sort of analyze who that was and what that storyline was. That character was important. We tracked her from the past back to present day. So quite a bit of subtle work with stuff that was already set up, but maybe not followed through because the original director had other points of emphasis. I’m mostly just talking out of my ass because I can’t remember, I should have reread the script before doing this interview.”
The original film ends on a surprisingly dark, emotional note. Would Fessenden’s version have concluded with such a bold finale? “It’s the same. We had the so-called dark ending. I just wanted the whole movie leading up to the end to be like the clock was ticking. And then, because they did keep the sickness, every day she was like, ‘He should take his medicine today! This is another day he didn’t get his meds!’ You know what I mean? It’s just more agonizing. So by the end, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much!’ Anyway, I think it was pretty great. Guillermo was very tickled that we kept it really bleak.”
Given the project’s pedigree and the box office success of its source material, it’s genuinely surprising that this particular film never made it into production. So why is it that audiences never got to see this Orphanage? Fessenden explains: “We had a fantastic script. It was very well liked in Hollywood. People felt it was really compelling, with appropriate changes to the original. Guillermo had it in mind to hire the best actresses in Hollywood. We went to absolute top-notch A-list actresses, and most of them passed graciously.”
Fessenden even reveals that the Aurora character might have been portrayed by a legendary Oscar winner. “We talked about Meryl Streep. I mean, it’s crazy, but for a fleeting moment there were some connections being made that could have led to an offer. But showbiz is filled with such illusions.
“Of course, the actors that passed, they all said that they loved Guillermo, but some of them weren’t confident in my level of ability to protect them in such a vulnerable role. Or so I came to understand. I mean, everyone had a different excuse, and the material is very dark. But it is a horror picture, isn’t it?
“Anyway, we tried to cast for about three or four months. My favorite experience was flying over to London and meeting Kate Winslet in a little hotel. She was just really awesome. When we finished our meeting, she said she would do it and she gave me a big hug. Two weeks later, I got an email from her agent saying that she was actually not going to do it. That she had done two bleak films in a row and wanted a change. But I think it’s because Todd Haynes offered her Mildred Pierce. Ha. Anyway, Kate’s the coolest.
“But, of course it’s all very heartbreaking. That was sort of towards the end. We had been declined by some other actresses of note. Meanwhile, I met all kinds of production designers, costume designers, really top notch people. All of this was delightful and inspiring. I got great stories. One line producer we met had worked on Marathon Man, and talked about how that was shot. Another artist had done the costumes for Burnt Offerings. All kinds of random, wonderful professional from the studio system.
“But, the clock just ran out. I couldn’t land an actress of the caliber they had hoped for. And then there was my last minute missteps where I went against my original instinct right at the crucial moment. When Guillermo said, ‘Well, we’ve been through all these options, we can’t figure out who to get. Who do you actually want?’ I had someone in mind. She had been my original choice months before. But instead of naming her, I faltered. Impulsively, opportunistically, I named someone else. And that someone else declined, sinking the project.
“I try not to have regrets in life, but that’s one of them. I betrayed my original instinct. After that rejection, the team said, ‘You know what? Maybe we need a different director.’ Guillermo called, and he was so sweet. He said, ‘We’re going to get Ridley [Scott]. We’re going to get an A-list director, and they’re going to make our script. It’s going to be fantastic. But in fact, they went with Mark Pellington, who had made The Mothman Prophecies, a movie I loved.
“I thought, ‘Well, Mark isn’t quite of the stature of Ridley Scott, but fair enough.’ I was excited that he was going to take over, because I really did want to see the script made. I must tell you that Mark was so enamored with the script. He really loved it, and read it three times in one day. We would chat about it, and he was just very committed. He had his own personal connections to the loss depicted in the story. But then as time went on, it was sad to see him kind of twist in the wind as well. Three or four months later, he called me and said, ‘I’m going to make an independent film. I can’t take this Hollywood game, and waiting around.’ He got frustrated, and that’s pretty much how it ended.
“When the news got out that I was leaving the production, I remember there was a lot of commentary from the indie scene saying, ‘You know, Fessenden flips the finger at Hollywood!’ But actually, it was not true. I love the professionalism and caliber of craft in every aspect of Hollywood moviemaking.
“I mean, we can talk now about how cinema has been ruined by The Avengers and all that kind of thing, but this was years ago. Ten, fifteen years ago, they would make these mid-level movies like at $20 million, and they could be auteur-driven. Hell, New Line had given The Lord of the Rings to a maniac indie filmmaker like Peter Jackson.”
Fessenden reveals here that even though The Orphanage ultimately fell through, del Toro was still keen on collaborating with the filmmaker. “Guillermo said, ‘Let’s make another movie right away.’ Another mistake I made in my life, I offered him my Frankenstein movie, and he said, ‘I can’t read your Frankenstein script because I have one of my own. I was so stuck on making that movie that I didn’t come up with some other script for him, so that was my mistake. My lesson to the kids is – you gotta be light on your feet. I should’ve given Guillermo another property that he would have made, but maybe our time had come and gone at that point.
“He remained a friend and confidant for a time. We’ve drifted apart by now, but whenever I see him, he’s still friendly, and it all feels like yesterday. Oh, and I did make my Frankenstein movie. It’s called Depraved.”
Though it’s been nearly a decade since the project was in development, is there any chance that The Orphanage might yet see the light of a projector some day? “Well actually, I think in Hollywood anything’s possible,” Fessenden says. “It’s a great story, it’s timeless. It doesn’t need a marker to make it worthwhile. I mean, maybe Jason Blum should buy it. It’s a single location. The script exists, it’s in the archives of New Line.
“You know, Jason’s on a roll. I don’t know why I’m saying this, I’m always feeling a rivalry with Jason Blum,” he laughs. “I’m just saying the script really is very cool, it is a great role for a woman, obviously Guillermo would be attached. So there’d be some cachet. But you know, things come and go. Guillermo’s great quote that he speaks – not about this movie, but just in general – that the natural state of a film is it not getting made. And that’s true, especially if you’re an indie filmmaker. You realize how many movies that you don’t get made. You know, the cliché of having the scripts in the drawer.”
Even still, would Fessenden have any interest in revisiting the film should it be revived someday? “Sure! You know, these are your babies. I mean, I remember every shot. I could shot list the movie right now. It’s all there in the ol’ noggin. I picture a movie in my head when I’m making it, and I usually put that into the script. It doesn’t mean anybody can discern it, although I bet you could get a sense of what the intentions are. And as I say, I feel like it’s a timeless story of loss and what a mother goes through, what a couple goes through. It’s appropriately moody and nasty, and it has that lyrical element of the children’s game.”
In closing out our talk, Mr. Fessenden offers up his final thoughts on The Orphanage: “I think it’s a really good property still. And you know, the original stands the test of time. Nowadays, that’s what they love to do, is remake stuff. But you know, they wouldn’t want me to do it. That’s the bottom line. They wouldn’t. That’s the other truth about Hollywood. They’re gonna look for some young pup, or maybe a woman, and that’s fine. So it goes.”
Very special thanks to Larry Fessenden for his time and insights.