The new film begins before the evil was unleashed in “The Conjuring.” John Form (Ward Horton) has found the perfect gift for his expectant wife, Mia (Annabelle Wallis)—a beautiful, rare vintage doll in a pure white wedding dress. But Mia’s delight with Annabelle doesn’t last long.
On one horrific night, their home is invaded by members of a satanic cult, who violently attack the couple. Spilled blood and terror are not all they leave behind. The cultists have conjured an entity so malevolent that nothing they did will compare to the sinister conduit to the damned that is now…Annabelle.
The first-time director talks about his inspiration, mentor James Wan and the craft of making horror films, in the following interview.
Question: You have been working with James Wan as a cinematographer on a number of films. What was it about “Annabelle” that made you want to make the switch to director on this film?
John Leonetti: It’s fun doing these movies with James, like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” I love crafting these films as a cinematographer. But this script was so amazing, first of all. When they approached me about it—it just came out of the blue; I didn’t solicit it—I said, ‘Well, let me read the script.’ So I did. It was so good that I couldn’t believe that [screenwriter] Gary Dauberman had written the first draft in just six days.
It’s kind of a throwback to the past in terms of older movies like Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s birthed by “The Conjuring,” I guess you could say, but the structure of this movie is different and one thing I really love is female protagonists. I’m a fan of women, and I’ve always been attracted to stories that are about women. And, honestly, as weakened as our heroine Mia becomes in the events surrounding this doll and the demon she has to confront, she is a very strong and has a very powerful soul in her own right.
But, really, it was the script, and then knowing that the family—I guess you could call it “The Conjuring” family from New Line—would be involved.
Q: When you’re directing, do you have to fight the urge to set up shots like a cinematographer or do you see it as more of a collaboration?
Leonetti: I do separate myself from it. However, having [cinematographer] Jimmy Kneist on the film, who’s really talented, was great. He’s someone that is open enough to let me add my three cents, yet he gets my vision and my sensibility enough to be able to just make it happen. I’m very specific about how I set up my shots. I didn’t storyboard the movie before we started, but I literally visualized, shot-listed, edited and cut the whole movie before we even started shooting. I’m very visual, obviously. That’s my day job. [Laughs] But when you’re working with a filmmaker like James Wan, you analyze how he’s directing these movies. He’s very visual as well. And we’ve been a pretty awesome team for five movies in a row.
Q: You’ve got like mind-meld going on…
Leonetti: Yeah, we do. [Laughs] So, when he visualizes something, I know I can give it to him. For someone else to come in and be me while I’m being James, if you will, it would be difficult for anybody because I know where I want to cut, where the transitions are, all those things.
It’s not to say that Tom Melkins, our editor, won’t be making variations on that, as he should, and make it better. That’s awesome, because the movie is not just about how it looks, but what the camera is doing at every moment and why. It’s building up suspense by getting inside Mia’s world, and following the characters and that freaking doll as well. [Laughs]
We’re so lucky to have such a great cast. They’re all amazing actors. But the thread throughout the movie is Mia and that demon and the suspense that builds around this conflict she’s facing essentially alone. And designing that, shot by shot, tasting each element as it comes, has to be very, very specific.
Q: “The Conjuring” has such a distinct look and feel to it. Was that a touchstone for you for “Annabelle”?
Leonetti: Oh, no question. Visually, it’s in the same zone as “The Conjuring” in terms of inspiration, conception and execution. Jimmy has been kind enough to embrace my cinematography on “The Conjuring,” to help maintain that continuity for a very specific reason. Not just the way the camera moves, but the way the film looks. Both stories take place around 1970, so the period is the same. The way we manipulate the color in the post process is very similar. So it’s going to have very much the same look and feel and, by the way, it’s just as beautiful.
Q: Can you talk about building the tension and mood of the film, and also engineering the scares in the film? Were those fun for you to devise?
Leonetti: Definitely. The script is written in a way that creates a template for how we pace the movie. And my motto on this movie is ‘less is more,’ patience in suspense, and James Wan knows about that as well, obviously. So it’s always about keeping a balance between the ticking Hitchcock bomb and a jump scare, and you don’t give anything away. So you have to carefully set things up and then it’s how you pay them off throughout the movie, and there are many layers to that. Sometimes it’s just disorienting the audience enough to create the environment to be scared, or to let them know what Mia doesn’t to the point where they say, ‘Oh, no, don’t go down those stairs!’ Whatever it is.
The other thing that we did, which was so wonderful, is to shoot the film almost entirely in continuity. We were able to watch it grow, so that by the third act, everybody emotionally and dramatically can know where we are, from me to the actors.
But, even more importantly, it’s Annabelle’s performance as Mia. I believe that as strong as the demon is, so is she. As much as it knocks the wind out of her sails and tries to take the legs out from underneath her, every time that happens inside, she puts up another pillar of strength. We don’t see it, but it’s there. And then it’s a matter of gauging and varying performance, all the way through the movie, where she’s really vulnerable and becomes stronger.
Opening across the Philippines on October 01, 2014, “Annabelle” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment company.