The newest horror film, "Annabelle," arrives in theaters today. It's a prequel to James Wan's hugely-successful film, "The Conjuring." You might remember that film's action centered on a very creepy doll:
"Annabelle" tells the story of that possessed doll and how she came to haunt any family that owns her. This time around, Wan passed the director's chair to his longtime cinematographer, John Leonetti.
Leonetti stopped by The Frame's studio this week to talk about his collaboration with Wan and the classic horror film that inspired him as a director. And he relates an eerie episode from location scouting for "Annabelle."
On the movies that inspired "Annabelle":
Sure, it's inspired by "The Conjuring," but it's really inspired by "Rosemary's Baby." I mean, even the fact that the main characters' names are Mia and John — Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And God, I love that movie for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was so psychological, and suspenseful in a different way; it's not what audiences are used to seeing today. But it was still akin to "The Conjuring," because "The Conjuring" is a horror movie that's not what people are used to seeing today, and I think that having both of those movies as inspiration for "Annabelle" was not a bad place to start.
On the creepy thing that happened while location scouting for "Annabelle":
There was something weird when we were scouting for this movie, in the apartment. It happened to be a full moon that night. Random, totally random. And in a transom, above one of the windows in the living room, there were three finger smudges that came straight down the glass, and the demon that we designed has three fingers and three talons. And it was literally, the full moon was right behind it. I've got the picture! And it is frickin' creepy, so to me that is the creepiest thing that happened on our film.
On the still-stunning cinematography of "Rosemary's Baby":
I think it's actually Billy Fraker's best work — it's so beautiful, and it's classic, it's classy, it's elegant, it's timeless, it looks natural, which I think is very important, because it has to look natural and kind of look real. Even though the characters are a little over the top, it looked real and it was graceful, and that was also visual inspiration for me. And if you really look at "The Conjuring," it's similar, where you're just slowly peeing layers of the onion back, and not giving too much to the audience too quick. [Director Roman] Polanski would just let the camera sit there and just let people talk, and it lets the audience's eyes wander and it sucks the audience in, and it engages them in a way that they almost don't even know. And that's cool.
On the possibility of beating "Gone Girl" at the box office:
I know that we're tracking on par with "Gone Girl." Now, come on, obviously that movie is in a whole other league than our movie, in many ways. But put the budget aside. Put it all aside. It's a movie for adults, and it's a movie for teens as well, and with "Gone Girl" it will be considered for Academy Awards, as it should. "Annabelle" will never be looked at in the same light, as it shouldn't be. But you know what? The entertainment value of "Annabelle" is as good as the entertainment value in "Gone Girl" — it's just different.
On how his collaboration with James Wan came about:
I met James on the first movie we did together, "Dead Silence." I was kind of a Universal [Studios] boy at the time, as a cinematographer. And James — no matter how brilliant he is or was — he came off of "Saw," which was an independent film. And they wanted to put someone with some experience [who] was also visually akin to what James is. He and I met and what was really cool is, it's not like he had to take me as his cameraman. But they had him meet me, let's just put it that way. And we hit it off so well...We ended up having four more [projects], so it was a marriage made in heaven and hell, based upon our movies, I guess.
On why he and Wan continued to work together after "Dead Silence," despite poor critical and box office response:
What didn't work in that movie, in my opinion, was the script. And if you don't have a good story, you don't have a good script. I don't care how good the acting, how good it looks, how good it sounds — it's not gonna be that successful. What's interesting too, though, is our next film, "Death Sentence," also did not do well in the box office.
I think "Death Sentence" is an amazing movie, and everyone [who] has seen it really likes it, so I think that was a marketing problem. That wasn't an execution problem. James and I are very proud of "Death Sentence," because it's not his genre. It's an action thriller and I believe that movie resonates kind of like a "Bourne" movie throughout, and there's reasons why it does. So yeah, you know, 0-for-two in terms of box office. Then it's three-for-three, maybe four-for-four, who knows?
On how Wan tried to bring him on as cinematographer for "Fast & Furious 7":
He tried hard, but obviously not hard enough cause, well...no, you know, bless him, he did try. It's just, Neal Moritz [producer for "Fast & Furious 7']...Justin Lin, and the first [assistant director], and the production designer, they all left. So the only bit of of continuity that Neal felt he had was Stephen [Windon], the [director of photography]. And rightfully so, I get that. James really wanted me to come and, honestly, I was a little bummed. I had been with James on five movies and here we get to do a big one, and he can't take me. And that's okay, I get it. As it turns out, it was serendipity because it worked out even better, maybe for all of us, in the end.
On why he chose to never make the "Annabelle" doll move on its own:
You just gotta keep it real. The fact that the doll never moves is exceedingly creepy. It's the subtleties, and again, less is more. As we go through the movie, she starts out pristine, porcelain, creamy skin, no cracks in her face...but she's still creepy, even though she's as beautiful as she could ever be, relative to the way she looks in "The Conjuring." But slowly through the movie, organically, she has her own little character arc, if you will, and it's the subtleties of just changing the eyes. What you don't do is cut to too many closeups of the doll, or have the doll move too many times in the movie. We made a conscious effort to absolutely not do that. I shot one of the Chucky movies, "Child's Play 3," and you know what? It's scarier that she doesn't move, than to have a little doll run around with a knife chasing people. It's more psychological.