Luke Owen sits down with Wish Upon director John R. Leonetti…
John R. Leonetti has had an incredible career behind the camera. While he may not be an instantly recognisable name, he has worked on some iconic movies, like Poltergeist, Weird Science, Commando, Child’s Play 3, Hot Shots! Part Deux, The Mask, Mortal Kombat, The Butterfly Effect, The Conjuring and many more. From his hard work behind the camera and passion for filmmaking, he was promoted to the director’s chair on sequels and spin-offs Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, The Butterfly Effect 2 and Annabelle. “All the way back when I was an assistant cameraman, way, way back when I was twenty years old – which was about 40 years ago – I was working on the Dukes of Hazzard, one of the directors took me under his wing,” Leonetti tells me. “I don’t know why, but he said, ‘John you’re going to be a director someday’. I wasn’t even going down that path, I just enjoyed being a cameraman. And even when I became a camera operator, actors would say to me, ‘John you really should think about directing’. So sparks were clicking in the back of my psyche.”
Although it’s not been the smoothest of transitions. Annabelle, a spin-off to the critically acclaimed The Conjuring, received very poor reviews (29% compared to The Conjuring’s 86%). Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wasn’t as praised as much as its predecessor (which wasn’t overly praised in the first place) and many gamers consider it the worst video game movie of all-time. But you can’t argue that his films make money. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation made $51 million worldwide; Annabelle earned an incredible $256 million from just a tiny $6 million budget.
Leonetti’s latest film, Wish Upon, is a take on the old Monkey’s Paw story; the old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for’. It’s an original script not based on pre-existing material, and Leonetti knows what sets it apart from other takes on the Monkey’s Paw mould. “It has to do with the character of Clare, and what [screenwriter] Barbra Marshall wrote,” he says. “The layers of Clare [played by Joey King]: what she went through, what she went through as a kid. Just starting from there, setting it up as Clare is making these wishes and not understanding the ramification of the wishes, slowly but surely she starts to make a connection. But by that time, she’s drugged. It’s like she’s a heroin addict. It’s hard to shake it. And that creates a conflict that was really interesting to me, and how that affects the people around her, her friends [Sydney Park and Stranger Thing’s Shannon Purser], and Ryan [Ki Hong Lee] who may be slowly falling in love with her. It was those dynamics that made this different than all the other movies. It was those layers.”
The film sees Clare gifted a Chinese puzzle box from her dumpster diving father [Ryan Phillippe]. She quickly discovers that this box grants her seven wishes, but each wish comes with a price: someone’s life. As the bodies pile up around her, Clare must decide whether being popular and loved by the hottest guy at school is worth the deaths of those closest to her.
When it comes to the deaths, one comparison that came up in our discussions was the Final Destination franchise, released from 1999 to 2011. The films saw a group of teenagers survive tragic accidents, only to have death stalk them one by one in various gruesome set pieces. “It’s a bit like Final Destination,” Leonetti sighs, aware of the obvious comparisons. “The audience know that something is going to happen. It’s a lot different to something like Annabelle where it’s supernatural. [Wish Upon] is clever enough [due to Barbara Marshall’s script], and how we orchestrated all these inevitable ramifications of death and trick them into something special.”
But did he take inspiration from the film series? “I looked a little bit, yes,” he admits. “I didn’t watch the whole movies again, just some of the kills. In fact at one point in one script, we were going to do a full blown homage to Final Destination where Carl [Phillipe’s character’s friend] is driving a pick-up and gets caught on railroad tracks. It was very similar to that one Final Destination movie, which was fun to do.” He adds: “But we realised that wasn’t important, or in the themes of our story. So we didn’t do it. But we went down that road in development because we thought it would be fun. We just noodled these situations and tried to come up with things that hadn’t been done before, to make them as fresh as possible.”