Leonetti was very hands on with the development of Wish Upon. He had initially been sent the script around six months before he signed on, and out of the many he was reading it was the one that caught his eye. “But it didn’t completely grab me,” he admits. “It’s a great script and Barbra did a great job, but it was a little bit later when [producer] Cheryl Clark sent me another draft that it hit me. That draft was a little bit better. I read it, and then I read it again a day later. I put a curse on me!”
Leonetti had first met with Cheryl before he took on Annabelle, working on Blumhouse picture Plush. At that point of production, Catherine Hardwick (who helmed Plush) was attached to direct, but that didn’t work out. “I had another meeting with Cheryl on a different movie where I was the director, and Cheryl and I hit it off professionally and personally, and I think we struck a chord where we wanted to work together.” Leonetti loved the new script for Wish Upon, but had some reservations about directing a teen horror flick. “I really want to direct this,” he tells me enthusiastically. “But I asked, ‘am I the guy – at 60 years old – to direct a teen thriller?’ I questioned myself a little bit about that. But, you know what, I was a focus puller on Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I shot Detroit Rock City. I remember how much fun I had on those movies, and it hit me that, yeah, I can do this!”
It was during the production of the movie that Leonetti and his team found their biggest flaw with Wish Upon. “What we realised, which is interesting, is that the movie is a bit predictable,” he admits. “There’s a pattern: She makes a wish, and someone is going to die. So how do we keep the audience guessing? This development is one of the movie’s biggest strengths. In one sequence after a wish has been made, we watch one friend travel to one of the highest floors in a hotel via an elevator, inter-cut between Clare’s father changing a tyre on his car with various mishaps and fake-outs happening to both. “We went down the road in the third act where we created diversion tactics with different characters, which kept it fresh,” Leonetti tells me.
Leonetti is also no stranger to filmmakers overstepping their boundaries. He worked on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, which is famously credited as Hooper but was reportedly really directed by producer Steven Spielberg who didn’t trust Hooper’s vision. “Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question,” Leonetti recently told Shockwaves. Now in the director’s chair of his own films, Leonetti is very hands off when it comes to his team behind the camera. He tells me that he has taken the gaffers and key grips he worked with on James Wan’s movies including Jimmy Neese, who was Leonetti’s director of photography on Annabelle. On Wish Upon, however, he worked with Michael Gambraith as director of photography, who Leonetti had not worked with in some time. “Michael was my gaffer on three movies previously, and he has been a DP and back-and-forth, he’s an all-around filmmaker,” he tells me. “We sat down and we talked about how to approach it holistically, I wanted it very real. The more natural it looks, the believable it is. The more believable it is, the scarier it will be because now the audience can believe this is really happening and we can scare the shit out of them. Back on Insidious with James Wan, we learned together that shooting these movies in continuity gave us a better idea of what we set up, and emotionally where you are in the movie. But to do that, you have to light out every room in the house. You can’t just light one room, shoot it and then move on. You have to be able to go in every room so you can drag the audience.”
He adds: “But I believe no matter what the movie is done in prep, and then you make the magic when you shoot it,” he says. “So during prep, working with the DP, the production designer, the costume designer, believe me they get my two cents on locations and how it should look and all those things, and we together prepare that. So when it comes to shooting, I don’t get into that. I’m all about the performance [and] making sure the shots are working. I vet the whole movie in my head, and write out shot-for-shot everything before we start shooting. Then you can actually be more creative. You don’t have to stick to it exactly, but you have a really the framework.”
John R. Leonetti has a career that has spanned nearly four decades, but speaking with him now you get the sense he’s never been more excited about the future. He’s about to start production on a new movie called The Silence, another director’s chair role on a project not spun-off from previous work. Based on the book by Tim Lebbon, it’s set in an apocalyptic world where blind monsters hunt by sound rather than sight, and a deaf girl trying to survive their onslaught. “It’s an awesome thriller, it’s really cool. That’s potentially a franchise as well as Wish Upon,” he concludes. “What I’m doing it setting my own path, and almost rejuvenating my career as a filmmaker. Which is crazy at my age!”
My thanks to John R. Leonetti for taking the time out to speak with me. Wish Upon is in cinemas now.
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth, the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and the author of Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.