John R. Leonetti’s IMDB page is a hell of a thing. The filmmaker cut his chops as a cameraman and a cinematographer on films by Steven Spielberg, Amy Heckerling, John Frankenheimer, James Wan, Walter Hill, John Hughes, Francis Ford Coppola… The list goes on and on. This, in and of itself, would be an impressive career; but Leonetti has also helmed a number of features himself – mostly genre horror flicks (Annabelle, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, The Butterfly Effect 2).
Leonetti’s latest horror film, Wish Upon, feels like a 90s horror mash-up: two cups of Wishmaster, some chopped up Final Destination, and a sprinkling of I Know What You Did Last Summer as garnish. Joey King (The Conjuring) stars as Clare, an unpopular and cash-strapped teen, who inherits a music box with the power to grant seven wishes. The Monkey’s Paw-esque catch? With each wish Clare makes, one of her acquaintances or loved ones (her single dad, her best-friend, the boy who’s crushing on her) will die in a horrific Rube-Goldberg fashion. But even though Clare soon becomes aware of this bloody price, the allure of instant money & adoration may still be too much to resist.
In talking with Leonetti, he stresses it wasn’t so much 90s horror that influenced Wish Upon though; but a decade-earlier, far more unlikely, teen film – Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which Leonetti also worked on as a focus puller). In the following wide-ranging interview with Leonetti, he discusses his early career, working on Fast Times and later as a cinematographer with John Frankenheimer. He also reveals how Wish Upon changed during development, how it doubles as a metaphor for addiction and what was cut to achieve a PG-13 rating. For the full interview, read below.
Starting from the beginning — how did you first get involved in Wish Upon?
John R. Leonetti: Sherryl Clark — it was her, our producer. Before I directed Annabelle, I met with her for a couple DP projects. I met with her and Catherine Hardwicke for a Blumhouse movie they were doing, which I ended up not shooting for whatever reason. But I could tell that she and I got on and then after Annabelle, she brought me into a general meeting for another movie as a director. We hit it off pretty well. Catherine Hardwicke was actually originally attached to this movie, [but when] that fell through Sherryl sent me the script. I read it and liked it. But I didn’t completely jump on at first because I had other things going on. Then about four months later, there was another draft – and boy did it catch my attention.
What are you looking for when reading a script?
Leonetti: It starts with the characters. I really believe that if the characters are engaging and there’s conflict with them, that allows the audience to create psychological suspense and then you put the classic thriller-horror bells and whistles around that. [When] things are grounded, approachable and believable – that’s key.
Once you got involved on Wish Upon – how much did the script change?
Leonetti: It changed, but I have to tell you it never changed its framework. The things that are so good about this script, which I always loved, is the dialogue Barbara Marshall wrote…
So what in particular did change?
Leonetti: Hmm… One road we went down in the original script… Carl, Jonathan’s sidekick digging up the junk – there was a scene where we thought he might ‘get it’. We went so far as to do a homage to Final Destination. He’s driving his pickup truck and it gets stuck on the railroad tracks and a train almost hits him. It even got to the point where that piece of metal eventually came into play, the one that got that guy in Final Destination [the Sean William Scott death scene]; except in our case, it didn’t. [Carl] dodged the metal and it gets stuck in a telephone pole behind him. So we went down that road just because [Wish Upon] is a bit like Final Destination; but then we thought ‘Let’s not do that. It’ll be fun but this is not Final Destination, this is Wish Upon.’
How did you decide on the particular death scenes for the film?
Leonetti: In general – it’s what Barbara Marshall came up with originally, which then we tweak[ed]. We wanted to do things that were unique and that you hadn’t quite seen before because, let’s face it, there’s Final Destination… We were trying to be unique but also believable, like the garbage disposal or the bathtub…
Were there any other death scenes that didn’t make it in besides the train bit?
Leonetti: No – when we got to the final shooting script, we never really reshot or lost anything. We did a little bit of additional photography only to add to one thing in the movie because it was a little predictable. For instance: we added that car situation with Ryan [Phillippe] having the flat tire. That created the diversion from the elevator – so it kept audience’s guessing.
That’s a fun sequence.
Leonetti: It’s different. I mean how many times have you seen a tire almost hit someone like that? We pulled that right out of our ass. It was a fun thing to do.
Visually – how is your approach on a teen horror film different than something more classically inclined like Annabelle?
Leonetti: Well – they’re similar in that neither one is glossy. You have to approach it, lighting wise, realistically. If you look at Annabelle – it’s darker, it’s got more grit to it consistently, it’s very realistic; whereas [Wish Upon] varies – we have happy, sad and neutral looks depending on what scene we’re doing… We massaged the tone of what’s going on in each scene since it always revolves around Clare [Joey King] and what she’s going through.
You’ve been doing horror films for a long time now, going back to as a cinematographer on Child’s Play 3. Was horror always an attraction for you?
Leonetti: You know what, honestly, not necessarily. It’s kind of random. I broke in as a DP [director of photography] on a television series called Tales from Crypt, if you remember that…
It’s a terrific show.
Leonetti: It was my first paying job as a DP when I was thirty or thirty-one years old. What I learned there, again, you have to make it visually and tonally believable so that [people believe] it could really happen… Anyways that really got me going, but I’m not a horror movie freak or buff necessarily. I don’t always go see them. If there’s a good one out, I’ll go see it… but I do really love psychological thrillers – Hitchcockian stuff. The thing that draws me more than anything to horror movies or thrillers is that you get to use so many of the tools in your craft. It’s not two people sitting across a table and bullshitting. You have to find a way to get under people’s skin and scare the shit out of them. That’s challenging and fun.