John Leonetti is the director of Annabelle, the horror film that went head-to-head with Gone Girl last weekend, raking in $37.2 million. The figure was nearly double what analysts had predicted. We caught up with Leonetti, who has acted as cinematographer on films from Insidious and The Conjuring to the TV series Sleepy Hollow, to discuss the sources of his inspiration and what he learned taking the directorial reins on Annabelle.
Leonetti has had a long career as a cinematographer (including for The Conjuring, the $300 million hit that first introduced the demonic doll in Annabelle). “As a director of photography, you’re already involved in directing a whole crew to help realize the vision of the director,” says Leonetti. “It’s a great stepping stone, on many levels.” Having that background enabled Leonetti to save time and speak in a kind of shorthand with his own D.P. “For me personally, it’s very advantageous,” he says. “I don’t need storyboards.”
When you ascend to the director’s chair, says Leonetti, your first loyalty is to story. “My main focus is on getting the story right,” he says. “You’ve got to have a good script first.” Though Leonetti didn’t write Annabelle himself–Gary Dauberman is the credited writer–Leonetti immersed himself in the story and characters, even doing writing exercises of his own through the production to come to understand them better. “I wanted to understand the ins and outs of every character, to have a connection to their emotions,” says Leonetti–an exercise which prepared him to talk with his actors.
Leonetti says he worked with a suite of very talented actors on Annabelle, each with a slightly different approach (some were more intuitive, others more pragmatic). Leonetti learned to value the ideas of all of them. An actor would present an idea about a character, and Leonetti would say, “That’s true! Let’s try that!” The director’s job isn’t to have all the ideas, but to let the best rise to the top. “You really have to listen to people. The best idea wins. I just happen to be the one, I suppose, who makes that decision.”
One such idea involved an actor’s unusual take on a drastic decision her character makes. In Annabelle, one character winds up making a large sacrifice. Prior to shooting, Leonetti had understood the character to make this choice in order to make amends for an earlier tragedy for which she felt responsible. But the actor had a different take: looked at another way, her sacrifice wasn’t selfless, but arguably selfish. “It’s more layered, more interesting. When she said that, I thought, ‘Yeah!’”
One of Leonetti’s inspirations is Alfred Hitchcock, who famously planned out each shot meticulously, well in advance of shooting. So for two weeks prior to shooting, Leonetti rose at 4:15 every morning to prepare. “From scene 1 to scene 112, I popped it all out of my head. Literally, like Hitchcock, I cut it in my mind.” The product, prior to shooting, was a detailed shot list, down to the angles and types of lenses he planned to use. It was skill he had honed in directing TV, which demands a very tight schedule. When the time to shoot came along, things flew along on schedule. His producers “couldn’t believe it. They’d never seen it before.”
If you’re going to take on a huge responsibility, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about, says Leonetti. He knew that Annabelle was right for him because it was a strong script in a franchise he admired with a strong female protagonist. “I won’t direct just to direct. I’ve learned after many years in this business that you’ve got to be really connected to a project,” he says. “You put a lot of time and energy in, when directing a movie. It lasts minimally a year or two years of your life. It’s a big commitment.”