‘Annabelle’ director conjured prequel horror film from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Oct. 02, 2014 | 5:36 p.m.
apphoto film review annabelle 5 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

A scene from New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle 3 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

Annabelle Wallis, left, portrays Mia and Keira Daniels is young Annabelle Higgins, in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle." (Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

Alfre Woodard as Evelyn in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle2 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

A scene from New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle 6 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

Alfre Woodard, left, as Evelyn, and Annabelle Wallis, as Mia, in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle 4 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

Alfre Woodard, left, as Evelyn, and Annabelle Wallis, as Mia, in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review annabelle 1 Annabelle director conjured prequel horror film from Rosemarys Baby

Tony Amendola as Father Perez in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

Watch the new film “Annabelle,” which arrives in theaters Friday as the first horror movie of October, and you might experience a slight sense of déjà vu. A prequel to last year’s breakout hit “The Conjuring,” “Annabelle” owes a creative debt to Roman Polanski’s classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” which sees expectant mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) increasingly come to believe that evil forces are pursuing her unborn child.

“Annabelle” director John R. Leonetti said he took a great deal of inspiration both for the look of his movie, which is set entirely in Southern California in the 1960s, from the 1968 thriller, which earned supporting actress Ruth Gordon an Oscar for her performance as the Satanist-next-door Minnie Castevet. But thematically, the movies link up too.

While “Annabelle” purports to explain the origins of the evil doll introduced in “The Conjuring,” both “Rosemary’s Baby” and the new film involve satanic cultists and an expectant mother who becomes fearful for her new baby.

In Gary Dauberman’s script, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her husband John (Ward Horton) are in their Santa Monica home when they overhear a scream from the neighboring house. Before long, deranged intruders burst in and violently attack the couple. Although they both survive, Mia soon begins to suspect that evil forces have followed them to their new Pasadena residence, and she begins to confide her suspicions to Alfre Woodard’s Evelyn, another woman grappling with personal demons related to her child.

Hero Complex caught up with Leonetti — whose previous directing credits include “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” and “The Butterfly Effect 2,” and who served as cinematographer for director James Wan on “Dead Silence,” “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 2” and “The Conjuring” — to discuss his broader artistic aims for “Annabelle.”

Hero Complex: You and James Wan are longtime collaborators. Did you two have a lot of conversations about the opportunities here? Did you want to put your own stamp on the movie?

John R. Leonetti: James and the studio thought I was the most logical choice once they decided, OK, we’re going to do this movie. I was not involved in the treatment, but I was involved from the moment Gary wrote that first draft. He wrote it in 12 days, which was amazing. I was down in North Carolina shooting “Sleepy Hollow,” and all of a sudden, they called and said, “Do you want to come back to L.A. and direct ‘Annabelle’?… OK, “The Conjuring” bar is very high, obviously. What a great movie. It surprised so many people — I call it psychological classy horror as well as frightening horror. The script from Gary actually had a tone and the elements mostly there to do something that I felt would be as classy and commercial as “The Conjuring.”

A scene from New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

A scene from New Line Cinema’s supernatural thriller, “Annabelle.” (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

James, while we made the movie, he stayed away — he was doing “Fast [& Furious] 7.” Even if he wanted to be there more he couldn’t. He had faith in passing me the baton, which meant an awful lot to me. James was really cool about adding specific surgical moments in the movie that could be a couple of extra jump scares because, let’s face it, that’s what these audiences expect. But going back to the script, it’s inspired by “Rosemary’s Baby.” You can tell — the lead characters are Mia and John, after Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes.The first act of the movie is very “Rosemary’s Baby.” The second and third act become more “Conjuring”/”Insidious”-esque. My vision of the movie was to make it timeless, a throwback to the past. My two mottos on the movie were less is more, and patience and suspense. “The Conjuring” does that as well — so does Hitchcock, and so does “Rosemary’s Baby.” But I took that from all of them and made that my motto. The movie is a slow burn. The first act, something very intense happens, but it’s kind of a slow burn and it’s suspenseful. It’s very psychological and then it takes off and ramps up for all the jump scares that people love and require.

HC: You’ve said that you were interested in having strong women on-screen in Mia and Evelyn and I’m curious why that was a priority for you.

JRL: I am a huge fan of female protagonists. I believe women should run the world. I have ultimate respect for women and the power and the strength of a woman and thematically contrasting that with the vulnerability that women have emotionally. This is a movie about a woman protecting her baby, it’s just this awesome conflict. I think it sets the stage for a movie that will grab the audience.

HC: The home invasion sequence appears to reference the Manson murders. Was that intentional?

JRL: In the beginning of the movie we go there, but we go there for a couple of reasons. It creeps you out, but it also puts you immediately back in that time. The clothes, the cars, her hair, Annabelle’s hair in this, and putting you right there also helps grab you at the beginning of the movie, I think, so that you’re invested, especially in Mia, but in all the characters.

Alfre Woodard as Evelyn in New Line Cinema's supernatural thriller, "Annabelle," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

Alfre Woodard as Evelyn in New Line Cinema’s supernatural thriller, “Annabelle.” (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

HC: As a filmmaker, what’s it like to direct an actress of Alfre Woodard’s stature?

JRL: Alfre, she’s such a great actress and we’re so lucky to have her. The part that she plays is strong, but it’s strong in a supportive way to Mia. She’s also as you come to find out, she’s a flawed character. I think she had a little anxiety — we did the table read, I got to meet her right before, say hello and welcome. The table read was so engaging; people, you could tell they were creeped out. They laughed when they were supposed to laugh. After, I was [talking] with her a little bit, at first I thought she was going to be kind of tough and very strong-headed, but what I realized is she just has a point of view. She thinks about stuff. That’s why she’s such an amazing actress. She puts her own label on that character, her own soul into that character. When I met her in my office the next day, that was so cool. I take the main characters and track their emotions through the whole movie and write them down, like a graph almost of their emotions, my opinion of where they are and why. Then I give that to the actors and I ask them their opinion of what I wrote, I did that with her, I did it with Annabelle and I did it with Ward. I think that that really let Alfre immediately know that I was thinking about Evelyn. She and I get along so well. It was an honor and a pleasure and on set we had a great time.

Director John R. Leonetti on the set of "Annabelle."  (Greg Smith/Warner Bros.)

Director John R. Leonetti on the set of “Annabelle.” (Gregory Smith/Warner Bros.)

HC: Demonic possession films are a perennial in horror — was there a lot of thought put into what you could do to differentiate the film within that sub-genre?

JRL: I wanted to throw it back to the past — the way movies were made in the past, the way Hitchcock did it, the way Polanski did it back then…. I think that our movie is not a slasher film, it’s not stung with music like a lot of horror films are. Even the soundtrack, composed by Joe Bishara who plays our demon, it’s almost European. It’s not on the nose. It’s more psychological. I think what’s new is going back to the old — you just hold the frame sometimes and let people talk and don’t cut in front of them. You don’t have to be so literal. Again, less is more. That was the goal. I can’t tell you how many people who have seen this movie are like, “My God, it’s like ‘Rosemary’s Baby.'”

— Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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One Response to ‘Annabelle’ director conjured prequel horror film from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

  1. jimmy says:

    Will they come out with an "ANNABELLE" doll, like they did with Chucky ??

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