‘Annabelle’ Director John Leonetti Discusses New Film ‘Lullaby’ In Our Interview

December 14, 2022

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely is the owner of HorrorFuel.com. She is an Executive Producer of "13 Slays Till Christmas" which is out on Digital and DVD and now streaming on Tubi. She has several other films in the works. Kelli is an animal lover and a true horror addict since the age of 9 when she saw Friday the 13th. Email: horrorfuelinfo@gmail.com

John R. Leonetti is known for directing movies like Annabelle, Wish Upon, and episodes of series such as “Sleepy Hollow.” He’s also recognized for his excellent skills as a cinematographer for films The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2, and Piranha 3D, as well as many more. I had the absolute pleasure of talking with John about his past hits and his soon-to-be-released horror film, Lullaby.


Lullaby follows a new mother who discovers a lullaby in an ancient book and soon regards the song as a blessing. But her world transforms into a nightmare when the Lullaby brings forth the ancient demon Lilith.”





Kelli: “So let’s talk about Lullaby?”


John: “Sure.”


Kelli: “I thought the story was a great idea. We rarely ever hear much about Lilith.”


John: “I agree with you. By the way.”


Kelli: “How did she become part of the story?”


John: “Well, you know, honestly, when I read the script, I didn’t know anything about Lilith. When I read it, it was the number one attraction for me. I started investigating her. And when I found out who she was, and that she was the first woman before Eve and was equal to Adam, and then because she was such a strong woman. I thought, man, that’s some serious conflict. If you look at most of the movies I’ve directed, the protagonist is a female. I’m all about women and the power of women. I really love that, and I love them. And I was raised by my mom, and I have three sisters. I’ve had a brother, but, you know, he was much older, and he wasn’t around much.”


I have this ultimate respect, honestly, for women to be candid. And Lillith, she’s the first woman, or whatever you want to call her if you think about it. That was really interesting to me. She was so beautiful, yet she had so much pain. She has inflicted a lot of horrors, but it was all because of love and the wanting to have a baby. And it’s amazing how the power of love can create spectacle too. And so it was very interesting to me that dynamic. And if you go further with that, then you take her and put her in, you know, in and she manipulates Vivian, sends her the book and, the Lullaby being sung, you know, puts Rachel in this situation to the point where she gets screwed by her sister to get her baby back. It’s such a great conflict. Anyway, that’s kind of what got me into it.”


Kelli: “Well, that’s awesome. And it’s always good to hear that a director supports women. And yes, Lilith does mess with your main character a lot.”

“I noticed that much of the tension was built with and manipulated by sound in this movie, like the Lullaby. Can you talk about that?”


John: “Of course. That’s one thing that also was really interesting to me, to create a lullaby and, and, back up for a second, because the moment I finished the script, I immediately, my head went, lullabies, think about it. They’re all dark. All, yeah, every single one. And I went, oh my God, I want to create a title sequence for this movie that shows how dark the artist set the stage for this story in this movie. And it’s if you notice, it’s in the beginning when it’s intermingled when introducing Vivian and her husband when they’re dealing with that shit that’s going on. And you know, to create that Lullaby, to create the music for it, starting with the music. It’s how I started. Um, I, I went, and I researched ancient or old, uh, Jewish and Hebrew lullabies. I never found one that was creepy enough.”


It has to be beautiful. It has to be enticing. It’s creepy. And so I found a Gaelic lullaby that had the right, you know, three, like the correct sounds of that, that accomplished that. And I sent that to Joe Behar, our composer, who I’ve worked with before. He’s just brilliant. As a matter of fact, your place kind of looks like Joe’s house. This is all black and some red and purple, the whole house everywhere inside. It’s pretty interesting. But just saying, um, he’s a fantastic guy. I love him dearly, and he is so talented. But I gave that to him, and then we, he, we manipulated it to get it to the point where I think it’s, you know, pretty, uh, practical.”


Kelli: “Right. It’s pretty, dark, and creepy, which is what you were aiming for.”


John: “It’s kind of cool to have the opportunity to do something like that and pull it off, you know? And hopefully, it works. Shit, you never know.”


Kelli: “It did it. The music and the movie come together really nicely. I like the darkness and the twists; it’s a good movie.”


John: “Aw. Well, thank you so much. That’s cool. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It seems that people that have seen it are affected by it, and they dig it. It’s had a pretty good response. I wish it would be out in theaters more than it’s going to be, but you know what? I want people to see the damn thing, and hopefully it, you know, it scares the hell out of them.”


Kelli: “I’m sure it will. The part with the mirror was very cool. I liked the way you used it in the story. How was it done, if you don’t mind me asking?”


John: “Well, you know, that’s another thing. When I finished reading the script, you know, I was a cinematographer before directing, and I happened to have been a kind of an expert on using beam splitters, which is ghost glass. That’s even been used in haunted houses back at Disneyland for many years. And I was introduced to it when I was very young and have used it for different film techniques through the years. And so I built black rooms behind the walls and put the ghost glass there. And it’s all about making the beam splitter or the mirror; the glass is partly translucent and reflective. And it’s how you grade that coating, how much light you put behind, and how much light you put in front, balancing the light to make things appear and disappear in camera, and the actors can see it.”


Kelli: “Oh, wow, that’s cool.”


John: “Yeah. It’s bitchin’, isn’t it?”


Kelli: “It is.”


John: “Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah, I mean, in the hallway, in the end, you know, near in the sequence where she’s running with the baby, and you see these different worlds, it’s the same, basically the same thing. Even though those weren’t actually real. I didn’t use beam splitters there; I just used clear glass. But the effect still works. It’s all about balancing the light. But anyway, yeah, it’s fun stuff.”


Kelli: “It looked really cool, especially when she was trying to walk through dead babies.”


John: “That was a challenge to create, but it came out pretty cool.”


Kelli: “Yeah, it did. And the little demon babies were cool.”


John: “The little demons, I call them “the little fuckers.” They’re just creepy as fuck, I think. And the thing of it is, I wanted to make sure that, um, one of them was half Wolf and half Baby, and the others were the conjoined twins. That’s just an image that is, unfortunately, pretty horrific. But I wanted to make sure that they were still believable as little babies, you know, as like toddlers, because they need to have that balance of, of almost sympathy, like Lillith, the sympathy you can even have for Lillith for what the pain she’s caused, but what, what the reasoning is, you know, to be able to have, you know, the natural ability to have children and family and such a powerful thing. So it was fun creating them. Oh my God. It was a bit of a deal, but I think we did pretty well.”


Kelli: “They are. They are very creepy but cool. I really like the conjoined ones.”


Kelli: “You’ve worked on so many fantastic films between The Conjuring, Annabelle, and all of it. What is it like to be in that world?”


John: “You know, it’s, you know what it is, it’s creative, and that’s one thing I really love about it. You use, I always say this, you as a filmmaker, whether you’re a cinematographer or a director or anybody even involved on the set, whether you’re the art director or the production designer or the cinematographer, whatever, you’re using more tools in your, your filmmaking toolbox when you make more movies than most, I think, because you have to, you do what in every movie you need to do in initially for sure. And throughout the movie, invest the audience into the characters. They don’t care about the characters, you know, haven’t got anything. But beyond that. Now, once you do that, then it’s about creating tension, suspense, and fright, and getting under the audience’s skin and making the hair on the back of their neck go up or their skin tingle or move to the edge of their seat. I, I love that. Okay. Um, one of my favorite Mara Ma mentors is, is, um, Alfred Hitchcock, and his movies were so psychological, and I really learned a lot from that guy. Um, and, and so I think that it’s, you’re, you’re creating a world that is, maybe it’s not real, but it sure is fuck better feel real, you know?”


Kelli: “Right.”


John: “Cause the more, again, I don’t know if I just said that to you, but again, the more natural, the more believable, the more believable, the more real it is, the more believable it is, and the more believable it is, the scarier it will be.”


Kelli: “Well, I mean, you nailed it. And I mean, you’ve been involved with some of the top horror movies. I mean, they are important to the genre, but there’s one that is most definitely underrated or underloved.”


John: “Yeah?”


Kelli: “Dead silence.”


John: “Yeah. It’s a good movie, isn’t it? I’m glad you like it. That’s cool because, you know, that was where I first met James(Wan). That was our first movie together. And it was a Universal Studio’s picture. It was like a 20-million-dollar movie. And he had just done the first Saw before that. And we teamed up because I was kind of a Universal boy, cameraman, cinematographer that had done other movies there, and they wanted to find an experience, but, you know, hopefully, creative cinematographer that we’d meld with James through a studio picture. We hit it off well. And, um, I did multiple things with him after that. But that is a classic horror movie if you analyze it. And James, you know, it’s brilliant in crafting, I think, the vision for that. And then I, of course,  helped him, and it wasn’t just me; it was, you know,  many other people, of course. But, um, it was just so fun to do, and it is a good movie. It is.”


Kelli: “I love it, but I will confess, I have a thing about dolls. They freak me out.”


John: “Oh yeah.”


Kelli: “I watched Chucky way too young.”


John: “I shot one of those. I shot Chucky three as well. I was, yeah. Let me show you something.


[Goes off camera and returns with a Raggedy Anne and a Raggedy Andy doll].

John: “I have these here [holds up dolls]. Talk about creepy. That’s only because you said that. Okay. These were in Annabelle. These were in the location of the store where we shot the end of the movie, and they sold dolls in there. I also saw these. I also bought a book on dolls there that was creepy. Right. So the original Annabelle doll is a big raggedy ann; in I, it wasn’t the Annabel thing that changes responsible, really. I mean, I helped them a bit, of course, with creating. Right. But check this out. I think this is it or this one. [Pushes doll’s hand, and it begins to sing]. This is Sunny and Cher if you know who they are. Have you ever heard of Sunny? When I saw that, I thought that it was hilarious and creepy. So I bought them, and I’ve had them ever since. Isn’t that funny?”


Kelli: “They are creepy. And I, I knew that the doll was a raggedy Ann. And yes, I know who Cher is. When my grandmother passed away, my mom’s like, here, take these. It was two Raggedy Anne dolls. And I’m like, no, not happening, burn them.”


John: “[laughter] So funny. Oh, my goodness. Oh, well, that’s cool. The dolls are creepy. There’s no question about it. You know, they’re beautiful, but they’re creepy, just like Lillith.”


Kelli: “They are. As for Lillith, Kira Guloien was a good choice.”


John: “Thank you. Finding her was, she was by far the most complex person to cast because you want someone that I always do; I didn’t want her to be ugly and creepy. Or maybe a little weird, but not ugly. She had to be beautiful as the essence of every woman is, and yet, so, oh my God, we looked at actresses and all; I mean, she was the last person we cast. And Kira did such a great job; she is super talented.


Kelli: “Lillith has an elegance about her but remains frightening.”


John: “She’s so elegant. She’s a triple threat. She acts, she sings, and she dances. She’s an incredible woman. Just personally, I think, and, and talented. And I’m, you know, I’m glad we, you know, nobody knows who she is. She doesn’t have a name, but I think she’s super talented.”


Kelli: “Well, that’s wonderful.

Okay, I must know. Do you already have another project in the works?”


John: “I do. It’s not technically in pre-production yet, but I’m attached to it in, um, we’re close to it now, and we’re at the point where I think we can get the financing to go out to cast. It’s independent; it’s called The Angler. And it’s cool. It’s, it’s a very, very, very psychological movie. It’s about guilt and what guilt can conjure in your mind. Is it all in your mind, or is there a supernatural aspect? And that’s the essence of it. It’s really cool.”


Kelli: “That’s awesome. I’m glad to hear that you’ve got more on the way. And I look forward to hearing what our readers think of Lullaby.”


We were talking with John R. was both an honor and a pleasure. There’s no questioning that the horror veteran has a ton of talent and things to teach us. I can’t wait to see how he will scare us next.


Check out Lullaby, which opens in theaters and lands On Demand on December 16, 2022. We’ll keep you posted on his next film, The Angler.

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