Wishes granted with horrific, unforeseen costs is a classic horror trope; and in Wish Upon the monkey’s paw has been replaced by a creepy music box that grants grieving teenage misfit Clare, portrayed by Joey King, her every wish… with grisly consequences. Her close friends – played by Sydney Park and Shannon Purser – fight to save their own lives and Clare’s soul. In Clare’s struggle, as with most variants on the genie myth, the horror comes not only from the unforeseen consequences of desires fulfilled, but from the fact that even in the face of the terrible prices paid, wishing can be so damn addictive.
Late last year, Dread Central traveled to Toronto to visit the production of Wish Upon at a suitably hellish location considering the film’s themes of temptation – a cold, bleak exterior in which a bonfire roared. Yours truly sat down with director (and frequent James Wan collaborator) John R. Leonetti and cast members Joey King (The Conjuring), Sydney Park (“The Walking Dead”), and Shannon Purser (a recent Emmy nominee for her performance as Barb in “Stranger Things”) to talk about Wish Upon (review), which opened this weekend across the United States.
Dread Central: John, what led you to direct Wish Upon?
John Leonetti: Honestly, how I got it was Sherryl Clark, our producer, pursued me. I’d met her two or three years previous as a cameraman on a Blumhouse film… She sent me the script probably about a year ago. I read it and liked it, but I didn’t say, ‘Oh I’ve got to do this!’ because so many other things were going on in my life – professionally: five different projects that I was either developing or being attached to – that just consumes so much of your time…It’s a Black List script. [Writer’s Note: The Black List is a yearly list of “most liked” unproduced scripts; Wish Upon was on the Black List for 2015.] It’s an excellent script, and then it put a curse on me, and then I went, ‘Oh my God! [I’ll do it.]’
Dread Central: Was directing always your goal?
John Leonetti: No, not always. I love being a cinematographer. It’s great; my corporation is called Balancio – my little personal corporation – it means ‘balance in light and in life,’ and as a cinematographer you really learn, especially in light, what that means. The balance of the lights, the darks, the grays – and then different gradations of color, and how they all affect how people enjoy an image, and then you start using that as a metaphor for life, and I think it applies. Everything in life… there’s an opportunity and cost to everything. It’s how you enjoy and trade one thing for another in life.
Dread Central: What are some lessons you learned from working with James Wan?
John Leonetti: James Wan is all about style and designing scares. He’s excellent at that. How that has helped me in this movie is – this is not a jump-scare movie – and this isn’t Final Destination either. But these are events that inevitably have to happen because there’s a blood sacrifice with every wish that’s made. So you know people are gonna get it; someone is gonna get it. I applied the skills that James has helped me develop – and I even helped him develop, if you want to know the truth. James and I creatively, from the first time I met him on Dead Silence, we had a kind of visual synergy of not just light, but what lenses do and being able to take and use a 10mm lens. We just understood the language and the vibe of a wide lens. He’s brilliant. James is so smart….We both developed, for example, the three P’s: Push, Pull, Point of View, which is you pull someone down into a scary place, you push behind them, and then you do their point of view. This is a thing you do when you set up suspense. This is something that we developed together. Now it’s a motif. I think we have complemented each other a lot.
Dread Central: What have you learned about directing from your career as a cinematographer?
John Leonetti: Light is emotion. Once you understand the connection of those two things, then you can tell a story and create an emotion with a light and a color. It takes awhile to grasp that. Then it takes awhile to understand how to create that technically, and that is something I was born to do – I was crawling on cable when I was six years old. My dad was a gaffer on Singin’ in the Rain. My dad was an electrician on The Wizard of Oz. I learned more across the dinner table about lighting and light than most people ever do. Ever since I was a little boy I was around that. I used to paint, I used to draw, I was a bit of an artist – self-taught, not formal. Then girls and cars came along, and that went out the window… it’s all about emotion. It’s ALL about emotion and the psychological things that drive those emotions. And light totally does that.
Dread Central: How did you direct another cinematographer? Could you have shot this yourself?
John Leonetti: Could I? Yes. Would I want to? No. Why would I do that when I have someone like Michael Galbraith, who used to be my gaffer? He’s one of the top gaffers in Toronto, and he’s done huge movies and little movies. He became a cameraman and he does both, but he’s a genius and an artist in his own right. I don’t have the time on set, especially on a schedule like this movie – thirty days – to do both. I don’t think I could do the movie the justice it needs. Nor would the movie be as good because it not only has my talent, it has his as well, and together we make it that much better…
This is more of a fantasy than, let’s say, Annabelle, which is very supernatural and very dark in a different way. The way he’s approaching it, he’s broken the whole script down and has the happy times, the dark times, the regular times. Every scene has a denotation for that. He’s lighting this a little more – it’s very natural, but slightly more theatrically than I would do those movies. It’s so subtle. That’s what I love about him; he knows that fine line.
Because this is a fantasy, we don’t light it with just practicals. He’s actually using practicals in a scene and balancing the practicals to the light he’s putting in, where in Annabelle or The Conjuring, I did the opposite. I would balance everything to the practicals because those movies have to be even more real because they’re not fantasy; and the more realistic they are, the more believable they are, the scarier they are… There’s no gloss to this movie, zero gloss, and Michael is sensitive enough as an artist and as a lighter to get that.
Dread Central: What led you to assemble this great cast of young actors?
John Leonetti: It all starts with Joey. The moment I read the script, I thought of Joey, and that was from The Conjuring, where I was the cinematographer and I saw what she did. She fuckin’ mesmerized me. Just mesmerized me. I said to my wife, ‘This girl’s gonna be something.’ She’s the crux of it all.
Dread Central: [To Joey King] Are you a horror fan?
Joey King: I’m in horror movies, but I’m so scared – I love horror movies, too; I’m a horror fan – but I always have to close my eyes when I’m watching them because I get so freaked out! The first time I watched John’s film Annabelle, I FREAKED OUT! Dolls are creepy – especially since I worked with the fake Annabelle doll in The Conjuring…
Dread Central: And how was that experience for you?
Joey King: The doll was a total diva, dude! She would never come out of her trailer. Chucky? Screw that guy! Annabelle and Chucky – I know he’s got a bride, but they’re kind of destined for one another. Maybe I’ll write that script!” [Laughter.]
Dread Central: Tell us about Wish Upon‘s lead character, Clare. What kind of person is she?
John Leonetti: Clare’s character in this movie is an onion that keeps peeling and peeling away. All the layers of her struggle, personal struggle, with what happened to her when her mom committed suicide, to being a teen girl – just being a teen girl is enough of a struggle for anyone! – and then how she has to deal with it, and then getting this wish box that fucks with her mind and her soul and her heart. It was really interesting to me to see that many young women, guys as well, would relate to the struggle she’s going through.
Joey King: Clare is a very haunted young girl. She’s had a lot happen to her when she was a child, and a lot of that has carried over into her young adulthood. So she’s growing up as a regular high school girl but facing a lot more challenges than her peers, and they don’t really understand that, so they feel like they can take it out on her in a way that she just has a hard time handling, but then her life just turns around when she finds this music box….What I like about Clare is that through all this stuff that she has gone through, she goes through moments where you feel for her and you love her, and then she makes crazy, questionable decisions because she’s playing tug-of-war with herself in her mind, and she gets crazy at some points. I love that about her; she lets herself get crazy before she reels it back in. Because you see this sweet, sweet girl; and you just want nothing bad to happen to her because so much has already that when things start to spiral out of control, you feel for her. But then you’re also like, ‘Girl, you need to calm down; you’re acting psycho!’
Dread Central: Does Clare have anyone in her life who can say that to her?
Joey King: She has two best friends, June and Meredith. Those are her stable pieces of people, her two girls that she can just trust and rely on – but it’s also hard because they’re still young in a way and they haven’t experienced a lot of the things that she’s had to go through. And then there’s her father, who is extremely grief-stricken, just like she is. So they have a very good understanding of each other, but they don’t have a very good kid-parent relationship together. It’s more like roommates, and they understand each other, and they don’t get in each other’s way. But as the movie progresses, you see their relationship change from great to not the best to going through a lot of trials together. It’s kind of beautiful in a really scary way.
Dread Central: [To Shannon Purser] How were you able to build your characters’ relationships together?
Shannon Purser: We’re all very like-minded. We’re all kind of weird, to be honest. We have a weird sense of humor; we like to make weird faces at each other. We’re all kind of crazy in the same sort of way… I really think that it shows on-screen that we’re really comfortable with each other.
Dread Central [To Sydney Park]: Are you a horror fan?
Sydney Park: I love the horror genre; my birthday is Halloween, so I appreciate that wholeheartedly. I loved Rosemary’s Baby and Silence of the Lambs, and Insidious [which featured cinematography by Leonetti] is actually one of the scariest movies to me. It really messes with me because it’s psychological too. Supernatural stuff really freaks me out: That’s why I think Wish Upon is perfect; you’ve got the best of both worlds: You’ve got the teen movie, where it’s funny in some areas, but then it’s really just chilling and horrifying.
Dread Central: Your character, Meredith, seems to be the most outspoken of the group…
Sydney Park: Meredith is not so much angry at the world, I’m-just-going-to-bitch-about-everything; but she just says the truth. It’s not her being upset, it’s not her being an asshole, she just says what she feels and gets it out, and it can be funny, it can be harsh, but it’s not her trying to be any way. That’s just what she is.
Dread Central [To Shannon Purser]: How did you get involved in the movie? Are you a horror fan?
Shannon Purser: I love horror, a lot, so when I found out it was John Leonetti, seeing his work – The Conjuring was so beautifully shot and Annabelle, which I saw in the theater and it was horrifying! Working with someone who had such experience in the genre, it was a great role and a great opportunity; and I really liked the script…
Dread Central [To Shannon Purser]: How does your character fit into the group?
Shannon Purser: I’m playing June Acosta. She is Clare’s best friend. Really cool, kind of like a laid-back tomboy kind of girl. Very chill. She and Clare have been really tight for a long time. She’s almost like the motherly figure in their friend group. Kind of picking up on when someone else is feeling poorly… a little more empathetic.
Dread Central: What is Wish Upon‘s approach to horror like?
Shannon Purser: It’s cool because I don’t feel it’s overdone. A lot of horror movies, they’ll just pour buckets and buckets of blood and hope that’s enough to scare you – but I don’t think that that’s what good horror is. I think that the best horror movies that we’ve seen, like The Shining, they rely so much on acting and the talent of the actors. There’s enough gore in this movie to make it realistic, to kind of hit you, make you feel a little sick – which, you know, it’s supposed to! But I also think there’s more to it than just that… a lot of the stuff that goes down in this movie – I mean, obviously it’s supernatural in the way that it comes about – but it’s stuff that could happen, and it’s stuff that’s so chilling because it has happened before. Little accidents, little slips-and-falls, mechanical errors. I think that really got to me. But I also really just liked the personal struggles of all the characters, especially Clare, of having to choose between her desires and getting what she thinks she wants and doing what’s right for everyone else. She really wants approval – which a lot of teenagers really do – that’s a big thing in high school. People want to find people that they connect with, to be liked. I think in the end the box and her inherent desire consume her… the idea of watching somebody you care about going through something so terrifying and having absolutely no control over the situation, not having the power to stop it. That’s really terrifying…
John Leonetti: It’s an extremely entertaining movie, with many facets of entertainment in it – it’s a horror movie, it’s a thriller, it’s extremely psychological, and it’s extremely emotional. It’s something also that really hits home to the 15- to 34-year-old women, girls as well as guys – that’s the peak audience for horror, but also for box office. It’s interesting how… we call it ‘elevated horror’ because it’s as dramatic and emotional as it is fuckin’ scary and creepy. There’s very searing, fun kills in this movie, if you will, which will play to a horror audience. It’s awesome entertainment, and that’s what we do. It’s an amazing piece of entertainment that has so many flavors to it.
The fact that it’s a fantasy is something I think we need at this time with what’s going on in the world. This allows everybody to step out of the box of their life right now and wonder what they could change, what they really wish for, and what desires they really have. But then the other side of the coin is that it makes you explore and confront desire… desire is something that is kind of like a drug. Clare has to ponder what you think is important and what you think you may want, but you come to find out it’s not what you think. In an interesting way [horror movies] make you confront [grief] and throw a little fun at it… horror movies are cathartic. What’s interesting about this one is it goes way beyond jump scares and thrills; it delves into the mind and the soul of people, not in a supernatural way, but more in a sort of personal way, a real personal way. This movie is very commercial, but it’s also very deep.