Lullaby Director on Blending Jewish Folklore With Horror
ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director John R. Leonetti about Lullaby and his work on Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Lullaby is now playing in theaters and through video-on-demand.
“A new mother who discovers a lullaby in an ancient book and soon regards the song as a blessing,” reads the film’s synopsis. “But her world transforms into a nightmare when the lullaby brings forth the ancient demon Lilith.”
Tyler Treese: What did you find most exciting about exploring Jewish folklore? With Lilim and Lilith, there’s such a deep history and mythology there.
John R. Leonetti: That’s exactly right. I didn’t know anything about it before. You’re right on. When I read the script, I was just so impressed with her character and the depth of the history. So I start Googling her, right? And she is such a complex character — she’s beautiful. She’s haunted. She was screwed by Adam and God, in a way, to be thrown to the wolves, because she was equal to Adam, born out of his rib, you know? And came back because her instinct was to have children, like any mother. That’s from all time to now. It’s a very powerful thing, let’s just put it that way. So, what’s interesting, in the script, is that if now Vivian, Rachel’s sister, loses her son and she even goes to the depths of enticing her sister to go and to open up the portal again so she can go get her kid.
And at the end of the movie, once the twist happens … now, let’s face it, Rachel will do anything she can to go and get her son back. That, to me, is super powerful. just think it’s complex because it’s about love for children. On the other hand, it’s about retribution to the max.
You really play into the fear and paranoia of parenthood. We’re always wondering, “What can go wrong?” And something as innocuous as a lullaby leads to this crazy story. How fun was it to play around with the dynamic of parenthood there?
I’m a parent myself and I remember all that. I just think that there’s nothing more powerful than … this is a better way to say it: the most important things in life are the ones you have to work the hardest for. I’ve found parenting is probably the hardest one, but what you get from having children … the rewards are giant — usually not always. I mean, it’s very complex. Parents go into this with, “Oh my God,” from the moment of birth. It’s this feeling that is uncontrollable, in terms of how much love there is, but also the frontier ahead and how do you deal with it? I’ve got, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law right now that … their three-year-old is just giving them a lot of shit.
We’re all so smart, so manipulative, to the point where it could even break — and that’s not going to break up their marriage, I don’t mean that — but they’re stressing right now. That happens to everybody. Parenting is the hardest thing, yet it’s the most important thing. It’s family and all that. I come from an Italian family and my dad had 26 grandkids and great-grandkids before he passed. Our family is very close. It’s just a very deep scenario where they think they got it licked and then, all of a sudden, they don’t. From then on, shit hits the fan, you know?
You’ve been a mainstay in the horror genre for the past decade and your cinematography work is beyond that. When you’ve worked on this many films, how do you keep coming up with ways to keep it fresh?
First of all, jump scares are an anomaly that are always to be reckoned with. I hate them and I love them, so we’ll put that to the side for right now. What was interesting about this lullaby is — you got to it from the beginning. The lore, the mythology was ancient Hebrew — very interesting. So the pallet is different, but in this one, what was great right away was the fact that they used mirrors to come to as a portal. I’ve worked with beam splitters, which is Ghost Glass, [as] we call it, as a cinematographer and photographer for years. Many, many, many years. I immediately figured out we could do that stuff in camera with a beam splitter and with lighting and balance.
And it was one of the first times I’ve been able to use that technique that I’m very familiar with. So that excited me and I hadn’t seen it much before. I don’t know if that answers the question, but that’s definitely one aspect of it that was cool. To be able to create a lullaby, to create the book, to create Lilims, these weird creatures — all that was a big challenge, actually, to do – especially in our fairly meager budget and time. It was just unique stuff that allowed the crew to use some of the same old stuff, I guess. Because there’s definitely techniques in this movie that repeat, even to a degree, from say, Annabelle. I don’t know if that answers the question, but I think it’s set the stage for me to approach it from different facets in the heart. In the essence of the mythology that allowed it to be maybe a little different.
One thing that’s interesting about the ending is there’s so much more to play with in this world — especially with the mythology and everything you built around in. Is that something you’d potentially be open to in the future, or what was your goal with the ending?
It’s an obvious ending to have, potentially, a sequel. It is, of course. How much fun would that be? I would love it. I think it’s super interesting, and yes, I would. Are we planning on it? The movie’s coming out. The way it’s coming out now, let’s just see what happens and how people react. It’s pretty interesting. People have responded really well to this so far. If there’s enough demand for it, I definitely would. I’d love to work with Alcon [Entertainment] and David [Tish] and Lee [Nelson] — the producers — as well. They’re wonderful people and we’re a great team. If that ever happened, that’d be great.
Your directorial career started with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. In retrospect, how do you view your time on that? Because it had to be quite the learning experience.
Oh my God, you know how that started? It was almost like as a whim, as a joke. I was called by Larry Kasanoff’s office and his assistant, who I’d worked with on the first film. They said, “Would I be interested in shooting the second one?” I had worked with the director recently, who was a wonderful person, but just fairly lacking honestly. People have told me my whole life … when I was a camera operator, when I was an assistant cameraman, I had some people say, “You should direct.” And I didn’t even really think about it. So it’s subconscious, is the point. When they called to ask me, “Would you be interested in shooting the second one?” I said, “I’d love to, but I think I’d rather direct it.” It just popped out of my mouth and two weeks later, I was directing a 35-million dollar movie that was on four continents, a thousand people worked on the movie, 400 visual effects shots. It was a gnarly challenge, but I had such great support around me — mostly — that I just said, “Screw it, let’s go. Let’s do it!” Overall it was an amazing experience. It was a mind-blowing experience, actually.